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Thomas Nagel’s handy summary of his Mind & Cosmos’ theme

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You know you mean to read Mind & Cosmos, the “most despised” anti-materialist, anti-Darwin book ever. But you may get drawn into a discussion of it before you get there.

Here, Nagel offers the core of the book:

the scientific outlook, if it aspires to a more complete understanding of nature, must expand to include theories capable of explaining the appearance in the universe of mental phenomena and the subjective points of view in which they occur – theories of a different type from any we have seen so far.

There are two ways of resisting this conclusion, each of which has two versions. The first way is to deny that the mental is an irreducible aspect of reality, either (a) by holding that the mental can be identified with some aspect of the physical, such as patterns of behavior or patterns of neural activity, or (b) by denying that the mental is part of reality at all, being some kind of illusion (but then, illusion to whom?). The second way is to deny that the mental requires a scientific explanation through some new conception of the natural order, because either (c) we can regard it as a mere fluke or accident, an unexplained extra property of certain physical organisms – or else (d) we can believe that it has an explanation, but one that belongs not to science but to theology, in other words that mind has been added to the physical world in the course of evolution by divine intervention.More.

He maintains the reality of the mind, but not of God.

One reason Nagel is so hated is that he made the questions respectable. Time was when people could be put down or blacklisted just for asking or wondering whether materialism is true.

17 Replies to “Thomas Nagel’s handy summary of his Mind & Cosmos’ theme

  1. 1

    Denyse, if you are going to report news, why don’t you actually do some research and cite some evidence?

    What evidence do you have that Nagel is “so hated” at all? Apparently you got it from a review that cited a Guardian blogger who liked it, but quoted two people who didn’t. One was Pinker, who apparently thought the book was “shoddy” but that Nagel was a “once-great thinker”. The other was Jerry Coyne. Who else “despises” Nagel?

    Not me. I’ve read it, and I enjoyed it, as have a number of people I know. Most agree that there are major flaws but that it is an interesting argument. The main thing wrong with it in my view is that the actual scientific scholarship is indeed “shoddy”, which is a shame. The argument itself I think is very nicely developed, which isn’t surprising.

    So before you start explaining a phenomenon, how about presenting evidence that it actually exists? And, if you can show who it is that actually “despises” Nagel, how about doing some research to find out why, instead of simply opining that “one reason Nagel is so hated is that he made the questions respectable”?

    And perhaps some evidence for your assertion that “Time was when people could be put down or blacklisted just for asking or wondering whether materialism is true.”

    Or else stop calling this “news”.

    I’ve rarely read a “news” piece by you that wasn’t largely factually wrong, as in your recent absurd claim that the people who bombarded feminists with misogynistic rape threats for proposing a female face for the new English £10 were somehow objecting to the retirement of Darwin from the position.

    I understand that this site is to “serve the ID community” but shouldn’t you serve actual information, rather propaganda that bears little relationship to any actual facts?

  2. 2
    scordova says:

    The designation of News is shorthand for News and Commentary.

  3. 3
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    Who else “despises” Nagel?

    Nagel’s book received fairly negative reviews from Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg (The Nation), Peter Godfrey-Smith (London Review of Books), John Dupre (Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews) and Simon Blackburn (The New Statesman).

    It got a fairly positive review from Alva Noe (“Cosmos and Culture”, a NPR blog) and a very positive review from Plantinga (The New Republic).

  4. 4
    News says:

    Elizabeth is a master of the one-two punch. She says she enjoyed Nagel herself, which entitles her to be oblivious to all the hostility from her compadres. Of course, the science is “shoddy” – if it doesn’t support materialism, it must be, by definition of course. I just got done reading the OBI-Springer saga and, hey, now THERE’S a classic in the genre. Nothing to do with her, of course, just with the general environment. O’Leary for News

  5. 5
    Mark Frank says:

    I don’t know anything about the Nagel book but it would be nice to see an admission from Denyse that her item on the £10 note was misjudged.

  6. 6


    Elizabeth is a master of the one-two punch. She says she enjoyed Nagel herself, which entitles her to be oblivious to all the hostility from her compadres.

    It doesn’t entitle me to anything, nor does it remove your responsibility for demonstrating that the hostility towards Nagel you imply is general is coming from more than two people – or even one (because there’s a difference between thinking a book is “shoddy” and despising the writer).

