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Refining the Teleological Vision: A Response to Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”

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I’ve just finished reading Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, published in 2012, which is one of the best new books by an unfamiliar thinker I’ve read in a long time. It’s not often that I come across a text that I feel belongs in my own private canon, but Nagel’s book seems to me of sufficient quality for such consideration (despite the hysterically negative reaction from some scientists, philosophers, and reviewers). In fact, it fits snugly in a subcategory of that canon, which also includes William JamesPragmatism and Thomas Khun‘s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, all very short books that clearly, compellingly, and compactly argue for a startlingly novel concept. In the case of James, this concept is that the premises we bring to bear on our interpretation of reality condition the kind of meaning that we can elicit from the felt reality of immediate experience. Furthermore, James shows that the premises we choose to hold are affectively driven. Finally, he submits that truth is not something waiting to be found ready-made, but a process that creates its own verification. In the case of Kuhn, the concept is that scientific revolutions (and possibly revolutions in other cultural domains) are relatively sudden reorganizations of the conceptual system impelled by an anomaly or set of anomalies that force the scientific community to reevaluate their fundamental premises. And like James, Kuhn suggests that these reorganizations of the system’s rules are caused by affective impulses that themselves exceed the capability of scientific explanation.

To my mind, Nagel has convincingly demonstrated that pure materialist reductionism cannot provide a satisfying explanation for the totality of phenomena, including both material interactions and agential consciousness, so we must admit teleology in some form if we hope fully to understand the nature of our world (a point which James also suggests). However, Nagel argues that materialist reductionism cannot explain these phenomena without recourse to teleology, and while his argument is subtle and convincing, I would like to suggest that this may even still be too radical a hypothesis, or perhaps not radical enough. What if the mind can be explained by the mere combination of material factors, but this is not the only valid and productive way to explain the existence of consciousness? In this possibility, for which I suggested the figure of the “teleological incline” in an earlier post, materialism and teleology do not require one another for internal coherence—both scientific materialism and teleological modes of thought would be perfectly coherent world views—but they may require one another for explanatory completeness. The evolutionary process would then be seen as susceptible to both modes of interpretation, both yielding real, though partial truths about the cosmos. They would each be complementary modes of thought valid within their domains of significance, which have very little, if any overlap, though I do think that holding these two hypotheses in tension together can produce a third, emergent, integral mode of thought in which both materialist reductionism and teleology are tools, inherently partial but highly useful human inventions appropriate for specific purposes.

In this hypothesis, materialist modes perhaps provide a sufficient explanation for the structure of process, while teleological modes can provide an explanation for the purposeful, meaningful, and directional flow of temporality in which we are undeniably immersed as conscious beings. This may sound like Cartesian dualism, but I would argue that it’s really a monism with dual points of access, different parts of the elephant, as it were, because these conceptual systems are each describing one aspect of a much larger whole. This is very close to what Nagel suggests in Mind and Cosmos, though the slight difference is that he does not think it likely that life, consciousness, and reason were able to evolve purely by the process of random natural selection, a belief which suggests that teleology must have guided this emergent process in some way. As he writes:

Natural teleology would require . . . that the nonteleological and timeless laws of physics—those governing the ultimate elements of the physical universe, whatever they are—are not fully deterministic. Given the physical state of the universe at any moment, the laws of physics would have to leave open a range of alternative successor states, presumably with a probability distribution over them. (92)

While I’m deeply sympathetic to Nagel’s view, and I believe he very well may be correct, my suggestion here is only very slightly different, which is that all we can say is that this processual emergence is susceptible to both modes of explanation, the materialist and the teleological, and that they both have pragmatic value and also limitations of explanatory scope. We may never know for certain if a purely materialist reductionism could have produced us because we would have to calculate the trajectory of every particle for the whole history of the universe to be sure, which seems an impossible task. But there is no evidence directly to contravene this belief except our intuition that there is “something more,” as James puts it. However, the sword cuts both ways, and so there is also no way empirically to contravene the belief that teleology has informed the evolution of process, which, belief in purely materialist reductionism notwithstanding, seems self-evidently to be the case. Thus, reductive materialism and finalism are both valid but incomplete explanations.

Furthermore, I would suggest that the third, emergent mode described above is one that is not committed to any particular view of reality other than that reality is multivalent and that these often seemingly incommensurable modes can be integrated by pushing through the paradoxical line dividing these modes from one another to birth an emergent conceptual entity. Unlike the deconstructive forms of postmodernism, which generally posit that no mode can be privileged while implicitly and unconsciously privileging its own deconstructive mode, the “integral” mode of thought acknowledges that it privileges the mode which integrates the others. Thus, “integration” is precisely the positive inverse of negative “deconstruction”; integration is deconstruction turned on its head (to appropriate what Marx said about Hegel—actually, he said “I have stood Marx on his feet,” which makes more sense because Marx sees himself as correcting Hegel, but this phrase simply doesn’t sound as good as the one so often misquoted). The integral mode fundamentally employs the same insight as postmodernism, that the world is radically multivalent, but the deconstructive forms of postmodernism generally interpret this to mean that the world is devoid of real meaning, while integral thought takes this multivalence to be evidence that the world is filled with meaning, an instance of Whitehead’s “slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference.”

In a fractal reiteration of this operation, while postmodern modes of thought generally reject the idea that certain individuals can exemplify and embody the larger movements of culture as a fallacious “great man” approach to understanding the evolution of consciousness, this emergent integral mode posits that individuals do in fact embody the collective, but only at the will of the collective. Through a process of negotiation along constantly shifting discursive networks, certain individuals are elevated to cultural prominence because they perfectly express the collective needs of that moment. Thus, Bob Dylan or Barack Obama, or Thomas Nagel for that matter, can validly be seen as emergent beings, in some sense specially elected by the many (literally in Obama’s case) to perform and catalyze the integration of disparate processual streams within themselves. Even if they ultimately fail in the full realization of the ideal, and they almost always do, they leave us with a “more perfect union.” And this is the way cultural process evolves, by lifting individuals to speak for the whole in our constant drive towards novelty through integration of apparently incommensurable entities.

One more thing about Nagel: He seems possibly to be influenced by Richard Tarnas, the most influential contemporary philosopher on my own work, not only in that his book is named Mind and Cosmos while Tarnas’ 2006 book is called Cosmos and Psyche, but in that Nagel writes that “each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself” (85), while Tarnas writes in 1991’s The Passion of the Western Mind that “the human mind is ultimately the organ of the world’s own self-revelation” (434). These coincidences, while not conclusive evidence of Tarnas’ influence on Nagel, at least show a strong sympathy between the two thinkers, and may be suggestive of a direct connection between them.

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