Thomas Nagel’s Natural Theological Argument?

Since I should be studying right now and not writing philosophy, I want to make this a very quick post. This is astonishing, in my view, as I think I have found atheist Thomas Nagel making a natural theological argument (or, less provocatively (and more accurately) supporting a natural theological argument) in his book The Last Word (1997).

Consider the following argument:

1. It is more probable than not that on theism than naturalism consciousness (mind) exists, that is, whre “Pr” is “The probability that”, “G” God exists, “N” “naturalism” and C “Consciousness existing” Pr (C|G) > .5 and Pr (C|N) < .5.

J.P Moreland’s two arguments in support of this: (1) Scientific theory virtues apply here and make theism more probable: (i) Naturalness, (ii) Ontological Basicality and (iii) Simplicity and (2) naturalism’s “Grand Story” or “History of the Universe” is necessarily and radically materialistic (which precludes mind at all—only Nagel would perhaps deny this with his teleological account of natural laws (which is still vague and purely speculative (and in this respect ad hoc))).

2. Consciousness exists.

William Lane Craig has pointed out that denying this self-contradictory i.e., an illusion of consciousness (intentional state) is to be in a conscious (intentional) state (basically).

3. Therefore, theism is true.

Thomas Nagel furthers this argument from reducing the problem of “actuality” (of mind/consciousness) to “possibility”: “Since it [ourselves (which includes reason, consciousness and mind] did happen [was actualized], it must have been possible”.[1]

So, here are some new premises:

4. If theism is true, there is an account of the actuality and possibility of consciousness.

(Here are a few stories the theist could tell: (1) There is a set of all possible worlds in the mind of God (on theistic platonism) and God actualizes one that will eventually result in consciousness, (2) God chooses one possible world, makes it actual and eventually performs special intervention in the natural order to bestow consciousness on human persons, (3) God, from eternity past, knows He will create a world and that world will include consciousness (so there is no “set” of all possible worlds, there is just one world God will create from eternity past). These are all accounts of God’s actualizing consciousness/mind on finite creatures; for an account of possibility, this is rather simple: God could withhold creating anything at all and timelessly (or infinitely throughout time) does not create but could, counterfactually, bring a universe (with human persons who have consciousness/mind) into being at will–there is no contradiction in this and therefore this is at least possible).

5. If naturalism were true, it must account for the actuality and possibility of consciousness.

(Suppose it could not explain possibility and actuality but only actuality; theism would be preferable because it is a more complete explanation—and much simpler, to my mind ref. Moreland’s “Simplicity” requirement).

6. Naturalism cannot explain the actuality of consciousness. (From (1)-(3)).

7. Suppose that naturalism could explain the actuality of consciousness (through probabilities).

8. The possibility of the actuality of consciousness has to be explained.

(What Van Inwagen calls a “metaphysical axiom” that “what is actual is minimally possible” And Nagel agrees ref. above quote).

9. If it is not possible on naturalism that consciousness exists (there is a contradiction i.e., matter -> mind), then naturalism cannot explain the possibility of consciousness.

10. If naturalism cannot explain the possibility of consciousness, naturalism is false or must leave out something to be explained.

11. It would be ad hoc to deny the ontology of something because it falsifies one’s worldview.

12. Naturalism cannot explain the possibility of consciousness.

(There is a contradiction: matter only creates matter, not mind (Moreland’s argument that out of matter only matter comes; if mind came, it is logically equivalent to getting something from nothing—Locke agrees to the former half)).

13. Therefore, naturalism is false.

This is a very interesting argument (and I think this 13 line long argument is really three arguments: (1) consciousness is more probable on theism than naturalism, (2) naturalism must explain the actuality and possibility of consciousness and (3) naturalism cannot explain the actuality and possibility of consciousness and therefore naturalism is false). I wonder what people make of this—to me this is deeply problematic for the naturalist.

[1] Thomas Nagel’s The Last Word (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 138.


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