NYU Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos has faced quite a bit of criticism from reviewers so far. And perhaps that’s simply to be expected, as the book is clearly an attempt to poke holes in a standard mechanistic view of life, rather than lay out any other fully formed vision. The strength seems to lie in the possibility of starting up a conversation. The weakness, unfortunately, seems to be in the recycling of some unconvincing arguments that make that unlikely.
The key issue that I think deserves closer inspection is the concept of teleology. Nagel reaches too far into mystical territory in his attempt to incorporate a kind of final cause, but some of his critics are too quick to reject the benefit of interpreting physics with a broader scope. While functionalists, or systemic or emergence theorists, may be more aware of the larger meaning of causality, it is still the case that many philosophers express a simplistic view of matter.
The word teleology has become associated with medieval religious beliefs, and much like the word virtue, this has overshadowed the original Aristotelian meaning. Teleology, in its classic sense, does not represent God’s intention, or call for “thinking raindrops.” Instead, it is a way to look at systems rather than billiard balls. Efficient causes are those individual balls knocking into each other, the immediate chain of events that Hume so adeptly tore apart. Final causes are the overall organization of events. The heart beats because an electrical impulse occurs in your atria, but it also beats because there is a specific set of genetic codes that sets up a circulatory system. No one imagines it is mere probability that an electrical impulse happens to occur each second.
Likewise, the rain falls because the water vapor has condensed, but it also falls because it is part of a larger weather system that has a certain amount of CO2 due to the amount of greenery in the area. It falls in order to water the grass not in the sense that it intends to water the grass, but in the sense that it is part of a larger meteorological relationship, and it has become organized to water the grass which will grow to produce the right atmosphere to allow it to rain, so the grass can grow, so the rain can fall. These larger systemic views are what determine teleological causes, because they provide causes within systems, or goals that each part must play. This is distinct from the simple random movement that results from probability. It is obvious in some situations that systems exist, but sometimes we can’t see the larger system, and sometimes even when we do, we can’t explain its interdependence or unified behavior from individuated perspectives. Relying on efficient causality is thinking in terms of those interactions we see directly. Final causality means figuring out what the larger relationships are.
Now, those larger relationships may build out of smaller and more direct relationships, but a final cause is the assumption of an underlying holistic system. And if this were not the case, Zeno would be right and Einstein would be wrong; Hume’s skepticism would be validated and we truly would live in randomness – or really, we wouldn’t, as nothing would sustain itself in such a world. The primary thing about a world like this is that it is static, based only on matter but not on movement, which is to say, based only on a very abstracted and unreal form of matter that does not persist through time. Instead, the classic formation requires a final system that joins the activity of the world.
What this system is or how it works is not easily answered, but it must involve the awareness that temporality and interconnectedness are not the same as mysticism or magic. To boil all science down to a series of probabilistic events misunderstands the essential philosophical interest in understanding the bigger picture, or why the relation of cause and effect is reliable. The primary options are a metaphysics like Aristotle’s that unites being, a Humean skepticism about causality, or a Kantian idealism that attributes it to human perspective. Contemporary philosophers often run from the metaphysical picture, preferring to accept the skeptic’s outlook with a shrug (anything’s possible, but, back to what we’ve actually seen…) or work with some kind of neo-Kantian framework (nature only looks organized to us because we’re the result of it).
But attempts to think about the unified nature of being – as seen in the history of philosophy everywhere from the ancients through thinkers as diverse as Schopenhauer, Emerson, or Heidegger – should not be dismissed as incompatible with science. Too often it is a political split instead of a truly thoughtful one that leads to the rejection of holistic accounts. What I appreciate about Nagel’s attempt here is that he is honestly thinking rather than assuming that experts have worked things out. Philosophers tend to defer to scientists in contemporary discussions, which means physicists have been doing most of the metaphysics (which has hardly made it less speculative). It seems that exploring the meaning of scientific assumptions and paradigms is exactly the area we should be in.
Questioning a mechanistic abiogenesis or natural selection may be untenable in current biological journals, but philosophy’s purview is the bigger picture, and it is healthy for us to reach beyond the curtain, not feeling constrained by what’s already been accepted. While my questions are not the same as Nagel’s (and I won’t review his case here), I am glad at least to see the connection made coherently. Writers in philosophy of mind often make arguments that seem incompatible with certain scientistic assumptions but simply do not address the issue. There are options beyond ignoring the natural sciences or demanding a boiled down, mechanical, deterministic view of life. Scientific research has inched toward more dynamic or creative ideas of natural change (like emergence, complexity theory, or neuroplasticity) and theories of holism (at least in physics) so challenges should not be associated with a rejection of investigation or an embracing of mythology. We all know philosophy is meant to begin in wonder – but perhaps that’s become too much of a cliche and not enough of a mission statement.