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In Defense of Nagel (Part One)

The Problem of Consciousness in a Corpuscular Cosmos: A Defense of Nagel and a Critique of the Mechanistic Metaphysics of Intelligent Design and Metaphysical Naturalism

In this four part series, I survey some of the reactions to Thomas Nagel’s recent book, Mind and Cosmos (2012), and use them to elucidate why most of them misunderstand his thesis; from there, I use Nagel’s writing as a springboard to give an overall critique of physicalist accounts of consciousness. I argue that Thomas Nagel’s tactical mistake was publicly sympathizing with the Intelligent Design Movement, but also note that the I.D. movement suffers from the same mechanistic metaphysics as does the materialist naturalism he critiques. I then give a defense of my defense with the role of philosophy in regards to science, and say Nagel’s actual intentions are best interpreted within the same framework of his celebratory 1974 essay, “What is it like to be a bat?” His point on the subjective life is that it cannot be accounted for by the scientific paradigm inherited from the early modern philosophers, which I recount. I then focus on intentionality as an example for why the human mind presents an insurmountable problem on principle for any reductionist or reductive naturalism. Afterwards, I reflect on what implications that Nagel’s call for a teleological theory of nature has for theism, given his avowed atheism.

Introduction: The Poor Reactions to Mind and Cosmos

A recent storm of controversy erupted among naturalist commentators when the philosopher Thomas Nagel published his book Mind and Cosmos (OUP: 2012). One only need to read the subtitle, Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, to understand why. The Guardian named Nagel’s book “the most despised science book of 2012.”1 Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg said in the subhead of their review that this “philosopher’s broadside against Darwinism and materialism is mostly an instrument of mischief.”2 One The New York Times journalist summarizes that “reviewers have given Mr. Nagel ample cause to ponder” the question of what it is like “to be an eminent (and avowedly atheist) philosopher accused of giving aid and comfort to creationist enemies of science.”3 It seems this philosopher has been unfortunately caught up in the American culture wars, specifically regarding the ideological conflicts surrounding contemporary evolutionary theory in popular culture. I find these reviewers have almost certainly missed Nagel’s main point.

Nagel’s Publicity Mistake: Publicly Sympathizing with the Intelligent Design Movement

Admittedly, Nagel has not made it easy for himself. In 2009, Nagel nominated the Intelligent Design theorist Stephen C. Meyer’s book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design,4 for The Times Book of the Year. This book, in Nagel’s own words, is “a detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter—something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin.”5 Even in Mind and Cosmos, he says he has “been stimulated” by “the attack on Darwinism mounted in recent years from a religious perspective by the defenders of intelligent design”, later saying that “the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude.”6 His actions of sympathy and praise for I.D. may make it difficult to then interpret the book carefully. “Although he states firmly that he does not believe in a deity, he has now come out against Darwinism”, Michael Ruse writes. He continues, “If Nagel is not a supporter of intelligent design, one wonders why he says what he does”, citing the recommendation of Meyer’s book as evidence that he is an anti-Darwinian.7

The phrase “intelligent design” can mean several things. Philosopher Francis Beckwith says it is, broadly speaking, “a shorthand name for a cluster of arguments that offer a variety of cases that attempt to show that intelligent agency rather than unguided matter better accounts for apparently natural phenomena or the universe as a whole. Some of these arguments challenge aspects of neo-Darwinism. Others make a case for a universe designed at its outset, and thus do not challenge any theory of biological evolution.”8 Examples of the former kind of argument comprise the Intelligent Design Movement, which includes among its members: Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Meyer9—who all try to “challenge aspects of neo-Darwinism.”

To take Meyer as a case study, concerning the origin of life with the origin of replicating information, his argument is that the life sciences like “biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics have come to a dead end” and so “the only reasonable scientific explanation now” is an inference “that the information inside of a cell is the product of an external mind.”10 This movement then draws as a second order argument that this designer of a specific biological artifact, found to have either specified complexity (qua Dembski), irreducible complexity (qua Behe), etc., is most plausibly interpreted as a creator deity. Hence Meyer says, “Those who believe in a transcendent God may, therefore, find support for their belief from the biological evidence that supports the theory of intelligent design.”11

An intelligent design argument, whether from biological or cosmological complexity, as a hypothesis per se is not the same as young earth or old earth creationism.12 Nagel’s mistake in the book is sympathizing with the anti-Darwinian arguments of I.D. and dealing with all its cultural baggage, thereby distracting readers from the main point of the book. He argues not that Neo-Darwinism is implausible; rather, that an ontological materialist conception of nature (which incorporates Modern Evolutionary Synthesis) is implausible.13 I find the confusion arises from seeing a critique of a mechanistic naturalist incorporation of Evolutionary Theory as a critique of Evolutionary Theory.14 Extreme voices often turn the philosophical debates into more sectarian rhetoric than rational analysis. As Michael Chorost writes,

Whatever the validity of [Nagel’s] stance, its timing was certainly bad. The war between New Atheists and believers has become savage, with Richard Dawkins writing sentences like, “I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sadomasochistic, and repellent. We should also dismiss it as barking mad…” In that climate, saying anything nice at all about religion is a tactical error.15

The appearance of publicly criticizing evolution in aid to religion will have cultural reactions.

