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Thomas Nagel

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist

Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is
Almost Certainly False
II. Published: October 29, 2012

Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of
Nature is Almost Certainly False, Oxford University Press, 2012, 130pp., $24.95 (hbk),
ISBN 9780199919758.

III. Reviewed by John Dupré, University of Exeter

As the title and subtitle make clear, Thomas Nagel's recent project is an extremely ambitious
one; it is especially ambitious to attempt to tackle it in a very short book. Nagel thinks there is
a wide consensus among philosophers and scientists around a certain view of nature, the
'materialist neo-Darwinian' conception, but that this view has proved radically inadequate. It
has failed, Nagel argues, to provide adequate explanations for mind and for value, and these
things are so central to an adequate picture of the cosmos that such failures constitute a fatal
flaw. Of course, it is not just that no adequate explanation has yet been given, but rather, in
Nagel's view, that there are systematic reasons for suspecting that none could be given. Nagel
does not develop this argument from a religious perspective. Indeed, he makes it clear that
theistic assumptions have no appeal for him. Instead, insofar as he has a positive alternative to
offer, it is that we should add a measure of naturalistic teleology to our stock of explanations,
a bias of nature 'towards the marvelous' (most marvelously, leading to ourselves).

I found this book frustrating and unconvincing. Much of the frustration derives from a
difficulty in knowing what exactly its target is and, when this is clear, why. The subtitle offers
us materialism and the neo-Darwinian conception of nature. Starting with the latter, I would
have doubted that, except perhaps in the hands of Daniel Dennett, neo-Darwinism is as central
to a conception of nature as the title suggests. Darwinism, neo- or otherwise, is an account of
the relations between living things past and present and of their ultimate origins, full of
fascinating problems in detail, but beyond any serious doubt in general outline. This lack of
doubt derives not, as Nagel sometimes insinuates, from a prior commitment to a metaphysical
view -- there are theistic Darwinists as well as atheistic, naturalists and supernaturalists -- but
from overwhelming evidence from a variety of sources: biogeography, the fossil record,
comparative physiology and genomics, and so on. Nagel offers no arguments against any of
this, and indeed states explicitly that he is not competent to do so. His complaint is that there
are some explanatory tasks that he thinks evolution should perform that he thinks it can't. But
as far as an attack that might concern evolutionists, they will feel, to borrow the fine phrase of
former British minister, Dennis Healey, as if they had been savaged by a sheep.

Materialism is something quite different. In Nagel's mind, at least, it is almost synonymous

with reductionism, the term with which he most commonly refers to the views he opposes. He
writes, for instance, 'I will use the terms "materialism" or "materialist naturalism" to refer to
one side of this conflict, and "antireductionism" to refer to the other side' (p. 13). 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. But actually it is hard to think of an appropriate citation
from a philosopher. Nagel expresses a view that was popular among philosophers of science
half a century ago, and has been in decline ever since. It is a view that is perhaps still common
among philosophers of mind (David Chalmers much discussed book The Conscious Mind
(1996), for example, bases its argument for dualism on a similar view of materialism), but
reductionism has been almost entirely rejected by philosophers actually engaged with the
physical and biological sciences: it simply has no interesting relation to the diversity of things
that scientists actually do.

So here is the first problem. Reductionism can be understood as a metaphysical thesis,

typically based on an argument that if there is only material stuff in the world (no spooky
stuff), then the properties of stuff must ultimately explain everything. This is a controversial
thesis, much debated by philosophers. But what the last 50 years of work in the philosophy of
science has established is that this kind of reductionism has little relevance to science. Even if
it turned out that most scientists believed something like this (which I find incredible) this
would be a psychological oddity, not a deep insight about science. A more sensible
materialism goes no further than the rejection of spooky stuff: whatever kinds of stuff there
may turn out to be and whatever they turn out to do, they are, as long as this turning out is
empirically grounded, ipso facto not spooky. Such a materialism is quite untouched by
Nagel's arguments.

Why does Nagel believe that materialism has to have this reductive character? It appears to be
because he believes that 'everything about the world can . . . be understood' (p. 17), and that
'rational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order'. It would not be an exaggeration to
say that for Nagel, if science can't come up with a theory of everything it has, in some deep
sense, failed. Nagel is thus, in effect, committed a priori to reductionism; the failure of
reductionism is therefore the failure of science. Perhaps the most charitable reading of the
position is that Nagel is trying to revive rationalism for an atheistic age. He doesn't, however,
make it look like an encouraging project.

The main substance of the book, once this strange philosophical backdrop has been sketched,
is an argument for the irreducibility to 'materialist neo-Darwinism' of consciousness,
cognition and values, each of which gets a chapter. Consciousness is, of course, familiar
territory for Nagel, whose classic paper 'What is it like to be a bat?' has been a major factor in
the founding of the now thriving consciousness industry. Given the special status and mystery
(even spookiness) attributed to consciousness within this movement, it is not surprising that it
has given rise to some curious metaphysical views, most famously David Chalmers's dualism
alluded to above. There are increasing stirrings of doubt about this project and even a few, like
this reviewer, who doubt whether there is anything it is like to be a bat (see Hacker 2002;
Dupré 2009), but this is not the place to pursue that argument. What seems to me beyond any
serious question is that the results and insights gained by the vast quantities of philosophical
and quasi-philosophical work on consciousness in the last few decades is hardly comparable
with the successes that stand to the credit of evolution.
The starting point of Nagel's strategy is that if the general reductionist project is to be
successful, then it must be shown how consciousness/cognition/value can be integrated into
the materialist worldview. Prima facie these things are not material. The materialist story
about how material came to possess these entities or qualities is evolution. So if evolution
cannot account for consciousness/cognition/value, it is fatally injured. Let's assume for the
sake of argument that we accept the philosophical framing of the issue. The next thing is to
give an account of these topics that blocks the evolutionary explanation. Suffice it to say that
in each case the account given is controversial. Most obviously this is true for the moral
realism that Nagel defends. Here he is quite clear that the argument could also run from the
truth of evolution to the falsity of moral realism, a direction taken, as Nagel notes, by Sharon
Street (2006). I have already mentioned the possibility of doubts about Nagel's take on
consciousness. Given the controversial status of these analyses Nagel's subtitle should at least
be amended to 'why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature might possibly be

The case of cognition, finally, brings out most strikingly Nagel's rationalism. Nagel thinks that
reason gives us insights into reality that evolution cannot account for. Whereas perception
gives us a view of the world mediated by a 'mental effect' that it causes in me, something that
emerged to serve my evolutionary interests, reason gives me direct, unmediated insight into
the world. If I realise that my beliefs are in contradiction, I know directly that one of them is
false (p. 82). These are deep waters, no doubt. My own views are, first, that the mediating
mental effect in perception is a highly problematic entity, and second that surely logic is at
least mediated by language. But here I will only repeat that we have surely not been offered
anything harder to deny than the general truth of evolution.

