No, not another military anecdote, although it is concerned with the 'war' between philosophers and scientists. Not, I hasten to add, that I qualify under either title, my part, as always, is to act as an unreliable cheerleader who supports one side and then the other!
But let me begin with young Brian Cox, 151/2, a super-science swot from the Upper Fifth who somehow has managed to get himself an entire programme on BBC2 teaching us all how life began and why. Except, of course, that he didn't quite explain how life began and nor did he convince me of his reason why. Partly, this was due to the retards in the BBC production team who seem to think that we, the plebs, will never understand science unless there are never-ending and totally incomprehensible computer graphics showing abstract shapes expanding and surging to the sort of ghastly 'musak' you hear inside hotel lifts. Of course, Prof. Cox is not really a schoolboy, he just looks like one, as this photos shows:
Now, I was one of his earliest fans because he and a colleague wrote a book promising the irreducibly stupid, er, that's me, in case you're wondering, to explain Einstein's theories of relativity. Big Fail! But as I wrote at the time, 'the fault, dear, dim Duff, lies with you, not in your stars'! Even so, I remain a big fan of Prof. Cox and, as regular readers will know to the cost of their diminishing patience, I remain captivated by some of the many mysteries of existence. Like, how did it all begin?
As far as the beginning of biological life is concerned, I'm afraid to say that young Cox was no more illuminating than his peers. I concentrated as hard as I could, despite all the BBC visual effects crapulata and the vomit-inducing 'musak', but all he offered was what I more or less knew from others. That is definitely not a criticism of Prof. Cox who was not on my 'telly' to offer a new theory, he was just there to explain the old one, because the fact is that none of these science swots actually know quite what the spark was that turned inanimate material into living, reproducing organisms. They seem to have a fair idea on the ingredients and the conditions required, and the likely place in which it probably occurred - way down deep in the ocean amongst the nooks and crannies on the seabed - so it's farewell to the old 'primordial mud' which used to be the favourite as the start point of life years ago - pity, really, I quite like the idea of us all crawling out of mud! Anyway, that missing 'x' factor continues to plague science and it is interesting that every effort to reproduce the conditions inside a lab have all failed.
So, needless to say, I tottered off to bed with a headache and awoke this morning pondering on the problem as I drove to the swimming pool - have I told you before about . . . right, moving on - and it was still festering in what passes for my brain when I sat down at the computer and virtually one of the first items I came across, courtesy of Arts & Letters, was a review in the New York Review of Books by Prof. H. Allen Orr, a biologist, of a book by the philosopher Thomas Nagel. The title of his book appears to sum up the content: Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. 'Luvin' it already,' I thought because I will always offer to hold the coat of anyone taking a swing at 'Archbishop' Dawkins!
In Mind and Cosmos, Nagel continues his attacks on reductionism. Though the book is brief its claims are big. Nagel insists that the mind-body problem “is not just a local problem” but “invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history.” If what he calls “materialist naturalism” or just “materialism” can’t explain consciousness, then it can’t fully account for life since consciousness is a feature of life. And if it can’t explain life, then it can’t fully account for the chemical and physical universe since life is a feature of that universe. Subjective experience is not, to Nagel, some detail that materialist science can hand-wave away. It’s a deal breaker. Nagel believes that any future science that grapples seriously with the mind-body problem will be one that is radically reconceived.
I could feel my headache returning! However, it soon became obvious that Prof. Orr's mum and dad had brought him up properly because, unlike the insufferable Dawkins, he admitted some of the doubtful areas in modern biological explanations whilst applying a cool but critical attutude to some of Mr. Nagel's other theories, especially his main one which was to propose a teleological imperative behind the universe whilst simultaneously excluding any sort of God. And, no, I'm not sure how Nagel pulled that one off but with great courtesy Prof Orr expressed his doubts.
Anyway, it's five to eleven and time for my life-saving caffein injection which I hope will cure my headache. I recommend Prof. Orr's review, an example of the very best sort of scientific writing for the non-scientist and if it gives you a headache too, well, I like to share my troubles, I'm generous like that!