The philosopher Thomas Nagel has come out with an admirably short and engaging book, Mind And Cosmos, with the subtitle Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Readers unfamiliar with Nagel might assume that his book is an attack on contemporary Darwinism by a person of faith arguing that biological evolution reveals the work of an intelligent designer — God himself. But the author, University Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Law at New York University, removes any such misunderstanding at the start by declaring himself an atheist.
In Nagel’s view, Neo-Darwinism — biological evolution as we understand it today – is fundamentally incomplete, because it doesn’t explain how life originated and, says Nagel, it won’t ever have the ability to explain the emergence of human consciousness. Nagel believes that a better way of thinking about nature, and specifically about biological evolution, would be to search out nature’s purpose and goal. For while insisting that he is not theistic – quite the contrary – he nonetheless believes that evolution is teleological. That is to say, it has a purpose and it intends to reach a specific goal.
Nagel’s book was recently reviewed — rebutted may be the better word — across three of those very large pages that make up the New York Review of Books. The reviewer, H. Allen Orr, is University Professor and Shirley Cox Kearns Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester, an evolutionary geneticist. These two, the biologist and the philosopher, are well matched in intelligence, prizes and distinguished positions in the republic of the intellect. But you needn’t be either a biologist or a philosopher to read Mind And Cosmos. Although Nagel writes at the highest level of abstraction and rarely yields to the concrete example, he write with pristine clarity and is quite understandable.
Indeed, Nagel may have had you, the intelligent non-specialist in mind. Certainly, it’s hard to believe that evolutionary biologists are going to be swayed by Mind And Cosmos and, anyway, in Nagel’s view Neo-Darwinism isn’t up to the task that he’s has laid out. One of the curious features of Nagel’s argument is the underlying assumption that we now have in hand a sufficient understanding of nature to explain the emergence of consciousness – it’s just that we’re not thinking about consciousness properly, he says, because we’re stuck in the mind-set of materialistic reductionist science. That feature is almost as astonishing as Nagel’s proposal that evolution is teleological, but no god is involved. At the close of Mind And Cosmos, Nagel discusses value, moral value, in relation to neo-Darwinism. A evolutionary scientist may well come to the conclusion, based on empirical evidence, that moral values are preferences which we humans have and share with those around us, but they’re not absolute objective truths about the world. To Nagel, moral values are “real,” that is to say, not matters of opinion but absolutes, the same everywhere at all times.
In many respects, Nagel’s philosophical tract, which he asserts is not the least bit theistic, sounds very much like the essay of an atheist in search of religious values without the religion. If you like to dine on disputation, Thomas Nagel has invited you to a feast.