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I had a good weekend: IKEA duties fulfilled, and an excellent read. This post is not about IKEA (although I would like to know who invents their intriguing product names!); it is about the excellent read.

The book in question is Thomas Nagel’s recent work Mind and Cosmos. Nagel is an eminent atheist philosopher – but the subtitle of his book is ‘Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False’. That was a subtitle that immediately ticked a box for me. The next plus point came only a few pages into the introduction where he says:

“Among the traditional candidates for comprehensive understanding of the relation of mind to the physical world, I believe the weight of evidence favors some form of neutral monism over the traditional alternatives of materialism, idealism, and dualism.”

If you have read Faith in the Age of Science you will know that I am a supporter of the neutral monism point of view. In other words, there is one universe which has both physical and mental aspects. As regards human beings, consciousness cannot be simply explained away in terms of the material (e.g. brain cells and their chemistry). Nagel sees no reason to support such a reductionist argument, and neither do I. Further on Nagel says ‘Conscious subjects and their mental lives are inescapable components of reality not describable by the physical sciences.’

Nagel believes that the evolution of life, particularly the intricacy of the genetic code and its control of life’s chemical processes, is extremely improbable as understood by materialism alone. His argument really gets going, however, when he discusses human consciousness and reasoning. He argues that a real scientific understanding of life must include such phenomena, both in their present form and in their development. It is not enough to show that there is some kind of causal connection between thought and brain activity, for a valid theory has to show why there are such connections and how they work.

As far as Nagel is concerned, it is impossible to explain the fact of the development of human consciousness by the physical sciences alone. What we need is a theory that shows how consciousness and physical aspects of organisms developed together. For Nagel, such a theory should also show how mind is present in some way in the simplest constituents of matter, a form of ‘panpsychism’ it seems; the theory should also acknowledge the possibility of a ‘natural teleology’ – principles that provide guidance towards some goal. Nagel does not propose a comprehensive theory of his own, he thinks this could take a long time to develop, but the difficulty of the task should not make us stick to the old materialistic way. which is a busted flush.

Why do I find Nagel’s work exciting, when he is an atheist and I am a theist? For two reasons. First, it seems to me that he brings to the table an atheism that faces reality – the reality of the universe as we understand it through science, but also the reality of human consciousness. It is possible within his search for an over-arching theory for atheists and theists to have a fruitful discussion around these points, instead of mud-slinging and mutual recrimination.

The second reason for my excitement is that Nagel is very candid about why he remains an atheist rather than believing that the answer to his questioning is to be found in theism, which seems like a natural conclusion to his thought. He says he is an atheist, and a seeker after an alternative to theism, because he simply does not have that sense of the divine which seems to allow, even compel, others to take an opposite view.

Nagel is being disarmingly frank here. I think there are many who find themselves in the same position as he does. Maybe it’s a matter of what we used to call (poetically) ‘the heart’. Nagel admits to not wanting a God to exist, and I suspect many theists would admit to the opposite. More open discussion about this as well as Nagel’s principle theses might do a power of good.

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