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Searching Beyond Darwin: Exploring “Mind and Cosmos”

Mind and Cosmos

The controversy Thomas Nagel set off a year ago when he published a slim volume called Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012) is still echoing through the halls of academia. The question is: Was that the sound of a great career crashing to the ground we heard, or the first whacks of a sledgehammer against the Berlin Wall of materialist philosophy?

Mind and CosmosNagel has taught for 33 years in one of the country’s most prestigious philosophy departments, at New York University. His essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” became required reading for college students in the 1970s. In Mind and Cosmos, he argues that the materialist view of life cannot explain everything—that there must be something more to explain things like consciousness, intentionality, and value:

"For a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works,” he writes. “The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes...It seems to me that, as it is usually presented, the current orthodoxy about the cosmic order is the product of governing assumptions that are unsupported, and that it flies in the face of common sense."

His argument was greeted with a firestorm of controversy.

A Soul Longing for Reassurance?

 
“Nagel’s soul longs for what he calls ‘reassuring’ explanations,” wrote Eric Schliesser, a blogger at New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science. “...Nagel closes his book with ‘the human will to believe is inexhaustible.’ Quoting Psalm 139, Alvin Plantinga is surely right to insist that if Nagel ‘followed his own arguments wherever they lead,’ Nagel would end up with (Christianized) theism. Some such religion is a useful adaptation for souls longing for reassurance.” Plantinga is a Christian who taught philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

But although Nagel, who was born in Belgrade in 1937, is questioning a worldview that has no room for God, he is still a committed atheist. He writes in Mind and Cosmos:
 

“I do not find theism any more credible than materialism as a comprehensive worldview. ... But would an alternative secular conception be possible that acknowledged mind and all that it implies, not as the expression of divine intention but as a fundamental principle of nature along with physical law?”

 
In August, eleven months after the book debuted, Nagel responded to the criticism with a New York Times blog post. “Even though the theistic outlook, in some versions, is consistent with the available scientific evidence, I don’t believe it, and am drawn instead to a naturalistic, though non-materialist, alternative....,” he wrote.

But he added that “even 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.”

Nagel continues to generate probing criticism in academia and the press.

Branded a Heretic

 
“There is a sense in which the reaction to Nagel by other philosophers is more interesting than any positive contributions Nagel has to make on these big issues,” Notre Dame philosophy professor Alfred Freddoso said in a recent interview. “The very fact that such a prominent and respected philosopher has challenged the reigning orthodoxy, i.e., 'the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature,' as he calls it, has made him literally a heretic in the eyes of many philosophers.”

Edward Feser, a Catholic philosopher in Los Angeles, has an in-depth look at Nagel and his critics on his blog. He writes:
 

“As a philosopher he finds the scientism and materialist metaphysics to which most atheists are committed to be deeply problematic,” Feser wrote “and wants to try to find a middle ground position that affirms teleology or purpose in nature, avoids reductionism about consciousness and value, and yet does not lead to theism.”

 
Unlike the so-called “New Atheists,” Feser said in an email, Nagel is “neither an ideologue nor unwilling to take seriously the views of theists. He is important because he gives the lie to the view that you have to embrace scientism and materialism on pain of irrationalism. I think that is why the response to his book by some of his fellow atheists has been so harsh.”

Nagel seemed ready for such a response. “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,” he writes in Mind and Cosmos.

Threat to Academic Orthodoxy

 
In the largely atheistic environment that prevails in academia, “it was exceedingly bad news when somebody from one of the most elite departments in the world, who is highly regarded as a philosopher, says anything that could give comfort to the religious,” said John Haldane, professor of philosophy at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland, in an interview.

Thomas Nagel

Thomas Nagel

“I think it’s less driven by atheism than by a virulent hatred of what they would regard as traditional American social conservatism, which is associated with religion...Here we are in the midst of the (culture) war, one big push will defeat them...then Nagel comes out with a book that’s seen as giving comfort,” Haldane said.

Two of the most prominent philosophers contesting Nagel are Daniel Dennett, co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, and Alex Rosenberg, professor of philosophy at Duke University.

“Over the years, Tom Nagel has made no secret of his visceral dislike of materialism and its ally, Darwinian thinking, but whereas some of his earlier attempts to disrupt the forward march of science into the mind were deft and imaginative—however mistaken—he is now reduced to dressing up anxious hunches as arguments that just can’t stand up to close examination,” Dennett said in an email.

“The last 400 years have given us a lot of reason to believe that the mind is the brain. That’s what makes arguments from first-person experience so interesting,” Rosenberg wrote in an email. “Start from something we know for certain—by conscious introspection—and validly derive the conclusion that physicalism is unintelligible. That was Nagel’s achievement in 'What Is It Like to Be a Bat?'. But then, he realized that the puzzle he created has much wider ramifications. It’s not neuroscience vs. first-person access to the qualitative aspects of experience. It’s consciousness vs. all of science. Since Nagel is really confident in his penetration, he didn’t have a choice. He had to write a book in which he weighed the whole of science since Newton in the balance against his own hunch, or gut feeling, or intuition about how science will turn out, and decided that what introspection tells him is more likely to be right than all the findings of science since about 1660.”

