A Superficial Reflection on Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”

This post is going to be a sort of a review of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, but also partially a review of John Dupré’s review of the book and some of my commentary/thoughts.  I’ll be using Dupré’s review as a segue in explaining Nagel’s position, for reasons that will soon be obvious (https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/mind-and-cosmos-why-the-materialist-neo-darwinian-conception-of-nature-is-almost-certainly-false/).  Since I have so many thoughts of my own on the topic Nagel covers, I can’t say that this is properly a review, as I won’t be sticking so closely to the text, in analysis.

For clarity, I am a fan of Thomas Nagel’s project in Mind and Cosmos.  I will be more specific: Mind and Cosmos is easily among the most important books in philosophy of science in recent decades for reasons to follow.  This needs to be clear, because some of my criticisms will, on the surface, look as though I don’t think much of the book.  The reality is that I believe the book’s content and position is of supreme importance, but I do genuinely see a tremendous number of failings in execution.


For those not aware of the book’s premise, Nagel is arguing that materialism and the neo-Darwinian conception of the natural world has failed, and is failing, to produce explanations for complex biological structures, consciousness, and such things as “value.”  Very important to note at the outset is that Nagel is an atheist, or at least maintains some sort of agnostic position, so he doesn’t have a religious reason for rejecting materialism.  In fact, the result of his studies has led him to judge that it is much more probably the case that mind is somehow fundamental.  ‘My guiding conviction is that mind is not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature’ (p. 16, 2012).  In this short book, he doesn’t posit alternatives to the materialist and neo-Darwinian views, and he makes plain that he will not attempt to do so; he simply has no idea what should replace these conceptions.  This is one of the things I really like about Nagel’s position in the book: he’s not going to go too far, as hubris often leads so many thinkers.  He intends to focus on pointing out the problems within materialism and neo-Darwinism.


It doesn’t take John Dupré long in his review to remark upon his own frustration in reading the Nagel’s book.  While I share some of Dupré’s frustrations, I have a tremendously difficult time understanding why he has some of these other frustrations, as they appear to be the result of missing Nagel’s point.  Given that Dupré, on the surface, would share Nagel’s anti-reductive position, some of the frustrations are mysterious to me.  Dupré begins with the frustration resulting from the unclear target that Nagel has in mind.  While he did read the cover and notes the words in the title, Dupré says that he didn’t think Darwinism or neo-Darwinism is central to a conception of nature, though he wryly excludes Dennett in this remark.  I found this to be quite perspicuous, as I have, in my lifetime, never seen any inkling that otherwise is the case, particularly among scientists.  Dupré then remarks that, while possessing its own unique problems, presumably to be further explored through scientific inquiry, the Darwinian theory is beyond doubt.  When it comes any old statement, such certainty from a philosopher concerns me; and when the statement contains so much gravity and finality, I can’t help to feel that their lips smack of dogmatism.  My best guess is that this statement by Dupré causes him to miss what Nagel is presenting, even if Nagel isn’t doing a superb job of presenting his own reservations.


Dupré says, ‘This reflects an earlier statement that “among the scientists and philosophers who do express views about the natural order as a whole, reductive materialism is widely assumed to be the only serious possibility”. This is amazing stuff. The only citation in favour of this is to Steven Weinberg’s Dreams of a Final Theory, a somewhat ironic choice given the open disdain for philosophy Weinberg expresses in that book.’  What struck me about this is that, like Nagel, I would assume very little reference is needed.  If asked, I would not be able to tell the reader the last time I came across a working scientist who didn’t have this worldview; and I ask, that’s for sure.  It’s also true of high school science teachers, so this is deeply ingrained, at least in American scientific culture.  Maybe Dupré has a different experience in England than either I or Nagel have.  As far as philosophers go, the percentages might be different, but I’ll roll the dice and say that the majority favors some kind of reductionist framework.  While Dupré can’t think of an author to cite, I am hardly anything like an expert, only having studied reduction with Jordi Cat in his unity/disunity of science seminar, I can cite all sorts of authors, including John Bickle, Sklar, and Hofstadter’s discussion of “karrenium” would lead me to think that he would be another.  There are plenty of inter-theoretic reductionists, hard reductionists, soft reductionists, bridge-building reductionists, or veil reductionists, who haven’t written on the topic specifically, but who clearly admit ontological reductionism.  This brings me to a shortcoming I see in the book.


