Mind and Cosmos

James N. Anderson
Thomas Nagel. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 130 pp.  Hardcover: $24.95.

There are basically three types of modern atheists: soft atheists, hard atheists, and conflicted atheists. Soft atheists deny God but still want to hold onto relatively traditional views of morality, rationality, and truth. New Atheists such as Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, with their sermonizing about the moral and intellectual failings of religion, fall into this category. They typically hold to a materialistic worldview, according to which everything ultimately reduces to physics and chemistry, but they haven't come to terms with all the implications of that worldview.

Hard atheists, following the lead of Friedrich Nietzsche, realize that once you deny God and embrace a materialistic evolutionary account of human origins, you must abandon or radically revise your commonsense views of morality and rationality. Alex Rosenberg and the late Richard Rorty, though very different philosophers in many respects, both represent this more self-aware form of modern atheism.

Conflicted atheists--the label is mine--are a small but significant group. Such thinkers see clearly the intellectual superficiality of soft atheism, which fails to grapple seriously with the implications of the "death of God." Yet they resist biting the bullet and embracing hard atheism because they aren't prepared to abandon what they take to be commonsense beliefs about reason, meaning, and value. In their estimation, that would amount to intellectual suicide. Concerned to avoid both superficiality and self-defeat, their only way forward is to challenge the reigning atheistic worldview of Darwinian materialism and find some alternative worldview that will allow them to avoid falling into the clutches of theism. Whatever this alternative may be, it must be conceived as naturalistic rather than supernaturalistic, for as biologist Richard Lewontin notoriously remarked, "We cannot allow a Divine foot in the door."(1)

Thomas Nagel, currently University Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, is perhaps the most prominent and penetrating representative of this third type of atheism. His recent book is a striking and significant blow against Darwinian orthodoxy, but it hasn't come out of the blue. One of Nagel's longstanding philosophical concerns has been to affirm the reality of the subjective (i.e., mind and consciousness) and to reconcile the subjective realm with the objective realm of empirical science. Nagel is a staunch realist about mind and moral values, and has argued forcefully against the materialistic reductionism that tries to explain mind in terms of matter alone. He has also shown sympathy in the past for teleology in nature and for the scientific arguments offered by those in the Intelligent Design movement.(2) It was only a matter of time before Nagel wrote this book.

The core thesis of Mind and Cosmos can be simply stated. Darwinian materialism has failed to account for several undeniable features of human existence: consciousness, reason, meaning, and moral values. The problem is not that the answers haven't yet been found, but rather that the paradigm itself precludes any satisfactory answers. All attempts to explain the mental and the moral in terms of the physical have been unsuccessful, and will continue to be. What is needed is not a novel Darwinian materialist solution, but rather a wholesale rejection of that paradigm in favor of a non-materialist (but non-supernaturalist) paradigm.

Mind and Cosmos is not a long book (128 pages) and by the author's design it is reasonably accessible to non-philosophers. The introductory chapter sets up the central problem to be discussed. "The world is an astonishing place," and the fact that it has produced human beings is "the most astonishing thing about it" (p. 7). The reigning worldview in scientific circles today is reductive materialism--put crudely, the idea that the universe is ultimately nothing more than matter in motion. But Nagel considers it "prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection" (p. 6). The more work is done in trying to defend this account, the more sterile it appears.

Remarkably for an atheist, Nagel gives credit to Intelligent Design advocates such as Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer for their critiques of Darwinism. "They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair" (p. 10). Nevertheless, Nagel is far from ready to jump the atheist ship. He confesses that he lacks the sensus divinitatis that allows others to view the world as a divine creation; indeed, he is constitutionally opposed to the idea (p. 12). His preference is to explore the theoretical region between materialism and theism.

The main chapters of the book explain in more detail why Nagel thinks that reductive materialism is explanatorily inadequate and ultimately self-defeating. Chapter 2 defends an antireductionist view of the mental. Mind is "not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature" (p. 16). The notion that our rational conscious minds are the product of blind, undirected material processes is not only implausible but flies in the face of commonsense. Historically speaking, the major alternative to materialism is theism, which, as Nagel characterizes it, takes the polar opposite view: the material order is actually the product of mind (specifically, the divine mind). Nagel finds the theistic option to be equally unsatisfactory, however, because it locates ultimate explanations beyond the natural universe (and thus, Nagel mistakenly suggests, beyond our understanding). The "God of the gaps" bogeyman looms large in Nagel's mind, and so his goal is to explore the territory between these two competing worldviews. In short, Nagel favors a worldview in which (i) both the physical and the psychical are equally ultimate aspects of the natural order, and (ii) there is nothing beyond the natural order. All final explanations must be natural explanations, but 'natural' includes both the material and the (irreducibly) mental.

Chapters 3 through 5 treat in greater detail the severe problems faced by materialism. Each of these chapters focuses on one feature of our experience--consciousness, reason, and morality--and argues that the feature in question is real, undeniable, and cannot be reduced to the physical. Each feature presents its own challenge: a materialist account of one would not suffice as a materialist account of the other two. Moreover, with respect to each feature Darwinian materialists face two problems, one constitutive and the other historical. The constitutive problem is: How in principle could this feature be constituted solely by physical states? The historical problem is: Even if this feature could be constituted solely by physical states, how did it in fact arise in the course of history by undirected physical processes? These two problems are logically distinct; a satisfactory answer to the first question would not be an answer to the second question. But the distinction is somewhat moot; the reality is that no good answers to either question are forthcoming.

