Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False

Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (2012) has caused quite a stir. Maria Popova at Brain Pickings finds “Nagel’s case for weaving a historical perspective into the understanding of mind particularly compelling.” She sees it as “a necessary thorn in the side of today’s all-too-prevalent scientific reductionism and a poignant affirmation of Isaac Asimov’s famous contention that ‘the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.'”

While Louis B. Jones argues in the ThreePenny Review that Nagel’s “project seems like a glance in the right direction,” P.N. Furbank, in the same review article, argues that he is “fatally unspecific,” “impalpable,” and “reckless.”

Edward Fesser at First Things declares that Nagel’s work “marks an important contribution to the small but significant Aristotelian revival currently underway in academic philosophy of science and metaphysics.”

Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg over at The Nation find Nagel’s argument perplexing, quixotic, unconvincing, and highly misleading; his book is declared “an instrument of mischief.”

John Dupré at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews also found the book “frustrating and unconvincing.”

Alva Noë, in a series of articles for NPR, “Are the Mind and Life Natural?,” “Moving Beyond Political Correctness,” and “Arguing the Nature of Values,” rejects some of Nagel’s convictions, but also finds Leiter and Weisberg’s review “superficial and unsatisfying.” It is, in the end, a “worthwhile” book.

Philosopher Simon Blackburn’s review in New Statesmen find’s Nagel’s confession to “finding things bewildering” quite charming. But ultimately regrets its appearance. “It will only bring comfort to creationists and fans of ‘intelligent design,'” he says, and “if there were a philosophical Vatican, the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index.”

Alvin Plantinga, whose own Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (2011) sits beside Nagel’s book on my bookshelf, argues in the New Republic that Nagel makes a strong and persuasive case against materialist naturalism. According to Plantinga, “if Nagel followed his own methodological prescriptions and requirements for sound philosophy, if he followed his own arguments wherever they lead, if he ignored his emotional antipathy to belief in God, then (or so I think) he would wind up a theist.”

More recently, John Horgan at The Globe and Mail, states he shares “Nagel’s view of science’s inadequacies,” but was disappointed by his dry, abstract style. Like Popova, Horgan recommends Nagel’s book “as a much-needed counterweight to the smug, know-it-all stance of many modern scientists.”

Adam Frank at NPR sees “Nagel’s arguments against Darwin…[as] a kind wishful thinking.” Nevertheless, he finds his “perspective bracing.” “[O]nce I got past Nagel’s missteps on Darwin,” Frank writes, “I found his arguments to be quite brave, even if I am not ready to follow him to the ends of his ontology. There is a stiff, cold wind in his perspective. Those who dismiss him out of hand are holding fast to a knowledge that does not exist. The truth of the matter is we are just at the beginning of our understanding of consciousness and of the Mind.”

In the New York Review of Books, H. Allen Orr sees Nagel’s work as “provocative,” reflecting the “efforts of a fiercely independent mind.” In important places, however, Orr believes that it is “wrong.”

Richard Brody at The New Yorker is “immensely sympathetic to Nagel’s line of thought.”

Finally, at The New York Times, Thomas Nagel responds to both his critics and supporters with a brief restatement of his position. He argues that “the physical sciences can describe organisms like ourselves as parts of the objective spatio-temporal order – our structure and behavior in space and time – but they cannot describe the subjective experiences of such organisms or how the world appears to their different particular points of view.” Purely physical descriptions of neurophysiological processes of experience will always leave out the subjective essence of experience. The physical sciences, therefore, leave an important aspect of nature unexplained.

The sciences, if it wishes to have the full domain of explanation, “must expand to include theories capable of explaining the appearance in the universe of mental phenomena and the subjective points of view in which they occur.”

Nagel sees two responses to this claim as self-evidently false: namely, (a) that the mental can be identified with some aspect of the physical; and (b) by denying that the mental is part of reality at all. He also sees a third response as completely implausible, (c) that we can regard it as a mere fluke or accident, an unexplained extra property of certain physical organisms. But by rejecting all three responses he does not see how it entails (d) that we can believe that it has an explanation, but one that belongs not to science but to theology—in other words that mind has been added to the physical world in the course of evolution by divine intervention.

According to Nagel, “a scientific understanding of nature need not be limited to a physical theory of the objective spatio-temporal order.” In other words, Nagel wants an “expanded form of understanding.” “Mind,” he continues, “is not an inexplicable accident or a divine and anomalous gift but a basic aspect of nature that we will not understand until we transcend the built-in limits of contemporary scientific orthodoxy.” Although Nagel does not “believe” the theistic outlook, he does admit that “some theists might find this acceptable; since they could maintain that God is ultimately responsible for such an expanded natural order, as they believe he is for the laws of physics.”