Thomas Nagel is one of the panjandrums of consciousness, author of the classic paper ‘What Is It Like To Be A Bat’ and so a champion of qualia; but also an important figure in inspiring the Mysterian school of pessimism.
Now he has inspired new controversy with his book ‘Mind and Cosmos: Why The Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.’ Probably the part of the book which has elicited the most negative reaction is the doubts Nagel expresses about evolution itself, or rather about the currently accepted view of it. It’s not that Nagel disbelieves in evolution per se, but he thinks there are important gaps in its account; in particular he doesn’t think it accounts satisfactorily for the origin of life, or for the availability of the large range of living forms on which natural selection has worked. He is not endorsing Intelligent Design but he thinks some of its proponents have arguments which deserve a wider and more sympathetic readership.
That does seem a bit alarming. It’s true, I think, that we don’t yet have a full and convincing story of how life came out of inert chemistry. I’d also agree that some of the theories put forward in the past – like the naked replicators championed by Richard Dawkins in the Selfish Gene – look a bit sketchy and optimistic. But none of that would stop me putting my money on the true story being a fully materialist one in which Darwinian evolution plays an early and crucial role. Nagel’s second problem, with the way nature seems to have provided a remarkable fund of variation in organisms, of a kind which lent itself to the emergence of sophisticated organisms, just seems misconceived. He offers no statistical analysis or other reasoning as to why the standard account is unlikely, just mere incredulity. It seems amazing that that could have happened; well yes, it does, but then it also seems amazing that we’re sitting on a huge oblate spheroid which is rotating and orbiting round an even vaster sphere of terrifying thermonuclear activity; but there it is.
The real problem is that Nagel wants these doubts (together with some more specific objections to standard materialism) to justify a large metaphysical change in our conception of the whole cosmos. His book professes only to offer tentative and inadequately imaginative speculations, and the discussion is largely at a meta-theoretical level – he isn’t telling us what he thinks is the case, he’s discussing the kinds of theory that could in principle be advocated – but it’s clear enough what kind of theory he would prefer to reductive materialism. What he leans towards is a teleological theory; one in which some underlying principle drives the world towards a particular goal. He does not want this to be an intentional goal; he does not want God in the picture or any other Designer; rather he wants there to be a natural push towards value; value being conceived as a sort of goodness or moral utility, although this part of the speculative potential theory clearly needs development.
Nagel’s critique of evolution may seem alarmingly misplaced, but the idea of introducing teleology to fill the gaps seems really astonishing. What, we’re going to abandon the idea that DNA came together through natural selection and say instead that it came together because it sort of wanted to or was sort of meant to? The history of science has been a history of driving out teleological explanations – and the reason that represents progress is that teleological explanations are just not very good; they are usually vacuous and provide no real insight or predictive power.
In some ways what Nagel is after seems like an inverted law of entropy. Instead of things running down and tending to disorder, he wants there to be something built into the cosmos that shoves things towards elaboration, complexity, and indeed self-awareness (he positions the evolution of human consciousness as a peak of the process, and likens it to the Universe waking up). In itself that vision is quite appealling, but Nagel wants it to be driven by the worst kind of teleology.
I’m not sure what the official ontological status of the law of entropy is – it could be a meta-law which says the laws of nature must be such that entropy always increases, or it could be something that emerges from those laws (perhaps from any viable set of laws) – but it is definitely fully compatible with the rest of physics. If Nagel’s new teleology worked like this, it might be viable, but he actually supposes it is going to have to discreetly intervene at some point and turn events in a direction other than the one mere physics would have dictated. This seems a disastrous requirement. If there’s one thing the whole weight of science goes to prove, it’s that the laws of physics are not intermittent or interruptable; every experiment ever conducted has contributed evidence that they are consistent and complete. Yes, there are some places in quantum physics or wherever where some might hope to smuggle in a bit of jiggery-pokery, but I think on examination even these recondite areas offer no real hope of a loophole.
This is a general issue with Nagel’s case. We can sympathise with the view that evolution is not a Theory of Everything, but the other theories we need should be compatible with the broadly materialist world view which, despite some problems, is really the only fully-worked out one we’ve got: but Nagel hankers after something stranger and thinner.
What about those other theories? Nagel isn’t basing his argument simply on his doubts about evolution; he has three places in which he thinks the standard materialist view is just not adequate. Consciousness, unsurprisingly, is one; cognitive thought, more unexpectedly, is another; and the third is his concept of value. In the next post let’s consider what he has to say about each.