Nagel Summarizes Nagel

The subtitle of Thomas Nagel’s 2012 book, “Mind and Cosmos”, makes evident why it unleashed such a stir within the scientific and philosophical establishments: ‘Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False’. That’s two sacred cows skewered in one fell swoop, the first a kind of hidden dogma not generally exposed to the light of agoric day, and the second a beloved and enshrined foundational darling! What made things worse was that Nagel was/is a serious respected philosopher with decades of establishment credibility, including avowed atheism, prompting figures like Pinker and Dennett to publicly wonder what had gotten into their old colleague. Nagel’s book is not an easy read. You have to keep awake on every page, go slowly, and double back sometimes. Due to this and the ensuing ruckus, he offered a short clarifying summary of the book’s core thesis in a brief NY Times essay a year later, which is the subject of this current article.

Nagel Until 2012

Thomas Nagel, who still teaches at NYU, has been a professional philosopher for more than half a century. During that time he’s published widely on a variety of topics: theory of mind, epistemology, ethics, altruism and political philosophy. His early landmark paper, ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’, a seminal effort to redirect neglected attention upon the notion of subjectivity when considering consciousness, has often been and still is referenced within journal articles. Nagel is a serious thinker who has consistently sought to remain grounded within real-world matters at the expense of excess theory. The stances he’s sculpted over his career have nuance and exhibit a careful willingness to shun facile polarities in favor of staking out new territory in the no-man’s land between opposites. Of course, this practice has earned him his share of critical attacks.

For example, while maintaining a pointed stance against Intelligent Design (ID), he had no problem publishing a laudatory review of Stephen Meyer’s meticulous 2009 defense of ID while investigating DNA, Signature in the Cell, citing it’s legitimately scientific approach, while disagreeing with it’s conclusions. Nagel has similarly castigated the reflexive academic and popularist outcry against writers like Michael Behe and David Berlinski, stating that their printed work is much more thoughtful and worthy of consideration than is generally acknowledged, and being fair enough to point out the fallacy of implying any identity between “Creation Science” and ID.

“The denier that ID [intelligent design] is science faces the following dilemma. Either he admits that the intervention of such a designer is possible, or he does not. If he does not, he must explain why that belief is more scientific than the belief that a designer is possible. If on the other hand he believes that a designer is possible, then he can argue that the evidence is overwhelmingly against the actions of such a designer, but he cannot say that someone who offers evidence on the other side is doing something of a fundamentally different kind. All he can say about that person is that he is scientifically mistaken (if he can argue so).”

His Mind and Cosmos is a reasoned, insistent philosophical deconstruction of the long under scrutinized project which argues that all known phenomena have explainably arisen from purely material sources largely via the agency of natural selection. He’s done this at the twilight of a long career, when venerable philosophers are inclined to sum up their views based upon all previous experience, — something not given sufficient weight in my view — and during which he’s enjoyed mainstream success and professed his personal atheism. Nagel navigates the apparent (at cursory glance) contradiction here by blithely simplifying: he says he is devoid of the sensus divinitatis or temperament inclined to entertain divine agency. Basically, he admits that it is idiosyncratic predilection rather than any formal philosophical argument which grounds his atheism.

“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Wouldn’t it be great if more of the rhetoric from figures like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, or Laurence Krauss, who mysteriously take themselves not to be impassioned zealots, were as straightforward and honest as this?

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The Price of Science

Mind and Cosmos interweaves three main ideas in my reading. The principle one, occupying much of the book, is a detailed look at which sorts of common everyday phenomena give lie to the proposal of materialism, and why. Along with this, Nagel devotes time to his own speculations about how to fill the resulting explanatory void, involving a sort of natural teleology. It is important to note that Nagel does not tie the correctness of his first point to the effectiveness of this speculating. And neither should any reader or critic. The criticisms of materialism as a core worldview stand on their own, and are of pivotal importance. I would find the book perhaps more compelling if the teleological ideas were simply left out or appendixed, and perhaps Nagel leans in this direction in view of the fact that the essay clarifying the book’s core argument entirely omits mention of them.

The third important idea is one frequently passed over too lightly, and is highlighted at the very beginning of the article. Let’s rely on his own words:

“The scientific revolution of the 17th century, which has given rise to such extraordinary progress in the understanding of nature, depended on a crucial limiting step at the start: It depended on subtracting from the physical world as an object of study everything mental – consciousness, meaning, intention or purpose.”

