When Scientific Naturalism Begins to Crumble: Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos

During the 1990s, a movement known as Intelligent Design (ID) budded wings and began to fly. ID arose primarily out of concern that Darwinism could not account for the existence of everything in nature, especially biological organisms. ID theorists essentially called into question Darwinism’s underlying philosophical commitment to materialism—the belief that everything can be explained by mere physical processes. But those who were convinced of the reigning Darwinian paradigm were intent on clipping ID’s wings before it got too far off the ground. How could anything other than materialism be true? How could anyone dare to dethrone the reigning materialist science? Many committed to materialism attacked ID as “creationism” masquerading as science and dragged to court those who taught ID in schools. It was clear to the scientific establishment that ID was religion, not science.

It is thus interesting to find one of America’s leading atheist philosophers, Thomas Nagel, sounding much like ID theorists in their challenge of Darwinian materialism in his most recent publication Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is almost Certainly False (hereafter, MC). One would expect an atheist like Nagel to be just as committed to materialism as any other evolutionary naturalist. He is, after all, on record for stating explicitly that he not only believes atheism to be true, but he wants it to be true and hopes it is true.[1] But we find the opposite about Nagel: he actually praises ID theorists Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer (although not without qualification), saying that the problems they point out with materialism “should be taken seriously” (MC, 10).

Although Nagel praises ID (in a somewhat back-handed way), he is still committed to atheism. He gives no pride of place to theism as an explanation throughout his work. He does, however, still conclude that the materialist concept of nature is false. In his own words, he admits, “I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works. . . . The current orthodoxy about the cosmic order is the product of governing assumptions that are unsupported, and that it flies in the face of common sense” (MC, 5). Materialism, succinctly stated, is reductionistic—it reduces falsely the explanation of human life to mere physical laws.

But what exactly does Nagel believe Darwinian materialism cannot account for? In Mind and Cosmos, he lays out three specific entities which Darwinian evolution cannot explain: the existence of consciousness, cognition, and value.

Consciousness

Nagel’s discussion begins with consciousness. He argues that the only contenders on the block to explain this phenomenon—conceptual behaviorism and identity theory—both fail because they do not explain how humans have subjective points-of-view. Conceptual behaviorism, for example, argues that mental states are explained by mere behavior. In fact, behaviorism argues that mental states do not really exist. If we say that one has a mental state of anger, what we really mean is that one is expressing the behavior of anger. As one could easily see, this explanation reduces mental states to purely external observable (physical) conditions—behavior.

The problem is that behaviorism ignores the fact that different people have different experiences of things, e.g., coldness, hotness, redness, and anger (things like these are often referred to as “incorrigible beliefs”). Therefore, as Nagel puts it, “Behaviorism leaves out the inner mental state itself,” the very thing behaviorism is attempting to explain (MC, 38). Behaviorism essentially ignores that humans have actual mental states at all.

Identity theories fair no better according to Nagel. Identity theory argues that mental states are simply identical to physical events occurring in the brain, which then become manifested in behavior. Nagel’s reply to such an explanation is somewhat detailed. Let it suffice to say that such theories ultimately misfire because they cannot explain what makes a physical event equal to a mental state. Take, for example, the mental state of pain. What exactly connects pain and the physical event occurring in the nervous system that arouses the pain? Pain is itself non-physical, while the nervous system is physical. What “connects” these entities? The identity theorist has no answer, except to say that there is simply a relationship between the mental state and physical behavior. Thus we are back to the same problems that behaviorism poses.

The conclusion about consciousness, then, is that there is something about mind that is obviously different from physical attributes. In other words, dualism must be true; humans are composed of something physical and non-physical. “The multiple dead ends in the forward march of materialism,” says Nagel, “suggest that the . . . dualism introduced at the birth of modern science may be hard to get out of than many people have imagined” (MC, 41).

We should note, however, that Nagel is no friend of the traditional modern mind-body dualism. He dislikes Rene Descartes’ version of dualism just as much as any other philosopher—one that envisions the body as a machine controlled by some non-physical “spirit.” The kind of dualism Nagel believes ought to be considered is one that sees mind as a characteristic or entity embedded in physical nature itself and can account for subjective points-of-view. Thus the solution to the mind-body interaction problem would have “to offer a unified explanation of how the physical and the mental characteristics of organisms developed together” (MC, 46-7), where “biological evolution is responsible for the existence of conscious mental phenomena” (MC, 50), maybe some form of monism or panpsychism (that everything physical is also mind) (MC, 57). In light of this, Nagel declares, “The usual view of evolution must be revised. It is not just a physical process” (MC, 50).

