A different way of thinking—Thomas Nagel considers the mind

Reviewing the reviewers: how the atheists are trying to downplay and deconstruct fellow atheist Thomas Nagel’s latest book, Mind and Cosmos


Published: 28 March 2013 (GMT+10)
Is our mind really just a bag of chemicals, as evolutionary theory would have us believe?
Credit: sxc.hu/juliaf

Picture the scene. A creationist or intelligent design proponent publishes a book questioning evolution. It gets dismissive reviews and vitriolic responses from many in scientific circles.

Adjust the scenario slightly. A respected philosopher who is an avowed atheist and Darwin supporter publishes a book questioning aspects of evolution. It gains wide media exposure, numerous long and ponderous reviews and, while strongly criticized by some, is cautiously well accepted.

Something not right here? The first-mentioned scenario is all too familiar—even expected—but the second one is curious if not a little refreshing.

So what’s going on? Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False1 has caused Darwin defenders to dig deep to contest the author’s claims.

Nagel, 75, is professor of philosophy at New York University and was born into a Jewish family in Belgrade, Serbia.

So what has Nagel said to get pulses racing? He is basically asking whether the human mind can explain itself and says evolutionary biology is wrong in its explanations—hence the book’s challenging subtitle about false claims.

One of Nagel’s observations is telling:

“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.”

He continues:

“What is lacking, to my knowledge, is a credible argument that the story has a nonnegligible probability of being true. There are two questions. First, given what is known about the chemical basis of biology and genetics, what is the likelihood that self-reproducing life forms should have come into existence spontaneously on the early earth, solely through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry? The second question is about the sources of variation in the evolutionary process that was set in motion once life began: In the available geological time since the first life forms appeared on earth, what is the likelihood that, as a result of physical accident, a sequence of viable genetic mutations should have occurred that was sufficient to permit natural selection to produce the organisms that actually exist?”

Another example of Nagel’s challenges to orthodoxy is:

“In thinking about these questions I have been stimulated by criticisms of the prevailing scientific world picture from a very different direction: the attack on Darwinism mounted in recent years … by the defenders of intelligent design. Even though writers like Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer are motivated at least in part by their religious beliefs, the empirical arguments they offer against the likelihood that the origin of life and its evolutionary history can be fully explained by physics and chemistry are of great interest in themselves. … Even if one is not drawn to the alternative of an explanation by the actions of a designer, the problems that these iconoclasts pose for the orthodox scientific consensus should be taken seriously. They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair.”

He stands out from his peers by being willing to at least hear the claims of intelligent design proponents but his hostility to young earth (i.e. biblical) creation is obvious:

“ID is very different from creation science. To an outsider, at least, it does not seem to depend on massive distortion of the evidence and hopeless incoherencies in its interpretation. Nor does it depend, like biblical literalism, on the assumption that the truth of ID is immune to empirical evidence to the contrary.”2

Despite Nagel’s adherence to Darwinian orthodoxy, he did not thereby escape the wrath of the scientific establishment and reviewers devoted thousands of words to do so.

Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg (about 3500 words) described Nagel’s book as “an instrument of mischief”.3 They observed:

“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.”

In his review (about 4400 words!), science philosopher Elliott Sober wrote:

“Current science may suffer from fundamental flaws, but Nagel has not made a convincing case that this is so. And even if there are serious explanatory defects in our world picture, I don’t see how Nagel’s causally inexplicable teleology can be a plausible remedy. In saying this, I realize that Nagel is trying to point the way to a scientific revolution and that my reactions may be mired in presuppositions that Nagel is trying to transcend. If Nagel is right, our descendants will look back on him as a prophet—a prophet whom naysayers such as me were unable to recognize.”4

John Dupré, from the University of Exeter was a little kinder but sounded some words (about 2000) of warning5:

“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.”

Simon Blackburn (about 1000 words) fears Nagel is out to help creationists:

“There is charm to reading a philosopher who confesses to finding things bewildering. But I regret the appearance of this book. It will only bring comfort to creationists and fans of ‘intelligent design’, who will not be too bothered about the difference between their divine architect and Nagel’s natural providence. It will give ammunition to those triumphalist scientists who pronounce that philosophy is best pensioned off. If there were a philosophical Vatican, the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index.”6

So what are we to make of Nagel’s book and the reactions to it? The reviewers acknowledge Nagel has raised some interesting questions but, at the same time, chide him for daring to challenge orthodoxy. It begs the question: Would they have dug as deep to find any flaws if a fellow traveller published a work that attacked creationists?


