A review of a book by Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos. Here’s the point:
‘The world is an astonishing place,’ Nagel writes. ‘That it has produced you, and me, and the rest of us is the most astonishing thing about it.’ Materialists are in the business of banishing astonishment; they want to demystify the world and human beings along with it, to show that everything we see as a mystery is reducible to components that aren’t mysterious at all. And they cling to this ambition even in cases where doing so is obviously fruitless. Neo-Darwinism insists that every phenomenon, every species, every trait of every species, is the consequence of random chance, as natural selection requires. And yet, Nagel says, ‘certain things are so remarkable that they have to be explained as non-accidental if we are to pretend to a real understanding of the world.’ (The italics are mine.)
Among these remarkable, nonaccidental things are many of the features of the manifest image. Consciousness itself, for example: You can’t explain consciousness in evolutionary terms, Nagel says, without undermining the explanation itself. Evolution easily accounts for rudimentary kinds of awareness. Hundreds of thousands of years ago on the African savannah, where the earliest humans evolved the unique characteristics of our species, the ability to sense danger or to read signals from a potential mate would clearly help an organism survive.
So far, so good. But the human brain can do much more than this. It can perform calculus, hypothesize metaphysics, compose music—even develop a theory of evolution. None of these higher capacities has any evident survival value, certainly not hundreds of thousands of years ago when the chief aim of mental life was to avoid getting eaten. Could our brain have developed and sustained such nonadaptive abilities by the trial and error of natural selection, as neo-Darwinism insists? It’s possible, but the odds, Nagel says, are ‘vanishingly small.’ If Nagel is right, the materialist is in a pickle. The conscious brain that is able to come up with neo-Darwinism as a universal explanation simultaneously makes neo-Darwinism, as a universal explanation, exceedingly unlikely.