It’s hard not to underestimate the implications of this devil’s bargain, as it goes to the very roots of our epistemology. Nagel concludes that since mentation was ruled out of bounds methodologically at the outset, the resulting body of knowledge cannot of course be reliably expected to offer comment upon it. But the blind spot is worse than that, since all too often in current conversation this initial restriction is completely forgotten about. Intellectuals of all sorts proceed as though everything mental, psychological, and subjective are still parts of the subset of the natural universe which the physical sciences are studying. Thinking is a forgotten human function during this pulse-taking, although it is obviously crucial to every conclusion drawn, every hypothesis envisioned, every experiment designed, and every hunch followed or passed over. When the physicist-cum-gadfly Laurence Krauss maintains in a televised debate that philosophy is outdated and no longer can have any meaningful contribution to our unfolding grasp of nature, he is basically displaying his ignorance about this hidden-in-plain-view axiom lying within the embryo of how modern science operates. For only the philosophy of science, standing free outside of the ‘crucial limiting step’ and observing it, can show where the trail’s gone cold. It is a different, though certainly not unimportant, discussion as to whether or not a science methodology could have been constructed such that mental phenomena and interiority were included as essential aspects of the subject matter from the get-go. (I’m not alone in saying yes.) But for now we remain blocked until clearly seeing and admitting that the resultant scientific process only describes a portion of nature, and does so necessarily.

“The mind-body problem is difficult enough that we should be suspicious of attempts to solve it with the concepts and methods developed to account for very different kinds of things.”

Nagel is explicit about not detracting from the praiseworthiness of the results of science, just from the errant beliefs about it’s completeness. Theory of Everything enthusiasts cleanly illustrate the mistake. If you pursue physics determinedly enough over time, you will develop a deep appreciation for the beauty of it’s ideas and results. Additionally, if not careful, you might come to think there is nothing else left to be described. The prejudicial scientific disinterest in anything mental, or it’s systematic minimizing, has come full circle. But higher sciences are not off the hook either according to Nagel. Because since sentience is already a feature of life in some of it’s most basic forms, and because animals clearly exhibit consciousness too, then evolution as presently understood is also only a contingent proposition. It cannot, by necessity, say how mentation comes to be an aspect of reality via purely physical means. It cannot be inherently unscientific to consider mentation as some would prefer; a theory of everything needs to study and explain everything. Rather if science wishes to more fairly and completely study natural reality, it must rethink some fundamental assumptions. Minimally, this necessitates recognizing that they are assumptions in the first place.

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Giving Immanence It’s Due

It’s worth considering examples to illustrate this conceptual blind spot, if only to grant an entrypoint to the landscape for those willing to not be religiously committed to materialism. In 1922, an interesting dispute arose between Einstein and the French philosopher Henri Bergson about the nature of time. Well over a decade had passed since Einstein’s revolutionary breakthroughs, and his fame was global. Bergson was a very highly regarded philosopher during the first decades of the 20th century. His fame has dissipated into the fabric of cultural memory somewhat since then, but recently his ideas are being looked at anew especially in light of widening debates over reductionism and materialism. Bergson, himself trained in mathematics, steered clear of disputing the veracity of any of Einstein’s then remarkable cosmological results, including time dilation due to near light speeds. Instead, he called out Einstein’s metaphysics as he saw them, meaning his too exuberant interpretation of the results. Bergson was intellectually offended by Einstein’s elimination of duration as an experience, the interiority of time, in his formulation. He had done extensive work on the varieties of psychological relationships between inner states and the sensing of time, touching upon memory, dreaming, creativity, anxiety, focus, simultaneity, and the passing of thoughts. Call to mind novelist Thomas Mann’s reflection, which links time perception, even time as an entity, to a sufficient stage of consciousness:

“One of the most important characteristics distinguishing man from all other forms of nature is his knowledge of transitoriness, of beginning and end, and therefore of the gift of time. Man’s soul is most awake in his knowledge of the inter-changeability of the terms “existence” and “transitoriness.”

Bergson had penetrated too deeply into the philosophical analysis of time as a phenomenon (minus the 17th century reduction) to permit Einstein to overstep his bounds and claim that his brilliant cosmological reduction was all that was essential. Einstein famously remarked that the ‘time of the philosphers did not exist’. Jimena Canales, a talented science historian, has written an excellent reretelling of these events which is sensitive to both the scientific and cultural contexts. She views the Bergson-Einstein encounter and it’s aftermath as a vital inflection point within the modern dispersing of the paths of the sciences and humanities. I also recommend these two short pieces to get an initial grasp on the story.