Suppose, again counterfactually, that we accept Nagel's accounts of consciousness, cognition,

and value, what would it take to show that beings with these capacities could not have
evolved in the "neo-Darwinian" manner? How, for instance, can a collection of molecules
evolve the ability to feel like something? I'll offer just one more diagnosis of what has gone
wrong. Nagel is very impressed, like many before him and since, with the oddity of material
stuff having experiences. But the explanation of mind does not, of course, lie in matter but in
form. Of course matter must have the capacity to embody complex forms, as for instance the
properties of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and a few other elements that allow them to form
complex organic polymers. It is then the relations that these forms make possible with other
molecules and then up the scale of increasing complexity that underlie the emergence of the
capacities that so impress us.

What can't evolution explain about all this that it ought to? Nagel constantly asserts that to
explain the existence of consciousness, etc., evolution must not just show that they are
possible, but also that they are likely, or to be expected. This is, I suppose, a further
expression of his rationalism, the expectation of a certain kind of intelligibility. But still it
seems to me poorly motivated. At the time of my birth it was very unlikely that I would
several decades later be reviewing a book by a famous philosopher; but it is not mysterious
that this eventually came about. The improbability has been declining rapidly for the last few
decades. Just so with evolution. The evolution of reason may well be very unlikely indeed on
a young, hot planet. It's a great deal more likely by the time there are highly social, if not yet
rational, multicellular organisms with very complex nervous systems.

Nagel does not want to appeal to God and finds current evolutionary thinking in principle
inadequate to account for central features of human existence. Yet he is committed to the
intelligibility of the world we find ourselves in. So where can we go to provide more
satisfactory explanations? The only positive suggestion that Nagel offers to solve the pseudo-
problems he has devised is that there may be teleological laws, laws that 'bias towards the
marvelous'. What is the evidence for these strange bits of legislation? Only that they would
make the appearance of complex creatures such as ourselves, marvels that we are, more likely.
I have never felt more proud to be an empiricist.

A final point. I have myself argued that it is a serious mistake to allow fear of creationists and
other obscurantists to discourage discussion of the weaknesses and unanswered questions in
evolutionary theory. Nagel has no fear of such people and expresses a considerable sympathy
with intelligent design. On the basis of his understanding of evolution, he considers that the
rejection of their criticisms of evolution is 'manifestly unfair' (p. 10). (This may, of course,
reflect on either the understanding or the unfairness.) He just personally feels an aversion to
the theistic perspective. The title of the book, however, all too readily interpreted as
announcing the falsity of Darwinism, will certainly lend comfort (and sell a lot of copies) to
the religious enemies of Darwinism. Notwithstanding my caution about being unduly
influenced by such people, this seems unfortunate when so easily avoidable.


Chalmers, David (1996). The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. New
York: Oxford University Press.

Dupré, John (2009). "Hard and Easy Questions about Consciousness", in Wittgenstein and
Analytic Philosophy: Essays for P.M. S. Hacker, eds. Hans-Johann Glock and John Hyman.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 228-249.

Hacker, P. M. S. (2002). "Is there anything it is like to be a bat?". Philosophy 77: 157-174.

Street, Sharon (2006). "A Darwinian dilemma for realist theories of value". Philosophical
Studies 127: 109-166.
Defecting from Darwinian
Naturalism: A Review of
Thomas Nagel’s Mind &
William Dembski
November 5, 2012, 9:30 PM

