Nagel’s Natural Teleology

Nagel holds that the things that present insurmountable challenges to ‘reductive materialism’–life, consciousness, reason and value–are also those things about the universe that we cannot believe to have been accidental. The universe, he suggests, had to have been aiming at these things, its processes being fundamentally oriented towards their eventual emergence. Confounding expectations suggested by familiar arguments over the “Teleological Argument” for the existence of God, Nagel’s invocation of purpose or natural tendency is not intended to point to theistic religion.  His teleology, Nagel insists, is a thoroughly natural one, and his overall outlook thoroughly atheist.

The idea that there is conceptual space between a world of purposeless (if productive) processes of brute matter and full blown theism is, Nagel concedes, “obscure.”  It is not, however, particularly novel, though aside from Aristotle Nagel doesn’t point to historical predecessors, such as the Stoics or, on some readings at least, certain classical Chinese views of Tian,  In any case, what kind of content can we give the view? Nagel tell us that “natural teleology would mean that the universe is rationally governed in more than one way— not only through the universal quantitative laws of physics that underlie efficient causation but also through principles which imply that things happen because they are on a path that leads toward certain outcomes…”

The idea is not that given the laws of nature, in any given situation certain outcomes are more likely than others, which is hardly novel or interesting. Rather, as he puts it, laws of natural teleology would require that in some situations at least, some outcomes are more likely without being determined to be so by basic causal laws.  So, roughy, at the beginning of the universe the gradual emergence of life was highly unlikely given merely the familiar laws of physics and chemistry. If ours is a teleological universe, however, the emergence of life was a likely result, because the universe tends towards that, even though by the laws of physics it need not.  More precisely, it’s because in a given situation x happening instead of y will take the universe that much closer to life is precisely what makes x more likely.

At this point, I think, it becomes very hard to say more without using language that points to intentional agency and so, ultimately, towards theism of some sort. An immediate problem is saying anything about the means by which the odds are stacked, so to speak, on the side of the emergence of life. The emergence of life is not made more likely by physical laws, and yet is realized in physical matter–can we say anything at all about what acts on matter to bring about this preferred result? Or how it acts? Calling that which acts “God” hardly helps, but at least it acknowledges the question, and so avoids the awkwardness of using intentional language to describe a putatively non-intentional mechanism. Calling that which acts “laws of nature” also hardly helps, and it does leave us with this awkwardness, and such is the situation Nagel finds himself in. Nagel tries to avoid this by talking of reason and value in a way that he seems to think avoids intentional agency.  By his remarks on these suggest a view that is rather close to a view that embraces theism wholeheartedly.  Or so I’ll argue in my next post.

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