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


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?

Published: 28 March 2013


  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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