249 “Mind and Cosmos”

   Academic philosophers rarely grace the covers of newsmagazines, but the March 25 issue of The Weekly Standard portrayed Professor Thomas Nagel, bound with ropes, surrounded by demonic monks, roasting in a fire, featured in an article titled “The Heretic—professor, philosopher apostate.”  The reason for such attention was the recent publication of Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos:  Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (New York:  Oxford University Press, c. 2012).  A professor at New York University, he enjoys an eminent position within the elite galaxy of revered intellectuals.  Before publishing this treatise he had refrained from openly questioning the entrenched naturalistic Weltanschauung of his peers so starkly set forth by Francis Crick:  “You, your joys and your sorrows, you memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.  Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.”  Taking issue with such reductive materialism and publishing a slender treatise questioning its guiding assumptions has elicited outrage and abuse from his erstwhile colleagues, but in doing so Nagel did the real work of a philosopher—following the evidence and seeking the truth rather than tacking to the winds of opinion.  

He admits that “for a long time I have found the materialist account [given “canonical exposition” in Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker] 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” (p. 5).  The more we understand about life and the cosmos the less adequately Neo-Darwinianism explains things.  Though personally a humanist atheist, he finds common ground with the advocates of Intelligent Design such as Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer, persuasive critics of the dominant paradigm.  He’s come to seriously consider the possibility that mind, rather than matter, shapes Reality.  Consequently:  “My guiding conviction is that mind is not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature” (p. 16).  This is particularly evident when we turn our attention to what we know best—ourselves!  “Something more is needed to explain how there can be conscious, thinking creatures whose bodies and brains are composed of those elements.  If we want to try to understand the world as a whole, we must start with an adequate range of data, and those data must include the evident facts about ourselves” (p. 20).  Unfortunately:  “Evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends” (p. 18).  

The mysterious and absolutely indubitable reality of human consciousness highlights the inadequacy of evolutionary naturalism.  “Organisms such as ourselves do not just happen to be conscious; therefore no explanation even of the physical character of those organisms can be adequate which is not also an explanation of their mental character.  In other words, materialism is incomplete even is a theory of the physical world, since the physical world included conscious organisms among its most striking occupants” (p. 45).  Scholars like Dawkins and Crick, who reduce consciousness to material entities, fail to properly distinguish between description and explanation; observing neurons firing in the brain does not begin to adequately explain the phenomenon of consciousness.  Far better, Nagel says, is the ancient Aristotelian conception of “teleological laws” guiding natural processes.  In addition to matter-in-motion, there may well be “something else, namely a cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value that is inseparable from them” (p. 123).  Old Aristotle may well have erred, but he now appears wiser than his modern antagonists!  As for theists, a creative God certainly provides a satisfactory explanation.  No final explanation for consciousness fully persuades Nagel, but he knows that the Neo-Darwinian answer lacks cogency.  What we must seek, he argues, is “a form of understanding that enables us to see ourselves and other conscious organisms as specific expressions simultaneously of the physical and mental character of the universe” (p. 69).  

What’s true for consciousness is even truer for cognition—our incredible ability to reason.  We are not only aware of ourselves as thinking beings but we can transcend our personal perspectives and objectively discover momentous realities such as the law of gravity.  Evolutionary naturalism fails, abysmally, to explain the existence and unique mental powers of our species, so properly labeled homo sapiens.  “Rationality, even more than consciousness, seems necessarily a feature of the functioning of the whole conscious subject, and cannot be conceived of, even speculatively, as composed of countless atoms of miniature rationality” (p. 87).  

Then add to cognition conscience!  Add to speculative reason practical reason.  We do, countless times a day, evaluate things, judging them good and evil, right and wrong.  And such judgments range far beyond our individual feelings or interests.  I may very well be more outraged by the former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner’s abusive behavior than by an undeserved personal insult.  I may very well be more concerned with the national debt’s impact on future generations than by the sharp increase of my electric bill, though both result from irresponsible politicians’ decisions.  To Nagel, only the “moral realism” expounded by traditional thinkers such as Aristotle and C.S. Lewis enables us to craft ethical principles and render moral judgments; and “since moral realism is true, a Darwinian account of the motives underlying moral judgment must be false, in spite of the scientific consensus in its favor” (p. 105).  

