Nature’s Unknown Unknowns

Responding to the pitched debate over Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, which argues against the sufficiency of materialism to explain the universe, Alva Noë holds that the philosopher was right to emphasize how much of nature still eludes us:

If we really understood what makes a person intelligent, then it ought to be relatively straight forward, at least in principle, to manufacture intelligence. Some people believe that this is possible. Others that we can actually make intelligent machines and robots now. I do not suppose that they are wrong. But I do take it as manifest that we do not know this to be the case. Many mainstream scientists and philosophers believe that true artificial intelligence is at best unfinished business.

As with intelligence, so with life. Some of us are hearty and confident and think we are almost there. Others think there is still a revolution in our future if we are to make sense of intelligence, or of life, as a genuinely natural phenomenon. What kind of disagreement is this? To my mind it is foolish to cast it as a standoff between those who embrace science and admit its stunning achievements and those who reject the project of natural science itself. It is not a conflict between those who know and those who are confused.