Magazine Article

​Mind and Cosmos

The bigger picture.

Leonard Brand

A few years ago, respected philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a fascinating book, Mind and Cosmos.1 Nagel is an atheist who has been influenced by the writings of the Intelligent Design advocates, and is convinced that materialism (naturalism) and neo-Darwinism are almost certainly false. He recognizes there are too many things that are not explained by that philosophical system. He has decided that the arguments for intelligent design by Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer deserve to be taken seriously, and have not been treated fairly by the scientific community.2 Nagel is still an atheist, but he recognizes that something big is missing in contemporary scientific orthodoxy.

Seeing Red

Nagel then focuses on the specific failures of modern scientific thinking in its attempts to explain the existence of qualities in nature that seem to require a mind as part of their origin. These qualities would include our thinking ability, sophisticated sense perceptions, consciousness, and values. How could evolution explain these? He begins his illustration of this with some down-to-earth examples, including our perception of the color red. When light with a wavelength of 620-740 nanometers (700 billionths of a meter) reaches our eyes, it stimulates photoreceptor cells, and these send a signal to the brain. That signal traveling along the visual nerves is not a color, but only electrical impulses. Then where does the color red come from? The color red does not exist until the nerve signals reach the brain and the brain generates the sensation we know as the elegant color red.3

Color-blind persons do not see all the same colors the rest of us see.  A color-blind person’s color-generation system is faulty, and a wavelength of 640 nanometers does not result in the color red. The brilliant color red does not exist except as an animal’s brain generates that color, using the software put there by the Creator. The same is true of the sound of a Beethoven symphony, the rich smell of orange blossoms in the spring, or the color of a peacock’s tail. These sensory signals, as we perceive them, exist only when they are invented in an animal’s brain. Are chemistry and physics alone adequate to explain how brains and their wonderful sensory abilities came to be?

Knowing Self

Another quality that Nagel focuses on is consciousness. We not only see red flowers, but know that we are seeing them. We think about red flowers, and are aware—conscious—that we are thinking about them. We ponder the nature of God and how He made the color red, and we are conscious of all of this thinking process. We don’t just respond like a machine to our environment—we are conscious of our place in nature, and of what the end of our lives may mean.

Nagel discusses two levels of questions that are involved in this search for understanding of ourselves and our place in nature. One question is the physical nature of consciousness and free will. Biochemically, what is the mechanism of these qualities? How do they work? Does the physical structure of the nerve connections in our brain explain why we are deeply thinking beings, conscious of ourselves, our thinking ability, and our values? The second question: What is there in the physical cosmos that would cause evolution to produce beings with these features that seem to be marvelous luxuries, way beyond what is necessary for survival? This question is perhaps the more significant one. Would all of that conscious awareness improve our ability to escape from a lion if we were just an evolved animal? That seems doubtful.

It takes the Spirit of God to soften us until we are ready to accept an influence from outside of ourselves.

According to materialist (naturalistic) modern science the laws of physics are the underlying explanation for everything, including the emergence of mind and consciousness, through evolution. Nagel has come to doubt that, because there is too much that speaks to the centrality of mind (and thus design) and its impact on explanations of the most important features of reality. He concludes that our explanations of the natural world will be adequate only if we recognize that “mind, rather than physical law, provides the fundamental level of explanation of everything.”4

But when it comes to filling out this insightful concept, he stumbles. He discusses theism and creation, and concludes that theism could be the missing puzzle piece that explains the existence of our perceptions, cognition, and consciousness, but he rejects that explanation, as he also rejects modern materialism. He rejects materialism because its answers are not convincing. Theism is rejected because it is not a complete logical scheme in itself, but requires that something (God) be inserted from outside of our intellectual system. He argues elegantly for the failure of materialistic Darwinism, and that a different system is needed, a system that begins in some way with mind. But here he still stumbles, and does not have a satisfactory alternative to offer. He does offer an alternative, but we may not all find it meaningful.

Explaining Everything

Nagel concludes that there are essentially three ways to explain all these things that we find to be so marvelous. One: they could have arisen by chance (neo-Darwinism). Two: they could be the result of intentionality (God or some other being created them). Three: he suggests that the explanation could be naturalistic teleology, a natural tendency in the cosmos to move toward purpose, to make things with a cause for their existence. Perhaps, he suggests, there are naturalistic “teleological laws” in the universe that would guide evolution to make structures and organisms that have a purpose.5

Nagel rejects the first option, chance, because its explanations are inadequate. He rejects the second, theism, because it depends on explanations that come from outside of our intellectual system. Although Nagel doesn’t embrace naturalistic teleology with enthusiasm, he recommends it as no less logical than the materialistic alternative, and because it has the possibility of offering explanations without recourse to divine creation. He does not discuss the difficult question of how or why those “teleological laws” would have come into existence. Nagel does suggest that the origin of the cosmos must involve “mind,” but since he doesn’t accept the Creator, he is left scratching for what this “mind” is.

Allowing for More

The human spirit has a tendency to desire answers that come from within ourselves. As a child reaching for something on a high shelf, we want to do it ourselves. It takes the Spirit of God to soften us until we are ready to accept an influence from outside of ourselves. Nicodemus was drawn to the young prophet Jesus (John 3:1-21), but at first Nicodemus still thought his Jewish ceremonial religion was enough. Jesus spoke directly to that problem, and Nicodemus gradually came to realize that the important answers are not present in unaided human reasoning or religious practice. Those answers come from the divine source of mind and salvation.

Our salvation results from accepting the free gift of God’s loving hand reaching out to lift us up. In the same way, our understanding of the universe, of origins, and of our intellect, sensory perceptions, and our consciousness and values will be accurate and complete only when we accept the answer that begins outside of our human intellectual system—the answer that begins with “and God created.”6

  1. T. Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012).
  2. M. J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: Free Press, 1996); M. J. Behe, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (New York: Free Press, 2007); S. C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell (HarperOne, 2009); S. C. Meyer, DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2009).
  3. L. Brand and E. Schwab, “The Rainbow Is All in Your Head,” Dialogue 18, no. 2 (2006): 11-13.
  4. Nagel, p. 21.
  5. Ibid., p. 93.
  6. Pray for Thomas Nagel, that he will make that crucial last step in his search for understanding.

Leonard Brand is a retired former chair of the Department of Earth and Biological Sciences, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, United States.

Leonard Brand