Tag Archives: Thomas Nagel

Teleology and Darwinism in William James


Although the general view of Darwinism is that it directly opposes the validity of final causation, which I, along with William James, Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, Thomas Nagel, and many other philosophers unequivocally assert, it seems unlikely that a mode of thought would attain the wide and lasting success that Darwinism has without containing some significant grain of truth. William James addresses this issue obliquely in a long passage from The Will to Believe (1897, 221-4), in an essay called “Great Men and Their Environment.” According to James, Darwin did not purport to explain the underlying cause of what he called “tendencies to spontaneous variation.” In fact, he “ignored them altogether,” as James puts it. What Darwin does seem to have explained rather convincingly, which James deems an instance of Darwin’s “triumphant originality,” is the way the traits produced by those “spontaneous variations” are preserved and passed on in relation to the environmental context through natural selection and sexual selection.

Charles Darwin states his hypothesis directly in the introduction to On the Origin of Species:

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form (5).

If James is correct (and I believe he is correct about most things), then Darwin himself has very little to say about whether the underlying cause of the emergence of new traits is random chance or teleological tendencies in the nature of process. And as to the question of what Darwinists other than Darwin himself have believed about this issue, some of his followers appear to have understood him better than others, and many have asserted things that Darwin himself never asserted. To my mind, anyone who denies teleology, whether they call themselves Darwinists or not, are mistaken, as there is an undeniable trajectory visible in cosmic history towards the progressive emergence of novelty and consciousness, from nonlife, to life, to episodic mammalian consciousness, to the emergent human mind.

The two kinds of selection Darwin posits define the mechanism by which traits are preserved, whether they are caused by random chance or by teleology. It seems to me that this central point of Darwinism makes a positive, and rather large contribution to understanding how evolution occurs without denying any other theory, particularly final causation, even if the underlying cause of the variations remains a mystery for Darwin. Similarly, the idea of subtraction itself is a positive contribution to the total field of human knowledge, even though that operation itself is the mathematical embodiment of the negative.

James interprets Darwin’s citing of “accidental variation” as the cause of new traits to mean not that the underlying cause is necessarily random, but that these causes of variation are so complex, numerous, and deep that they are unknowable to the methods of empirical science. I remain agnostic on the quantitative measurability of teleology at the micro-scale of almost infinite complexity, the scale of the relations of individual molecules over billions of years. But it is clear that at the macro-scale, the evolution of species has consistently tended, over the course of those billions of years, towards the emergence of novel forms of life and consciousness. Judging from James, I do not believe that this supposition is incommensurable with the core assertion of Darwinism, which is the novel idea of selection, even though Darwin appears consciously to have stripped his work of reference to teleology, largely in relation to the Christian form of eschatological finalism prevalent in his historical milieu, as he apparently told botanist Asa Grey. Darwin seems not to have been interested in being in the business of tracing either first principles or final ends, even if some of his followers have been. Some thinkers have even argued that Darwin may in fact have given credence to teleology in some form, particularly James G. Lennox in his contribution to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Ultimately it seems unlikely that James would have so admired the work of Darwin if the latter’s theory had explicitly denied James’ belief in final causation, for as James writes in Pragmatism: “Everything makes strongly for the view that our world is incompletely unified teleologically and is still trying to get its unification better organized” (54).

I’ll give the last word to Darwin, who writes in On the Origin of Species: “I am well aware that scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived” (3). This statement seems an implicit recognition of the guiding principle of Jamesian pragmatism, of John Stuart Mill in his essay on Coleridge (which I’ve quoted often in earlier posts), of Hegel’s discussion of the negative in his dialectic, and of the work of many other philosophers, a principle by which I set my own course: Facts are often susceptible to incommensurable interpretations, so the most comprehensive approach is to see if opposed modes of thought can be reconciled by affirming the positive content of each mode and putting aside the negative content as historical contingency. In my experience, as with this brief study of the supposedly antithetical theories of Darwinism and teleology, both sides of any controversy that has persisted for generations almost always possess some validity within their respective domains of applicability.



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


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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