About a decade ago I would muse on what it might take for

intelligent design to win the day. Clearly, its intellectual and
scientific project needed to move forward, and, happily, that has
been happening. But I was also thinking in terms of a watershed
event, something that could have the effect of a Berlin Wall coming
down, so that nothing thereafter was the same. It struck me that
an event like this could involve some notable atheists coming to
reverse themselves on the evidence for design in the cosmos.
Shortly after these musings, Antony Flew, who had been the most
notable intellectual atheist in the English-speaking world until
Richard Dawkins supplanted him, announced that he had come to
believe in God (a deistic deity and not the full-blooded deity of
ethical monotheism) on account of intelligent design arguments. I
wondered whether this could be the start of that Berlin Wall
coming down, but was quickly disabused as the New York Times
and other media outlets quickly dismissed Flew’s conversion as a
sign of his dotage (he was in his eighties when he deconverted
from atheism). Flew, though sound in mind despite what his critics
were saying (I spoke with him on the phone in 2006), was quickly
marginalized and his deconversion didn’t have nearly the impact
that it might have.
Still, I may have been on to something about defections of high
profile intellectuals from Darwinian naturalism and the effect that
this might have in creating conceptual space for intelligent design
and ultimately winning the day for it. In 2011 we saw University of
Chicago molecular biologist James Shapiro deconstruct Darwinian
evolution with an incisiveness and vigor that even the ID
community has found hard to match (for my review of his
Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, go here; for my exchange
with Shapiro on this forum, go here).
A Most Disconcerting Deconversion
Thomas Nagel, with his just published Mind & Cosmos, has now
become another such defector from Darwinian naturalism.
Appearing from Oxford University Press and subtitled Why the
Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly
False, this slender volume (it’s only 130 pages) represents the most
disconcerting defection (disconcerting to Darwinists) from
Darwinian naturalism to date. We’re still not talking the Berlin Wall
coming down, but it’s not hard to see it as a realistic possibility, off
in the distance, after reading this book.
Because intelligent design is still a minority position that is widely
marginalized by the media and mainstream science, it’s easy for
defenders of intelligent design to wax apocalyptic. Indeed, it’s a
very natural impulse to want to throw off the shackles of an
oppressive and powerful majority, especially when one views their
authority as unwarranted and unjust. So I have to keep my own
impulses in check when I make comments about the Berlin Wall
coming down (by the way, I had an uncle, aunt, and cousins who
lived in “West Berlin” at the time as well as relatives in Poland, so
my interest in the Berlin Wall is not merely hypothetical). But
Thomas Nagel is a very major intellectual on the American scene
and his no-holds-barred deconstruction of Darwinian naturalism is
just the sort of critique, coupled with others to be sure, that will, if
anything, unravel Darwin’s legacy.
Nagel is a philosopher at New York University. Now in his 70s, he
has been a towering figure in the field, and his essays were
mandatory reading, certainly when I was a graduate student in
philosophy in the early 1990s. His wildly popular essay “What Is It
Like to Be a Bat?” takes on reductionist accounts of mind, and his
books Mortal Questions (Cambridge, 1979) and The View from
Nowhere (Oxford, 1986) seemed to be in many of my fellow
graduate students’ backpacks.
Reading Nagel’s latest, I had the sense of watching Peter Finch in
the film Network (1976), where he rants “I’m mad as hell and I’m not
going to take this anymore” (in that famous monologue, Finch also
says “I’m a human being, my life has value” — a remarkable point
to make three years after Roe v. Wade; to see the monologue, go
here). Now Nagel in Mind & Cosmos, unlike Finch in Network, is
measured and calm, but he is no less adamant that the bullying by
Darwinists needs to stop. Perhaps with Richard Dawkins in mind,
who has remarked that dissenters from Darwin are either
ignorant, stupid, wicked, insane, or brainwashed, Nagel writes,
I realize that such doubts [about Darwinian naturalism] will strike
many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in
our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive
research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else
would not be science.
Nagel has nailed it here. The threat of being branded unscientific in
the name of a patently ill-supported Darwinian evolutionary story
is the thing that most keeps Darwinism alive (certainly not the
evidence for it). We saw a similar phenomenon in the old
communist Eastern bloc. Lots of people doubted Marxism-
Leninism. But to express such doubt would get one branded as a
reactionary. And so people kept silent. I recall David Berlinski, a
well-known Darwin skeptic, telling me about a reading group at
MIT among faculty there who studied his work but did so sub rosa
lest they have to face the wrath of Darwinists.
In Mind & Cosmos, Nagel serves notice on Darwinists that their
coercive tactics at ensuring conformity have not worked with him
and, if his example inspires others, won’t work with them either.
What a wonderful subtitle to his book: Why the Materialist Neo-
Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. It’s a dare.
Go ahead, make my day, do your worst to bring the wrath of
Darwin’s devoted disciples on me. Nagel regards the emperor as
without clothes and says so:
For a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and
our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the
standard version of how the evolutionary process works. The more
details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of
the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical
account becomes. This is just the opinion of a layman who reads
widely in the literature that explains contemporary science to the
nonspecialist. Perhaps that literature presents the situation with a
simplicity and confidence that does not reflect the most sophisticated
scientific thought in these areas. But it seems to me that, as it is usually
presented, the current orthodoxy about the cosmic order is the
product of governing assumptions that are unsupported, and that it
flies in the face of common sense.
“Overwhelming Evidence”
Darwinists now have many websites in which the experts gush
about how wonderful Darwinian evolution is and the laymen
(invariably less informed than Nagel) gush back about how
wonderfully clear the experts have made evolutionary theory to
them, dispelling all doubt and rendering the theory obligatory for
all clear thinking people, so that only those wedded to a religious
fundamentalism could doubt it. And here comes Nagel, telling the
Darwinists that they’re all washed up. It’s a remarkable thing to
behold. Darwinism depends for its continued sway not on
overwhelming evidence, which it lacks (I got so tired of Darwinists
using the phrase “overwhelming evidence” that I finally bought the
domain name overwhelmingevidence.com), but on its ability to
overwhelm a gullible intelligentsia. Once enough doubt seeps into
that group, the theory will prove unsustainable. Nagel’s skepticism
may thus play a signal role in Darwinism’s eventual overthrow.
But let’s talk about the book itself. Nagel is a philosopher, and a
careful philosopher at that, and his book is a philosophical analysis
of Darwinian naturalism and its crashing failure in accounting not
just for the origin and subsequent development of life, but also for
human consciousness, cognition, and morality. At the back of all
Nagel’s arguments is a kind of “no free lunch principle.” He never
states it that way, but it is the idea that a cause must be sufficient
to account for its effect, and the mechanistic processes of physics,
chemistry, and a Darwinian biology, as we know them, are simply
not up to the task of explaining life and all that follows in its train
(notably consciousness, cognition, and morality).
A leitmotif that appears throughout the book is that our
intelligence as well as the intelligibility of the world to that
intelligence need to be taken seriously and cannot be dismissed
because a Darwinian naturalism would dismiss it as an accident of
natural history. For Nagel, this intelligence and intelligibility is the
precondition for science, and so its dismissal as a negligible feature
of nature is unwarranted. Precisely because the world is an
ordered place (i.e., a cosmos) that is intelligible via our intelligence,
the conceptual categories with which we understand it must make
room for intelligence without eliminating it entirely (as eliminative
materialists do) or reducing it to processes that are inherently
unintelligent and lifeless (as reductive materialists do).
In critiquing Darwinian naturalism and showing that the
world/cosmos has to be a much richer place than materialists
make out, Nagel is very strong, reminding me of Phillip Johnson’s
powerful critiques of naturalism from the 1990s (cf. his Darwin on
Trial and Reason in the Balance). Where Nagel is weaker, much
weaker, is on the alternative he proposes. So Darwinian naturalism
is wrong. What, then, is right? Nagel stops short of going with
intelligent design, and instead tries to hammer out a third way.
A Third Way
I want to pause at this point because I’ve seen this in the past,
namely, thinkers, even of high profile and caliber, who see the
problems with Darwinian naturalism but then also turn away from
intelligent design. What’s going on here? Is it that intelligent design
just doesn’t have the intellectual horsepower to convince these
thinkers, and so they look elsewhere? Although I’m an ID guy, I’ve
seen this phenomenon for a while, and I think I can say
dispassionately that that’s not what’s going on here. Invariably, I
find that there’s nothing wrong with the ID position per se. Indeed,
even if the charge is made that ID is not sufficiently developed, one
could rightly expect from Darwin doubters and ID diffidents the
request for some clear criteria of what they would like to see from
an ID program before they would be willing to come on board. But
we never see that. The Darwin doubters who are not prepared to
follow through with ID are guided, in every instance I know, not by
evidential or theoretical concerns about ID but by worldview
Take Paul Davies. A well-known science writer, Templeton Prize
winner, and all around smart guy, he nonetheless has consistently
veered back from embracing ID (both Phillip Johnson and I have
