A Material Mind? – By William Jaworski

William Jaworski on Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False

William Jaworski, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Oxford University Press, 2012, 140 pp., $24.95
William Jaworski, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Oxford University Press, 2012, 140 pp., $24.95

What is the mind, and where did it come from? Thomas Nagel thinks he has an answer. Unlike many scientists and philosophers, however, his answer rejects materialism, a view that tries to understand everything in terms of physics, chemistry, and a Darwinian account of natural selection. Nagel argues that materialism fails to answer basic questions about the emergence of life and mind, and as a result we need an alternative — not the theistic one offered by intelligent design theorists. Nagel instead favors natural teleology, an idea found in Aristotle’s philosophy: the natural world has inbuilt tendencies to produce life, consciousness, reason, and value.

Aristotle’s philosophy was largely abandoned after the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Leaders of the Revolution such as Copernicus and Galileo showed that almost every aspect of Aristotelian science was wrong. At the time, however, people did not clearly distinguish science from philosophy. Both disciplines were instead grouped under the one heading of natural philosophy. Consequently, when leaders of the Revolution took aim at what we would now identify as Aristotelian science, it was almost inevitable that Aristotelian philosophy proper would suffer collateral damage.

In place of Aristotelian science leaders of the Revolution planted modern science, and in place of Aristotelian philosophy they planted modern philosophy. The fruits of modern science have been among the sweetest in human history, but the fruits of modern philosophy have been a rather strange crop. That crop is the point of departure for Mind and Cosmos. In it, Nagel argues that the materialist worldview that has come to dominate academic philosophy and the non-academic philosophizing of many scientists cannot provide an adequate explanation of life’s origins. As a result, he says, we must consider a return to a central notion of Aristotelian philosophy: the notion of natural teleology.

The word “teleology” derives from the Greek word telos, which means “end” or “goal.” Teleological explanations claim that things happen in order to achieve ends or goals, that things are end-directed. The most familiar teleological explanations are intentional; they appeal to the ends people intend to achieve. But there are non-intentional teleological explanations as well. Plants grow leaves in order to capture energy from the sun, and the purpose of the heart is to pump the blood. Neither plants nor hearts form intentions to do these things, so their end-directedness must be due to something else. Plato suggested it was due to an external source, an intelligent being who assigned purposes to natural things in the way people assign purposes to artifacts. Aristotle disagreed. Natural teleology was not derivative and external, he said, but basic and internal. Some things simply had innate tendencies to grow, develop, and behave in end-directed ways, including humans whose intentional actions were just one species of the kind of teleology found throughout the natural world.

Aristotle’s teleology was shelved after the Revolution. Plato’s, on the other hand, found modern sympathizers in William Paley and contemporary intelligent design theorists. But the currently dominant approach to teleology is represented by materialism.

Materialism tries to account for everything in terms of the non-teleological principles of chemistry and physics. If materialists are right, then the real reasons the plant grows toward the sun and the heart pumps blood have nothing to do with teleology. What then explains the appearance of teleology in these things? Most materialists think that a Darwinian account of natural selection supplies the answer. Natural selection operates over the long-term in ways that can mimic the work of an intelligent designer. Consequently, things like plants and hearts, which are products of natural selection, operate as if they were designed to achieve certain ends even though in reality they were not. Nagel nevertheless argues that materialist explanations of this sort fail to account for the emergence of life and mind.

Nagel’s arguments appeal to well-known philosophical problems, such as the problem of understanding how science fits together with the rest of human experience. The observational tools, experimental models, and mathematical descriptions of science bear little or no resemblance to the stuff of daily experience. We take ourselves to be free beings who experience joy and sadness, and pleasure and pain, who act to get what we want, who make choices, and who can be held accountable for them. What science appears to reveal, by contrast, is a vast undifferentiated sea of matter and energy that at a fundamental level has none of these characteristics. The fundamental physical materials that compose us and everything around us have none of the features we take to be distinctive of human life — no thought, no feeling, no choice, nothing good or bad, nothing right or wrong. Understanding how there can be things like us — free, mental, moral things — in a world that at a fundamental level is devoid of them has set the agenda in philosophy since the Revolution. Mind-body problems, the problem of free will and determinism, and problems grounding moral values in natural facts all originate here.

Philosophers are not alone confronting these problems either. Theologians and scientists often face difficulties understanding how their own work fits into a coherent overall worldview, and conceptual problems at the intersection of science, philosophy, and religion have entered even discussions on public policy: witness debates about so-called creation science and about the relevance or irrelevance of consciousness for defining the beginning or end of human life.

