On Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos

I’ve been doing philosophy for more than thirty years now, in one way or another and in many ways I’ve always been working on one basic question, which is the place of humans in the world, broadly construed. The mind, broadly construed, is the source of this question, and a constellation of philosophical issues, some traditional and venerable, others more recently posed and technical, turn on consciousness and meaning, our apparent ability to choose freely some of our actions, our capacity to distinguish good and evil and act accordingly, rational thought itself, and so on.  Collectively these account for continued skepticism about what has become known as naturalism, despite the successes of the science it takes as its model.

In his recent book Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel confronts a lot of this very directly, beginning with a bracing rejection of the widely embraced naturalism that assumes a spare materialist ontology and embraces one or other version of reductionism when it comes to the mind.  His apostasy from this orthodoxy–his skepticism about evolutionary theory in particular–has led to some pretty negative early reviews, and it’s a little disheartening to witness the calumny Nagel incurs by taking seriously books on the naturalist equivalent of the Holy Office’s notorious Index. Still, it’s hard not to agree with critics who point out that the book’s subtitle–Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False–is strikingly out of touch with the actual work, which offers little new in the way of arguments against this consensus and tends instead to merely point to some well travelled territory such as Nagels’ own work on the irreducibilty of consciousness, Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism, and the work of Intelligent Designers such Micheal Behe and William Dembski.

Mostly, the book reads as a giant hypothetical: If the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is false, then…  What fills the ellipsis is a purely speculative account of what naturalism might come to look like if the mind, reason, and value prove to be irreducible to the physical in any sense.  Here the book is frequently disappointing as well, as Nagel’s speculations are so abstract and untethered as to be close to meaningless.  Nagel may be right that the total failure of materialism about the mind to explain consciousness may lead us to suppose that “everything, living or not, is constituted from elements having a nature that is both physical and nonphysical— that is, capable of combining into mental wholes.”  It’s another thing to have some idea what in world that would actually look like.

In any case, there are three things in the book that strike me as significant.  One is his claim that “certain things are so remarkable that they have to be explained as non-accidental if we are to pretend to a real understanding of the world.”  The second is his attempt to find a position between traditional naturalism and theism. The third is his apparently independent discovery of natural law theory in ethics, or, to be more precise, of the new natural law theory of folks like John Finnis.  More on these coming.

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