engaged him on this matter). Writing in his book on the origin of
life, The Fifth Miracle, Davies makes clear that existing theory is not
going to resolve this problem but also that he’s not going to go
with intelligent design. Instead, he’s going to look for some new
principles or laws that will account for the complex information-
rich structures of life.
Nagel takes this same approach, only he’s clearer than most about
why he takes it. On the dust jacket, one reads that in place of
materialism, Nagel suggests that “principles of a different kind may
also be at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of
order that are in their logical form teleological rather than
mechanistic.” The editor who prepared the dust jacket was
accurately summarizing Nagel’s proposed alternative, which tries
to navigate a third way between Darwinian naturalism/materialism
and intelligent design. But what that editor of the dust jacket failed
to note is that such an appeal to new yet-to-be disclosed principles
is speculative in the extreme and done without rational
Nagel, in the book, is at least straightforward about what drives
him to this third way. Davies and others typically make like they are
taking this way because it is scientific. But Nagel is a philosopher,
and an astute one at that, so he knows what he is doing and why
he is doing it. Nagel looks to these unknown (and perhaps
unknowable) teleological principles because of his allergy to
theism. He admits it openly: “My preference for an immanent
natural explanation [cf. teleological principles] is congruent with
my atheism.” Elsewhere he’ll refer to his “ungrounded intellectual
preference” for such a view, holding up “the ideal of discovering a
single natural order that unifies everything on the basis of a set of
common elements or principles.”
Now preferences and ideals, whatever else they are, are not
grounds and evidence. Moreover, the alternative to Darwinian
naturalism and intelligent design that Nagel would like remains for
now a speculative possibility, not a fully articulated proposal whose
merits can be assessed. It could be argued that Nagel is addressing
truly big questions and that our science and understanding of
them still falls so far short that he is justified in taking this line, if
only because the alternatives are no better developed. But this is
not the case.
Darwinian evolution is a well-defined theory. It’s been tried, and it’s
failed, as Nagel rightly notes. This is not to say Darwinian evolution
is completely wrong, but that it is only a small part of the picture
and that the power of natural selection has been way overblown,
so that the creative potential in any theory of biological origins
needs to be located elsewhere. Nagel looks to unknown and yet to
be discovered principles of a sort hitherto unexampled. But why
look there given the progress of intelligent design? Nagel thinks the
ID community deserves gratitude for underscoring the problems
with Darwinian evolution. But nowhere in his book does he even
consider ID’s actual positive proposals, such as about design
detection, informational constraints, and the limits to evolvability.
My Biggest Disappointment with Nagel
The biggest disappointment I had reading Mind & Cosmos was
seeing how entrapped Nagel was and remains in a mechanistic
understanding of nature despite his protestations against it. He
wants a richer naturalism than Darwin’s, and ID is compatible with
such a richer naturalism (I’ve made this point for years — see the
introduction to No Free Lunch, 2002, as well as the chapter on
naturalism in The Design Revolution, 2004). But he sees
intentionality, which he distinguishes from teleology, as leading to
a necessarily dualistic and incomplete account of nature, a
prospect he wants to forestall by looking to teleological principles
(whatever these may be).
Throughout Mind & Cosmos, one sees words like “unified,”
“comprehensive,” and “complete” used to describe the view of
nature that he desires to account for life’s origin, its development,
and its productive consequences (consciousness, cognition, and
morality). Such desiderata are fine as far as they go, but I frankly
doubt that we will ever achieve them in anything but the most
limited endeavors. For instance, I have a complete understanding
of the arithmetic of the 12 numbers that account for the hours of
the day. But in most circumstances of life our knowledge is never
complete or exhaustive. So why make that a criticism of intelligent
But even the claim that intelligent design is somehow incomplete
for invoking mind and the contingency that comes with it seems ill
considered. I remarked a moment ago that Nagel is entrapped in a
mechanistic understanding of nature. Nagel, though rejecting
Darwin, remains an evolutionist, who sees nature as having
produced us through a long natural, albeit un-Darwinian, process.
Of course, there’s the factual question whether and to what extent
Darwinian evolution has happened at all and the evidential
question of what the basis is for believing it. But even if we accept
that evolution in the full-blooded monad-to-man sense has
happened, why should a designing intelligence operating through
an evolutionary process be regarded as substandard, as somehow
inferior to Nagel’s proposed teleological processes?
I submit that the problem is Nagel is wedded to a mechanistic
conception of science that sees the nuts and bolts of science as
determined by physics and chemistry and not by information.
Indeed, even though he will cite “information-rich” biological
structures as reasons for doubting Darwin, Nagel fails to see that
the informational characteristics of these structures are precisely
the grounds for thinking them to be the product of intelligent
design. A science in which information is not a fundamental entity
will necessarily be committed to a form of evolution in which
information must be built up gradually from informationally
simpler precursors. This, it seems, is Nagel’s view of science.
The problem, however, is that information is now proving itself to
be a fundamental entity of science that cannot be explained in this
sort of self-assembling gradually-building-up way. Conservation of
information results that my colleagues and I have been proving
over the last five years at the Evolutionary Informatics Lab (go to
the publications page there) show that the information in living
systems is never created by material processes but merely shuffled
around and that, in fact, the problem of explaining biological
information only intensifies as one traces it through material
At this point Nagel might say that we’ve merely proved his point
and that some deeper teleological principles are needed to
account for the information in biological systems. But in fact, we’ve
proved the opposite, because we have no experience at all of
abstract principles producing such information while we do know
that concrete intelligences are capable of producing it. At some
level, Nagel is still committed to the hierarchical reductionism of
Richard Dawkins, which sees the world as a system of hierarchical
levels in which each level is built up from units residing at lower
levels. The problem is that information, the sort we see in biology,
cannot be understood hierarchically in this way. Information is
holistic, and explaining such information, short of its creation by an
intelligence, is always a reworking of prior information that is at
least as complex and difficult to explain as the information in
This suggests that Nagel’s vision for unity, comprehensiveness, and
completeness is doomed to fail. And why not? Mathematicians
once aspired to the completeness of their theories, hoping that all
mathematical truths could be proven. It took Kurt Goedel to show
that this hope was a pipedream and that some mathematical
truths would forever lie beyond the remit of our methods of proof.
The incompleteness of mathematics has not stopped mathematics
dead in its tracks. In fact, it could be argued that some of the best
mathematics in history has been done in the wake of Goedel.
A Dream of Completeness
Nagel’s desire for completeness, much like Descartes’s desire for
certainty, is an ill-considered desideratum. We’re not God and we’ll
never be God. We are finite rational creatures whose knowledge is
always going to be limited. Our best evidence from biology
suggests that it contains information of a sort that is the result of
intelligence. Such an account will necessarily be incomplete
because we cannot get into the mind of this designing intelligence
and know it completely (though there may be some inferences we
can draw about it, such as that we are dealing with a super-
intellect that knows a lot about nano-engineering, certainly with
respect to the molecular biology of the cell).
In conclusion, I thoroughly enjoyed Nagel’s new book. For its
critique of Darwinian naturalism and for underscoring its crashing
failure to explain consciousness, cognition, and morality, Nagel is
great. He’s a philosopher, and this is a philosophical book, so
readers will be treated to a terrific overview of the big problems in
philosophy from a master of the art. The book’s weakness is in
failing to follow through the logic of intelligent design, looking to ID
solely for its critique of Darwinian evolution but being unwilling to
dispassionately consider why its critique was tendered in the first
place and the alternative it proposes. And this failure, though
Nagel would agree without calling it that, results from his allergy to
theism and his preference for atheism.
Image: Into the Depths of the Lagoon Nebula, NASA/JPL-Caltech.
Do You Only Have a Brain? On Thomas Nagel
A philosopher’s broadside against Darwinism and materialism
is mostly an instrument of mischief.
2.1. By Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg October 3, 2012
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Thomas Nagel, a professor of philosophy and of law at New York University, has made his
reputation over the last fifty years as a leading contributor to moral and political philosophy,
with occasional forays into the philosophy of mind. Most famously, and most relevant to his
new book, Mind and Cosmos, he wrote an influential paper in the 1970s with the memorable
title “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Nagel tried to demonstrate the implausibility of the notion
that, even if one knew all the relevant physical facts about the brains of bats, one could have
any idea what it felt like to be a bat. How could the subjective feeling of this experience be
captured by a set of cold, objective biological and chemical facts about neurons? Nagel’s new
book revisits some of these ideas and aims to “develop the rival alternative conceptions” to
what he calls the “materialism and Darwinism” of our age.

