Saturday, May 18, 2013

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Surely False by Thomas Nagel

The central argument of Mind and Cosmos: Why the Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Surely False by Thomas Nagel seems[1] to be as follows.

  1. There are three possible and mutually exclusive explanations for the world and its contents: materialistic naturalism[2], theism[3], or teleological naturalism[4].
  2. The correct explanation of the world and its contents is not materialistic naturalism.
  3. The correct explanation of the world and its contents is not theism.
  4. Therefore, the correct explanation is teleological naturalism.
Now, already a possible terminological confusion looms: isn’t it the case that teleological arguments are inevitably arguments for theism? Well, no, as it turns out. It becomes apparent as the book progresses that what Nagel is arguing for is an Aristotelian type of natural teleology: an immanent, this-worldly type of tendency or bias on the part of nature to produce certain ends. Such teleology does not posit any transcendent Mind in which intentions or goals reside.

The argument seems valid, and perhaps the first premise is relatively inoffensive to naturalist and theist alike. Argument will thus center on premises 2 and 3.

The correct explanation of the world and its contents is not materialistic naturalism. Nagel makes some preliminary remarks regarding his skepticism about the ability of materialistic naturalism (henceforth MN) to explain the origin of life. He also thinks that MN has a further problem in explaining the DNA code and the complex forms of life we see in the estimated life span of the earth via random genetic mutation. He sees these as independent empirical reasons which buttress his philosophical arguments against MN as a satisfactory explanation of the cosmos. He notes his gratitude toward the intelligent design community in pointing out their critiques of MN, although he emphatically declines to endorse their conclusion that theism (henceforth T) is, given the failure of MN, the correct worldview.

Turning to the philosophical arguments regarding the failure of MN, Nagel claims that MN fails to explain three striking facts about the cosmos: consciousness[5], cognition[6], and values[7].  Nagel notes that MN does a pretty good job of explaining a lot of physical reality. He argues, however, MN has done so by following the recommendations of Descartes and others that science deal with spatio-temporal events and ignore mental events. However, this compromise could not be held forever. The apparently irresistible drive to construct a comprehensive worldview would eventually test the ability of MN to explain all of reality—including the mental.[8] Nagel then succinctly but powerfully outlines various attempts to reduce the mental to the physical (e.g., conceptual behaviorism, psychophysical identity, causal behaviorism, functionalism). He concludes that the failure of these attempts at psychophysical reduction support the conclusion that conscious events are aspects of reality not describable by physical science.  

In discussing cognition, Nagel argues that because all cognition (even that of low-level, purely ‘sensory’ consciousness found in all animals) is inherently subjective in nature MN cannot account for it. However, the real thrust of the ‘problem of cognition’ involves what might be termed ‘higher’ functions of thought, reasoning, and evaluation. Here, he argues, humans (and perhaps other life forms) have managed to transcend our own senses and instincts and explore larger objective reality. This is not, as Nagel sees it, simply another version of the problem from consciousness. Briefly, we take ourselves when reasoning to be right or wrong in virtue of how the world really, objectively, actually (independent of opinion) is. We can form true beliefs, we think, of timeless domains like logic and mathematics. Contrast this with our basic sensory perceptions. There seems to be an easy way in which evolutionary explanations could account for these processes. Failure to perceive what is going on in the world around us (to be blind to the approach of a hungry tiger, for example) will tend to weed out certain individuals and groups. What Nagel wants to know is (a) is it credible that an evolutionary explanation can account for the astounding breakthroughs we make in science, logic, mathematics, and philosophy that go beyond mere ‘appearances’ and (b) the difficulty in formulating a satisfactory naturalistic[9] understanding of the faculty of reason. He examines and rejects a proposed naturalistic answer[10] to (a) and spends more time on (b), which he considers the more formidable problem. The problem in (b) is that reason is in many ways assumed to be our most fundamental faculty—the bar before which all conclusions and deliverances of other faculties stand.

Eventually the attempt to understand oneself in evolutionary, naturalistic terms must bottom out in something that is grasped as valid in itself—something without which evolutionary understanding would not be possible….It is not enough 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. (p. 59, Kindle edition)

Nagel then turns to the ‘problem of value’ for MN. Nagel is here arguing for moral realism: the actual, objective existence of moral facts which exist independent of opinion. Nagel quickly discusses and then dismisses what he sees as the most plausible form of moral subjectivism (Humean ‘passions’). The core of the problem moral realism poses for MN, as Nagel sees it, is as follows: MN is bound up with Darwinian evolutionary explanations, and such explanations would undercut our belief in the reliability of our moral faculties. So even if moral facts existed, we would not be in a position to know that they existed. Nagel, citing Sharon Street[11], argues that while us acting in certain ways (e.g., protecting each other from danger) would lead to survival, those behaviors, even in the absence of any moral beliefs whatsoever, would be enough. And, even if us holding such beliefs was somehow necessitated by evolution, it would not follow that such beliefs must be true. [12] Rather, the holding of such beliefs would presumably serve to reinforce our acting in certain ways—ways that are in accord with the ‘useful fictions’ of holding to moral realism. So if one is to maintain moral realism, one should reject MN.

The correct explanation of the world and its contents is not theism. The bulk of the book—and hence this review—has focused on Nagel’s rejection of MN. The proponent of MN will part company with Nagel at the second premise. The theist can enthusiastically agree with Nagel until premise 3 arrives. The theist will thus want to know:  why does Nagel reject theism?