    Of course, the science is “shoddy” – if it doesn’t support materialism, it must be, by definition of course.

    Well, no. And I didn’t even say that the science is shoddy. I said tje scientific scholarship in Nagel’s book is shoddy, because it’s out of date, not because the science cited “doesn’t support materialism”. But the book is not primarily about science. His argument IMO would be worth considering even if he’d updated the science.

    Have you read the book, Denyse?

    I just got done reading the OBI-Springer saga and, hey, now THERE’S a classic in the genre. Nothing to do with her, of course, just with the general environment. O’Leary for News

    I have no idea what you are talking about.

  7. 7

    KN: I’m sure you agree that even if a book receives a bad review, that doesn’t mean that the reviewer “despises” or is “hates” the author.

    And without evidence that anyone either despises or hates Nagel, it doesn’t require an explanation.

  8. 8
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    It’s fair to say that Nagel’s book received generally negative reviews from the philosophers of science (Dupre, Weisberg, Godfrey-Smith) whose reviews I saw. But I certainly don’t think that the book or its author was ‘despised’ or ‘hated.’

    There was a discussion topic about here a few months ago, but from what I recall, I was the only participant who had read it — or who had read any the reviews I mentioned. But that doesn’t surprise me in the least.

  9. 9
    Mung says:

    I hate Nagel. There, I said it. Is the matter closed now?

  10. 10
    Phinehas says:

    Who else “despises” Nagel?

    “All arguments are based on unfounded assumptions and cloaked in intellectual-sounding prose to convince the reader that the author’s flawed worldview must certainly be correct. I would not recommend this to anyone.” –Ben

    “This guy is nuts, and the book should not be allowed on the market.” –Chester

    “This is beyound question the most turged, impenetrable, opaque, deadly boring, and very badly written book that I have ever encountered.” –Thomas

    “Nagel’s cosmic teleology would not merely re-frame our thinking around Descartes’ mind-body dualism, it actually seeks to revive unscientific notions that go back to Aristotle.” –Acatalepsia

    “Nagel has a strong reputation in philosophical circles but in this book he seems to have trouble even grasping the issues he brings (tries to bring, that is) up.” –William

    “When reading the book, it is clear that he is not even widely read in popular science. It is also clear that many of his ideas come from reading popular pseudo-scientific books written by creationist and intelligent design advocates.” –Blaine

    “I purchased this for my Kindle but after reading a thorough review that appeared in October 22 edition of The Nation I returned it before I downloaded it.” –Kevin

    “I would have bet that Nagel was not stupid, even if he is wrong in this regard. But he trots out the old quote mine of Richard Lewontin…I guess I’ll have to recalibrate.” –John

  11. 11
    Alan Fox says:

    You missed this one, Phinehas!

    I’m slorry, but O Can’t go along with the author’s
    Anti- evlolutionaryl view.
    There is not a well educated scientist ( biologist,
    Geneticislt, or palintholpgist,) in tfhe world who does not believe in most of the tenants of Evolution. This guy is nuts, and the book should not be allowed on the market. Certainly not where any young middle school youth could read it,

    Thank you,
    Chester Vaughn
    Tyler, Texas

  12. 12
    Phinehas says:


    Read more closely. 🙂

    As a point of comparison, I found the following review by Peter S Bradley much more informative and balanced:

    Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos” is a very important book. It may represent the moment when a leading philosopher of the mind publically admitted that the materialist assumptions of modernity – assumptions that define the basis of the scientific project – are beginning to show cracks. The cracks he points to are those found in his own area of expertise, namely (1) the inability of materialism to explain the emergence of consciousness or how consciousness works and (2) the inability of materialism to explain either how reason works or how reason maps onto the real world or how reason discovers “value” in the material universe. In this book, Nagel publically expresses his skepticism in the viability of Darwinian evolution as an explanation for the diversity and development that we see in terrestrial life, particularly with respect to its mental dimension. Nagel observes:

    [[ In the present intellectual climate such a possibility is unlikely to be taken seriously, but I would repeat my earlier observation that no viable account, even a purely speculative one, seems to be available of how a system as staggeringly functionally complex and information-rich as a self-reproducing cell, controlled by DNA, RNA, or some predecessor, could have arisen by chemical evolution alone from a dead environment. ]]

    Nagel, Thomas (2012-08-04). Mind and Cosmos:Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Kindle Locations 1572-1575). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.


