Thomas Nagel’s Apostasy: Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False

Some elite circles in the academic world are aflame with anger at the apostasy of one of their former darlings, a man who may be the most famous philosopher in America. Dr. Thomas Nagel has an endowed chair at New York University as a University Professor and has been praised for many years for his original scholarship. He is, naturally, a committed atheist. And yet he has created shock waves in the academic world with a book he published in 2012, a book that The Guardian recognized as the most despised book of the year. This book has the intriguing title, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.  I mentioned this book and the visceral reaction it has engendered in my previous post, “Faith, Reason, and the Resurrection.” Here I wish to further review its content.  

Nagel takes on the ambitious task of using his skills as a philosopher to challenge the way science applies it tools and its paradigms to make sense of the natural order, and particularly a universe that obviously enables the rise not just of life but of consciousness and the intangible values and systems that are integral to human life. The rise of life in any form he finds a difficult enough challenge for science to explain using the reigning paradigm of materialism. But Nagel finds the gap between the claims of science and common sense to be particularly severe when we then seek to explain how the random rise of life would then lead to conscious and reasoning creatures who can discuss and strive for concepts such as truth and justice. The rise of life is improbable enough, and Nagel finds it inherently unreasonable to rely on ever dwindling improbabilities as the answer for a universe that seems to be infused with purpose. As a confirmed atheist, Nagel feels that science must rise to the challenge more effectively and offer new models that better explain why the Cosmos that we experience appears to reverberate with this primal command: “Let there be life.” 

Then, most majestically, one more decree: “Let there be consciousness.” 

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 it cannot provide the basic form of intelligibility for this world. (p. 51)

Nagel’s apostasy lies in pointing out what that the reigning paradigm of materialism fails the common sense test. It fails to account for who we are and what we perceive. It fails to adequately address the mind-body problem or the many wonders of the mind, the power of our sense of right and wrong, and the ability we have to reason, ponder, strive for truth, and even change our behavior on the basis of that reasoned striving.

Nagel is profoundly skeptical that “the process of 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—as we take ourselves to have done and to continue to do collectively in science, logic, and ethics. Is it credible that selection for fitness in the prehistoric past should have fixed capacities that are effective in theoretical pursuits that were unimaginable at the time?”

This theme of Nagel’s has, of course, been treated by others from scientific and philosophical perspectives. I first encountered this problem in The Runway Brain. No, I’m not talking about the 1995 film about another serious but less common mind-body problem. Rather, I refer to the 1993 book, The Runaway Brain: The Evolution of Human Uniqueness by Christopher Wills, who offers the hypothesis that the influence of human culture helped create a feedback loop that has amplified the role of the brain and gradually led to our current thinking state with nothing but Darwinian means. An interesting, speculative, and unsatisfying read, though highly acclaimed, that I feel does not adequately appreciate the difficulty of the mind-body problem.

Here I must add my own skepticism. How can the pressures for survival that may have allowed one clan of cave dwellers to better escape predators than their neighbors—“ug, run!”—have resulted in minds that could, for example, compose Tang dynasty poetry that is then sung to delicate music and brushed with astonishing skill and beauty onto silk? The edge given by random mutations in the dog-eat-dog or tiger-eat-caveman world of natural selection leaves little room for such advanced mental machinery that do not directly relate to the task of not being eaten and passing on one’s genes. 

Scientists claim that their theories are up to the task, but the explanation so far is highly unsatisfactory. Can it do better? Can naturalistic means be proposed to account for reason and consciousness? Nagel believes it must be possible, and asks thinkers to recognize the problem more fully in order to formulate an answer. 

Nagel wants—perhaps desperately wants—science to better account for the “brute facts” of our existence, including the “creation of life from dead matter or the birth of consciousness, or reason” (p. 25). Nagel feels that the approach of materialism is not just incomplete, awaiting further refinements of its tools and data sets, but is inherently inadequate. It’s the wrong tool and is simply not up to the task, for “there is little or no possibility” that the brute facts of our existence “depend on nothing but the laws of physics” (p. 25). He does not see God or theistic Creation as a necessary answer, though admits that some of the arguments raised by supporters of intelligent design deserve more than just the scorn with which they are blindly dismissed. 

Nagel is a doubter who dares to challenge a ruling paradigm and the Establishment of reductionism, in which all aspects of our existence are reduced to nothing but the interactions of atoms and neurons according to the laws of physics. In making this challenge, he knows hostility will follow. “I realize 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” (p. 7). The browbeating and the war on heretical views  is not unique to science in my view but includes many fields, but the alleged findings of science are widely cited to give authority to the reigning paradigm, often without really grasping what science really can and cannot yet say. As for the hostility Nagel faces, it may be widespread but I suspect Nagel is prepared and capable of dealing with it. Fortunately, it’s not as angry as if he had come out in favor of traditional marriage as did another popular author, Orson Scott Card, nor as surprising, intense, and well-deserved as the reaction of Truman Capote’s elite friends to his publication of Answered Prayers, a vicious volume of gossip. Nagel’s work of scholarship still is daring and may cost him dearly over time, though I think the fires of the current Inquisition will die down quickly and just leave him lightly scorched. 

