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  • Twoism Makes Sense of the World

    Thomas Nagel has raised more than eyebrows in his recent book. Mind and Cosmos (Oxford, 2012). Provocatively subtitled, Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Nagel has raised serious questions against what is often elevated as a sacred cow over the past century. That sacred cow is the belief that Neo-Darwinism forms a Theory of Everything. For many (not all), Neo-Darwinism offers material explanations that render God an outmoded and superfluous hypothesis. Abraham Kuyper once described this phenomenon as “the veni, vidi, vici wherewith the theory of evolution with full speed occupied the ground in all the circles (Lectures on Calvinism, [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983] 113). When Neo-Darwinism occupies the ground over the significant circle of human consciousness, Nagel sees a theory that has stretched beyond its breaking point.




    Nagel (a graduate of Cornell, Oxford, and Harvard and Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University) has long challenged attempts to reductively banish all consciousness to the realm of pure matter. His famous 1974 article, “What is it Like to Be a Bat?” argued that there is a subjective texture to conscious experience that stubbornly resists all attempts at materialistic reduction. Mind and Cosmos, takes Nagel’s arguments much further, analyzing many features of consciousness that, he believes, fit into a Neo-Darwinism paradigm like square pegs in a round hole.

    I very briefly sketch a host of features of being CONSCIOUS (some raised by Nagel, others which I introduce) that pose problems to any One-ist system in which creation is all there is. 


    Choice-making. We are capable of making choices that, though influenced by the physical world, are more than the sum of physical causes. Can meaningful choices be reduced to a natural world that operates by machine-like determinism (or random quantum indeterminism)? If we could so reduce freedom, then no one chooses to be a Neo-Darwinian and the entire debate is itself reduced to the involuntary buzzing of biological machines. 


    Oughts. Consciousness deals not only with facts (i.e., what is) but also with values (i.e., what ought to be). Can normative values like good and evil come from the material world of mere descriptive facts? Can nonmaterial realities like Ought-ness sprout into existence out of the soil of material Is-ness? As Don Delillo asks in his novel, White Noise:


    They can trace everything you say, do, and feel to the number of molecules in a certain region… What happens to good and evil in this system? Passion, envy and hate? Do they become a tangle of neurons?… What about murderous rage? A murderer used to have a certain fearsome size to him. His crime was large. What happens when we reduce it to cells and molecules? (White Noise [New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1986] 190).


    Non-Physical Laws. Physical stuff follows physical laws. Consciousness, however, can operate not by physical laws but also laws of logic. Take for example, the logical law of transivity: If A=B and B=C then A=C. Is this law physical? If so, where is it? If so, what is its chemical make-up? What genetic mutation in our evolutionary past produced the law of transivity, or the law of non-contradiction, or any other logical law?


    Semantics. The physical world is a world of syntax. Take for example, Nagel’s book. It is loaded with physical syntax—black ink arranged in certain squiggly shapes on paper, all with chemical composition and spatial location. Yet there is more going on than mere syntax in Mind and Cosmos. There is also “semantics,” the meaning conveyed through but not reducible to the physical syntax. For example, we could arrange red ink with different chemicals on recycled paper to say Geist undKosmos (German) or L’espritet le Cosmos (French). All the physical syntax has changed but the semantic remains. Semantics cannot be reduced to physical syntax. Can the physical realm of syntax explain the emergence of the conscious realm of semantics ?


    Creativity. From the dark beauty of Van Gogh’s Starry Night to a child’s crayola orange sun, consciousness exhibits the power of creativity. Is every masterpiece on canvas or construction paper, every song, poem, play, dance, or dinner merely the mechanistic byproduct of matter in motion? Is the artist no more than a bundle of swirling chemicals? Can the whole realm of aesthetic value be explained away as physical facts? Was Wordsworth wrong in thinking that “There’s more to the flower than the botanist can study?”


    Intentionality. Think about Mars. You can do so without the excruciating headache of the Red Planet materializing in your brain matter. You are not thinking Mars but thinking about Mars. Consciousness has the power to be about things (what philosophers call “intentionality”). Could genetic mutations in the concrete world of matter produce something nonphysical like an abstract thought?