Mind and Cosmos

Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.
By Thomas Nagel.
Buy this book.

Nagel’s is the latest in what has become a small cottage industry involving a handful of
prominent senior philosophers expressing skepticism about aspects of Darwin’s theory of
evolution by natural selection. Some, like the overtly Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga,
have made a career of dialectical ingenuity in support of the rationality of religious faith.
Others, such as Jerry Fodor, are avowed atheists like Nagel, and have only tried to raise
challenges to discrete aspects of evolutionary explanations for biological phenomena.
Plantinga’s influence has largely been limited to other religious believers, while Fodor’s
challenge was exposed rather quickly by philosophers as trading on confusions (even Nagel
disowns it in a footnote). Nagel now enters the fray with a far-reaching broadside against
Darwin and materialism worthy of the true-believing Plantinga (whom Nagel cites favorably).
We suspect that philosophers—even philosophers sympathetic to some of Nagel’s concerns—
will be disappointed by the actual quality of the argument.

Nagel opposes two main components of the “materialist” view inspired by Darwin’s theory of
evolution by natural selection. The first is what we will call theoretical reductionism, the view
that there is an order of priority among the sciences, with all theories ultimately derivable
from physics and all phenomena ultimately explicable in physical terms. We believe, along
with most philosophers, that Nagel is right to reject theoretical reductionism, because the
sciences have not progressed in a way consistent with it. We have not witnessed the reduction
of psychology to biology, biology to chemistry, and chemistry to physics, but rather the
proliferation of fields like neuroscience and evolutionary biology that explain psychological
and biological phenomena in terms unrecognizable by physics. As the philosopher of biology
Philip Kitcher pointed out some thirty years ago, even classical genetics has not been fully
reduced to molecular genetics, and that reduction would have been wholly within one field.
We simply do not see any serious attempts to reduce all the “higher” sciences to the laws of

Yet Nagel argues in his book as if this kind of reductive materialism really were driving the
scientific community. The only named target is the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven
Weinberg, famous for his defense of the primacy of physics in such popular works as Dreams
of a Final Theory (1992). Here is what Nagel writes in describing Weinberg’s view:

My target is a comprehensive, speculative world picture that is reached by

extrapolation from some of the discoveries of biology, chemistry, and physics—a
particular naturalistic Weltanschauung that postulates a hierarchical relation
among the subjects of those sciences, and the completeness in principle of an
explanation of everything in the universe through their unification. Such a world
view is not a necessary condition of the practice of any of those sciences, and its
acceptance or nonacceptance would have no effect on most scientific research.

Nagel here aligns himself, as best we can tell, with the majority view among both
philosophers and practicing scientists. Just to take one obvious example, very little of the
actual work in biology inspired by Darwin depends on reductive materialism of this sort;
evolutionary explanations do not typically appeal to Newton’s laws or general relativity.
Given this general consensus (the rhetoric of some popular science writing by Weinberg and
others aside), it is puzzling that Nagel thinks he needs to bother attacking theoretical

The second component of the thesis Nagel opposes is what we will call naturalism, the view
that features of our world—including “consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose,
thought, and value”—can ultimately be accounted for in terms of the natural processes
described by the various sciences (whether or not they are ever “reduced” to physics). Nagel’s
arguments here are aimed at a more substantial target, although he gives us few specifics
about the kind of naturalism he opposes. He does characterize it as the attempt to explain
everything “at the most basic level by the physical sciences, extended to include biology,” and
the one named proponent of this view is the philosopher Daniel Dennett. Although Dennett
would not characterize his project as trying to explain everything at the “most basic level,” he
does aim to show that phenomena such as consciousness, purpose and thought find a natural
home in a picture of human beings inspired by Darwin. In the absence of any clearer
statement of the argument, we will assume that this is the so-called “neo-Darwinian” picture
that Nagel opposes.

Naturalists, including Dennett, defend their view by appealing to the extraordinary

fruitfulness of past scientific work, including work growing out of Darwin’s theory of
evolution by natural selection. So what should we make of the actual work in biology that
supports the “materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature” that Nagel thinks “is almost
certainly false”? Defending such a sweeping claim might seem to require a detailed
engagement with the relevant science, yet in a striking admission early on, Nagel reveals that
his book “is just the opinion of a layman who reads widely in the literature that explains
contemporary science to the nonspecialist.” And a recurring objection to what he learned from
his layman’s reading of popular science writing is that much science “flies in the face of
common sense,” that it is inconsistent with “evident facts about ourselves, that it “require[s]
us to deny the obvious,” and so on.


This style of argument does not, alas, have a promising history. After all, what could be more
common-sensical, obvious or evident than the notion that the earth is flat and the sun revolves
around the earth? All ordinary evidence supports that verdict: we know from experience that
people fall off things that are spherical, especially when trying to hang upside down from
them, and we know that the sun rises in the sky in one direction and sets in the other as it
revolves around the seemingly flat earth. Happily, Nagel does not attempt to repudiate the
Copernican revolution in astronomy, despite its hostility to common sense. But he displays
none of the same humility when it comes to his preferred claims of common sense—the kind
of humility that nearly 400 years of nonevident yet true scientific discoveries should
engender. Are we really supposed to abandon a massively successful scientific research
program because Nagel finds some scientific claims hard to square with what he thinks is
obvious and “undeniable,” such as his confidence that his “clearest moral…reasonings are
objectively valid”?

In support of his skepticism, Nagel writes: “The world is an astonishing place, and the idea
that we have in our possession the basic tools needed to understand it is no more credible now
than it was in Aristotle’s day.” This seems to us perhaps the most startling sentence in all of
Mind and Cosmos. Epistemic humility—the recognition that we could be wrong—is a virtue
in science as it is in daily life, but surely we have some reason for thinking, some four
centuries after the start of the scientific revolution, that Aristotle was on the wrong track and
that we are not, or at least not yet. Our reasons for thinking this are obvious and
uncontroversial: mechanistic explanations and an abandonment of supernatural causality
proved enormously fruitful in expanding our ability to predict and control the world around
us. The fruits of the scientific revolution, though at odds with common sense, allow us to send
probes to Mars and to understand why washing our hands prevents the spread of disease. We
may, of course, be wrong in having abandoned teleology and the supernatural as our primary
tools for understanding and explaining the natural world, but the fact that “common sense”
conflicts with a layman’s reading of popular science writing is not a good reason for thinking

Incompatibility with common sense is not Nagel’s only argument against naturalism. A
second line of argument begins by appealing to what he takes to be an everyday opinion: that
there are objective moral, logical and mathematical truths. He then argues that the existence
of these kinds of objective truths is incompatible with naturalism. For the moral case, Nagel
asks: If our moral faculties are simply the result of evolution, how can they be reliable
measures of objective moral truth? Why should evolution prefer the perception of moral truth
to whatever happens to be advantageous for reproduction? Thus, if some of our moral beliefs
really are objectively true, then they cannot be the result of evolution. And because he is
confident that we do know some objective moral truths, Nagel concludes that “a Darwinian
account of the motives underlying moral judgment must be false, in spite of the scientific
consensus in its favor.” Recognizing that readers will find this inference jarring, Nagel adds:
“I, even more strangely, am relying on a philosophical claim to refute a scientific theory
supported by empirical evidence.”

