Since Aristotle it has been common to refer to intelligent agency as a third cause in addition to law and chance. The Philosopher obviously spoke Greek, but his concept has come to be known by the Latin “tertium quid” the “third thing.” Over at Witherspoon William Carroll reviews atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. According to Carroll, Nagel believes he has found a Quartium Quid, a “fourth thing” Carroll writes:
Nagel’s arguments that consciousness is not reducible to material phenomena, that there is an objective order of value, and that we do have knowledge of the world are all dialectical. He asks us to recognize, on reflection, their obvious truth. If we accept as a starting point a worldview that has reductive materialism as a first principle, we will not be persuaded by Nagel. One of the benefits of Nagel’s book is that he calls into question this first principle and asks us to consider anew an adherence only to material causes.
In examining possible explanations for the origin of life, Nagel thinks that to say the process was the result of chance events or “directionless physical law” challenges credulity. He also rejects what he calls “creationism,” the view that the origin and development of living things is the result of specific intentional acts of a divine agent. He thinks that it is properly a scientific project to explain the origin of life and of consciousness. The contemporary natural sciences, however, cannot adequately offer such explanations, and when combined with materialist reductionism make claims that are false.
Nagel opts for another possibility, what he calls “natural teleological laws governing the development of organisms over time.” He thinks this “nonpurposive teleology” is different from the other alternatives: “chance, creationism, and directionless physical law.” Naturalistic teleology means that there are organizational and developmental principles that are irreducible parts of the natural order, yet “not the result of intentional or purposive influence by anyone.” The natural order that is the source of unicellular organisms and eventually of conscious, intelligent agents capable of value judgments has to be different from what is described by materialist reductionism.
Is Nagel’s fourth thing a real possibility or mere atheist whistling past the graveyard?