Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos

Over at the online edition of First Things, you’ll find my review of Thomas Nagel’s important new book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.  (Since there’s more to say about the book than I had space for in the review, I may revisit it in a future post.)


  1. Ed writes:
    Value, which Nagel insists is a real feature of the world rather than a projection of our subjective desires or sentiments, is, he says, a byproduct of teleology “even if teleology is separated from intention, and the result is not the goal of an agent who aims at it”—again, a standard Aristotelian thesis. (He rightly suggests that theists ought to be open to the idea of immanent teleology of the Aristotelian sort. He may not be aware that medieval theologians like Aquinas were committed to precisely that.)

    Whoa, this is progress. Now you’d have us believe that even Aquinas advocated this teleology-separated-from-intention malarkey? (Where will it all end, I wonder?)

  2. Still attacking straw men, George? Where will it all end, I wonder?

    I have never said that Aquinas held that teleology can exist separated from intention, full stop, in a absolute sense. I have said instead that he held that the question of whether some natural phenomenon possesses intrinsic teleology and the question whether it is directed to its end by God are separate questions. Unlike Paley and like-minded thinkers, who collapse the notions of teleology and intention, Aquinas sees that they are conceptually distinct even if (as he argues in the Fifth Way) teleology ultimately depends metaphysically on divine intention. Hence one can address the question of whether there is intrinsic teleology in nature apart from the question of God's existence (just as one can address the issue of whether efficient causes are real apart from the question of God's existence, even though God is the ultimate explanation of efficient causes as well).

    But then you know all this, or would know it if you ever bothered to read what I write on this subject with minimal intellectual honesty. Unfortunately, your pathological obsession with Darwinism -- and thus with preserving ID arguments as a favorite cudgel -- keeps you from doing so, even though (as I have also explained many times) the question has nothing to do with Darwinism one way or the other.

  3. Thanks for this review... I think I will buy this book, it seems really very interesting.

    It is interesting to see that a fully committed atheist as Nagel goes beyong the atheist ideology and sees the holes in materialism.

    Of course this is what differentiates hims from people like Dennett...

  4. Having read the introduction and chapter one of Nagel's book I couldn't help but notice that his approach was one directed against rductionism (and rightfully so) as well as the Theism that emerged from the modern conception of nature pacing Descartes.

    I had a feeling that as the book progressed he would follow a broad Aristotelian approach and kept wondering whether he even realized that? I kept thinking, "has he read Aristotle or Aquinas?" Because if he hasn't, it would make his job a lot more easy.

    More thoughts to come.

  5. Can a materialist trust his mind? How does he know it's giving him a true picture of the world?

    If the mind is nothing more than the brain, and the brain has evolved solely to ensure the survival of our hunter-gatherer and neolithic farmer ancestors, then how do we know that it can reliably do anything beyond the range of competence for which evolution selected it?

    Natural selection cannot select directly for true beliefs, but only for advantageous behaviors.

    So is the brain giving us a picture of the world that is merely fit for purpose, rather than one that represents some true underlying reality?

    Charles Darwin himself was one of the first to ponder these implications of evolution:

    "But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?"
    - Letter to William Graham, 1881

    Darwin realised that there is no necessary correlation between mental representations that have survival value, and those that portray a true picture. In fact, delusions may have more survival value than truth, as users of hallucinogens such as LSD and magic mushrooms may discover...

  6. Mushroom use is absolutely essential to survival in some contexts. Seriously, just try to rescue Princess Peach from Bowser without them.

