Value Realism

In Chapter 5 of Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel challenges the traditional Darwinian narrative about the origin of values.  This is a formidable task since the traditional view makes a lot of sense:  through natural selection and adaptation, each species learns to value whatever is beneficial to its survival and reproduction.  Condensed to the main point, value is the product of evolution; it was not present at the beginning of life.  He refers to this point of view as “Value Subjectivism.”

“Value Realism,” by contrast asserts that the propensity for life is a value present at the beginning of life, before evolution has a chance to create it.  Nagel begins his argument by asserting that pleasure and pain are real fundamental values: “Nevertheless I remain convinced that pain is really bad, and not just something we hate, and that pleasure is really good, and not just something we like.”  Nagel readily admits that such a position is explained in the Darwinian narrative as an illusion created by natural selection, but he resists that logic as unconvincing:

“The realist position must be that these experiences which have desire and aversion as part of their essence also have positive and negative value in themselves, and that this is evident to us on reflection, even though it is not a necessary part of the evolutionary explanation of why they are associated with certain bodily episodes, such as sex, eating, or injury. They are adaptive, but they are something more than that.”

This is a difficult argument to make because the traditional Darwinian narrative makes sense and Value Realism requires deep reflection on the nature of life, not something that we non-philosophers are disposed to do.  I found myself resisting Nagel’s argument, though by the end of the chapter, I had a grudging acceptance of the possibility that he might have a valid point.

I think Nagel’s main point comes to a placing of real value on survival and that survival takes precedence even over replication.  For me the key paragraph contains the following:

“First, 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. Eventually in the course of evolutionary history there appear conscious beings, whose experiential lives can go well or badly in ways that are familiar to us. Later some descendants of those beings, capable of reflection and self-consciousness, come to recognize what happens to them as good or bad, and to recognize reasons for pursuing or avoiding those things.”

Nagel’s position is a minor adjustment to the Darwinian narrative, but it emphasizes that all organisms needed motivation to survive even before motivation to replicate.  It is a re-statement of the principle that natural law favors life.  The same teleological principle that provided for life from ordinary matter provides for the guidance of life toward survival.  In the final analysis, it is difficult to tell if Nagel’s “Value Realism” is a reason for natural teleology or consequence of natural teleology.

Nagel re-emphasizes that the alternatives to a natural teleology are either a chemical “miracle” or divine intervention.  The probability of random chemical encounters producing anything as complex as DNA or RNA (or their precursors) is so small that “miracle” appears to be impossible.  That leaves divine intervention which Nagel and other atheists resist.  Nagel thinks that any divine intervention that circumvents the natural order is as impossible as “miracle.”  I agree with him on this, but I think that there is another alternative: God works through the natural order because God would not need to circumvent natural law that God created.  What we call natural law, like the universe in which we live, is much stranger than we imagine it to be.

If natural teleology is true then I would attribute the teleological principle to God and this is exactly the step that atheists who criticize Nagel fear.  According to his atheist critics, Nagel’s position is too compatible with theism.  However, the atheist argument can still invoke Occam’s razor and insist that natural teleology is the simpler explanation.  The real question is whether natural teleology can support the full gamut of subjective experience attributable to human consciousness.

The Teleological Solution

At the end of Chapter 4 of Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel finally turns to his candidate for best solution to the problem of consciousness:

I am drawn to a fourth alternative, natural teleology, or teleological bias, as an account of the existence of the biological possibilities on which natural selection can operate. I believe that teleology is a naturalistic alternative that is distinct from all three of the other candidate explanations: chance, creationism, and directionless physical law. . . . Teleology means that in addition to physical law of the familiar kind, there are other laws of nature that are “biased toward the marvelous.”