Such a conclusion obviously flies in the face of the reigning scientific orthodoxy, and many of Nagel’s antagonistic reviewers have not let that go unnoticed. But does Nagel’s ponderings of embedding mind in the material universe offer much of a difference from the reigning materialism? If biological evolution (a purely physical process) is responsible for consciousness (a non-physical entity), then it seems that consciousness is still ultimately explainable by mere physical processes, or materialism. At root, would not physical entities be the “substratum” of mind in Nagel’s proposal? Thus the very objection Nagel raises against materialism could possibly be leveled against him: mind is simply reducible in some sense to mere physical entities or processes. In fact, Nagel is quite clear that this is exactly what he has in mind: “we should not renounce the aim of finding an integrated naturalistic explanation of a new kind,” he says (MC, 68-69). But if this is the case, it is difficult to imagine exactly what this would look like, and Nagel gives us no definitive idea, except a nebulous monism or panpsychism as mere possibilities.

Cognition

Nagel then turns to the second problem for materialism: how to account for cognition, or the human mental functions of thought, reasoning, and evaluation. The essence of Nagel’s problem with materialism in this case is that it cannot provide an answer to how humans can transcend subjective points-of-view to get to objective points-of-view, or how the world really is. As Nagel explains, “Thought and reasoning are correct or incorrect in virtue of something independent of the thinker’s beliefs, and even independent of the community of thinkers to which he belongs” (MC, 72).

To postmodernists who disbelieve in objective, absolute truth, such words are anathema. But Nagel is clearly no postmodern cultural relativist; he is what philosophers call a realist (one who believes a real world exists that can be understood and known). Science, after all, is built on the foundation that the world is real and can be understood. Without this assumption, science would be impossible. Thus we find Nagel speaking of “timeless truths” which humans can form true beliefs about, like the laws of logic and mathematics. He even includes morality, which would certainly result in a reprimand from many persnickety postmodernists.

And this is the problem with materialism: once one affirms realism—that objective reality exists and can be understood outside one’s own biases—materialism can no longer be accepted as the prima facie explanation of cognition. The orthodox Darwinian storyline is that only those biological organisms that can adapt will survive. But on such an account, the laws of logic, mathematics, and even morality are not necessarily true (objectively speaking). Perception of the real world becomes purely subjective. In other words, beliefs about the world do not necessarily “match up” with reality (although any thoroughbred Darwinist would affirm that they do match up, or otherwise survival would be impossible).

The point is that, from a Darwinian perspective, beliefs about the world have to be only advantageous for survival. But, argues Nagel, humans have the uncanny ability to go beyond mere appearance to how things really are. A person may perceive a stick in a body of water as bent, but he can investigate further and realize that it is in fact straight. Moreover, argues Nagel, survival of the fittest seems to require that humans have the ability to reason in such a way. If survival is the goal, illusions may contribute to one’s demise. To go beyond mere perceptions cries out for explanation, and materialism cannot account for it. Materialism reduces everything to the physical world; it cannot go beyond it. Materialism thus fails to account for the ability to evaluate and come to an understanding of reality.

There is another problem here, observes Nagel. If the typical naturalistic evolutionary story is true, then there is no way one can accept the evolutionary story itself. The idea of evolution is itself a product of human reasoning. But if reasoning is a product of evolution, how can it be considered reliable since evolution is merely about having advantageous mechanisms to survive? There does not need to be anything true about human reasoning, even about evolution itself. Moreover, to reason that reductive materialistic evolution gave rise to the human ability to discern logical truths and such is to argue in a circle: it assumes the reliability of human reasoning to argue for the reliability of human reasoning. “It is not enough,” states Nagel, “to be able to think that if there are logical truths, natural selection might very well have given me the capacity to recognize them. That cannot be my ground for trusting my reason, because even that thought implicitly relies on reason in a prior way” (MC, 81).

Nagel wraps up this discussion by pointing out another problem. “What,” he asks, “is the faculty that enables us to escape from the world of appearance . . . into the world of objective reality?” (MC, 82). To ask it another way, if humans are merely physical, what faculty of the human brain (or otherwise) enables them to transcend the biased perspectives of reality to obtain a true view of how the world really is? Materialism has not been able to answer this question. There simply is no physical faculty of humans that enables them to obtain objective views of the world. It is not, however, that humans are merely capable of going beyond subjective points-of-view; they can actually reason to much more, like using inference and deduction to reach conclusions that lie beyond the physical universe. “Something has happened,” avers Nagel, “that has gotten our minds into immediate contact with the rational order of the world, or at least with the basic elements of that order, which can in turn be used to reach a great deal more” (MC, 83). Interestingly, says Nagel, “This applies in the domain of value as well as of fact [i.e., science]” (MC, 83), which he turns to in the final chapter.

So if materialism cannot account for cognition, then what does? Again, Nagel proffers no definitive answer. It is not the point of the book. He simply discusses what a new theory must contain: mind must be just a part of the natural world. In his own words: “the world must have properties that make their appearance not a complete accident: in some way the likelihood must have been latent in the nature of things” (MC, 86). For Nagel, either monism or panpsychism seem at least “conceivable” (MC, 87). But even here, he admits that such a theory is “hard to imagine” what it would look like (MC, 86). Of course, theism in its traditional forms has an explanation, but Nagel does not give it the time of day. It is ruled out of hand by his atheism.

