Thomas Nagel: Idealism and the Theological Turn in the Sciences

The view that rational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order makes me, in a broad sense, an idealist— not a subjective idealist, since it doesn’t amount to the claim that all reality is ultimately appearance— but an objective idealist in the tradition of Plato and perhaps also of certain post-Kantians, such as Schelling and Hegel, who are usually called absolute idealists. I suspect that there must be a strain of this kind of idealism in every theoretical scientist: pure empiricism is not enough.

– Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos

Now we know the truth of it, and why Thomas Nagel has such an apparent agenda to ridicule and topple the materialist world view that he seems to see as the main enemy of his own brand of neutral monism: a realist of the Idea, whether one call it mind or matter – it’s neutral. What’s sad is his attack on scientific naturalism and its traditions even comes to the point where he offers the conclusion that even religion upholds a more appropriate view of reality than the naturalist:

A theistic account has the advantage over a reductive naturalistic one that it admits the reality of more of what is so evidently the case, and tries to explain it all. But even if theism is filled out with the doctrines of a particular religion (which will not be accessible to evidence and reason alone), it offers a very partial explanation of our place in the world.(25)

Which leads him in a circular argument back to intentionality and purpose (teleological reasoning).

The idea is not empty, because any intentional explanation involves some interpretive assumptions, even about God. An intentional agent must be thought of as having aims that it sees as good, so the aims cannot be arbitrary; a theistic explanation will inevitably bring in some idea of value, and a particular religion can make this much more specific, though it also poses the famous problem of evil.(25) …

A theistic self-understanding, for those who find it compelling to see the world as the expression of divine intention, would leave intact our natural confidence in our cognitive faculties.(26)

So Thomas Nagel would lead us to the holy grail of a new divine science ridding us of that bad old boy “materialism” hiding under the mask of scientific naturalism.

Well, I do not think I’ll continue this line of enquiry. Let’s discover just what he wants out of emergentism. I’ll assume with Idealism and theology intermixed it will lead us to some new found revelation just waiting in the wings… (is my atheistic naturalism showing through? – tish, tish…)

Emergence and Consciousness

“According to the emergent position now being considered, consciousness is something completely new” (56), Nagel tells us. An emergent account, Nagel remarks, will explain the mental character of complex organisms by principles specifically linking mental states and processes to the complex physical functioning of those organisms— to their central nervous systems in particular, in the case of humans and creatures somewhat like them. The difference from a reductive account is that, while the principles do not reduce the mental to the physical, the connections they specify between the mental and the physical are all higher-order. They concern only complex organisms, and do not require any change in the exclusively physical conception of the elements of which those organisms are composed. An emergent account of the mental is compatible with a physically reductionist account of the biological system in which mind emerges.(54-55)

To qualify as a genuine explanation of the mental, an emergent account must be in some way systematic. It cannot just say that each mental event or state supervenes on the complex physical state of the organism in which it occurs. That would be the kind of brute fact that does not constitute an explanation but rather calls for explanation. But I think we can imagine a higher-order psychophysical theory that would make the connection cease to seem like a gigantic set of inexplicable correlations and would instead make it begin to seem intelligible. Physiological psychologists are only beginning to uncover the systematic dependence of visual experience on events in the visual cortex, for example, but we can imagine that such explorations will lead to a general theory.(55)

In our previous post we followed Jaegwon Kim who introduced as form of emergentism and the concepts of causal closure and overdetermination. Emergentism strives to be compatible with physicalism, and physicalism, according to Kim, has a principle of causal closure according to which every physical event is fully accountable in terms of physical causes. This seems to leave no “room” for mental causation to operate. If our bodily movements were caused by the preceding state of our bodies and our decisions and intentions, they would be overdetermined. Mental causation in this sense is not the same as free will, but is only the claim that mental states are causally relevant. If emergentists respond by abandoning the idea of mental causation, their position becomes a form of epiphenomenalism.

