This is the second in a series. My overview of Thomas Nagel's new book, Mind and Cosmos, is here.
I agree with Nagel that mind is not a cosmic accident. Mind in all of its ramifications (sentience, intentionality, self-awareness, cognition, rationality, normativity in general) could not have arisen from mindless matter. To put it very roughly, and in my own way, mind had to be there already and all along in one way or another. Not an "add-on" as Nagel writes, but "a basic aspect of nature." (16)
Two ways mind could have been there already and all along are Nagel's panpsychistic way and the theistic way. My task in this entry is to understand and then evaluate Nagel's reasons for rejecting theism.
But first let's back up a step and consider the connection between mind and intelligibility. That the world is intelligible is a presupposition of all inquiry. The quest for understanding rests on the assumption that the world is understandable, and indeed by us. The most successful form of this quest is natural science. The success of the scientific quest is evidence that the presupposition holds and is not merely a presupposition we make. The scientific enterprise reveals to us an underlying intelligible order of things not open to perception alone, although of course the confirmation of scientific theories requires perception and the various instruments that extend it.
Now what explains this underlying rational order? Two possibilities. One is that nothing does: it's a brute fact. It just happens to be the case that the world is understandable by us, but it might not have been. The rational order of things underpins every explanation but itself has no explanation. The other possibility is that the rational order has an explanation, in which case it has an explanation by something distinct from it, or else is self-explanatory. On theism, the world's rational order is grounded in the divine intellect and is therefore explained by God. On what I take to be Nagel's view, the rational order is self-explanatory, a necessary feature of anything that could count as a cosmos.
Nagel views the intelligibility of the world as "itself part of the deepest explanation why things are as they are." (17). Now part of the way things are is that they are understandable by us. Given that the way things are is intelligible, it follows that the intelligibility of the world is self-explanatory or self-grounding.
"The intelligibility of the world is no accident." (17) The same is true of mind. The two go together: an intelligible world is one that is intelligible to mind, and mind is mind only if it can 'glom onto' an antecedent order of things. (This is my way of putting it, not Nagel's!) Intelligibility is necessarily mind-involving, and mind (apart from mere qualia) is necessarily an understanding of something. One could say that there is an antecedent community of nature between mind and world which allows mind to have an object to understand and the world to be understandable by mind. What I am calling the antecedent community of nature between mind and world Nagel expresses by saying that "nature is such as to give rise to conscious beings with minds; and it is such as to be comprehensible to such beings." (17)
That neither mind nor intelligibility are cosmic accidents, and that they 'go together' as just explained could be accepted by both Nagelian panpsychists and theists. So why does Nagel reject theism?
His main reason seems to be couched in the following quotations:
. . . the disadvantage of theism as an answer to the desire for comprehensive understanding is not that it offers no explanations but that it does not do so in the form of a comprehensive account of the natural order. [. . .] But it would not be the kind of understanding that explains how beings like us fit into the world. The kind of intelligibility that would still be missing is intelligibility of the natural order itself -- intelligibility from within. (25-26)
Nagel does not do a very good job of presenting his argument clearly, but the following is what I take him to be driving at.
Materialism cannot explain the origin of life from inanimate matter, the origin of consciousness from pre-conscious life, or the origin of reason in conscious beings. Nondeistic theism can explain these crucial transitions by means of divine interventions into the workings of nature. (Deism would leave the crucial transitions as brute facts and is rejectable for this reason.) To subscribe to such interventionist hypotheses, however, is to deny that there is a comprehensive natural order. Nature would not be intelligible from within itself, in its own terms. So maybe Nagel's argument could be put like this:
1. Nature is immanently intelligible: it has the source of its intelligibility entirely within itself and not from a source outside itself.
2. On theism, nature is not immanently intelligible: God is the source of nature's intelligibility. (This is because divine intervention is needed to explain the crucial transitions to life, to consciousness, and to reason, transitions which otherwise would be unintelligible.)
3. Theism suffers from a serious defect that make it reasonable to pursue a third course, panpsychism, as a way to avoid both materialism and theism.
Now I've put the matter more clearly than Nagel does, but I'd be surprised if this is not what he is arguing, at least on pp 25-26.
As for evaluation, the argument as presented is reasonable but surely not compelling. A theist needn't be worried by it. He could argue that it begs the question at the first premise. How divine interventions into the course of nature are so much as possible is of course a problem for theists, but Plantinga has an answer for that. The theist can also go on the attack and mount a critique of panpsychism, a fit topic for future posts.
There is also the question of why the cosmos exists at all. It is plausible to maintain that the cosmos is necessarily intelligible, that it wouldn't be a cosmos if it weren't. But necessary intelligibility is consistent with contingent existence. Will Nagel say that the cosmos necessarily exists? How would he ground that? Panpsychism, if tenable, will relieve us of the dualisms of matter-life, life-consciousness, mind-body. But it doesn't have the resources to explain the very existence of the cosmos.