Is it time for a new teleology?

Irregular Galaxy, Hubble

Is it time for a new teleology?

PATRICK KEENEY enjoys an ambitious assault on the materialist underpinnings of modern science


Mind and Cosmos:  Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False

Thomas Nagel.  Oxford:  OUP, 2012, pp. 130

Thomas Nagel, University Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Law at New York University, has written an ambitious book.  As he writes:

One of the legitimate tasks of philosophy is to investigate the limits of even the best developed and most successful forms of contemporary scientific knowledge (p.3)

Nagel sets out to challenge the standard assumptions of the dominant scientific consensus, and tentatively suggest a way out of what he perceives as the theoretical impasse which the current scientific orthodoxy has created.

Mind and Cosmos is Nagel’s attempt to examine the limitations of the current, orthodox governing assumptions about nature, what might be briefly characterized as the

…reductive form of materialism that purports to capture life and mind through its neo-Darwinian extension (p.128)

The starting point for his argument is

…the failure of psychophysical reductionism, a position in the philosophy of mind that is … motivated by the hope of showing how the physical sciences could in principle provide a theory of everything (p.4)

If that hope is unrealizable – if, that is to say, psychophysical reductionism is false as Nagel believes it to be – then the physical sciences are incapable of providing an explanation of everything, compelling us to speculate about possible alternatives to the dominant scientific world view.

What propels the book is Nagel’s insistence that failure of the dominant scientific consensus to account for mind is a singular and decisive omission, one which

…casts its shadow back over the entire [scientific] process and the constituents and principles on which it depends (p.8)

Nagel rejects the view that the mind-body problem inherited from Descartes can somehow be localized and kept apart from mainstream physical science. Rather, it

…invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history (p.3)

He finds naïve the notion that physics is philosophically unproblematic; rather, if we take the mind-body problem seriously and think through its implications,

…it threatens to unravel the entire naturalistic wold picture (p.35).

The repercussions of the brute facts of consciousness demand nothing less than re-thinking the place of the physical sciences in describing the natural order. Ultimately, the enlightened, contemporary culture which accepts the dominant climate of a scientific naturalism, needs to wean itself of that reductive materialism and explore other possibilities.

The task is to come up with an alternative (p.37)

Nagel rejects the idea that we can arrive at a full account of the origins and evolution of life by relying exclusively on the laws of physics and chemistry. He finds both the mechanistic reductionism inherent in the physical sciences, along with the physico-chemical reductionism in biology both unconvincing and improbable as accounts of the world, as they have been developed for a “mindless universe.” While he readily concedes that

…the great advances in the physical and biological sciences were made possible by excluding the mind from the physical world (p.8)

such advances have been purchased at the price of comprehensiveness. Without some account of consciousness, our understanding of nature can only be a stunted and partial one. Obviously, the universe contains minds, and

No conception of the natural order that does not reveal [consciousness] as something to be expected can aspire even to the outline of completeness.

He thus rules out any sort of psychophysical reductionism. The dominant scientific convention cannot be right, for how can any comprehensive account of nature ignore the bald fact of such a salient feature of the world as consciousness? As he suggests,

…the exclusion of everything mental from the scope of modern physical science was bound to be challenged eventually (p.36)

For Nagel then, the modern scientific desideratum – that is, a  quantified understanding of the world, expressed in timeless, mathematical formula — can never be anything other than a very partial and incomplete understanding of nature, as any full and comprehensive account of nature must include an account of consciousness. Yet current models of physical science leave no conceptual place for cognition, desiring, valuing, and all those other subjective mental activities which define our lives, and which are such an evident part of the world. As he writes,

Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science (p.35)

In brief, science needs somehow to include the human mind in the natural order. For Nagel this is a commonsensical given, and he finds it incredible to think that any explanation of the natural world which left out an account of consciousness could provide anything more than a partial account of the universe. That vast numbers of people in advanced societies believe that a full understanding of nature is possible without an account of mind — that is, to buy into the prevailing forms of naturalism — represents a

…heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense (p.128)

Nagel is astute in telling the history of science. In particular, his account of the rise of evolutionary naturalism is one of the highlights of this book. Darwin’s legacy continues to dominate our understanding of nature, so that in some important sense, we are all Darwinians now. Yet from the first, Darwin’s theory has been abused and misused. Perhaps the first and still most influential distortion was Social Darwinism, where survival of the fittest was used to justify social hierarchy. More recently, sociobiology trades on neo-Darwinian ideas of natural selection to explain various social phenomena, including ethnic violence, poverty, gender differences, and so forth. And the emerging field of evolutionary psychology, which attempts to link social patterns to genetic evolution, proceeds by postulating a radical reductionism, one which oversimplifies both mind and natural selection. For example, various cognitivist theories of mind hold that the mind is little more than an information processing machine, analogous to a digital computer, and that evolution has bequeathed us a “cognitive architecture” with pre-programmed software for dealing with the world.

