Looking for meaning in all the wrong places

I recently finished reading MIND & COSMOS: Why the Neo-Darwinist Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly Wrong by Thomas Nagel.   If I only read or thought about politics, I’d go crazy.

The book reminds me of a saying of the late, great H.L. Mencken, who once wrote that when you try to combine science and religion, you wind up with something that isn’t really scientific and isn’t really religious.

Nagel9780199919758(RGB)While Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection explains the origin of species, including the human species, Thomas Nagel pointed out that it does not explain the origin of life, consciousness, human reason or morality.

He hopes for a new theory that will not only explain all these things, but give them meaning.  He is not a religious believer, and he looking for things in science that are to be found in art, literature and religious and spiritual practice.

His basic argument is the improbability and implausibility that human life as we know it could ever arise from the blind working of physical and chemical laws.

The problem with the argument from improbability is that in an infinite, or near-infinite, universe, anything that is possible, however improbable, will happen not once, but many times.

And the problem with the argument from implausibility is that most modern people already accept scientific conclusions that are highly implausible in terms of common sense—for example, I would find it hard to believe the earth goes around the sun, let alone the Big Bang and expanding universe, if I had not been taught so in school.

Nagel believes that “something more” is required to explain evolution than the mere workings of physics and chemistry.

Nobody would deny that, for many phenomena, physics and chemistry are not enough to provide explanations, even though the phenomena can be described in physical and chemical terms.  Biology, psychology and other higher-level sciences are necessary to describe higher-level phenomena.  But that isn’t what Nagel wants.

What Nagel is looking for is a theory of evolution that is “teleological” —one that says that the history of the cosmos has a goal, and that human life is part of that goal.

Thomas Nagel

Thomas Nagel

The current accepted theory is that the universe is moving in the direction of a goal, and the goal is entropy—a steady state in which nothing happens.  Nagel is not satisfied with that, and he predicts that a more meaningful theory will sooner or later be discovered.

I think that he misses real limitation of Darwin’s theory, and of reductionism and materialism in general.

The limitation is that empirical science only tells us of the universe as we outwardly observe it.  It does not tell us of the universe as we inwardly experience it.

Suppose someday scientists are able to combine amino acids in such a way as to create a viable life form.

Suppose someday engineers are able to create autonomous self-duplicating Von Neumann machines.

Suppose someday brain scientists make perfect correlations between human thinking and brain activity.

Suppose someday there are artificial intelligences we can’t tell from human beings.

None of these things would cancel out our human experience of being living beings, conscious beings, reasoning beings and moral beings.  These are irreducible facts of human experience.

By irreducible, I mean that the mind of a normal human being is such that we cannot help but think of ourselves as living, conscious, decision-making beings, in a world in which there is such a thing as truth and falsehood, and such a thing as right and wrong.

No matter how much certain persons may theoretically disbelieve in free will, objective truth or objective morality, they can’t help acting as if they do.  I speak now of normal human beings, and not of imbeciles or sociopaths.

My friend Robert Heineman spoke of a common experience, for those of us who live in upstate New York, of having a car breakdown in a blizzard, having to pull off to the side of the road, and having a perfect stranger pull up and offer help.

Even if generous impulses could somehow be explained away by means of selfish genes, group selection and the fables of evolutionary psychology, it would not change the fact that normal human beings have a moral nature, and that our moral discourse is grounded on that moral nature – not in scientific theories.

Actually, I think Nagel believes, as I do, in the irreducibility of human experience, based his other writings.  In his essay, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, for example, he argues that no human being, no matter how much one knows about the bat’s sense of echo-location, can know what it is like to experience being a bat.

And to the extent we can understand how other living things feel, it is because of the human capacity for sympathy — the ability to imagine oneself in the position of someone or something else — and not because of data alone.

Nothing I have written should take credit away from Thomas Nagel for pushing back against unfounded reductionist theories of human life and human nature.  Nor is that to deny the value of scientific research and theory.

I read this book as part of an informal philosophy seminar hosted by my friend Paul Mitacek.


The Core of ‘Mind and Cosmos’ by Thomas Nagel in the New York Times.

Thomas Nagel: Thoughts Are Real by ‘Page Turner’ for the New Yorker.

The Heretic by Andrew Ferguson for The Weekly Standard.

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2 Responses to “Looking for meaning in all the wrong places”

  1. John Pennington Says:

    Sheesh, Phil. You absolutely forced me to buy two books this week.


  2. M. Talmage Moorehead Says:

    Excellent article. I have a great deal of respect for Thomas Nagel’s courage. He speaks his mind, knowing that nobody’s going to like what he says. Not the religious people and certainly not the scientists who have assumed materialistic reductionism without having heard the term or ever thought about it.


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