Nagel does not distinguish or appear to comment on whether he’s referring to ontological or explanatory reductionism.  One could give him the benefit of the doubt, simply assuming that he’s talking about ontological reductionism, but there’s an issue.  Much of what he says against reduction and the failure of science’s ability to build up explanations says nothing about ontological reduction, which, contra explanatory reductionism, merely claims that everything on any scale of your choosing is nothing over and above the small scale stuff and goings-on.  Therefore, every objection Nagel raises about explanatory deficiencies in reductive materialism amounts to no assault, at all, on ontological reductionism.  Often, there are independent argumentative approaches that are brought to bear upon ontological reductionism, such as the notion of emergent properties.  This area of discussion, for which this is plenty to be said, would have bolstered the book’s position.  This and other deficiencies, I feel, may result in many dispassionate readers coming away unconvinced.  One thing I should add before moving on is that Dupré seems to confuse the opinions held by philosophers on the topic of reduction versus the modern philosophical literary production on the topic of reduction.  Only a few philosophers explicitly engage the topic in the forum of publications, but every conference, workshop, reading group (including philosophers not traditionally trained), etc. has overwhelmingly seen populations who agree with just the metaphysical thesis that Dupré gives, namely, that everything is stuff and is responsible for all properties.  Sure, he’s right, in that this is a point of contention among some philosophers, particularly that small subset engaged in the debate; but there is no debate among other at-large philosophers who are not involved with the debate in print.  Most of the counterexamples I know are associated with philosophy of biology, wishing that the world of biology weren’t governed by the laws of physics, though biologists seem to celebrate this idea.


Another item of puzzlement in the book is Nagel’s affiliation of idealism with religious motivation, as if there is no other way to motivate the idealist position otherwise.  This is a horrible perpetuation of an association, which may have started with the historical instantiation of such a connection between religious motivation and idealism, and further embraced by religious affiliates as a good strategy to subvert an atheistic, materialist worldview; but the connection is circumstantial.  Nagel dismisses idealism as a possible approach for circumstantial reasons, whereas something like idealism could be a suitable option: if laws and consciousness are fundamental aspects of nature, an idealist framework that adopts much of the current scientific materialist worldview could work out well, especially considering Nagel’s concern that the Darwinian picture is missing something that –who knows– could end up being neo-Lamarckian or Bergsonian in its nature.  Dismissing idealism as a religious apparatus that is, by its very association with religious thought, unpalatable, is equivalent to suggesting atheist medical health professionals not to suggest meditation because it bears an Eastern religious association.  One can also make the analogous connections stronger, such as by saying that the ideas are derivatives of religions or are religiously motivated.  I suppose Nagel sees this as more inviting, as he doesn’t want to scare away rational, unbiased, non-dogmatic readers.  However, I think a simple note that his intentions were in no way religious, he could have gotten his point across.  I further suppose that Nagel may have been inviting original thought on the topic.  In short, attempting to be objective and unbiased, while trying to distance himself from religious thought, wasn’t necessary, even if to come off as honest.


I have read over Dupré’s review a few times, stymied by his misunderstanding of Nagel’s point about Darwinism.  The narrative of the issue might not be so well constructed, but I believe Nagel simply wants to make the point that the connection between the mind and higher-order qualitative aspects of existence the simplest most basic material of existence is very wobbly.  The intermediate step between dead stuff and these higher-order aspects of living stuff, most critically, is the developmental progression of the former into the latter, namely, Darwinian evolution.  I take Nagel’s assumption in using “Neo-Darwinism” to merely point to the mere pushing and pulling (i.e., dead) processes that grow the complexity of living things.  While Dupré may like to think that there is some sort of lively discussion and lack of certainty about reduction, such as in chemistry not being reducible to physics, and biology not being reducible to chemistry, I haven’t seen it, and neither has Nagel.  With the dead processes giving rise to more and more sophisticated life forms, Nagel is pointing to the fact that this materialist, neo-Darwinian worldview hasn’t explain and isn’t explaining things like mind and values.  For me, if Dupré can’t admit the starting point of Nagel’s work, then Notre Dame selected the wrong person to write the review, since it could have been replaced with a shorter, one- to two-sentence review, stating that Nagel’s starting point of materialism and Neo-Darwinism is held by a severe minority.


Nagel’s concern is that the evolutionary biological basis for things like mind and values seems to be either non-existent or, worse, contradictory, following some of Plantinga’s arguments.  It should be noted that while Nagel accepts arguments presented by religious thinkers against some neo-Darwinian explanations, such as those by Plantinga and Behe, he firmly rejects all unnecessary leaps to religious conclusions.  The general dogmatic atmosphere that exists in academia seems to have Nagel so concerned with and distracted by the possibility of being lumped in with deists and theists that Nagel fails to work as precisely with the philosophy.  For example, rather than saying materialism and Neo-Darwinism has had these explanatory failings, he doesn’t institute any reasoning as to why they would never or may never achieve explanations of values and mind.  He confuses what he says, which pertains to the current and past failures –historical and journalistic facts–, with ontological realities, specifically that materialism and Neo-Darwinism can’t and will never result in an account of these higher order aspects.  This philosophical distinction seems to elude Nagel at every turn.  In fact, the reason Dupré seems to think Nagel equates materialism with reduction (Nagel definitely does not) is because of the clumsiness with which Nagel states is position, links ideas, and states the stakes.  It is assuredly the synthesis of taking the two terms together, i.e., materialism and Neo-Darwinism, that provides the connection of higher-order aspects of a naturalistic worldview and the connective processes that reduce all the way down to the mere physics of the smallest scales.


