Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”

The general problem addressed by Thomas Nagel’s latest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False addresses this general problem:  As a conscious, reflective and self-reflective creature, man is preoccupied with questions of, Who am I? How did I get here? Where did I come from? What is my purpose? What can I know?  What is true?  These questions have been the traditional starting points for those fraternal twins religion and philosophy and have been answered in a shifting spectrum ranging from the nihilist to the promethean, with innumerable shades between.  As a philosopher (most widely known perhaps for his essay “What Is It Like to be a Bat?”), Nagel is rather put out by the fact that this general problem has been usurped by science, particularly by a hyper-reductionist world view that denies consciousness and all that it entails, including free will, cognition, and value, and especially purpose.

The goal of his book is to restore all these human capacities and to challenge the Neo-Darwinian or hyper-reductionist position, which in his view is “radically self-undermining” (p. 25).  It is radically self-undermining because, if logically followed through to its end point, “Evolutionary naturalism provides an account of our capacities that undermines their reliability, and in so doing undermines itself,” (p. 27); that is, if it is true, we are incapable of knowing that it is true, but the very fact that certain thinkers assert that it is true proves that it is not true.  This can be called an anti-tautology, i.e., if it is true it is self-evidently false.  For example, how can a person who denies free will or who asserts that consciousness is an illusion write an entire book, sentence after sentence, chapter logically following chapter, with arguments and citations, while actually believing that he or she has done so in a trance or had no choice but to do so?  How can an illusion believe that it is an illusion?

The best point in this otherwise flawed book is that consciousness is self-evident and obvious—it is something each of us experiences personally and directly.  Therefore, evolutionary processes must be “reconceived in light of what they have produced” rather than being misconceived in a hyper-reductionist way that denies evolution’s products.  “Conscious minds must be part of what is explained by any theory of the world” rather than explained away by the inexorable logic of a flawed theory.  Alas, as much as one agrees with him on this central and important point, Nagel’s proposed alternative hypothesis fails to correct the problem.

That hypothesis is, basically, that consciousness not only exists, but that it is a feature of the universe—not just of humans and/or other developed organisms, but the telos of the whole cosmos.  “We should seek a form of understanding that enables us to see ourselves and other conscious organisms as specific expressions simultaneously of the physical and mental character of the universe” (p.69, italics added).  And, “Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself” (p. 85).  His solution, then, is an explicitly panpsychic world view, and I am sure most scientists would wonder just how that hypothesis could be investigated or proven.  That Nagel seems to have a seriously inadequate knowledge of science and fails to provide any specific evidence or examples in support of his notion is not likely to inspire their enthusiasm.

Nagel does, however, share at least one prejudice with the Neo-Darwinists:  He is too tied to the concept of “fitness” (though in his case rather naively understood), particularly to the idea that fitness, or natural selection, is logical.  Nagel believes that natural selection is the engine that drives evolution and therefore that every new development must have arisen to serve a purpose, a belief that does logically lead to a teleological view of evolution.  Thus, because evolution led to human consciousness, it must be true that “the propensity for the development of organisms with a subjective point of view [consciousness] must have been there from the beginning” (p. 61).  But in a nice U-turn, he questions the likelihood that consciousness arose because it had strictly survival value:  “Is it credible that selection for fitness in the prehistoric past should have fixed capacities that are effective in theoretical pursuits [today] that were unimaginable at the time?” (p. 74), and “It is not easy to say how one might decide whether this could be a manifestation of abilities that have survival value in prehistoric everyday life” (p. 77), such as, one would imagine, the savannahs of ancient Africa or the caves of Neanderthal Europe.  These last two quotations might lead one to believe that Nagel is now arguing against fitness as the driver of evolution, but in fact he is not, except in the sense that he is turning it on its head; by agreeing that fitness drives material evolution, he is able to argue that Neo-Darwinian evolution is incomplete, that there is something more, indeed much more, than natural selection and matter at work.  There is the “mental character” of the universe, the Great Pan-Psyche, of which we are the conscious expression.

Nevertheless, just a Nagel correctly points out that the existence of consciousness is obvious and self-evident and therefore must be a big part of that which any adequate theory claims to explain (and not explain away), so too is he correct in pointing out that natural selection or fitness is not adequate to explaining consciousness; and that because it is not, those who hold to it as sacred doctrine must inevitably deny the existence of that which is obvious and self-evident.  (Again, the anti-tautology.)  So, perhaps it is time to get rid of, or at least demote, the doctrine of natural selection.

