Thomas Nagel; Not a Believer, But an Opponent of Scientific Reductionism

Every Year More Writers Challenge Darwinian Reductionism - This is Encouraging!






W e make no bones about it: we are a Christian website. Having said that, we are always interested when obviously serious non-Christian thinkers come to conclusions which evangelical Christianity, broadly speaking, would support.


Thomas Nagel (pictured above), is not a believer but he has just written a book, 'Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False,' which is an all-out assault on Neo-Darwinism, especially its reductionism. In the past he has also shown some support for at least certain arguments of the Intelligent Design movement.

Thomas Nagel (born July 4, 1937) is an American philosopher, currently (that is, as of 2013) University Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, where he has taught since 1980. His main areas of philosophical interest are philosophy of mind, political philosophy, ethics and the philosophy of science.

Nagel is especially well known for his critique of reductionist accounts of the mind, particularly in his essay "What Is it Like to Be a Bat?" (1974), and for his contributions to deontological and liberal moral and political theory in The Possibility of Altruism (1970) and subsequent writings. Nagel is also the author of Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (2012), in which he argues against a reductionist view, and specifically the neo-Darwinian view, of the emergence of consciousness. Let us be straight about this: Nagel is not a believer, indeed, in the past he has been described as an atheist, yet he has been prepared to stand up and be counted as an opponent of Darwinian reductionism.

For Nagel, Neo-Darwinism does not have all the answers and it should quit pretending that it does have them. One of the tools which Neo-Darwinists always employ is called 'reductionism.' What is reductionism? The basic idea - now very familiar to anybody who watches/reads a lot of modern science - is that the universe, including our own human existence, can be fully explained by the interactions of various bits of matter. Scientists are portrayed to be in the business of discovering the laws that characterize this matter, in a non-prejudicial way (in reality, of course, modern science carries enormous prejudices, especially against supernaturalism). They feel most able to do this by and through a process of reduction. So the matters of biology, for instance, can be reduced to chemistry and the stuff of chemistry can be reduced to physics. Consciousness can be reduced purely to the physio-chemical workings of the brain. There are massive assumptions here which scientists go on making, mainly because they are so rarely challenged; yet it is increasingly being recognised that there are major problems in reducing consciousness, for example, purely to the mechanistic workings of the brain; numerous questions regularly arise which reveal the current approach to be a naive approach. Many such questions cannot even begin to be addressed under the prevailing physicalist/reductionist view, since it confines itself to matter, insisting that there is nothing else, despite quite extensive evidence that matter is insufficient to provide adequate explanations. Encouragingly, new books appear every year which challenge the usual view, including the huge tome 'Irreducible Mind,' which I recently reviewed here.

In his The New York Review of Books article, 'Awaiting a New Darwin,' H. Allen Orr looks at Nagel's latest book, offering some interesting comments. Orr writes,

In 'Mind and Cosmos,' Nagel continues his attacks on reductionism. Though the book is brief its claims are big. Nagel insists that the mind-body problem "is not just a local problem" but invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history. If what he calls "materialist naturalism" or just "materialism" can't explain consciousness, then it can't fully account for life since consciousness is a feature of life. And if it can't explain life, then it can't fully account for the chemical and physical universe since life is a feature of that universe. Subjective experience is not, to Nagel, some detail that materialist science can hand-wave away. It's a deal breaker. Nagel believes that any future science that grapples seriously with the mind-body problem will be one that is radically re-conceived. (end of quote).

Now it's true that Nagel continues - loosely at least - to support evolution but he insists that its reductionism is a major problem. He has not suddenly become a believer although he has agreed that the 'intelligent design' movement has produced some good arguments which evolutionary science should not simply dismiss out of hand. In his book review, Orr tackles Nagel's new emerging theory of 'teleology':

Nagel finds theism unattractive. But he insists that materialism and theism do not exhaust the possibilities. Instead he proposes a special species of teleology that he calls natural teleology. Natural teleology doesn't depend on any agent's intentions; it's just the way the world is. There are teleological laws of nature that we don't yet know about and they bias the unfolding of the universe in certain desirable directions, including the formation of complex organisms and consciousness. The existence of teleological laws means that certain physical outcomes "have a significantly higher probability than is entailed by the laws of physics alone - simply because they are on the path toward a certain outcome." Nagel intends natural teleology to be, among other things, a biological theory. (end of quote, which comes from here).

So while Nagel cannot bring himself to admit that the evolutionary view of life is flawed to the very core, he does admit it is a false view of life as it currently stands since it contains no convincing vehicle for explaining consciousness. Nagel hopes for a better theory to emerge in the future based upon his schema of 'teleology.' He obviously sees intention and design at work in the cosmos yet refuses any concept of Theism - at least for the present; his position is, of course, ultimately contradictory, for his 'teleology' could not work without God, but he does not wish to take ownership of Theism. Yet it is interesting that this highly-studied man rejects current evolutionary dogma. So his 2012 book adds to the ever-growing voices which are challenging the very narrow physicalist worldview of Neo-Darwinism.

Writers like Thomas Nagel are important because when the flawed intellectual edifice of macro-evolution finally falls (which one day it surely must), it will be because of the continual and cumulative drip-drop effect of bold writers like Nagel (and many others) who are prepared to continually chip away at its increasingly manifest failings. Nagel wants to open a door for a new kind of science based upon his concept of 'teleology,' this could certainly provide an entrance for Theism, though Nagel himself refuses to go that far.

Robin A. Brace. February 10th, 2013.


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