Andrew Ferguson, writing in the Weekly Standard, disputed the view that Nagel’s work is an attack on science.
 

“Nagel follows the materialist chain of reasoning all the way into the cul de sac where it inevitably winds up. Nagel’s touchier critics have accused him of launching an assault on science, when really it is an assault on the nonscientific uses to which materialism has been put.”

 

‘Stimulated’ by Intelligent Design Theory

 
Nagel says in Mind and Cosmos that he has been “stimulated” by arguments made by defenders of intelligent design theory:
 

“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.”

 
Nagel’s “latest provocative idea is that Darwinism almost certainly can’t account for what we know about life,” Behe, a professor of biology at Lehigh University and author of Darwin’s Black Box, said in an interview. “This includes both the fantastically sophisticated molecular machinery that has been discovered recently in cells, as well as the long-recognized abilities of the human mind. Instead Nagel argues that there must be something beyond the merely physical attributes of the universe to account for these. Consistent Darwinists find this heretical because they assume everything must be explained by matter and motion.”

Behe has no illusions about Nagel’s commitment to atheism. But, he says, “It’s great for Darwin skeptics like myself to have such an eminent intellect speak out.”

Will Nagel’s assault on the Berlin Wall of atheistic materialism lead to anything, long-term, in philosophy? Catholic philosopher Feser thinks it will. “Mind and Cosmos,” he said, “will contribute to undermining the conventional wisdom according to which there is only one side worth taking seriously in debates over mind, value, ultimate explanation, etc., namely the materialist side.”
 
 
Originally published in Catholic San Francisco, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: New Yorker)

John Burger

Written by

John Burger is a 20-year veteran of the Catholic press, having served as a reporter for Catholic New York, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York, and news editor of the National Catholic Register. He now free-lances for a variety of publications, including Catholic San Francisco, Aleteia.org, Catholic World Report, and Human Life Review. He contributed a chapter to the book When Faith Goes Viral: 11 Success Stories of the New Evangelization from Alabama to Vladivostok (Crossroad, 2013).

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  • David Nickol

    Theists seem to regard Nagel, although he is an atheist, as friend and supporter based on the old principle about the enemy of my enemy being my friend. Of course, the old principle is probably incorrect in more cases than it is correct. It may well be that there has been such a strong reaction to Nagel not because he points out a genuine weakness in the current orthodoxy, but because he challenges the current orthodoxy with arguments that are poorly supported but have great appeal to theists, who welcome any challenge to materialism, even if it comes from an atheist.

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      "It may well be that there has been such a strong reaction to Nagel not because he points out a genuine weakness in the current orthodoxy, but because he challenges the current orthodoxy with arguments that are poorly supported but have great appeal to theists, who welcome any challenge to materialism, even if it comes from an atheist."

      Do you have any evidence to back up that conjecture? Any good reason to suppose theists are only interested in Nagel because he objects to materialism? Or is this just pure speculation?

      Regardless, such questions are irrelevant to the merits of Nagel's argument. The real question isn't "Why has Nagel's thesis generated so much discussion?" but "Is Nagel's thesis true?"

      • David Nickol

        "Is Nagel's thesis true?"

        No. :-)

        Let's look at the odds. The reigning scientific theory is materialism. Probably most of the people in the world don't believe that, but rather believe that materialism is false, and there is a God, or gods, or some other supernatural entity or entities that account for the world the way it is. From what I understand of Nagel's position, he doesn't agree with scientific materialism, but he remains an atheist, and he believes that some completely new and as yet unformulated theory needs to be invented to account for the world the way it is. He can't sketch out such a theory, however. He's just suggesting that he and a tiny minority are correct. Scientists seem to feel he hasn't even made a very good case for rejecting materialism—he just feels or intuits that it is wrong. Almost everyone else believes he is wrong not to just give up his atheistic stance and reject materialism by accepting God.

        I waver between scientific materialism and theism, and Nagel hasn't convinced me to add a third possibility instead of just alternating between those two possibilities. I did read part Mind and Cosmos, but I wasn't getting much out of it, and I decided it wasn't worth the effort at the time to finish it. Perhaps I should go back to it, but it seems to me that the two significant positions to choose from are scientific (atheistic) materialism and theism. It seems like one would have to rule both of those out to be really interested in what Nagel has to say.

        Do you have any evidence to back up that conjecture?

        It is the kind of conjecture that, as a conjecture, doesn't need evidence to back it up. If I had said, "The reason theists are interested in Nagel is because he is a very famous philosopher, and as an atheist, if even he rejects materialism, that helps theists, who can say that even this famous atheists rejects materialism, so how can you criticize them?" then I suppose I would have to offer some evidence. But isn't it an obvious conjecture that theists are interested in Nagel because of his rejection of materialism? How many theists are interested in finding a way to be atheists and continuing to reject materialism? It seems an obvious possibility that theists are interested in Nagel because they feel he has partially made their case for them, and he has made that case to an audience to whom they would have a more difficult time making the case against materialism.

        Here is also another conjecture which seems quite plausible. If Nagel weren't one of the most famous living philosophers, but rather an unknown philosophy professor teaching undergraduates at a little-known, small college or university, no one would ever have heard of his book, if he even could have found a publisher for it.