Nagel himself seems to agree with Kim in this respect, saying in a endnote: ”

I am very much in sympathy with the following statement by Jaegwon Kim: “Metaphysics is the domain where different languages, theories, explanations, and conceptual systems come together and have their mutual ontological relationships sorted out and clarified. That there is such a common domain is the assumption of a broad and untendentious realism about our cognitive activities. If you believe that there is no such common domain, well, that’s metaphysics, too.”(130)

In many of these emergentist there is a tendency to rely more on metaphysics and physics, and speculation rather than hard science. It was philosopher C. D. Broad who after John Stuart Mill introduced the emergentist theme into modern mind-body debates, saying:

Put in abstract terms the emergent theory asserts that there are certain wholes, composed (say) of constituents A, B, and C in a relation R to each other; that all wholes composed of constituents of the same kind as A, B, and C in relations of the same kind as R have certain characteristic properties; that A, B, and C are capable of occurring in other kinds of complex where the relation is not of the same kind as R; and that the characteristic properties of the whole R(A, B, C) cannot, even in theory, be deduced from the most complete knowledge of the properties of A, B, and C in isolation or in other wholes which are not of the form R(A, B, C). – The Mind and its Place in Nature (1925)

Stephen Pepper (1926) developed a form of criticism of emergence that resurfaces in different guises. Pepper’s own argument is metaphysical. He argued that emergent laws quantifying over primitive macroscopic qualities will be epiphenomenal, since we can also represent ‘novel’ macroscopic phenomena of the sort the emergentist envisions within a more comprehensive physical theory. We need only augment the theory to include variables for the precise structural conditions in which the novel phenomena occur, and then draw up more complex functional laws of dynamical evolution that specify the ‘ordinary’ behavior when the new variables are not satisfied and the ‘novel’ behavior when the variables are satisfied. Now, taken as a metaphysical objection, this is easily overcome. If the emergent properties are there and are in fact (partly) causally responsible for the novel behavior, then they are not epiphenomenal, even if there are empirically adequate descriptions of the trajectories of microscopic entities constituting such behavior that do not refer to them.

But Pepper’s argument can be transformed into an epistemological challenge: there could never be good reason to posit an emergent property as opposed to complicating our fundamental theory to accommodate unusual macroscopic behavior. O’Connor (1994, 2000a) has replied to this that from the standpoint of fundamental metaphysics, it is unsatisfactory to rest content with such disjoint laws. It is always appropriate to posit properties to account for fundamental, systematic discontinuity. Where there is discontinuity in microscopic behavior associated with precisely specifiable macroscopic parameters, emergent properties of the system are clearly implicated, unless we can get an equally elegant resulting theory by complicating the dispositional structure of the already accepted inventory of basic properties. (see Emergent Properties (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)2

In a final bite and attack on what he perceives as the dire consequences of materialism he tells us in his conclusion:

In the present climate of a dominant scientific naturalism, heavily dependent on speculative Darwinian explanations of practically everything, and armed to the teeth against attacks from religion, I have thought it useful to speculate about possible alternatives. Above all, I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world. It would be an advance if the secular theoretical establishment, and the contemporary enlightened culture which it dominates, could wean itself of the materialism and Darwinism of the gaps— to adapt one of its own pejorative tags. I have tried to show that this approach is incapable of providing an adequate account, either constitutive or historical, of our universe.(127)

This post was not meant to outline all his arguments against materialism, but to show his status as Idealist and Emergentist. One can decide for oneself where to go from here. I know where I stand.

1. Nagel, Thomas (2012-08-29). Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Kindle Locations 68-69). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
2. O’Connor, Timothy and Wong, Hong Yu, “Emergent Properties”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

3 thoughts on “Thomas Nagel: Idealism and the Theological Turn in the Sciences

    • Haha… boy, what will come back now…. I guess I didn’t know enough about Chalmers, except from ages ago…

      David J. Chalmers as pansychist:

      “In this article I will present an argument for panpsychism. Like most philosophical arguments, this argument is not entirely conclusive, but I think it gives reason to take the view seriously. Speaking for myself, I am by no means confident that panpsychism is true, but I am also not confident that it is not true. This article presents what I take to be perhaps the best reason for believing panpsychism.”

      “In my Hegelian argument, the thesis is materialism, the antithesis is dualism, and the synthesis is panpsychism. The argument for the thesis is the causal argument for materialism (and against dualism). The argument for the antithesis is the conceivability argument for dualism (and against materialism). Synthesized, these yield the Hegelian argument for panpsychism. In effect, the argument presents the two most powerful arguments for and against materialism and dualism, and motivates a certain sort of panpsychism as a view that captures the virtues of both views and the vices of neither.”

      What’s interesting is that he is hitting the nail on the head of what seems to me to be happening in these so to speak New Materialists: they seem to be fusing either emergentist, vitalist, or pansychist conceptuality in trying to overcome the split between materialist/idealist frameworks. So are we seeing a syncreticism in our midst? Strange worlds ahead…


  1. Pingback: The Sciences: Reductive or Anti-Reductive Theories? | noir realism

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