Nagel's Mind and Cosmos Is the Year's "Most Despised Science Book"
Congratulations are in order. Columnist Mark Vernon in The Guardian has honored Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False with his annual Most Despised Science Book award. By that, Vernon means the book that most attracted the ire of the scientifically orthodox by violating cherished taboos -- a good thing, in other words:
Steven Pinker damned it with faint praise when he described it in a tweet as "the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker." Jerry Coyne blogged: "Nagel goes the way of Alvin Plantinga," which is like being compared to Nick Clegg. All in all, Nagel's gadfly stung and whipped them into a fury.We've crossed swords with Vernon in the past -- see Jay Richards's review of Vernon on Signature in the Cell -- but this column shows promise. Smartly written too.
Disparagement is particularly unfair, though, because the book is a model of carefulness, sobriety and reason. If reading Sheldrake feels daring, Tallis thrilling and Fodor worthwhile but hard work, reading Nagel feels like opening the door on to a tidy, sunny room that you didn't know existed. It is as if his heart said to his head, I can't help but feel that materialist reductionism isn't right. And his head said to his heart, OK: let's take a fresh look. So what caused the offence?
Several things, but consider one: the contention that evolution may tend towards consciousness. Nagel is explicit that he himself is not countenancing a designer. Rather, he wonders whether science needs to entertain the possibility that a teleological trend is immanent in nature.
There it is. The t-word -- a major taboo among evolutionary biologists. Goal-directed explanations automatically question your loyalty to Darwin. As Friedrich Engels celebrated, when reading On the Origin of Species in 1859: "There was one aspect of teleology that had yet to be demolished, and that has now been done." But has it? This is the moot point.