      • Mikegalanx

        Mike Newsham says:

        Then why post an article entirely devoted to the question of "Why has Nagel's thesis generated so much discussion?" instead of an article about "Is Nagel's thesis true?"

  • BrianKillian

    I just read "What it is like to be a bat" for the first time last night.

    The hard problem of consciousness (or qualia) is just as hard as ever. Materialism in the philosophy of mind has suffered serious blows the last several decades. Chalmers is another anti-materials who is, like Nagel, also an atheist.

    My own hunch is that all materialism is promissory materialism (a statement of faith, not knowledge). How could it be knowledge based when all knowledge begins with experience and therefore begins with the evident fact that mental things are of a different category than physical things?

    Therefore, anyone who says that mental things are really physical things is either making a category error and is saying something that doesn't make sense, or else they are telling us what they believe to be the case, but cannot possibly know.

    I've always liked Shopenhauer's summary of the situation: "materialism is the philosophy of the subject who forgets to take account of himself".

    • josh

      "Materialism in the philosophy of mind has suffered serious blows the last several decades."

      Comments like this always puzzle me. The only thing that has happened with respect to mind in the past decades has been mounting progress in neuroscience and psychological studies that all support the materialist view. Nagel's position now seems to be just a restatement of his gut feelings that were evident since at least 1974 ('What is it like to be a Bat?'), mixed in with some clumsy ID-like swipes at 'Darwinism'. What's new?

      Rather than "echoing through the halls of academia", Mind and Cosmos seems to have brought out a round of comments from the usual suspects, like many similar views before it, then been thrown on the pile. Anti-materialists seem to be forever proclaiming a revolution that has yet to materialize.

      • BrianKillian

        Neuroscience and psychological studies also support anti-materialism.

        Or are you saying that there is no longer the 'hard problem of consciousness'?

        Has neuroscience and psychology somehow bridged the explanatory gap?

        Because if it did that would have been some pretty big news in the philosophy of mind scene.

        • josh

          What studies? What 'serious blows' has a material theory of mind received in the past decades? Research has revealed more and more physical dependence in the mind and predictability of mental states based on physical states. We continue to increase our knowledge of specific mechanisms of sense, memory, and decision making.

          Now you may feel this hasn't solved the 'hard problem', but I can't think of anything new that hasn't pointed to materialism. Part of the problem here is that the 'hard problem' is never clearly stated, nor the conditions under which an advocate would consider it solved. Although there are many unanswered questions in the study of brain and mind, it isn't clear what explanatory gap is supposed to exist that is somehow unanswerable in a way that all the other questions of ongoing study aren't. We don't have a complete model of mind and brain, but every piece we do have looks like a physical theory.

          I suspect part of the confusion is over the fact that we experience, say, visual input in a different mode than we experience a feeling of intellectual understanding. Just part of the way we are built perhaps, and we can't completely step outside ourselves. (Although we can observe others who appear to be equivalent and there is no hint of a 'hard problem' there.) But speculation about the limits of our own perceptive abilities isn't really an argument against materialism. Whether or not you feel that you understand consciousness sufficiently, it certainly looks like a material phenomenon.

  • Octavo

    The fact that he's impressed with Behe, Meyer, and Berlinski indicates that he's as ill-qualified to comment on evolutionary biology as Alvin Plantinga is.

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      Octavo, please review our Commenting Policy. If you're unable to avoid ad hominem attacks, you may want to take a break from commenting here.

      • Octavo

        Isn't his expertise in this subject worthy of discussion?

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          "Isn't his expertise in this subject worthy of discussion?"

          It may be worthy of discussion, but it's not a valid reason to consider him "ill-qualified to comment on evolutionary biology." You're essentially rejecting someone's analysis out-of-hand.

          If you're interested in closed, suppressed dialogue that dismisses arguments a priori, this may be a good approach. I guess I just prefer evaluating ideas and arguments on their own merits instead.

      • David Nickol

        It is not clear to me that it is an ad hominem attack to argue that Nagel's sympathetic views of the proponents of intelligent design make his own views on evolutionary biology suspect. It seems to me a valid criticism to point out that Nagel finds value in "intelligent design" when Behe et al. are not taken seriously by the overwhelming majority of scientists who study evolution. Nagel has quite deliberately disassociated himself from the "mainstream," and his support of advocates of intelligent design is only one of the many ways. If Nagel were to support the "steady state theory" instead of the big bang theory, which effectively knocked the steady state theory out of the running as an explanation of the universe, it surely would not be an ad hominem attack to point out that he held to a now-abandoned theory.

        If I were to make an argument about a biblical passage and base it on the work of an exegete someone else here considered very "liberal," I don't think it would necessarily be an ad hominem attack on me or the exegete for that person to point out the exegete was outside the mainstream.

    • BrianKillian

      As a philosopher, he is very qualified to talk about the philosophical issues related to evolutionary biology, especially to versions of Darwinism that are themselves thinly disguised materialist philosophies.