Nagel's book displays many virtues, among them clarity, conciseness, honesty, and courage. Where it disappoints is in its failure to develop a positive proposal. Nagel effectively dismantles the materialist worldview, but goes hardly any way toward defending an alternative. Indeed, what Nagel says is rather sketchy and obscure. Perhaps the best label for his proposal would be "naturalistic teleological panpsychism." Naturalistic, because (contra theism) it rejects God or any other kind of transcendent being beyond the natural universe; all explanations must be immanent ones. Teleological, because (contra Darwinism) it affirms an intrinsic purpose or direction in nature which accounts for the emergence of intelligent conscious beings with moral sensibilities. Panpsychism, because (contra materialism) it posits that natural substances have both physical and mental properties, and thus all of nature is conscious at some primitive level.

Such a worldview, idiosyncratic though it may be, would be an improvement on reductive materialism. But does it have greater coherence and explanatory power than theism? This is not the place for a detailed critique, so I will simply gesture toward three points of weakness. In the first place, unlike theism, Nagel's worldview can offer no ready explanation for there being an orderly natural universe at all. As best we can tell, the universe does not exist of necessity and its natural laws are not logically necessary. Such contingencies beg for explanation, but that explanation cannot lie within the natural universe itself. By rejecting supernaturalism in principle, Nagel rules out any viable explanation for these fundamental truths.

Second, Nagel advocates a return to an Aristotelian teleological understanding of nature (p. 93). But in so doing he immediately opens himself up to Thomistic cosmological arguments for theism. Indeed, Aristotle's own metaphysic had to include a Prime Mover. It appears that Nagel wants the effects of a Prime Mover without the first cause.

Third, it's far from clear that Nagel's proposal fares any better than Darwinian materialism in accounting for the reality and knowability of objective moral principles. Nagel is not a relativist or a subjectivist; he holds that there are some moral absolutes. But arguably moral absolutes have to be grounded in a personal absolute God.(3) In one sense, Nagel does believe in a kind of deity: the universe itself. His proposal can be viewed as a form of naturalistic pantheism; at one point he even speaks of the universe "gradually waking up" (p. 117). So the universe is to be understood as having an impersonal primitive consciousness. But how could such a universe give rise to personal beings and impose moral obligations upon them? Isn't it far more coherent to believe that an all-good, all-powerful, personal God is the source of finite persons and the moral laws that govern them?

Mind and Cosmos is a stimulating book which crams more insights and arguments into its pages than many books three times its length. A number of lessons can be drawn from it:

  1. The book underscores the importance of thinking in terms of worldviews. It's fair game to point out the many scientific problems with Darwinism; yet that doesn't get to the root of its deficiencies, because Darwinism functions not merely as a scientific theory but as an overarching account of human nature and human origins. Nagel characterizes Darwinism materialism as a worldview several times in the book, and the thrust of his argument is that it is inadequate at that foundational level. The problems with it are not "local problems" (p. 3). Consequently, the gaping holes in that worldview can't be patched up by supplementing it with new scientific theories and materialist explanations. It simply isn't fit for purpose.

  2. The fact that a sophisticated, influential, non-religious philosopher like Thomas Nagel is impressed by the arguments offered by the Intelligent Design advocates, despite the inevitable opprobrium, suggests that the ID movement is making slow but steady headway in the public debate.

  3. Although it is becoming increasingly evident to many atheists that the S.S. Darwin is fatally holed and destined for the seabed, there is currently no other naturalistic ship worth jumping onto. Frankly, I cannot see many other atheists moving in Nagel's direction because they're likely to view his proposed alternative as merely a stepping-stone on the path to theism. And that's not the direction they want to swim.

  4. Presuppositional apologists have for decades been deploying arguments very similar in substance to Nagel's (i.e., that materialism cannot account for consciousness, rationality, and morality). Mind and Cosmos serves as a welcome common-grace confirmation of these presuppositionalist arguments. At the same time, however, the book serves as a caution not to identify atheism with materialism. It may be the case that the majority of atheists today hold to Darwinian materialism, but to refute that worldview is not to refute atheism as such. Nagel represents what may be a growing movement: non-materialist atheism.

Nagel concludes the book on a pessimistic note. He has only "speculate[d] about possible alternatives" to the reigning naturalist worldview, and his exploration is "far too unimaginative" (p. 127). He entertains the real possibility that "the truth is beyond our reach, in virtue of our intrinsic cognitive limitations" (p. 128). Nagel is clear that he strongly favors any naturalistic worldview over a theistic worldview. But these closing concessions suggest something more, namely, that he would sooner admit philosophical defeat than accept God as the final explanation for human existence and experience. In short, there are really only two live options for him: naturalistic explanation and no explanation.

From a philosophical standpoint this is hard to credit, since his "God of the gaps" concerns about theistic explanations can be easily addressed, and as I've suggested, a God-centered worldview has more explanatory power than his naturalistic alternative. Yet from a spiritual standpoint, his resistance is not unexpected. As Nagel has candidly confessed elsewhere, it's not merely that he doesn't believe there's a God. He doesn't want there to be a God.(4) In the end, the problem isn't that God fails as a good philosophical explanation for the basic features of human experience. The problem is simply that God is, well, God.

Dr. James Anderson is Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC. His latest book is What's Your Worldivew? (Forthcoming; Crossway, 2014).

1. Lewontin, "Billions and Billions of Demons," New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997.

2. In 2009, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Nagel singled out Stephen Meyer's Signature in the Cell as one of the top books of the year. One outraged atheistic blogger suggested that Nagel had "jumped the shark."

3. See, e.g., John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (P&R, 1994), pp. 93-102.

4. See his widely-quoted comments in The Last Word (Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 130-31.