According to Nagel, these philosophical problems cannot be solved within a materialist framework. The reason is that materialism lacks the resources to explain the emergence of consciousness, reason, and value, and if it lacks the resources to explain these, Nagel says, then it lacks the resources to explain the emergence of life in general. Why should we accept this? Nagel argues that adequate explanations must imply that the phenomena they look to explain are not chance occurrences but expected outcomes. Parties to the debate generally agree that consciousness, reason, and value are the most recent outcomes of the same process that was responsible for the emergence of more basic biological phenomena. In that case, however, any adequate explanation of life’s origins must imply that consciousness, reason, and value were expected outcomes of the same process that resulted in the basic emergence of life. According to Nagel, materialists are incapable of providing explanations of this sort.

What are the alternatives? Theistic explanations are unacceptable, Nagel says, both because they are incompatible with his atheism and because they locate the intelligibility of the natural world in something outside that world; they thereby fail to provide the kind of unified understanding that philosophy hopes to achieve. That leaves the teleological alternative Nagel favors: there is in the fabric of the cosmos a (non-intentional) predisposition to produce value, reason, consciousness, and life. Such a predisposition provides the additional conceptual resources needed to understand the emergence of life. If the universe is directed toward producing mind and value, then the universe must be directed toward producing life as well, for life is a necessary condition for mind and value.

Nagel’s approach to these issues is fresh and open-minded, but it has its detractors. Scientists and philosophers committed to materialism will of course reject his central thesis, and some have already responded (see here). I have several reservations of my own. I’ll mention just one. It concerns the Cartesian picture of the mind that Nagel takes as a given. According to that picture, the mind is an inner domain of subjective occurrences. My worry is that such a picture might have elements that are guaranteed to generate insoluble problems — like a Sudoku puzzle with a misprint. Nagel himself suggests one reason to be pessimistic. The vocabulary that frames scientific descriptions and explanations, he tells us, is a vocabulary that was developed precisely by ignoring or abstracting away from subjective appearances. Science, which aims at objectivity — a view from nowhere, as he has referred to it — could not have gotten off the ground without bracketing mentality in this way. It was for this reason that the development of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led inevitably to mind-body problems. The features of subjective experience that we describe in pedestrian psychological terms are precisely the features from which scientific endeavor looks to distance itself. Because scientific concepts are evacuated of any psychological content, we become puzzled how mental phenomena could fit into the world science describes.

If Nagel is right about the conceptual gap between the mental and the physical, it seems to make little difference whether we take the world to operate teleologically or not. If there are basic teleological laws that prescribe the emergence of consciousness, reason, or value from physical processes, the view begins to look simply like a variation of one of the emergentist views he criticizes, one that posits brute, unexplainable laws. It is thus unclear whether the alternative he favors marks a genuine advance.

Nagel concedes that solving mind-body problems will require a revision of our concepts more radical than anything he has to offer. Perhaps one step in the direction of such a revision is to counter Nagel’s Cartesianism and claim that during the Scientific Revolution subjectivity was not so much discovered as invented. Our interest in viewing things from nowhere produced the notion of subjectivity as a residual byproduct, and in that sense subjectivity is as much an artifact of human endeavor as science itself. On this alternative view, the world does not comprise two distinct kinds of phenomena, mental and physical, as so many philosophers since Descartes, including Nagel, have thought. Rather, the world contains (among other things) beings like ourselves who are so complex that we can only understand them piecemeal by focusing on just a limited range of their characteristics at a time. This piecemeal approach yields a variety of methods and conceptual frameworks (including science and pedestrian psychological discourse), each with its own distinctive vocabulary and concepts. Yet none of these frameworks can be expected to contain within itself resources for understanding how it fits together with others into a synoptic vision of the whole. None of them was crafted with an eye to accomplishing this integrative task; each was rather designed to achieve a more limited understanding.

On this view (which is compatible with a variety of theistic positions, including one that Nagel describes but of course doesn’t endorse), the repeated mistake of philosophers since the seventeenth century has been to interpret the fairly limited task of achieving a scientific understanding of some things as the unlimited task of providing an exhaustive understanding of everything. Nagel seems to agree with something like this diagnosis, but he doesn’t appreciate that rejecting his own view of subjectivity could be taken as a corollary. Seen in this light, the Cartesian conception of mind that Nagel assumes at the outset is not canonical but contentious, not a pre-theoretical datum that cries out for explanation but instead a theoretical posit, an implication of a particular philosophical outlook. We are not compelled to accept that outlook, and there might be good reasons to reject it.

You can read William Jaworski’s longer review, forthcoming in Faith and Philosophy, here.