Materialism, teleology, and magic

I have so far not been tempted to read Thomas Nagel’s new book, but I’ve read a couple things about it. Here is H. Allen Orr in the New York Review of Books. I am a fan of Nagel’s famous article, What Is It Like To Be A Bat? which argues that there are holes in materialist explanations of consciousness, and that we don’t really know what sort of thing could go in those holes. In his new book, Mind & Cosmos, Nagel appears to be arguing that this and other holes are so big that the current scientific paradigm is somehow not seaworthy. (Based on what I’ve seen, Nagel’s conclusions in the book seem a little nuts — Orr is very fair I think.)

The holes in the current “materialistic” scientific paradigm are supposed to point the way to a new “teleological” theory or model for scientific theories. Here is Orr, emph. mine:

Natural teleology doesn’t depend on any agent’s intentions; it’s just the way the world is. There are teleological laws of nature that we don’t yet know about and they bias the unfolding of the universe in certain desirable directions, including the formation of complex organisms and consciousness. The existence of teleological laws means that certain physical outcomes “have a significantly higher probability than is entailed by the laws of physics alone—simply because they are on the path toward a certain outcome.”

So, there are some teleological laws, beyond or outside the physical laws (not just the ones we know but all of them), and the teleological laws cause outcomes to differ from what they otherwise would be under the physical laws. The “teleology” at issue has nothing to do with the particular purposes of any person or God; it is distinctively teleological because (supposedly) we empirically see some moves towards “purpose” broadly, divorced from any agent, and physical laws are insufficient.

Apart from whether this account is at all plausible, I want to ask: does it even make sense? Does it describe a worldview that is meaningfully distinct from materialism? I am tempted to answer “no,” based on an argument like the following:

If there is some teleological tendency that exerts a pull on physical outcomes, then that should be conceptualized as a physical law. After all, physical law is just our theory for explaining physical outcomes; if some new tendency is discovered exerting a pull on physical outcomes, then the law that describes that tendency is a physical law, not some new kind of law, even if it is a physical law that would surprise today’s physicists.


Science has, since the seventeenth century, proved remarkably adept at incorporating initially alien ideas (like electromagnetic fields) into its thinking. Yet most people, apparently including Nagel, find the resulting science sufficiently materialist.)

I like this argument but it’s just a little too categorical and tautological to be really satisfying. A reply might say: if the new tendency is strange and different enough, then it could be too strange to assimilate under physical law. For example, we could maybe imagine a teleological tendency that would upset ordinary reductionist assumptions in a disturbing way. Suppose there is somehow a tendency towards the evolution of conscious organisms. That seems like it would constitute a pull on physical outcomes. But we don’t know how to cleanly reduce consciousness to lower-level physics, so we also don’t know how to reduce this tendency to the terms of our physical laws. So we would have something like a teleological law, a tendency in physical outcomes that is easy to state in the language of purpose but can’t be neatly reduced to lower-level physics.

This example probably shouldn’t work, though. Even if there are things about consciousness that are hard to reduce to lower-level physics, anything like a tendency towards the evolution of conscious organisms should be easy to reduce to lower-level physics, because conscious organisms as far as we know are physical things that obey physical laws. If there really was a tendency towards the evolution of conscious life, we would be able to analyze it in terms of all the little things that go together to make a conscious being. (Since conscious life apparently exists, there arguably is a tendency towards the evolution of conscious life. But there is every reason to believe that tendency works on the level of physical law, as in the arguments for fine-tuning.)

There is a parallel here to debates over the definition of magic. If magic is simply something outside of physical laws, then it seems contradictory — in a world that had magic, magic would just be part of the physical laws, wouldn’t it? But magic looks very different from physical law as we know it — in magic, changes at the level of meaning, of human significance, somehow unlock dramatic physical changes, which seemingly can’t be explained in lower-level physics. An incantation works changes in the world by virtue of the meaning of the words; a chemical recipe works the opposite way. A world with magic is a world in which there’s something special and privileged about our semantics (hence “magical thinking”) — the physical world is governed by the categories into which we divide it, rather than vice versa, or rather than solely vice versa.

We can say, then, that a world of Nagel’s teleological laws might look like a world with magic. Unfortunately for Nagel, we’ve been looking for magic for a long time, and it doesn’t seem to be there. (Orr: “Teleological science is, in fact, more than imaginable. It’s actual, at least historically. Aristotelian science, with its concern for final cause, was thoroughly teleological.”) Why should we think the magical worldview is about to rally and reemerge?

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