Something on your mind? How often do we bother to think clearly about our minds? One of the most dispiriting concepts ever invented is the idea that even our minds are merely part of a reductionistic, mechanistic universe. All those beautiful, frightening, sublime, and mundane thoughts are just noise, clutter. An inevitable side-effect of all that electro-chemical activity in the gray matter. Nothing more. It is an idea to which it is very difficult to warm. Philosopher Thomas Nagel, however, doesn’t use a soft approach to the concept of mind in his Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. This is not an easy read, but it rewards the reader well.
Some, I suspect, will accuse Nagel of being a closet creationist, but he addresses that concern up front. Nagel is an atheist, but he recognizes that the creationists have raised some valid points about the explanatory value of a materialistic, reductionistic view of the universe. Nagel, like all careful thinkers, realizes that the fact of evolution is not to be disputed. The mechanism driving mutations, however, is open to some speculation. I’ve read many books that suggest we are but (in a more than angst-ridden Kansas) dust in the wind. Particles and reactions and nothing more. That love you feel when your heart is thumping wildly over that special someone? Mere chemistry. And not the kind that implies a transcendent state. Just lab-coat chemistry. I read Nagel because this kind of reductionism just doesn’t fit reality as I’ve experienced it. I’m no physicist, but I’m all I’ve got. And my reason tells me that there’s something more too it.
Nagel approaches the issue by examining the origins of mind. Whence does consciousness emerge? Using precise, carefully selected reasoning, he demonstrates that there is a chance that consciousness is inherent in this universe we inhabit. Just as bodies are built of cells, and cells are built of proteins built of molecules built of atoms, the mind could be constructed of components as well. I can’t replicate Nagel’s elegance of expression, but his suggestion that we may be part of a universe beginning to awake is as much poetry as it is logic. And that, more than anything else, is a reflection on the complexity of being human. We are meaning-seeking creatures. Being told that we’re mechanistic automatons is like slamming a door in a two-year old’s face. If I am merely particles and tiny jolts of electricity, I’m going to take the particles that make Nagel’s book with me as I try to reconcile myself to a universe where nothing is really what it seems.