Another point about taking these words in tandem: Nagel never rejects as completely incorrect the Darwinian view, though Dupré takes it from the cover of the book that this is exactly what Nagel is saying.  Not so.  I take it that Nagel is saying something trivial about the word duo, namely, that Neo-Darwinism is, at the minimum, incomplete.  It might be a fallacious theory, even in part, but I don’t think Nagel is going so far as to dismiss a large complex of evidence that points towards either slow or jumping alteration in the forms of species.  Perhaps he didn’t do so well to state this explicitly, but maybe he felt this was sufficiently entailed in his categorical rejection of religious thought, especially Creationism.  I am a little surprised that Nagel could not muster some explicitly statement about neo-Lamarckian leanings among a small minority of biologists.  In conversation with many physicists, who are completely devoted to reductionism, I hear very often something like, “well, the world is nothing but whatever exists at the bottom, e.g., strings or whatever, but the Darwinian view and the nothing-but-matter view has to be replaced with the modified idea of matter and information.”  I believe it was in the “2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: Is the Universe a Simulation?”[1] that Gregory Chaitin said something to the effect that he wouldn’t know how a strict materialism worldview can be maintained, based on the role we know that information plays in world.  So this would have made a nice connection between Nagel’s chosen terms for this book, in that information alters the strict materiality view of dead matter because of what is now understood about black holes, and likewise organisms and evolution must be reconceived as information has an ontological status that can be differentiated from material and mechanical operations thereof in the Neo-Darwinian view.


One tremendous blow that Dupré lands against Mind and Cosmos, which stands as firm philosophical reprimand and touché(!), is the fact that “intelligibility” is explicitly very important to Nagel in this book.  I can find no defense against this, as Nagel explicitly remarks upon intelligibility of the natural world on a few occasions.  I would have taken Dupré’s remarks further in showing the failure of execution of Nagel’s remarks on reduction.  I have remarked upon this above, but the distinction between explanatory and ontological reduction is important, and the assumption that the natural world is intelligible to the human mind presupposes that, if the world’s structure can be reduced from the top down, then an explanation is possible.  What if this assumption is false?  I recently stumbled upon a fascinating idea in a video in which Noam Chomsky is discussing intelligibility of the natural world with Bryan Magee.  The topic was the limits of knowledge and thought.  Any easy wrench to through in the intelligibility assumption Nagel presents is linguistic: what if we simply don’t have the necessary categories to acquire knowledge about the world in some sort of domain?  The world may still be ontologically reducible, just not explanatorially reducible.  In this way, the book is a bit of a train wreck.  Nagel says things that could serve as a foundation to present a powerful retort to this, but he just doesn’t seem to see this issue.


The book is a quick read, it’s not particularly compelling, in my opinion.  It does lay out a good starting assemblage of considerations that may begin to raise concern in the unbiased, non-dogmatic mind.  Possibly the strongest aspect of the book is the footnote citations.  I would argue that, independent of books content, reading the papers and books listed in the footnotes would very quickly bring up to speed any undergraduate philosophy student or complete neophyte to philosophy interested in learning the terrain of some of the contemporary issues in, for example, philosophy of mind.  I have been really pleased with philosophy and HPS courses I’ve taken at Harvard, IU, and Pitt, and the citation list presented in the book reflects the courses readings entailed in syllabi in some of the courses I’ve taken.  Unfortunately, that’s the highest content praise I can give the book.  Nagel hit upon a tremendously important topic and the correct position, I feel; but the execution of the book was just plain bad.  I think that, even within the realm of explanatory reductionism, someone knowledgeable about such work as William Bialek, who is working in developing principles of physics in biology, could have begun to point at lacuna in the reductionist picture, and propose systematic limitations to these sorts of research projects.  At least within this domain, philosophy could help science advance by overcoming an explicitly stated challenge, while otherwise advancing Nagel’s point, that such a challenge faces systematic conceptual problem in scientific explanatory capacity.  If one looks at the history of biology and the difficulty of understanding DNA[2] (not known as DNA at the time), one sees how such challenges were made plain by philosophers before the physicists enumerated qualities that DNA must possess, later followed by a broad conceptual development of how heritable information was stored and passed on to progeny.  Nagel hasn’t even made his heterodox position a win-win situation philosophers and scientists, because it was so poorly constructed.  Not at all paradoxically, I recommend the book to everyone with an open mind.  The project has merit.

[1] Definitely associated and worth watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wgSZA3NPpBs

[2] I am referring to the pre-history of DNA, and the work of Max Delbrück and the work of fellow physicists in this research program leading up to DNA.


Filed under History and Philosophy of Science, Metaphysics, Natural Philosophy, Philosophy, Philosophy of Science, Science

2 responses to “A Superficial Reflection on Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s