  7. Thanks for the review of Nagel's book, Ed. I wonder if you would like to respond to Elliot Sober's review:

  8. Ed, I’ll try to clarify my remarks, since you apparently didn’t understand them.

    Firstly, you write, “He [Nagel] rightly suggests that theists ought to be open to the idea of immanent teleology of the Aristotelian sort.” Now when you say, “immanent teleology of the Aristotelian sort,” I assume you mean teleology that does not necessarily imply intention, which is what you have often claimed about Aristotelian teleology. Then you write, “He [Nagel] may not be aware that medieval theologians like Aquinas were committed to precisely that.” So from this I naturally gathered that you now held that Aquinas didn’t think that teleology implied intention either. But in your response to me, you seemed to say that Aquinas did not deny that teleology implied intention. But if this is your position, how can you say that Aquinas was committed to the idea of immanent teleology of the Aristotelian sort? Moreover, if you still affirm that Aquinas did not deny that teleology implied intention, then you certainly have to admit that Aquinas was definitely not committed to the same sort of teleology as Nagel, who certainly does deny that teleology implies intention.

    Of course, my position is that the idea of teleology that does not imply intention is just stupid and unintelligible, and someone who holds it is probably not doing so in good faith.

  9. Oh, and btw, Ed, if you want to go on suggesting that a teleology that does not necessarily imply intention is nonetheless an intelligible concept, perhaps you would like to explain that position in the light of your own words from The Last Superstition (pp. 115-116), "Yet it is impossible for anything to be directed toward an end unless that end exists in an intellect which directs the thing in question toward it." And again a little further on (p. 116), “[I]t is not just unlikely, but conceptually impossible [your emphasis, but I would have emphasized it if you hadn’t] that there could be genuine final causation without a sustaining intellect.”

    So I have to ask you, Ed, do those words from TLS still reflect your position, or are we to understand that you have, as it were, grown in office?

  10. George,

    My position is the same as it has always been, and it is one that I have explained many times. The teleology of natural substances is both immanent to them and ultimately dependent on divine intention. There is no conflict between these claims whatsoever when they are rightly understood -- just as there is no conflict between the claim that things have real built-in efficient causal power and the claim that all causal power ultimately depends on the divine first cause.

    The latter claim, about efficient causal power, is the proper, Thomistic "concurrentist" middle ground between occasionalism (which threatens to collapse into pantheism) and mere conservationism (which threatens to collapse into deism). Concurrentism holds, contrary to occasionalism, that secondary causes are true causes, but also, contrary to mere conservationism, that not only the existence of secondary causes but even their causal efficacy must nevertheless at every moment be derived from God. God must in that sense "concur" with every secondary cause's efficient-causal act. Though a secondary cause has (contra occasionalism) real causal power, it nevertheless cannot do anything unless God acts with it.

    Now something exactly parallel is true of final causes. On the one hand, and contrary to a writer like Paley, final causality is immanent to or "built into" natural substances in a way it is not built into artifacts like chairs, beds, etc. That simply follows necessarily from an Aristotelian hylemorphist understanding of nature, which Aquinas is committed to. But on the other hand (and as the Fifth Way argues) even immanent teleology requires a supreme intellect at every moment to point things toward their ends -- just as (as concurrentism holds) immanent efficient causal power requires, at every moment, a divine first efficient cause to operate in conjunction with secondary causes.

    Indeed, since efficient causality presupposes final causality, to deny what I have just said about final causes threatens to lead to either an occasionalist view or a mere conservationist view about efficient causes. And that, I would say, is exactly why the abandonment of the Scholastic view of final causes was followed historically by tendencies toward Spinozistic pantheism on the one hand and deism on the other.

    Now, on concurrentism, even though all causal power is ultimately dependent on God, because it is nevertheless immanent we can still intelligibly make reference to the causal powers of things without constantly making reference to God. E.g. we can ask about and study the causal powers of phosphorus without getting into the question of what God's intentions are in concurring with the causal activity of phosphorous in such-and-such a way. That is why an atheist and a theist can intelligibly discuss chemistry together even though only the latter can have a complete understanding of the causality of anything.


  11. (continued)

    Similarly, because final causality is immanent even though it ultimately depends on God, we can intelligibly discuss the finality of a thing without getting into the question of what God has in mind in directing a thing to such-and-such an end. That is why the atheist (like Nagel) and the theist can intelligibly discuss natural teleology together even though only the latter can have a complete understanding of how teleology is possible.

