Book Reviews
Book Reviews

Book Reviews

The Universe Wakes Up

Mind and Cosmos – Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False

Thomas Nagel, Oxford University Press, 130pp., £14.91.

“The aim of this book is to argue that the mind-body problem is not just a local problem, having to do with the relation between mind brain and behaviour in living organisms, but that it invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and it history.” This opening sentence in Nagel’s introduction promises much. Do these brilliant words flatter to deceive? Does Nagel convince the reader that the question of the distinction between matter and mind is the key question of the day for scientists, philosophers and theologians with regards to the meaning of life?

To this reviewer’s delight he fulfils this mandate in the most excellent way. The book, and especially the introduction, should be required reading for those interested in this topic. Its shortness is an asset – 126 pages – and the views expressed are easy to understand, with the value of logical conclusions from first principles. It is also not too ambitious in its aims.

The context of the subtitle is Nagel’s view that we are in an environment where scientific naturalism rules. In such a climate he does not understand the faith in such an explanation of the universe. He allows many speculative possibilities, some of which he admits to being far-fetched, but with regard to Neo-Darwinism he is categorical. The system is “a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense,” incapable of providing an adequate account of our universe. He is an atheist but is totally convinced that the answer will not be found in a view where the world is seen as only material. Through science Nagel acknowledges that he has come to the biggest questions in philosophy and theology and sees it as a given that that world is mental as well as physical. He asks in what way is man matter and mind, and what is the process that leads to the creation of such a creature?

The book centres around his treatment of consciousness, thought and reasoning, and value, that is, the control and assessment of conduct. Each of these is looked at from two points of view. The historical account explains how phenomena arise in the universe from its beginnings. The constitutive deals with how certain complex physical systems are also mental. Each of these then is looked at to see if one can hold a reductive and/or emergent account of its creation. A reductive account explains the mental character of complex organisms in terms of their elementary constituents. The emergent account explains the mental character of the same complex organisms in a way that does not totally ground the mind in the elements that constitute the organism.

Nagel reasons from principles which are more in line with common sense and empirical evidence than deep philosophical theory. His view can be summarised beautifully in the best phrase in the book: “The universe gradually wakes up and becomes aware of itself.” Science presumes an intelligible underlying order; and also, given that the human mind is directly related to the natural order and thus to the whole of the cosmos, this relatedness means that the world cannot be accidental. We know that we know, that we are truly in contact with the real. This is due to reason. It is reason that takes man outside of his subjective world and into the cosmos. Also man recognises value in its own right and acts in accord with it, not just from a subjective viewpoint or as a result of social conditioning.

Nagel has one principle that inhibits a view of God being the answer to the meaning of the cosmos. Nagel is not interested in an answer coming from outside the created world. We see this clearly in his “ungrounded intellectual preference” to the question in hand, the teleological hypothesis. This view is that there is a cosmic disposition to the formation of life, consciousness and value. If he allows for the existence of God, it is one who creates a self-contained natural order which is then left undisturbed. Reason, while of the mind, is also inseparable from the physical life of the organisms that have it. He believes that the disadvantage of theism is that it does not give a comprehensive account of the natural world. Theists push the quest for intelligibility outside the world. For Nagel, this does not ground the intelligibility of the natural order.

What truly fulfils man’s heart and makes him intelligible, and thus the whole universe? Is it possible that phrased this way Nagel, using his common sense, could see that nothing in the universe satisfies? It is with God that the mystery of man and of the whole universe is revealed. As St. Irenaeas puts it, “The glory of God is man fully alive”. Also Nagel sees evil as part of the make up of the world. For Blessed John Henry Newman
and G.K. Chesterton, the original goodness of creation and the doctrine of the fall is, once again, common sense.

“The existence of conscious minds and their access to valid values are among that data that a theory of the world and our place in it has yet to explain.” Nagel does not have a verifiable solution to the mind-body. While Man is a mystery to the science of today, Nagel knows that for the intelligibility of the cosmos there needs to be an answer to this mystery. He is a witness to how science is looking for answers about the world and is having to deal with philosophical and religious questions. Fundamentally, the book is a vindication of the Faith Movement’s approach of offering a synthesis of science and religion. Nagel clearly is not conversant with the Faith Movement vision, as it was not included in his explanation of the various views on the subject in hand. Someone needs to fill him in.

John Boyle


What Our Schools Need

Catholic Education in the West: Roots, Reality and Revival

Christiaan Alting von Geusau and Philip Booth. Foreword by the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna. Acton Institute Christian Social Thought Series. 86 pp. Kindle Edition £1.91.

