The 36 Questions from Thomas Nagel: His 2012 Book
“Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False”
Dr. Thomas Nagel, Professor of Philosophy and the School of Law at New York University, is one of the most influential atheist philosophers in America. Winner of the 2008 Rolf Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy, he is known for his expertise in the philosophy of the mind, political philosophy and ethics. He is also well known for his critique of material reductionism and especially Darwinian evolution, focusing on the failure of evolution to account for consciousness, cognition, reasoning and moral value judgments.
In this latest book from Dr. Nagel, he argues that we must look outside the physical sciences in an effort to understand humanity’s capacity for conscious reasoning and making value judgments. While he does not offer a solution for why human beings are able to function as conscious moral agents, at the end of the chapter on ‘Antireductionism and the Natural Order’, he makes this statement: “If life is not just a physical phenomenon, the origin and evolution of life and mind will not be explainable by physics and chemistry alone. An expanded, but still unified, form of explanation will be needed, and I suspect it will have to include TELEOLOGICAL elements.”
What he is recommending: the universe shows us there is purpose to our existence, and we need to start including that in our attempts to explain the origin of life and how humanity came to be distinct from other life forms.
Here are the 36 questions that Dr. Nagel asks proponents of evolution to answer, with the page number where it is found in his book, and organized into 7 topics. These questions are not new – but they are coming from one of the most respected analytical atheist philosophical minds today – and they are meant to be a challenge to atheists to really examine the evidence, because it will lead any open-minded seeker away from an evolutionary worldview.
USING REASON: FOLLOWING THE EVIDENCE
- The materialist form of naturalism assumes that the history of the universe since the big bang, including the origin and evolution of life, can be explained by physical properties. This is a very large assumption. Why should those properties make the appearance of such organisms, starting from inorganic matter, at all likely (p. 65)?
- To what extent will the reductive form that is so central to contemporary physical science survive (p. 8)?
- If physics and chemistry cannot fully account for life and consciousness, how will their immense body of truth be combined with other elements in an expanded conception of the natural order (p. 8)?
- Part of the appeal of the concept of a ‘theory of everything’ is that of the laws are simple enough, we can come to rest with them and be content to say that this is just how things are. After all, what is the alternative (p. 20)?
- What explains this (intelligible) order we see in nature (p. 16)?
- In the available geological time since the first life forms appeared on earth, what is the likelihood that, as a result of physical accident, a sequence of viable genetic mutations should have occurred that was sufficient to permit natural selection to produce the organisms that actually exist (p. 6)?
- Why has physical evolution produced organisms of a kind capable of being occupied by and interacting with minds (p. 49)?
- Why a structure like the eye formed in the first place is not explainable. Even if the possibility of a visual system is somehow already implied by the properties of the basic elements, how can a non-materialist monism (denial of a distinction between matter and mind) help to explain its appearance in actuality, over geological time (p. 64)?
- How could the same active principles that account for action and perception in a fully formed organism also account for the original formation of organisms and the generation of viable mutations over evolutionary history (p. 64)?
- Is it credible that the evolutionary selection for fitness in the prehistoric past should have fixed capacities that are effective in theoretical pursuits that were unimaginable at the time (p. 74)?
ORIGIN OF LIFE
- Given what is known about the chemical basis of biology and genetics, what is the likelihood that self-reproducing life forms should have come into existence spontaneously on the early earth, solely through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry (p. 6)?
- The explanation (of the history of life) has to suppose there is a nonnegligible probability that some sequence of steps, starting from nonliving and depending on purely physical mechanisms, could eventually have resulted in a replicating molecule, embodying a precise code billions of characters long, together with the ribosomes that translate that code into proteins. It is not enough to say, ‘Something had to happen, so why not this (p. 49)?”
INTELLIGENCE AND MIND
- In what way or ways is the world intelligible (p. 18)?
- If there are limits to the reach of science in this form, are there other forms of understanding that can render intelligible what physical science does not explain (p. 18)?
- Would an alternative secular conception be possible that acknowledged mind and all that it implies, not as an expression of divine intervention but as a fundamental principle of nature along with physical law (p.22)?
- Could mind take the form of a unified conception of the natural order, even if it tries to accommodate a richer set of materials than the austere elements of mathematical physics (p. 22)?
- What, if anything, justifies the common ambition of transcendence (p. 23)?
- Why have minds of the appropriate kinds appeared and attached themselves to organisms (this has remained a complete mystery, from an evolutionary point of view) (p. 49)?
- The question is how to understand mind in its full sense as a product of nature – or rather, how to understand nature as a system capable of generating mind (p. 72)?
- The hypothetical question I want to pose is whether our cognitive capacities can be placed in a framework of an evolutionary theory that is in this way no longer exclusively materialist, but retains the Darwinian structure (p. 74)?
- What is it about ϕ (the physical event in the central nervous system) that makes it also ѱ (the mental event like pain or a taste sensation) (p. 39)?
- What kind of explanation of the development of these organisms, even one that includes evolutionary theory, could account for the appearance of organisms that are not only physically adapted to the environment but also conscious subjects (p. 44)?
