Review of Crosby’s Mind and Cosmos, by Crafter Yearly

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.

The Reviewer

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.

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14 Comments on “Review of Crosby’s Mind and Cosmos, by Crafter Yearly

  1. Reblogged this on Jeremy D. Johnson and commented:

    Bookmarking this review for later. If you haven’t checked out Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, I recommend that you do (check out the cheaper, Kindle version).
    This review via Humanistic Paganism examines Nagel’s book -which critiques common conceptions of mind and nature and addresses theists and atheists alike – in light of Naturalistic Paganism.

  2. Hmm.

    Well, to start with, let me say that I generally love your columns, Crafter, and your writing style, so in re: the below, any sharpness is toward Nagel’s thesis, not you.

    Color me skeptical. It sounds as though Nagel’s “teleological principles that guide and give purpose to the unfolding of the universe” are wishful thinking: he simply does not want to believe that, as researchers such as Stephen Wolfram have demonstrated, very simple algorithms can result in manifestation of extremely complex phenomena. This might be more persuasive if human intelligence were the only–as opposed to simply the most advanced–intelligence we see in the world, but it is not, and we don’t see evidence that other species are getting smarter as well.

    There is overwhelming evidence that human intelligence, like all life, evolved incrementally through natural selection. This is unsurprising–it is a highly competitive trait. To posit that a successful trait implies inevitability of its emergence suggests that there is some kind of intentional (or accidental, which is just as problematic) teleology to the development of the Universe, for which we have no evidence, and actually cuts against what we DO have evidence for, which is a bottom-up Universe in which complex forms emerge from simpler forms as a mathematical inevitability (cf cellular automata, etc.)

    Humans tend to overvalue intelligence, because we are one-trick ponies and that is our trick. But in larger context, it is only one of many strategies for survival which has proven highly successful. It is arbitrary–and arrogant!–to decide that the one particular characteristic we are good at has a special place in the Universe.

    To suggest the Universe has a teleological predisposition to develop intelligence is a very short leap indeed to suggesting it is intelligently designed. Whether or not Nagel takes that leap, he certainly appears to be setting the table for it. Sorry, mixed metaphor.

    Also, you may not be aware of it, but “scientistic” is an insult term used to tarbrush those who have evidence-based cosmologies as slavish cultists of science, It is generally used by UNscientific thinkers to refer to those who require evidence before belief. The slur is undeserved, and the correct word is “scientific”.

    Now, I am responding at a remove. Perhaps I have misunderstood Nagel’s thesis as explained by your review. I’m hesitant, though, to wade into what you have acknowledged is a dense, philosophical text if its core thesis involves the evolution of intelligence as an inevitable destiny in the Universe.

    • I assumed the word-choice was intentional. Note the presence of both “scientistic” and “scientific” in this review. I believe it is handy to have a word for thinking which mimics the scientific method but is not actually scientific. Many of us who are not scientists will have a tendency toward this, and I think it’s something we have to guard against in our continuing investigations.

    • I agree put simply, from the review at least it sounds like hes arguing for a “God” without using the word “God”.

      • Nagel is a committed atheist, so he is definitely not arguing for “‘god’ without using the word ‘god.'” The teleological principles he is arguing for are built into the fabric of the universe, like the physical laws of the universe. They are not akin to a sentient, purposive creator.

        His position is really interesting and quite nuanced. Even if you don’t agree with it, it’s worth giving serious consideration, if for no other reason than it forces one into a non-binary position between atheists and theists. He is arguing for something else entirely.

    • Thanks for the long reply! I share your skepticism about Nagel’s position. And I agree, that it does seem very close to an intelligent design position. But it is not at all. He is very careful to say that he does not think there’s a god or being that’s determining the course of development for the universe, but rather that prior to the physical laws of the universe there are teleological laws (one might call them), which favor the development of life, intelligence, and value. These are probabilistic laws, but laws none the less.

      I did find myself frustrated with his insistence that there must be something more than the physical world simply because it seems “to fly in the face of common sense” for there not to be. However, he sets out at the beginning of the book by saying this is the point he starts from. He asks you to join him there and go through the argument with him, even if you don’t ultimately end up agreeing with where his argument ends up. I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor, as his argument is an engaging one. Also, it’s a useful exercise, especially for those deeply committed to science, to consider that science might explain one aspect of the universe, but not the whole thing.

      Re: scientism. In the philosophical area that I am trained in, we use the term scientism to mean a worldview that privileges scientific reason/knowledge over all other ways of being/knowing. It is considered a pejorative, in this usage, only to the extent that scientism can result in the uncritical elevation of science, or the application of pseudo-science to social and philosophical questions wherein the sciency appearance of of the pseudo-science account is meant to offer legitimacy to a position.

    • Not really. There’s one citation of a paper on the anthropic principle in the whole book. He really argues against several reductionist claims in each chapter and then at the end, offers a brief sketch of what he thinks an alternative account could look like. He argument really moves forward by challenging what are taken to be fundamental reductionist beliefs and showing some areas of weakness. His positive account is rather thin.

  3. Thank you for explaining the book so well. I will certainly read it.

    I’m struck by the use of words like “accident” and “arbitrary” to describe the evolution of humans according to strict materialism in discussions like these. Such words seem emotionally manipulative, as if the teleologists hope to make their opponents uncomfortable with the idea of such “trivial” roots. There is vanity here also, as if it is inconceivable to the teleologists that a thing as great as us could have been assembled casually, as if that simply did not make sense. I think human beings are terrific creatures, but that is mostly because I am one. I suspect tall trees must also wonder what amazing forces engineered their amazing height.

    Thank you again.

    Brock Haussamen

    • Brock,

      I agree that there’s this negative emotional resonance for many with the terms “accident” and “arbitrary.” I am not sure why, but many people seem to think that in order for human life to be special, there must be something purposive at back of it.

      I guess I am strange, because I think the accidental, even perhaps arbitrary, emergence of life is awe-inspiring. It fills me with joy, humility, gratefulness, and wonder to think that out of nothing, we are. I find the accident beautiful, not cause for despair.

      • I’ve read scientists who seem to appreciate the accidental aspect of evolution and how it has resulted in humanity, so I don’t think you’re too strange. One such book I’m currently reading is E.O. Wilson’s Meaning of Human Existence.

  4. I just noticed that there were comments on the review! After the new web redesign, I didn’t see them and had no idea anyone was commenting on the post. Sorry!

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