Mind and Cosmos – not a review

I’ve now finished Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, and it certainly is a very important book. I don’t intend to review it, as scores of important thinkers have done so already, and recently. Ed Feser has gathered these reviews, and reviewed them, starting here.

I would like, though, to make a few remarks about the second half of the book. As every review says, Nagel starts by a severe critique of naturalism, first in its claims to explain life and evolution at all, but particularly in its potential to explain the features of mind. As Feser writes:

Mind and Cosmos rejects, first, the claim that life has come to be just by the workings of the laws of physics and chemistry. As Nagel points out, this is extremely improbable, at least given current evidence: no one has suggested any reasonably plausible process whereby this could have happened. As Nagel remarks, “It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis.”

Nagel himself says:

I find this view antecedently unbelievable—a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense. … I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two.

Note, at this stage, the appeal to common sense, which is not to be understood as ignorant denial of counter-intuitive theories, but more how one deals with obvious implications. Specifically, if stages of evolution or, even more, the origin of life, depend on events with overall probabilities of 10^50 or even more astronomical odds, he regards it as invalid to say, as materialists often do, “Every event is improbable, so what’s the problem?” As he says in his conclusion:

The empirical evidence can be interpreted to accommodate different comprehensive theories, but in this case the cost in conceptual amd probabalistic contortions is prohibitive.

Nagel proceeds to build his argument from this justifiable incredulity. Common sense thus precedes, but doesn’t replace, argument.

The second half of the book is a tentative effort to propose a kind of natural teleology to replace bare materialism – “teleology” to be distinguished from “intentionality”, the latter of which he attributes to external agency such as God, which he rejects in favour of a kind of panpsychism.

Alvin Plantinga’s review points out the weakness of his rational justification for rejecting theism: that a monist explanation of reality is intrinsically preferable to the “dualism” of a God separate from the created order. But if that’s the way things are, why not? Nagel, on his own admission, has more personal reasons for seeking an alternative to theism, as Plantinga documents:

Sadly enough (at least for me), Nagel rejects theism. “I confess to an ungrounded assumption of my own, in not finding it possible to regard the design alternative [i.e., theism] as a real option. I lack the sensus divinitatis that enables—indeed, compels so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose.” But it isn’t just that Nagel is more or less neutral about theism but lacks that sensus divinitatis. In The Last Word, which appeared in 1997, he offered a candid account of his philosophical inclinations:

“I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers…. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Here we have discomfort and distress at the thought that there might be such a being as God; but this discomfort seems more emotional than philosophical or rational.

Nagel seems to be a classic example of human desire to avoid the subordination and accountability that the existence of God seems to imply, as R C Sproul ably suggested in his now sadly out-of-print book on the psychology of atheism. Accordingly, he has to deal with some big problems in attributing teleology to the fundamental nature of a godless cosmos. As Feser writes:

As for natural teleology: does it really make sense to suppose that the world in itself, without the presence of God, should be doing something we could sensibly call “aiming at” some states of affairs rather than others—that it has as a goal the actuality of some states of affairs as opposed to others? Here the problem isn’t just that this seems fantastic; it does not even make clear sense. A teleological explanation of a state of affairs will refer to some being that aims at this state of affairs and acts in such a way as to bring it about. But a world without God does not aim at states of affairs or anything else. How, then, can we think of this alleged natural teleology?

At several points Nagel acknowledges such difficulties openly. For example, on p93:

I am not confident that this Aristotelian idea of teleology without intention makes sense, but I do not at the moment see why it doesn’t.

I suggest that, in this regard, Nagel is ignoring his own dictum about common-sense, for the same ideological reasons he attributes to the materialist Neo-darwinians he is opposing. His now-notorious sympathy for the ID position at the start of the book is where he starts the assault on materialistic mechanisms as sufficient, but he rejects ID’s conjoined conviction that there is a designer.

Yet Nagel approvingly quotes at length (p89) an article by Roger White which refutes the argument that design is unscientific, an argument that starts from “the sense that life can’t be a matter of chance because it looks so much as if it is the product of intentional design.”

Even Richard Dawkins has famously had that sense, even using it to define life. It would seem that in virtually all people, the entire basic “common sense” impression is actually along the lines, “There seems no chance that current science can explain the totality of life because the impression of design is too strong.” In a minority of cases, like Dawkins and, of course, Nagel himself, that sense is suppressed by dislike for the idea of God. I might add that the more complicated case of those theists who have been persuaded to a dislike for God’s actual involvement in the details of creation by believing it would mean “coercion” have still followed a similar psychological path.

Common sense says that, by one means or another (including the involvement of secondary material causes) God made us by design and intention. And that common sense, as Nagel has actually if unwittingly shown, is reliable.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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