    Now if you want to dismiss all this, fine, but you cannot do so while remaining a Thomist. In particular, you cannot dismiss what I have said about final causes without also dismissing concurrentism about efficient causes, because they are exactly parallel. You also cannot dismiss what I have said consistent with affirming that Aquinas was an Aristotelian hylemorphist (who was therefore committed to the Aristotelian distinction between "nature" and "art" etc.)

    Now notice that I have said nothing about Darwinism, evolution, etc. That is because the issue has nothing at all to do with Darwinism or evolution more generally. And I have also made that clear many, many times. When I have criticized ID, I have consistently and repeatedly said that the reason is that (a) ID is implicitly committed to an essentially Paleyan and anti-Aristotelian metaphysics of nature and (b) it is implicitly committed to an essentially "theistic personalist" rather than classical theist view of God and of divine causality. And even if Darwinism and evolutionary theory were completely false in every single detail, it wouldn't change this one iota.

    You, however, constantly insinuate that I am merely "selling out to my Darwinian buddies" or some such -- never answering my arguments except with begged questions, but instead leaping to your favorite ad hominem.

    Your problem is that, as you have indicated in your comments above, you are quick to accuse people of "bad faith" because they disagree with you in this area. This quickness is a grave intellectual vice that corrupts the mind. And ironically, bad faith is often exhibited precisely by those quick to accuse others of it. It seems to me that is true in your case. Your obsession with Darwinism has led you to embrace ID at all costs. Hence anyone who criticizes ID must "really" be in the business of carrying water for Darwinism etc. And thus whenever I address issues at all related to these, you swoop in with your usual smart-ass remarks, misreadings, begged questions, etc.

  12. First of all, Ed, when I suggested that someone was not in good faith, I was thinking of Nagel, not you. I never said that you denied that teleology implied intention. But my problem with your position is that you seem to believe that if someone affirms teleology and denies intention, he’s still affirming teleology in any meaningful sense of the word. This is what I completely reject; for such a notion of teleology would be unintelligible.

    Secondly, I don’t, and never did, deny that one can consider final causes in nature without considering the Subject of the intention that informs them, i.e., God. For example, one can rightly say that the final cause of wings is the-animal-flying, and the final cause of eyes is the-animal-seeing. Of course, this is precisely the kind of teleology that Nagel et al. would reject even though it doesn’t consider supernatural causes, since it does imply supernatural causes, as all teleology in nature does.

    So here’s the strategy of the naturalists like Nagel as I see it: deny as much teleology as they possibly can without looking like complete and utter jackasses; then admit a certain kind of “teleology” that is embedded in nature and implies neither intention nor the supernatural.

    ... in other words, the same old naturalistic shuck-'n-jive.

  13. Edward Feser,

    Do you believe that naturalistic teleology is even defensible?

  14. I think Feser's answer will be something like.

    "Nope. naturalism defends that all teleology is false."

  15. aervsneIt is important to notice that Nagel proposes a naturalistic teleology instead of an intentional teleology (theism) as the correct understanding of reality just because he is not willing to accept any theistic explanation, full stop. He does not want a God to exist, so intentionality must be discarded from start. Natural non intentional teleology is the wright explanation by default, explicitly stated by Nagel in his book.

  16. Nagel is being slammed by some critics for having erected a straw-man version of scientific materialism. I've read enough of Nagel to doubt this is true, but as I haven't yet read his book, I can't speak to the matter. How do you handle the objection that what he calls scientific materialism is an uninformed version of it?

  17. George, the Pythagorean Theorem follows of necessity from Euclid's 5 postulates, small handful of axioms, and his definitions. But a person can easily accept the postulates, axioms, and definitions WITHOUT accepting the necessity of the Pythagorean Theorem, without arguing in bad faith or in intellectual dishonesty. If he hasn't pursued all of the 47 proofs required to get from those starting points to the 47th conclusion, he simply hasn't the wherewithal to "accept" that 47th conclusion as proven, or as necessarily following from those premises. You and I know that the 47th theorem (Pythagorean Theorem) follows of necessity from the starting points, but he doesn't.

