Thomas Nagel est un philosophe respecté aux États-Unis, il est même membre de la très prestigieuse American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Il est devenu célèbre en 1974 pour son livreWhat is it like to be a bat (ce que c'est que d'être une chauve-souris), livre dans lequel il expliquait que la conscience ne saurait se réduire à la chimie du cerveau. Son dernier ouvrage en date, Mind and Cosmos, divise ses collègues, mais trouve un écho certain chez les créationnistes.
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Though Aristotle’s name comes up only a couple of times in the book, it is remarkable how Aristotelian (and even Scholastic) in spirit Nagel’s proposals are, not only in his general willingness to reconsider the immanent or “built in” teleology that was at the core of the Aristotelian-Scholastic conception of nature, but also in some of his more specific theses.
For example, Nagel argues that it is impossible to explain our rational capacities in terms of the consciousness we share with lower animals; that consciousness in turn cannot easily be explained in reductive terms of any sort, and certainly not via a specifically materialist form of reductionism; that even the origin of life from inorganic chemical processes has not been given a plausible naturalistic explanation; and that in each case we need to reconsider the possibility of a teleological account. In so arguing he has essentially recapitulated the traditional Aristotelian hierarchy of irreducibly rational, sensory, and vegetative forms of life (where “vegetative” has here a technical meaning, connoting those organic functions that operate below the distinctively animal kind).
Value, which Nagel insists is a real feature of the world rather than a projection of our subjective desires or sentiments, is, he says, a byproduct of teleology “even if teleology is separated from intention, and the result is not the goal of an agent who aims at it”—again, a standard Aristotelian thesis. (He rightly suggests that theists ought to be open to the idea of immanent teleology of the Aristotelian sort. He may not be aware that medieval theologians like Aquinas were committed to precisely that.)
Throughout the book Nagel emphasizes that for phenomena like life, consciousness, rationality, and value to arise in the later stages of the history of the universe, we have to suppose they were somehow “latent in the nature of things” from the beginning—thereby hinting at the Aristotelian notion of change as the actualization of built-in potentialities, and the Scholastic principle that whatever is in an effect must in some way be contained in its total cause.
More generally, Nagel’s emphasis on the implausibility of reducing certain higher-level features of a thing to features of its parts is reminiscent of the holistic Aristotelian conception of what a natural substance is; and his theme of the possibility of reviving the teleological notion of an “order that governs the natural world from within” echoes the Aristotelian-Scholastic notion of formal and final causes.