And given that natural selection, or the survival of the fittest, is a cultural construct with a well-known cultural history, getting rid of it ought to be easy (though in fact it is not).  Many have noted that Darwin did not originate the expression “survival of the fittest” and did not use it in his earlier editions of On the Origin of Species, that it was instead coined by Herbert Spencer, a founder of sociology and one of the roots of the Social Darwinist movement; but Darwin did incorporate it in a later edition of his book because he heard in it a nice nutshell expressionof a basic tenet of his theory.   Both Spencer and Darwin were products of a Great Britain near the height of its imperial powers, and it was common among English gentlemen to view themselves as superior beings, either blessed by God or by evolution to rule over the inferior masses.  Darwin made occasional references to such superiority in his notebooks and often described native peoples he encountered on his famous voyage in deprecatory terms.  Not even great geniuses can set aside their biases (look at Aristotle’s justification of slavery for another example), and so it should not be surprising that the biases of 19th century English gentlemen should affect their views on evolution, and that these gentlemen should emphasize the idea of fitness over other mechanisms of evolution (especially since they had no knowledge of genetics).  Survival of the fittest suited their biases too much to be modified.

“Fitness” does entail notions of teleology as well as whispers of some kind or degree or standard of “perfection” to which all life either progresses or conforms.  Those organisms that do not survive or that go extinct after a brief day in the sun are “unfit,” are in some way therefore weak, imperfect, deserving of their fate.  A kind of Platonic materialism seems to be at work in a great deal of neo-Darwinian thinking.

But there really is no reason to view natural selection or survival of the fittest as the engine that drives evolution.  One could as easily, and perhaps more logically, view mutation as the engine, with natural selection as the brakes (if you are noticing the metaphors, good for you!).  In other words, evolution will tolerate whatever mutations can throw into the world to whatever extent the variety of circumstances will permit, without regard to logic or telos or whatever else human thinkers may wish to propose.  Life mutates in ways both splendid and mundane, pushing to the very limits of survival, yet with no premonition of the new life forms that are yet to come.  During the Mesozoic era, the age of the dinosaurs, life was at least as various and elaborated, as cruel and beautiful, as it is today, and it is only time, not telos, that eventually ushered in our own very different world.

Both Nagel and the hyper-reductionists whom he attacks want the same thing: a universe, and an evolutionary process, that makes sense.  He believes, without any evidence to support that belief, that since we are the product of the universe it stands to reason that we should be able to understand it; hence his repeated use of such terms as “intelligible,” “likely,” and “credible.”  Both Nagel and his opponents also want an essentially spiritual explanation of human consciousness. The hyper-reductionists deny the spiritual dimension and therefore deny the possibility of consciousness, along with all that consciousness entails (free will, etc.).  Though they claim to be materialists, they have no faith in matter; thus spirit is present by its denial (which might explain why some of them have written quite virulent books attacking religion).  Nagel, on the other hand, denies the possibility that matter can think and therefore adds back in a barely disguised spiritual dimension (throughout the book he reiterates that he is an atheist, but perhaps he is only in a Western sense).  The motive in both cases is a broadly religious one—like it or not.

However, if we return to Nagel’s point that consciousness is an obvious and self-evident fact, and if we accept that the universe is matter with no spiritual dimension or God, then we must reach the obvious conclusion that matter sufficiently organized can think and be conscious.  And we can do so 1) without concluding that what it thinks must be correct or adequate to explaining the universe or even itself, 2) and without concluding that the universe must be intelligible, either now or at some time in the future, 3) and without concluding that the universe has a purpose or that evolution is teleological.  Time is all the teleology there is.

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  • Patrick Ivers  On February 8, 2013 at 3:53 PM

    After coming across a review by Jennifer Schuessler in The New York Times of philosopher Thomas Nagel’s latest book, I found your evaluation on. I intend to read Nagel’s book & then review it myself. Based solely on the two reviews I have read, I agree with Nagel’s emphasis on consciousness as the underlying/pervasive reality of the universe (or possibly multiverse) but not entirely with his dismissal of Darwin’s theory of evolution. (For example, the computers of our information age evolved somewhat haphazardly from late-18th-century linen looms, which were in no sense foreordained or predictable, even though conscious human beings were responsible for producing them.) Had Nagel (assuming he doesn’t from the commentaries) focused on mathematics (which logically had to precede all of “creation,” thus powerfully indicative of a cosmic consciousness) or the need for a new physics (as in Mario Livio’s Is God a Mathematician? or Roger Penrose’s Shadows of the Mind), he might more forcefully have expounded on the significance of our ability to decode aspects of the cosmos (quantum mechanics, general relativity, history since the big bang through cosmology) toward comprehending our self-aware existence within space-time.

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