Refining the Teleological Conception: 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.


Filed under Uncategorized

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

  1. Hey Grant,

    Thanks for this helpful and constructive review of Nagel’s book.

    I have one quibble with your claim that “materialism and teleology do not require one another for internal coherence.” As I have come to understand mechanistic materialism of the sort deployed by neo-Darwinists, it is not so much anti-teleological as it is an inversion of the typical 19th century deistic argument from design. Both William Paley and Charles Darwin (a student of Paley’s) think biological systems from within the paradigmatic perspective of design, where organisms have no intrinsic purpose but rather are shaped from the outside by some “designer.” The only difference between their arguments from design is that, for Paley, design is imposed by a transcendent God, while for Darwin, design is imposed by an external, ready-made environment. Neither consider the possibility of an organic teleology that views organisms as autonomous and creative rather than passive and externally shaped, like that suggested by continental philosophers of nature like Larmarck, and later, Schelling. As Etienne Gilson suggests in his wonderful book “From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution” (1971): “Rare are those mechanists who admit that there may be teleology in nature, but exceedingly rare—if they have ever existed—are those finalists who deny mechanism and its natural function in natural beings” (p. 105). From this perspective, there is no conflict at all between mechanism and teleology: the machine-metaphor is already inherently teleological since it implies design (either by God or an anthropomophized Natural Selector). The challenge is to help mechanistic materialists to develop the paradigmatic sensitivity which would allow them to notice their own unconscious participation in the same sort of “intelligent design” paradigm they so often rail against.

  2. That was a quick response, Matt! We seem to be thinking about a lot of similar issues. You give an interesting and helpful survey of one quadrant of the field here. And you’re right that the mechanistic approach seems to imply some kind of designer because it is inherently based on the metaphor of the machine. I conflated mechanism with reductive materialism, which was an oversight on my part. I’ll change it in my post so other readers won’t experience a similar confusion. The reductive materialism that I was responding to via Nagel is the very simple view that it is possible to explain the emergence of life, consciousness, reason, and value solely through the random interactions of material particles. This view, as exemplified by Matthew Hutson in our previous conversation, is precisely “anti-teleological” because it denies any causal factor besides the four physical forces. There are certainly many different thinkers who admit many different kinds of teleology, so-called “neo-Darwinists” among them, and I have no problem believing that many nominal “mechanistic materialists” or plain “reductive materialists” participate in unconscious teleological thinking to some extent as you suggest.

    But aside from the brief semantic confusion, my point is that the pure reductive materialist hypothesis and various forms of the teleological hypothesis, which as you note via Gilson generally also accepts materialism as an essential explanatory factor, are both coherent systems of explanation about the world, neither of which can be definitively proven or disproven. As I said, I tentatively favor a mode of thought that sees the validity of both explanatory modes, as well as the compromise formations that you aptly point out, based on the understanding that any system of knowledge is provisional and incomplete because there’s simply so much about the world that we don’t know. This mode of thought endeavors to see the value in all other modes of thought, integrating whatever kernel of truth may be found there.

    • Right on. I would still argue that even in the case of Hutson’s form of materialism, any talk of the “laws of physics” is also already teleological, since it implies some kind of transcendent immaterial blueprint that determines the behavior of material processes. If we really want to escape the design paradigm, we need to speak instead of the evolving “habits” of nature like Whitehead or C. S. Peirce before him.

  3. Pingback: Reflections on Thomas Nagel’s mentions of Schelling and Whitehead in “Mind and Cosmos” | Footnotes 2 Plato

  4. What’s your reasoning for saying that the four forces conceived by physics are teleological? Where’s the telos luring something towards itself? Would you agree that just because something is considered transcendent doesn’t mean it’s necessarily teleological? If anything, these physical forces seem susceptible to an archetypal interpretation based on the formal sister of final causation.

    I tend to agree that the four forces are probably more like habits than fixed laws, but even if the physical forces are habitual, where is the telos? Habit seems precisely characteristic of material and efficient causation. As Bergson demonstrates with particular clarity (though I think Whitehead would agree), materiality, repetition, and intellect are deeply imbricated. My reading of Whitehead, Peirce, and Bergson is that habit is precisely the opposite complement to novelty just as material and efficient causation are the complement to formal and final causation (and just as the Saturnian is a complement to the Promethean). I can see how it could be argued that efficient habit implies teleological novelty, as everything implies its opposite, but it seems to me that this is precisely the half of the polarity that reductive materialists have constructed their whole system for hundreds of years to deny. So in that sense, I agree with you that materialists should develop “sensitivity” to what their paradigm excludes, but I also think that we proponents of subtle teleology should perhaps recognize that explanations based on material and efficient causation alone may in fact be internally coherent, even though they are clearly insufficient for a complete description of the nature of process.

