Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Thomas Nagel and the Inadequacy of Materialism

Thomas Nagel is a prominent philosopher who once wrote that he didn't want God to exist. It wasn't just that he didn't believe that God existed, it was that he didn't want God to exist. Stern stuff, but despite that earlier sentiment he seems recently, perhaps, to have taken a step closer to changing his mind. He's now arguing that materialism is a philosophically inadequate and sterile metaphysics and that there must be something more to evolutionary history and cosmology than just physics.

This will be seen by many of his fellow atheists as a scandalous betrayal, leading as it does to intimations of the Divine, but he feels so strongly about it that he's written a soon-to-be-released book on the topic. The volume is titled Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False and is published by Oxford University Press. Nagel argues in the book, inter alia, that materialism simply cannot explain the phenomena of consciousness.

Here's the publisher's blurb:
In Mind and Cosmos Thomas Nagel argues that the widely accepted world view of materialist naturalism is untenable. The mind-body problem cannot be confined to the relation between animal minds and animal bodies. If materialism cannot accommodate consciousness and other mind-related aspects of reality, then we must abandon a purely materialist understanding of nature in general, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology.

Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history.

An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such. No such explanation is available, and the physical sciences, including molecular biology, cannot be expected to provide one.

The book explores these problems through a general treatment of the obstacles to reductionism, with more specific application to the phenomena of consciousness, cognition, and value. The conclusion is that physics cannot be the theory of everything.
I think it's fair to sum up the implications of Nagel's thinking with a simple syllogism:
1. Either the universe is ultimately the product of mind or it is solely the product of natural forces acting on matter.
2. It is not solely the product of natural forces acting upon matter (Nagel's argument).
3. Therefore, the universe is ultimately the product of mind.
If this is indeed the conclusion toward which Nagel is listing a lot of New Atheists will be sorely vexed.