The human mind – a challenge for materialism?

December 19th, 2012 in clues. Tags: , , , , , ,


Materialism can be defined as the belief that everything that exists is material or physical. It implies that science, which observes and measures material things, is potentially able to explain all facets of existence. Thus materialism is closely associated with science.

Materialism leaves no place for God or supernatural beings. But, some argue, it also leaves no place for the human mind and true ethics, which presents a philosophical problem. And so philosopher Thomas Nagel suspects that materialism is not true, which puts him offside with many atheist philosophers and scientists, for he is challenging one of their basic assumptions.

The interesting thing is that Nagel too is an atheist.

What’s wrong with materialism?

For many people, nothing is wrong. But, if it is true that the material is all there is, everything about the universe could in principle be explained by material objects and the laws that govern them – i.e. fundamental particles and the four basic forces. Which seems to make self, mind and free choice illusory. Some are willing to go this far, despite it appearing to be contrary to what we experience, but others are not.

Nagel has been interested in these ideas for a long time. His 1974 paper What is it like to be a bat? (which must be one of the best-titled academic papers ever) discusses the fact that, while science can analyse all physical things in terms of more fundamental realities (such as fundamental particles and forces), it cannot analyse what it is like to be a bat, or to have the experiences of another conscious human being. Our minds, our experiences, our pain and senses are clearly related to brain states, which science can understand, but they are more than just those brain states. Here is something that physical science seems unable to describe, suggesting that there is more to our universe than the physical.

This is the basis of an argument against reductive materialism (i.e. the view that all things can be reduced to the material), generally used by theists to argue that God supplies the missing explanation. But Nagel the atheist also finds reductive materialism a problem.

Mind and Cosmos

In his recent book Mind and Cosmos, Nagel starts at this point, and adds to his arguments. Not only is reductive materialism unable to understand mind and consciousness, he says, but it cannot explain how the physical processes of cosmology and biological evolution could have produced mind and consciousness, nor rational minds, nor a universe that is intelligible to us, nor true objective moral values, all things most of us instinctively believe in. He says:

Evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends.

The theistic answer

Alvin Plantinga and others have argued that these difficulties are real, and (to over-simplify) point to God as the author of the non-material realities of mind, rationality and morality.

But Nagel has no interest in theism as a solution to his dilemma. He says he has no inclination to believe in God (he seems to be suggesting that a sensus divinatis is necessary to believe in God, rather than a rational assessment of the evidence, though this may not be fair to him). His other main reason for rejecting theism is that he says it doesn’t provide a satisfactory explanation of everything any more than science can, which I have always found to be a strange reason for rejecting something that could otherwise be true.

So Nagel is left suggesting that there may be a non-theistic, non materialistic explanation of the universe. He admits he doesn’t know what it might be, but says he is simply trying to open up the way for others to investigate.


Most reviews of the book (e.g. E Sober, J Dupre and Leiter & Weisberg) treat it with respect, but criticise it extensively. Most critics seem to be happy with materialism and its logical corollaries. Some criticise him for providing ammunition for theists, especially creationists and Intelligent Design advocates, assisting them to further critique evolution and science in general.

Where does this get us?

Science has been so successful at what it does that many use it to justify their worldview of reductive materialism. If Nagel is right, the cracks in that worldview will only get wider. But there are not yet all that many who think he is right, even though they lack adequate explanations of the facts he comments on.

I doubt Nagel has offered enough to change the minds of anyone, but he does perhaps strengthen the arguments of those who oppose reductive materialism, and arguably shows that some aspects of current thinking on science and materialism are as much matters of faith as of evidence.

Further reading

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons


  1. I have said on my blog, that I am not a materialist. Some have argued with me, saying that I really am a materialist. I don’t argue back, because part of why I am not a materialist, is that I don’t know what “material” or “materialist” could really mean.

    I guess my biggest problem with materialism, is that I don’t agree with the reductionism that is often taken to be part of what materialism entails.

    I suppose you could say that I agree with Nagel on that one point. But I disagree far more than I agree. His “What is it like to be a bat” strikes me as a flight into mysticism. And, from what I can best tell based on the reviews, his recent book is also an appeal to mysticism.

    When we are confronted by a mystery, some folk glory in mysticism while others seek out an explanation. I’m in the second group. I don’t expect the human mind to defy eventual explanation.

  2. “his recent book is also an appeal to mysticism”

    I haven’t read the book, only the bits available on Amazon’s “Look Inside” (basically the beginning and the end) plus reviews. But I don’t see it as mysticism. I think it is a matter of the right tool for the right job. You won’t make much progress investigating electricity if your only tools are a set of scales and a tape measure.

    So here. If there are more “dimensions” to reality than the material – for example, if minds are something more than the emergent properties of brains, or if God exists and acts in the world – then the tools of science as we currently know them will be inadequate in investigating those other “dimensions” (though they may be partially helpful). And those who think they are sufficient will inevitably argue there is nothing other than the material because their tools can’t detect it.

    I think Nagel is saying (1) there is reason to at least wonder if there may be more than the material, (2) I’m not happy with the tools religious people use to address the non-material, (3) I don’t know what other tools to use, but (4) I’m not going to give up trying.

    Depending on your definition, that may be mystical, though I don’t think so, but regardless, I think it is logical. I agree with him, except I think some of the religious tools are good. But he may find other tools.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. If the book is an appeal mysticism, that should be empirically testable with either the three-component M-scale or the transliminality scale based on the number of correspondences. But I doubt it would score high on either psychological scale.

  4. IN, I am eager to understand more about the “three-component M-scale” and the “transliminality scale”. Have you made a study of mysticism? Tell us more (please).

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