    As a wise person once said: “If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink.” Or as Bob Dylan sings: “You’re right from your side and I’m right from mine, we’re both just one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind.”

    • The scientific materialist’s explanatory reliance upon the four fundamental forces (and the other 8 or so physical constants) assumes they play the metaphysical role of a cosmic genetic code or world-program from which the entire known universe past, present, and future could be computed (given the eventually completion of physical science in some GUT or TOE). It’s not that I’m arguing the cosmic phenotype of the materialist’s universe is purposeful. Clearly they do not think the universe has a intrinsic purpose in this sense. By referring to the constants and forces of materialistic physics as teleological, I’m arguing that the materialist is working within the same old pre-evolutionary “design” paradigm where the universe is a machine the fundamental structure of which is determined in advance (it matters little whether through a divine plan or by the random installation of some blind algorithm).

      I disagree that ” explanations based on material and efficient causation alone may in fact be internally coherent.” It is bad enough (from a philosophical perspective) when an explanation merely fails to account for its own conditions of possibility. Far worse is when an explanation actively undermines its own conditions, as when a scientific materialist attempts to explain nature such that the possibility of his or her own conscious scientific knowledge is made impossible or at least exceedingly unlikely. I don’t think it is possible to account even for the self-organization of a hydrogen atom out of a proton and an electron, much less the self-organization of a living cell out of trillions of molecules, based solely on material and efficient causes. Certainly it is impossible to account for the consciousness of a knowing scientist in such terms.

      From a Whiteheadian perspective, the energy vectors of charged electrons are already evidence of form and purpose in nature. Where there is matter and energy, there is already an urge toward formation, and eventually, an urge toward purposeful transformation. So not only is the materialist picture of nature insufficient on its own, it is incoherent since it undermines the very possibility of theoretical reason.

      • IntelligentAnimation

        Matthew, what an excellent comment! It reminds me of the age old debate: Does the brain cause the illusion of a mind or does the mind cause the brain?

        To me there can be no question as to who wins that argument. If the formation of neural pathways and the occurrence of chemo-electric data transmissions is random chemistry, then there is no hope of coherence, let alone any aware perception of this intelligence.

        This reminds me of the Darwinian backpedalling that says that we “adapted the ability to adapt”. Now that evidence so clearly shows that organisms are able to quickly restructure their genomes in complex ways that precisely fit their changed environmental needs predictably, Darwinians are saying that this ability itself was accidental.

        It is paradoxically impossible to have accidental intention. The two concepts are opposites. Accident or intent. It can be only one or the other.

      • Dear Unnamed Intelligent Sir, I’m not sure why you find it necessary to continue returning to my blog every few weeks to repeat the same argument without responding to the question that I’ve asked you multiple times in other places. To reiterate: Yes, Matt, you, and I all appear to agree that teleology is essential if we are to attain a full understanding of evolutionary process. But the question that you seem unwilling or unable to answer, is: What is the positive content of Darwinism, the content that does not deny teleology? I think if you can answer this question, it will go a long way towards clearing up the minor, though clearly significant differences between us. I respectfully ask you to respond to this honest query as objectively as you can before you post again on my blog.

      • I will ask you one more time to please answer my question. I’ve heard what you have to say, but I’m fairly certain you haven’t taken in what I’m saying as you’ve neglected three times to respond to my simple query, instead inexplicably writing long diatribes about things I wrote months ago in the midst of a conversation with someone else. Please don’t post again unless you intend to have a conversation with me rather than with yourself.

      • Frank Morris

        My name is Frank Morris. I use the moniker IntelligentAnimation because I consider it important for the public to know that life is intelligently animated, not some sort of chemical autopilot. I’m not sure what the reason is for the disagreeable tone.

        You are asking me for positive content in Darwinism, although regarding evolution, I don’t see any. How can I discuss something that does not exist? Darwinism is entirely harmful to evolution in my viewpoint.

        If something can be caused by random chance, then Darwinism could work on that,.but that doesn’t mean that chance does anything at all regardless of the odds. Some things can not and do not happen by chance, and life’s evolution is one of those things where Darwinism need not apply.

