Jan 17, 2013

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The Promissory Metaphysics of Thomas Nagel: A Review of Mind and Cosmos

A review of Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel

MindandCosmosI didn’t expect to write this review. In fact, I didn’t know when I would get around to reading this book. When a book is reviewed by the likes of William Dembski and Alvin Plantinga, what could a poor schlub like myself have to offer? Possibly not much, but to the extent that I might reach readers who don’t read Dembski or Plantinga, I felt compelled because this book is an important read.

Anyone interested in the interface between science and religion should read this book. It is significant because of the critiques Nagel makes of neo-Darwinism. It is also significant in the direction that Nagel’s critiques direct his thinking. True to form of any good communicator, Nagel’s subtitle contains the entire message of the book. One cannot however completely understand the subtitle without reading the entire book. It would be completely wrong to suspect that Nagel has had some sort of Antony Flew conversion. Quite the opposite occurs in this book. Nagel does not reject the neo-Darwinist explanation per se, rather he rejects the reductionism that is inherent in the materialist view of reality.

According to the reductionist point of view, every aspect of reality can be explained in terms of physics, chemistry and the initial conditions of the universe. The origin and development of life, consciousness, and the capacity of human beings to understand the universe via science can all be explained in terms of biochemical processes that are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry. Philosophy of mind and Christian theism (to name just two domains of human knowledge) has long held there are problems with this view of reality. From these disciplines the explanation is offered that nearly every aspect of the life of the mind is best explained by appealing to a comparable cause, another mind.[1]

I was first introduced to the writings of Thomas Nagel when I read The Last Word as part of a metaphysics class. In the last chapter Nagel discusses how the way human mind is able to comprehend the physical universe seems to indicate it was meant to do so. Such musings, while appealing on a philosophical level, are disturbing in their tendency to point toward some sort of transcendent reality, that is to say God. Nagel, as a committed atheist, seems to have written Mind and Cosmos to show what is lacking in contemporary science to allow it to become a comprehensive explanation of reality, both the mental and the physical.

In the introduction, he offers some of his candid assessments of the current state of neo-Darwinism. Discussing his survey of the popular scientific literature, he offers the following assessment:

[F]or a long time 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.[2]

Nagel’s commentary on the sociological aspects of modern science is as biting as it is accurate.

I realize that such doubts will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.[3]

In the context of the critiques of neo-Darwinism, Nagel concedes that existing consensus is based on an assumption.

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 of physical law— cannot be regarded as unassailable. It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis.[4]

Given such doubts and concerns, what is Nagel trying to accomplish here? In the second chapter, where he discusses the conflict between reductionist and antireductionist views of reality, he writes:

My aim is not so much to argue against reductionism as to investigate the consequences of rejecting it— to present the problem rather than to propose a solution. Materialist naturalism leads to reductionist ambitions because it seems unacceptable to deny the reality of all those familiar things that are not at first glance physical. But if no plausible reduction is available, and if denying reality to the mental continues to be unacceptable, that suggests that the original premise, materialist naturalism, is false, and not just around the edges.[5]

Nagel focuses on three different aspects of the mind: consciousness, cognition (“mental functions such as thought, reasoning, and evaluation,”[6] and value. In each case he explains why a reductionist explanation is inadequate. For example in the chapter on consciousness we find,

What kind of explanation of the development of these organisms, even one that includes evolutionary theory, could account for the appearance of organisms that are not only physically adapted to the environment but also conscious subjects? In brief, I believe it cannot be a purely physical explanation. What has to be explained is not just the lacing of organic life with a tincture of qualia but the coming into existence of subjective individual points of view— a type of existence logically distinct from anything describable by the physical sciences alone.[7]

The existence of consciousness is both one of the most familiar and one of the most astounding things about the world. No conception of the natural order that does not reveal it as something to be expected can aspire even to the outline of completeness. And if physical science, whatever it may have to say about the origin of life, leaves us necessarily in the dark about consciousness, that shows that it cannot provide the basic form of intelligibility for this world.[8]

What is Nagel’s solution to the apparent dilemma between reductionist and antireductionist views of reality? He offers a preview of his thinking in the chapter on antireductionist vs. reductionist views of reality.