A teleological bias in physical law means that the laws governing all fundamental interaction would tend to produce outcomes that favor life and consciousness.  But, according to Nagel, such a bias could not be expressible in reducible physical law:

The idea of teleology as part of the natural order flies in the teeth of the authoritative form of explanation that has defined science since the revolution of the seventeenth century. Teleology would mean that some natural laws, unlike all the basic scientific laws discovered so far, are temporally historical in their operation. The laws of physics are all equations specifying universal relations that hold at every time and place among mathematically specifiable quantities like force, mass, charge, distance, and velocity. In a nonteleological system the explanation of any temporally extended process has to consist in the explanation, by reference to those laws, of how each state of the universe evolved from its immediate predecessor. Teleology, by contrast, would admit irreducible principles governing temporally extended development.

The challenge for any teleological based theory is whether such time-dependent changes in physical law can be experimentally detected.  If such goal-based bias cannot be detected in physical law, then teleology is essentially a faith-based system.  Experiments to detect time-dependent changes in physical law have so far come up empty.  So, the effect is very small if it exists at all.

I also think there must be some time-dependent effects in physical law, otherwise how could order producing organisms be created in a universe where unguided physical law seems to favor an increase in disorder.  Of course, Nagel believes such effects are attributable to “naturalistic” effects and I think they are attributable to an ordering power at work in the universe.  The difference is that an ordering power could be interpreted as evidence for God and a naturalistic approach would favor a non-theistic interpretation.  The advantage of Nagel’s interpretation is that atheists can embrace the evidence for an order producing power without directly naming it or considering it evidence for God.

The main weakness in the current atheist argument is the denial of an active ordering power in the universe.  This position flies in the face of common sense and puts atheism on the defensive, relying on arguments based on the problems with religious institutions.  This may seem like a strange thing for a believer in God to say, but atheists need a strong metaphysical argument for the naturalistic position so that faith-based institutions will take seriously their arguments about the failings of religion.  Nagel provides that metaphysical basis and atheists would do well to pay attention to him.

However, others have criticized Mind and Cosmos because Nagel fails to garner support from science for his position.  (See, for example, https://chronicle.com/article/Where-Thomas-Nagel-Went-Wrong/139129/.)  Such support does indeed exist and Nagel’s failure to include references to the science means that his argument is weakened.  In fact, even Nagel’s summary of the book in the New York Times seems to step back from the teleological argument because he does not mention it: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/18/the-core-of-mind-and-cosmos/?smid=pl-share.

And then there is the charge that Nagel has been too soft on the theistic option.  I don’t find him soft on theism so much as failing to put forth the standard arguments against religion.  The arguments against religion consist almost entirely on the problems that religion can cause among its adherents plus the incomprehensibility of religion from the point of view of non-theists.  But arguments against religion are not arguments against theism so I find this criticism out of place.

Of course, Nagel does admit that his teleological explanation does not definitively rule out a theistic interpretation.  But he correctly points out that theism seems like an unnecessary complication if the naturalistic explanation is sufficient.  This is where I think the argument between believers and atheists should be:  to what extent is the naturalistic explanation sufficient to account for human subjective experience?  I think that a naturalistic teleology in particular and atheism in general will fall short of satisfying the deep human yearning for spiritual truths.

That is probably the real reason that Nagel’s atheistic critics do not like his book.  A proper debate on the merits of the atheist position looks very weak unless some sort of ordering power is conceded.  But conceding an ordering power seems to be conceding too much because it can be mistaken for evidence of divinity.  However, Nagel maintains that atheism is a viable alternative if one views the ordering power as a natural teleology that is not subject to divine control.  In this position he does not waver.

Is Reason the Product of Evolution?

In Chapter 4 of Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel returns to the theme of intelligibility which he introduced in Chapter 2.  He raises a profound question about our reasoning capability its accuracy and its reliability.  The question is this:  is our reasoning capability a product of evolution or is it more like an invention or discovery about the world?

Perhaps the best way to explain Nagel’s point is to compare two categorically different human capabilities.  One capability is physical for which vision can be used as an example.  We can safely assume that vision has been shaped by natural selection.  Over the course of millions of years, our ability to see the world around us accurately has been instrumental to our survival.  We can even create a narrative for how it might be improved in coming centuries.  People currently have differing abilities to see different colors.  The ability to see color is determined by the sensitivity and number of color receptors in the retina.  Most people have three different types of color receptors which we can call “blue,” “green” and “red.”  Therefore, most people can see all colors that can be represented by a combination of blue, green and red.