        Darwinism is essentially random change filtered selectively. An analogy of effective Darwinism would be guy making 1% of his basketball trick shots, but editing out the 99% misses on his videotape. The edited video can make it look like he is an amazing trick shot artist.

        So Darwinism works IF the feat can be accomplished by chance (or at least partly luck in my weak analogy). If the hoopster is trying to make a basket from 1000 miles away he can not do so, and no amount of selective video editing can help him do so. To repeat, selection does NOT help improve odds if a change can not happen by luck, thus selection has no value added, nothing positive at all.

        What do you mean by the part of Darwinism that “does not deny teleology?” Evolution itself does not deny teleology, so I suppose that is an answer. Random chance, the root of Darwinism, is the antithesis of teleology, isn’t it? Selection does not deny teleology, but as a subtractive filter it offers nothing additive (positive).

        Perhaps you mean a combination of both random chance and teleology at work? If so, I would say that a tiny percentage of genetic changes are random, specifically the changes caused by radiation or mutagenic chemicals, but these are also destructive, not positive.

        Your question is of the “Have you stopped beating your wife?” category. I can’t give an affirmative answer while disavowing the premise. Can you explain what you mean by content of Darwinism that does not deny teleology?

      • Hi Frank! Nice to meet you. My tone has been disagreeable because it seemed to me that you kept repeating your anti-Darwinist agenda without responding directly to what I was saying. Thanks for addressing my query here. Even though I disagree with you about Darwinism not having any positive content, I think we might be able to engage in a productive dialogue moving forward. Perhaps we’ll even come to consensus!

        In my opinion, a mode of thought does not attain the wide and lasting success that Darwinism has without containing some grain of truth. William James addresses this issue directly in a long passage from “The Will to Believe” in an essay called “Great Men and Their Environment” that’s worth reading in its entirety (the book is free on Kindle). But let me just summarize his argument by saying that, 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, and 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. 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, I’m sure that some of his disciples have understood him better than others, and many have likely asserted things that Darwin himself never asserted. As I’ve said before, anyone who denies teleology, whether they call themselves Darwinists or Shirley, are mistaken in my mind.

        I disagree with you that the two kinds of selection Darwin posits do not add anything positive (thus the word “posit”), as they define the mechanism by which traits are preserved, whether they are caused by random chance or by teleology. What I mean by positive is that this particular part of Darwinism makes a 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. Similarly, the idea of subtraction itself is a positive contribution to the total field of human knowledge, even if it 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 billions of years, towards the emergence of novelty 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 seems consciously to have stripped his work of reference to teleology, perhaps largely because of the predominance of the specifically Christian form of finalism in his historical milieu. Darwin was apparently not interested in being in the business of tracing first causes, even if some of his followers have been.

      • By the way, Frank, I just expanded this reply and posted it to the main blog, so feel free to respond there if you feel so inclined.

  5. I don’t think we’re necessarily disagreeing here, Matt. My suggestion, which is admittedly hypothetical and speculative, is that the reductive materialist world view has been constructed as if the world was flat (to reemploy a lower-dimensional analogy from another post) when the world actually has a slight and pervasive “teleological incline.” In this hypothesis, the reductive materialist supposition that the evolution of life and human consciousness can be explained by the random interactions of particles determined by the four physical forces (and the constants, as you aptly point out) is internally coherent but incomplete, because it does not take into account the tendency towards the emergence of novelty and consciousness that underlies it and makes its trajectory possible. I like this explanation because it appeals most to my aesthetic sense, allowing the predominant theory of the last few centuries, reductive materialism, to maintain its dignity and validity within its limited domain, while placing it within a larger context of significance in an analogous operation to the relation between Newtonian physics and relativity/quantum mechanics. I don’t think there’s any way definitively to prove if the reductive materialist perspective is internally coherent or not, but it seems like it might be possible to act on this assumption and still admit teleology, which would be the most efficacious way to settle the age-old dispute, requiring both sides of this complex debate to alter their world views as little as possible in order to reconcile their seemingly incommensurable perspectives. My latest post on “President Obama’s Implicit Philosophy” actually speaks to this slight shift of affective tone in debates, whether philosophical or political.

