Mind & Cosmos

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

By Thomas Nagel

Oxford University Press. 130 pp. $24.95

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson


Philosopher Thomas Nagel admits that he has a "cosmic authority problem."

In his book The Last Word (1997), he writes: "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 there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that."

It seems odd that so bright a fellow would not realize how unphilosophical it is to want the universe to conform to his own preferences and predilections, especially since his reasoning brings him so near to demonstrating that, in this particular case, it seems not to.

In this new book, Nagel summarizes his critique of "the orthodox naturalistic view . . . that biology is in principle completely explained by physics and chemistry, and that evolutionary psychology provides a rough idea of how everything distinctive about human life can also be regarded as an extremely complicated sequence of the behavior of physical particles in accordance with certain fundamental laws."

This view, Nagel argues, does not provide an adequate explanation of consciousness, cognition, or value: "Merely to identify a cause is not to provide a significant explanation, without some understanding of why the cause produces the effect." Since, for example, consciousness is among the most salient features of conscious organisms, "the explanation of the coming into existence of such organisms must include an explanation of the appearance of consciousness."

In Nagel's view, "a purely materialist explanation cannot do this . . . . Organisms such as ourselves do not just happen to be conscious . . . no explanation even of the physical character of those organisms can be adequate which is not also an explanation of their mental character." So, "materialism is incomplete even as a theory of the physical world, since the physical world includes conscious organisms among its most striking occupants."

Nagel sees the problem with cognition as even more intractable. There is, for instance, the improbability that "the process of natural selection should have generated creatures with the capacity to discover by reason the truth about a reality that extends vastly beyond the initial appearances . . . . Is it credible that selection for fitness in the prehistoric past should have fixed capacities that are effective in theoretical pursuits that were unimaginable at the time?"

Moreover, rationality "seems necessarily a feature of the functioning of the whole conscious subject, and cannot be conceived of, even speculatively, as composed of countless atoms of miniature rationality."

As for value, well, Nagel is a moral realist, holding that "when our value judgments are correct, it is because our dispositions are in accord with the actual structure and weight of values in the case at hand." He also thinks, like many others, that a Darwinian account of the motives underlying moral judgment is incompatible with such a position, and for that reason regards such an account as false.

These cursory summations provide only the roughest sketch of Nagel's closely reasoned arguments, which cannot be fairly answered either by an appeal to evolutionary just-so stories or to promissory speculation (we don't have a clue now, but are certain to, sometime in the indefinite future).

But what alternative to the Neo-Darwinian materialist conception of nature does Nagel offer? It is, he admits, "a throwback to the Aristotelian conception of nature." Specifically, it is that "there are natural teleological laws governing the development over time, in addition to laws of the familiar kind governing the behavior of the elements." He further thinks that this is "quite different from the idea of explanation by the intentions of a purposive being who produces the means to his end by choice."

In other words, it gives us a universe just like the one theists have long imagined, but manages to do so without bringing a deity into it.

Now, it is true that Aristotle understood his prime mover not as an efficient cause of movement - because the action of an efficient cause would effect a change in that cause and Aristotle's prime mover is eternal, unchanging, and unaffected by anything outside itself - but rather as a final cause: the purpose, or teleology of movement. Aristotle also thought that God, conceived as prime mover, only knows himself, not the world, has no plan for us, and is not affected by us.

Nagel makes plain why this appeals to him: It provides "for an immanent, natural explanation . . . congruent with my atheism."

Of course, the God Nagel doesn't believe in isn't one most theists would recognize. His notion of the creator is of one who works "with completely directionless materials." But God conceived of as the final cause of being could not logically create anything that was "directionless." Moreover, Nagel seems to have forgotten or overlooked that, according to Aristotle, the final cause of movement in the universe is the love and desire for the perfection that is God.

Small wonder Thomas Aquinas had no trouble grafting the Gospel message that God is love onto Aristotle's notion of a prime mover. Maybe Nagel should spend some time reading Dante's Paradiso and come to some understanding of "L'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle" - "the Love that moves the sun and the other stars."

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer books editor. Visit his blog, "Books, Inq.-The Epilogue." E-mail him at presterfrank@gmail.com.