The distinguished Cardinal Schönborn is frank in the Foreword of this book: “the period following the Second Vatican Council was one of confusion in … the Church, … not least in the educational sphere … teachers, professors, and administrators lacked an adequate understanding of their role as evangelists, charged with transmitting the faith to the next generation. Parents, who were accustomed to trusting the Church’s educational institutions, too often had their trust betrayed.” His Eminence’s apology is timely and important since, to make improvement, any institution has to admit its mistakes.

At the heart of this most important little book is what The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “the right and duty of parents to educate their children are primordial and inalienable. As those responsible for the education of their children, parents have the right to choose a school for them which corresponds to their own convictions.” These rights are enshrined in Canon Law: “Parents have also the duty and the right to choose those means and institutes which…can best promote the Catholic education of their children … Parents must have a real freedom in their choice of schools.”

The monograph lays down principles about Catholic education, as outlined by the Popes over the years: “It is vital for the Catholic school to have a great deal of independence from the state to pursue a mission that is truly Catholic in all aspects …”

The authors show how fundamental to all the arguments is the principle of subsidiarity clearly stated by Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno. It ought to be well known, though Catholic leaders tend to give it mere lip service rather than an attentive observation: “it is an injustice and a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organisations can do…. The supreme authority of the State ought to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance.”

The authors show how parental choice of school is not just the best way to improve education but is a parental right. They quote the Second Vatican Council: “Government must acknowledge the right of parents to make a genuinely free choice of school”. The authors also quote from Gaudium et Spes on the importance of the family: “The family is a kind of school of humanity … The active presence of the father is highly beneficial to the formation of the children. These children, especially the younger among them, need the care of their mother at home”. Going back to Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, they quote that important encyclical’s statement that “The contention that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family is a great and pernicious error.”

The authors have the general principle that there should be “less state and more parent with a supporting Church.” The conclusions follow logically from the argument and should not surprise anyone, though, with the state of Catholic education as it is in England, they will seem radical: First, money directed through parents, e.g. via, a voucher, will be better than direct funding of institutions by the state; secondly, a legal right for parents to receive funding from the state that would be spent on their education would be even more robust; thirdly tax relief for private funding would not lead to the full cost of private schooling being met by the state but would at least make it easier for families to be able to afford an education of their choice; fourthly, Catholic dioceses should not regard it as their role to make “compacts” with the state; rather should they defend the autonomy of schools and parents; Catholic dioceses should be concerned to ensure freedom when it comes to the qualifications that schools can use, as well as in the development of curricula; homeschooling should not be discouraged.

So much has Catholic education declined in recent years, and so much has the state taken over, that these conclusions which would have seemed obvious to our grandparents now seem innovative.

Eric Hester


Joyful Incarnational Faith

These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body

Emily Stimpson. Emmaus Road Publishing USA, 2013 £7.99p. Available on Amazon and on Kindle.

Crisply written, with a zesty and refreshing style, this is a challenging look at John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body”. And for those who thought that the TOB was just another way of presenting the Church’s teaching on sexual morality a sort “Can-we-serve-it-with-ketchup?” way of making timeless teaching seem interesting, this book will be a wake-up call.

Essentially, the author makes the point that ours is an incarnational faith: our bodies matter. Respecting our human bodies, and all that goes with them – our ability to see things, enjoy them, to work, to cook, to make and mend and sing and write and play – is central to our faith and to our attitude to God and to one another.

Thus she tackles things like sexual morality, how we dress, our attitude to human beauty, and our ideas about food and hospitality. Nothing twee here, nothing bleak or forbidding either – instead this book’s message is a celebration of life and love, written with common sense, an attitude of reverence, and an evidently joyful faith in Christ and a love of his Church.

And while making the point about God’s gifts to us, she sees the sacramental message that is written into creation itself: “Food is and always will be a sign built into the order of creation, physical nourishment that illuminates and spiritual nourishment we receive in Holy Communion … the more we see food in that light – the more we see it as a perpetual sign of God’s goodness and love – the more fully we can understand the Eucharist as a holy and tremendous sacrifice in which love and gift, grace and life are bound up together.”

And this in turn leads on to a useful discussion about generosity, gratitude, hospitality, and also fasting, feasting, thanksgiving, and about gluttony.

Stimpson writes as a modern woman who sees things are they really are: hence, on the subject of clothing she makes the point that a priest in a clerical collar is saying “Hey, world, I’m a priest”, and a policeman in uniform is saying “Hey, world, I’m a cop”. So a middle-aged man in “baggy jeans and a grungy teeshirt” is saying something like ”Hey world, I’m a slacker. I’m not ready to be grown-up yet”, while a girl in a micro-miniskirt with stillettos and a plunging neckline is saying something like “I don’t know my own dignity or how precious I am to God. I’m wounded. Please wound me some more.”

