Thomas Nagel’s “Mind & Cosmos”, published in 2012, is almost certainly the book that has garnered the most attention over the last couple years in the God debate; and it has thus become required reading for those of us who are immersed in that milieu. My encounters with the book have primarily come through the off-handed endorsements of Christian apologists. It has become a weapon of choice for defense of the theistic worldview. Conversely, the naturalists were quick to call foul. Most famously, Steven Pinker called it “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” Deeply critical negative reviews abounded and those who rushed to Nagel’s defense were quick to suggest that he was, in an ironic twist, being treated like a heretic by the clergy of the church of science. With all of this in mind, my goal was to approach this book via the middle road, as someone seeking truth wherever it may be found. There’s no doubt that I am flawed and biased, but I honestly hope that I came to the text with an open mind.
So what is all the fuss about? Perhaps the subtitle of the book says enough: “Why the materialist neo-darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.” That’s a pretty bold statement which, when viewed through the lens of the God debate, clearly lands in the theist’s camp. Furthermore, students of apologetics will quickly recognize that the content bears a striking resemblance to some of the key objections to naturalism that have been levied by the likes of C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga and J.P. Moreland. The primary difference here is that Nagel’s work does not go on to endorse a theistic solution.
Nagel spends the first two chapters of the book – about 30 pages – outlining the high-level view of his concerns with naturalism. It is here that he introduces us to the “failure of psychophysical reductionism” and identifies three ways in which this failure is realized: in theories of consciousness, cognition, and value – each of which serve as the titles for the substance of the argument in the next three chapters. By this point the territory had grown familiar and I couldn’t help but wonder whether Nagel was fully aware that his thesis mirrors three of the most philosophically prominent arguments for the existence of God. He cites contemporary secular philosophers, such as Sharon Street, as his primary interlocutors yet on the theistic side we get little more than a single footnote reference to Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies”. Whereas the apologetic versions of these arguments essentially all boil down to “Nature cannot produce (or access) X, thus God.”, Nagel is affirming everything before the comma and leaving everything after as an open question; though he does prod us toward accepting the possibility of an impersonalforce. Nevertheless, allow me to summarize his points and show how they couple into the case for theism.
Here we find Nagel reaffirming ‘the hard problem of consciousness’, as he has done in the past. In his 1974 essay “What is it like to be a bat?” he closed with the statement that “it seems unlikely that any physical theory of mind can be contemplated until more thought has been given to the general problem of subjective and objective.” 38 years later, this chapter takes it a step farther and suggests that the subjective cannot be reduced to the physical:
“if Ψ [a mental event] really is Φ [a physical event] in this sense, and nothing else, then Φ [a physical event] by itself, once its physical properties are understood, should likewise be sufficient for the taste of sugar, the feeling of pain, or whatever it is supposed to be identical with. But it doesn’t seem to be. It seems conceivable, for any Φ [physical event], that there should be Φ [a physical event] without any experience at all” (pg 41).
In the next section this conclusion is then applied to the evolutionary story:
“Since a purely materialist explanation cannot do this [explain the appearance of conscious organisms], the materialist version of evolutionary theory cannot be the whole truth” (pg 45).
To put it briefly, the ‘hard problem’ amounts to the difficulty we have in translating the experiential (qualia) to the descriptive, and it seems clear that any physical explanation is inherently descriptive. To this the theist agrees and then asks, “What now?” The God answer has most notably been advanced by Richard Swinburne (see The Existence of God) and J.P. Moreland (see Consciousness and the Existence of God).
Disclaimer: These two books are on my list but I have not yet read them and am working from the content available online. Reader beware (even though I may have stumbled into full versions of the texts).
These heavyweights of Christian philosophy propose that consciousness is not only incompatible with a purely physical cause but that its very nature begs for a personal cause that is itself conscious. Why? To quote Moreland,
“on a theistic metaphysic, one already has an instance of consciousness and other mental entities, e.g. an unembodied mind, in God. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that ﬁnite consciousness or other mental entities should exist in the world. However, on a naturalist view, mental entities are so strange and out of place that their existence (or regular correlation with physical entities) deﬁes adequate explanation. There appear to be two realms operating in causal harmony and theism provides the best explanation of this fact.”
Swinburne starts with the same assumption and then makes this being personal and gives him motivation for creating us by appealing to the moral capacity of conscious beings, wherein beings which can choose to do good are a valuable addition to the universe. Good activities include relationship and love and so the origin of consciousness should have these qualities as well.
If we grant that consciousness cannot arise from the physical then I honestly think I would favor the apologist’s proposition. If consciousness truly is something fundamentally significant and distinct from physical reality then explaining its origin in terms of an advanced, transcendent consciousness seems more sensible than positing a disinterested or unintentional source. This may not get us to a particular formulation of what that transcendent consciousness is, but it leads the way to further discussion. Regardless, the obstacle lies in that first clause – in establishing the failure of the naturalist account.