      • josh

        People really need to get over the idea that philosophers are especially qualified to do philosophy. I expect them to be familiar with the literature in their particular sub-fields, but most philosophy remains thinly disguised opinion with no particular rigor or expertise in evaluating ones arguments. Nagel doesn't seem to have any notable qualifications in philosophy of evolution or biology.

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          "People really need to get over the idea that philosophers are especially qualified to do philosophy."

          Am I reading this right or is there a typo somewhere? If it's written as you meant, how would you response to these claims:

          "People really need to get over the idea that biologists are especially qualified to do biology."

          "People really need to get over the idea that mathematicians are especially qualified to do mathematics."

          "People really need to get over the idea that historians are especially qualified to do history."

          • Octavo

            Brandon, If you want to have a meaningful discussion, I recommend focusing on the statement "I expect them to be familiar with the literature in their particular sub-fields..."

            If a philosopher is expounding on the philosophy of a particular field, s/he should be knowledgeable in that field. Is this controversial?

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "If a philosopher is expounding on the philosophy of a particular field, s/he should be knowledgeable in that field. Is this controversial?"

            No this is not controversial, but it's also not what josh said--and thus you've created a straw man. What josh wrote was:

            "People really need to get over the idea that philosophers are especially qualified to do philosophy."

          • Octavo

            We've both selectively quoted him, but only I have made a straw man? I think you are misusing the term.

            I was just trying to highlight what I thought was the interesting part of his statement, not trying to characterize his meaning.

          • josh

            You are reading it correctly. What I'm objecting to is the assumption that a degree or career in philosophy makes you particularly good at it. Consider "People need to get over the idea that homeopaths are especially qualified to do homeopathy". Like I said, I expect a professional philosopher to have some in depth familiarity with the common debates in their own little sphere of interest, and I expect them to be able to write competently enough to put together an essay. But there isn't a body of agreed upon knowledge or even technique that we can say you need special philosophical training to know and work with.

            We might suppose that Nagel is able to put together a better argument for his views than the average man off the street. But that doesn't amount to Nagel putting together a good argument.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "We might suppose that Nagel is able to put together a better argument for his views than the average man off the street. But that doesn't amount to Nagel putting together a good argument."

            I totally agree. Being a professional philosopher does not guarantee the arguments you propose are sound. But that fact doesn't reduce my surprise at this statement:

            "People really need to get over the idea that philosophers are especially qualified to do philosophy."

            Also, I fail to see how this is little more than an ad hominem attack. Whether he's qualified or not, the important question is whether he is *right*. We should concern ourselves more with his thesis than with his person or academic credentials.

          • josh

            "But that fact doesn't reduce my surprise at this statement:..."
            I thought I explained myself above. Maybe this will clarify: when I read the work of professional philosophers, I am underwhelmed. Sometimes, there is jargon or reference to other work which I didn't know beforehand, but the actual quality of the work often isn't very high. They are the same arguments you can run across in a late-night dorm-room bull session. That's not to say that every argument is bad, or that somewhat novel approaches don't sometimes crop up, there are some clever people working in philosophy. But it rarely rises above the level of contentious opinion from moderately intelligent people.

            It's very different from reading the professional work of experts in other fields. If I read a science paper from outside my area of expertise, it quickly becomes clear that there is a wealth of specialized knowledge and minutiae that I don't have the ability to evaluate. If I read good history, I immediately appreciate the research into original sources and knowledge of ancient languages and correlation of different facts. High level math? It's clear that I would probably need years of study to even begin saying anything interesting in the field.

            Now depending on the topic, I might still have an opinion on an open question or debate in these fields, but it is clear that there is an established body of facts such that there really is a difference between an expert and an interested amateur. In philosophy there is a large body of historical work, but it isn't fact, it's just debate and commentary, much of which isn't terribly impressive to me.

            What I'm saying isn't ad hominem, rather I'm reacting to the implied argument from authority in BrianKillian's comment above. There just isn't any reason to give particular credit to Nagel on these topics due to his credentials as a philosopher, and there is reason to think that he lacks relevant expertise on issues of evolution and ID, among other things. The specific problems with his arguments have been laid out in critical reviews.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            When I read the works of analytical philosophers like Saul Kripke, I soon find myself out of my depth. Maybe that's more a statement about my intelligence than about philosophy, but there it is. Philosophy, at least analytic philosophy, seems just as much a genuine academic field as other academic fields, like physics or economics or literature.

            It's not as interesting as physics, of course. ;)

          • josh

            Kripke is a smart guy and his only degree is in mathematics. I expect that he is perfectly capable of laying out a formal mathematical system (as he did for Kripke Semantics), and the complexities of that system could be very involved. It is absolutely true that there are smart philosophers with complex, difficult to follow systems. But the crux is the interpretation of such a system. The formal side of things has long since been the province of mathematicians.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            I suppose that, like you, I'm not too keen to draw distinctions between science and philosophy.

            I'm also not too keen to draw distinctions between logic and philosophy. Do you think that there should be a line dividing the two?

          • josh

            Not really. My beef is with people who insist that 'Philosophy' with a capital P is a rigidly distinct field where only experts in that field are qualified to comment on the issues that are somehow relegated to said field. For people who do try to make that case, I'm not about to let them assign accomplishments in mathematics, logic or science to 'pure' philosophy.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            Do you think that there are no questions unique to philosophy?

