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.