“We take ourselves to have the capacity to form true beliefs … We don’t take these capacities to be infallible, but we think they are often reliable, in an objective sense, … human life assumes that there is a real world … and that there are norms of thought which, if we follow them, will tend to lead us toward the correct answers. It assumes that to follow those norms is to respond correctly … It is difficult to make sense of all this in traditional naturalistic terms.” (pg 72)
Nagel goes on to grant that it does make sense from an evolutionary perspective for our faculties to accurately represent the world. Even more, he cogently describes the standard evolutionary explanation for cognition through the adaptive benefits of the mental faculties that enable us to generalize and symbolize and, at the end, acknowledges that the story as a whole is not impossible. Section 3 then commences with the deconstruction.
The first criticism raised is the circularity of reliance on our reasoning. He points out – and correctly so, in my opinion – that when we evaluate the evolutionary story and find it to be an adequate explanation of our capacity for reason, we are in fact relying on that very explanation in the process. The second shot is aimed at our ability to discern truth. Whereas consciousness may render a generally accurate picture of our immediate environment, reason allows us to step out of our subjectivity and compare and contrast data from an objective standpoint to locate truth. The reasons why we might see this as an obstacle to physical explanation are less clear and largely intuitive: “it does seem to be something that cannot be given a purely physical analysis and therefore, … cannot be given a purely physical explanation.”
Not long ago I read C.S. Lewis’ Miracles. The first half of the book says very little about miracles and purposes instead to set the stage for the allowance of the supernatural. His central argument for the existence of something which transcends the material was an examination of argument from reason (which is actively defended by Victor Reppert at dangerousidea.blogspot.com). The argument can be summarized as “How can the rational come from the irrational?” It builds upon our intuition, crafted by our experience, that the unconscious world is generally not oriented toward truth. Nothing in random natural processes seems to work toward discerning correctness. Why should evolution have ended up with something that did?and our ability to utilize it. This has come to be known as the
Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism argues the same position with a bit more philosophical depth and with the addition of the circularity observation that Nagel poses. I already discussed this argument a bit in a review of “Where the Conflict Really Lies”, so I won’t rehash that here. Regardless, both Lewis and Plantinga go on to suggest that if reason cannot be explained by the physical realm then the most sensible conclusion is that its presence in our world has its origin with something that is itself capable of reason, and which values rationality, and thus bestows that value upon us. Again, I find that this is a reasonable option if we agree that rationality necessarily transcends the physical. As before, it may not be the only conclusion but it is a strong and viable candidate.
Nagel’s final concern with the physicalist paradigm rests on value realism. His opening section again acknowledges that the target, this time the subjectivist account of value, is “not flagrantly implausible.” The subsequent section continues to discuss the distinction between subjectivism and value realism and then interestingly closes with a concession about the case for value realism:
“There is no crucial experiment that will establish or refute realism about value… Positive support for realism can come only from the fruitfulness of evaluative and moral thought in producing results, including corrections of beliefs formerly widely held and the development of new and improved methods and arguments over time. The realist interpretation of what we are doing in thinking about these things can carry conviction only if it is a better account than the subjectivist or social-constructivist alternative, and that is always going to be a comparative question and a matter of judgment.” (pg 104-105)
This seems to indicate that he thinks that our recognition of progress is the best indicator of value realism; but he also recognizes that the identification of progress is itself subjective. Ultimately Nagel grants that his grounding for the objectivity of value is purely an intuitive feeling and, as such, very little time is spent defending that conclusion. Instead, Nagel spends the next couple chapters outlining his agreement with Sharon Street in her proposal that a purely Darwinian account of evolution is incompatible with value realism (see A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value).
It’s probably painfully obvious how this relates to the theistic worldview. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb if I propose that the moral argument is among the two or three most important and widespread arguments for God’s existence. It was a favorite of C.S. Lewis, and nearly every apologist thereafter. Francis Collins indicated that it was the key factor in his conversion. Briefly, the moral argument says that moral value exists independent of our opinion. Some things, like the oft cited “torturing babies for fun”, are truly wrong regardless of what we think. The theists then take the next step and ask where these moral truths come from. They do not appear to be a material part of the world and yet regularly guide our actions and serve as the explanatory foundation of our reasoning – which is the key to the theists proposition. When we keep asking why, we will usually eventually hit a wall made entirely of value judgments. If the answers to the “why” questions are not found in the answers to the “how” questions, and we are the only part of the physical realm which seems to care about the “why”, then the origin of those values is reasonably accounted for in something capable of valuing – something intentional and teleologically motivated.
