Volume > Issue > Can the Human Mind Explain Itself?

Can the Human Mind Explain Itself?

Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False

By Thomas Nagel

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 128 pages

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Terry Scambray

Terry Scambray lives and writes in Fresno, California.

In Mind & Cosmos the highly regarded philosopher Thomas Nagel can’t make up his mind about how to explain his own mind and the minds of the rest of us. However, he is sure that the materialist explanation of the mind is merely a mental construct and is, as he writes, “almost certainly false.” Nagel, a professor of philosophy and law at New York University, recounts how the “mind-body problem” arose from the scientific revolution of the 17th century, wherein men reduced things to their tiniest physical and chemical parts to discover what made them tick. Can such “scientific” reductionism be applied to the mind and consciousness? Not really, because attempting quantitative measurement of the unquan­tifiable is a misapplication that results in a degenerated form of science called “scientism.”

It remains paradoxical that science has never been able to objectify something essential to its entire enterprise — mind or consciousness — which, as Nagel writes, is that “aspect of mental phenomena that is evident from the first person, inner point of view which tells you how sugar tastes, red looks or how anger feels,” and how to evaluate a scientific experiment fairly and accurately. Of course, the mind-body conundrum is a perennial issue that thinkers have puzzled over since long before the 17th century. Nevertheless, Nagel yearns for a “unified world picture,” which would necessarily have to include the mind and the cosmos, a goal he refers to oddly as “utopian.” He concedes that “theories of everything” are restricted because science currently limits itself to material causes, whereas the mind is an immaterial, immeasurable, unrestricted free agent.

Despite this limitation, Nagel ambitiously remarks that “the more encompassing a theory is, the more powerful it has to be.” For this reason he hopes that “a major conceptual revolution at least as radical as relativity theory or the original scientific revolution itself” will come about, making the mind and consciousness amenable to scientific inspection.

Whether quantum theory, as one example, can help explain the mind is discussed by Raymond Tallis in his exhaustive 2011 book Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. As Tallis puts it, quantum theory seems to solve problems that a classical understanding of the material world failed to solve because “with quantum theory spooky things appear to happen at a distance from one another, [and] particles have no absolute position.” These features remind us of our non-material minds. But this too is a cul-de-sac, for the extraordinary behavior of matter assumes an observer who is the “object” this theorizing intends to explain in the first place. Tallis, a “humanist atheist” like Nagel, concludes that “there is at present nothing in matter as understood through natural sciences — no, not even in the wildest reaches of quantum mechanics — that would lead one to expect matter to assume forms so that it might be able to formulate universal laws that encompass its own existence.”

Regardless, Nagel’s hoped-for explanation of the mind, be it a revolutionary concept or science fiction, is not clarified, and one can only guess at what he has in mind. So the question remains: Can the human mind explain itself, ever? One struggles to imagine how. Only something outside and more encompassing than itself can explain it. After all, thinkers from Socrates to the present have discussed this and other human limitations; and consummate writers going back to the Old Testament and Homer, on up to Dante and Shakes­peare, including such moderns as Proust and Joyce — these two in a streaming and grainy way — have tried to convey that inner mental voice each of us hears solitarily. Even at that, as we read these and other writers, we are relying, inescapably, on our own isolated minds once again.

Nagel’s probes, which he consistently calls “speculations,” are characteristic of much of his book: sketchy, when not downright contradictory. For example, he trashes Darwinian natural selection as a phony explanation for how minds were made, but nonetheless continues to believe that natural selection has explanatory power. And while he is grateful to individuals like Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer for showing the weaknesses in evolutionary explanations, Nagel notes that they both “are motivated at least in part by their religious beliefs.” And whereas David Berlinski is also given a pat on the head for dissecting Darwin’s theory without having ulterior “religious” motives, he is also commended for refraining from advocating design.

Apparently, Nagel wants to have his cake and eat it too. Take this sentence: “Those who have seriously criticized these arguments have certainly shown that there are ways to resist the design conclusion; but the general force of the negative part of the intelligent design position — skepticism about the likelihood of the orthodox reductive view, given the available evidence — does not appear to me to have been destroyed in these exchanges.” Is this hard to follow? Definitely. That’s because “seriously criticized” and “certainly shown” are pumped-up phrases that deflate when followed by confusing double- and triple-negatives. Such gummy syntax is representative of the book’s style. Nagel follows up this sentence with this limp observation: “At least, the question should be regarded as open.” Really, are there any worthwhile questions that are not open?

Yet, despite its equivocations, the book is interesting for several reasons. For one thing, Nagel offers a good, brief history of the failures of the various materialistic ways of explaining the mind, including assorted behaviorisms that try to sandwich the mind and brain together so as to analyze it as a physical, chemical entity. But, as Nagel points out, the mind and brain are not analogous in the way that water is identical to H2O. Some thinkers simply want to discard mental events, calling them illusions. Nagel disagrees; he thinks that if we want a unified picture of reality, we have to abandon materialism and face the fact that “conscious subjects and their mental lives are inescapable components of reality not describable by the physical sciences.”

Nagel also correctly realizes that Darwinian materialism is incompatible with the existence of rational minds. Darwin, equivocal as he was too, never squared this circle, though he touches on this contradiction in On the Origin of Species when he wonders about the reliability of his own mind, which he thought had evolved from an ape’s mind. C.S. Lewis also realized that if the mind is an accidental accretion of matter, then it could not be trusted. In our own day, Phillip Johnson, a law professor, and Alvin Plantinga, a philosopher, have also shown persuasively that materialistic determinism is self-refuting; if our brains are a stew of particles stirred around by physical forces, then we are automatons without free will and a desire for truth. Once again, our ideas would be unreliable.

Strangely, for a philosopher, Nagel does not understand that Darwinian evolution is a materialist philosophy masquerading as science. Evolution is not supported by “empirical evidence” as Nagel thinks; the findings of paleontology, embryology, and genetics contradict it. Evolution is supported by a materialist philosophy that restricts “science” to offering only material explanations for phenomena, the very same limitation Nagel sees correctly as restricting explanations for the mind and consciousness! Nagel states that “moral realism is true,” but where does his faith in moral realism — which is to say, absolutes — originate if he still clings to a materialist explanation like evolution? Is his belief in absolutes something subjective, a mental construct, a premise that others can share with him only as a matter of faith?

One wonders how Nagel and his colleagues in the academy would react to this argument: “Since God is real, a materialistic, Darwinian account of origins based on natural selection must be false.” This argument is stronger than Nagel’s because Christianity offers a narrative, an ontology as well as a teleology, which has been particularly energized over the past hundred years by the discovery in the organic cell of millions of molecular parts whose complex, information-rich features are difficult to square with a materialistic, step-by-step mechanical explanation like Darwinian evolution. The complexity of cellular life has been addressed Alysson Muotri, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, who commented in Nature magazine (Nov. 2012) on the uniqueness of the human brain in comparison to other complex organs like the heart and liver: “We look at the brain and we think about the tissue, but actually it seems like lots of tissues in one, because the cells are so heterogeneous. It’s almost like every cell was there for a purpose.”

Nagel has an aversion to design, even though he understands the limitations of a materialist world­view. Perhaps that’s because he wrongly associates intelligent design with “religious” belief. He also slights traditional teleology, trying as he does to wedge in “natural teleology” as an explanation for the symmetry in nature, which he heartily concedes is “biased toward the marvelous.” His rationale for his neo-materialist position, that he “lacks the sensus divinitatis that enables — indeed compels — so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose,” is a serious limitation.


“One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star.” — G. K. Chesterton

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