In 2012, one of the most respected atheist philosophers in the world, who teaches at one of the most progressive universities in the world, released a book through perhaps the most prestigious academic publisher in the world—the central claim of which is that scientists’ very best framework for understanding the universe is ultimately incoherent and wrong. I’m referring to Thomas Nagel of NYU and his book published by Oxford University Press, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. The significance of Nagel’s book cannot be overstated. Why would a committed atheist make such an audacious denial of his seemingly best option for understanding reality? The answer, in short, is the inexplicability of human reason and the intelligible nature of the universe.
The Mysterious Comprehensibility of the WorldAlbert Einstein famously said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” His point was that it is incredibly mysterious how human minds can understand the universe to the degree that we do—a degree that is not at all necessary for our survival or reproduction. Two recent scientific discoveries help highlight this point. It is incredibly mysterious how human minds can understand the universe to the degree that we do. In the 1960s, theoretical physicist Peter Higgs predicted the existence of a type of elementary particle, called a boson, that would help explain how physical objects acquire mass. In 2012, researchers at CERN finally observed this particle—with the characteristics predicted by Higgs—during experiments at their underground laboratory near Geneva. The discovery of the Higgs boson (misleadingly nicknamed “The God Particle”) made international news and earned Higgs a Nobel Prize in physics the following year.
An even more recent example is the discovery of gravitational waves—which are thought to be ripples in the curvature of spacetime. Einstein predicted the existence of these waves one hundred years ago as a consequence of his general theory of relativity. But it was not until now that we developed the technology to actually observe them.
In both of these cases, we see a remarkable feat of the human mind: Through abstract thought, people were able to predict—to deduce—the existence of something no one had ever seen, and then go out and find it. Why are humans able to do that?
The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Human ReasonFrom a purely secular viewpoint, the question of why human reasoning is so effective is difficult to answer in a rationally coherent way. For instance, if we accept the standard scientific-materialist story, then we must conclude that our reasoning capacities evolved for no other purpose than to help us survive and reproduce. In fact, that is what most Darwinists say. But there is a huge problem with this conclusion, as Darwin himself pointed out in a letter to William Graham in 1881:
“[W]ith me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”
Darwin’s concern was this: If our minds evolved through unguided variations and natural selection, then our rational inferences do not necessarily lead us to true conclusions—just to conclusions that make it more likely for us to survive and reproduce. This is a problem because a belief does not necessarily have to be true to help us survive. For example, the belief, “All animals bigger than me want to eat me,” might help me and my offspring avoid a lot of predators, but it is not true. Thus, the Darwinian materialist story calls into question the very trustworthiness of human reasoning.
As C. S. Lewis pointed out in his book Miracles, however, one must assume that reason is trustworthy when forming any scientific theory:
“Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true. It follows that no account of the universe can be true unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be a real insight. A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court. For that theory would itself have been reached by thinking, and if thinking is not valid that theory would, of course, be itself demolished.” (pp. 21–22)
This difficulty that Lewis brings up makes the scientific-materialist worldview appear ultimately incoherent and self-refuting: One needs reason to be trustworthy in order to form any scientific theory, but our most widely accepted theory (Darwinian materialism) makes it appear that reason is not trustworthy. Such a theory, therefore, refutes itself.
Lewis’s argument has since been fleshed out with philosophical rigor by Alvin Plantinga and is one of the chief concerns that Thomas Nagel lays out in his book. Says Nagel:
“I agree with Alvin Plantinga that, unlike divine benevolence, the application of evolutionary theory to the understanding of our own cognitive capacities should undermine . . . our confidence in them. . . . Evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends.” (pp. 27–28)
So, not only does the effectiveness of human reason far exceed what is necessary for our survival and reproduction (as the examples of Einstein and Peter Higgs show), but the very nature of reason itself also seems to elude scientific-materialistic explanation. Any attempts to explain reason in this way appear incoherent.
The Rational Order Behind the UniverseHuman reason is only one side of the mystery, though; there is also the question of why the universe is structured in such a way as to be so friendly to rational inquiry.
To explain this, some scientists have speculated that the human mind and the universe are both made of the same “stuff.” For example, physicist Max Tegmark has proposed (like Pythagoras before him) that the universe (and everything in it) literally is mathematics. By that he means that math—numbers and the relationships between them—is the only true reality. Anything else is merely an illusion of our consciousness (which also just happens to be a mathematical structure). For Tegmark, this explains why physicists like Einstein and Higgs could make such remarkably accurate predictions, because every entity involved in the process—from Einstein’s mind, to his equations, to the gravitational waves themselves—are all simply mathematics.The more knowledge about the universe we gain, the more mysterious and inexplicable the human mind becomes.
Nagel, in an attempt to reject Darwinian materialism while still holding tight to his atheism, has proposed something similar. He thinks that the mind, or rational consciousness, is an inherent property of the physical universe, the same as, say, matter or energy is. By his view, the universe is intelligible precisely because the universe is, in some sense, “intelligent,” or at the very least, made of the same mental substance as our conscious minds are.
Nagel admits, “The view that rational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order makes me, in a broad sense, an idealist . . ., but an objective idealist in the tradition of Plato” (p. 16). In other words, Nagel has concluded that the most coherent framework for understanding reality must involve the idea that human reason and the universe itself are both fundamentally of a mental nature:
“The intelligibility of the world is no accident. Mind, in this view, is doubly related to the natural order. Nature is such as to give rise to conscious beings with minds; and it is such as to be comprehensible to such beings.” (pp. 16–17)
While this view is technically still within the boundaries of atheism, it understandably makes many scientific atheists nervous. To say that ultimate reality is somehow of a mental nature sounds a little too close to theism. And so, Darwinian materialism remains popular, for now, even though the critiques of Lewis, Plantinga, and Nagel have yet to be fully answered.
Wondrous ExplorersOf course, the Christian answer to all of this is that the human mind and the physical universe are both creations of a transcendent Rationality, called the Logos (John 1:1–3) and that both reveal His nature in some way. This belief led early modern scientists—such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and others—to expect the universe to be intelligible. They believed they had been endowed by their Creator with rationality—sharing, in a dim way, a bit of His nature—and thus given the faculties to search out and explore His creation, which He structured in a rational way.
The fact that science continues to affirm the intelligibility of the universe and demonstrate the remarkable effectiveness of reason, does not necessarily prove Christianity. It does, however, sit perfectly comfortable within the Christian worldview—it’s exactly what we would expect, if Christianity were true. The same cannot be said for Darwinian materialism, however.
What can be said is that, no matter what one’s view of reality is, scientific progress presents us with a great irony: the more science triumphs through rational prediction and discovery, the more it fails to account for exactly why scientists are able to do what they do. The more knowledge about the universe we gain, the more mysterious and inexplicable the human mind becomes. Like a mirage in the desert, no matter how much we advance, a full understanding of human consciousness seems to always be just out of reach, or it disappears entirely.
The intelligibility of the universe invites us, beckons us, to search things out and uncover its hidden order and beauty. As we do, though, we discover that we ourselves are one of its great mysteries—we are wondrous explorers, for which our best explanations may always be inadequate.
Did you enjoy this piece of content from Christ and Pop Culture Magazine? The continuation of this site and the insightful cultural analysis our writers produce is only possible through your generous support. Consider becoming a member for as little as $5 per month. You’ll get free stuff each month, full access to CAPC Magazine (including all back issues), entrance to our exclusive members group on Facebook—and you’ll help us keep the lights on. Join now.