Inasmuch as consciousness, rationality and morality define us as human beings—and inasmuch as evolutionary naturalism cannot explain these fundamental realities—we must, Nagel says, open our minds to better ways of thinking and understanding the universe, taking “the appearance and evolution of life as something more than a history of the development of self-reproducing organisms, as it is in the Darwinian version” (p. 122).  A better version is wanted!  For, Nagel concludes:  “I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two” (p. 128).  No wonder “the present right-thinking” guardians of secular orthodoxy turned venomous when confronted with Nagel’s intellectual rigor and incisive logic!  

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In many of his writings C.S. Lewis trenchantly critiqued the philosophical naturalism masquerading as “science” in the modern world.  This he labeled “scientism,” carefully differentiating it from authentic “science,” with its rigorous methodology and tentative hypotheses.  The intrinsic nihilism and potential brutality of “scientism” was philosophically exposed in Lewis’s The Abolition of Man and memorably portrayed in his That Hideous Strength, one of the great dystopias of the 20th century.  The same message is manifest (though without Lewis’s theistic foundation) in Raymond Tallis’ recent Aping Mankind:  Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Durham, U.K.:  Acumen Publishing Limited, c. 2011).   As a medical doctor (and “atheistic humanist”) who taught for many years at the University of Manchester, devoting himself to brain science, he is thoroughly aware of neuroscience and its implications for understanding human nature.  But he has become increasingly distressed by the unwarranted supposition (what he dubs “neuromania”) that we are no more than our brains, ignoring the importance of common sense, consciousness and culture, art and religion.  As widely propounded in both scholarly and popular circles:  “The neurophysiological self is at best the locus of ‘one damn thing after another’, which hardly comes near to the self of a human being who leads her life, who is a person reaching into a structured future with anticipations, aims and ambitions, that are themselves rooted in an almost infinitely complex accessible past that makes sense of them” (p. 135).   

Even on a purely material level man’s brain eludes easy analysis.  Though specific neurological sections clearly do specific things (e.g. seeing; hearing), they are capable of alternative and adaptive roles.  Rather than being “hard-wired” like a computer, the brain has a beguiling “plasticity” enabling it to reorganize under certain conditions.  The brain is clearly necessary for us to think—but it is not necessarily a sufficient explanation of our thinking.  Neurologists may chart correlations between neurons firing and mental activity, but as elementary logic reminds us a correlation must never be equated with causation.  “The errors of muddling correlation with causation, necessary condition with sufficient causation, and sufficient causation with identity lie at the heart of the neuromaniac’s basic assumption that consciousness and nerve impulses are one and the same, and that . . . ‘the mind is a creation of the brain’” (p. 95).  Quite the contrary, Tallis argues:  “mental events are not physical events in the brain” (p. 133).  

Undergirding the notion that the mind is the creation of the brain is the evolutionary assumption that we are nothing but the clever animals Daniel Dennett declares as part and parcel of  “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” the “universal acid” that cuts away all confidence in what philosophers call qualia—intentionality and meaning,  morality and justice, freedom and responsibility, beauty and love.  To Tallis, any theory that discounts such qualia (intensely felt personal realities basic to human experience) demands disbelief!  Obviously “nerve impulses are not at all like qualia” (p. 95) and any attempt to explain away the latter by describing the former cannot but miscarry.  Indeed, “we shall find, again and again, that we cannot make sense of what the brain is supposed to do—in particular postulating an intelligible world in which it is located—without appealing to talk about people who are not identical with their brains or with material processes in those brains” (p. 111).  

