Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False
by Thomas Nagel, PhD
Reviewed by Nathan Liddell
Thomas Nagel (BPhil Oxford, PhD Harvard) is University Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Law at New York University, Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, recipient of the 2008 Rolf Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy, and recipient of the Balzan Prize in Moral Philosophy.
Dr. Nagel, who has made highly respected contributions to modern philosophical thought in works like “What is it like to be a bat?”, The Possibility of Altruism, and The View from Nowhere, has lately lost his place among the philosophical elite. His precipitous fall is the consequence of his criticisms of evolution which he set forth and defended in his 2012 book (Oxford Press): Mind and Cosmos-Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.
Dr. Nagel’s main purpose in his most recent work is to critique materialist naturalism from many angles with the aim "to argue that the mind-body problem is not just a local problem...but that it invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history" (3).2
Specifically, Nagel makes four points regarding Evolution’s inadequacies: 1. Evolution fails to explain how inanimate became animate; 2. Evolution fails to explain how consciousness came to be; 3. Evolution fails to explain the development of rational/abstract thought; 4. Evolution fails to explain the existence of objective moral values.
First, Nagel says psychophysical reductionism has failed (4). Nagel finds the mind to be an irreducible part of nature (16) which cannot be fully explained by physical science (14). Additionally, he does not find the evidence from science for reductionism convincing. In particular, Nagel finds the traditional evolutionary explanation of the rise of life and consciousness to be more and more unbelievable. In fact, he says, "that it flies in the face of common sense" (5).
Second, Nagel finds the negative argument of the Intelligent Design Argument to be effective against the evolutionary explanation for the existence of life and consciousness. He says,
The general force of the negative part of the intelligent design position— skepticism about the likelihood of the orthodox reductive view, given the available evidence--does not appear to me to have been destroyed in these exchanges. At least, the question should be regarded as open. To anyone interested in the basis of this judgment, I can only recommend a careful reading of some of the leading advocates on both sides of the issue—with special attention to what has been established by the critics of intelligent design. Whatever one may think about the possibility of a designer, the prevailing doctrine—that the appearance of life from dead matter and its evolution through accidental mutation and natural selection to its present forms has involved nothing but the operation physical law —cannot be regarded as unassailable. It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis (11).
Third, instead of adopting the orthodox materialist position, Nagel believes that “the weight of evidence favors some kind of neutral monism" as opposed to materialism, dualism, or idealism (4-5).
Fourth, Nagel believes that the existence of life, consciousness, cognition, and objective moral values (Nagel is a moral realist), requires an explanation that makes more sense than random mutation and natural selection. He says,
with regard to evolution, the process of natural selection cannot account for the actual history without an adequate supply of viable mutations, and I believe it remains an open question whether this could have been provided in geological time merely as a result of chemical accident, without the operation of some other factors determining and restricting the forms of genetic variation...With regard to the origin of life, the problem is much harder, since the option of natural selection as an explanation is not available (9-10).
Fifth, Nagel believes Natural Teleology is the most plausible explanation for the existence of life, consciousness, cognition, and objective values (91):
I am drawn to a fourth alternative, natural teleology, or teleological bias, as an account of the existence of the biological possibilities on which natural selection can operate. I believe that teleology is a naturalistic alternative that is distinct from all three of the other candidate explanations: chance, creationism, and directionless physcal law (91).
Sixth, in positing teleology, Nagel is not endorsing God as the Designer. Rather, he maintains his atheism (95) and asserts that the teleology he is imagining is immanent, natural, and monist (95).
Seventh, Nagel is a moral realist and he employs the Argument from Reason against the materialist naturalist explanation of the development of reason arguing that if our reasoning capacity developed through natural selection for the purpose of survival fitness, the only thing our reason can be relied on for is survival. It cannot be relied upon for making true judgments about oneself or the world. Consequently, no one has any reason to believe that anything their reason tells them is true is actually true—including materialist naturalism (107). Again, Nagel believes that to be able to trust our reason, we must believe that our reason developed per some kind of design. According to Nagel, a natural law-like tendency toward order, life, consciousness, cognition, etc.
In summation of these arguments, Nagel calls for a new approach to investigating the universe. "I have tried to show," he says, "that this approach is incapable of providing an adequate account, either constitutive or historical, of our universe" (127). Nagel is optimistic that the orthodox view will one day soon be set aside in favor of a better approach. He says, "I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two--though of course it may be replaced by a new consensus that is just as invalid" (128).
A REVIEW BY ALVIN PLANTING3
Alvin Plantinga, the foremost american Christian philosopher, calls Nagel's book an "important...powerful assault on materialistic naturalism." Plantinga commends Nagel for being unafraid to take unpopular positions.
First among them, Plantinga notes that Nagel endorses the negative component of the Intelligent Design Argument, having even recommended Stephen Meyer’s book, Signature in the Cell, for a book of the year award in 2009.