And Stimpson goes on: “Maybe the guy isn’t a slacker. Maybe the girl isn’t a slut. They may think they’re conveying something entirely different by what they’ve chosen to wear. They may not think they’re conveying much of anything. But like the policeman and the priest, they’re wearing the uniform, so it’s understandable why the people might get that impression”.

Traditionalists who like to see morality as a series of rules with messages about bending one’s will creakingly into line with stern teachings will not like this book very much – or, rather, they will like it, and they will know it makes sense, but they will try very hard to dislike it because it presents the Catholic and incarnational message in a John Paul II sort of way. Some have tried to downgrade the Theology of the Body and suggest that Saint John Paul’s message of the glory of the nuptial messages in Scriptures and in the Eucharist is somehow all wrong and that anything to do with bodies in general and marital union in particular should by phrased in more coy ways and/ or presented with a stronger dose of reminders about Hell and the dangers of sexual sin. But this is to miss the point. God’s plan for the human race “from the beginning” is a nuptial plan, a plan that is profoundly incarnational, and a plan that invites our co-operation, for our happiness here and in the hereafter.

Emily Stimpson’s book has a joyful “Pollyanna” tone to it: in her descriptions of how a hectic and necessary time of housework helped to cure heartache, or how a true understanding of motherhood and fatherhood enriches all our lives, or why good friendships mean so much, one can sense the joyfulness of a life lived with Christ. This is a message our bleak lonely culture needs. I’d like to get her speaking to some of our Catholic events and conferences here, and I will certainly be using this book in my own work at Confirmation classes and similar gatherings … and remembering its message when talking with friends (and foes!) about our Incarnate God.

Joanna Bogle


Questions and Moments

New Evangelisation – Passing on the Catholic Faith Today

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Our Sunday Visitor Inc., 92pp, £3.40.

The fruits of the Year of Faith are already showing in parishes, and a growing contingent of the Catholic Church, seemingly across all generations, is waking to the universal call to evangelise. A Church increasingly well catechised on “Why evangelise?” seems now to look hungrily for an answer to the question “How to evangelise?”, how to be part of the New Evangelisation.

In his recent publication, Cardinal David Wuerl sets out the main teaching points from the synod of Bishops called by Pope Benedict XVI on this subject. Cardinal Wuerl certainly covers the ground when it comes to forming a definition of the New Evangelisation, using a ‘key-notes’ approach, with user-friendly boxes of bite-size summaries. With a topic so central to the life of the Church and so necessary to our Faith, this book seems just to break the surface; each chapter feels but an introduction to its subject, giving us only little tasty bits of teaching. However, these inspire us to look for the depth of the original documents it so often quotes.

Interestingly, I feel the real value of this book lies in the small questions Cardinal Wuerl asks at the end of each chapter, laid out as points ‘For Reflection’. Readers are gently led into considering their own spiritual life, challenged into being honest with their current efforts to evangelise, and invited to analyse the general culture of society. These could be the first steps into taking up an active life of evangelisation, and in this way the book itself is a work of evangelisation: tilling the hearts that read it and then planting little seeds that ultimately stand a greater chance of taking root. Excuse the metaphor.

This book is attractive as it sets itself out as an informative guide to understanding the recent synod on the New Evangelisation; however, it in fact achieves elements similar to spiritual direction and on the whole is rather more formative than informative.

One is taught as much by the phrasing and posing of these unassuming questions, as by the content of the main text. A good question really does teach as well as a good answer; and so it goes perhaps with evangelisation.

The preface opens with a couple of stories describing encounters between Cardinal Wuerl and strangers happened to be seated next to him on different aeroplane journeys. His openness to speaking and listening resulted in beautiful ‘chance’ conversations about the life of Christ and the Eucharist. Something we all hope to be ready for, and it is wonderful to see the example of the clergy in these moments of one-to-one evangelisation.

However, little did I think that when sitting on the plane, reading his book, the passenger next to me would lean over and say, “I hope you don’t mind me interrupting but I couldn’t help but notice what you were underlining in your book. Would you mind me asking: who is God for you?”

Two and a half hours later we had covered everything from his abrupt departure from the Catholic Church, his journey into Buddhism but his continuing lack of satisfaction. Asking me open questions such as “What is prayer?” he shared how inspiring it was to meet someone of Faith.

On leaving the plane I handed him a miraculous medal and he told me gleefully, “I shouldn’t even be here”. Showing me his ticket number, “They moved me to sit next to you. I’m not sure why, but I’m very glad they did”.

So, perhaps this book should come with a health warning: “Read at your own risk; may induce moments of evangelisation.”

Lucy Mackain-Bremner

Faith Magazine

September - October 2014