Darwin’s Nagging Doubt

What Thomas Nagel Could Learn From Theology

“With me the horrid doubt always arises,” wrote Charles Darwin, “whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

Darwin never followed up on his “horrid doubt” about whether we can trust our minds if they are products of an aimless process of natural selection, nor have most other scientists and philosophers. It is quite remarkable, I think, that the esteemed New York University philosopher Thomas Nagel now wants to do so. Nagel’s writings about mind have long provoked controversy, but his latest book, Mind and Cosmos, is quite unexpected and, to many of his fellow intellectuals, outrageously wrong. I think he’s on to something. Recently in Commonweal, a biologist, a physicist, and a philosopher weighed in on the book (“Nagel’s Untimely Idea,” May 17). I believe Mind and Cosmos is theologically important as well, not so much for what it says as for who is saying it—and why.

Some critics have taken Mind and Cosmos to be an attack on science, but this charge is misplaced. The book’s subtitle reveals its main point: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. Nagel has no problem with the standard evolutionary narrative of how living and thinking beings emerged gradually over the past 4 billion years. Rather, his concern is whether a materialist worldview can make that narrative intelligible. His answer is no, it cannot. Is there a credible alternative?

Materialists, both ancient and modern, believe that lifeless and mindless “matter” is the ultimate origin and final destiny of all that exists. Nagel claims that when materialist belief is alloyed with evolutionary biology, as is usually the case today, it only clouds our understanding of life. “Evolutionary naturalism,” as Nagel labels the materialist slant on the story of life, is not science but a spurious nonscientific interpretation of science. Instead of illuminating evolution, materialism only dulls our understanding of it. It reduces living things to lifeless elements and in effect denies that when life and mind emerged in cosmic history anything truly new or revelatory was happening.

This muddling becomes especially evident, Nagel argues, in materialism’s failure to explain satisfactorily how “mind”—evolution’s most exquisite outcome so far—came into being from an utterly mindless universe. Moreover, if, as materialists believe, minds are reducible to physical stuff that has been blindly shuffled and reshuffled by a long and mindless evolutionary process, why—as Darwin wondered—should we assume these same minds can lead us to a correct understanding of anything?

Science, as Nagel appreciates, has now shown that mind and cosmos are in fact a package deal. Dualism, of the sort advocated by Descartes and others, is untenable. As far as science is concerned, there can be no privileged spiritual world where minds exist in isolation from the rest of nature. Mind, as cosmologists have shown, was beginning to stir in the heart of matter 14 billion years ago. The precise physical conditions and constants required for the universe to give rise to consciousness were already in place at the very beginning of the cosmic story. The universe as understood by contemporary astrophysics, in other words, has never been fundamentally mindless.

Materialists disagree. For them mindlessness is the ground state of being, and the actual emergence of mind has to be a fluke that tells us nothing significant about the nature of the real world. For Nagel, however, since mind is fully part of nature, as even materialists must admit, it would be silly to ignore its remarkable properties when we try to understand the universe. Doesn’t the fact that nature has produced minds capable of discovering the mathematical principles operative in the physical universe from which minds have emerged tell us something essential about the universe?

The problem is how to understand mind as truly part of nature without dragging it back into the mud of materialism’s original cosmic mindlessness. Perhaps we can avoid this dead end, Nagel proposes, by restoring to the cosmos an inherent purpose (teleology) or directionality. Purpose is a quality that science has deliberately subtracted from its picture of nature for the past four centuries. Yet if we want a full and accurate portrait of our mind-making universe we may need to bring it back. For all we know, Nagel suggests, the making of minds is what the cosmos is really all about. This is a startling proposal, especially in today’s intellectual climate, since for most scientists and philosophers the idea of cosmic purpose has no explanatory value at all. On the other hand, according to Nagel, materialist naturalism makes the universe look so blank and pointless from the outset that Darwin is right to ask why we should ever trust the minds that have emerged from it.

The main difficulty Nagel faces is that the majority of scientists and philosophers still think of “Darwinism” as inseparable from a materialist worldview. Evolutionist philosopher Michael Ruse, for example, declares that Darwinism is “the apotheosis of a materialist theory.” Little wonder, then, that Nagel seems to Ruse like “a horse who broke into the zebra pen.” According to Nagel, however, the unreasonableness of materialism shows up especially in its failure to illuminate the most impressive chapter in natural history—namely, the universe’s awakening into consciousness that began to take place with the arrival of humans. What we need is a way to stitch the phenomenon of consciousness tightly and intelligibly into the natural world while leaving the materialist baggage behind. The materialist is content with the idea that mind came from mindlessness and unto mindlessness it will return. In this vein the Oxford physical chemist Peter Atkins announces imperiously that science has exposed the entirety of life and mind as nothing more than brute physical simplicity “masquerading as complexity.” But Nagel rightly considers such proclamations to be self-sabotaging. If cognitive complexity were reducible to mindless simplicity, why should we expect the splendid qualities of insight and truthfulness to accompany any propositions emanating from Atkins’s mind or that of any other exponents of materialism?