“If we pay no attention to it, time does not exist.” – Mircea Eliade

Another example is described within Jaron Lanier’s hilarious essay You Can’t Argue With A Zombie, written to counter the rush to dismiss consciousness as a worthwhile thing to study after Dennett’s influential popularist works of the 1980s and ’90s. Lanier relates his experiences teaching a graduate computer science class at Dartmouth where he notices the surprisingly unanimous yet uncritical acceptance of the idea that software can be intelligent, even more intelligent than humans, and that this intelligence is resident within the software, thus clearing a pathway for the future uploading of our minds. Lanier walks through the following logical progression with his students: (1) replacing each of our neurons with silicon devices of similar function, (2) replacing each neuron with software algorithms of similar function and such that they are networked (on disk) exactly in the same way the original neurons were connected, (3) the previous operation with the added proviso that no organic or biological interlocutors exist — only other ‘software beings’. He then asks where in this progressing chain of virtualization do students feel queasy about insisting that their consciousness, e.g. themselves, survives unsullied, if ever. To the hardcore reductionists optimistic even at stage (3) he asks the question: Where does the software and computers come from which will accommodate these future software-only beings? The student’s confusion at this point illustrates how automatic, unconscious, and successful is the ingraining of the 17th century gambit. The modern experimenter and student, often even students of cognition, have been so trained to set aside any considerations of their own thinking that they forget it is absolutely inherent in most circumstances. Any imaginary world of software beings, reduced from former human minds, would need to avail themselves of some kind of external thinking agency to provide, troubleshoot, architect, and maintain whatever logical and physical framework the software beings exist within. A piece of Python code doesn’t just walk up to you and say hello.

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There is plenty of evidence found within the disciplines of philosophy of science and history of science that the closer one gets back to Kepler the less muddy is the realization that placing mentation aside for purposes of convenience in conducting a certain style of investigation is not equivalent to either believing, proving or deciding that it is not in fact an integral aspect of all known phenomena. Nowadays it is not difficult to encounter intellectuals who can no longer make this distinction. Does science by definition have to rely upon this enforced schism between immanent (indwelling and inherent) aspects of phenomena and externally measurable aspects in order to proceed? The question is essential to look at rigorously for the present impasse, and the answer is ‘no’ for many thinkers who have looked. Nagel puts it like so:

“… a scientific understanding of nature need not be limited to a physical theory of the objective spatio-temporal order. It makes sense to seek an expanded form of understanding that includes the mental but that is still scientific — i.e. still a theory of the immanent order of nature.”

Classifying Nagel’s Detractors

Beside wishing to clarify his central thesis in the summary piece, Nagel’s other goal was to map out the main critical responses towards it. In his view there have been four main reasonable responses over the course of philosophical argument. Let’s take the term ‘mentation’ as an umbrella for the aspects of reality he considers to be omitted from the unfolding natural scientific description of the past three or four centuries, including phenomena like subjective experience, consciousness, intent, meaning, intuition, and so on. Nagel sees two categories of basic objections to his thesis, each containing two options, as follows:

1) Deny Mentation’s Essentialness
      1A) — by Claiming it is Identical to Known Material Processes
      1B) — by Claiming it is Illusory

Or, admit the essentiality of Mentation, but…

2) Deny Mentation Requires a Revamped Scientific Conceptualization
      2A) — by Claiming it is Merely an Accidental Fluke
      2B) — by Claiming it is Properly Addressed by Theology (Divine Intervention)

In other words, mentation phenomena are either explained away through some form of reductionism (1) or declared uninteresting within the province of scientific inquiry (2). The first type (1A) of reductionism is somewhat habitual or automatic within current academic orthodoxy. It occurs as a byproduct of the limiting factor seeded within the roots of the Age or Reason which Nagel cites in his opening paragraph. While it seems initially innocuous to rigorously ‘objectify’ the manner of scientific inquiry by legislating out any possible subjective side effects tied to the investigator’s mental processes, scientific practitioners and spectators can and do quickly forget that the total space of attributes associated with a given phenomenon was divided in the first place. Confused by this systematic memory lapse, science is then free to construct a false equality between what it is studying and the original fully featured phenomenon.

