Things Fall Apart


Philip Kitcher in The NYT's The Stone:

Thomas Nagel, one of the world’s most eminent philosophers, is especially noted for his ability to write about the most difficult questions with subtlety and clarity. His recent book, “Mind and Cosmos,” has sparked lively discussion, as he observed recently in his précis of the book’s main argument in The Stone. He has found new – not always welcome – allies (“Nagel has paved the way for a religious world-view!”), and some long-time admirers have denounced his claims and arguments (“Nagel has paved the way for religious mumbo-jumbo!”). But the link with religion is a sideshow. Nagel’s main concern lies with the requirements of a complete metaphysical view.

J. L. Austin is reputed to have remarked that, when philosophy is done well, all the action is over by the bottom of the first page. Nagel does philosophy very well. Once he has set up the framework within which the possible positions will be placed, his arguments are not easy to resist. In my view, though, the framework itself is faulty.

In his Queries to the “Opticks,” Newton looked forward to a vision of the cosmos in which everything would be explained on the basis of a small number of physical principles. That Newtonian vision remains highly popular with many scientists who turn philosophical in their later years and announce their dreams of a final theory. Yet, since the 19th century — since Darwin, in fact — that has not been a convincing picture of how the sciences make their advances. Darwin did not supply a major set of new principles that could be used to derive general conclusions about life and its history: he crafted a framework within which his successors construct models of quite specific evolutionary phenomena. Model-building lies at the heart of large parts of the sciences, including parts of physics. There are no grand theories, but lots of bits and pieces, generating local insights about phenomena of special interest. In the revealing terms that Nancy Cartwright has borrowed from Gerard Manley Hopkins, we live in a “dappled world.”