A significant fraction of women can see a fourth color.  They have a gene which produces a color receptor that is sensitive to one more color, so they can see blue, green, red-1 and red-2.  These four colors can combine into many more total colors than can be seen by people with only three color receptors in the eye.  Since four color vision is a sex-linked ability, it might be difficult to create an explanation as to how it might become necessary or available to all humans, but it is conceptually possible to envision such an outcome.

This same reasoning about vision can be applied to some mental events and dispositions.  As a general rule, all humans are born with certain emotional and mental dispositions forged through long eons of evolution.  For example, we generally have the ability to distinguish a friendly face from a threatening face.  We will generally perceive the threatening face quicker than the friendly face.  One unfriendly face in a crowd can generally be perceived more readily than the single friendly face.  We come with evolutionary baggage that can be compensated for, but only if we take the time to apply reason to the experience and re-train our thinking.

Once reason is acknowledged as a factor, then it, too, becomes subject to inquiries about its relationship to the evolutionary process.  Reason can be named the non-physical human capability or the mental capability.  If we apply the same narratives as we used above for the physical capabilities then we are left with some important questions.   Can evolution improve upon our basic reasoning ability?  Might our reasoning process be fallible because we have not yet reached a point in our evolutionary development where reason is perfected?

Here Nagel separates the basic operation of logic from the ambiguities of perception and judgment.  Certainly our perception can evolve, just as our ability to see can evolve.  But what about the basic rules of inference that come from pure logic?  He uses the example of a person driving south in the morning, but notices that the sun is rising on his right.  There is clearly a problem.  Perhaps he is driving north; perhaps it’s not morning and the sun is really setting.  In this case, pure reasoning raises a question about perception.  So if reasoning is not reliable, how can it reliably correct perception?

The problem is compounded by the fact that we use such reasoning to think about evolution.  The very process of creating “just so” stories about evolution, as Nagel calls them, is filled with logical inferences.  If those logical inferences are based on a logic that is fallible, then, perhaps, our reasoning about evolution is flawed.  But Nagel rejects this line of thinking as he should.

Nagel believes that our ability to do basic logic is fully formed and reliable.  He prefers to use the word “emerge” to describe how it came to be.  My explanation is a little different.  When consciousness became sufficiently complex, it opened up a whole new mental world to us.  This is the world of logic, of mathematics, of the conceptual models that are the basis for the laws of physics.  Once this mental world became available to our consciousness, we could think abstractly about the world; we could reason about our environment; we could improve our lives by such reasoning; we could even focus consciousness on itself and reason about consciousness.  I could say that reason “emerged” as consciousness became complex, but I prefer to say that we discovered a new tool, much like we discovered other important tools like clubs, spears and fire.

Nagel’s main criticism of materialistic reductionism still stands, however.  If materialism cannot explain consciousness, then it cannot explain reason either.  And if reason “emerges” as Nagel speculates, then that factor gives some weight to Nagel’s favorite approach to the evolution of consciousness.  That approach is based on teleological factors in the laws of physics.  Teleological factors are attributes of the laws of physics that push evolution towards the type of goals that will produce consciousness.  He writes about that in the next section of his book.

Consciousness and Dualism (Part 3)

Late in chapter 3 of Mind and Cosmos, Nagel introduces one of the candidates for a likely solution to the problem of Cartesian dualism.  This approach can be called monism or panpsychism.  Panpsychism is the view that matter and mind are two different manifestations of a single unnamed substance.  Nagel thinks this path offers one possible framework for an eventual solution:

“Everything, living or not, is constituted from elements having a nature that is both physical and nonphysical— that is, capable of combining into mental wholes. So this reductive account can also be described as a form of panpsychism: all the elements of the physical world are also mental.”

