For nearly forty years, Thomas Nagel has been arguing that the experience of consciousness can’t be explained simply by chemical and physical laws. In effect, he claims of consciousness, you can’t get here from there.
Nagel has made this argument in works from his famous 1974 paper “What is it like to be a bat?” to the soon-to-be-published Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (already available as an e-book). What’s different now, sadly, is Nagel’s embrace of the scientific doubt — if not the theism — of “Intelligent Design” theory.
I believe the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific world view that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents precisely to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion.
Sadly, because ID is so intellectually impoverished that the taint of it in Nagel’s latest book will repel some of the philosophers and scientists best able to engage with his underlying claim that there is a “teleological” basis to life, “a cosmic predisposition to the formation of life.”
The challenge to reductionism to account for the subjective experience of consciousness — the “hard problem” of consciousness — is part of his position that poses a serious argument, yet his choice to associate himself with the ID crowd and their supernatural agenda is both a serious tactical error and an indicator that Nagel — despite his frequent concessions that all of the processes that produce consciousness are themselves entirely physical — doesn’t entirely disbelieve that if there are things that science can’t explain, those things must be “something else.”
He rejects the conventionally supernatural, but when he talks about consciousness his rhetoric becomes indistinguishable from sophisticated religious assertions of the mystical.
My guiding conviction is that mind is not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature.
The implausibility of the reductive program that is needed to defend the completeness of this kind of naturalism provides a reason for trying to think of alternatives–alternatives that make mind, meaning, and value as fundamental as matter and space-time in an account of what there is.
“Value” is crucial for Nagel. More than anything, he is an ethical philosopher, a moral realist whose view of morality depends entirely on the independent existence of objective “moral truths.” If there is nothing to the operation of human reason beyond the merely mechanical, there is no room for these “moral truths,” and his version of moral realism loses its foundation. On an uncharitable level, then, it is possible to understand Nagel’s objection to material reductionism as an objection to unacceptable consequences: materialism can’t be true because if it were, then certain things that he values wouldn’t be true. Protecting what one values from unacceptable consequences is a common, and commonly unrecognized, source of philosophical disagreement — but it’s not a compelling point in itself.
One of the cornerstones of Nagel’s argument is his contention that “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.” In other words, life is too unlikely to have arisen by chance.
There is an ongoing philosophical debate over whether or not it’s reasonable to expect everything to have an explanation, but Nagel assumes that there must be. Worse, he assumes that anything that can’t be explained by science — at least not yet — must be somehow “beyond” it. That is, if science can’t explain the emergence of consciousness, then consciousness must be something more than physical. He rejects the supernatural, as it’s usually configured, yet he’s sure epistemologically that an explanation exists in some as yet undiscovered realm.
If reduction fails in some respect, this reveals a limit to the reach of the physical sciences, which must therefore be supplemented by something else to account for the missing elements.
If evolutionary biology is a physical theory-as it is generally taken to be-then it cannot account for the appearance of consciousness and of other phenomena that are not physically reducible.
Since he doesn’t know what theory could explain consciousness, he once again reaches for the semi-mystical:
We ourselves are large-scale, complex instances of something both objectively physical from outside and subjectively mental from inside. Perhaps the basis for this identity pervades the world.
My frustration with this kind of “argument” is that I have considerable sympathy for the idea that consciousness is not a thing but a state, and that Nagel may well be right that a mere catalogue of its parts is inadequate to explain it. I believe that it is obvious that consciousness is both an event and an experience — two species of states.
Yet, when Nagel writes about the existence of non-material teleological tendencies and about consciousness as an impulse of life itself, he loses me precisely to the extent that he is unable to express himself in non-magical ways. Perhaps the most egregious example is this astonishingly mystical sentence:
Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.
At this point, one’s eyes glaze over, and the more concrete parts of Nagel’s argument drift permanently out of sight behind the puffy cloud of his words.