    [[ We exist in a world of values and respond to them through normative judgments that guide our actions. This, like our more general cognitive capacities, is a higher development of our nature as conscious creatures. Perhaps it includes the capacity to respond to aesthetic value as well– construed realistically as a judgment-independent domain which our experiences and judgments reveal to us.]]

    Nagel, Thomas (2012-08-04). Mind and Cosmos:Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Kindle Locations 1457-1459). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

    Which all seems to be mighty strange talk for an atheist.

    What Nagel seems to be pointing to – without naming it – seems to be what Thomas Kuhn described in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition as the preconditions for a paradigm shift where problems have developed that are insoluble or impenetrable under the existing paradigm, therefore requiring that scholars “think outside the box.” Interestingly, Nagel also channels Kuhn’s points about the political and cultural nature of scientific fights. Nagel writes:

    [[ I believe there are independent empirical reasons to be skeptical about the truth of reductionism in biology. Physico-chemical reductionism in biology is the orthodox view, and any resistance to it is regarded as not only scientifically but politically incorrect.]]
    Nagel, Thomas (2012-08-04). Mind and Cosmos:Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Kindle Locations 76-78). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.


    [[ In the present climate of a dominant scientific naturalism, heavily dependent on speculative Darwinian explanations of practically everything, and armed to the teeth against attacks from religion, I have thought it useful to speculate about possible alternatives.]]

    Nagel, Thomas (2012-08-04). Mind and Cosmos:Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Kindle Locations 1607-1609). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

    A weakness of the book in my mind is that while Nagel mentions and sketches out some of his reasons for being skeptical of materialism – and Darwinian evolution – he doesn’t make a formal argument. Presumably those who are familiar with Nagel’s prior work already know what his objections are and the basis of those objections. Perhaps Nagel felt that reviewing these arguments was unnecessary or that they would have substantially expanded this slim book.

    Nagel’s book is also interesting in that it seems to give a boost to the “intelligent design” position, which seems to ask some fair questions that have been waived off by Darwinists. Nagel observes:

    [[ I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life. It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. We are expected to abandon this naïve response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/ chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples. What is lacking, to my knowledge, is a credible argument that the story has a non-negligible probability of being true. There are two questions. First, given what is known about the chemical basis of biology and genetics, what is the likelihood that self-reproducing life forms should have come into existence spontaneously on the early earth, solely through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry? The second question is about the sources of variation in the evolutionary process that was set in motion once life began: In the available geological time since the first life forms appeared on earth, what is the likelihood that, as a result of physical accident, a sequence of viable genetic mutations should have occurred that was sufficient to permit natural selection to produce the organisms that actually exist?]]

    Nagel, Thomas (2012-08-04). Mind and Cosmos:Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Kindle Locations 88-93). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

    This “common sense” objection, coming from a top-ranked philosopher, resonated with me. As I wrote in my review of Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory In Crisis:

    [[ I have no problem with that idea whatsoever. But when I start to think about the details of evolution – the mechanics of how evolution occurred – I start having problems. How do mutations create new structures? How does chance give rise to the coordinated new structures required for birds to fly – i.e., the unique structure of the feather and the unique structure of the avian lung – or for whales to live in the water – i.e., morphological changes plus changes in the teats of whale mothers and the throats of whale babies required before whales can be born in the ocean? How do these mutations become a species? Is it a long and gradual process of an entire population – in which case, how does it happen in spite of the preservation of dominant traits and regression to the mean? Or is it “saltational” – big jumps by “lucky” individuals, in which case how do they manage to share their genes if the jump is too big? I would like answers to these questions, but I have noticed that the answers seem to short on details and long on tautology. The standard answer seems to go, “well, obviously, coordinated new structures can arise because that is what obviously happened.” My response is usually, “I am not saying that doesn’t happen, but how does it happen.” The counter-response is, “It must happen because TENS is true,” and I respond, “but how?”

    Lather, rinse, repeat.]]

    But as I pointed out in that review, you can’t beat something with nothing and the theory of evolution is simply the “only game in town.”