In earlier writings Nagel had already complained that scientific analysis has no access to the minds or inner experience of living organisms, whether bats or humans. Readers, however, did not take these qualms to be a rejection of materialism. Nagel’s latest book, by comparison, is full-blown heresy. In reaction Nagel’s most vocal critics complain that he is injuring science by making room for miracles, divine intervention, or intelligent design to account for the improbable emergence of mind. Clearly, though, he has nothing against science. His critique of “neo-Darwinism,” for example, is directed not at biological research but at the materialist ideology that has hijacked biological science for nonscientific reasons. Nor does the atheist Nagel have any theological agenda whatsoever. He is convinced that any consistent thinker, religious or not, should acknowledge the blatant irrationality of materialist attempts to squeeze mind into a world from which any place for mind has already been removed.

Annoyed at Nagel’s incredulity, materialist evolutionists such as Richard Dawkins typically insist that fitting mind into a mindless universe is no problem if you have a deep enough sense of time. Nagel, they would say, fails to consider what surprising things can be accomplished by innumerable minute organic modifications and natural selection if given sufficient time. If time is abundant, mindlessness can give rise to minds. Nagel would reply, however, that evolutionary naturalists like Dawkins are still pulling a rabbit out of a hat. True, evolution has taken place over 4 billion years, involved innumerable accidents, and unfolded thanks to the impersonal “laws” of nature. Yet a materialist view of nature still can’t show—without seeming like alchemy—how the lustrous gold of human intelligence emerged from the dross of primordial cosmic mindlessness simply by adding the elixir of deep time. Something else must be going on.

Nagel still has work to do in convincing his critics that materialist accounts of mind are incoherent. Good luck. Devotees of materialist naturalism, as I have experienced personally, are true believers. Although they boast about an adherence to empirical “evidence,” they refuse to look carefully at the most immediate and palpable experience all of us have—namely, the felt performance of our own minds. Nagel wants a cosmology based on an empirical survey of the world wide enough to include close attention to what goes on in our minds. Understanding the universe requires our attending not only to the world “out there,” but also to the mind’s insatiable demand for understanding and truth. Everything that goes on in our minds, after all, is just as much part of nature as rocks and rivers. Doesn’t it say something important about the universe that it has produced beings who not only eat and sleep but who also raise questions, seek understanding, and long for truth and goodness?

Although he has no use for theology, Nagel’s attempt to make mind essential to our understanding of the universe would find support in two science-friendly theological thinkers. Before the middle of the last century the Jesuit geologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) was already calling for a “new physics” that makes the phenomenon of “thought” essential to our understanding of the cosmos. He lamented the fact that the materialists of his own day were unwilling to “see” that the emergence of the human mind in evolution is not a local, terrestrial anomaly but a key to what the cosmos as a whole is all about. Nagel could find additional support for his proposals in the work of the Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan (1904–84). No one has more brilliantly linked mind to evolution and the cosmos while simultaneously giving us a good reason to trust our minds. Unfortunately, it is hard to find well-known contemporary philosophers of mind who are familiar with Lonergan’s work. That’s a pity. In his magisterial Insight (1957) and elsewhere, Lonergan demonstrates that if our worldview is out of joint with what goes on in our minds—in every act of attending, understanding, knowing, and deciding—then we need to look for another worldview. He would agree with Nagel that materialism doesn’t work, not least because it logically subverts the trust required for our minds to work at all.

Nagel would be disappointed, of course, that Lonergan’s quest for a worldview that can adjust the cosmos to the human mind must ultimately enlist—for the sake of its coherence—the help of theology. A lifelong atheist, Nagel still suspects that science and theology are incompatible. He should be reassured, though, that theology properly understood never competes or conflicts with science. If there is a place for theology in the human quest for understanding and truth, it is not one of providing information that science can gather by itself. Rather, theology can enter the conversation about mind and cosmos least obtrusively and most disarmingly by addressing the big “worldview” question that Nagel seems on the verge of asking but from which he finally backs off. That question is: Why is the universe intelligible at all?

The materialist would answer that the world’s intelligibility, like the universe itself, has no explanation. It “simply is.” A theological worldview like Lonergan’s, on the other hand, offers an entirely reasonable alternative: It is the presence and lure of infinite being, wisdom, truth, and goodness that grounds both the world’s intelligibility and our own intelligent life. Through natural processes the inexhaustible love of God evokes an anticipatory restlessness that we call evolution and, in our newly emergent minds, an unrestricted desire to know. Such a theological vision not only makes the world a favorable place for scientific inquiry; it also provides good reasons for entrusting ourselves to the mind’s spontaneous quest for understanding and truth.

Published in the October 11, 2013 issue: 

 John F. Haught is Distinguished Research Professor at Georgetown University and author of The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe (Yale University Press, 2017).

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