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  • Does Naturalism Make Room for Teleology?The Case of Donald Crosby and Thomas Nagel
  • Mikael Leidenhag (bio)

This article explores an important metaphysical issue raised by Donald Crosby in his Nature as Sacred Ground1—namely, the reality and nature of teleology and the explanatory relevance of teleology for understanding human mentality. Crosby, in his endeavor to construct a metaphysical system on which to base religious naturalism, acknowledges the importance of positively accounting for teleology. Teleology is crucial for accounting for human freedom, and if teleology falls prey to reductionism (or some version of antirealism), then a dangerous dissonance is created between naturalism and the necessary presupposition regarding ourselves as experiencing and causally effective creatures. To leave such a dissonance unaddressed would subsequently undermine the metaphysical plausibility and coherency of religious naturalism.

What, then, is the place of teleology within the broader framework of naturalism? Crosby's metaphysical enterprise is based on an emergentist and pluralistic ontology. This ontology is also labeled as "radical materialism."2 Materialism is usually equated with determinism and, therefore, rejected in virtue of this association. Crosby, however, maintains that radical materialism is "entirely consistent with a probabilistic rather than determinist vision of the universe, with genuine consciousness and freedom, and with a robust affirmation of the fundamental importance of moral and spiritual realities and values."3 On this picture, materialism does not exclude novelty but provides the ontological basis and necessary physical ingredients for the emergence of new phenomena. Teleology, therefore, is the emergent product of natura naturans; the creative processes of the natural order and the causal interplay of wholly material constituents.

In Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos we find a similar emphasis on the explanatory relevance of teleology for making sense of human mentality. However, contrary to Crosby's radical materialism, Nagel's ontology is thoroughly [End Page 5] nonemergentist and significantly closer to neutral monism and panpsychism.4 Teleology is not a second-order property (ontologically derivable from lower properties), but is taken as fundamental by Nagel. In order to explain higher features of reality—such as consciousness, cognition, and values—we need to posit teleological principles. Nagel's controversial metaphysical contribution amounts, according to Crosby, to a problematic "panteleology" that relies too much on the limits of the natural sciences. Although they both base their projects on epistemic pluralism, and they both critique causal reductionism, Crosby and Nagel seek to ground teleology within the natural in markedly different ways.

Crosby's and Nagel's metaphysical projects share many points of agreement. They both claim to be naturalistic. Crosby and Nagel are equally critical of ontological reductionism. Moreover, they both recognize the need for a genuine teleology. Yet, they disagree significantly concerning the nature and potentialities of matter and the proper explanatory route toward teleology. For Nagel, materialism is the sworn enemy to consciousness and meaning, so he seeks to base evolution on a panpsychist ontology that would allow for an intrinsic teleology. Crosby's ambition, on the other hand, is to formulate an expansive and more "radical" materialism that is friendly to teleology, consciousness, and other higher-level phenomena.

This article will explore this disagreement further. I will argue that Crosby's emergentist account of teleology faces significant challenges. Moreover, I will argue that Crosby, in the spirit of antireductionism, ought to take Nagel's fundamental teleology seriously due to its epistemic benefits.

I. Fundamental Teleology

In a similar vein to Crosby, Nagel considers the development of an adequate form of naturalism to be directly relevant for human meaning and purpose. Naturalism needs to be dislodged from hardheaded atheism. The ongoing project of developing a naturalistic account of the universe is not merely an intellectual exercise; it carries important implications for "the cosmic question" regarding human existence and "the relation of individual human life to the universe as a whole."5 On a stricter form of naturalism, the scientific world-view abolishes all forms of cosmic meaning. Nagel, therefore, seeks to take naturalism beyond this meaning-negating account of evolutionary naturalism, [End Page 6] toward an enriched understanding of both humanity and the natural. Such re-enchantment of the natural will involve a reappreciation of teleology within the cosmos. Nagel...


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