Mind and Cosmos - A Good Critique on Darwinism but a Deficient Conclusion
Thomas Nagel’s recent work Mind and Cosmos exhibits one philosopher’s difficulties with the Darwinian theory of origins and life. This work is perhaps most intriguing due to the lack of personal religious allegiance of the writer as well as the notable publisher and high caliber of the author. While any criticism of Darwin has often been decried as anathema in scholastic circles, Nagel’s work suggests an honest difficulty with a purely naturalistic Darwinian approach.
Nagel begins his work with the statement: “the mind-body problem is not just a local problem . . . but invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history.” He then goes on to state that the “physical sciences and evolutionary biology cannot be kept insulated from it” (pg. 3). Based upon these statements, Nagel concludes that eventually the place of the physical sciences as an explanatory force must be questioned (pg. 3). He argues that the more mankind has come to understand the intricate nature of the mind-body relationship, the more inadequate a purely naturalistic explanation seems to suffice. At this point, Nagel quickly calls scientists to account for not acknowledging the limits of what they can understand from a purely naturalistic viewpoint (pg. 4). While many scientists have tended to see science as offering all the answers to every kind of question, Nagel challenges such a baseless claim and inserts some reality into the utopian dream of many Darwinists.
The difficulty of such a bankrupt approach lies in assuming what Nagel terms a “reductive materialism” as being the only theory possible (pg. 4) While scientists claim to be impartial, Nagel properly shows that the Darwinian scientist, in truth, only allows for one ultimate theory of explanation.
The problem, as Nagel perceives it, is that the “current orthodoxy about the cosmic order is the product of governing assumptions that are unsupported, and that it flies in the face of common sense” (pg. 5). These assumptions of naturalistic explanations have then kept science from properly evaluating the evidence and coming to a theory that adequately explains the intricate evidence. The author correctly states: “The world is an astonishing place, and the idea that we have in our possession the basic tools needed to understand it is no more credible now than it was in Aristotle’s day” (pg. 7).
The reductionist tendency of Naturalists has tended to be naive at best and destructive at worst. He points to the existence of DNA as a major aspect that cannot even begin to be adequately explained by purely natural forces. He then states that some Intelligent Design proponents have valid arguments against a purely naturalistic explanation (pg. 10). While such a statement in a major philosophical work is by no means common, in the next breath, Nagel discounts Intelligent Design as not giving a better explanation than Darwinism. While it would be interesting to discover why Nagel thinks Intelligent Design proponents do not have a valid theory, it seems beyond the scope of his work and he does not detail why he rejects the theory. At this point, Nagel seems to be properly evaluating the inadequacy of the prevailing scientific theory in the modern day world. While it would seem that the introduction of Nagel’s work is well worth consideration, most of the remaining chapters tend to offer only slightly more than the clearly stated issues he originally suggests at the beginning of his book.
The point is then made that many aspects of life such as “consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought and value” cannot be adequately accounted for by only natural processes (pg. 13). As he goes on to explain: “if the mental is not itself merely physical, it cannot be fully explained by physical science” (pg. 14). Since the majority of scientific breakthroughs have been brought about by the assumption of the observer that the world is to be intelligibly understood, it is difficult to understand how Darwinism could explain such a phenomenon when the world and its structure came by blind chance. It would seem that Nagel’s main point is to show that Darwinism cannot explain ultimately from whence these characteristics come, nor can it explain why such processes would continue to be found in species when the survival value is minimal at best. Furthermore, these are not physical entities, so how does a purely naturalistic theory explain nonphysical aspects of humanity?
Nagel seems to be making several excellent observations up until this point, but then continues by making some less than excellent comments. Although he has faulted the Darwinist for making assertions predicated on unfounded assumptions, he commits the sameerror by suggesting a middle way between theism and atheism even though he has no concept of what that middle way might be (pg. 22). He suggests that there may be a theory that could explain all the difficulties naturalism faces and yet not hold to any form of deity. While this is an interesting suggestion, Nagel seems to admit that he does not have such a middle-way and yet he is going to hold to this non-existent theory because he does not like the other options.
While his evaluations of naturalism to this point have been helpful, it seems a bit disingenuous to discount the only two alternatives currently available and then claim a middle-way without knowing what it might be. The Darwinist or Theist might wish to point out that an explanation that makes sense of part of the data is vastly superior to an unknown theory that may or may not be out there that might possibly explain all the data.
Moving on to a critique of theism, Nagel says that it “does not offer a sufficiently substantial explanation of our capacities” (pg. 25). I am not sure how he finds it deficient, but it seems as if he argues that atheistic naturalism is not valid because it cannot explain the purposeful world we see around us, and then critiques theism for only offering an explanation that has to do with purpose (pg. 25). Since this was not the main focus of the book, however, it is difficult to understand exactly why Nagel cannot accept a theistic view.
Nagel then asserts that the idea of “consciousness” seems to suggest a systematic reason for why we have consciousness (pg. 31). This seems to be a valid observation, and yet the only worldview that offers an explanation, theism, is not considered because Nagel has used his consciousness to ignore its explanatory value since he does not like the result. This seems to fly in the face of “following the evidence” which is the main purpose for his rejecting Darwinism.
His chapter on Cognition is helpful. How does a Naturalist explain how cognition arose when it does not necessarily improve survival value? Nagel also correctly argues that naturalism cannot ultimately explain where the laws of reason originated. Nevertheless, he seems content to reason against naturalism and yet conclude that his worldview cannot ultimately explain the origin of the reasoning he uses either. While his argument against naturalism is valid at this point, it would seem that his worldview cannot provide a basis for reason either and thus would not be in any way superior.
Nagel’s final chapter on Value concludes, “a Darwinian account of the motives underlying moral judgment must be false, in spite of the scientific consensus in its favor” (pg. 105). If Darwinism is completely driven by its survival value, how does one explain an inherent morality that does not necessarily have any survival value? As he states: “A Darwinian account of the origin of our basic desires and aversions, by contrast, has no implications as to whether they are generally reliable perceptions of judgment-independent value, or whether indeed there is such a thing” (pg. 109).
He then goes on to conclude that “the judgment that our senses are reliable because their reliability contributes to fitness is legitimate, but the judgment that our reason is reliable because its reliability contributes to fitness is incoherent” (pg. 125). At this point, Hagel seems to make a critical blow to Darwinists for they must explain both how reason arose in a purely naturalistic universe and also why it has continued to the present when it does not necessarily lend itself to the survival of the species.
In his conclusion, Nagel states: “it is perfectly possible that the truth is beyond our reach, in virtue of our intrinsic cognitive limitations, and not merely beyond our grasp in humanity’s present stage of intellectual development” (pg. 128). This seems like an honest assessment of the reasoning and arguments presented. His argument, however, seems to imply that reason alone is the sole arbiter of truth. Because Darwinism is unreasonable to him and because theism falls into the same category, he must assume that an ultimate explanation is either not currently known or is unattainable.
There is another explanation, however, although a philosopher might not like the suggestion that human reason may not be the best ultimate standard by which truth should be evaluated. While Nagel seems to give several well-formed criticisms of naturalism as being largely based on assumptions instead of the evidence, he then discounts theism based on his assumptions instead of the evidence. Nagel’s work is a helpful addition to the Intelligent Design arguments against the helpfulness of Darwinism as a theory, but the arguments fall short because the reader is not only left with a deficient theory, but also a complete lack of any replacement.
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