Plantinga traces Nagel's anti-materialist argument as follows: 1. Nagel rejects the claim that life has come to be just by the workings of the laws of physics and chemistry; 2. Nagel rejects the idea that once life was established on our planet, all the enormous variety of contemporary life came to be by way of the processes evolutionary science tells us about: natural selection operating on genetic mutation, but also genetic drift, and perhaps other processes as well; 3. He thinks it is especially improbable that consciousness and reason should come to be if materialist naturalism is true; 4. According to Nagel, materialist naturalism has great difficulty with consciousness, but it has even greater difficulty with cognition. He thinks it monumentally unlikely that unguided natural selection should have “generated creatures with the capacity to discover by reason the truth about a reality that extends vastly beyond the initial appearances.”
Plantinga says that he finds Nagel's negative case against materialistic naturalism to be strong and persuasive. He does, however, have some reservations. First, Plantinga thinks that Nagel demands too much of reductivists by demanding that they show the necessary connections between physical and mental states in order for their view of the mental to be considered intelligible. Plantinga argues that their view could be considered intelligible even if the necessary connections weren't known to us.
Next, Plantinga criticizes Nagel for failling to be sympathetic to theism given its explanatory power and scope relative to the problems Nagel is positing. For the occurrence of life, consciousness, cognition, and objective moral values, theism has an explanation. Why shouldn't Nagel at least consider it as a possibility, Plantinga asks. He notes that Nagel's rejection of theism is emotional not philosophical or intellectual citing Nagel's words in his book The Last Word:
I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.... It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
Plantinga then argues that Nagel's philosophical objection to theism is really very thin, amounting to an appeal to the notion of unity--meaning that Nagel believes there should be a worldview that is fundamentally united, having no fundamentally different kinds of things (soul vs matter, etc). In response, Plantinga wonders what it is to say there is just one kind of thing? How plausible is it to claim that this kind of unity is necessary for intelligibility? And, Why should we think that the world really does display this kind of unity?
In review of Nagel's positive thesis and its two parts, panpsychism and natural teleology, Plantinga first challenges panpsychism by asking how much gain there is from the standpoint of unity to reject two different kinds of objects in favor of two different kinds of properties. In response to Nagel's natural teleology, Plantinga says:
As for natural teleology: does it really make sense to suppose that the world in itself, without the presence of God, should be doing something we could sensibly call ‘aiming at’ some states of affairs rather than others—that it has as a goal the actuality of some states of affairs as opposed to others? Here the problem isn’t just that this seems fantastic; it does not even make clear sense. A teleological explanation of a state of affairs will refer to some being that aims at this state of affairs and acts in such a way as to bring it about. But a world without God does not aim at states of affairs or anything else. How, then, can we think of this alleged natural teleology?
Ultimately, Plantinga, a theist, believes that "if Nagel followed his own methodological prescriptions and requirements for sound philosophy, if he followed his own arguments wherever they lead, if he ignored his emotional antipathy to belief in God, then (or so I think) he would wind up a theist." In any case, however, Plantinga says that Nagel has performed an important service "with his withering critical examination of some of the most common and oppressive dogmas of our age.”
A REVIEW BY J.P. MORELAND4
According to J.P. Moreland, Professor of Philosophy at BIOLA, Mind and Cosmos is a "bold, innovative, controversial" book which is the next step in a journey that Nagel has been on since the publication of "What It Is Like to Be a Bat"---a journey away from naturalism and toward a theistic-friendly view of the universe. As Moreland sees it, Nagel's first step on this journey was to admit the reality of irreducible consciousness and first-person experiences. This was followed by Nagel's admission that the existence of several facts of objective reason served as problems for naturalism which he made in his 2001 book, The Last Word.
Moreland summarizes Nagel's argument this way: "In a nutshell, Nagel’s argument is this: There are four things that must be explained that standard physicalist Darwinism will most likely never be able to explain or cannot explain even in principle" (85):
- The emergence from a lifeless universe of the staggeringly complex life on earth in such a short time.
- The development of such an incredible diversity of highly complex life forms from first life in such a short time.
- The appearance of conscious beings from brute matter.
- The existence of objective reason and value and the existence of creatures with the sort of faculties apt for grasping objective reality and value and being motivated by value.
Moreland's first criticism of Nagel is that though he takes a synoptic view of the mind body problem, addressing problems related to the cosmos as a whole, he fails to address three central and critical facts: it had a beginning, it is contingent, and it is fine-tuned for life to appear. According to Moreland, Nagel must deal with these facts and situate his own view in a way that is compatible with them. Because these facts are ontologically and explanatorily prior to Nagel's topics and because theism explains them better, Nagel's explanation is rendered "otiose" (serving no practical purpose). In this criticism, Moreland finds a larger problem with the book—Nagel spends all his time attacking Darwinism and doesn't spend sufficient time interacting with theism.