    Owned Experiences. The physical world is an It that can be described in the objective categories of science. There is not only an It-ness but also an irreducible I-ness to consciousness, a subjectivity, a unified frame of reference that endures over time, a first-person perspective. Imagine, for example, a scientific tome about bats, explaining everything that can be known scientifically about these winged rodents. What’s one question such a scientific tome would not answer? It would not answer Nagel’s famous question, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ What does it feel like to fly blind through the darkness, sending out sonar shrieks to swoop full speed at an unassuming insect dinner? How do we get I-ness and What-Its-Likeness from the unconscious It of the physical world?


    Underlying purposes. The It of the physical world is what philosophers call nonteleological. Physical stuff does not think with underlying purposes. A beaker of mercury does not think, ‘Ok, my goal is to boil at 574 degrees.’ It just does. Consciousness, however, is teleological. We think purposefully, toward goals, acting for some reason (even if it’s often for totally unreasonable reasons). Can purposeless It-ness of the physical world generate the teleological For-ness of the conscious world?


    Significance. Lastly, we can see that consciousness can get in touch with and reflect real meaning. There is something really truly significant about people giving and receiving love, something of transcendent value that cannot be reduced to interacting particles or the biological quest for survival. How does the significance dimension of our conscious worlds—the Why-ness of our existence—emerge from the physical world of mere Is-ness (what Jean Paul Sartre once described as “the bare, valueless nausea of existence”)?


    At first glance it may seem that Neo-Darwinian Materialism faces a singular problem: How do we get consciousness from non-consciousness? What we see upon closer inspection, however, is a long series of faith-leaps required to believe that physical processes explain everything. Does it require too much faith to believe that the unconscious It of the material world somehow spawned This-or-That-ness (choice-making power), Ought-ness (moral values), Therefore-ness (logical laws), What-ness (semantics), About-ness (intentionality), Awe-ness (creativity), I-ness (indexicality), What-It’s-Like-ness (qualia), For-ness (teleology), and Why-ness (significance)? For Nagel the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’



    How do thinkers committed to Neo-Darwinian materialism respond to such challenges? One common strategy is to simply refuse to grant nonphysical status to such qualities of consciousness. We are told that “Man is a being purely physical” (Paul d’Holbach), that “Man is a machine… that can be reduced to simple, obvious mechanical interactions,” (Jacques Monod), that we are “the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process” (Paul Churchland). As materialist, Jaegwon Kim clarifies, 


    To think that one can be a serious physicalist and at the same time enjoy the company of things and phenomena that are nonphysical, I believe, is an idle dream… [T]his is what we should expect from physicalism… Physicalism cannot be had on cheap (Mind in a Physical World, [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001] 120).


    Yet if we reduce minds to matter then what, we may ask, would we use to justify such a conclusion, “minds” that turns out to be a logic-less, freedom-less, goal-less buzzing of brain matter? Is the argument that there are no minds itself merely the physical byproduct of non-minds? How then could such conclusions possibly be logically valid? The materialist (what Kim calls a “physicalist”) must make use the very thing he is denying, a mind to argue there are no minds, landing him in the same self-refuting plight as the man who states that that “There is no such thing as a sentence with more than three words in it.” As C.S. Lewis observed,


    It follows that no account of the universe can be true unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be real insight.  A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court.  For that theory would itself have, been reached by thinking, and if thinking is not valid that theory would, of course, be itself demolished.  It would have destroyed its own credentials.  It would be an argument which proved that no argument was sound—a proof that there are no such things as proofs—which is nonsense…Evolution gave us a reason for everything, but made it impossible for us to believe that our reasoning was correct (Miracles, [New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001] 21-22).


    Darwin himself seemed plagued by such problems when he wrote in a personal letter,

    The horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind (“Letter to William Graham” in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, vol. 1, [D. Appleton and Company, 1887] 255)?

    The problems consciousness poses to materialism, cogently reiterated and deepened in Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos (see also Alvin Plantinga’s “Darwin, Mind, and Meaning” here), ought to give us pause to reconsider biblical Two-ism. With the Bible’s essential Creator-creature distinction our origin is not traced to unthinking matter, but to a thinking Creator. Reason, therefore, is not eliminated as an untrustworthy, physical survival mechanism, but embraced as a truth-knowing mechanism gifted to us by the transcendent God of truth. In the biblical worldview of two, in the otherness that separates the Maker from the material world He made, we find a reason to reason. Our freedom, morality, logic, meaning, creativity, individuality, experience, and purpose are no longer explained out of existence, but nourished and expanded as we “love God with all our minds…”