I recently finished reading Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel. This book certainly has the most intriguing tagline I’ve ever seen—Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Talk about sensational! Headlines like this will obviously lead to a military buildup on both sides of the intellectual border.
The book has been nothing less than polarizing. Here is an atheist, an intellectual-philosophical atheist, an NYU-professor-of-law-and-philosophy atheist, writing a book against the generally accepted scientific account of how life came to be and how we evolved from that first twitch. The implications of Nagel’s arguments touch on core issues in the atheism/God debate and the evolution/creation debate.
Nagel’s basic premise is exactly what his subtitle says, that the neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false. It is an incomplete account of the story of our universe, both in regard to the origin of life and the origin of conscious beings capable of reflective thought and value judgments. The basic problem is that the mind with all that it involves—consciousness, cognition, value (the three chapter titles that form the bulk of the book)—is an aspect of reality that is physically irreducible and therefore not fully describable by the laws of physics. That means that there has to be something more than just pure physics and chemistry acting on pure “stuff.”
Below are twenty quotes that I pulled from Mind and Cosmos. These quotes don’t represent the entire argument of the book, nor the full position of Nagel. They are simply twenty quotes that I thought would be relevant and interesting to a Christian readership.
“The aim of this book is to argue that the mind-body problem is not just a local problem, having to do with the relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living animal organisms, but that it invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history.” (p. 3)
“For a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works.” (5)
“It seems to me that, as it is usually presented, 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.” (5)
“It is 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. We are supposed to abandon this naïve response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples. What is lacking, to my knowledge, is a credible argument that the story has a nonnegligible probability of being true.” (6)
“I realize that such doubts will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.” (7)
“Doubts about the reductionist account of life go against the dominant scientific consensus, but that consensus faces problems of probability that I believe are not taken seriously enough, both with respect to the evolution of life forms through accidental mutation and natural selection and with respect to the formation from dead matter of physical systems capable of such evolution.” (9)
“Whatever one may think about the possibility of a designer, the prevailing doctrine—that the appearance of life from dead matter and its evolution through accidental mutation and natural selection to its present forms has involved nothing but the operation of physical law—cannot be regarded as unassailable. It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis.” (11)
“If the mental is not itself merely physical, it cannot be fully explained by physical science.” (14)
“The interest of theism even to an atheist is that it tries to explain in another way what does not seem capable of explanation by physical science.” (22)
“Yet the ambition [of transcendence] appears to be irresistible–as if we cannot legitimately proceed in life just from the point of view that we naturally occupy in the world, but must encompass ourselves in a larger world view. And to succeed, that larger world view must encompass itself.” (23)
“Evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends.” (28)
“We have not observed life anywhere but on earth, but no natural fact is cosmologically more significant.” (32)
“Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science. The existence of consciousness seems to imply that the physical description of the universe, in spite of its richness and explanatory power, is only part of the truth, and that the natural order is far less austere than it would be if physics and chemistry accounted for everything. If we take this problem seriously, and follow out its implications, it threatens to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture.” (35)
“Materialism is incomplete even as a theory of the physical world, since the physical world includes conscious organisms among its most striking occupants.” (45)
“The existence of consciousness is both one of the most familiar and one of the most astounding things about the world. No conception of the natural order that does not reveal it as something to be expected can aspire even to the outline of completeness.” (53)
“Since moral realism is true, a Darwinian account of the motives underlying moral judgment must be false, in spite of the scientific consensus in its favor.” (105)
“In the present intellectual climate such a possibility is unlikely to be taken seriously, but I would repeat my earlier observation that no viable account, even a purely speculative one, seems to be available of how a system as staggeringly functionally complex and informationally-rich as a self-reproducing cell, controlled by DNA, RNA, or some predecessor, could have arisen by chemical evolution alone from a dead environment. Recognition of the problem is not limited to the defenders of intelligent design.” (123)
“What I am convinced of is the negative claim that, in order to understand our questions and judgments about values and reasons realistically, we must reject the idea that they result from the operation of faculties that have been formed from scratch by chance plus natural selection, or that are incidental side effects of natural selection, or are products of genetic drift.” (125)
“It would be an advance if the secular theoretical establishment, and the contemporary enlightened culture which it dominates, could wean itself of the materialism and Darwinism of the gaps—to use one of its own pejorative tags. I have tried to show that this approach is incapable of providing an adequate account, either constitutive or historical, of our universe.” (127)
“I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation of two—though of course it may be replaced by a new consensus that is just as invalid. The human will to believe is inexhaustible.” (128)