The “Darwinitis” infecting “neuromaniacs” is similarly suspect to Tallis.  “If they only looked at what was in front of their noses they would not have to be told that there are differences between organisms and people:  that a great gulf separates us from even our nearest animal kin” (p. 147).  In almost every significant way we differ from other animals!  “Many of our strongest appetites—for example, for abstract knowledge and understanding—are unique to us” (p. 151).  Our finest endeavors—writing and reading books, composing and listening to symphonies—have no parallel in the animal kingdom.  Importantly, to Tallis, embracing Darwinism as an explanation for human origins does not necessarily entail accepting “Darwinitis (which purports to explain everything about people in terms of biological evolution)” (p. 153).  Especially problematic is any Darwinian explanation of human consciousness, the fundamental reality known to us.  “In short, if it is difficult (although not in principle impossible) to see how living creatures emerged out of the operation of the laws of physics on lifeless matter, it is even less clear how consciousness emerged or why it should be of benefit to those creatures that have it.  Or, more precisely, why evolution should have thrown up species with a disabling requirement to do things deliberately and make judgments” (p. 179).  

Whether humanizing animals or animalizing man, Darwinitis demands its disciples deny non-material realities of any sort.  Consequently they remain “bewitched” by figures of speech comparing us with computers or machines, dolphins or chimps.  Unlike computers, however, we think and skillfully program computers, which are not conscious and cannot reason.  Even the most sophisticated supercomputers “are as zombie-like as pocket calculators” (p. 195).  We, conversely, uniquely use languages that are not at all computational!  In our languaging we reveal our freedom and dignity (realities necessarily denied by neuromaniacs) as human beings, and in our literature we revel in our uniquely human creativity.  

Sadly enough, Tollis says, even our current humanities (history, philosophy, art and music) have fallen captivity to Darwinitis and neuromania, reducing literally all our activities to “animalities,” i.e. matter-in-motion.  Thus we find Shakespearean scholars studying Macbeth’s grasping for an imaginary dagger and declaring:  “‘when moving his right hand, an actor playing Macbeth would activate the right cerebellar hemisphere and the left primary cortex” (p. 294)!   Such “scholarship,” relentlessly marching through academia, should give us pause, Tollis says, because it ruthlessly destroys all that grants grandeur to our literary treasures.  Similarly, we must be alerted to the flourishing academic discipline of “neuro-evolutionary ethics” espoused by thinkers such as Patricia Churchland, who insists that “‘it is increasingly evident that moral standards, practices and policies reside in our neurobiology’” (p. 317). Thus, as Albert Einstein asserted in 1932, in our “thinking, feeling, and acting” we do nothing freely “‘but are just as causally bound as the stars in their motion’” (p. 312).  

Such views, coming to the foreground in our world, lead Tollis to warn:  “Be afraid, be very afraid.”  Indeed, Tollis is sufficiently afraid to look favorably on “at least the idea” of God (p. 325).  The consequences of the atheism he embraces embarrass him!  Though irreligious himself, he finds the traditional notion of God preferable to the simplistic “biologism” espoused by prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins, whose “devastating reductionism . . . disgusts even an atheist like me.  In defending the humanities, the arts, the law, ethics, economics, politics and even religious belief against neuro-evolutionary reductionism, atheist humanists and theists have a common cause and, in reductive naturalism, a common adversary:  scientism” (p. 336).  

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For many years Alvin Plantinga has effectively represented the Christian perspective among academic philosophers.  Illustrating his prestige among his peers, he was invited to deliver the Gifford Lectures in 2005.  In print the lectures are titled:   Where the Conflict Really Lies:  Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York:  Oxford University Press, c. 2011).  Unlike some Gifford lecturers (e.g. William James, in The Variety of Religious Experience), Plantinga writes almost exclusively for his peers, and this treatise will be accessible only to folks with ample background in the denser realms of science, philosophy and theology.  His thesis, in short, claims:  “there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism” (#89 in Kindle ed.).  Theists such as himself need not deny evolutionary evidence, but they cannot abide a naturalistic “add-on to the scientific doctrine of evolution:  the claim that evolution is undirected, unguided, unorchestrated by God (or anyone else)” (#142).  Though vociferously denied by its secular proponents, scientific “naturalism” assumes a religious role in their thinking and may be understood as a “quasi-religion” whose presumptions clearly conflict with the data of consciousness and cognition.  Unfortunately, as Richard Feyerabend wisely noted years ago:  “Scientists are not content with running their own playpens in accordance with what they regard as the rules of the scientific method; they want to universalize those rules, they want them to become part of society at large” (Against Method, p. 220).  