“A comprehensively reductive conception is favored by the belief that the propensity for the development of organisms with a subjective point of view must have been there from the beginning, just as the propensity for the formation of atoms, molecules, galaxies, and organic compounds must have been there from the beginning, in consequence of the already existing properties of the fundamental particles. If we imagine an explanation taking the form of an enlarged version of the natural order, with complex local phenomena formed by composition from universally available basic elements, it will depend on some kind of monism or panpsychism, rather than laws of psychophysical emergence that come into operation only late in the game.”

However, there is a serious problem.  We have no idea how elementary particles could possess subjectivity which Nagel calls the “proto-mental” attribute.  Such an understanding would be necessary in order to build a framework for explaining how individual particles could come together and form conscious organisms.  The best candidate for such an explanation is quantum physics, but our understanding of quantum physics today is limited to its computational aspects.  If those aspects are real, then computation only supplies part of the solution.  And you would need to assume that consciousness is partly the result of computation.

There are some philosophical positions that hold that consciousness is all computation (Dennett, Kurzweil).  Anyone holding such a position may be quite happy with a quantum solution since it would explain how minds could be made of matter with computational abilities.  Still, one would need to work out the details of how individual particles with computational ability can be organized so that the total organism’s mind appears to be an unbroken whole.  That work might be made easier by quantum entanglement, but there is very little theoretical understanding on which to build.

Quantum entanglement provides some theoretical advantage over classical computation.  Quantum entanglement enables quantum information to be coded more compactly than classical information giving it the ability to reduce entropy.  Low entropy is a characteristic of order.  In this way, quantum computation has order producing power beyond the ordering power of classical computation.  But how this could take place in biological organisms remains a mystery.

Nagel finds additional problems with panpsychism when he imagines how it might address the developmental problem of life.  How did life originally arise from non-living matter and how did this proto-mental attribute of matter overcome the unlikelihood of random chemical interactions leading to life?  He concludes the section on panpsychism with this pessimistic comment:

“The idea of a reductive answer to both the constitutive and the historical questions remains very dark indeed. It seeks a deeper and more cosmically unified explanation of consciousness than an emergent theory, but at the cost of greater obscurity, and it offers no evident advantage with respect to the historical problem of likelihood.”

I find myself more optimistic about the outlook for a form of panpsychism that is based on quantum physics.  I think the entropy lowering capability of quantum computation will go a long way towards explaining the ordering power inherent in life and consciousness.  The problem is that quantum computation does not really explain subjective experience unless you assume that subjectivity is the result of computation.  And that assumption re-introduces the problem of dualism because you would need to assume subjectivity in all matter, not just living matter.  As soon as you’ve assumed that subjective experience is an attribute of living matter only, then it has to be an optional attribute, introduced by something besides physical law.

Consider what happens at the moment of death of any living organism.  For a brief instant, the chemical composition remains unchanged, yet life and consciousness are gone.  Subjectivity as we have come to know it during life has disappeared.  This would seem to indicate that subjectivity is an optional attribute of the material world, and that is dualism.

I suppose it is possible that there are subtle changes in the chemical composition at the time of death, but will those changes be sufficiently observable to clearly indicate which came first?  The subtlety may be telling us how miraculous consciousness is in the first place.  One can also consider the action of anesthetics which cause temporary unconsciousness.  For example, ether can cause unconsciousness in humans and inactivity in the one-celled animal paramecium, yet its exact action remains unexplained.

While I think that panpsychism based on quantum physics offers hope for explaining the tremendous ordering power of life and consciousness, I do not find that it offers a complete answer to the problem of dualism when viewed from the materialist point of view.  I am drawn more to the idealist point of view as a solution to dualism.  No less a world-class physicist than Leonard Susskind has suggested that the universe may be like a hologram. (A hologram is a three dimensional projection from a two dimensional source.  For Susskind’s analogy to hold, the universe would need to be a four dimensional projection from some external source.)  Susskind is an atheist, so he will not agree with my perspective that the universe is a projection from God, but that appears to be the only view that solves the problem of consciousness and dualism.

