Telos, Mind and Cosmos

The debate over Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False continues apace. The TLS reviewer observes that Nagel’s “provocation” of a book doesn’t simply demand an explanation for how consciousness arose, but demands to know how consciousness is so central a reality in the cosmos that we know. Not everyone thinks that consciousness is as central as Nagel does, and so some of his arguments won’t touch home with materialists.

The pervasive reality of mind in Nagel’s conception of the cosmos is neatly captured by an examination of his alternative to Darwinian materialism. For the reviewer, there are two parts:

“The first is panpsychism, the view that ‘everything, living or not, is constituted from elements having a nature that is both physical and non-physical.’ Subatomic particles, on this view, have features beyond the quantitative features described by physics. The claim is not that electrons and the like are literally conscious; rather that they are ‘protoconscious’: suited by their natures to produce consciousness when they come together in certain ways. The second ingredient is an account of how these protoconscious particles come together to form minds. One possibility is that their protomental features are governed by new mechanistic laws that pull particles together into arrangements that support consciousness, much as the physical properties of water molecules pull them together to form snowflakes. But Nagel’s preferred alternative is more radical. He suggests that the mechanistic laws of physics might be supplemented by teleological principles according to which particles have a basic, otherwise inexplicable tendency to move in ways that realize certain ends, in this case, the existence of creatures with minds like ours.”

As the reviewer points out, reintroducing teleology at the physical level is not merely a supplementation of modern science, but would involve a new theory concerning motion and action: “If teleological principles explain the existence of conscious life, they must play a role in explaining the motions of particles. But we have a developed theory of how particles move, and it is not remotely teleological. If a teleological view is correct, this part of physics must be mistaken. Moreover, we should not have to wait for the massive particle accelerators of the future to detect these errors, since the processes that led to the formation of conscious life on Earth all took place at energies readily reproducible in the lab . . . . if Nagel’s teleology is right, then contemporary physics is not just incomplete; it is mistaken when it comes to the behaviour of the particles that compose living things. But these parts of physics are brilliantly confirmed. There is no evidence whatsoever that particles behave differently in the vicinity of living things than they do elsewhere.”

This review shows the breadth of the battle that Nagel has joined, a battle not just against what might be taken as the deviations of Darwinian materialism but a battle against modern science’s foundational rejection of Aristotelian teleiology and foundational commitment to mechanism. Nagel’s book proposes a revolution in science more radical than many have realized.

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