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Nonfiction Philosopher wants to make a home for the mind

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, March 31, 2013, at 8:14 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, April 1, 2013, at 2:53 a.m.

“Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False” by Thomas Nagel (University of Oxford Press, 144 pages, $24.95)

When it comes to explaining everything that exists — what roughly falls under the old category of “metaphysics” — philosopher Thomas Nagel wants to make room for a purposeful, value-driven, self-conscious being that looks pretty much like … well, ourselves.

The only trouble is, Anglo-American philosophers dealt metaphysics a technical knockout blow in the early 20th century. And what has taken its place — scientific explanation based on materialism (chemistry and physics) and neo-Darwinian natural selection (biology) — doesn’t look very hospitable to the human mind.

But mind, Nagel insists, represents the most indispensable part of everything that exists. It’s what makes life worth living. And so it needs a safe, comfortable home in the cosmos — a place other than the neurons and synapses of the brain.

How to build that home looms as the central problem of Nagel’s latest book — a cri de coeur that the presuppositions of materialism are not only hard to believe, but fly in the face of common sense.

To say that mind is simply a “secretion” of the brain in the same way that sweat is primarily a secretion of the skin doesn’t offer much help for the lonely sojourner in an ever-expanding, coldly indifferent universe.

So instead of accepting the standard reductionist account that says only matter matters, Nagel, a professor of philosophy and law at New York University, proposes this alternative:

“If the appearance of conscious organisms in the world is due to principles of development that are not derived from timeless laws of physics, that may be a reason for pessimism about purely chemical explanations of the origin of life as well.”

But here’s the rub: Nagel wants an account of the irreducibility of consciousness that is as thoroughly naturalistic as today’s scientific materialism. An avowed atheist, he will admit no abode for the human mind that depends on a divine mind.

That leaves him holding the bag, because he is not at all sure that the explanation he seeks makes sense.

That’s a problem his theistic counterpart, philosopher Alvin Plantinga, avoids in his most recent book, “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism” (Oxford University Press, 376 pages, $27.95).

There, Plantinga shows that naturalism actually imperils the freedom of scientific inquiry, and that the purported conflict between science and religion is superficial at best.

Nagel’s book has not been so fruitful. It has drawn criticism from his fellow philosophers for a lack of rigor. It has been vigorously rebutted by entrenched Darwinists. And it has been embraced — in an improbable alliance — by members of the intelligent design community.

Yet I think all of them misunderstand what Nagel is after in “Mind and Cosmos”: a reinvigoration of philosophy that makes room for wonder — for “other laws of nature that are ‘biased toward the marvelous.’ ”

With that declaration, we move full circle, back to the beginning of Aristotle’s “Metaphysics”: All men by nature desire to know.

And for Nagel, that means knowing that mind matters as much as matter does — even if his wishes for an atheistic explanation may never be fulfilled.

Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or adavenport@wichitaeagle.com.

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