Thomas Nagel doesn’t agree with me either.  He finishes up chapter three by dismissing the theist path of an intentional power, but gives more credibility to what he calls the teleological framework.  The teleological path requires that the laws of nature are “value free,” yet they proceed toward a defined purpose or goal.  Nature’s laws would need to be “value free” to avoid the appearance of an intentional designer.  He needs to say more about how a desired goal can be free of value, and he promises to do so later in the book.

Consciousness and Dualism (Part 2)

“It has become clear that our bodies and central nervous systems are parts of the physical world, composed of the same elements as everything else and completely describable in terms of the modern versions of the primary qualities— more sophisticated but still mathematically and spatiotemporally defined. Molecular biology keeps increasing our knowledge of our own physical composition, operation, and development. Finally, so far as we can tell, our mental lives, including our subjective experiences, and those of other creatures are strongly connected with and probably strictly dependent on physical events in our brains and on the physical interaction of our bodies with the rest of the physical world.” – Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, Chapter 3.

With these words, Nagel begins to tell us about how the tremendous recent developments in biology and neuroscience have raised hopes for a materialist explanation of life and consciousness.  Science has made great strides in demonstrating the detailed workings of biology and brain function.  Yet, with all the scientific progress, the connection between mind and physical biology seems as elusive as ever.  Some philosophers have even taken the position that Nagel calls “eliminative materialism” in which mental events are illusory.

Nagel looks historically at conceptual approaches to solving the problem because he thinks that reductionism alone will not discover an answer.  A conceptual approach is based on adding something new to science in the hopes of providing the necessary leverage for new discovery.  This is similar to the approach of David Chalmers who has called for adding back into the scientific picture a fundamental quality of subjective experience.

Chalmers approach is to include within the science of consciousness the science of subjective experience, including the psychological and sociological implications of our mental states.  It is difficult to tell whether Nagel would agree with Chalmers.  Nagel thinks that whatever is added to science would need to be at least as radical as electromagnetic fields and relativity theory.  Here Nagel has written something very surprising from the viewpoint of science history.  The most radical scientific developments in the twentieth century were quantum physics and relativity theory, not electromagnetic fields and relativity theory.  Electromagnetic fields were definitively added to science in the 19th century by James Clerk Maxwell.   I wonder if he has chosen to write “electromagnetic fields” in order to preserve some hope for quantum explanations of consciousness.

Nevertheless, Nagel’s description of the difficulty of avoiding dualism has challenged me.  As I have pursued the path of quantum explanations for consciousness, I have concentrated on the power of quantum calculation to bring about order.  There is real order producing power in quantum computation that lends itself to a possible explanation for mental activity if consciousness is seen as a type problem solving.

However, there is nothing in the computational model of quantum physics that can produce subjective experience.   I have worked over thirty years in computer systems design and programming and there is no way that classical computation alone will produce consciousness or subjective experience.  There must be a qualitative difference between classical computation and quantum computation that allows for the addition of a subjective sense of intent or purpose to quantum computation.  The type of subjective sense added to quantum calculation would probably need to be optional because it could not be required to be present for such non-conscious quantum calculations as take place in ordinary physics (for example, in lasers).  And if it is optional, or “contingent” as Nagel would say, then it must be considered a dualistic explanation.

The non-dualist solution to this problem takes me to George Berkeley, whom Nagel mentions in passing and whose idea of “subjective idealism,” Nagel completely discounts.  Berkeley was an 18th century philosopher whose perspective developed as a counterpoint to the new discoveries in science and the trend away from theism.  Berkeley’s Idealism is the point of view that everything is mind and that all matter originates in God’s mind, and he maintains that view without denying the objective existence of material objects.  Some of his ideas influenced Albert Einstein and his view of the role of consciousness in the act of perception has new echoes in quantum physics.  But few thinkers these days give much credence to idealism.  I think that Berkeley’s idealism takes on fresh meaning when seen through the lens of quantum physics.

Another non-dualist approach would be to discount subjective experience.  Those favoring a behaviorist approach would be happy with this line of reasoning.  If quantum computation is at the core of our mental ability, then that could explain our mental problem solving ability but it would leave unexplained any subjective experience.  Those who view subjective experience as an unnecessary byproduct of evolution, like the color of blood, might find this view attractive.  But it has the unfortunate consequence of turning us into zombies.