- What kind of unified conception of the natural world would allow the explanation of the development of living organisms also to explain the development of consciousness (p. 46)?
- The existence of consciousness is both one of the most familiar and one of the most astounding things about the world. Given this vacancy in our understanding, what kind of explanation does it make sense to imagine (p .53-54)?
- The prevailing answer for how conscious organisms arose in the universe is a materialist version of evolutionary theory, supplanted by a speculative chemical account of the origin of life. What alternatives to this picture open up if psychophysical reductionism (philosophy that attributes everything to the physical sciences) is rejected (p. 58)?
- When it comes to our capacity to reason, what is the faculty that enables us to escape from the world of appearance presented by our prereflective innate dispositions, into the world of objective reality (p. 82)?
- Knowing that it is the distinctive thing about reason that connects us with the truth directly (perception connects us with the truth only indirectly), what, besides consciousness, do we have to add to the biological story to make sense of the faculty to reason (p. 82)?
VALUE AND MORAL REALISM
- When it comes to making value judgments, what makes it the case that the interests of others provide us with reasons for action, if not that we are predisposed on reflection to be motivated by some degree of benevolence (p. 101)?
- What are the implications for the natural order of different conceptions of value (p.105)?
- What is the explanation of the natural order that made possible this cosmic process that led to the development first of unicellular organisms and then of conscious agents before eventually producing intelligent beings capable of value judgments (p.105-106)?
- What kind of beings are we, if realism is true and we do indeed recognize and respond to values and practical reasons that are not just the products of our own responses (p.112)?
- What must the universe and the evolutionary process be like to have generated intelligent beings capable of making value judgments (p. 112)?
- The questions of the origin of conscious organisms and the development of intelligent beings with value judgments seem to require an alternative explanation to materialist naturalism and its Darwinian application in biology, but what are the possible other explanations (p. 112)?
- For our more complex value judgments that motivate us, such as honesty and dishonesty, justice and injustice, or loyalty and betrayal – what is the motivational capacity behind them (p. 113)?
- What is the actual history of value in the world, so far as we are aware of it (p. 117)?
- Who knows what unimaginable forms of life and their associated value exist elsewhere in the universe, unrelated to us by common descent (p. 120)?
EXCERPTS FROM ‘MIND AND COSMOS’
On page 3 he says “A legitimate task of philosophy is to investigate the limits of contemporary scientific knowledge.” In this book, Prof. Nagel argues that materialistic Darwinism fails to answer the most basic questions of life came to be and how life came to diversify:
“For a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works. The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes. It seems to me that, as it is usually presented, the current orthodoxy about the cosmic order is the product of governing assumptions that are unsupported, and that flies in the face of common sense.” (page 5).
He further takes evolutionary biology to task on its inability to even stand up to the common sense of anyone, regardless of whether they are trained in the biological sciences:
“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. My skepticism is not based on religious belief, or on a belief in any definite alternative. It is just a belief that the available scientific evidence, in spite of the consensus of scientific opinion, does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense.” (pages 6,7).
And then, on page 7, he explains why people find this position outrageous – because the scientific community continues to brow-beat anyone who raised the same doubts as he is in this book:
“I realize that such doubts will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.”
On page 10, he explains why all points of view, including those of scientists who promote Intelligent Design, should be taken seriously:
“Even though writers like Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer are motivated at least in part by their religious beliefs, the EMPIRICAL ARGUMENTS they offer against the likelihood that the origin of life and its evolutionary history can be fully explained by physics and chemistry are of great interest in themselves. Another skeptic, David Berlinski, has brought out these problems vividly without reference to the design inference. Even if one is not drawn to the alternative of an explanation by the actions of a designer, the problems that they pose for the orthodox scientific consensus should be taken seriously. They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair.”
On page 9 he further explains why current evolutionary theory is in serious need of repair – because of discoveries in science!:
“Doubts about the reductionist account of life go against the dominant scientific consensus, but that consensus faces problems of probability that I believe are not taken seriously enough, both with respect to the evolution of life forms through accidental mutation and natural selection and with respect to the formation from dead matter of physical systems capable of such evolution. The more we learn about the intricacy of the genetic code and its control of the chemical processes of life, the harder those problems seem.”
He goes deeper in his critique of evolution:
“With regard to evolution, the process of natural selection cannot account for the actual history without an adequate supply of viable mutations, and I believe it remains an open question whether this could have been provided in geological time merely as a result of chemical accident, without the operation of some other factors determining and restricting the forms of genetic variation. It is no longer legitimate simply to imagine a sequence of gradually evolving phenotypes, as if their appearance through mutations in the DNA were unproblematic – as Richard Dawkins does for the evolution of the eye.” (page 9).
Then he goes to the origin of life, explaining how our discovery of the DNA molecule eliminates materialistic naturalism as a sufficient explanation for life’s origins:
“With regard to the origin of life, the problem is much harder, since the option of natural selection as an explanation is not available. And the coming into existence of the genetic code – an arbitrary mapping of nucleotide sequences into amino acids, together with mechanisms that can read the code and carry out its instructions – seems particularly resistant to being revealed as probable given physical law alone.” (page 9).