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Nagel and Dembski on Life and Mind

Cross-posted at The Best Schools.
Nagel.JPGLast week at ENV, William A. Dembski published an appreciative yet also highly critical review of NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford UP, 2012).
Both Nagel’s book and Dembski’s review focus on an exceptionally important question: If not Darwin, what? If the mainstream Darwinian account is false — as both Nagel and Dembski agree it is — then what is the truth about the place of life and mind in nature?
Nagel believes the answer must be sought in “principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic.” (p. 7)
Dembski, of course, believes that the answer lies in the “design inference” — the idea that our knowledge of living things allows us to infer that they have been literally designed by a transcendent Intelligence. In his review, Dembski evinces a certain impatience with Nagel’s invocation of unknown teleological principles, when the inference to a transcendent Mind seems to him such a natural one.
Now, it is easy to sympathize with Dembski’s frustration with Nagel’s position on this question. Here we have an eminent contemporary philosopher, who not only defends the objective reality of mind, purpose, and value, but also categorically dismisses the standard Darwinian account of these phenomena as woefully inadequate.
Yet Nagel refuses to take the design inference seriously — though he does give handsome (and well deserved) credit to the ID movement for drawing sustained attention to the many conceptual difficulties with Darwinism.
However, instead of reasoning from the reality of the human mind and the failure of Darwinism to the creative activity of a transcendent Mind in nature, Nagel says we must look for — well, he knows not what. Not, at any rate, God.
For this, Dembski takes him severely to task, saying that “such an appeal to new yet-to-be disclosed principles is speculative in the extreme and done without rational justification.”
From the ID point of view, it must seem as though their side has scored the winning touchdown, only to find that Nagel has moved the goalposts. As I say, the palpable note of frustration is understandable.
But is Dembski himself rationally justified in condemning Nagel so harshly? Certainly, he is correct that Nagel’s appeal to teleological principles is highly speculative. However, in claiming that Nagel’s position is “without rational justification,” Dembski goes too far.
How so? This is a very complex subject about which a great deal can — and needs to — be said. However, for now, I must make do with the following three points.
1. Unification as an Intellectual Desideratum
Nagel does not simply ignore the theist position, or dismiss it out of hand.
Rather, he lays it down as a fundamental explanatory principle, or intellectual desideratum, that we ought to pursue a single, fully integrated (or unified) account of the world, including the human mind and the normative and evaluative properties associated with it.
This is how he puts it:

My project has the familiar form of trying to meet a set of conditions that seem jointly impossible. In addition to antireductionism, two further constraints are important: first, an assumption that certain things are so remarkable that they have to be explained as non-accidental if we are to pretend to real understanding of the world; second, the ideal of discovering a single natural order that unifies everything on the basis of a set of common elements and principles — an ideal toward which the inevitably very incomplete forms of our actual understanding should nevertheless aspire. . . . The unifying conception is . . . incompatible with the kind of theism that explains certain features of the natural world by divine intervention, which is not part of the natural order. (p. 7-8)

Dembski rejects such a principle of unification as “ill-considered,” adding “We’re not God and we’ll never be God.”
That’s for sure. But from the fact that we are not omniscient beings it simply does not follow that we shouldn’t push the boundaries of our knowledge as far as possible.
The virtue of Nagel’s intellectual desideratum is not something that can be logically demonstrated. In the final analysis, it is a matter of intellectual taste.
But it does have this in its favor: Unification is an essential feature of explanation, in general. If we are doing a jigsaw puzzle, and we see that a piece is missing, we know the puzzle is incomplete. Similarly, if we perceive a gap in our world picture, we know that our understanding of the world is incomplete.
The feeling of completeness is an essential part of our sense that we understand something. Therefore, to reject unification on principle is to place a priori limits on human understanding.
2. The False Dichotomy between Reductionism and Theism
Part of Dembski’s impatience with Nagel seems to arise from the sense that the latter’s appeal to unknown teleological principles is a desperate and intellectually disreputable measure — nothing more than a shady dodge to avoid theism at all costs.
But it is an oversimplification of our dialectical situation to frame the question in this way — as a dichotomous choice between reductionism and theism, between Darwin and God. There has been a long tradition in Western thought of a “third way” in between materialism (which we already see in Greek and Roman thinkers such as Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius) and theism.
The idea of “teleological principles” is not just a last-ditch attempt by Nagel to avoid an unwelcome inference to divine intervention. Rather, it represents an entirely distinct and equally venerable intellectual tradition, which may be traced back to such classical thinkers as Aristotle, Zeno of Citium, and Galen. More recent representatives of this tradition include Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and Hans Jonas.
One may even find hints of this third way of thinking in the writings of some very sober and clear-sighted, contemporary scientists. For example, the distinguished British physical chemist, K.G. Denbigh, writes as follows:

Yet it may reasonably be asked whether the notion of an inert and passive universe is actually entailed by science — that is, as a necessary conclusion, one which follows logically. May it not rather be something which has been “read into” science, a conclusion superimposed upon it, due to the influence of various presuppositions?1)