We Christians especially should take seriously the scientific discoveries and insights of our time.  Created in God’s image, we are uniquely equipped “to know and understand something of ourselves, our world, and God himself” (p. 4).  All truth is God’s truth and we can (in part, looking through a dark glass) know it.  Unfortunately, all too many modern “scientists” abandon their circumscribed vocation and become amateur philosophers when promoting their naturalistic (and generally atheistic) convictions.  By carefully reading Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker and The God Delusion—and demanding such necessities as demonstrable evidence and cogent explanation, logical rigor and unambiguous definitions— Plantinga effectively illustrates Dawkins’ sophomoric shortcomings.  Dispatching Dawkins, he then dissects Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea—“a paradigm example of naturalism” (p. 36).  Though by profession a philosopher (whereas Dawkins is a biologist dispensing philosophy), Dennett apparently has failed to do the honest intellectual toil necessary to actually engage the great theists of the past!  Consequently, many of his arguments (like Dawkins’) prove jejune to a first-rate thinker such as Plantinga—“about as bad as philosophy (well, apart from the blogosphere) gets” (p. 45).  

Much the same can be said of “evolutionary psychologists” who “explain distinctive human traits—our art, humor, play, love, sexual behavior, poetry, sense of adventure, love of stories, our music, our morality, and our religion itself—in terms of adaptive advantages accruing to our hunter-gather ancestors” (p. 131).  Thus Harvard’s Steven Pinker devoted “only eleven of his 660-page How the Mind Works” to music; he explained that music “‘was useless’ in terms of human evolution and development’” and should be regarded “as ‘auditory cheesecake,’ a trivial amusement that ‘just happens to tickle several important parts of the brain in a highly pleasurable way, as cheesecake tickles the palate’” (p. 132).  Such Pinkerian statements simply illustrate the intellectual vacuity of celebrated academics!  

On a more constructive level, after meticulously answering objections to the possibility of God’s intervention in the world, he suggests that God could easily work through both the “macroscopic” and “microscopic” realms, exercising “providential guidance over both “cosmic” and “evolutionary” history and doing so “without in any way ‘violating’ the created natures of the things he has created” (p. 116).  Still more, Plantinga confesses:  “perhaps God is more like a romantic artist; perhaps he revels in glorious variety, riotous creativity, overflowing fecundity, uproarious activity.  . . . .  Perhaps he is also very much a hands-on God, constantly active in history, leading, guiding, persuading and redeeming his people, blessing them with “the Internal Witness of the Holy Spirit” (Calvin) or “the Internal Instigation of the Holy Spirit” (Aquinas) and conferring upon them the gift of faith.  No doubt he is active in still other ways.  None of this so much as begins to compromise his greatness and majesty, his august and unsurpassable character” (p. 107).  Equally possible, God may very well have created “a theater for setting for free actions on the part of human beings and other persons”—“a world of regularity and predictability” wherein we function in accord with our imago dei status (p. 119).  

Thus good science poses no “defeaters” for Christian faith.  There is in fact deep concord between them.  As Sir Isaac Newton said, in Principia Mathematica:  “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. . . .  This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all” (p.).  Today’s cosmologists often reflect on the apparent “fine tuning” of the universe that suggests a profound teleological process culminating in a world “just right” for us human beings.   Current advocates of “Intelligent Design” such as Michael Behe have persuasively detailed evidence and argued that “irreducibly complex” structures cannot be adequately explained by Neo-Darwinians who insist the evolutionary process is absolutely unguided.  Plantinga effectively demonstrates the thoroughly rational and philosophically defensible position that there is every reason to believe in a Mind behind the Cosmos.