Value

Just like consciousness and cognition, value is inexplicable from a materialist viewpoint according to Nagel. The reason is that Darwinism makes moral value meaningless. It is simply illusory. Recall that according to evolutionary naturalism, all that is necessary is for organisms to have features that enable them to survive. Moral values, then, are merely a means of survival, or reproductive fitness. And, of course, if they are merely a means to survival, then they are certainly not real and we would not expect them to be. As Nagel puts it, “The ability to detect [moral] truth . . . would make no contribution to reproductive fitness.” On the Darwinian account, “it is completely irrelevant whether those faculties enable us to detect mind-independent moral truth, should there be such a thing, or whether they lead us radically astray” (MC, 107).

This observation is nothing new. Nagel interacts with philosopher Sharon Streetwho clearly understands the logical conclusion of a full-orbed materialistic Darwinism: nihilism of moral value. Ironically, then, we find the scientific naturalist playing into the postmodernist’s hand of moral relativism. So what does one do? Either one rejects materialism or one rejects moral value. Street does the latter and Nagel the former. Nagel is unwilling to concede that nothing is really morally bad or good. He is a realist when it comes to value. “Since moral realism is true,” he remarks, “a Darwinian account of the motives underlying moral judgment must be false, in spite of the scientific consensus in its favor” (MC, 105).

We thus find realism raising its ugly head against materialism once again: if moral realism is true, then materialism must be false. “From a Darwinian perspective,” opines Nagel, “our impressions of value, if construed realistically, are completely groundless” (MC, 109). And so, concludes Nagel, “something is missing from Darwinism, and from the standard biological conception of ourselves” (MC, 111). Welcome to the theologian’s age-old critique, Professor Nagel.

Concluding Analysis

It is clear from Mind and Cosmos that Nagel desires to maintain a basic Darwinian conception of the origin and development of life. For him, it is not that the Darwinist baby should be thrown out with the materialist bathwater. Rather, something is just missing from the current reigning paradigm of scientific naturalism, namely, mind. He envisions an evolutionary process in which both matter and mind originated and developed together, whether some kind of monism or panpsychism. Exactly what this looks like is anyone’s guess (even Nagel has no idea).

This certainly raises serious doubts about the entire enterprise Nagel envisions. Philosophers of religion have often pointed out that when it comes to metaphysics (the study of ultimate reality)—which is in essence what Mind and Cosmos is—there are only three options: theism, pantheism, and naturalism. For Nagel, theism is denied outright and naturalism cannot account for mind. So this leaves pantheism (the belief that all is god).

But where does one fit Nagel’s panpsychism? Is Nagel actually proposing to accept pantheism? One could make the argument that panpsychism is not much different from pantheism, especially considering Nagel’s openness to a kind of monism (that ultimate reality is essentially composed of one thing, either God or matter). Pantheism is the belief that everything is god, but this god is impersonal, akin to “the force” of the Star Wars saga. Similarly, panpsychism posits that mind permeates the entire universe. One can easily see the similarities: only one thing constitutes reality and it is infinite in nature (i.e., monism)—mind for panpsychists and an impersonal force for pantheists. But since according to panpsychists mind is infinite and is ultimate reality, the logical conclusion is that mind is some kind of deity, considering it has the attributes of deity. In a sense, panpsychism is pantheism with a personal flavor to it (mind is a personal concept, not impersonal as in traditional pantheism).

Therefore, it seems that Nagel, after opting out of theism and naturalism, will have to affirm some kind of pantheism. It is simply bizarre to think how naturalism can be combined with a theory of mind embedded in the world, which Nagel proposes. Either one has naturalism, or one has theism or pantheism. It simply seems metaphysically impossible to combine any two of these, and thus it is highly doubtful that Nagel’s enterprise will be successful.

Will Nagel see this conflict? Only time will tell. However that may turn out, Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos is a welcomed treatise that exposes the difficulty materialism faces in accounting for consciousness, cognition, and value. He joins the ever-growing number of scientists and philosophers who have been convinced that a purely naturalistic explanation of all life is untenable. Nagel is just brazen enough to write a book about it, confessing that he finds the current reigning materialism in science “antecedently unbelievable—a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense” (MC, 128).

This being said, Nagel’s work is not a ground-breaking new theory or philosophical analysis about the reductionistic materialism in science. If the reader is looking for something new, disappointment awaits him. Indeed, this is the irony of the book: Nagel does not point out anything new with the problems materialism poses for the explanation of mind. Theologians and Christian philosophers have argued for hundreds of years many of the same points Nagel makes. It seems that Robert Jastrow’s idea of the scientists scaling the mountain of ignorance is true: once they reached the top, they found that theologians had been sitting there for centuries.[2] Truly there is nothing to see here, except an atheist coming to grips with what theologians and Christian philosophers have said for centuries.

Grace,

Peter Jay Rasor II

Notes:

[1] Thomas Nagel, The Last Word, 130-31.

[2] Robert Jastrow put it this way: “For the scientist that has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance. He is about to conquer the highest peak. As he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” See Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 2nd ed. (N.p.: Readers Library, 1992), 107.

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