    However, I fully admit that the “incline” hypothesis may be incorrect, which is why I don’t feel comfortable asserting this particular form of teleology as strongly as I am willing to assert the apparent fact of final causation itself, the larger issue about which you and I so clearly agree. You inspired me to download Whitehead’s “The Function of Reason,” which isn’t one of the eight books I’ve read by him to date, but which speaks directly to the conversation we’ve been having around Nagel, Hutson, etc. I thought I’d share a quote that you must have paused on as well in your reading, which seems apropos to our conversation: “The orthodox physiological doctrine has the weakness that it rests its explanations exclusively upon the physical system, which is internally inconsistent” (20). This quote seems perhaps to make your point for you, and my instinct is to bow to Whitehead’s authority, but I’d like to hold open the possibility that the “orthodox physiological doctrine” is not inconsistent, just incomplete, because this supposition would allow the addition of teleology with minimal upheaval. Or to put it another way, reductive materialism is only “internally inconsistent” when considered in the larger context that exceeds its appropriate domain of validity, the context of the undeniably teleological directionality of process.

    Of course, the addition of the teleological factor reframes the whole system, which fundamentally alters that system’s character, so perhaps this is what Whitehead means by “internally inconsistent”? In the “teleological incline” hypothesis, the final cause would constitute “that slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference,” but it would make a very great difference indeed. Is it possible, paraphrasing John Stuart Mill, to keep what reductive materialists affirm, the random mutation theory of evolution, but also hold on to what they deny, namely teleology? As Bergson says, finalism in some form can never be definitively refuted, but might also the same be true of materialism? They certainly require one another for completeness, but can they both possess partial validity in their separate domains of cognizance? Leaving aside our personal inclinations, is it possible to see material-efficient causation as an accurate description of the mechanics of process while formal-final causation describes the purpose and significance of temporal becoming?

  6. I just came across another passage in “The Function of Reason” that seems to tilt the conversation ever so slightly back in favor of my hypothesis. Whitehead writes that

    “some lowly, diffused form of the operations of Reason constitute the vast diffused counter-agency by which the material cosmos comes into being. This conclusion amounts to the repudiation of the radical extrusion of final causation from our cosmological theory. The rejection of purpose dates from Francis Bacon at the beginning of the seventeenth century. As a methodological device it is an unquestioned success so long as we confine attention to certain limited fields” (21).

    This statement seems to support my idea that reductive materialism is valid within its domain of applicability, but becomes insufficient when stretched beyond that domain. Based on this passage, it seems that Whitehead perhaps agrees with me that the orthodox system does not contradict itself until it denies teleology. In itself, it is coherent, consistent, and non-contradictory. Thus, it is right in what it affirms but wrong in what it denies.

  7. As I read further, the pages in my edition of “The Function of Reason” stretching from 21 through the top of 23 are about exactly the issues we’re discussing. Whitehead really seems to have thought of just about everything, doesn’t he?

    • Haha, yeah you might say Whitehead’s “The Function of Reason” beat Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos” to the punch by 85 years.

      I can’t disagree that scientific materialism, with its focus on quantifiable efficient causes, has allowed for many discoveries that would not otherwise haven been possible had Aristotle’s more commonsense qualitative physics remained the orthodoxy. I say that scientific materialism is incoherent only because it almost always oversteps its methodological charter by pretending to metaphysical absoluteness. That is, while a methodological materialist reductionism has revealed quite a bit about the nature of simpler material systems, when it tries to shift from useful method applicable to some aspects of nature to the true ontology of nature as a whole, it becomes self-contradictory. I would not be willing to grant materialism (as an ontology) even part of the picture, since as I argued in my last comment, I don’t think it is possible to account even for the emergence of atoms without speaking in terms of formal and final causality. Without pre-given substantial atoms or particles of some kind, upon what basis could materialism be built? I prefer Whitehead’s process ontology, since he does not assume the existence of any already organized being (atoms, stars, cells, etc.); rather, he assumes only relentless Creativity as the ground of nature from out of which emerged all the organized forms we know today. He speaks also a “counter-agency” which “saves the world” that sounds a bit like the teleological tilt you speak of. But he means more than just a tilt or tendency, he means a divine actual occasion, a kind of cosmic memory.

      You write “it seems that Whitehead perhaps agrees with [you] that the orthodox system does not contradict itself until it denies teleology.” I just wonder, when does materialism not deny teleology? Isn’t that the first premise of a materialist ontology?