For the sake of argument, lets grant the assumption of moral realism. When I take this stance, I am compelled to agree with the problems it poses for a undirected evolutionary account of our moral disposition. As I thus proceed to examine the alternative explanations for its existence, here again I find myself appreciating the theistic answer. Why? Because value seems to be intrinsically tied to intention, and intention infers purpose and an agent pursuing that purpose. If value is independent of humanity then it makes sense that it be grounded in something that retains intention and purpose. Without this, it would seem, value loses its value.
But, in the end, I am unpersuaded. As indicated by the quotes from the book, the rejection of the naturalist explanation appears to be intuitively driven speculation on what is possible within the framework. Yes, the naturalist position on these topics is also speculative, but it is utilizing the world as we know it and trying to minimize additional assumptions. Accordingly, there are several points of momentum carrying the naturalist explanation, and I contend that the current is strong:
- There is a continuum of mental faculties in the animal kingdom. It seems that we can incrementally walk down the chain of neural complexity until the brain essentially becomes a scrutable set of chemical reactions. There is no obvious reason why we should draw a line somewhere and start assigning significance.
- Neuroscience has made it abundantly clear that the mental is, at the very least, co-dependent on physical aspects of the brain. If this much is indisputable then it seems extraneous to postulate something more when there is a readily identifiable explanation for our lack of complete understanding; namely the complexity and inaccessibility of the living brain. The insistence that qualia cannot be reduced to the physical seems to be begging the question. See my brief comment on the ontology of qualia for more on the relation between the physical and the mental.
- The naturalist program hinges on regularity. So far, in the course of history, we have identified regularities in the underlying explanation of nearly everything and the only exceptions bear the distinction of unresolved complexity – we see the regularity of the underlying parts, but have not unraveled their cumulative behavior. We have not yet, to my knowledge, identified anything which is simple yet . Is it not reasonable to suspect that this trend will continue? If there truly is a teleology shaping the world then it is an odd coincidence that it only manifests within instances of unresolved complexity.
- Aside from the possibility that the physical parameters of the universe were fine-tuned at its birth, the universe as a whole does not obviously have the appearance of one in which a powerful, directive force or being is actively working toward the goal of consciousness, cognition and value. Conversely, the universe is overwhelmingly void of these things and seems indifferent to their permanence. It is conceivable that there are universes in which the life that sustains consciousness, cognition and value is less fragile, or in which the environment better supports that life. If Nagel’s teleologic force is constrained in its capabilities, or if I have misapprehended the possible set of life valuing universes, then this objection would disappear.
Accordingly, I simply do not see how a non-teleological evolutionary theory fails to enable consciousness, cognition and value. Physical reproduction is inherently dependent on the acquisition and manipulation of material that is external to the replicating being. A reproductive process which never replenished or adopted outside material would quickly come to an end. This means that accurate interaction with the outside world is imperative to reproductive success. Any system which does this better than its ancestor is more likely to flourish. Accordingly, what may have started as the most simple of interactive functions would be expected to improve as change creeps in. Eventually, the combination of consciousness and cognition yields the coordination of multiple external stimuli, an increased sample size by incorporating past experience, the projection of the past to the future to guide anticipatory motor control, and a generally accurate inference of the external world beyond our immediate perception. The associative machinery in our brain builds links based on real world input and so, when those links strengthen one interpretation over another, we favor it as truth. As more experience and information is added to those links the probabilities of aligning with truth increases and we gain an advantage in navigating the world. Finally, add the development of an innate bias toward that which is most beneficial to our survival and reproduction and out pops “value”. To top it all off, if those values are rooted in a common ancestry then they will be perceptually objective to the descendents.
The most inescapable criticism of this “just-so story” lies within the circularity of the naturalistic origins of our capacity to reason. I contend, however, that this is not limited to the naturalist. Everybody, it would seem, is trapped in this vicious circle. We necessarily start from a position of pragmatic reliance on our rational capacities and form our theory of its origin thereafter. Where the naturalist says “it’s reliable because it benefits survival”, the theist says “it’s reliable because God would not deceive”. Both parties have assumed the reliability of their cognition as a prerequisite to determining why it is reliable.
There is also definitely an intuitive appeal to the doubt that rationality can in some way arise from the irrational. Furthermore, this isn’t a concern that the naturalist can expunge with new evidence and further discovery. If the naturalistic explanation is true then this objection is here to stay and will only be reinforced as we learn more. I do not see, however, why it necessarily renders the story invalid. If all the evidence falls in line then we just have to accept where it points. Diverging from the evidence is a far less attractive option.
I commend Nagel for his continued willingness to think outside the box, go against the grain and challenge our assumptions. We all need to do this on a regular basis and society will never progress without those select few who break from the status quo. Even so, those ventures are only successful if they correspond with the reality of our world. It’s possible that I am among the masses who have been caught up in a false current and I am simply unable to see that I have been blinded to the faults of the “materialist neo-darwinian conception of nature” but, if that is so, then Mind & Cosmos has done nothing to snatch me from the rapids.