There is, indeed, much that is strange here. To begin, there is nothing remotely common-
sensical about Nagel’s confidence in the objectivity of moral truth. While Nagel and his
compatriots apparently take very seriously their moral opinions—so seriously that they find it
incredible to suggest that their “confidence in the objective truth of [their] moral beliefs”
might, in fact, be “completely illusory”—this can hardly claim the mantle of “the common
sense view.” Ordinary opinion sometimes tends toward objectivism, to be sure—often by
relying on religious assumptions that Nagel explicitly rejects—but it also often veers toward
social or cultural relativism about morality. Whether morality is truly objective is a
philosopher’s claim (and a controversial one even among philosophers) about which
“common sense” is either agnostic or mixed.

We take no stance on Nagel’s hypothesis that if our moral faculties are simply the result of
evolution, they cannot be reliable measures of objective moral truth. But we should note that
Nagel’s colleague, philosopher Sharon Street, accepts it and draws the opposite conclusion.
She argues that because this hypothesis is true, and because we are obviously the products of
evolution, we should give up the idea that there are objective moral truths in Nagel’s sense.
Given the philosophical plausibility of Street’s alternative response—not to mention the
simplistic evolutionary reasoning the whole debate is predicated on—it is hard to see why any
biologist should be given pause by Nagel’s argument.

A more interesting challenge—really, the only interesting philosophical point raised in the
book—concerns logical and mathematical truths. Is it possible, Nagel asks, to reconcile a
naturalistic and biological picture of the evolution of our cognitive capacities with the
confidence we have in our ability to do logic and mathematics? Nagel’s argument invokes a
contrast with our perceptual capabilities, because our ability to reliably perceive many of the
features of our physical environment seems likely to have an evolutionary explanation. (After
all, if we could not reliably spot sudden cliffs or saber-toothed tigers, our reproductive fitness
would be seriously compromised!) But logical truths are not like that, Nagel argues. It is self-
evident that something cannot be both red and not-red at the same time (the “law of non-
contradiction”). So, too, it is self-evident that if all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man,
then Socates is necessarily mortal. Even if evolution endowed us with the capacity to
recognize the law of non-contradiction and to draw valid deductive inferences, how does it
explain the obvious truth of these logical claims? Nagel’s response to this question is that
evolution cannot—and the problem is even worse than that:

Any evolutionary account of the place of reason presupposes reason’s validity

and cannot confirm it without circularity.
Eventually the attempt to understand oneself in evolutionary, naturalistic terms
must bottom out in something that is grasped as valid in itself—something
without which the evolutionary understanding would not be possible.

In other words, even if one thinks there is an evolutionary explanation for why we recognize
the obviousness of logical, mathematical and scientific truths, there would still be the question
of why we think evolutionary theory itself is justified. An evolutionary explanation of that
latter fact would have to presuppose the correctness of the theory whose justification we are
questioning, making the argument circular: we would have to assume that evolutionary theory
is true in order to investigate whether it is true!


There is a response to this kind of challenge, one that is widely embraced by philosophical
naturalists (though, again, not mentioned by Nagel). This response starts by noting that we
determine what is “rational” or “justified” simply by appealing to the most successful forms
of inquiry into the world that human beings have developed. Paradigmatic examples of those
successful forms of inquiry are, of course, physics, chemistry and biology. They are
successful precisely in the way that Aristotelian science was not: they enable us to navigate
the world around us, to predict its happenings and control some of them. To confuse one’s
intuitive confidence in the logical and epistemic norms that make these sciences possible with
some kind of a priori access to the “rational order of the world,” as Nagel puts it, is to forget
whence that confidence derives—namely, the very success of these sciences. For
philosophical naturalists, the charge of circularity is empty, akin to suggesting that the need
for a usable table to have legs requires some justification beyond the fact that the legs actually
do a necessary job.

Philosophical naturalists often appeal to the metaphor of “Neurath’s Boat,” named after the
philosopher who developed it. Our situation as inquirers trying to understand the world
around us, according to Neurath, is like that of sailors who must rebuild their ship while at
sea. These sailors do not have the option of abandoning the ship and rebuilding a new one
from scratch. They must, instead, try to rebuild it piecemeal, all the time staying afloat on
other parts of the ship on which they continue to depend. In epistemological terms, we are
also “at sea”: we cannot abandon all the knowledge about the world we have acquired from
the sciences and then ask what we really know or what is really rational. The sciences that
have worked so well for us are precisely our benchmark for what we know and what is
rational; they’re the things that are keeping us “afloat.” Extending this metaphor, we can say
that Nagel is the sailor who says, “I know the ideal form a ship should take—it is intuitively
obvious, I am confident in it—so let us jump into the ocean and start building it from scratch.”

We agree with Nagel that if the sciences could not explain our capacity to have thoughts about
the world around us, that would be a serious failing and a reason to call their findings into
question. But they can and they do! It is here that Nagel’s lack of engagement with
contemporary cognitive science and his idiosyncratic views about what a scientific
explanation should look like make his argument especially perplexing. He writes, in what
might seem a massive concession to his naturalistic opponents, “The appearance of animal
consciousness is evidently the result of biological evolution, but this well-supported empirical
fact is not yet an explanation—it does not provide understanding, or enable us to see why the
result was to be expected or how it came about.” On Nagel’s view, consciousness arose from
evolution, but despite knowing this fact, we have not explained the origin of consciousness. In
a similar vein, Nagel writes:

It is not an explanation to say just that the physical process of evolution has
resulted in creatures with eyes, ears, central nervous systems, and so forth, and
that it is simply a brute fact of nature that such creatures are conscious in the
familiar ways. Merely to identify a cause is not to provide a significant
explanation, without some understanding of why the cause produces the effect.
Nagel endorses the idea that explanation and prediction are symmetrical: “An explanation
must show why it was likely that an event of that type occurred.” In other words, to explain
something is to be in a position to have predicted it if we could go back in time. He also
writes, “To explain consciousness, a physical evolutionary history would have to show why it
was likely that organisms of the kind that have consciousness would arise.” Indeed, he goes
further, claiming that “the propensity for the development of organisms with a subjective
point of view must have been there from the beginning.”

This idea, however, is inconsistent with the most plausible views about prediction and
explanation, in both philosophy and science. Philosophers of science have long argued that
explanation and prediction cannot be fully symmetrical, given the importance of probabilities
in explaining natural phenomena. Moreover, we are often in a position to understand the
causes of an event, but without knowing enough detail to have predicted it. For example,
approximately 1 percent of children born to women over 40 have Down syndrome. This fact
is a perfectly adequate explanation of why a particular child has Down syndrome, but it does
not mean we could have predicted that this particular child would develop it. Causes alone are
frequently deemed sufficient to explain events; knowing enough to predict those events in
advance is an important scientific achievement, but not essential to explanation.


