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.