At this point in chapter 3, Nagel has left us with a significant puzzle: (1) there is no non-dualist materialist theory of consciousness that can explain subjective experience; (2) Idealist and theistic theories are not welcome; and (3) dualism leaves too much room for theistic explanation and therefore it is also not welcome.  I await his recommendation for something new to be added to the description of the physical world, because at this point, I am feeling challenged but also slightly unwelcome.

Consciousness and Dualism (Part 1)

Chapter 3 of Mind and Cosmos is simply titled, “Consciousness.”  Here, Thomas Nagel seeks to lay out the complete case for his assertion that naturalism, materialism, reductionism, etc., cannot fully explain consciousness.  He doesn’t define consciousness in this chapter, but he has written about it earlier in this book and in many other books and articles.  When I think about the issues Nagel is raising, I find that I need a clear definition of consciousness before understanding very much of what he is saying.

The reason consciousness is such a difficult word is that there are so many perceptions of what it is.  One extreme position is that consciousness doesn’t exist!  Usually what is meant by the non-existence of consciousness is that it is an accidental byproduct of evolution, sort of like the color of blood.  It is not a fundamental function; it simply emerges when physical organization becomes complex enough.  However, there is no explanation as to why consciousness should emerge from complex function in the way that one can explain the color of blood from its composition.

One way that Nagel defines consciousness is in terms of subjective experience, such as our sense of taste or our experience of color.  He has written elsewhere that we cannot be certain that other people experience the taste of chocolate the same way that we do.  We can agree to name a certain taste “chocolate,” but we cannot really be sure that we each experience that taste in the same way.  It is possible to extend the example of taste to other subjective experiences such as love, fear, pain, revulsion, shame, etc.

Once we consider the entire range of subjective experience, I think it is relatively easy to argue that such experience would develop naturally as a necessary attribute by natural selection.  That reasoning might go like this:  It is not only the individual that is important to evolution.  The kinship group, tribe or other social grouping is also important because such groups ensure the survival of the individual.  Groups can raise armies and provide for the common defense.  Groups can help ensure that individual DNA gets passed on to the next generation, and so forth.

But groups require social cohesion.  Groups don’t like individuals who don’t play well with others.  In order for an individual to be a good member of a group, that individual must consider the sensibilities of others.  The individual must develop empathy for others in order to understand why it might be wrong to take unfair advantage of other group members.  As Nagel has written elsewhere, an understanding of one’s own subjective experience is necessary for empathy.

The memory of our own subjective experience requires consciousness.  We must be able to focus our attention on experiences that cause feelings and remember them.  He has also referred to this ability as mental capability or “mind.”  The evolutionary reasoning alone seems to provide solid evidence for the reality of subjective experience and consciousness.  It’s at least as real as any other objects of philosophical inquiry such as the existence of the external world.  We cannot live successfully in the real world without a solid belief in the external world and the subjective experiences of ourselves and others.

So, if the case for evolution naturally explains the development of subjective experience and consciousness, what is missing?  What is missing is the reductionist, scientific explanation that shows why subjective experience and consciousness arises from the physical aspects of evolution.  Unlike the color of blood which can be explained in terms of its molecular composition, subjective experience has no obvious connection to the physical.

At this point one has to decide whether to consider dualist solutions to the problem.  And Nagel gives a very good explanation of the history of proposed solutions.  The problem begins with the nature of the post-enlightenment scientific revolution and he assigns a major role to René Descartes.  Descartes’ major accomplishment was the discovery of analytic geometry:  Descartes showed how geometry could be analyzed numerically.  This development was essential for the later development by Newton of the laws of motion.  Without analytic geometry, Newton could not have subjected motion to numerical analysis.  This led to the development of calculus which laid the foundation of all modern scientific explanation.