However, I do not find theism any more credible than materialism as a comprehensive world view. My interest is in the territory between them. I believe that these two radically opposed conceptions of ultimate intelligibility cannot exhaust the possibilities. All explanations come to an end somewhere. Both theism and materialism say that at the ultimate level, there is one form of understanding. But would an alternative secular conception be possible that acknowledged mind and all that it implies, not as the expression of divine intention but as a fundamental principle of nature along with physical law? Could it take the form of a unified conception of the natural order, even if it tries to accommodate a richer set of materials than the austere elements of mathematical physics?[9]

The “fundamental principle” Nagel appeals to is a “natural teleology.” In other words, that there exist laws of nature which direct the action of other physical laws toward a specific goal. However, the purpose or goal (telos in Greek), exists apart from intention or direction of any agent.

I have been persuaded that the idea of teleological laws is coherent, and quite different from the idea of explanation by the intentions of a purposive being who produces the means to his ends by choice.[10]

These teleological laws would change the way ordinary physical laws work. Among the possible future states for any given system, teleological laws would increase the probability of states more likely to create complex, conscious life forms.

The existence of teleology requires that successor states in this subset have a significantly higher probability than is entailed by the laws of physics alone— simply because they are on the path toward a certain outcome. Teleological laws would assign higher probability to steps on paths in state space that have a higher “velocity” toward certain outcomes. They would be laws of the self-organization of matter, essentially— or of whatever is more basic than matter.[11]

This sounds eerily similar to Howard J. Van Till’s “fully gifted creation.” Van Till also referred to creation being given the capacity for self-organization.[12] Van Till was arguing for a view of Science and Christianity that would baptize modern neo-Darwinism with Christian (really deist) terminology. Nagel on the other hand is attempting to acknowledge the creative purpose or intentions of God while denying the possibility of an external agent.

Nagel readily acknowledges the speculative nature of his concept of natural teleology. He is describing a completely different conception of natural science that will explain things such as consciousness without appeal to transcendent agent. An important factor motivating Nagel is his attitude toward the existence of God.

I confess to an ungrounded assumption of my own, in not finding it possible to regard the design alternative as a real option. I lack the sensus divinitatis that enables— indeed compels— so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose as naturally as they see in a smiling face the expression of human feeling.[13]

By his own admission then, Nagel is predisposed to dismiss any explanation of reality that opens the door to a theistic worldview. Nagel does not reject the neo-Darwinian story of reality, he simply recognizes how incomplete it is in terms of what it can explain. He does not reject a naturalistic description of reality, he is merely longing for one that can explain the immaterial realities of the conscious, rational mind.

As a final comment, I would like to make a connection between Nagel’s premise in Mind and Cosmos and critiques offered against natural theology. The writings of Paul Moser are an important caution for the evidential apologists of the limitations of evidence.[14] Thomas Nagel is committed to atheism. He is so committed that the most compelling evidence against neo-Darwinism and in favor of alternative explanations drives him to imagine laws of nature that inject the effect of a creator (teleology) while denying His necessity. Similar to the observation by Popper of “promissory materialism” (there will be a material explanation of everything, someday), Nagel has pinned his hopes on promissory metaphysics that will explain the immaterial without believing in the transcendent.

[1] This response is primarily seen in the concept of substance dualism. It should be noted there are a variety of views within philosophy of mind. Dualism is an example that is consistent with historical Christian theism.

[2] Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2012), 5.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] Ibid., 11.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] Ibid., 71.

[7] Ibid., 44.

[8] Ibid., 53.

[9] Ibid., 22.

[10] Ibid., 66.

[11] Ibid., 93.

[12] See the Partnership view as discussed in Richard F. Carlson et al., Science & Christianity: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000).

[13] Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, 12.

[14] Brad Seeman, ed., “Symposium on Paul Moser’s Religious Epistemology,” Philosophia Christi 14, no. 2 (2012): 263–311.


Ken Mann is a graduate student in Biola’s Science and Religion program. Ken is a software engineer by way of vocation, a physicist by way of education, and a devout follower of Jesus Christ, in his words, by necessity. Ken is the Chapter Director of Ratio Christi at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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  1. A wonderfully lucid and helpful review, Holly. Your reflections are an important point of departure for people of faith who care deeply about the ongoing dialogue with seekers who frame their reflections with intellectual rigor. I was moved by your description of Dr. Nagel’s search for ultimate answers…

  2. Holly Ordway says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Kevin! I can’t take credit for this excellent review, though – it’s by Ken Mann. I really appreciate his thoughtful assessment of Nagel’s book.

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