If you’re looking for one last book to read this summer, and you’re the type who likes to indulge in grand speculations without sacrificing critical reasoning, I’d like to recommend Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”. Like some other philosophers who have reached a certain age, Nagel seems more than willing to set aside the hair-splitting rigor required for first-rate academic work, and to suggest tentative answers to the truly mind-boggling, age-old problems: here, how we should try to adequately explain the origin of the universe, life, consciousness, cognition, and value. In a scant 128 pages, Nagel takes on this apparently intractable problem as simply and directly as a self-respecting analytic philosopher can, mainly by pursuing a negative goal: to cast doubt on the sufficiency of the usual materialist explanation of the universe, as well as on the contemporary neo-Darwinian explanation of life and its mental dimensions. In this he can’t help but share, with obvious discomfort, common ground with Intelligent Design proponents. But Nagel pays little attention to the Creationist alternative, dismissing it as insufficient, implausible, and at least as ideological as its neo-Darwinian competitor. Instead, he wants to shore up the credentials of an ancient view that goes all the way back to Aristotle: a naturalistic teleology that holds that we can adequately explain the universe can only with a theory that includes laws that work, in some sense, in reverse. According to such a view, the universe exists, in part, in order to bring about the existence of conscious, thinking creatures with the ability to recognize objective truths about physics, biology, psychology, and value (particularly morality). That is, the universe is determined to develop as it does at least partly in order to recognize itself. This is not an entirely original idea, but rarely has a philosopher of Nagel’s stature been brave enough to actually advocate it, at least publicly.
If Nagel is right (and he realizes that his argument is based on little more than quite tentative epistemological intuitions), our current science is not necessarily wrong, but it is radically incomplete, and the hope that by merely adding further causal principles of the same type it can eventually provide an adequate “theory of everything” – or even a “theory of everything that we currently know of” – has to be abandoned. To sum up this negative point and hint at the positive alternative, here’s part of the book’s last two paragraphs-
…I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world. 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 adapt 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.
However… [a]n understanding of the universe as basically prone to generate life and mind will probably require a much more radical departure from the familiar forms of naturalistic explanation than I am at present able to conceive. Specifically, in attempting to understand consciousness as a biological phenomenon, it is too easy to forget how radical is the difference between the subjective and the objective, and to fall into the error of thinking about the mental in terms taken from our ideas of physical events and processes…
It is perfectly possible that the truth is beyond our reach, in virtue of our intrinsic cognitive limitations, and not merely beyond our grasp in humanity’s present stage of intellectual development. But I believe that we cannot know this, and that it makes sense to go on seeking a systematic understanding of how we and other living things fit into the world. …The empirical evidence can be interpreted to accommodate different comprehensive theories, but [in the case of reductive materialism and its neo-Darwinian extension], the cost in conceptual and probabilistic contortions is prohibitive. I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two – though of course it may be replaced by a new consensus that is just as invalid. The human will to believe is inexhaustible.
Of course, Nagel’s book has raised the ire of many of his fellow philosophers who accept “the present right-thinking consensus”. For an informative article on the criticisms, read this essay from a few months ago in the Chronicle: “Where Nagel Went Wrong”.