Philosophy in Fiction

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“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a short story written by Ursula Le Guin. The story won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1974. It is a haunting philosophical parable with themes of happiness and sacrifice, which asks the reader to fully engage with difficult questions of ethics and morality.

The story’s last sentence would mark an excellent starting point for any philosophical discussion of ethics:

“But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

The full text of the story is available here:

http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/dunnweb/rprnts.omelas.pdf

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Mind and Cosmos – Thomas Nagel

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“Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False”.

To say that the title of Nagel’s new work is controversial would be a serious understatement. Nagel, however, offers us a lot more than just a flashy title: his ideas are are bold and, some might say, even revolutionary. They are certainly deserving of consideration and discussion.

An excellent summary of Nagel’s ideas, together with some critique, can be found in Allen Orr’s review available here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/feb/07/awaiting-new-darwin/?pagination=false

Additional info:

From The New York Review of Books “Awaiting a New Darwin”by Allen Orr:

“The history of science is partly the history of an idea that is by now so familiar that it no longer astounds: the universe, including our own existence, can be explained by the interactions of little bits of matter. We scientists are in the business of discovering the laws that characterize this matter. We do so, to some extent at least, by a kind of reduction. The stuff of biology, for instance, can be reduced to chemistry and the stuff of chemistry can be reduced to physics.

Thomas Nagel has never been at ease with this view. Nagel, University Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, is one of our most distinguished philosophers. He is perhaps best known for his 1974 paper, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” a modern classic in the philosophy of mind. In that paper, Nagel argued that reductionist, materialist accounts of the mind leave some things unexplained. And one of those things is what it would actually feel like to be, say, a bat, a creature that navigates its environment via the odd (to us) sense of echolocation. To Nagel, then, reductionist attempts to ground everything in matter fail partly for a reason that couldn’t be any nearer to us: subjective experience. While not denying that our conscious experiences have everything to do with brains, neurons, and matter, Nagel finds it hard to see how these experiences can be fully reduced with the conceptual tools of physical science.”

From Amazon.com Book Description:

The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology.

Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history, either. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such.

Nagel’s skepticism is not based on religious belief or on a belief in any definite alternative. In Mind and Cosmos, he does suggest that if the materialist account is wrong, then principles of a different kind may also be at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic.

In spite of the great achievements of the physical sciences, reductive materialism is a world view ripe for displacement. Nagel shows that to recognize its limits is the first step in looking for alternatives, or at least in being open to their possibility.