Book Review: Mind and Cosmos, by Thomas Nagel

Review of Mind and Cosmos, by Thomas Nagel (Oxford University Press, 2012)

Thomas Nagel is the bad boy of modern philosophy, because he has gone on record, as a full professor at a major university, saying that the proponents of intelligent design (ID) have not been treated fairly, and many of their arguments are valid. His book has the subtitle “Why the materialist neo-Darwinist conception of nature is almost certainly false,” which leaves no doubt that he has thrown in his lot with the anti-Darwinians.

Yet Nagel is not an advocate of intelligent design. He does not believe in God, or any other notion of a purposive cosmic designer, though he treats theism with respect, as most top philosophers do. He also does not spend much of his time dealing with the probability arguments so common in the ID literature. He takes it as a given that these arguments are reasonable and are not taken seriously primarily because people do not take any alternatives to reductionist materialism seriously.

Nagel’s concern is with something philosophers call “adequate explanation.” This is not a quantitative concept, but rather, a qualitative sense of whether a purported explanation has done its job or has left the main things unexplained. The idea is that some things demand explanation to such a degree that to fail to explain them is to fail entirely, while other things can be left unexplained without harm to a system of thought. Scientists also take this approach: we feel we have explained something adequately when we can explain the main behaviors of a system, not every detail. For example, a system of weather analysis which fails to explain why it is colder in winter than in summer is a complete failure, while a system that fails to predict the exact daily temperatures a year from now is not.

In this regard, Nagel points out an interesting bit of logic, which is that conjunctive explanations are often not adequate explanations. A conjunctive explanation is one which has the following form: A explains B, and B implies C. It often turns out that while A explains B adequately, A does not explain C adequately. For example, suppose C is “four people in the same family all died of cancer,” A is the narrative of how cancer kills, and B is the set of the stories of each person’s death. In each individual death, A would be an adequate explanation, but explaining C demands something more: in this case, the additional information “this family had a genetic defect that makes cancer likely” would provide an adequate explanation of C.

For Nagel, the elephant in the room which has not been adequately explained by the theory of evolution, by a long shot, is the existence of Mind. We all live every day with our whole experience governed by our experience with Mind. Nagel asks how we can consider any explanation of life adequate which fails to explain this predominating fact. Even if we had a complete theory of evolution with all the physical mechanisms (A) which explained the existence of brains (B), it would fail to explain Mind (C) unless it could be shown that the physical mechanisms are intrinsically connected to the existence of Mind.

On reflection, it is surprising that the existence of Mind has not been considered a major problem to address in evolutionary thought. This stems from the early commitment of Western science to a sharp distinction between observer and observed. That distinction was fruitful, because early science too easily settled on conclusions that the scientists wanted to be true or felt to be true because of their personal experience. But it evolved into a complete removal of the observer from consideration.

The standard narrative of evolution is that having minds makes people better able to find resources and avoid threats, and this favored their survival in competition with other species. But this explains only those abilities: resource-finding and threat-avoidance. It does not explain some pervasive, fundamental aspects of Mind which seem unrelated to those goals. Nagel lists these under the categories of Consciousness, Cognition, and Value.

Many philosophers have noted that consciousness, or self-awareness (what the great Christian brain scientist Donald Mackay called the “I-story,” that is, the internal story), is not required for even sophisticated analysis of threats or available resources. Well-functioning mindless computers can do the same. While some of my response to my environment is governed by subconscious, computer-like activities, I also have another whole level of experience which is not merely stimulus and response, which defines my sense of “me.”

In addition to self awareness, our minds also lead us to think we know things that are true, i.e., to have cognition. Why do we believe we know true things? Does evolution explain our sense of truth? Many authors have noted that there is no obvious reason to expect that undirected evolution will lead to the existence of people who think true thoughts about galaxies and General Relativity, or for that matter, about the proper way to play musical instruments for pop music. Nagel argues here, additionally, that we can’t be satisfied with evolution as an explanation for our sense of truth. Suppose we ask, for example, “Why do I believe that the theory of evolution is true?” We aren’t satisfied with saying “I believe it because my species has a better survival rate if I believe things like this.” Deep down, if I believe any scientific theory such as evolution, I believe it because I think it is true, really the way things are. Therefore my sense of truth justifies my belief in evolution, and not the other way around.

