Can the mind be reduced to mere physio-chemical properties? Are experiences, thoughts, and feelings simply the product of chemical reactions in our brain? Atheist philosopher, Thomas Nagel, rejects such a view of the mind. In his book Mind and Cosmos, Nagel points out that belief in the material reductionist view of the mind is almost certainly false.
Nagel says that if the Darwinian view of the world cannot explain the appearance of a conscious mind, then Darwinian evolution is incomplete or false. In Mind and Cosmos he argues that a totally new theory of biology is needed to explain consciousness. He insists that the conscious mind is something more than the complex interaction of chemicals.
What it feels like to be you – to experience love, pain, joy, sadness – cannot be reduced to a material substance. Complexity alone cannot solve the puzzle. No matter how complex the material substance, materialism cannot produce conscious experience, says Nagel.
Nagel maintains that conscious experience is in a different category than chemistry and physics. He is humble in his approach, yet confident that the current theory of evolutionary biology cannot explain consciousness.
A Revision in Biology is Needed
Nagel maintains that a complete theory of biology will have to wrestle with consciousness as a fundamental element of nature. Consciousness may turn out to be a fundamental force of the universe – similar to space, time, and mass.
Nagel points out that scientists often cannot conceive of what future theories might look like. Scientists have a habit of thinking that the current conception of the world is true, only to accept new concepts as they arise and give us a better understanding of the world.
Materialism as Religious Dogma
It is currently popular to accept the view that reduces the mind to chemical-physical properties. All proper thinking scientists hold such dogma. A view that Nagel says in a few generations time, will be laughable.
Nagel’s view of science reminds me of that of F.A. Hayek who said of the science economics: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design 1.”
Scientists have imagined that they can construct a materialist worldview that incorporates consciousness, but Nagel says this is hubris. Consciousness minds – thoughts, feelings – are more than chemical-physical properties.
Intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole 2.
Consciousness Without God
Nagel is an atheist and does not leave room for God to explain consciousness. But, he says that he came to his views about consciousness by taking serious the arguments against materialism set forth by theists such as Alvin Plantiga.
I find Nagel’s reasoning intuitively appealing and down to earth. We all have the ability to introspect – to feel, to think, and to recognize that we have free will. It is only when someone learns a little philosophy that they try to eliminate free-will and adopt a material-reductionist view consciousness.
Nagel’s view will probably appeal to those of who find the puzzle of consciousness inherently mysterious. While the material-reductionist view of consciousness has an aesthetic simplicity, it does not seem to take into account the datum we collect from introspection.
For more on Nagel’s view, check out this video:
- https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Fatal_Conceit ↩
- Nagel, Thomas (2012-09-30T23:58:59). Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Kindle Locations 80-85). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. ↩