Does the Universe Care about Us?

Steven Pinker sneered at ‘the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker’. The Guardian called it ‘the most despised science book of 2012’. The man was no less than a great modern philosopher and the book expressed his deepest concerns, a counterpoint to the prevailing paradigm of modern science, particularly thinking on evolution.

So what made everyone so angry? The thinker was Thomas Nagel, the book was Mind and Cosmos, and the idea was teleology. In ancient science (or, as it used to be called, natural philosophy), teleology held that things — in particular, living things — had a natural end, or telos, at which they aimed. The acorn, Aristotle said, sprouted and grew into a seedling because its purpose was to become a mighty oak. Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue argued that moral philosophy had lost its way precisely because it had abandoned Aristotelian teleology — the idea that there was an essential ‘true end’ for a human being, a naturally correct way for a person to flourish. In Mind and Cosmos, subtitled Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, Nagel says that the appearance of conscious beings such as us can be described as the universe waking up. More

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