Similarly, our sense of value, that is, right and wrong, seems to derive from perceived truth, not just survival. An evolutionary account of value would say that all sense of badness derives from damage avoidance and all sense of goodness derives from enhanced survival and reproduction. But we cannot help feeling that something bad is truly bad, not just less likely to aid survival of our species. As C.S. Lewis argued, when a moral relativist is cut off in traffic by a rude driver, he doesn’t say to himself, “Oh, that person is making a different value choice;” he (like all of us) feels the other driver is truly a jerk, in an absolute sense. Even if we see later that a certain judgment was erroneous, we can’t help feeling that such absolute judgments are sometimes justified. As Nagel notes, all of human behavior is explained by judgments. We do not act on the basis of stimulus and response. We constantly evaluate the rights and wrongs in situations and act on what we perceive as justified. Even when we act spontaneously at times, we have beforehand made a judgment to let ourselves go wild, because we have judged that spontaneity is a good thing.

Nagel’s argument, then, is that these things—consciousness, cognition, and value—are real, and hugely important to our understanding of the entire universe. A theory that fails to adequately explain them is therefore a failed theory.

Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory offers a type of explanation, namely that these aspects of Mind are supervenient on the more basic properties of our central nervous system; they arise as superfluous byproducts of damage avoidance and survival/reproduction, even though they have no intrinsic connection to those goals. An evolutionist can argue that Mind is like the red color of hemoglobin—hemoglobin needs to exist to allow respiration, but it does not intrinsically need to be the color red; that color just comes along for the ride. But the analogy breaks down: blood has to be some color or other, while Mind does not have to exist at all, as we see in numerous types of life. It is as though someone wanted to explain the existence of a great city with fantastic fairy castles and artwork as the result of a military need for defense works and food storage.

As mentioned above, Nagel is not a theist, and so he must make sense of this inadequacy of materialism somehow. He favors two principles, which he admits are speculative, but no more speculative than many of the just-so stories of materialist Darwinism. The first is a type of neo-Platonism, in which there is a parallel aspect of reality in which ideas and Mind exist indendent of matter. The second is what he calls “naturalistic teleology,” or, more obscurely, “nonpurposive teleology.” He believes that there are laws of nature which tend toward complex goals, in particular, toward the existence of Mind. I encountered this concept first in the writings of Louse Young, many years ago. At first, it sounds plausible, what on reflection, what can it mean? Is it even coherent linguistically? Having goals but no purpose? Aims but no intentionality? Are we just rejecting some words for purpose and keeping others? Saying that Mind is intrinsic to the universe but not that there is a Mind intrinsic to the universe (which sounds too much like God)? Nagel recognizes the difficulty of what he proposes, and tries to just sketch out in broad terms what such a theory might look like.

In general, Nagel’s book is not an easy read. It is dense, but not tight argumentation. He mostly is concerned, like many philosophers, with delineating all the possible alternatives, so as not to be subject to the criticism of having missed some important school of thought. Much of his argument is based on appeals to common sense, and most of his proposals are pure speculation, but he notes, correctly, that he is no more speculative than materialist neo-Darwinists.

For the past two centuries, the origin of life and the origin of human Mind have had no explanation whatsoever in materialist neo-Darwinism. These are typically shrugged off as just the next things on the plate, the next gaps to be filled, which we can expect soon because materialism has so successfully explained the transistions between existing life forms (though many ID people question even how successful neo-Darwinism is at this). Anyone who has really stared these problems in the face, as Nagel has with the problem of the origin of Mind, must realize that there are orders of magnitude of difficulty in applying materialistic paradigms. The neo-Darwinian is somewhat like an anthropologist saying, “I now fully understand this culture. I don’t understand a few minor things, like their origins, and their language, but I do understand the rules to the sports game they play.” Nagel has given us a good reminder of the need for adequate explanation of the main things.







2 responses to “Book Review: Mind and Cosmos, by Thomas Nagel”

  1. Forrest M. Mims III Avatar

    This is a thoughtful analysis of a thought provoking work. What I like so much about unbelievers like Nagel who have serious problems with Darwinian evolution is how they unknowingly point the way directly toward the super intelligence (1) and design that requires a Creator (2).

    (1) Intelligent Design suggests anthropomorphism while super intelligent clearly does not.

    (2) Paul explains this so clearly in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans that when I read this many years ago I was left with no choice but to reject Darwinian evolution.

  2. Paul Becke Avatar
    Paul Becke

    My first thought was to laud the wonderful concluding analogy of the sports field, prompted by its inevitably satirical overtone; but its verisimilitude is actually stunning.

    Arguing with ignorance is burdensome in itself, but is greatly exacerbated by the obstinacy that engendered the ignorance in the first place. That, unfortunately is the burden theists and sane atheists routinely face all the time in their disputes with the likes of the neo-Darwinists. The intelligentsia, it seems is a very mixed bag.

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