  1. Nagel, T., Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Oxford University Press, 2012. Return to text.
  2. Nagel, T., “Public education and intelligent design,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 36(2):187–205, 2008. Return to text.
  3. Leiter, B., Weisberg, M., Do You Only Have a Brain? On Thomas Nagel, www.thenation.com/article/170334/do-you-only-have-brain-thomas-nagel?page=full#, 22 October 2012. Return to text.
  4. Sober. E., Remarkable Facts. Ending Science As We Know It, http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.6/elliott_sober_thomas_nagel_mind_cosmos.php, November 2012. Return to text.
  5. Dupré, J., Thomas Nagel, http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/35163-mind-and-cosmos-why-the-materialist-neo-darwinian-conception-of-nature-is-almost-certainly-false/, 29 November 2012. Return to text.
  6. Blackburn, S., Thomas Nagel: a philosopher who confesses to finding things bewildering, http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/culture/2012/11/thomas-nagel-philosopher-who-confesses-finding-things-bewildering, 8 November 2012. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments

Clive W.
" It begs the question: Would they have dug as deep... " It doesn't 'beg the question' at all. It merely poses the question. Begging the question is what evolutionary 'proofs' do: they assume what they set out to prove.
james J.
Keeping things in perspective, all the philosophies of this era , like those in past eras will collapse , like the empires of the past -if not in the near future, then certainly on the day of Jesus Christ.

The only kingdom that will stand and flourish now, and even more so in eternity, is the kingdom of Christ.
Denise P.
Regarding praying for converting scientists, philosophers & humanists ---& philosophy, the Vatican& 'verboten' books --- in my naivete& immature faith, as I began to study this issue, I hadn't a clue regarding the powers at work,& the subtlety of the attack on the churches w/ the 'new' unity, the 're-forming' of the faith, the selective censorship & dialectical steering of the masses. One thing I've learned: when you have a 'darling' suddenly 'puffed' by the powers directing our media& institutions toward the global unity of resurrected Rome---suddenly permitted a voice: the Gospel & true Christ, the lightning rod lifted up & the truth of the Word imbued with the power denied by forms of natural human godliness; that which convicts, converts,measures &sorts goats from sheep is being compromised, & the attention subtly turned from Him & the Word, toward self, men, systems & vain philosophy & temporal kingdom-building & salvations. Ask Drs. Damadian, John Sanford, etc what happens to ones voice & sphere of influence in the world when a clear witness & testimony to the absolute truth of the full counsel, chronology, & testimony of Christ, the spirit of prophecy is involved ----regardless of the excellence or capability of the messenger. Is it worth it? Of course. Pray always. But don't be deceived by the almost-gospels & never-ever be satisfied with them or deceived into thinking that further compromise to win a greater hearing or audience achieves anything of eternal value in the battle for the souls of mankind. One might 'win' the world& 'save' America by such means ---but it's only the hollow victory of 1 Thessalonians 5 'peace & security' ---& the battle of resistance continues until we enter that final rest that yet remains & lay aside these corruptible tents.
David Catchpoole
Denise P.
All I have to say is remember another naturalistic Jewish philosopher named Baruch Spinoza whose naturalistic pantheism & human divinity ideas of 'transcendence' and 'visionary prophetic illumination' straight out of occultic kabbala & Babylonian universalism some sought to 'merge' with Christianity with disastrous results. To the Word and to the Testimony... Such arguments must be used with extreme caution & the clear understanding of their deficiency & limitations, with every deviation from the Word of God clearly noted that Christ's 'little ones' not be offended & that we not be co-opted into the building of the wrong kingdom & the gathering of the wrong army. Remember what Jesus said to the Pharisees, Sadduccees & Herodians concerning making the word of God of no effect by their philosophy... We don't want to be found on the road back to the Harlot---let alone in bed with her!
Marc K.
Sorry, Warren, but you didn't "beg the question"; you raised one.
John G.
Good to see someone in the materialist camp face the facts - the raw data - and draw conclusions without bias. Shades of professor Anthony Flew.
True science must not ever refuse to consider what is the most obvious explanation, especially when that most obvious explanation is manifest over a multiplicity of disciplines.
Geoff C. W.
Dear Warren,
A little pedantry here. I, as a fan of language and of its richness in all its forms, have publicly applauded authors on this site for their "correct" use of the expression: "begs the question". I fear however that in your article you may have stumbled into the emerging (or emerged) incorrect use of it. As I said, pedantry.
Nevertheless, thanks for your article and for its contribution to the body of truth which stands against the lie of evolutionism.
Stephen K.
I note that the criticisms imply that Darwinism, being the reigning paradigm, may not be criticized or falsified until and unless the critic provides an improved materialistic explanation for the existence and diversity of life. Thus, they continue with their standard practice of prejudicing the argument in their own favor. It is as much as to say, "We may not always be right, but we are never wrong."
Gennaro C.
Why such a grudge against truth? One may ask. When the word of prophecy foretells that in the last times 'scoffers' will proliferate (2 Peter 3:3), why these 'last ones' can't recognise their blindness when confronted? The best reaction is to pray for them that it may happen that they may open their eyes to the truth, God's truth, as some of them happened to do.

On the other hand, wouldn't it be like a sign, a word of solace for us believers that the times are getting mature? "When these things begins to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near", said Jesus.
Benjamin L.
If an Atheist can use his brain to find faults in Darwinism, why are the bible fundamentalists so blind not to see their faults? IMO it is their pride to defend faith, but they only defend their religious doctrin and how they read their faith into the bible, that creates by the way all the denominations. They have a problem with Ps 85:11 "Truth shall spring out of the earth". They are on obsticle to scientists and to the young generation, on the universitys they are falling away and one reason is a wrong theology of creation. It is written "In the beginning God created the Heavens and the earth. Why do you think heavens stands before the earth. You should study your bible. You will find that the angels rejoised when the earth were created. Job will also give you some inside. The bible tells us also that Satan is the father of lies from the beginning. You should also find out when that started. If you have done your homework than you can go on and believe all the rest you believe already now.
God bless! Benjamin
David Catchpoole
Thanks Benjamin, for your comment. You have suggested that we find out when "the beginning" was.