  8. It seems like we’ve basically come to consensus on all the facts, and now we’re just wrangling over what affective attitude to adopt towards our mutual opponents. I totally agree that scientific materialism extended beyond its appropriate domain of validity becomes self-contradictory, but this over-extension always takes a negative form as the denial of final causation. So again, materialism seems to be right in what it asserts, that material-efficient causation is an essential and valid explanatory mode, but wrong in what it denies, that formal-final causation is an essential and valid explanatory mode.

    How would one prove that materialism cannot account for the emergence of atoms? Isn’t that just our intuitively driven belief? What good does it do to assert that atoms could not have emerged from more elementary components without teleology? I’m not saying that the materialist view is more than a belief either–they’re both ultimately “over-beliefs,” as James puts it. So we can assert that there is material and that there is teleology, but I don’t think it’s so important to discern where the line between the two should be drawn because such a task is probably impossible anyway. It seems to me most likely that they’re imbricated all the way down, but that has no bearing on the validity of materialism within its limited field of applicability. Let’s just say that it has worked incredibly well as an explanatory mode, allowing the necessary individuation of the autonomous rational ego, and leave it at that. To my mind, the real enemy is not scientific materialism, but those scientific materialists that seek to deny the complementary explanatory modes based on formal-final causation, which is a subtle but important distinction.

    In our debates with our reductive materialist opponents, I think it is more effective consistently to affirm what is right in their world view and only object when they specifically try to deny our world view. As in politics, it seems that the most effective long-term strategy is to affirm constantly the partial validity of our opponents’ arguments so that, when they categorically deny our arguments, it makes them look like dogmatic jerks and us open-minded and magnanimous. This seems to be what Obama does with the Republicans, killing them with kindness and sympathy for their point of view until public opinion shifts enough to reach a tipping point, and the whole dialogue is transformed with relative suddenness. He used this strategy with gay marriage, for instance, and it seems to be paying off. I think he’s probably doing the same thing with cannabis prohibition and a host of other issues as well. Denouncing our opponents as closed-minded, wrong-headed fools, though perhaps satisfying for our egos, and certainly true, will inevitably cause them to harden their resistance until we’ve reached an armored stalemate of Cold War proportions.

    In my opinion, the way to win this war of ideas is to be generous, to see our opponents’ side, to look for areas of agreement, to show them that their positive beliefs do not conflict with ours, and that it is only their negative beliefs that they must call into question. If we do this, I believe they will be more likely to see our side. As with any fundamental transformation of world views, this will continue to be a long process–Rome wasn’t built in a day and it didn’t fall in a day–but it will be an even longer process if we simply denounce the orthodoxy. I think it’s unlikely that many intelligent people have ever been convinced to change a deeply held belief by someone informing them of the stupidity of that belief. We’ll win not by attacking, which will only serve to reinforce the ghettoization of teleological thought, but by being inviting, conciliatory, even seductive. Perhaps this shift in affective tone is another expression of the return of the archetypal feminine. The archetypal masculine has come home from his centuries-long war for independence, and now we must gently remind him how to be a whole person again.

    • I’m usually always pretty cordial with my intellectual opponents, even when they do not return the favor. I don’t think I’ve ever even so much as inferred that an individual philosophical opponent’s position is stupid. I’d be the stupid one for employing such a strategy (I’d also be a dick). However, I have and will continue to refer to generic philosophical positions like scientific materialism as incoherent (which is not the same as “stupid”) if I think they are incoherent. If I come up against someone who gladly adopts the label “scientific materialist” and who denies that anything but blind matter in motion as measured by science is finally real, I’ll try to point out the performative contradictions they may not yet have noticed or work hard to repress. This doesn’t always work. I used to spend a lot of time arguing with such folks over at the atheist biologist PZ Myers’ blog. Communication across paradigmatic boundaries is extremely difficult. But at the end of the day, I understand philosophy to be the desire for real knowledge, and I have found that it can generate actual knowing. I don’t think it is a matter of belief or personal taste whether or not materialism is said to be “explanatory” of anything, whether it be the existence of an oxygen molecule or of you and me. I think it can and has been philosophically demonstrated that materialism is descriptive and functional at best. “Explanation” is a metaphysical issue, an issue that requires a speculative cosmological background inclusive of teleology (how else could you explain the existence of an organism that can explain itself?). When it remains within its proper methodological and instrumental bounds, materialist science doesn’t ask “why?” an event occurs. It isn’t equipped to do so, since it brackets the final causes which could provide answers to such questions to focus instead on another question: “how?” When we ask “how?,” we ask, for ex., what neural pathways fired as a decision was made by a conscious human being. Even if we had full knowledge of the complex flow of electro-chemistry through the brain in such an instance, we could still not explain “why?” that particular decision was made. Materialist science can only ever correlate descriptions of brain behavior with the reasons given by human subjects. It can’t explain “why?”, not because materialism falls short of the whole truth about nature, but because as a method it is designed from the get go to ignore such questions. .

