Mind and Cosmos. Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Thomas Nagel. Oxford University Press, 2012.
Thomas Nagel is someone very special for me. I met him first about 25 years ago through a book “God, Guilt and Death”. It has a lasting effect on me… Later on, I’ve read his seminal essay “What Is It Like To Be A Bat”, which was followed by “The View From Nowhere”, “Mortal Questions” and “What Does It All Mean?”. These were no accidents as I was reading a lot on cognition and consciousness on which Nagel had important views to share. He is still at the forefront of consciousness studies and that is probably why this seemingly small book has become the center of some controversy.
The book is 130 pages, including the index. Still, it is a very, very heavy load for most of us, mortals. I don’t feel I am entitled to offer a detailed analysis of the book. That is simply beyond my reach. However, I will try to give potential readers some idea about the scope of the work.
Nagel’s writing style has always been concise, lucid, systematic and to the point. He does not try to outsmart you. Nor does he try to entertain the reader. Still, his books can become page turners for those asking the same questions! This last one is no exception.
I think I can summarise the thesis central to the book like this : Consciousness as we experience and utilize it can not be a by-product of life, which, according to Neo-Darwinist theories (shared by the large majority of scientists) is just a happy accident.
The controversy around the book is due to Nagel’s view that the dominant scientific approach to regard consciousness as a mere consequence of a (Darwinian) chain of events is simply laughable. He, as an atheist, finds religious (i.e. creationist) reactions to the “scientific” approach understandable. He tries to show that the theory has already become a dogma and makes a systematic attempt at showing why no Neo-Darwinist approach can consistently and coherently explain the link between life (since its beginning) and consciousness. Specifically, that approach always fails to provide an explanation for the existence of values (right-wrong, good-bad). The controversy (which is useless and unproductive) involves some scientists and philosophers who -essentially- do not care about the problems Nagel outlines here about taking the Neo-Darwinist theories “on everything” as facts. They believe the theory is good enough for the moment and criticising it (like Nagel does) only helps contributing to creationists’ worthless arguments. The fact that Mind and Cosmos got some favourable reviews from prominent creationist writers also feeds these heated arguments.
Nagel is well aware of the limits of his own attempts at testing a variety of other hypotheses. He offers each of the potential, speculative theories one by one in a systematic manner and tries to show each one’s strength and weaknesses. I am not going to tell more about these theories as it might spoil your reading pleasure. Suffice it to say here that, Nagel believes that the current Neo-Darwinist theory can never explain why we have consciousness and why the concept of “value” is internal to our physical being. Since this is plain to see for everyone, it should be a duty for those who are capable of thinking of better ones. Nagel believes that any theory of life as we know should be able to explain consciousness, capability of reasoning and behaviours directed by value judgements as necessary/inescapable consequences of life. This is no easy task: especially for an atheist! For theists, it might be a bit easier as they can just say “God did it this way!”. Unfortunately, this view (admittedly better than the ignorance of Neo-Darwinists) can not survive a logical dissection either. That leaves us, you and I, to discover why we are like we are. There is no easy answer at our reach but there is no reason as well to postpone our search for the explanation.
Some quotes from the book:
“Conscious subjects and their mental lives are inescapable components of reality not describable by the physical sciences”. (p41)
“Each of our lives is part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself”. (p85)
“In brief, value is not just an accidental side effect of life; rather, there is life because life is a necessary condition of value”. (p123)
“It is perfectly possible that the truth is beyond our reach…”. (p128)
Actually, the very last sentence in the book (which I will not quote here) is so loaded that it deserves to be treated as a novel. One by Dostoevsky, perhaps.