A New Theism?

Just over a decade ago, a spate of books by the so-called New Atheists began to appear in bookstores. Their numbers, though not their contents, made it seem as if scientific rationalism and Darwinian materialism had at long last found the arguments necessary to beat back the forces of darkness and superstition. It turned out, however, there were no new arguments – just more severe floggings of old ones.

Less noticed at the time was a smaller number of books written by atheists or former atheists who did not aim, in the words of Pascal, to “prove God,” but who, by careful argument, showed the failure and inadequacy of rationalism and materialism alike. The philosopher Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (2012) was especially compelling.

Nagel proposes that the modern practice of “reducing” the world to its physical properties, to matter and energy, has failed. While certain scientific advances have been “made possible by excluding the mind from the physical world,” the exclusion itself is irrational. Materialists propose that the mind is a mere emergent property of matter, a “side effect of physical law.” But we have strong reasons to believe that mind is as much a “basic aspect of nature” as matter itself is. Mind is not a mere effect of material reality, but something other than it.

Nagel does not provide an alternative model, but settles for outlining why such a model is necessary and what it would have to explain. He observes that nature as a whole gives rise to mind as a fundamental feature. The appearance of mind is not incidental to the processes of Darwinian evolution, but rather plays an active role in it. And, further, science is “driven by the assumption that the world is intelligible” – knowable as true by the mind, and this intelligibility seems to be part of the explanation for why things are as they are.

He offers three further arguments for why nature must include a non-material mental dimension. First, our consciousness as a mental event cannot be experimentally reduced to physical events. Evolution includes the development of consciousness, and consciousness clearly plays a role in evolution, but materialism cannot explain consciousness. Therefore, nature and its evolutionary processes must not be merely material.

A second and stronger argument is cognition. If we are tempted to dismiss the experience of consciousness, it’s impossible to dismiss that our reason grasps truth. This grasp of truth cannot be reduced to the senses’ perception of this or that local situation, but rather comprehends general laws and an abstract perception of the orderliness of reality as a whole. Further, the capacity to know truth clearly plays a role in our models of evolutionary development; it is part of evolution not epiphenomenal.


One of the deliverances of cognition is to see that things act for ends. Nature has some sort of intention or purposefulness built into it. Things act for some good. If that is the case, then a third argument emerges. Value, or the perception of and direction toward good ends, must also be fundamental to nature because such directedness governs how nature operates. Nagel concludes that there must be a “cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and value that is inseparable from them.” Value is a fact of nature.

Nagel believes himself no theist and has confessed an aversion to the idea of God: “I don’t want the universe to be that way.” He tells us that theist and materialist accounts of the world are both “circular.” But the materialist account is also self-contradictory; it presumes we can have a universal mental account of nature even as it denies the reality of the mental.

Nagel’s rejects theism because it seeks to find the intelligibility of nature outside of nature rather than an intelligibility intrinsic to and within it. In this, he is correct in one respect and incorrect in another.

As the philosopher Hans Jonas once argued, the modern age came about when it inverted the fundamental, traditional assumptions of primitive cultures. The ancient world was “panvitalist.” It had an “ontology of life” that presumed all nature was living and purposeful and that death was the unusual fact demanding explanation. We modern people tend to be “panmechanistic.” We have an “ontology of death” that sees matter and its physical laws as constituting almost all of reality; the rare, strange presence of life is the vexing question. Many modern Christians share in materialism’s ontology of death.

When, in Human Generis, Pius XII affirmed that Darwinian evolution was plausible, he did so only for the origin of the human body. The soul must be “immediately created by God.” Pope Francis, in Laudato Si’, repeats this teaching: the emergence of personal being in the universe requires the “direct action of God.” In both cases, a mechanistic account of reality is taken to explain everything except for that strange presence of the human mind.

But Nagel and the Church are not so far apart as these isolated statements make it seem. They both in fact affirm Aristotle’s classical account of nature as structured by the intellectual principles of formal and final causality. Mind or intellect is present even in a rock as its “formal” principle, causing it to be the kind of thing that it is. Indeed this formal principle is the immediate act of the eternal God’s creation that causes all things – not just human minds – to exist. Nagel holds that formal and final causality are wholly present in nature. Christians simply affirm this as the effect of God’s simple, eternal act of creation, which is more fundamental to nature than nature is to itself.

The God in which Nagel disbelieves, only distantly related to the physical world, we also disbelieve. The God in which we believe explains why mind – his eternal logos – is not merely a fundamental fact of nature but the principle par excellence of reality itself.


*Image: Creation of the Animals by Tintoretto, c. 1551-52 [Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy]

You may also enjoy:

Anthony Esolen’s Getting Our Creation Wrong

Michael Pakaluk’s Creation and Miracles

James Matthew Wilson has published ten books, including, most recently, The Strangeness of the Good (Angelico) and The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition (CUA). Professor of Humanities and Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas (Houston), he also serves as poet-in-residence for the Benedict XVI Institute, poetry editor for Modern Age magazine, and as series editor for Colosseum Books, from the Franciscan University at Steubenville Press. His Amazon page is here.