Nagel doesn’t think so, and because of that, he advocates the reintroduction of teleological
reasoning into science. (Teleology—the idea that natural phenomena have built-in purposes or
ends—was central to Aristotelian science, and it remained very influential until the scientific
revolution.) In his discussion of the origin of life, Nagel says that natural teleology would
mean that, “in addition to physical law of the familiar kind, there are other laws of nature that
are ‘biased toward the marvelous.’”

This is an astonishing though certainly evocative phrase (Nagel adapts it from another writer),
yet Nagel offers no further explication of it. He does admit that this proposal “flies in the teeth
of the authoritative form of explanation that has defined science since the revolution of the
seventeenth century.” Unfortunately, he is also extremely unclear about what he means by
“natural teleology,” other than assuring the reader that it is neither part of standard physical
laws nor the introduction of theology. One might think that “principles of self-organization or
of the development of complexity over time,” which Nagel gives as examples of natural
teleology, are the sort of things studied by mainstream protein chemists, developmental
biologists and condensed-matter physicists. But apparently these sciences, which study how
complex order can be built up from simple physical processes, are not on the right track.
Nagel never explains why.

We conclude with a comment about truth in advertising. Nagel’s arguments against

reductionism are quixotic, and his arguments against naturalism are unconvincing. He aspires
to develop “rival alternative conceptions” to what he calls the materialist neo-Darwinian
worldview, yet he never clearly articulates this rival conception, nor does he give us any
reason to think that “the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a
generation or two.” Mind and Cosmos is certainly an apt title for Nagel’s philosophical
meditations, but his subtitle—”Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is
Almost Certainly False”—is highly misleading. Nagel, by his own admission, relies only on
popular science writing and brings to bear idiosyncratic and often outdated views about a
whole host of issues, from the objectivity of moral truth to the nature of explanation. No one
could possibly think he has shown that a massively successful scientific research program like
the one inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection “is almost certainly
false.” The subtitle seems intended to market the book to evolution deniers, intelligent-design
acolytes, religious fanatics and others who are not really interested in the substantive
scientific and philosophical issues. Even a philosopher sympathetic to Nagel’s worries about
the naturalistic worldview would not claim this volume comes close to living up to that
subtitle. Its only effect will be to make the book an instrument of mischief.

Why has natural selection always been the most contested part of evolutionary theory? asks
Jeffrey A. Coyne in “The Improbability Pump” (May 10, 2010), reviewing The Greatest Show
on Earth, by Richard Dawkins, and Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s What
Darwin Got Wrong.

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Brian LeiterBrian Leiter is the Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence and director of
the Center for Law, Philosophy and Human Values at the University of Chicago.

Michael WeisbergMichael Weisberg is an associate professor of philosophy at the University

of Pennsylvania, where he is also a faculty affiliate of the Institute for Research in Cognitive
S a t u r d a y, M a y 1 8 , 2 0 1 3

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Neo-

Darwinian Conception of Nature is
Almost Surely False by Thomas

The central argument of Mind and Cosmos: Why the Neo-Darwinian

Conception of Nature is Almost Surely False by Thomas Nagel seems[1] to
be as follows.

1. There are three possible and mutually exclusive explanations for

the world and its contents: materialistic naturalism[2], theism[3], or
teleological naturalism[4].
2. The correct explanation of the world and its contents is not
materialistic naturalism.
3. The correct explanation of the world and its contents is not
4. Therefore, the correct explanation is teleological naturalism.

Now, already a possible terminological confusion looms: isn’t it the case

that teleological arguments are inevitably arguments for theism? Well,
no, as it turns out. It becomes apparent as the book progresses that
what Nagel is arguing for is an Aristotelian type of natural teleology: an
immanent, this-worldly type of tendency or bias on the part of nature to
produce certain ends. Such teleology does not posit any transcendent
Mind in which intentions or goals reside.

The argument seems valid, and perhaps the first premise is relatively
inoffensive to naturalist and theist alike. Argument will thus center on
premises 2 and 3.

The correct explanation of the world and its contents is not

materialistic naturalism. Nagel makes some preliminary remarks
regarding his skepticism about the ability of materialistic naturalism
(henceforth MN) to explain the origin of life. He also thinks that MN has
a further problem in explaining the DNA code and the complex forms of
life we see in the estimated life span of the earth via random genetic
mutation. He sees these as independent empirical reasons which
buttress his philosophical arguments against MN as a satisfactory
explanation of the cosmos. He notes his gratitude toward the intelligent
design community in pointing out their critiques of MN, although he
emphatically declines to endorse their conclusion that theism
(henceforth T) is, given the failure of MN, the correct worldview.

Turning to the philosophical arguments regarding the failure of MN,

Nagel claims that MN fails to explain three striking facts about the
cosmos: consciousness, cognition, and values. Nagel notes that MN
does a pretty good job of explaining a lot of physical reality. He argues,
however, MN has done so by following the recommendations of
Descartes and others that science deal with spatio-temporal events and
ignore mental events. However, this compromise could not be held
forever. The apparently irresistible drive to construct a comprehensive
worldview would eventually test the ability of MN to explain all of reality
—including the mental. Nagel then succinctly but powerfully outlines
various attempts to reduce the mental to the physical (e.g., conceptual
behaviorism, psychophysical identity, causal behaviorism,
functionalism). He concludes that the failure of these attempts at
psychophysical reduction support the conclusion that conscious events
are aspects of reality not describable by physical science.

In discussing cognition, Nagel argues that because all cognition (even

that of low-level, purely ‘sensory’ consciousness found in all animals) is
inherently subjective in nature MN cannot account for it. However, the
real thrust of the ‘problem of cognition’ involves what might be termed
‘higher’ functions of thought, reasoning, and evaluation. Here, he
argues, humans (and perhaps other life forms) have managed to
transcend our own senses and instincts and explore larger objective
reality. This is not, as Nagel sees it, simply another version of the
problem from consciousness. Briefly, we take ourselves when reasoning
to be right or wrong in virtue of how the world really, objectively,
actually (independent of opinion) is. We can form true beliefs, we think,
of timeless domains like logic and mathematics. Contrast this with our
basic sensory perceptions. There seems to be an easy way in which
evolutionary explanations could account for these processes. Failure to
perceive what is going on in the world around us (to be blind to the
approach of a hungry tiger, for example) will tend to weed out certain
individuals and groups. What Nagel wants to know is (a) is it credible
that an evolutionary explanation can account for the astounding
breakthroughs we make in science, logic, mathematics, and philosophy
that go beyond mere ‘appearances’ and (b) the difficulty in formulating
a satisfactory naturalistic understanding of the faculty of reason. He
examines and rejects a proposed naturalistic answer to (a) and spends
more time on (b), which he considers the more formidable problem. The
problem in (b) is that reason is in many ways assumed to be our most
fundamental faculty—the bar before which all conclusions and
deliverances of other faculties stand.

