I have been a fan of Thomas Nagel since I first read his essay “What It’s like To Be a Bat”. His lucid, common sense analysis was striking to me as an undergraduate philosophy student. I was therefore intrigued about his latest book – Mind and Cosmos, especially since there was such a furor surrounding it. There has been much talk, well in certain circles, about Mind and Cosmos.
In the debates between theists and non-theists, Nagel’s book has lauded by the theist side for championing their cause, and treated as a dangerous betrayal by nontheists. (1) But I think the book is neither. Sure the subtitle, Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, may lead you to think that he has landed firmly in the camp of theism, but I think that would be to go too far. We have to keep in mind that just because Nagel holds neo-Darwinism to be false doesn’t mean that he believes theism is true. Nagel makes it more than clear that he is not a theist, he just doesn’t want to base his atheism on something he considers to be false. And that indeed is laudable.
So what has caused all the fuss? Nagel claims in Mind and Cosmos that the dominant naturalistic worldview, which holds that a blind process of natural selection is responsible for our existence, is fundamentally flawed. It should also be noted that he mentions his doubts on the likelihood the ability of purely physical laws to explain the origin of self-reproducing life forms, and the likelihood of natural selection producing the life forms we see today in the available geological time. (2) However, the first sticking point for Nagel comes in his area of specialty – philosophy of mind. Essentially, he holds that the project to reduce the mind to physical properties has failed because of the intractable problem of explaining consciousness.
As Nagel explained in his paper “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”, consciousness is essentially subjective and connected with a single point of view. (3) He explains that we can understand how a bat’s perception systems works but cannot understand what it is like to be a bat. Therefore, he contends that consciousness cannot be reduced to purely physical processes because that would ignore the subjectivity of consciousness.
For if the facts of experience – facts about what it is like for the experiencing organism – are accessible only from one point of view, then it is a mystery how the true character of experiences could be revealed in the physical operation of that organism. (4)
In Mind and Cosmos, Nagel continues this line of thought. He contends that consciousness cannot be accounted for by the widely held Darwinian worldview. He writes: “Conscious subjects and their mental lives are inescapable elements of reality not explainable by the physical sciences”. (5) However, he also thinks that if mind cannot be reduced to purely physical properties the whole materialist project is in trouble.
But the failure of reductionism in the philosophy of mind has implications that extend beyond the mind-body problem. Psychophysical reductionism is an essential component of a broader naturalistic program, which cannot survive without it. This naturalistic program is both metaphysical and physical. It holds that everything in the world is physical and that everything that happens in the world has its most basic explanation, whether we come to know it or not, in physical laws. (6)
He elaborates stating that any solution to the mind-body problem must provide a constitutive account of how “complex physical systems” like us are simultaneously mental as well as physical, a historic explanation of how this came about.
He then points out that the answer to these questions must be either reductionist (reduce us to more basic elements) or emergent (explaining how pure physical creatures at some level of evolution became mental as well).
Nagel argues that consciousness cannot be reduced in this way. He points out that if a reductionist account is correct, it can’t be reduced to the purely physical. He writes that such an explanation “will depend on some kind of monism or panpsychism” (7). That is to say, that elementary mental properties are somehow intrinsically connected with elementary physical properties. However, Nagel recognizes that this type of reduction of mental properties would not be intelligible in the same way that particle physics is intelligible. He states that “panpsychism does not provide a new, more basic resting place in the search for intelligibility – a set of basic principles from which more complex results can be seen to follow”. (8)
Nagel finds an emergent account also unsatisfactory. He also rejects the idea of emergence of consciousness and reason. That is the conjecture that somehow through completely natural process dependent on physical entities and forces, at a certain level of evolutionary development, consciousness and reason, being non-physical in nature, just appeared. He writes:
That purely physical elements, when combined in a certain way, should necessarily produce a state of the whole that is not constituted out of the properties and relations of the physical parts still seems like magic even if the higher-order psychophysical dependencies are quite systematic.” (9).
Nagel also points out another problem that he sees with naturalistic Darwinism. He states that such a theory cannot explain our capacity to reason to reach out for objective truths of science and logic because if natural selection does not select beliefs for their objective truth but for their fitness or survival value. He writes:
It is not possible to think, “Reliance on my reason, including my reliance on this very judgment, is reasonable because it is consistent with its having an evolutionary explanation.” (10).
Finally, Nagel discusses values. He takes the position, that there are objective moral values, and holds that the existence of moral values is incompatible with Darwinian naturalism. Since he holds that objective moral values exist, he concludes that Darwinian naturalism cannot be a true or complete picture of reality. He writes:
“[Sharon] Street points out that if the responses and faculties that generate our value judgments are in significant part the result of natural selection, there is no reason to expect that they would lead us to be able to detect any mind-independent moral or evaluative truth…That is because the ability to detect such truth, unlike the ability to detect mind-independent truth about the physical world, would make no contribution to reproductive fitness.” (11).
Nagel instead posits that in nature there are perhaps teleological (or purposeful) laws at work, in addition to purely physical laws, that make it likely that conscious creatures like us with the capacity for reason and the ability to recognize objective values would come to be. He speculates that “natural teleology would mean that the universe is rationally governing in more than one way – not only through the universal quantitative laws of physics that underlie efficient causation but also through principles which imply that things happen because they are on a path that lead toward certain outcomes – notably, the existence of living, and ultimately of conscious, organisms.” (12).
Nagel makes a distinction between the natural teleological laws he is proposing and an intentional account, where a Being, such as God, intervened to cause conscious creatures to exist.
However, Nagel does not give reasons why a natural teleological explanation should be preferred to an intentional designer, besides the fact that he seems to prefer the first.
Nagel’s conviction that the prevailing scientific consensus of Darwinian naturalism is “a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense” is an admirable statement of one who is not afraid to seek truth in unpopular places. And, his attack on this prevailing view is cogent, concise, and well argued. On the other hand, his suggestion of what should be put in its place – natural teleology – is somewhat less plausible.
(1) See, Jennifer Schuessler,"An Author Attracts Unlikely Allies", N.Y. Times Feb. 6, 2013, C1. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/07/books/thomas-nagel-is-praised-by-creationists.html?pagewanted=all. Accessed May 27, 2013.
(2) Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos, Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); 6.
(3) Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?” in Modern Philosophy of Mind, ed. William Lyons, (London: Everyman, 1996).
(4) Ibid.; 165.
(5) Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos, Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); 41.
(6) Ibid.; 42-43.
(7) Ibid.; 61.
(8) Ibid.; 62.
(9) Ibid.; 55-56.
(10) Ibid.; 80-81.
(11) Ibid.; 107.
(12) Ibid.; 67.