Straightforward argument for premise 3 is disappointingly meager. Nagel has been often and famously quoted as saying that he prefers that there be no God. This attitude is also present in this book, as can be seen by referring to an ‘ungrounded assumption of my own…I lack the sensus divinitatis[13] or an ‘ungrounded intellectual preference’[14] that leads him to reject theism. In the concluding chapter of the book, he argues that

Philosophy has to proceed comparatively. The best we can do is to develop the rival alternative conceptions in each important domain as fully and carefully as possible, depending on our antecedent sympathies, and see how they measure up. (p. 108, Kindle edition)

In this case, it seems that his antecedent sympathies prevent him from considering theism a serious option.

Therefore, the correct explanation of the world and its contents is teleological naturalism.  Given the thin case Nagel makes against theism, one might hope that the case he makes for TN is fairly strong. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Nagel’s idea is that somehow there are fundamental ‘mentalistic’ principles that give rise to minds. Another way of saying this is that mind is not the radical newcomer, arriving late in the evolutionary process, that it seems to be given MN. But it is unclear how this is really helpful. What does it mean to say that a ‘mind like’ principle is present in the early stage of the universe when nothing physical but elementary particles exist? And, if simplicity (mentioned as a theoretical virtue in passing early in the book) really is to be pursued, is there not a simplicity in monotheism that is not present in inexplicable, multiple principles of different (i.e., mentalistic and physical) types?

Conclusion. Rather than raking Nagel over the coals for his arguably inadequate reasons for rejecting theism, and the ‘bare possibility’ of TN he floats as an alternative, the theist should feel ever more confident in the explanatory power of theism. The case against MN posed by Nagel is persuasive, his reasons for rejecting theism seem largely psychological rather than philosophical, and his teleological naturalism seems highly speculative and implausible.

The theist might also pray that Nagel comes to see that his assumptions are indeed ungrounded, and acknowledge He who is.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Latter Day Inkling is a U.S.-based research psychologist for the military. He is especially interested in epistemology and natural theology.

[1] For the sake of brevity, I pose the argument in its clearest form sans all caveats. However, Nagel is much less confident in his proffered option, stressing that the best we can do at this point in our intellectual history is to posit some options with many details to be filled in. He says, for example, that “…I am certain that my own attempt to explore alternatives is far too unimaginative. An understanding of the universe will probably require a much more radical departure from the familiar forms of naturalistic explanation than I am at present able to conceive.” (p. 108, Kindle edition)
[2] MN is, briefly put, the idea that all that exists can be explained in terms of physical substances and their physical properties. At bottom, all can be explained by the physical sciences.
[3] Theism: the idea that there is a transcendent Mind that, through its volitions and causal powers, is the explanation for all else that exists.
[4] My term, not Nagel’s. I call it thus to underscore this: he does see his proffered option of ‘teleological naturalism’ as a type of naturalism. Sticking with my terminology, Nagel defines TN as an inherent tendency or bias in the natural world to produce consciousness, cognition, and values.
[5] Admittedly, the line between consciousness and cognition can be a bit blurry. However, from the examples Nagel gives in the chapter on consciousness it seems he is primarily thinking in terms of qualia—e.g., sounds, colors, and tastes.
[6] Defined, roughly, as thought, reasoning, and evaluation.
[7] More specifically, moral realism.
[8] Richard Swinburne makes a similar argument regarding the phenomenon of heat, which was originally defined in terms of the subjective, first person awareness of pain. See his The Existence of God, pp. 205-206.
[9] Nagel’s term in this context. Given his plumping for ‘teleological’ naturalism, it seems clear that what he is really critiquing is materialistic naturalism.
[10] The proposed ‘solution’ to (a) is to adopt anti-realism. Nagel rejects moral antirealism as well, as will be shown shortly. However, he notes that for the antirealist “solution” to work globally, scientific anti-realism must also be adopted. This, however, becomes self-refuting. The point of answering the problem of (a) was to save MN and evolutionary explanations. If one adopts scientific anti-realism, then one is no longer a realist about evolution!
[11] Mind and Cosmos, p. 91, footnote 6.
[12] This is brought out nicely by Mitch Stokes in his book Shot of Faith (to the Head): “ Notice something else. The atheist naturally thinks that our belief in God is false. Nevertheless, most human beings have believed in a god of some sort, or at least in a supernatural realm. But suppose, for argument’s sake, that this widespread belief really is false, and that it merely provides survival benefits for humans, a coping mechanism of sorts. If so, then we would have additional evidence—on the atheist’s own terms—that evolution is more interested in useful beliefs than in true ones. Or, alternatively, if evolution really is concerned with true beliefs, then maybe the widespread belief in God would be a kind of “evolutionary” evidence for his existence. You’ve got to wonder.” (Location 979, Kindle edition)
[13] p. 10, Kindle edition
[14] p. 23, Kindle edition


  1. G. Kyle Essary May 18, 2013

    This is an excellent review of a controversial book. Thanks for that LDI. Many Christians have fawned over the book because of its attacks against materialistic naturalism, but your view correctly points out his deficiencies in presenting alternatives. Thanks!

  2. Pastor May 19, 2013

    Thanks for your review…greetins from Costa Rica

  3. R.Parada May 22, 2013

    Thank you for the review. I think I will add it to my reading list. 🙂

  4. Steve Miller May 23, 2013

    Insightful review of an important work. Thanks!