Reflections on Thomas Nagel’s mentions of Schelling and Whitehead in “Mind and Cosmos”

The aim of this book is to argue that the mind-body problem is not just a local problem, having to do with the relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living animal organisms, but that it invades our understanding ofthe entire cosmos and its history. The physical sciences and evolutionary biology cannot be kept insulated from it, and I believe a true appreciation of the difficulty of the problem must eventually change our conception of the place of the physical sciences in describing the natural order.

So begins Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (2012). I have thus far only read small chunks of Nagel’s book. I also found myself reading several reviews, including this one by biologist H. Allen Orr in The New York Review of Books, this one by conservative journalist and former Bush Sr. speech writer Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard, and this one by Grant Maxwell.

Since I’m writing my dissertation on Schelling and Whitehead, I was curious to peek into Nagel’s text to see what he had to say about them. The largely negative response to Nagel’s book (at least among scientific materialists) is regrettable, but not surprising. I largely agree with Nagel’s criticisms, but I think there are more historical resources available for thinking natural teleology and the connection between consciousness and cosmos than he lets on. Much of the necessary philosophical work has already been done. The process tradition, including first and foremost the work of Schelling and Whitehead, represents an extremely well-developed alternative form of science that doesn’t fall prey to the theoretical or practical shortcomings of mechanistic materialism and yet remains fully consistant with all the latest scientific data.

He mentions Schelling on page 17:

The view that rational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order makes me, in a broad sense, an idealist–not a subjective ide­alist, since it doesn’t amount to the claim that all reality is ultimately appearance–but an objective idealist in the tradition of Plato and perhaps also of certain post-Kantians, such as Schelling and Hegel, who are usually called absolute idealists. I suspect that there must be a strain of this kind of idealism in every theoretical scientist: pure empiricism is not enough.

I think it is interesting that he aligns himself with Schelling the Absolute Idealist rather than Schelling the Naturphilosoph. As I am coming to understand Schelling’s philosophy, its major contribution was not to Absolute Idealism (a school which belongs to Hegel), but to the process-philosophical tradition running through Bergson and Whitehead. For at least the late Schelling, as for Whitehead, Reason is not self-grounding, but dependent at every step upon experience. The transcendental structure of the rational mind and the intelligible structure of phenomenal Nature alike emerge from the “unprethinkable” depths of divine yearning. Reason, then, cannot provide the necessary and sufficient ground for Nature. Nature is no longer conceived by these thinkers as simply the sum total of phenomenal objects whose properties can be categorized by the mechanical understanding, nor as the finished whole or unified system that Reason thinks it ought to be. Schelling imagined Nature as productivity (Natura Naturans) as well as product (Natura Naturata), just as Whitehead imagined Nature as a Creative Advance conditioned by finite creatures. Rather than conceiving of Nature as an appearance projected by our own intellectual activity, or as a mere “check” upon our will, Schelling and Whitehead saw the human mind as an evolutionary expression of Nature’s own creative potency. So it is not “rational intelligibility” that is at the root of reality for Schelling, but the infinitely polarized unity of Nature’s original scission of forces, which is nothing other than the triune God’s eternal self-begetting as Nature (see this post on the influence of the theosophist Jakob Böhme on Schelling).

“…give me a nature composed of antithetical activities, of which one reaches out to the infinite while the other tries to intuit itself in this infinitude, and from this I will bring forth intelligence for you”

Certainly, Schelling spills much ink attempting to wrap words around the creative mystery of a self-intuiting infinity. He did not mean for us to conceive of it negatively as irrational or mystical (in the etymological sense of mystery or “mute”), but neutrally as other-than-ratio and so beyond the grasp of reflective thought. Instead, Schelling articulated a “metaphysical empiricism.” The immediately experienced fact of free will within us, which Schelling defined as the decision between good and evil, is a recapitulation at a higher potency of Nature’s original scission between gravity and light. It is out of this scission that all visible Nature continues to unfold. The scission is not approachable through theory, but only through art and action, through the cultivation of one’s aesthetic sensitivity and moral freedom.

As for Whitehead, Nagel mentions him in a footnote:

White­head argued that to identify the abstractions of physics with the whole of reality was to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, and that concrete entities, all the way down to the level of electrons, should all be understood as somehow embodying a standpoint on the world.

I agree with the second clause about electrons, but it seems in plain contradiction with the first clause about the abstractions of physics. Whitehead didn’t dismiss the abstractions of physics in an effort to make everyday psychological life the foundation of metaphysics. His goal was to re-interpret the abstractions of quantum and relativistic physics so that physics might become the most general possible description of concrete experience. I describe the result of his attempt to universalize an experiential physics in my essay “Physics of the World-Soul.”


8 thoughts on “Reflections on Thomas Nagel’s mentions of Schelling and Whitehead in “Mind and Cosmos”

  1. Nice piece. Quick correction: muthos doesn’t mean lacking speech (i.e., it isn’t the opposite of logos; it isn’t alogon or arreton). I’m pretty sure that muthos just means “story” or “tale,” and that any etymology beyond that is unknown or disputed. I’m guessing that you were thinking of the etymology of mystery, mystic, and mute. That aside, my biggest problem with Nagel’s book (and most other books on topics like this) is that he isn’t bothering to engage Darwin’s primary texts and, concomitantly, he doesn’t talk about sexual difference (sexual selection). Now more than ever, what is called for is a feminist approach. Elizabeth Grosz’s work should be the sine qua non of contemporary evolutionary theory.

    1. Hey Sam,

      Thanks for the etymological correction! I’ve fixed that. I was thinking of the link between mystery and silence.

      And yeah I agree about the need for a feminist account of biology. Margulis had a lot to say about the male bias among neo-Darwinist zoologists.

  2. I actually don’t mind at all reading Nagel’s argument without extensive reference to other thinker’s formulations. Sure, there may be parallels to other lines of thought previously explored (this will likely always be the case, in every line of reasoning), but it seems okay that he makes the argument as he sees reasonable, without needing to buy-in fully to someone else’s construct.

    1. I think the fact that Nagel’s book avoids getting into detailed scholastic debates with his philosophical predecessors is probably a good thing. His criticisms of scientific materialism are important and would be read and understood by way fewer people if he spent an extra 200+ pages to do so.
      But when it comes to re-constructing the epistemology of science and the ontology of nature once materialism has been given up, we don’t need to start from scratch. We scientists and natural philosophers need only tell our origin story in a different way: an alternative scientific revolution could be founded upon Bruno’s and Leibniz’s panpsychism instead of Descartes’ and Newton’s body/soul dualism; an alternative evolutionary biology could be founded on Goethe phenomenology of natural types and Schelling’s organic Naturphilosophie instead of Darwin’s mechanical model of speciation based on the purposeless struggle for existence.
      Nagel’s goal in “Mind and Cosmos” seems to be to hammer another stake into the corpse of scientific materialism, rather than to provide a more viable cosmological replacement for it. It is a far humbler, but still important task, since materialism still remains the default worldview among a sizable chunk of the intellectual class.
      I suppose my efforts are more speculative than critical, in that I want to draw on some of my predecessors’ schemes in offering at least the bare essentials of a replacement cosmology adequate to our scientific knowledge of nature and coherent with the ethical presuppositions of civilized life.

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