One of the more unfortunate consequences of the intemperate attacks on Darwin from religious fundamentalists is the suggestion that any challenge to Darwin can only arise from some combination of religious mania and scientific illiteracy. Yet to accept Darwin is also to accept a host of implicated Darwinian ideas. And many of these Nagel finds intellectually unconvincing. In taking issue with Darwin, Nagel is forthright about his lack of a religious motivation, affirming that he “doesn’t have a religious bone in his body.” Yet as he is quick to point out, one does not need to be a scriptural fundamentalist to find fault with Darwin; disinterested reason and intellectual rigour combined with independent empirical evidence, point to deep problems in evolution and natural selection. In particular,

Consciousness presents a problem for evolutionary reductionism because of its irreducibly subjective character (p.71)

In Nagel’s estimation, the problems for Darwin’s theory  which grow out of mental functions such as thought, reasoning and evaluation have not been taken seriously enough:

The problem has two aspects. The first concerns the likelihood that the process of natural selection should have generated creatures with the capacity to discover by reason the truth about a reality that extends vastly beyond the initial appearances …. Is it credible that selection for fitness in the prehistoric past should have fixed capacities that are effective in theoretical pursuits that were unimaginable at the time? The second problem is the difficulty of understanding naturalistically the faculty of reason that is the essence of these activities (p.74)

In brief, Nagel  finds unconvincing the notion that rationality and consciousness could arise on a strictly reductive,  naturalistic account, one which relies solely on the mathematical probabilities of natural selection. Nagel, while an avowed atheist who by his own account “lacks any religious impulse”,  is nevertheless sympathetic to defenders of intelligent design, and the problems they pose for the orthodox scientific consensus.

…the prevailing doctrine – that the appearance of life from dead matter and its evolution through accidental mutation and natural selection to its present forms had involved nothing but the operation of physical law – cannot be regarded as unassailable.  It is an  assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis (p.11)

As Nagel says of defenders of intelligent design,

They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met.  It is manifestly unfair (p.10)

Yet if an atheist rejects the idea of God, and further rejects the notion that a non-purposive nature, guided only by the laws of physics, chemistry and mathematical probability, can account for the origins of life, what explanation possibly remains? Nagel believes that

…in some way the likelihood [of life] must have been latent in the nature of things (p.86)

That is, there may be inherent in the natural order of things teleological principles. Teleology is, as Nagel notes, a

…throwback to the Aristotelian conception of nature, banished from the scene at the birth of modern science (p.68)

He goes on to say,

I have been persuaded that the idea of teleological laws is coherent, and quite different from the idea of explanation by the intentions of a purposive being …In spite of the exclusion of teleology from contemporary science, it shouldn’t be ruled out a priori (p.66)

Nagel want to resurrect the idea of teleology as

…an explanation not only of the appearance of physical organisms but of the development of consciousness and ultimately reason in those organisms (p.92)

He readily concedes that

Teleological explanation may have serious problems, but in this case they are no more serious than those of the alternatives (p.88)

And he is clear that the teleology he seeks is quite independent from any theistic notion, or any idea of an intelligent designer.  It is rather a natural teleology, one which is perfectly consistent with atheism. He recognizes that the notion of a teleology which is part of the natural order

…flies in the teeth of the authoritative form of explanation that has defined science since the revolution of the seventeenth century (p.92)

Nevertheless, for Nagel, a naturalized teleology provides a credible alternative to the orthodox, reductive understandings of modern physical science.

The arguments in Mind and Cosmos are carried on at a high level of abstraction. Yet Nagel is a fine writer, and he manages to make these debates vivid, and show the reader what, exactly, is at stake in what might at first blush appear to be rather esoteric questions unrelated to the concerns of the everyday world.  Nagel points out at various junctures the intellectual muddle which has arisen by attempting to understand the mental in terms and processes taken from the physical – that is, by using the categories of a reductive physical science to understand the subjective. This error has had dire consequences for our understanding of the social world. The confusion has infested all of our institutions, from schools, to the law courts, to politics. All of these crucial institutions have come to rely on the guidance of the social sciences, which, like the natural sciences, are predicated upon a reductive materialism. Because of this intellectual corruption, much of contemporary social science has arrived at a theoretical dead end. In Nagel’s view, a productive social science can only come about by establishing a more accurate account of nature, namely one that can account for the fact of consciousness.

In sum, Nagel’s twofold task consists in demonstrating the shortcomings inherent in the “Neo-Darwinian conception of nature” and tentatively suggesting  a way forward in arriving at a fuller understanding of the world around us. Nagel’s positive thesis maintains that we can only arrive at a reasonably comprehensive view of nature if we somehow find a way of putting mind and consciousness at the centre of our understanding of the natural order. He further thinks that in order to do so, we will need to revive the discredited idea of teleology in nature, and work toward establishing a “naturalistic” teleology.

As I said at the outset this is an ambitious book.  I’m not sure that Nagel succeeds entirely in convincing the reader that we need to return to teleology, natural or otherwise; but he has certainly established beyond any doubt that there is a very real debate to be had – a debate which has important consequences for understanding the cosmos, and our place in it.

PATRICK KEENEY is a co-editor of Prospero, a Journal of New Thinking in Philosophy for Education. He is currently an adjunct professor in the faculty of education at Simon Fraser University



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