To be sure, Denbigh’s idea of an active or “inventive” universe is no less speculative than Nagel’s vague “teleological principles.” How could any effort to think beyond the Darwinian materialist/reductionist framework be otherwise?
But it is not something dreamed up out of whole cloth by either Denbigh or Nagel just to avoid the design inference.
3. Local versus Global Teleology
None of the above is to suggest that Nagel’s discussion is above reproach. In fact, it is deficient in a number of respects, especially in the way he frames his problem.
It is only natural that Nagel should take the individual conscious human subject as his starting point. It is this set of phenomena, above all, that we wish to integrate into the rest of our picture of nature.
However, Nagel’s goal is to find a conceptual bridge between the inanimate world and the domain of life and mind. Given that aim, it would have made more sense for him to look for the roots of human attributes in lower life forms. Therefore, it was a serious mistake for him to place the human being at the center of his inquiry in the way he has done.
The emphasis throughout on conscious experience is particularly unfortunate. About consciousness, there is literally nothing to say, at this point in history. The inner and outer pictures of the world are wholly incommensurable — “and there’s an end on it.”
Of course, the reason Nagel places consciousness at the center of his reflection is that he assumes — along with nearly everyone else — that the domain of purpose and value is essentially connected with consciousness. And, indeed, there is no doubt that conscious experience is what we human beings value most about our own existence.
But that does not mean that purpose and value cannot exist in the absence of consciousness. It is actually quite easy to show that they can. Take respiration, for instance.
Respiration is ordinarily under automatic — unconscious — control. We also have the ability to control our breathing consciously. But when we breathe consciously, we are merely adding an additional layer of control to an already quite-sophisticated purposive process.
What is the purpose of breathing? As every schoolchild knows, it is to take up oxygen from the atmosphere and inject it into the bloodstream, so it can be carried throughout the body (and also, of course, to subject carbon dioxide in the blood to the reverse process).
What is the purpose of holding one’s breath while under water? Simply to fine-tune the breathing process — to add to the unconscious process further scope for adaptation to varying circumstances.
From this, it is clear that it is not the conscious control of our breathing that endows our respiration with purpose. Rather, conscious control merely piggybacks on the already-purposive unconscious process.
And what is true for respiration is true for all physiological processes. Conscious control is the merest tip of the iceberg of unconscious vital purposiveness. Nagel himself admits that value is logically connected, not with consciousness, but rather with life as such:

. . . with the appearance of life even in its earliest forms, there come into existence entities that have a good, and for which things can go well or badly. Even a bacterium has a good in this sense, in virtue of its proper functioning, whereas a rock does not. (p. 117)

He does not suggest — and he is right not to suggest — that we must therefore imagine bacteria as conscious beings.
Maybe they are, and maybe they aren’t. We have no way of knowing. But, in any case, that question is not the most important one for Nagel’s project.

What is crucial for Nagel’s project is the realization that bacteria don’t have to be conscious for things to be able to go well or badly for them. Therefore, flourishing, needing, valuing, and a host of other normative properties are essential features, not of consciousness, but of life as such.2
This point relates to another important problem with Nagel’s whole discussion. Nowhere does he make it clear that he is aware of the crucial distinction between local and global teleology.
At most points in his book, the “teleological principles” he has in mind seem to be global, or cosmic, in nature. This is the idea, associated with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that there is a cosmic principle directing the evolutionary process as a whole.
This is — to say the least — not just speculative, but highly dubious, from a scientific point of view. The place where Nagel should be looking for teleological principles is, rather, within living things themselves — or, more specifically, in the principles underlying the massive coherence and coordination of the chemical reactions occurring within the form of soft, condensed matter sometimes referred to as “the living state of matter.”3
Needless to say, all of this is still highly speculative. But the search for local teleological principles inherent in life is far more promising scientifically than are Nagel’s speculations about global teleology.
On this view, life and mind are governed by sui generis teleological principles arising from the particular sort of matter living things are made of. As for the origin of these principles, they are re-conceived as merely one in a long series of emergent “phase transitions” within an “inventive universe.”
Understood according to this physics-derived interpretation, each of the emergent events would still retain an irreducible element of spontaneity and unpredictability — that is what makes the overall picture emergentist, rather than reductionist.
However, the overall picture would not be merely arbitrary, because all levels of nature would be integrated into a single sequence of successive phase transitions that itself proceeds according to universal “theoretical principles,” such as symmetry breaking and the renormalization group.4
It should be noted that this viewpoint — even if it were vindicated — would by no means answer all the questions in this vicinity. Much would still remain unexplained, not least the reason for the existence of the universal theoretical principles themselves. So, there would still be plenty of work for theism to do, if one is inclined that way.
Also, the emergentist picture is admittedly less satisfying than the mechanistic picture, from an explanatory point of view. It assumes there is an inherent spontaneity and inventiveness at the heart of things that cannot be fully explained — at least, if by “explanation” we mean “reduction-to-mechanism.” But that may be the price we have to pay for taking life and mind seriously.
Still, if we can reduce our puzzlement concerning the place of life and mind in nature to the same sort of puzzlement we feel concerning the emergence of inanimate structures step-by-step out of the quark soup — if we can eliminate much of the special puzzlement we feel about them — surely that is progress.
The bottom line is that local teleological principles at least have some prospect of being anchored in real science, and — if confirmed — they would go a good part of the way towards closing the yawning chasm between the inanimate world and the domain of life and mind.
(1) K.G. Denbigh, An Inventive Universe (George Braziller, 1975), p. 9.?
(2) See Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (Oxford UP, 2001).?
(3) There is no space to back up this claim here, but see my Normativity, Agency, and Life: Teleological Realism in Biology (LAP-Lambert, 2012), as well as the ongoing series “Seeing Past Darwin.”?
(4) See Margaret Morrison, “Emergence, Reduction, and Theoretical Principles: Rethinking Fundamentalism,” Philosophy of Science, 2006, 73: 876-887.