Moreland finds a point of agreement with Nagel regarding the problem that the existence of consciousness provides for Darwinism. He does, however, have two problems with Nagel's position: 1. "Nagel's solution requires that the connections between mental and physical states be a necessary one;" 2. "Nagel’s reductive panpsychism entails that one’s conscious visual field is actually a combination of the consciousness of myriads of particles each with its own consciousness.”
While Moreland agrees with Nagel's argument that cognition cannot be attributed to
naturalism, he also finds that Nagel's panpsychism/natural teleology avoids one
accident while running into another. He says:
Consider the range of materialist Darwinian possible worlds, and then consider a subset of those worlds that have panpsychist and teleological elements in them. Such a subset contains myriads of worlds. Each has its own principle of immanent teleology with its own end. Now Nagel postulates, correctly in my view, an objective realm of reason that is quite independent of any contingent possible world, and he believes that our faculties, fortunately, are able to tap into this objective realm. But now we seem to be faced with a highly improbable coincidence. Surely, it is highly likely that we would turn out to be present in a world with a teleological principle that does not produce faculties apt for ‘tapping into’ the objective realm of reason. Thus, Nagel’s principle of teleology avoids one accident (given its presence, it is not accidental that we have the properly functioning faculties we do) only at the expense of postulating another accident (it a sheer accident that we ended up in a possible world with the right sort of immanent teleology.)
By contrast, Moreland says, "the theist is in no such pickle." Why? Moreland says, "Given that the objective realm of reason is grounded in the Divine mind, and given that God created us in his image to be able to find truth and grasp the world as it is, it is no accident that we are able to ‘tap into’ the realm of objective reason.”
Regarding objective moral values versus subjectivism, Moreland agrees with Nagel that subjectivism fits nicely with Darwinism. But, he does find a problem with Nagel's moral realism which he poses this way:
It seems that two features of morality—virtues and imperatives—have ontological implications favorable to theism and unfavorable to naturalism, including Nagel’s version. Statements like “Necessarily, kindness is a virtue” seem to be subject predicate assertions in which a determinable is exemplified by a determinate. Now virtue properties are conscious properties (kindness, honesty, and so forth), and it would seem that they cannot exist in an impersonal mode of being. They seem to be Aristotelian properties that require a specific entity to exist, namely, a sentient subject. And theism provides such a subject as the exemplifier of virtue properties that cannot exist unexemplified. And moral principles come to us as imposed duties with imperatival force. A lawgiver is the sort of thing that can generate imperatives and impose duties, so objective moral imperatives seem to be best explained by a Moral Lawgiver. I know these remarks are brief and more development is needed to defend them. But this, in brief, constitutes what I believe to be a difficulty for Nagel’s last chapter.
All in all, Moreland sees Mind and Cosmos as a good book that succeeds in its attack on Darwinian naturalism.
HOW HAVE ATHEISTS RESPONDED TO NAGEL?5
Daniel Dennett, one of the four horseman of the New Atheism (along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens), said Nagel is “a member of the ‘retrograde gang’ whose work ‘isn’t worth anything-- it’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth…” Poor Thomas Nagel is now rejected by the Atheists because he does not agree with the doctrine of evolution. These open-minded ones are closed-minded to his commonsense objections.
WHAT DOES NAGEL’S BOOK MEAN FOR CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS?
First, it means that even honest atheists can see the problems with evolution. Evolution has not and cannot explain how life came from non-life. Nor has Evolution explained how life became conscious—moved from strict sensory relation to the world to have a sense of self, a perception of oneself as related to the world. Evolution cannot explain how man developed the cognitive capacity to think abstractly about his world. And, Evolution cannot explain how we have come to have objective moral values—some things are really right and some things are really wrong.
Second, Nagel’s book revives an old but effective argument against Neo-Darwinian Evolution made most strongly in the twentieth century by C.S. Lewis, the Argument from Reason. This argument very simply says that if reason is the product of survival pressures via natural selection, it is not designed to determine truth and may not be relied upon to do so. Rather, it is only designed and reliable for the purpose of helping one survive. The piercing implication of this argument is that our reason cannot be used to give us any truth and so, evolutionists and atheists have no grounds for believing that their beliefs about evolution or atheism are true.
Third, Nagel’s arguments are based in the objections to evolution raised by the best Intelligent Design theorists, men like Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Stephen C. Meyer. Each of these men has proposed successful arguments against the standard evolutionary theory. Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, has raised irreducible complexity. Dembski, a philosopher and mathematician, has demonstrated the astronomical improbability of life originating by chance. Meyer, author of The Signature in the Cell (the book that turned Antony Flew from atheism to deism), has demonstrated the necessity of a Designer based upon the great complexity of the human genome. These arguments, now approaching twenty years old, are still strongholds for Christian faith. Each of us should be familiar with them.
Finally, God and Creation are still the best explanations for the complex, conscious, moral life that we see all around us on this Earth. May we use this and other valuable resources to defend our faith, to help our children, and to reach out to the misled
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((Nagel, Thomas (2012). Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Oxford: Oxford University Press.))