Thomas Nagel’s most recent book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False is an important new work that speaks to a wide range of audiences: theists, atheists, scientists, and philosophers. In it, he takes up the question of how to explain the existence of the universe and human life as well as the place and purpose of human life in the universe. While most authors taking up this very big question write from one of two diametrically opposed positions (i.e., religious theism or mechanistic scientism), Nagel adopts a naturalistic-teleological position that may be of special interest or importance for Naturalistic Pagans.
Nagel begins Mind and Cosmos by recounting the debates between those who believe that the existence of the universe and human life can be fully explained through reference to non-purposive physical, chemical, and biological events (i.e., those who adopt a mechanistic scientistic view of the world) and those who explain the universe and human life as the result of the purposive actions of an intentional being, most commonly discussed in terms of the Christian God. He notes that in contemporary secular society, the scientistic explanation has been largely accepted as the only reasonable view of the world. Indeed, scientism has become so central to official accounts of the universe and norms of respectability, that any explanation of the universe and human life that is not purely scientistic is dismissed out of hand and rejected as childish superstition. Nagel, as an atheist, is not arguing for a theological explanation of the universe. In fact, he is thoroughly unconvinced by Christian theologists that the universe and all life within it must be the product of “intelligent design.” However, he does note that the Christians do level reasonable criticism and skepticism towards the scientistic world view, especially through identifying areas of weakness or incompleteness in explanation.
Nagel does not argue that science gives us no insight to the universe. Ultimately, he wants to argue for a conception of the universe and human life that is compatible with scientific knowledge, but also posits something more than physical at work in the unfolding of time and space. Nagel is not anti-science, but rather anti-reductionist: he resists the idea that all things and events in the universe can be explained purely through reference to physical, chemical, or biological laws. There is something more that’s necessary if we want to understand the emergence of consciousness, cognition, and the existence of value in the world.
The “something more” that Nagel posits are fundamental, teleological principles that guide and give purpose to the unfolding of the universe. On Nagel’s view, the intelligibility of the world, the emergence of consciousness, and the development of reason cannot simply be accidental. In order for us to understand the universe and human life, we must be able to offer explanations for why the universe developed in such a way as to include conscious beings capable of reason. For value to be intelligible, it must be thoroughly embedded in the structure of the universe. Otherwise, consciousness, reason, and value are arbitrary, and for Nagel, such ideas fly in the face of common sense.
Reading Nagel’s book is a challenging and rewarding experience. For those not familiar with philosophical jargon (which is regrettably unavoidable in these kinds of discussions), the book may prove a bit inaccessible on first reading. However, careful attention and second reading can help in these areas. But for those willing to stick it out, I think it can offer much to Naturalistic Pagans looking to more fully develop their understanding of their place in the universe and the limits of a purely scientistic world view.
In terms of my own spiritual development, this book really pushed me to think about whether and to what extent intelligibility is something that I believe is a primary fact about the universe. Nagel seems insistent on this point. If the universe is to make sense, we must be able to explain all phenomena within it. It may be that we cannot—that humans are fundamentally limited in their capacity to make sense of the world. However, if we can know the world, we must know it completely.
This, to me, makes the world thoroughly without the joy of accident, spontaneity, mystery. Must there be a purpose to the world? Is it not enough for the existence of life to be a wonderful, miraculous, accident? Must the universe always have been tending toward life? Must it always have had embedded in its very structure the principles that are good (and bad) for life? For some reason, this emphasis on the non-accidental that is so central to Nagel’s argument makes me feel like something valuable gets lost. Why must the universe be fully intelligible? Isn’t non-knowing and the experience of mystery also a centrally important and valuable human experience? What happens to the darkness of mystery in a non-accidental world? It seems to me that mystery becomes nothing more than a bump in the road on the way toward full knowledge and the relentless light of reasonable analysis. As I am currently experiencing the longest periods of darkness in the Northern Hemisphere, and giving into to its rhythm and the wisdom of reflection and darkness, I feel as of now unwilling to step into a fully intelligible, non-accidental world.
Crafter Yearly earned a PhD in political philosophy and now works as a professor at a teaching institution in the midwest. Her research is in the areas of antiracism, feminism, and social constructivism. She was introduced to Paganism by Wiccans, but has come over time to adopt a purely naturalistic reverence for the Earth and the Universe. She lives her Paganism by celebrating the movements of the sun and the moon, connecting to the cycles of the earth through crafting handmade goods, and connecting to her body through yoga and dance. Crafter Yearly maintains a blog at: https://craftingthewheeloftheyear.wordpress.com.