Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Not Quite Real Enough

Book Review

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagelnagelbookcover.jpg

Fact: Human consciousness is real.

Fact: Human rationality is real.

Fact: Human value judgments refer to real truths.

Fact: All of this is impossible on a materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature.

So says Thomas Nagel, the highly distinguished philosopher on faculty at New York University. From the above, one might expect him to number himself among the proponents of Intelligent Design, and indeed he mentions Stephen Meyer and Michael Behe with appreciation. However:

Fact: Thomas Nagel is a confirmed atheist who rejects ID theory.

If ID and materialist neo-Darwisnism are ruled out, what then does that leave as an explanation for what we are and how we came to be this way? Nagel doesn’t know, but whatever it is, it’s vastly different from what any of us has conceived nature to be.

He rejects theism, he says, because (p. 21, Nook version),

I confess to an ungrounded assumption of my own, in not finding it possible to regard the design alternative as a real option. I lack the sensus divinitatis that enables—indeed compels—so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose as naturally as they see in a smiling face the expression of human feeling. [In a footnote here, he adds, “I am not just unreceptive but strongly averse to the idea, as I have said elsewhere.”] So my speculations about an alternative to physics as a theory of everything do not invoke a transcendent being but tend toward complications to the immanent character of the natural order.

Complications indeed. The reductionist, physics-based natural order we thought we knew is inadequate, he says, because it literally cannot accommodate consciousness, rationality, and real value, and yet they exist.

Mind As a Basic Aspect of Nature

“My guiding conviction,” he says on page 24, “is that mind is not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature.” His reasoning is summarized (p. 26) in that

one cannot really understand the scientific world view unless one assumes that the intelligibility of the world, as described by the laws that science has uncovered, is itself part of the deepest explanation of why things are the way they are…. The intelligibility of the world is no accident.

The Puzzle That Presents

He refuses to shrink from the puzzle this poses, based on regnant views of reality. Or rather, he finds it odd (p. 28) that anyone should be so convinced that deterministic naturalism must be true:

Everyone acknowledges that there are vast amounts we do not know, and that enormous opportunities for progress in understanding lie before us. But scientific naturalists claim to know what the form of that progress will be, and to know that mentalistic, teleological, or evaluative intelligibility in particular have been left behind for good as fundamental forms of understanding.

He acknowledges naturalism’s appeal: “After all, what is the alternative?” And then he explains (p. 29),

That is really my question. The implausibility of the reductive program that is needed to defend the completeness of this kind of naturalism provides a reason for trying to think of alternatives—alternatives that make mind, meaning, and value as fundamental as matter and space-time in an account of what there is…. Something more is needed to explain how there can be conscious thinking creatures whose bodies and brains are composed of those elements…. we must start with an adequate range of data, and those data must include the evident facts about ourselves.

Refreshing Humanness

This is refreshing, coming from an atheist. There is far too much denial of human free will among writers like Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris; too much denial of human consciousness from Daniel Dennett, the Churchlands, and others; too much rejection of obvious moral realities by relativists almost everywhere one looks. All of this amounts to a denial of the most basic information we humans have at our disposal: that we are in fact human, that we are conscious, rational, moral creatures.

These “scientific materialists” (to use Nagel’s term, which I happen to dislike—I prefer “philosophical materialists”) all take it that if there is no God, th3en these human characteristics are strictly impossible and must therefore be illusions foisted upon us by nature. Typically they exclude rationality from that judgment, but only because the absurdity of their conclusions becomes more salient than they can even pretend to hide from at that point.

Broaching New Possibilities

Nagel takes this human data as real, and more power to him. What does it lead to, then, in his opinion? Mind at the heart of reality, but not the mind of God. “The process seems to be one of the universe gradually waking up” (p. 125); it is “some form of natural teleology” (p. 132). He continues,

The universe has become not only conscious and aware of itself but capable in some respects of choosing its path into the future.

These teleological speculations are offered merely as possibilities, without conviction. What I am convinced of is the negative claim that, in order to understand our questions and judgments about values and reasons realistically, we must reject the idea that they result from the operation of faculties that have been formed from scratch by chance plus natural selection, or that we are incidental side effects of natural selection, or are products of genetic drift.

And on page 135,

I have thought it useful to speculate about possible alternatives. Above all, I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world.

A Courageous Leap

There is much to appreciate in this assessment of reality and how little we know of it. It’s courageous, even bracing. To criticize materialist neo-Darwinism is nothing if not dangerous, and Nagel has taken it on the chin from many negative naturalistic reviewers. To propose an entirely new way of looking at reality is a bold step. Either that or it is a leap into darkness.

And it’s hard to evade the latter conclusion. Nagel owns up to it: he’s proposing something he can’t describe, can’t explain, can’t justify in any terms other than that it seems to be demanded of our humanness, as long as one denies God as the explanation. For me it is a leap too far, to suppose that the universe might be “waking up” or “become conscious and aware of itself,” just on the basis of some impersonal principle of mind.

But What About Personality?

In fact that in itself summarizes the problem. Nagel proposes a deep principle of Mind at the heart of reality, on account of consciousness, rationality, and value. I wonder why he did not also include personality (or personhood): that aspect of humanness that is centered on each person having (or being) a self in relationship with other selves, each self being distinct and whole in his or her own self and yet interdependent with other selves in almost every conceivable way; and each self having the capacity to make goal-directed decisions and act upon them.

Nagel excludes the possibility of God. On page 41 he sums up his proposal so far as leading to an understanding whose

essential character … would be to explain the appearance of life, consciousness, reason, and knowledge neither as accidental side effects of the physical laws of nature nor as the result of intentional intervention from without but as an unsurprising if not inevitable consequence of the order that governs the natural world from within…. I suspect it will have to include teleological elements.

By “teleological” here he means something like “tending toward some definite end or goal;” but he specifically includes intentionality. His proposed universe has no personality at its core. And yet it has produced personality, just as unquestionably as it has done with consciousness, rationality, and morality.

Something is missing there—something that cannot be accounted for in terms of grandly pathetic metaphors of the universe waking up and becoming conscious of itself. He speaks (p. 31) of “mind and all that it implies.” Does not mind—at least mind on human scale—imply personality? And could Mind on any scale less than human account for all that Nagel wants it to explain?

And so while Nagel has taken a courageous and refreshing position here, it remains implausible for excluding the reality of personality/personhood. If he is right (as I think he is) that materialist neo-Darwinism is even less plausible, then what remains is theism.

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2012. 144 pages. Amazon Price (Hardcover) US$17.64.