    Nagel does not offer a “different game” in response to either materialism or evolution. Instead what he does is to sketch out the ideas of a project to think about the issues of mind and nature in a different way. According to Nagel, the options come down to materialism, intent or teleology. Materialism posits that everything is matter, but this runs aground on the problem of the mind. Nagel is not impressed with the idea that mental states being brain states because, well, they aren’t, and he isn’t impressed with the idea that the mind is “emergent” from matter because matter lacks any feature that would make a thing like the mind possible.

    Nagel is equally skeptical of “intention” because that implies God and religion, and Nagel – a committed atheists – is not having any of that.

    The final possibility is “teleology,” which suggests that there are “laws” or something that directs the universe, matter, everything to some end, which, based on what we observe, appears to be intelligence and self-awareness. At this point, Nagel’s ideas become poetic.

    [[ Nevertheless, the development of value and moral understanding, like the development of knowledge and reason and the development of consciousness that underlies both of those higher-order functions, forms part of what a general conception of the cosmos must explain. As I have said, the process seems to be one of the universe gradually waking up.]]

    Nagel, Thomas (2012-08-04). Mind and Cosmos:Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Kindle Locations 1493-1495). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

    I found this movement into teleology to be very reminiscent of Etienne Gilson’s From Aristotle to Darwin & Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species and Evolution. At various times, Nagel seemed to moving into territory previously occupied by Aristotle and Aquinas. In fact, at times it seemed that the implications that Nagel is wrestling with were addressed by Thomistic philosophy. In my review of Gilson’s book, for example, I noted:

    [[ Gilson ends his book by explaining why we ought to continue to think that final cause is necessary for our understanding of truth. That reason primarily is that we see it all around us, even if we don’t have a mechanistic explanation for it. Gilson notes, for example, that one of the things that we see in evolutionary development is a progress toward individuation: slime mold is less individual than plants which are less individual than bees which are less individual than cows which are less individual than lions which are less individual than human beings, who have a mind and self-awareness. Is this observation wrong? No. Can it be explained mechanistically? No. Does this teleology, showing a development toward limits, exist? Yes.

    Is this science? Probaby not, but it seems to be “common sense” as that term was classically understood as meaning a first order inference from undisputed facts and ideas. To paraphrase a source quoted by Gilson, scientists need to be careful in ruling out “common sense” because where the results of a scientific inquiry conflict too strongly with common sense, it may not be common sense that is wrong.

    Gilson concludes by pointing out that final cause may not be scientifically useful, but it is a necessary concept for understanding reality, and it is attested to by numerous real world examples. Its truth may not be scientifically verifiable, but many things we take for granted are not scientifically verifiable. The meaning of ideas, for example, is not scientifically verifiable. We hear words, but the meanings behind the sounds and symbols that are words cannot be measured. Meanings are sense independent, and, in fact, immaterial. Does that mean that meanings don’t exist?]]

    Gilson’s book is an extended examination of the subject of “final cause” and its relationship to the project of science. To that extent it seems well within Nagel’s wheelhouse, but Nagel never cites it or Aquinas. Perhaps, Nagel stayed away from these sources because of his concern about the ideology of materialism and the possibility of giving his position a hostage to fortune by citing too religious a source.

    Nagel’s book is very slim. Its writing style is difficult and occasionally dense, but still accessible to an interested layperson. It is frustrating because it seems to be part of a bigger project, and so doesn’t provide the answers we would like to see. In many ways, I would recommend Gilson’s “From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again” as being more engaging and informative. The chief virtue of the Nagel book, in my opinion, lies in who wrote it – an atheist, well-known philosopher – and the fact that such a person can find materialism and evolution to be things he can no longer invest his faith in.

  13. 13
    Alan Fox says:

    @ Phinehas:

    I thought your comment was a selection from Amazon to demonstrate that some people despise Nagel, rather than just being critical of his book. I thought I was helping! 😉

  14. 14
    Alan Fox says:

    Though I might add, no true critic of Nagel would be a bad speller or a tenant. I am sure they are all householders!

  15. 15
    Alan Fox says:

    Oops homeowners.

  16. 16
    Phinehas says:


    I appreciate the effort, but again point out that if you’d read more closely, you’d have seen that I had it covered @10.

    “This guy is nuts, and the book should not be allowed on the market.” –Chester

    You were probably thrown off by the fact that the “reviewer” managed to spell that particular sentence correctly. 🙂

  17. 17
    Alan Fox says:

    Quoteminer! 😉

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