Part of the problem recognized by Nagel is that the materialistic, neo-Darwinian attempt to explain our existence cannot account for the natural conviction that there is such a thing as moral standards or truth.   The materialist approach “implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends” (p. 27). 

There are other issues, such as the vast improbabilities for the rise of DNA. The authority of science is not enough, in his view, to force us to suspend our common sense about the majesty and wonder of life and consciousness. But he is not thumping a Bible or calling upon God as an explanation for anything.  Nagel explains that, “My skepticism is not based on religious belief, or on a  belief in any definite alternative. It is just a belief that the available scientific evidence, in spite of the consensus of scientific opinion, does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense. That is especially true with regard to the origin of life” (p. 6). The origin of life lacks the benefit of natural selection as a mechanism for evolutionary advance, so how can the majestic rise of the remarkable genetic mechanisms behind natural selection be accounted for without relying on wondrously minute probabilities guiding the steps toward life? Nagel is asking fair and, for many, rather irritating questions. 

And to complete the link with physics, the explanation has to suppose that there is a nonnegligible probability that some sequence of steps, starting from nonliving matter and depending on purely physical mechanisms, could eventually have resulted in a replicating molecule capable of all this, embodying a precise code billions of characters long, together with the ribosomes that translate that code into proteins. It is not enough to say, “Something had to happen, so why not this?” I find the confidence among the scientific establishment that the whole scenario will yield to a purely chemical explanation hard to understand, except as a manifestation of an axiomatic commitment to reductive materialism. (p. 46) 

And again, explaining consciousness adds an entirely new dimension of difficulty to the problem. 

Nagel hopes that some purpose-based explanation may be found and calls upon the academic community to recognize the limitations of the tools previously applied, to be more humble in confronting the unsolved mysteries of life and consciousness, and to take on the real challenges before them. I hope his message will be considered and not merely dismissed and scorned, but prospects for that may be low right now. I suppose further scientific revelations about the majesty and improbability of life may be needed to bring about the hoped-for revolution in science. Meanwhile, as a Latter-day Saint, I also look forward to further insights from any source on the miraculous life we experience and the marvels of existence and consciousness. From the perspective of a lowly engineer, when I contemplate the grandeur in the design of the cosmos, of stars, of this planet and its life forms, and of the human mind, that it was even possible to find solutions to all the problems and conflicting constraints, that it was even possible to tailor the material properties of matter to make all this possible, still simply floors me. 

Author: Jeff Lindsay

13 thoughts on “Thomas Nagel’s Apostasy: Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False

  1. Thanks, Jeff. A great write up and analysis, as usual. I just realized I've been reading your blogs since 1997. Holy cow.

  2. Science liberated from God and morality is a brutal master. Some of the most violent and oppressive regimes in history have been proud of their scientific approach and relied on "science" for their crimes. Science is not the right tool to apply in making judgements about life and death issues. Science needs to be more humble and more aware of its limitations.

  3. Very interesting.

    A lot of Nagel's questions could be inconclusively explored within the boundaries of Mormon thought itself. There are two views of God coexisting within Mormonism that aren't fully reconciled with each other: 1. God is an advanced engineer who mastered preexistent laws of nature with his intelligence. 2. God is the author of nature's laws; they weren't preexistent but came from God's will. View #2 has some support in the standard works, D&C 88 for example. View 1 is nevertheless widely held by Mormons and has roots in the idea that God was once a mortal man and became God by mastering certain principles. If one subscribes to view #1, then many of Nagel's questions remain unanswered within Mormon thought. Personally, I think view #2 doesn't explain all that much either because it only transfers questions about the existence of consciousness from "How did my consciousness come into being?" to "How did God's consciousness come into being?" The question of where moral laws come from is just as difficult to answer in Mormonism. Euthyphro's dilemma is just as applicable within Mormonism as any other theistic religion: is something moral because God commands it, or does God command it because it's moral?

    Thanks for the interesting post, Jeff. I just want to point out that theism in general or Mormon theism in particular does not adequately resolve all of Nagel's questions.

    1. Personally, I don't believe that the view God brought the laws of the universe into existence is really supported in LDS scripture. This misconception lies in confusing the laws which God instituted for the salvation of mankind with the physical laws of nature. Logically, the laws of God have to conform to the laws of nature, but they are two completely different things. The laws of God are said to be eternal only because there are no other conditions for salvation.

  4. What Nagel objects to, as I see it, is the violation by today's scientific dogma of Einstein's directive to make things as simple as possible, but not simpler – they've been made much too simple.