Well, how's this: Jesus and the age of the earth and How does the Bible teach 6,000 years?
Annabelle W.
How encouraging is this!!! Thank-you so much CMI for this article. It is something wonderful when an atheist starts questioning evolution - something that too many are afraid to do out of fear of what others might say. Thank-you, again, for this thoroughly encouraging article that has again inspired me to stand up for Creationism outside of a Christian context.
bill L.
having studied both philosophy and biology at university i find it very strange that a philospher with an arguement can be used as a defender of creation when we have respected authorities who argue against this
i am not saying who is correct but this arguement will not hold water with scientists and people who believe that the story in the bible is incorrect
Robert B.
I guess it took a philosopher to have a distant enough view to see that "The Emperor has no clothes!" with regard to the evolutionist/materialist explanation of the origins of sentience and life in all it's forms.

It's tragicomic that all the reviewers expressed the thought that it would be better to "circle the wagons" and not admit the shaky evidence supporting naturalism. Intellectual honesty was less important to them than keeping the notion of a creator out of the debate.

Mauritz V.
Nice one! It just confirms something known for thousands of years, ever since God gave His “breath” to humans we were carrying something “out of this world” inside us. This is manifested in the way we reason and behave, it is most evident in the so-called problem of free will. I love it when these “super-natural” occurrences are baffling to the naturalists!
Gary F.
I wish I would have been exposed to these ideas at the university.
Will G.
first of all when he used a word like Darwinism proved where already study and it also shows the he lack just the very foundation of the evolutionary theory which is one of the most validated theory we have today it is even more validated then the theory of gravity he pick only a small part of evolution to question so he showed he did fully understand what he was questioning and one thing only doesn't account for all of it but it accounts for most of it
David Catchpoole
Is evolutionary theory as easy to 'fully understand' as your comment?
Peter N.
Simon Blackburn says:"If there were a philosophical Vatican, the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index.”

In other words, he'd consider banning the book!
Errol B.
I pray for people like Thomas Nagel, Mary Schweitzer, Alan Feduccia, Paul Davies & Craig Venter. I sense they could be one epiphany away from conversion. Imagine the possibilities, how they could shake things up, if only they realized the big picture they are seeing is made up of thousands of adjusted pixels to accommodate pure naturalism. What would the big picture look like if occam’s razor were allowed free reign.
David Catchpoole
Thanks, Errol, I wonder if the atheists know that Christians pray for them? Incidentally, although Mary Schweitzer is an evolutionist, she's not an atheist, as it has been reported that she is a professing Christian. See Schweitzer's dangerous discovery.
michael S.
It's interesting to hear the dogmatic responses from the evolutionists. Nothing new there then. But even Nagel makes a blunder here, design is subject to falsification, the same way the design of a ferrari is subject to falsification, which is to say, nobody would bother to try and falsify that which is factually deducible.

When something is factually deducible, such as the fact that was deduced, that we breathe "exotic" air, called oxygen, I'm sure it was challenged, but if something can be deduced, falsification then becomes moot, in that, the obviousness of the truth-value of the statement becomes overwhelming, beyond debate.

That evolutionists have duped themselves into denying design, doesn't mean it isn't there, any more than oxygen isn't there.
Chris W.
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’...comes to mind! 1 COR 1:18
Hans G.
When I picture a creationist sitting there and is reading the Bible or is listening to creationist scientists and is approached by a skeptic, he most likely will respond in a calm way, because he does know the truth.
And when the creationist looks to the ground he sees an ants nest with evolutionist ants busy running around looking for the truth. Now, some skeptic throws a little stick on this nest then you can see how berserk those evolution ants run around trying to defend their........what? Theory?
Angus M.
Hmmm... very interesting. Big changes don't happen easily, but small changes in the paradigms of society will hopefully lead to a complete reversal down the road.

I do hope that the seeds of doubt in the philosopher's mind lead him to Christ.
P. T.
It seems that even brilliant minds are ultimately wasted until they willingly submit to the sovereign authority of the God who created them! And it's exciting when one of them develops a crack in his/her armour (refusal to 'hear' God) and permits a ray of God's truth to light up their thinking. What a great testimony to the living God when one out-and-out UNbeleiver becomes a believer - lets keep on praying for scientific 'leaders' to see the light and take a stand for truth and true scientific inquiry.
Callum H.
"There are none so blind as those who do not wish to see."

I think this perfectly describes what happens when someone even remotely disagrees with the Darwinian propaganda that is so prevalent throughout our society. One thing I will never understand is how people can refer to the human brain as 'nothing more than a bag of chemicals' when it is the most advanced processor in existence and yet the notion of calling a supercomputer 'nothing more than a box of silicon' is deemed ridiculous.

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