    A person who observes, notes, and identifies teleological relationships in animals can readily admit such teleology without (yet) admitting anything further. If and when he takes up a formal study of metaphysics that deals with that teleology found in nature and does so with other sound principles (like the differences between 4 kinds of causality, and the difference between primary and secondary causality, and the difference between rational and real relations), THEN he has a good prospect of discovering the necessary truth that you can't have teleology in nature, in plants and animals, without an intelligence behind it. Such a conclusion is indeed necessary, but it is not obviously, patently necessary to all who observe teleology in nature (and who are open to the truth).

    Add in emotional and psychological baggage in opposition to accepting such an intelligence, and you have what may require a long, drawn out process before someone like Nagel accepts what his intuition is nascently telling him. Would you deny him the beginning steps on that long process because those steps include false mini-steps that a perfect, sinless philosopher would see through? Why is it necessary to argue that even the portion of the matter he gets right - that there is indeed teleology in nature - is itself a false step because of his (clearly extraneous and logical unnecessary) addition of the other thought that there is no intelligence behind it? That's like saying unless everything you say is 100% correct, then everything you say is wrong.

  18. @Mark

    Once I started reading the book I knew materialists would appeal to straw-men. From what I read so far it is not a straw-man Nagel erects. It's simply materialism taken to its logical conclusion, something materialists are too uncomfortable or dishonest to do. So obviously they will appeal to straw-men and then obfuscate their worldview to pretend that it's not as incoherent and banal as it actually is.

    The real question is, how does the materialist respond to the objection that their false appeals to straw-men accusations is a mere rhetorical tool aimed at avoiding the fact that their view is patently absurd?

  19. So can we look forward for a multiple post review of Nagel's book XD ?

    come on Doc, is always cool read your long reviews.

  20. I second that Eduardo I'm hoping for a multi-post review much like that of rosenberg

  21. Since I know we all enjoy Dr. Leiter... Ok, well, that's a stretch, but neverthless:,1

  22. Pants on fire Leiter XD ?

    hmmm let me see reading the review of a book I haven't read just to get my already confused head more confused right before a test ... or go to sleep or check on some tactical shooters...

    Tactical Shooters!


  23. Tony,
    Look, if someone were to say, “I know what a triangle is, but I deny the Pythagorean Theorem,” I would say that it’s quite possible that he does know what a triangle is, but is just in error about one of its properties. However, if someone were to say, “I know what a triangle is, but I deny that it has three sides,” I would say that this guy has no clue what a triangle is.

    By the same token, if someone were to say, “I recognize teleology in nature, but I deny that there is a God who is pure act,” I would say that his idea of teleology may still be intelligible. However, if he says, “I recognize teleology in nature, but I deny that it is determined by intention,” then I would deny that he recognizes teleology in any meaningful sense of the word at all; for he would be claiming to conceive of something which is conceptually impossible.

  24. If someone were to say "I know what marriage is", but then deny that marriage can only be real marriage if it is by intention faithfully monogamous, he would be wrong about the latter. But it would not automatically true that he knows nothing about what marriage is. As, for example, the patriarch Jacob. St. Thomas teaches that in marriage there are first order truths of the natural law, and second order truths, and it is possible to rightly grasp the first order without holding to the second order.

    When a person who is not raised believing in God observes nature and draws conclusions, he may rightly draw the conclusion that natural things have natural ends, and then he will rightly conclude that these ends are embedded in the "what they are", their natures. Or, to say it differently, we grasp the natures by seeing the ends to which they are ordered.

    But he need not YET draw any solid conclusion about whence the natures or whence the ordered-ness comes. That is a further reflection. Admittedly, it is a poorly done reflection to arrive at the definite conclusion "the ends do not arise by reason of an intender." But whether that further reasoning is done ill or well, it is FURTHER reasoning, that is not automatic and self-evident from the mere apprehension of things having orderliness to their parts.