    After this life, we'll find that everything is, in fact, natural, including God. We'll find that we can't explain how intelligence is created because it is not created – it simply exists.

    Richard Dawkins illustrates a common error of science in Ben Stein's movie "Expelled", when he says: "That designer may well be a higher intelligence from elsewhere in the universe, but then that higher intelligence would itself had to [have] come about by some explicable, or ultimately explicable, process. He couldn't have just spontaneously jumped into existence, that's the point." He misses the boat when he assumes there must be a beginning, a first God. There is no beginning, thus no need for a first God to have sprung into existence.

  5. Yes, Anthony, I have similar thoughts after reading Nagel and think there really is room for some deeper discussion of what we really can deduce from the miniscule data we have. Accounting for the majesty of the basic laws and properties of matter needs to be done, or at least we need to recognize how majestic these properties are. Nagel's teleological approach may need to be taken up in the end. Heavy stuff. The cosmos really appears to have been designed, marvelously tailored, to provide for the possibility of intelligent life. It seems obvious that God must be responsible for that, not just a result of it. There is much to speculate on here – I will refrain.

  6. What amazes me is this book was released just three weeks after Rupert Sheldrake's "Science Set Free" ("The Science Delusion" in the UK). Google for the Youtube video, which was a TEDx talk but thrown under the bus due to vocal critics.

    Dr Nigel covers much the same ground, but with some emphasis on consciousness.

    Stuart Hameroff has some great explanations of consciousness that I think tie into Sheldrake's work. The picture that emerges, for me, is that the creative process is a stream of consciousness, and that all living things in having a consciousness that is part of God yet striving in creative endeavor evolve ever more complexity and intelligence, Moses and Darwin were both correct. One school of thought separates God and his creation, the other doesn't.

    And thanks for distinguishing neo-Darwinism from Darwinism. I don't think Darwin would approve of the former.

  7. I love how you present this. As a physicist the origin of intelligent life and life in general has always been fascinating to me. In my years of studying and theorizing I've stumbled upon a possible solution for all of the questions presented in this post and many more–and it's perfectly consistent with currently accepted science and interestingly enough the Gospel too. Anyway, no one I've talked to seems to care much about it though–so I've moved on with my life. I hope that someday others will come to understand that dead matter is not what makes intelligence, but 'intelligence' is what makes matter.

  8. This seems like a classic god of the gaps proposal here. The idea is that science has not yet figured it out there fore God did it. Looking back in history this has never proved to be a good position for religion to take. It takes a bigger man to admit temporary ignorance than to claim knowledge in absentia. Faith is not knowledge that's why it's called faith.

  9. Sounds like a classic atheist response. Actually, the idea is not that science hasn't provided an explanation for the origin of life, it's that the explanation which it has provided is a completely inadequate one. The current scientific view fails to account for many things for which religion provides a more plausible explanation, albeit not a scientific one. It's not just about the gaps, but also all of the inadequacies in between.

  10. So just because the answers in science aren't quite adequate yet I'm supposed to pick a religion and believe on faith that it's true until science proves otherwise?


    Apostasy denial is one of Satan many deceptions.
    Satan told Eve that she would not die if she ate from the forbidden tree. Eve ate and died, and Satan is still lying today.

    Hebrews 6:4-6 When you find men who have been enlightened, who have experienced salvation and received the Holy Spirit, who have known the wholesome nourishment of the Word of God and touched the spiritual resources of the eternal world and who then fall away, it proves impossible to make them repent as they did at first. For they are re-crucifying the Son of God in their own souls, and by their conduct exposing him to shame and contempt.(The New Testament in Modern English by J.B. Phillips)

    Hebrews 6:4-6 But what about people who turn away after they have already seen the light and have received the gift from heaven and have shared in the Holy Spirit? What about those who turn away after they have received the good message of God and the powers of the future world? There is no way to bring them back. What they are doing is the same as nailing the Son of God to a cross and insulting him in public!(Contemporary English Version)

    Hebrews 6:4-6 After people have left the way of Christ, can you make them change their lives again? I am talking about people who once learned the truth, received God’s gift, and shared in the Holy Spirit. They were blessed to hear God’s good message and see the great power of his new world. But then they left it all behind, and it is not possible to make them change again. That’s because those who leave Christ are nailing him to the cross again, shaming him before everyone.(ERV-Easy to Read Version)

    Hebrews 6:4-6 It is impossible to restore the changed heart of the one who has fallen from faith—who has already been enlightened, has tasted the gift of new life from God, has shared in the power of the Holy Spirit, and has known the goodness of God’s revelation and the powers of the coming age. If such a person falls away, it’s as though that one were crucifying the Son of God all over again and holding Him up to ridicule.(THE VOICE)

    It takes a skilled professional, and willing subjects, to convince men that apostasy does not apply to Christians.


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