          • David Nickol

            . . . . when I read the work of professional philosophers, I am underwhelmed.

            I think you must be reading the wrong philosophers. There is a real body of knowledge that philosophers must be familiar with (which would differ from one branch of philosophy to another). It is true that once there is a definitive answer to a particular question, it's no longer the province of philosophy, so the body of knowledge is not a body of factual knowledge.

            When I read philosophy, I am usually impressed by how thoroughly each issue is broken down into possibilities, and all facets are examined. I am currently reading Perplexities of Consciousness, for example, and the first topic is whether or not we dream in color or black and white. It turns out that people surveyed over the years have been influenced in their answers by whether they watched movies and television in black and white or color. But the question must be asked as to whether the media we watch causes us to dream in certain ways, or causes us to report how we think we dream. It appears to be the latter, since color references in dreams over time remain the same, but people who are accustomed to color television and movies report they dream in color even though their dream accounts contain no more references to color than the dreams of people who watched black and white media and tended to report they dreamed in black and white. Even though we all dream every night (although many of us forget our dreams) it is basically impossible to know if dreams are black and white, color, or "indeterminate." (Brain-scan technology is not advanced enough to tell whether the brain is processing color information, so there is no objective measure, not that it would necessarily tell us of the subjective experience of the dreamer if brain scans could show processing of color information during dreams.)

            I do remember people in my introductory philosophy class in college who were tearing out their hair and saying to the professor, "WHAT IS THE POINT?"

          • josh

            David,
            It's possible I suppose that my reading has been biased since I'm thinking of the type of philosophy that tends to show up in discussions: metaphysics, ethics, metaethics, language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, philosophy of religion. I'm aware that the latter at least is practically a backwater in the wider world of academic philosophy.

            But I don't buy your implication that philosophy is regularly finding definitive answers and we just don't give it credit because they are no longer considered philosophy. Advancements in other fields are almost always made by people in those fields. So what does it mean to say that there is a body of knowledge that isn't factual? Other than awareness of the body of work put out by philosophers, which is factual knowledge but doesn't indicate that the work itself is advancing knowledge or based on fact. There is a great body of knowledge to be familiar with in astrology or Harry Potter fan fiction, but that doesn't amount to deferring judgment on those things to 'the experts'.

            The book you described sounds interesting. But what's notable is that the approach you outlined is scientific. It's based on surveys and could be augmented by neuroscience. There is nothing particularly philosophical in the question being asked or the evidence brought to bear in trying to decide it.

            My question isn't "What is the point?", it is"Why are so many of your points either trivial or wrong?" "Why would you proceed with such an obviously problematic framework?" Again, this is primarily aimed at the philosophers that come to my attention.

  • C. J. W.

    Nagel's view on biological evolution vis-a-vis arguments from design strikes me as a trifle sophomoric --even naive-- in the context of current thinking in molecular- and microbiology. This is to be expected; he's not a biologist, and he's free to conjecture. But moreover, why should any person of faith fear a "physicalist" or "Darwinian" explanation for the evolution of the cosmos and of life on the earth. Why should God need magic to flesh this universe out? Surely truth cannot contradict truth. We ought to be as bold in appreciating it as both Augustine and Darwin. If one's faith hinges partially on the purported "irreducible complexity" of a bacterial flagellum, I would accuse that person's faith of being small-minded. I doubt if Christ would mind. Render unto Darwin what is Darwins?

    • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

      Hey CJW - Your comment seems to be a bit of a straw man argument. You're arguing against a position which is fearful of Darwin, hinges on the Intelligent Design movement, and is in disagreement with natural selection. But Darwin's predecessor and the father of genetics Gregor Mendel was a priest, many Catholic philosophers (George, Kreeft, Feser, etc.) are notably suspicious of the ID movement, and the Church welcomes belief in the scientific theory of natural selection. You're absolutely right that truth cannot contradict truth. But what Nagel is focused on (as well as many religious philosophers) is not promoting ID theory, but examining the deep weaknesses of neo-Darwinian materialism as a world picture.

      • C. J. W.

        I agree with most of your points. I myself am a practicing Catholic, and suspicious of the ID movement. My problem with Nagel's view on "Darwinism", as it pertains to biological evolution per se (and not as a generalized philosophy), is that the arguments he points to are the same that have been used purely as arguments for design. I'm sure he has a more nuanced view of these phenomena than that, but within the biological community there's just not the feeling that these structures are particularly irreducible or problematic for Darwinian evolution as a strictly biological concept. I think the weaknesses of neo-Darwinian materialism are found elsewhere.

        • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

          I see! Yes, I read Mind & Cosmos as slowly and carefully as I could, and it's not in any way dependent on or even related to the scientific arguments of ID theorists. In fact, as much as I'm gushing over this article right now, I think it was a bit of a mistake to end it on that note, as if Nagel's argument were part and parcel of the Intelligent Design movement. The little mention Nagel makes of ID theorists (page 10 in the introduction, by the way) is more anecdotal than anything, and is meant to illustrate the unfair hostility and scorn with which opponents of materialism are often met. Nagel and ID theorists are both opponents of materialism; but their arguments and motivations are worlds apart.