Eventually the attempt to understand oneself in

evolutionary, naturalistic terms must bottom out in
something that is grasped as valid in itself—something
without which evolutionary understanding would not be
possible….It is not enough to be able to think that *if*
there are logical truths, natural selection might very
well have given me the capacity to recognize them.
That cannot be my ground for trusting my reason,
because even that thought implicitly relies on reason in
a prior way. (p. 59, Kindle edition)

Nagel then turns to the ‘problem of value’ for MN. Nagel is here arguing
for moral realism: the actual, objective existence of moral facts which
exist independent of opinion. Nagel quickly discusses and then
dismisses what he sees as the most plausible form of moral
subjectivism (Humean ‘passions’). The core of the problem moral
realism poses for MN, as Nagel sees it, is as follows: MN is bound up
with Darwinian evolutionary explanations, and such explanations would
undercut our belief in the reliability of our moral faculties. So even if
moral facts existed, we would not be in a position to know that they
existed. Nagel, citing Sharon Street, argues that while us acting in
certain ways (e.g., protecting each other from danger) would lead to
survival, those behaviors, even in the absence of any moral beliefs
whatsoever, would be enough. And, even if us holding such beliefs was
somehow necessitated by evolution, it would not follow that such
beliefs must be true. Rather, the holding of such beliefs would
presumably serve to reinforce our acting in certain ways—ways that are
in accord with the ‘useful fictions’ of holding to moral realism. So if one
is to maintain moral realism, one should reject MN.

The correct explanation of the world and its contents is not

theism. The bulk of the book—and hence this review—has focused on
Nagel’s rejection of MN. The proponent of MN will part company with
Nagel at the second premise. The theist can enthusiastically agree with
Nagel until premise 3 arrives. The theist will thus want to know: why
does Nagel reject theism?
Straightforward argument for premise 3 is disappointingly meager.
Nagel has been often and famously quoted as saying that he prefers
that there be no God. This attitude is also present in this book, as can
be seen by referring to an ‘ungrounded assumption of my own…I lack
the sensus divinitatis’ or an ‘ungrounded intellectual preference’ that
leads him to reject theism. In the concluding chapter of the book, he
argues that

Philosophy has to proceed comparatively. The best we

can do is to develop the rival alternative conceptions in
each important domain as fully and carefully as
possible, depending on our antecedent sympathies, and
see how they measure up. (p. 108, Kindle edition)

In this case, it seems that his antecedent sympathies prevent him from
considering theism a serious option.

Therefore, the correct explanation of the world and its contents

is teleological naturalism. Given the thin case Nagel makes against
theism, one might hope that the case he makes for TN is fairly strong.
Unfortunately, it isn’t. Nagel’s idea is that somehow there are
fundamental ‘mentalistic’ principles that give rise to minds. Another
way of saying this is that mind is not the radical newcomer, arriving
late in the evolutionary process, that it seems to be given MN. But it is
unclear how this is really helpful. What does it mean to say that a ‘mind
like’ principle is present in the early stage of the universe when nothing
physical but elementary particles exist? And, if simplicity (mentioned as
a theoretical virtue in passing early in the book) really is to be pursued,
is there not a simplicity in monotheism that is not present in
inexplicable, multiple principles of different (i.e., mentalistic and
physical) types?
Conclusion. Rather than raking Nagel over the coals for his arguably
inadequate reasons for rejecting theism, and the ‘bare possibility’ of TN
he floats as an alternative, the theist should feel ever more confident in
the explanatory power of theism. The case against MN posed by Nagel
is persuasive, his reasons for rejecting theism seem largely
psychological rather than philosophical, and his teleological naturalism
seems highly speculative and implausible.

The theist might also pray that Nagel comes to see that his
assumptions are indeed ungrounded, and acknowledge He who is.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Latter Day Inkling is a U.S.-based

research psychologist for the military. He is especially interested in
epistemology and natural theology.

[1] For the sake of brevity, I pose the argument in its clearest form sans all caveats.
However, Nagel is much less confident in his proffered option, stressing that the best we
can do at this point in our intellectual history is to posit some options with many details to
be filled in. He says, for example, that “…I am certain that my own attempt to explore
alternatives is far too unimaginative. An understanding of the universe will probably
require a much more radical departure from the familiar forms of naturalistic explanation
than I am at present able to conceive.” (p. 108, Kindle edition)

[2] MN is, briefly put, the idea that all that exists can be explained in terms of physical
substances and their physical properties. At bottom, all can be explained by the physical

[3] Theism: the idea that there is a transcendent Mind that, through its volitions and
causal powers, is the explanation for all else that exists.

[4] My term, not Nagel’s. I call it thus to underscore this: he does see his proffered option
of ‘teleological naturalism’ as a type of naturalism. Sticking with my terminology, Nagel
defines TN as an inherent tendency or bias in the natural world to produce consciousness,
cognition, and values.

[5] Admittedly, the line between consciousness and cognition can be a bit blurry.
However, from the examples Nagel gives in the chapter on consciousness it seems he is
primarily thinking in terms of qualia—e.g., sounds, colors, and tastes.
[6] Defined, roughly, as thought, reasoning, and evaluation.

[7] More specifically, moral realism.

[8] Richard Swinburne makes a similar argument regarding the phenomenon of heat,
which was originally defined in terms of the subjective, first person awareness of pain.
See his The Existence of God, pp. 205-206.

[9] Nagel’s term in this context. Given his plumping for ‘teleological’ naturalism, it seems
clear that what he is really critiquing is materialistic naturalism.

[10] The proposed ‘solution’ to (a) is to adopt anti-realism. Nagel rejects moral antirealism
as well, as will be shown shortly. However, he notes that for the antirealist “solution” to
work globally, scientific anti-realism must also be adopted. This, however, becomes self-
refuting. The point of answering the problem of (a) was to save MN and evolutionary
explanations. If one adopts scientific anti-realism, then one is no longer a realist about

[11] Mind and Cosmos, p. 91, footnote 6.

[12] This is brought out nicely by Mitch Stokes in his book Shot of Faith (to the Head): “
Notice something else. The atheist naturally thinks that our belief in God is false.
Nevertheless, most human beings have believed in a god of some sort, or at least in a
supernatural realm. But suppose, for argument’s sake, that this widespread belief really is
false, and that it merely provides survival benefits for humans, a coping mechanism of
sorts. If so, then we would have additional evidence—on the atheist’s own terms—that
evolution is more interested in useful beliefs than in true ones. Or, alternatively, if
evolution really is concerned with true beliefs, then maybe the widespread belief in God
would be a kind of “evolutionary” evidence for his existence. You’ve got to wonder.”
(Location 979, Kindle edition)

[13] p. 10, Kindle edition

[14] p. 23, Kindle edition