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What “territory” does Thomas Nagel find between materialism and theism?

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Laszlo Bencze

Photographer and philosopher Laszlo Bencze has been rereading Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos (2012), and he writes to say,

I’m finding Mind and Cosmos to be a very thought provoking book. In it Nagel sets himself the task of explaining the existence of mind (or consciousness) without resorting to either materialistic evolution or to theism. I suspect that most of us on will feel that he’s missing the obvious answer, theism, but Nagel refuses to accept that. Therefore he goes through some rather elaborate mental contortions in trying to find a path which is “the territory between them.”

He kindly sends us his notes from Nagel:

The priority given to evolutionary naturalism in the face of its implausible conclusions about other subjects is due, I think, to the secular consensus that this as the only form of external understanding of ourselves that provides an alternative to theism—which is to be rejected as a mere projection of our internal self-conception onto the universe, without evidence. —Mind & Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, p. 29

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 naive 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 nonneglibile probability of being true….the available scientific evidence, in spite of the consensus of scientific opinion, does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense.
—Mind & Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, p. 6 -7

We and other creatures with mental lives are organisms, and our mental capacities apparently depend on our physical constitutions. So what explains the existence of organisms like us must also explain the existence of mind. But if the mental is not itself merely physical, it cannot be fully explained by physical science. And then, as I shall argue it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that those aspects of our physical constitution that bring with them the mental cannot be fully explained by physical science either…So if mind is a product of biological evolution—if organisms with mental life are not miraculous anomalies but an integral part of nature—then biology cannot be a purely physical science. The possibility opens up up of a pervasive conception of the natural order very different from materialism—one that makes mind central, rather than a side effect of physical law. —Mind & Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, p. 14 – 15 [I’d like to suggest the first verse of the gospel of John as the rational response to Nagel. – Bencze]

My guiding conviction is that mind is not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on but a basic aspect of nature. —Mind & Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, p. 16

The intelligibility of the world is no accident. Mind, in this view, is doubly related to the natural order. Nature is such as to give rise to conscious beings with minds; and it is such as to be comprehensible to such beings. Ultimately, therefore, such beings should be comprehensible to themselves, And these are fundamental features of the universe, not byproducts of contingent developments whose true explanation is given in terms that do not make reference to mind.
—Mind & Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, p. 17

The inadequacies of the naturalistic and reductionist world picture seem to me to be real. There are things that science as presently conceived does not help us to understand, and which we can see, from the internal features of physical science, that it is not going to explain. They seem to call for a more uncompromisingly mentalistic or even normative form of understanding. Theism embraces that conclusion by attributing the mental phenomena found within the world to the working of a comprehensive mental source, of which they are miniature versions.
—Mind & Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, p. 22

However, I do not find theism any more credible than materialism as a comprehensive world view. My interest is in the territory between them. —Mind & Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, p. 22

I agree with Alvin Plantinga that, unlike divine benevolence, the application of evolutionary theory to the understanding of our own cognitive capacities should undermine, though it need not completely destroy, our confidence in them. —Mind & Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, p. 27

An evolutionary self-understanding would almost certainly require us to give up moral realism—the natural conviction that our moral judgments are true or false independent of our beliefs. Evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends. —Mind & Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, p. 28

The priority given to evolutionary naturalism in the face of its implausible conclusions about other subjects is due, I think, to the secular consensus that this as the only form of external understanding of ourselves that provides an alternative to theism—which is to be rejected as a mere projection of our internal self-conception onto the universe, without evidence. —Mind & Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, p. 29

The problem then is this: What kind of explanation of the development of these organisms, even one that includes evolutionary theory, could account for the appearance of organisms that are not only physically adapted to the environment but also conscious subjects? In brief, I believe it cannot be a purely physical explanation. What has to be explained is not just the lacing of organic life with a tincture of qualia but the coming into existence of subjective individual points of view—a type of existence logically distinct from anything describable by the physical sciences alone. If evolutionary theory is a purely physical theory, then it might in principle provide the framework for a physical explanation of the appearance of behaviorally complex animal organisms with central nervous systems. But subjective consciousness, if it is not reducible to something physical, would not be part of this story, it would be left completely unexplained by physical evolution—even if the physical evolution of such organisms is in fact a causally necessary and sufficient condition for consciousness. —Mind & Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, p. 44

Thomas Nagel picture
Thomas Nagel

Materialism is incomplete even as a theory of the physical world, since the physical world includes conscious organisms among its most striking occupants. —Mind & Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, p. 45

The existence of consciousness is both one of the most familiar and one of the most astounding things about the world. No conception of the natural order that does not reveal it as something to be expected can aspire even to the outline of completeness. —Mind & Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, p. 53

If emergence is the whole truth, it implies that mental states are present in the organism as a whole, or in its central nervous system, without any grounding in the elements that constitute the organism, except for the physical character of those elements that permits them to be arranged in the complex form that, according to the higher-level theory, connects the physical with the mental. That such purely physical elements, when combined in a certain way, should necessarily produce a state of the whole that is not constituted out of the properties and relations of the physical parts still seems like magic even if the higher-order psychophysical dependencies are quite systematic. —Mind & Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, p. 55 – 56

One might object that life is hard enough to understand considered purely as a physical phenomenon, and that the mind can wait. But adding the requirement that any theory of life also has to explain the development of consciousness may not make the problem worse. Perhaps, on the contrary, the added features of the natural order needed to account for mind will in the end contribute to the explanation of life as well. The more a theory has to explain, the more powerful it has to be. —Mind & Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, p. 60

Again, one wonders what Nagel takes the territory “between” materialism (naturalism, nature is all there is) and theism to be. See the second quotation from page 22.

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

4 Replies to “What “territory” does Thomas Nagel find between materialism and theism?

  1. 1
    Latemarch says:


    What do I win?

  2. 2
    ccook7 says:

    Panpsychism is just another version of theism.

  3. 3
    Latemarch says:

    Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:


    First published Wed May 23, 2001; substantive revision Tue Jul 18, 2017

    Panpsychism is the view that mentality is fundamental and ubiquitous in the natural world. The view has a long and venerable history in philosophical traditions of both East and West, and has recently enjoyed a revival in analytic philosophy. For its proponents panpsychism offers an attractive middle way between physicalism on the one hand and dualism on the other. The worry with dualism—the view that mind and matter are fundamentally different kinds of thing—is that it leaves us with a radically disunified picture of nature, and the deep difficulty of understanding how mind and brain interact. And whilst physicalism offers a simple and unified vision of the world, this is arguably at the cost of being unable to give a satisfactory account of the emergence of human and animal consciousness. Panpsychism, strange as it may sound on first hearing, promises a satisfying account of the human mind within a unified conception of nature.

    Note the first sentence…mentality. I don’t see any theism in there.

  4. 4
    Truthfreedom says:

    Poor Thomas Nagel. Burnt at the stake by blind-faith-driven atheists.

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