          • David Nickol

            Nagel and ID theorists are both opponents of materialism; but their arguments are worlds apart.

            According to the H. Allen Orr piece in the The New York Review of Books, Nagel believes the proponents of intelligent design are asking the right questions, he just believes they are giving the wrong answers.

            But still, ID proponents and Nagel are rejecting Darwin and "the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature." So for those who accept the conception of nature that ID proponents and Nagel reject, Nagel is just as wrong to praise ID proponents for asking the (allegedly) right questions as he would be if he accepted the answers of ID proponents. What they share in common is that they both believe the reigning scientific view of the origins and evolution of life is wrong. So for those who hold the reigning view to be correct, Nagel and ID proponents are in the same category. It matters little that they are in the same category for somewhat different reasons. They still both reject the prevailing scientific view and are consequently not looked on as being counted in the ranks of mainstream science.

  • Peter Piper

    This looks like a very interesting book, and is on my list of things to read. I appreciated this review, because I didn't realise there had been such a strong reaction to it. I don't like it when arguments get branded as belonging somehow to a particular cultural movement: it makes it harder for supporters or opponents of that movement to assess the argument fairly. However, on the basis of this review it seems inevitable that Nagel's arguments will be branded in this way.

  • ziad

    I had questions regarding evolution that I would like to ask my friends here about. I have been waiting for a topic on evolution to discuss it, and I think this fits the bill (may be loosely). I am sure you have heard some or all of these in the past, which is why I want to have your perspective on them :)

    1) To my knowledge, there are one cell organisms and multi-cell organisms. No record has been found of 2, 3, 4, 5 cell organisms. How can we reconcile the big jump?

    2) moving from asexual to sexual reproduction, how did two different individuals of the same species adopted two complementary organs independently?

    • C. J. W.

      Hoping not to get too off topic, but to look at your questions:

      1) There are organisms alive today that are paucicellular or oligocellular, such as the algae Volvox. There are more than just a few cells in these creatures, to be sure, but they are still remarkably cell-poor for a multicellular organism. Another illustration could be that of a single eukaryotic (fungal, animal, etc., nonbacterial) cell. This is a kind of a paucicellular organism in itself, with organellar mitochondria and chloroplasts that look like specialized symbiotic bacteria (this is the endosymbiotic theory popularized by Lynn Margulis, and has been supported by a smosgasbord molecular data). If you mean that there aren't many such organisms in the fossil record now, I think that's true. For one thing, purely soft-bodied organisms don't preserve well. However, there are *some*, including fossil colonies of cyanobacteria. And what is a colony but a prototype of multicellularity? Perhaps someone else can think of even more apt examples.

      2) Much ink has been dropped about the evolution of sex and the sexes. Here's a hypothesis: We'll just take it as fact that sexual reproduction is beneficial for any organism at a high risk for disease. We can then imagine a prototypical, "genderless" organism that nonetheless reproduces sexually by combining gametes, though no one individual is a specialist in donation or reception, and each can do both. Eventually, an individual could arise that is more adept delivering its genetic payload than the population in general. This would obviously be a beneficial trait. Conversely (or even in-turn), more accommodating "reception specialists" would also be more fecund, and each specialist would benefit from the presence of the converse specialist in the population. Compound this for many generations, and the specialized morphology of male and female sex organs would be expected to intensify.

  • David Nickol

    Here is what I would characterize as a critical, but not hostile, review of Mind and Cosmos in The New York Review of Books.

  • DannyGetchell

    I've always been under the impression that there is no conflict between Catholic teaching and Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

    Am I mistaken?

    This is the second recent article here that could easily have appeared under the auspices of Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research.

    • David Nickol

      I've always been under the impression that there is no conflict
      between Catholic teaching and Darwin's theory of evolution by natural
      selection.

      Am I mistaken?

      I would say you are mistaken. An essential tenet of neo-Darwinism is that there is no plan, purpose, or direction to evolution. "Theistic evolution," if that means that God pre-planned the evolutionary path to human beings and then intervened to give souls in order to create the first humans, is not evolution at all. That is, it is not variation by random mutations acted on by natural selection. If mutations only appear random but are actually planned, then you don't have Darwinian evolution. You have special creation carried out with a tweak here and a tweak there over billions of years.

      • C. J. W.

        I'm afraid I emphatically disagree with this. If even one adherent of a faith can reconcile with Darwinian evolution, the two are compatible. Trying to boil down exactly what is meant by a divine "plan" is a fruitless exercise. Trying to tell a believer what exactly *they* mean by divine "plan" is downright presumptuous. Furthermore, It's simply not true that there's no directionality to evolution; there's a clear directionality towards greater and greater fitness. That fact expresses itself in the increasing complexity of organisms on the earth over geologic time, at multiple levels of organisation.

      • C. J. W.