  9. Hi Matt, I didn’t mean to imply that you were anything but cordial, and I don’t disagree with anything you say here. We seem to be on the same epistemological page. I’m simply trying to find the best way to draw our mutual opponents into real dialogue rather than reifying animosity and producing knee-jerk defensiveness. I think there are more and less productive ways to “point out the performative contradictions” of others. First and foremost, I think it’s important to make an interlocutor feel like one is really listening to what they’re saying, not just haranguing them from a high horse, which I’ve been known to do on occasion. This is yet another instance of Whitehead’s “slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference.” Having said that, I agree that it’s probably fruitless to argue with hardcore skeptics. The people we should probably focus our energy on debating are those like Matt Hutson, who is skeptical of teleology but cares enough about it to write a book tracing how belief in final causation can be beneficial for “health, happiness, and sanity.” This seems to me possible evidence of a divided consciousness ripe for epistemological conversion.

    To bring in the archetypal perspective, I hope you don’t mind me pointing out that you currently have NE sq. SA, which I have natally, and which often correlates with belief and skepticism working at cross purposes, talking past each other so to speak. As one of only two transpersonal hard aspects that I possess natally, I’ve put a lot of time and energy into trying to integrate this polarity. I know from long experience that this complex can sometimes manifest as an unintentional impulse to build a wall between doubters and believers, but I think it’s generally more productive to deconstruct and reintegrate this opposition than to reify it, to build bridges instead of barricades. I currently have double JU-SA squares, which is all about balance, compromise, moderation, and the middle path, which reminds me of Nagel’s “Third Way.” Incidentally, Nagel had SA sq. JU when “Mind and Cosmos” was published. And you and I have SA sq. SA, which seems appropriate.

    If anyone doesn’t know what I’m talking about here, I recommend reading Richard Tarnas’ “Cosmos and Psyche.”

    • Hey Grant,

      Let me try distinguishing between two issues here: 1) the issue of intellectual diplomacy. Here I think we agree. It is important to hear your opponent and even to empathize with their position. 2) The issue of philosophical coherence and adequacy. I’ve been harping on the incoherence of materialism as an ontology. I’ve left out the perhaps more relevant issue of its inadequacy (which is another of Whitehead’s criteria for judging speculative thought). Here is Whitehead from “The Function of Reason” again: “A cosmology should above all things be adequate. It should not confine itself to the categoreal notions of one science, and explain away everything that will not fit in. Its business is not to refuse experience but to find the most general interpretive system. Also it is not a mere juxtaposition of the various sciences. It generalizes beyond any special science, and thus provides the interpretive system which expresses their interconnection. Cosmology, since it is the outcome of the highest generality of speculation, is the critic of all speculation inferior to itself in generality” (86).
      Putting issues of diplomacy aside (since we seem already to share a basic grasp of the emerging new paradigm), I’d argue (in a non ad hominem way!) that a straightforward materialism, just like a straightforward idealism, is not only self-contradictory and so incoherent, but inadequate as a general account of the full swath of our daily (and nightly) experience. I can appreciate your use of Mill’s aphorism (right affirmation, wrong denial), but when it comes to materialism, any internal coherence it might try to claim for itself is won only through the maintenance of its schism with idealism. You might say the same thing about atheism and theism. In other words, it would seem impossible to separate what is affirmed and what is denied by materialism without completely dulling its philosophical teeth. Affirming the explanatory sufficiency of efficient causes is just the flip side of denying the explanatory necessity of final causes. Soften the denial and the affirmation means nothing.
      If what you are arguing is that efficient causation is an important element of explanation that must be integrated with final causation, of course I agree! But once someone like Whitehead gets ahold of efficient causes, he entirely transforms their meaning by placing them within a panexperiential context (such that cause and “effect” becomes cause and “affect”). Would a materialist ever accept such an integration of what they affirm? I’m doubtful, since Whitehead’s understanding of how physical forces are actually physical feelings seems a far cry from the materialist’s original conception of efficient causes.

