Book Review: Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel

ImageYou kind of wonder about the book that could provoke Daniel Dennett to say, “it’s cute, it’s clever, and not worth a damn” and incite the betrayal of Steven Pinker, who tweeted of it “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” Every page is filled with jaw-dropping concessions to the foundations of theism, though even on the last page, Nagel isn’t a convert.

Mind and Cosmos (Oxford, 2012) is a book in which an NYU philosophy professor seeks to undermine materialism, a bedrock of the modern scientific establishment.  He almost patronizingly names that materialism and neo-Darwinist theory defy common sense and are simply unlikely.  It reads like a kid who has been eating candy all night and is finally sick and considering vegetables.  This is the closest an atheist will ever come to undermining his own worldview before prayer.  It’s the last glimpse of the stars before the sun rises.

Nagel confesses, “…for a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works.  The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes.  …it seems to me that, as it is usually presented, the current orthodoxy about the cosmic order is the product of governing assumptions that are unsupported, and that it flies in the face of common sense.”

He then goes groping for a non-theistic explanation for consciousness and morality, which he insists cannot be products of matter.  Perhaps there are atomic particles that are strictly mental, which we simply haven’t developed the apparatus to trace.  Perhaps the laws of nature are somehow innately teleological for reasons that we cannot explain.  (At this point, the gentle whisper of the choir begins to rise behind him.)

And Nagel admits to reading not only established Christian philosophers (“I agree with Alvin Plantinga…”) but to writers on Intelligent Design, heretofore the subject of late night TV mockery.

He spends time dabbling in the “constitutive question,” of what consciousness is made of, and the “historical question,” of how it came to be.  But in the end he simply admits to a “gaping lack” of an explanation.  Then he goes on to the problem of cognition, by which he means the kind of objectivity that reason depends upon.  He calls this problem simply “intractable.” And finally he covers issues of value and morality.  Here he admits that on a Darwinist rubric, impressions of value “are groundless.”

He has basically made many of the intellectual concessions necessary to establish that theism is more probable than atheism.

Feedback has been unfriendly.  “He is questioning a certain kind of orthodoxy, and they are responding in the way the orthodox respond,” said philosopher Alva Noe of Berkeley.  But I have to say a word of thanks, that he would be intellectually honest enough to own up to the things that atheists aren’t supposed to say.