        I'm afraid I emphatically disagree with this. If even one adherent of a faith can reconcile with Darwinian evolution, then the two are compatible. To speculate on exactly what is meant by the notion of a divine "plan" is fruitless (what do we even really mean when we say "random"?). To tell a believer what exactly he or she means by divine "plan" is downright presumptuous. Furthermore, it is simply not true that evolution has no directionality; evolution shows clear directionality towards greater and greater fitness, a fact which is manifested by the increasing complexity of living systems on the earth over geologic time.

        • David Nickol

          If even one adherent of a faith can reconcile with Darwinian evolution, then the two are compatible.

          This is quite an odd statement. The teachings of the Catholic Church and the basic outlines of neo-Darwinism are more or less objective and available to all who take the time to look into them. Neither is a matter of personal or private opinion. Either the teachings of the Catholic Church and neo-Darwinism are compatible or they are not. If one adherent of Catholicism can reconcile or harmonize them, that adherent should be able to publish his or her ideas and have them widely accepted.

          To speculate on exactly what is meant by the notion of a divine "plan" is fruitless. To tell a believer what exactly he or she means by divine "plan" is downright presumptuous.

          Surely it is not presumptuous to expect a Catholic to believe that God created mankind in his own image and likeness, or that God directly creates a spiritual soul for each person who comes into the world, or that after the Fall, it was God's plan to send his only begotten son to redeem the world.

          Evolution shows clear directionality towards greater and greater fitness--a fact which has manifested itself in the increasing complexity of living systems on the earth over geologic time, at multiple levels of organisation.

          This is incorrect. You might want to read the review of Mind and Cosmos I mentioned earlier. The reviewer says the following:

          Similarly, Nagel’s teleological biology is run through with talk about the “higher forms of organization toward which nature tends” and progress toward “more complex systems.” Again, real biology looks little like this. The history of evolutionary lineages is replete with reversals, which often move from greater complexity to less. A lineage will evolve a complex feature (an eye, for example) that later gets dismantled, evolutionarily deconstructed after the species moves into a new environment (dark caves, say). Parasites often begin as “normal” complicated organisms and then lose evolutionarily many of their complex traits after taking up their new parasitic way of life. Such reversals are easily explained under Darwinism but less so under teleology. If nature is trying to get somewhere, why does it keep changing its mind about the destination?

          • C. J. W.

            I'm sorry this is becoming a slog. No hard feelings.

            To the thesis of your first paragraph: "either they are compatible or they're not". Well, I guess that depends on what we are really talking about. Assuming we are speaking about that Darwinism which gave rise to the "Modern Synthesis" of evolutionary biology and genetics, and its following propositions: abiogenesis; the LUCA; and descent with modification through mutation, selection, drift, shift, and migration, then yes. Absolutely and forever, I'm telling you these are compatible with Catholicism the religion. On the other hand, if we are speaking about world-view which proposes the whole of the cosmos is necessarily without intrinsic purpose, I agree that's clearly not compatible. It's not provable either; it's a metaphysical proposition based more on feelings *about* facts than the facts themselves.

            Briefly stated, yes, it is certainly presumptuous to pretend to know what exactly a religious person means when they state, for example, that man is created in God's image. You will find a tremendous heterogeneity of opinion out there regarding the relationship of God to man and God to creation, even in supposedly monolithic Catholicism. Of course I don't literally believe god has the body plan of a placental mammal. I do believe we --indeed all matter and energy-- are created, here and now, constantly, by a will outside of creation, and that humans are "in the image of God" insofar as we and God are individual persons possessing will. Again, it's a metaphysical proposition, and its based on feelings *about* facts.

            I really want to address your counter re: evolution.
            I'm sorry, but you are still incorrect in your appraisal of evolutionary *history*, even if you approach correctness regarding its *mechanisms*, which do act blindly. The *history* of morphologic and molecular change over geologic time is unquestionably a story of generally greater symbiosis, specialization, organization, and free energy flux (which we can estimate biochemically). That is what we in biology mean by "complexity". This trend is true through grand sweep from the Precambrian up to the present day, and it is true even *within most extant genera* that also existed in some form in the Paleozoic. To deny this bald fact is to deny evolutionary history as it is revealed through both the geologic record and modern molecular phylogenetics. The body plan of an animal like Icthyostega is unquestionably simpler than that of an ostritch, though the former would be ancestor to the latter. The physiology of a sponge is unquestionably simpler than that of a killer whale, though the ancestor of the latter probably looked much like the former (do you seriously doubt this?). This trend towards complexity is far more widespread and further-reaching than the occasional, secondary simplification of traits, such as the loss of an eye in an aphotic environment. Indeed, they are comparably trivial "man bites dog" stories in evolution.
            It is true that evolution is not *necessarily* progressive, because its mechanisms clearly aren't. But on balance, historically, and on the Earth, it has been directional. This history is not controversial to most evolutionary biologists, paleontologists, and geologists. And furthermore, it is trivial to imagine (based on what we know) and propose reasons for this directionality: Life started simply, perhaps as a naked RNA molecule. It's clearly beneficial to encapsulate into a lipid bilayer and convert to DNA, increasing the stability and complexity of this putative first organism. Later, it was clearly beneficial to network and specialize. And so these early cells organized, eventually, into the tissues of the first animals. Perhaps it was Darwin himself (who I believe is arguably one of the two greatest scientists in history) said it best when he mused on "so simple a beginning."