  10. Hi Matt, It seems like we’ve basically reached consensus here on all of the above. A few comments to elaborate what you’ve said:

    The difference between materialism vs. finalism and atheism vs. theism is that materialism has both positive and negative components, as you suggest, while atheism is almost purely negative, so I see it as adding nothing to a softer position like agnosticism, which allows for a healthy skepticism about the ways traditional religions have envisioned the divine, but does not reject the very possibility of divinity out of hand, or like omnitheism, which sees the partial validity in all spiritual dispensations. From materialism, let’s keep the scientific method and material-efficient causation and jettison the rejection of teleology because this rejection oversteps its applicability into ontology where it has no business being, as you aptly point out. Materialism can only speak about material things and the rest is silence.

    You’re right that materialism without rejection of purpose wouldn’t be materialism as it has generally been conceived, but nothing remains unaltered in a genuine synthesis. Teleology as it has generally been conceived (apocalyptic Christianity) must also be adjusted in the encounter. It seems to me that fewer and fewer people are staunch defenders of those two extremes. To my mind, the extremists on both ends of the polarity are not at the vanguard of the debate, which resides somewhere in the middle. To use everyone’s favorite example, Hutson is a materialist who at least takes teleological thought seriously enough to write a book on it, and we can have a vigorous dialogue about whether purpose is “only in the mind” or is the result of human participation in cosmic meaning, which is obviously where our sympathies lie. So there seems to be some grey area under the materialist rubric. In my experience, if you can get materialists to relax and show their soft underbelly, they’ll often agree in a general way about the unknowable mystery of existence and the places where our theories break down (smaller than the Planck constant, for instance).

    Maybe it’s just that I know a lot of materialists personally as it is still the predominant view where I’ve studied over the last decade, but I’ve noticed in many encounters that materialism almost always tends to be more permeable in actual practice than it is as a hypothetical position held by a hypothetical person in our debates, which smells a little of straw. I also know some hardcore skeptics who do assert a strict materialism, and they’re certainly beyond help, but I think there are a lot more aporias and slippages, more cracks and fissures, more compromise formations and side roads in the actual discursive practice of materialism than we sometimes give it credit for. I completely agree with you that materialism is incoherent, insufficient, and inadequate beyond its limited range of validity, but I think that only the opposite counterparts to fundamentalist Christians assert pure materialism so strongly. As with politics, most people are somewhere in the middle, but the extremists get most of the press.

    One great thing about Whitehead is that instead of baldly asserting from the outset that materialism is insufficient and that purpose pervades everything, he leads the reader into this realization by expressing things in artful and beguiling ways. His sentences can be labyrinthine, but this discursive complexity is always strategic, and there’s always an undercurrent of humor (his oft noted “wit and wisdom”), so that by the time one has put in the effort to understand a paragraph, one finds oneself inexorably drawn in. I think that for many people who assert pure materialism, if they simply read Whitehead, they might be led to expand their ontological horizons, not primarily because Whitehead rejects exclusivist materialism, though he certainly does this, but because he provides a positive alternative that transcends and includes the insights of materialism. The trick is getting dogmatic types, whether for materialism or teleology, to read anything that doesn’t confirm their beliefs. I’m glad to have a fellow Whitehead evangelist.

    By the way, Matt, these conversations we’ve been engaging in, besides being enjoyable, have really been helping me to prepare for my dissertation defense in two weeks. Thanks for keeping me sharp!

  11. John

    Hi, I am from Australia.
    Please find a set of references which outshine all of the usual tedious reviews of Nagel’s book.
    Have you noticed that no one has even referred to Consciousness with a capital C, or Light which is the Energy of Consciousness.

    • Hi John, could you say a little more about why one would write consciousness with capital “C” and what it would mean for “Light to be the energy of Consciousness”? This sounds perhaps Gnostic or Blakean, but I’m not sure I follow.

  12. Fred

    Yes, you really have to laugh when the benighted ghouls that infest the Weekly (sub)Standard pretend to promote a supposedly religious conception of what we are as human beings and the nature of the Cosmos.
    Because the world-view that they really promote sits entirely within that defined by the military-industrial-propaganda complex and its now all-over-the-world dramatized “culture” of death, as shown by these two stark images.

    • Hi Fred, that image of Christ as lumberjack is certainly evocative. As you’ve seen in the conversation here, I think both extremes of this conversation, fundamentalists and reductive materialists, could use some moderation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s