Thomas Nagel. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 144 pp. $24.95.
Reading Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos propelled me back to a haunting phone interview with Nobel Laureate George Wald, professor emeritus at Harvard University. To frame Nagel’s ideas, let me share that memory.
The purpose of my call that day in 1988 was to see if Wald was standing firm on his shocking turnabout of thought: claiming a central role for “mind” in understanding the cosmos. Indeed, I found Wald to be enthusiastic about his shift in perspective. He was animated as we discussed his 1984 article, “Life and Mind in the Universe,”1 in which he veered radically from his role as champion of naturalistic scenarios of life’s origin.
New ideas had crept into Wald’s thinking, leading him to elevate mind as a fundamental key to reality. Just examine his 1984 abstract: “Consciousness seems to me to be wholly impervious to science. It does not lie as an indigestible element within science, but just the opposite: Science is the highly digestible element within consciousness, which includes science as a limited but beautifully definable territory within the much wider reality of whose existence we are conscious.”
Wald then pivots to the “fine-tuning of the universe” and points to the role of mind there also:
How is it that, with so many other apparent options, we are in a Universe that possesses just that peculiar nexus of properties that breeds life? It has occurred to me lately—I must confess with some shock at first to my scientific sensibilities—that both [consciousness and cosmic origins] might be brought into some degree of congruence. This is with the assumption that mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always, as the matrix, the source and condition of physical reality—that the stuff of which physical reality is composed is mind-stuff. It is mind that has composed a physical Universe that breeds life, and so eventually evolves creatures that know and create: science-, art-, and technology-making animals. In them the universe begins to know itself.
So Wald maintained an evolutionary scenario of development, yet certainly parted ways with Darwin. He gave a decisive though mysterious role to an independently existing “mind” behind it all. There was no hint of having embraced theism, though he did confess to being influenced by Eastern religious philosophy.2
Wald’s Speculation Comes of Age in Nagel
Fast forward to June 2012. The internet is buzzing because Thomas Nagel, a highly respected philosopher accomplished in topics as diverse as law and animal consciousness, has published a bombshell. This book, so very reminiscent of Wald’s ideas, proposes that scientists launch a new system of explanation, a whole new mind-friendly Weltanschauung that will carve out a place for purposeful “teleological principles” to account for the many phenomena that neo-Darwinism has failed to explain. Such puzzles include the biological realities of the origin of life (including the origin of advanced animal diversity and complexity), as well as phenomena in Nagel’s area of specialization: consciousness, cognition, and values.
Nagel’s outspoken stance wasn’t a complete surprise. The professor of philosophy and law at New York University had already sent out some anti-Darwinian signals, including an article, “Public Education and Intelligent Design.” Fortunately, the criticism he received for his pro-Intelligent Design (ID) comments didn’t deter him from fleshing out a book-length treatment of his thought.3 It’s slender (126 pages of text), and Oxford University Press dared to use the title Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. The shock of the title is bolstered by the fact that a renowned philosopher who believes his atheism is as strong as ever would so openly challenge the assumption that scientific materialism and neo-Darwinism provide robust explanations for the origin and diversity of life.
Strong Appreciation of ID
In the introduction, Nagel voices sympathy with the skepticism of “reductionism” in science that’s expressed by leading ID scholars. As an atheist, he rejects ID’s proposed solution—an intelligent cause—but strongly appreciates ID scholarship. What’s more, he’s evaluated the responses from the Darwinist side and found them wholly unconvincing. This comment is typical:
In thinking about these questions I have been stimulated by criticisms of the prevailing scientific world picture from a very different direction: the attack on Darwinism mounted in recent years . . . by the defenders of intelligent design. Even though writers like Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer are motivated at least in part by their religious beliefs, the empirical arguments they offer against the likelihood that the origin of life and its evolutionary history can be fully explained by physics and chemistry are of great interest in themselves. . . . Even if one is not drawn to the alternative of an explanation by the actions of a designer, the problems that these iconoclasts pose for the orthodox scientific consensus should be taken seriously. They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair.
So there are massive problems the academic orthodoxy has swept under the explanatory rug—major realities that can’t be explained by mere appeals to laws of physics and chemistry and the like. Among Nagel’s key issues are (1) a credible explanation for life itself (beginning with the horrendous complexity of a single cell), (2) consciousness, and (3) reason and cognition—verifying and embracing what Nagel calls “correct answers.”
At this point, when arguing for the transcendent reality of cognitive thought, Nagel is at his best. He writes, “This, then, is what a theory of everything has to explain: not only the emergence from a lifeless universe of reproducing organisms and their development by evolution to greater and greater functional complexity; not only the consciousness of some of those organisms and its central role in their lives; but also the development of consciousness into an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value.”
To read Nagel’s discussion of reductionist science accounting for these parts of nature is a déjà vu moment, turning one back to the beginning of C. S. Lewis’s Miracles. Those opening chapters point to human reason as a potent clue for a theistic worldview—a perspective that views “nature” as sitting beside “supernature,” where Reason has its home in the uncreated Creator of nature.
