So this is a book that I really did not expect to be reviewing as my book of the month selection, but life is funny.
Mind & Cosmos is subtitled “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.” When a book with this kind of subtitle comes out, written by a philosopher of Nagel’s caliber, and published by Oxford University Press, there should be no astonishment that it caused a stir. I wanted to note two very admirable traits of this book, and then engage at a couple of places where I think engagement could be profitable.
First, Nagel is no creationist, but he believes that ID arguments should be heard with respect. He apparently does not believe that scientific and philosophical knowledge is advanced by the technique of shunning people when they are in possession of inconvenient arguments.
“Even if one is not drawn to the alternative of an explanation by the actions of a designer, the problems that these iconoclasts [ID advocates] post for the orthodox scientific consensus should be taken seriously. They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair” (p. 10).
It is hard to describe what it feels like to encounter someone in a foundational debate who does not immediately retreat behind a barricade of shouted slogans. It is just wonderful, and the honesty of this book would restore my faith in human nature again, if I weren’t such a Calvinist.
The second thing that makes this book stand out is that Nagel understands how much of our world requires explanation. The book centers around his discussion of how the materialist understanding of the cosmos doesn’t even comprehend the problem, much less provide a solution for it. The three great things “requiring explanation” are consciousness, cognition, and value. Nagel sees clearly that if all you have is atoms banging around, you cannot really account for any of these things by banging the atoms ever more furiously. If every nucleus in the universe were a priest of Baal, and every electron a knife, and materialist naturalism their altar on Mt. Carmel, it does not matter how rapidly you make the knives move — the fire is still not going to fall. Consciousness cannot be accounted for by materialism. Neither can the authority of reason. And neither can ethical value be accounted for this way. Not only can they not be accounted for by materialism, to any reflective observer, they demand an accounting.
Nagel asks the right questions throughout this book.
“In the present intellectual climate such a possibility is unlikely to be taken seriously, but I would repeat my earlier observation that no viable account, even a purely speculative one, seems to be available of how a system as staggeringly functionally complex and information-rich as a self-producing cell, controlled by DNA, RNA, or some predecessor, could have arisen by chemical evolution alone from a dead environment. Recognition of the problem is not limited to the defenders of intelligent design” (p. 123).
Recognition of the problem. That is the key phrase.
“What must the universe and the evolutionary process be like to have generated such beings” (p. 112)?
Nagel plainly sees that everything we experience must require a universe capable of producing that experience. It will not do to postulate a universe of mindless matter, and to then force the rich variety of our experience onto that Procrustean bed. Just like the guests of the ancient Procrustes, we have good reason to call this approach reductionistic. In contrast to this, Nagel asks the right question. “What kind of universe is capable of producing what we know to be the case?” It is not “what may be allowed to be the case, given our a priori assumptions about what the universe is like?”
Not surprisingly, the place where I differed the most was when Nagel argued against classic theism.
“To my mind, apart from the difficulty of believing in God, the disadvantage of theism as an answer to the desire for comprehensive understanding is not that it offers no explanations but that it does not do so in the form of a comprehensive account of the natural order. Theism pushes the quest for intelligibility outside the world. If God exists, he is not part of the natural order but a free agent not governed by natural laws” (p. 26).
“But it would not be the kind of understanding that explains how beings like us fit into the world” (p. 26).
Now I do believe that this is a reasonable objection to the god of the philosophers. A generic deity can account for certain things, like the mere fact of the universe, but it cannot provide a comprehensive account — and this is what Nagel is after, an accounting. A Christian has an answer to the objection that Nagel raises here, but — being Christian — it is based on revelation. We bear the image of God, and that is how “beings like us” fit into the world. The world declares the glory of God, and does so at every point.
This means that the universe is a mirror of God’s glory, a work of theology, not to mention a very gripping work of realistic fiction, and in order to be true to the one who made it, it has to be true to Him at every point. Jesus pushes this kind of meaning into the corners. The hairs of our heads are numbered. Not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from the will of the Father. Christ is the integration point for all things (Col. 1:18). The Creator of this world reveals Himself to us as both transcendent and immanent. This is behind the meaning of Providence. I think this answers Nagel’s objection, but (to be fair) it does so by raising the epistemological question of revelation. That is not a trifle, but at the end of the argument, I believe it is every bit as compelling as the line of argument that Nagel pursues throughout this book.
That leads to the next point. Even though Nagel describes himself as an atheist, I don’t quite see how that can be. This book is relatively small, and most of it is is devoted to his demolition job on materialism. It is as though materialism were an old beater of a car at the fair, and you could take a shot at it with a nine-pound sledge for a nickel a swing, and Nagel for some reason plonked down a hundred dollars. So he doesn’t have a lot of time left for discussing the positive features of what he has concluded, what he believes. But there are hints. His references to “panpsychism” seemed to me to be a lot closer to pantheism than to atheism. Of course it is possible to have an “impersonal” sort of pantheism, one that could qualify as atheistic. But that doesn’t seem to me to be live option for someone like Nagel, who is trying to account for things like consciousness and cognition and ethical value. Transcendental electricity doesn’t care about any of that.
In one place, he puts it this way: “As I have said, the process seems to be one of the universe gradually waking up” (p. 117). When it finally does so, I think it would be fair to call that awakened universe God. And how a non-God cosmos managed to exist prior to this awakening, with all the teleology of divine potential built in — seems to me to require explanation. I would love it if Nagel turned his considerable talents to that question next.
But he needs to watch his step. “The human will to believe is inexhaustible” (p. 128).