Nagel's Cosmos: Teleology Without Intention?

In Mind & Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, a prolific and highly regarded philosopher, defends, by his own admission, “the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life.” He continues, “It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection” (6). Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker is “a canonical expression” of the standard account, and, though it “seems to convince practically everyone” (5n2), Nagel finds it “ hard to believe” (5). His real enemy is “a reductive materialism that purports to capture life and mind through its neo-Darwinian extension,” calling it “a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense” (128). About those who oppose Darwin, he writes, “They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair” (10). Nevertheless, he does not share the religious convictions of some of Darwin’s critics. On the contrary, Nagel’s project is explicitly atheistic (e.g., 95), and he endorses a utopian hope in the ability of the natural sciences to produce understanding (69).

Nagel believes that we should accept the failure of our contemporary scientific account of the world in order to make way for a revolution. Humanity has made great progress by excluding the mind from the material world, but the time has come to accept the facts: we need to have a new account with mind woven into the fabric of the universe. Because we are committed to explaining the universe in terms of physical stuff interacting via cause and effect, we have an impossibly hard time explaining how consciousness, cognition, and value can possibly arise. Nagel takes a chapter for each of these three—consciousness, cognition, and value—in order to show how contemporary science can neither explain how such things could come into being and even, in fact, what they really are. We’ll take each in turn.

Consciousness. Either a mental event (e.g,. pain or a sensation) is the same thing as a physical event (e.g., a brain state), or it isn’t. If it is the same, then it’s only something that we discover, because they certainly seem so very different. (No untutored person smells a rose and believes that the smell of the rose just is some neurological activity.) But what distinguishes the two things—the mental and the physical—conceptually? The dualist says that it’s a nonphysical property, which is hardly what materialists will want to say (39). So they offer a causal relationship between the physical and the mental (39). In doing so, they lose the mental, as understood in terms of subjective appearances (40). When I’m told that the pain I’m experiencing in my foot just is a chemical interaction in my brain, it should cause me to doubt whether the person speaking to me has ever stubbed his toe.

We need more than a cause; we need an explanation, both of how it is that “certain complex physical systems are also mental” and also “a historical account of how such systems arose” (54). If we pursue a reductive strategy, we’ll either lose the mental (the pain you’re experiencing is just a brain event) or we’ll have to start thinking that we are composed of elementary constituents that are not entirely physical (54). If we pursue an emergent strategy—that somehow a collection of physical stuff produces mental life—then it “seems like magic” (56) because “it has the disadvantage of postulating the brute fact of emergence, not explainable in terms of anything more basic, and therefore essentially mysterious” (60–61).

Consequently, neither a reductive account nor an emergent account of consciousness is palatable. So it’s time to shop for an alternative. One such alternative is an intentional account. According to this account, someone—God, for example—operates in the world to guarantee the development of conscious beings. Nagel finds this unsatisfactory, for at least two reasons; first, he wants a secular theory, and, second, the idea that development in the natural world requires intervention is inelegant (66).

Teleology without intention is Nagel’s alternative account: there must be teleological laws that govern the organization of matter, including the emergence of consciousness (64).

Cognition. Cognition is even more problematic from a contemporary evolutionary account. Here we are talking not simply about subjective awareness but the ability “to transcend subjectivity and to discover what is objectively the case” (72). Reasons have independent authority apart from an evolutionary account; in fact, evolutionary theory does nothing to support reasoning but, instead, presupposes it (80–81). A computer model of rationality in which the mind is “a computer built out of a large number of transistor-like homunculi” can’t do the work, because such a metaphor can “account for behavioral output, but not for understanding” (87). These worries suggest that an emergent answer is more likely, but an emergent answer requires a nonmysterious account of how consciousness emerges. Again, the answer is teleology, as opposed to “all three of the other candidate explanations: chance, creationism, and directionless physical law” (91).

Value. Nagel offers a clear account of the differences between subjectivism—“the right answer depends on our attitudes and dispositions”—and the realist one—“our judgments attempt to identify the right answer and to bring our attitudes into accord with us” (99). Nagel agrees with Sharon Street’s claim (in his words) that “moral realism is incompatible with a Darwinian account of the evolutionary influence on our faculties of moral and evaluative judgment” (105). Though Street sees this incompatibility as a reason to give up on moral realism, Nagel thinks that, on the contrary, “since moral realism is true, a Darwinian account of the motives underlying moral judgment must be false, in spite of the scientific consensus in its favor” (105). For Nagel, “the scientific credentials of Darwinism … are not enough to dislodge the immediate conviction that objectivity is not an illusion with respect to basic judgments of value” (110). He remains “convinced that pain is really bad, and not just something we hate, and that pleasure is really good, and not just something we like” (110).

But can teleology without intention do the work that he requires? “I am not confident,” Nagel writes, “that this Aristotelian idea of teleology without intention makes sense, but I do not at the moment see why it doesn’t” (93). Here’s why it doesn’t: teleology without intention makes sense within Aristotle’s static and eternal universe, but it doesn’t within Nagel’s dynamic and evolutionary one. (My thanks to J. T. Bridges for bringing these issues to my attention.)

Aristotle could say that there have always been oak trees giving off acorns that flourish into oak trees. By contrast, Nagel’s evolution with teleology is not static. So he has to say that the proper function of a bacterium is doing what bacteria do (117) but also that the proper function of a bacterium is not doing what bacteria do (i.e., being goal-directed towards the evolution of higher life forms). It’s not a straightforward contradiction, but it demands an explanation. If something acts on its own for one thing and yet delivers both that thing and a further unanticipated yet nonaccidental good (because Nagel doesn’t want to appeal to chance), then it’s appropriate to go shopping around for intelligence, in the thing or in the system. If I purchase a sweater online and receive both the sweater and a ten dollar gift card, I assume that someone designed it that way. If the bacterium does what’s right for it and also thereby generates higher lifeforms, then someone designed it that way. So it’s understandable why atheist philosophers have been allergic to the language of final causation.

Regardless, this book is important. If Nagel is wrong, the book is still valuable: it offers a prime example of the best virtues of philosophical writing today, with few, if any, of its vices. His remarks on how philosophy works—or is supposed to work—should be required reading for all undergraduates (e.g., the first paragraph on 127). If Nagel is right, then I imagine that those to come will look back on this book as a watershed moment in the history of philosophy, in which a widely read public figure proposed an alternative account of the universe that paved the way for future scientific discoveries.