In fact, the similarity between Lewis’s critique of naturalism (concerning the reasoning ability of our minds) and Nagel’s critique nearly 70 years later is quite striking. Yet what is equally striking is how widely the two writers diverge in their proposed solutions. On the one hand, Lewis points to a great primordial source of Reason—the God of supernature—from whom our smaller human reasoning ability derives. Nagel, on the other hand, admits to a strong aversion to theism, preferring instead the idea that “mind is not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature.” In other words, mind is part of a newer, radically expanded notion of nature. It was when reading such lines that I sensed the strong connection with Wald’s weird scientific heresy that likewise saw a princely role of the mind in the hierarchy of nature, but balked at the theistic hints.
In effect, having tossed aside the notion of a personal designer and ruler of nature, Nagel seeks to inaugurate a new philosophical-scientific program of discovering the exact nature of this distributed mind. As to his rejection of theism, he never articulates the reasons why, but one can fill in the blank somewhat by reviewing his “fear” of the existence of God, articulated in his 1997 book The Last Word. His longing for a single fabric of nature, with mind and matter somehow interwoven together as part of a great intelligible unity, recalls the vision of Wald. And this move is understandable. At the same time, Christian philosophers would argue that a biblical worldview can provide an equally elegant explanation—a hierarchical unity of Creator with his created cosmos. So here we face an explanatory stalemate with Judeo-Christianity on the one side, and Wald-Nagelanity on the other.
Yet the stalemate is broken in two ways. First, one can ask, “Where is Nagel’s careful evaluation of the theistic option?” Sadly, it’s nowhere to be found, just as Wald declined to broach the subject. Second, there is an incoherence to Nagel’s sketched system of mind-principles. In what sense would such embedded principles really deserve the label “mind” at all? He’s suggesting the existence of distributed non-material stuff (spirit?), and, if such a thing exists, what are its theistic and non-theistic characteristics? Ultimately, what is it about this mysterious realm that truly merits the name “mind”?
From the vantage of natural history, if there is a hypothetical effective mind that (as Nagel says) can influence the choice of an ideal set of chemical letters to form coherent genetic information—so as to create life and higher animal brain complexity—then why would such a mind choose to crawl through the painstaking process of gradualistic evolution to produce that variety of life? Also, why would Nagel maintain such a “descent with modification” scenario—one that the fossils so dramatically fail to document at the highest taxonomic levels (the phyla)?
In spite of these reservations with Nagel’s proposed solution, his book marshals a powerful and unforgettable set of arguments. His table holds a scrumptious mind feast that should stir wide discussion in the academic towers of philosophy and science as well as in the halls of theology, apologetics, and ethics. Mind and Cosmos should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to understand why Darwinism is exhausting its explanatory powers; in other words, the book does its part in “arousing from dogmatic slumber” anyone who assumes that all is well in Darwin-land. We are witnessing the reincarnation—and further development—of George Wald’s heresy that just wouldn’t go away.
1 This article was published in 1984 in the International Journal of Quantum Chemistry (for a copy, contact firstname.lastname@example.org). Many remember Wald for his “Origin of Life” article in the May 1954 issue of Scientific American. Assembling the first cell from simple chemicals, Wald said, was no barrier for nature; “time is the hero of the plot.” Given enough time, the impossible becomes possible, and the possible becomes probable. Here is the rest of the quote from the article: “The time with which we have to deal is of the order of 2 billion years. What we regard as impossible on the basis of human experience is meaningless here. Given so much time, the ‘impossible’ becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probably virtualy certain. One has only to wait: time itself performs the miracles.”
2 When Wald discussed his views in a 1986 talk at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, many scientists in attendance quietly scoffed, but some were receptive. I possess a copy of a letter from biologist Jay Roth to Michael Denton, in which he recounts attending Wald’s talk and gives his sense of the audience reaction. Roth himself was positive, though the majority indicated a lack of enthusiasm for Wald’s thesis.
3 That Nagel would so provoke the scholarly world didn’t come as a total shock to those who followed his “Public Education and Intelligent Design (1998),” an essay not only sympathetic to ID scholarship but also strongly critical of Judge John E. Jones’s judgment in the “Kitzmiller Case” in Dover, Pennsylvania (Dec. 2005). Also, it was Nagel’s strong recommendation that landed Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell in the elite circle as one of the 2009 Books of the Year in The Times Literary Supplement in London.
Thomas E. Woodward, research professor at Trinity College of Florida in Tampa Bay, is the author of Doubts about Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design and Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design. He is founder and director of the C. S. Lewis Society and hosts the weekly radio program“The Universe Next Door.” A graduate of Princeton University and Dallas Theological Seminary, Woodward received his PhD from the University of South Florida in the rhetoric of science.