            I suspect you actually agree here. Perhaps we just misunderstood each other's positions?

            The Tree of Life web project can tell you volumes more than I can here.
            http://tolweb.org/tree/

          • C. J. W.

            I'm sorry this is becoming a slog. No hard feelings.

            To the thesis of your first paragraph: "either they are compatible or they're not". Well, I guess that depends on what we are really talking about. Assuming we are speaking about that Darwinism which gave rise to the "Modern Synthesis" of evolutionary biology and molecular genetics, then yes. Absolutely and forever, I'm telling you this is compatible with Catholicism the religion. On the other hand, if we are speaking about world-view which proposes the whole of the cosmos is necessarily without intrinsic purpose, I agree that's clearly not compatible. It's not provable either; it's a metaphysical proposition based more on feelings *about* facts than the facts themselves.

            Briefly stated, yes, it is certainly presumptuous to pretend to know what exactly a religious person means when they state --for example-- that man is created in God's image, and fruitless to proceed in attacking that conception. You will find a tremendous heterogeneity of opinion out there regarding the relationship of God to man and God to creation, even in supposedly monolithic Catholicism. Of course I don't literally believe god has the body plan of a placental mammal. I do believe we --indeed all matter and energy-- are created, here and now, constantly, by a will outside of creation and outside of time, and that humans are "in the image of God" insofar as we and God are individual persons possessing individual will. Again, it's a metaphysical proposition, and its based on my feelings *about* facts.

            What I *really* want is to address your counter re: evolution.
            I'm sorry, but you are still incorrect in your appraisal of evolutionary *history*, even if you approach correctness regarding its *mechanisms*, which do act blindly. The *history* of morphologic and molecular change over geologic time is unquestionably a story of generally greater symbiosis, specialization, organization, and free energy flux (which we can estimate biochemically). That is what we in biology mean by "complexity". This trend is true through grand sweep from the Precambrian up to the present day, and it is true even *within most extant genera* that also existed in some form in the Paleozoic. To deny this bald fact is to deny evolutionary history as it is revealed through both the geologic record and modern molecular phylogenetics. The body plan of an animal like Icthyostega is unquestionably simpler than that of an ostritch, though the former would be ancestor to the latter. The physiology of a sponge is unquestionably simpler than that of a killer whale, though the ancestor of the latter probably looked much like the former (do you seriously doubt this?). This trend towards complexity is far more widespread and further-reaching than the occasional, secondary simplification of traits, such as the loss of an eye in an aphotic environment. Indeed, they are comparably trivial "man bites dog" stories in evolution.
            It is true that evolution is not *necessarily* progressive, because its mechanisms clearly aren't. But on balance, historically, and on the Earth, it has been directional. This history is not controversial to most evolutionary biologists, paleontologists, and geologists. And furthermore, it is trivial to imagine (based on what we know) and propose reasons for this directionality: Life started simply, perhaps as a naked RNA molecule. It's clearly beneficial to encapsulate into a lipid bilayer and convert to DNA, increasing the stability and complexity of this putative first organism. Later, it was clearly beneficial to network and specialize. And so these early cells organized, eventually, into the tissues of the first animals. Perhaps it was Darwin himself (surely one of the two or three greatest scientists in history so far) who said it best when he mused on "so simple a beginning." To me, this history suggests a degree of teleology, but that's my feeling about the facts.

            http://tolweb.org/tree/

        • Loreen Lee

          I once did this. I was told to write in Comment deleted, after deleting the comment. Did I just make sense? Try it!

      • DannyGetchell

        If mutations only appear random but are actually planned, then you don't have Darwinian evolution

        That's true. what you have then is God seeding the universe with contrary evidence.

  • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

    A very well written review. Can't say I have much of an idea what his argument is, other than human experience seems non-physical and natural selection is too unlikely.

    • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

      Hey Brian - Nagel wrote a good (and very concise) summary of "Mind & Cosmos" in The New York Times:

      http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/18/the-core-of-mind-and-cosmos/?_r=0

      The book does focus on "human experience" - specifically, three chapters on consciousness, cognition, and value - but it's not an argument against natural selection, but neo-Darwinian evolution in the context of reductive materialism. (A relevant quote from the summary: "Since the long process of biological evolution is responsible for the existence of conscious organisms, and since a purely physical process cannot explain their existence, it follows that biological evolution must be more than just a physical process, and the theory of evolution, if it is to explain the existence of conscious life, must become more than just a physical theory.")

  • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

    Four thoughts on this interesting piece:

    I need to read Nagel's book. It sounds very interesting. Thanks to John Burger for the helpful review.

    Naturalism does not require materialism. There may be mental objects which follow rules like physical objects follow rules, and then we can study the interface between the mental and physical objects. So long as the rules are deterministic and understandable and testable, then mental objects and minds are not external from but part of the natural world, even if they cannot be reduced to matter.

    Monism even doesn't require materialism. Maybe both mind and matter can be reduced to a common substance that is neither solely matter or mind.

    Finally, if the mind is not reducible to matter, maybe it's still reducible to discrete units, some sort of indivisible atoms of thought or form?