  25. A rumination—probably not worth even the proverbial two cents--having to do with the exchanges between Tony and George, and nuances contained therein:

    Given the statement "If (A & B) then C", the following truth table can be said to apply...

    A B C
    0 0 0
    0 1 0
    1 0 0
    1 1 1

    ...where '0' stands for 'no' or 'false', and '1' stands for 'yes' or 'true'.

    George says, [I]f he says, "I recognize teleology in nature, but I deny that it is determined by intention," then I would deny that he recognizes teleology in any meaningful sense of the word at all[.]

    If we now let...

    A = "teleology is recognized in nature";

    B = "teleology in nature is determined by intention"; and,

    C = "teleology is recognized in a meaningful sense of the word"...

    ...then George is, in effect, (correctly) using the third line of the truth table, thus is saying, "~C follows from ~B."

    While Tony does not disagree, he goes beyond this true conclusion (rightly asserted by George as following from valid reasoning).

    "Yes," says Tony (also in effect; of course), "it is true that ~C follows from ~B. We should take care, however, lest we invalidly reason that ~A follows from ~C. It does not--though I'm not saying you have said that it does. What I am saying, and what is my main point, is that we need not necessarily treat as being of no account the fact that, though ~C follows from both (A & ~B) and (~A & ~B), it is A which obtains rather than ~A. That A obtains rather than ~A is significant. And the significance is that (A & ~B) is more promising as a starting than is (~A & ~B)--if another is to move, or be moved, towards (A & B). This is to say that it is less challenging for one to arrive at (A & B), thus at C, when the starting point is (A & ~B) than when it is (~A & ~B). The ideal, of course, is to be at (A & B). But this ideal isn't always present; and rather than allow ~B to overshadow the fact that A obtains, we can take heart that A obtains, and perhaps encourage the transition of ~B to B."

    Then, too, there are those instances of the form of (A & ~B) of which the following is an example,

    St. Thomas teaches that in marriage there are first order truths of the natural law, and second order truths, and it is possible to rightly grasp the first order without holding to the second order.

  26. s/b ...rather than allow ~B (i.e., "~C follows from ~B") to overshadow the fact that A obtains, we can take heart that A obtains, and perhaps encourage the transition of ~B to B.

  27. Glenn, did you study logic or sumptin'?


  28. Hi, William Munro here,
    Seems clear that we do presume existence, as a general principle (Plato) or as specific instances (Aristotle)--or both. What then would be the purpose of inquiring why being should be? Does not the inquiry itself presume being generally?
    Doesn't positing a source of being whose aim and intention and goal etc. is to be--- doesn't that already assume being?
    So if everything is being or existence in some sense, why would an intention be needed? Seems entirely unecessary.
    If the world is existence, is what shows up, then it seems to me that no scheme or description is necessary to know it. After all, each of us exists--we are existing---so we can't help but know existence.
    But, it can be argued that all this is just words and one cannot separate world from words. World, after all is a word, and if one says, oh there is an intuition beyond words--well, that too is words.
    In other words,one may say we really don't know what the world is beyond our scheme. But the notion that there is a world beyond words and scheme is just itself words. Oh, it's intuition you say? But that too is words!
    In other words,there will always be some scheme or other--even if it is to say only that there is no scheme! And at the same time we maintain that the world is more than words. So paradox.
    Yes, I do feel rather suspended in the air at this point--suspended over what I have no idea.
    What can I say except--here we are!

  29. When I read Nagel's latest book I notice that I wish that Nagel would take a sedative pill when it comes to talking about consciousness. The way he describes the phenomenon is not far from Newton's celestial matter.

    Lars Vegus, Sweden

  30. A second commentary:
    I got the feeling that Nagel is deeply, deeply disappointed with the development of the science of the mind. Already during the 70-ies he in his bat-text more or less shaped the modern mind-body-problem, saying that it's not a Cartesian problem but how the subjective first-person-view can be described from the third-person view of the science and since that not much has happened. He now understands that he will die before a solution is presented. That's HIS hard problem!

    Lars Vegus, Sweden