Nagel’s Actual Intentions

It would also seem very odd that Nagel should primarily seek to give resources to theism, as he is an avowed atheist.16 He is definitely not arguing for intelligent design, even if he seems to sympathize with it by having a common ideological opponent: a mechanistic Neo-Darwinian conception of nature. Yet the Intelligent Design Movement suffers from the same mechanistic account of nature. As David Bentley Hart writes, I.D. holds a deistic “notion of the world as a wonderful machine, designed and fabricated by a particularly enterprising superhuman intellect.”17 A world conceived as the cosmic machine, a kind of artifact, whether the work of a deist clockmaker regarding complexity or superhuman computer scientist regarding information (physical or biological). For example, William Dembski, in his book, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities18 (considered the ideological textbook of the I.D. Movement for how to detect design in nature) says that an inference to design in nature is justified when competing hypotheses of necessity (physical law) and chance (mere initial conditions) are eliminated as highly improbable to explain the observed phenomena. By eliminating chance and necessity to explain some observed phenomenon, X, one supposedly has done away with the only naturalist explanations for the existence of that without recourse to agency. Such an inference, even if for only methodologically epistemological purposes, supposes no state of affairs in nature, like Aristotelian form and finality,19 can explain X.

Hence, Nagel says in his introduction to Mind and Cosmos that “I disagree with the defenders of intelligent design in their assumption, one which they share with their opponents, that the only naturalistic alternative is a reductionist theory based on physical laws of the type with which we are familiar.” Such a statement by Nagel presupposes that defenders of Intelligent Design affirm only one conception of nature, one which excludes an immanent Neo-Aristotelian teleology as a candidate theory of nature. Nagel ends his introduction saying that “if the appearance of conscious organisms in the world is due to principles of development that are not derived from the timeless laws of physics, that may be a reason for pessimism about purely chemical explanations of the origin of life as well.”20 This seeming scientific skepticism may dissuade readers to the view that Nagel is just up to the mischief Leiter and Weisberg say. Nagel’s main articulation is actually that given a) the irreducible intelligibility of the world, and b) the inability to give a reductive and reductionist material account21 of consciousness, human cognition, and values we perceive, his subheading is correct. If the current theory of nature is, on principle, going to be incomplete with the data, a new theory of nature is required—one with greater explanatory scope for the human mind. As Edward Feser reviews,

Nagel does not reject evolution per se, but only the standard reductionist interpretation of evolutionary processes. But neither does he embrace theistic evolution. (His atheism seems as firm as it was in his earlier book The Last Word, wherein he candidly wrote: “I want atheism to be true…”) His aim is rather to explore the possibility of a teleology or directedness that is inherent to the natural order rather than imposed from without and indeed to move away from the strictly mathematical and materialist conception of the natural order the early moderns bequeathed to us.22

Nagel’s main point is that there is something profound about us being able to observe the world we live in, “The world is an astonishing place, and the idea we have in our possession the basic tools needed to understand it is no more credible now than it was in Aristotle’s day. That is has produced you, and me, and the rest of us is the most astonishing thing about it.” That the objective physical world has produced subjects who perceive and discover its secrets, is something which requires an explanation. That our minds can do science to discover the Higgs Field and trace back the tree of life, i.e. that there is an intimate connection between the subjective life of the human being and the objective quantum and cosmic universe, cannot be accounted for by purely mechanical physicalist means. Rather, given “a fully mechanistic account of the origin and evolution of life, dependent only on the laws and chemistry of physics” as insufficient to account for the development of the subjective life, “this can combine with the failure of psychological reductionism to suggest that principles of a different kind are also at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic.”23 Nagel argues for a return to a teleological understanding of nature to give a fuller account of nature by being able to account for nature’s observers.


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Ryan Shinkel

Ryan Shinkel

Ryan Shinkel is a current undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, studying philosophy, creative writing, and literature. He aspires to be a philosopher and a writer. Ryan is a Christian believer. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, 'I am a Roman Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature, and a Burkean in politics.'

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