However, Descartes is famous for something else.  He thought deeply about consciousness and its connection to the nascent materialist explanations of the world.  The new developments in science were possible because they set aside the experience of consciousness.  A detailed, numerical description of the physical world became possible by leaving out any explanation of the mental world.  Descartes attempted to include the mental world as an associated phenomenon of the material world without an explicit, physical connection.  That is the source of his famous dictum, “Cogito ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I am.”  Descartes’ assertion means that mental phenomena and physical phenomena arise together; we would not know that we exist in a material sense without consciousness.

This explanation of consciousness by Descartes is known as Cartesian Dualism and it has been the source of ongoing controversy about the nature of the world.  If one accepts dualism, then there is something other than matter in the universe and that something can be called spirit or soul or sometimes, “the ghost in the machine.”  Therefore, dualism is the bane of those desiring a materialist explanation.  And that includes Nagel.

But Nagel also shows how difficult it is to avoid dualism when all materialist explanations have failed.  Those difficulties have challenged me.  I will write about them next time.

Theism and Materialism

In Chapter 2 of Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel, the author explores the typical positions held by proponents of theism and by proponents of evolution.  His focus is sharpened by analysis of the different ways that each point of view attempts to make sense of human beings who are part of the world that ought to be intelligible to us.

According to Nagel, theists appeal to a deity who is outside the natural order, but who nevertheless provides intention and directionality to the natural order and who assures us of the basic reliability of our observational capacity and our reasoning ability.  It is a reassuring position at the expense of requiring a power outside of the natural order.  It suffers from a lack of any serious attempt to make human beings intelligible from within the natural order.

Evolutionary naturalists, on the other hand, claim that humanity is intelligible from within the natural order based on science and reason.  But, again according to Nagel, the problem is that both science and reason are the products of evolution and we have no authority outside of ourselves to substantiate the reliability of our understanding of science.  In Nagel’s terminology, evolutionary naturalism undermines its own claim of reliability.  Ultimately, the evolutionary explanations fail because the science that we possess has failed to explain consciousness and therefore failed to explain why we should trust the judgments arising from our consciousness.

I think Nagel is stretching too far for a criticism of the evolutionary point of view.  Its main problem is the inability for science to explain consciousness.  To find fault for the inability of evolution to provide reassurance that our reasoning is sound is the same criticism that can be applied to the theist position.   Both positions are based on faith!  Theists have faith in God based on a religious community and Darwinian evolutionists have faith in science based on the scientific community.  If anything, the evolutionary point of view has the advantage in that the scientific community is generally more unified and disciplined than the religious community.

The primary distinction between the two points of view, then, is the position and importance that each assigns to humanity.  Theism relies on a power outside the normal purview of science to explain and give meaning to human life and consciousness while evolution relies solely on current science at the expense of diminishing any essential or transcendent importance for human life and consciousness.

Nagel is searching for middle ground.  He wants an explanation for consciousness that does not rely on a power outside the natural order.  At this point in his book, I think he fails to see that any such explanation will be relying on faith in something.  Whether that something is science or philosophy or some combination, it will still be the object of faith.  Given the constraints on his search that there can be no power outside the natural order, his explanation would not be able to claim any more authority than evolutionary materialism.

From my point of view, a form of theism that provides a way for God to work through the natural order provides the best alternative.  The importance and discipline of science is maintained and modified so that human life and consciousness have access to transcendent power for guidance and assurance.

Scientific reductionism ends at the quantum boundary, so the assumption of transcendent consciousness working at the quantum level provides for the needed adjustment to science while maintaining the entire scientific edifice based on empirical evidence and reductionist explanation.  And there is scientific evidence for an order producing power working at the quantum level.  This evidence is being developed by the nascent scientific discipline of quantum biology.

The strongest evidence to date comes from quantum action during photosynthesis, but I expect much more evidence as quantum biology matures.  After all, isn’t all of physics based on quantum action?  The only alternative besides dualism would be a view that posits new scientific principles acting at the biological level.  But, it seems to me that there is too much continuity between chemistry and biology.  That continuity leaves little room for wholly new principles to be plausible.