Option (1B) is exemplified by Daniel Dennett’s early thinking concerning the phenomenon of consciousness. Jaron Lanier told a story in the very early days of the Edge intellectual forum about a conversation with Dennett about how (or whether) he experiences consciousness. Dennett rebuffed every description of a subjective experience which Lanier offered in trying to illustrate it’s reality, by claiming he had no such experiences, only a kind of operational awareness of the present thought or perception. Lanier judged that Dennett was being disingenuous, provocative and purposely contrarian behind the twinkle in his eyes. To be fair, Dennett’s later position, outlined in his prematurely optimistic Consciousness Explained oscillated between (1B) and (1A), often accepting the veracity of the perceived experience of consciousness while seeking to undermine it’s reality.

Once Darwinian materialists accept the essential reality of subjective mental phenomena within the cosmos, in other words once they are taking mentation seriously, then it becomes incumbent upon them to explain how and why such phenomena arise given there is no selection advantage for it and no accounting whatsoever for it within a purely physical world evolution. Included within (2A) is the notion of emergence in it’s various forms, which basically holds that mentation has developed incidentally along the way while natural law has been constraining the universal sandbox and Darwinian selection has been working it’s random magic. Some thinkers adhere to this position but the majority finds it unsatisfactory. One is reminded here of multiverse theory as a ploy to explain away the perceived remarkable convenience of how several known physical universal constants conspire to make life on Earth and in the cosmos plausible. There are also many non-atheist scientists who consider that the physical sciences along with Darwinism correctly describes observed physical phenomena while divine elements in line with their faith or intuition have been responsible for effecting the consciousness(2B). The evolutionary paleontologist Jay Gould is well known for his mental construct of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) which stipulates that the scientific and theological mills have respectably disjoint grists and are best forever compartmentalized apart from one another. Nagel dislikes this type of narrative. One senses that he wants a monistic body of inquiry which would wholly consider every aspect of any phenomena from the start. In this view mentation phenomena are entirely ‘natural’ and it is only because concepts about scientific methodology are awry that we are living with such increasingly unresolved dualism and paradox since Kant, Descartes, Kepler, and so on. Let’s review his conclusion, cited above:

“A scientific understanding of nature need not be limited to a physical theory of the objective spatio-temporal order. It makes sense to seek an expanded form of understanding that includes the mental but that is still scientific — i.e. still a theory of the immanent order of nature.”

So, Nagel denies that we are in a zero-sum contest between divine intervention and materialism. From a philosophy of science perspective, he is much less offended by theism than he is by excess conservatism protecting long standing methodological foundations. Though he prefers a non-theistic worldview, he makes space for it, allowing that the expanded view of naturalism he is advocating for could be completely acceptable to theists since there would always be a place for a prime originator or conceiver of the cosmos. (Notwithstanding Lawrence Krauss, it really is a question as to why there is something rather than nothing.) Instead, he cares most about us not perpetuating a damaged, error-prone world conception of our own.

“Mind, I suspect, is not an inexplicable accident or a divine and anomalous gift but a basic aspect of nature that we will not understand until we transcend the built-in limits of contemporary scientific orthodoxy.”

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The argument expounded in Mind and Cosmos can be briefly distilled as follows, according to Nagel’s own suggestion.

1) Modern Science, despite it’s obvious achievements and cultural centrality, has achieved it’s results by systematically excluding anything mental from it’s methodology or consideration at it’s outset in the 17th century.

2) There is a widespread belief that this science can, by natural extension of existing trends, explain all phenomena we encounter in the universe, including mentation phenomena.

3) This belief is wrong precisely because such phenomena were methodologically excluded in favor of assessing purely physical phenomena.

4) The logical limitation goes beyond pure physics to include chemistry and biology, and by extension neurology, because mentation phenomena would have to be explainable from the beginning, even for primitive life forms, solely via the mechanisms of evolution. In other words, Darwinian biology can only ever expose a portion of natural phenomena to knowledge.

5) Objections to the above position arise in four forms, two of which can be classified as reductionism (material reduction and phenomenal reduction), and the other two as untestable or a-scientific (astronomically unlikely happenstance and divine intervention).

6) Nagel believes most scientists and intellectuals who do not accept his position gravitate towards the first type of reductionism because it offers the best defense against divine agency (or something like ID) which they cannot stomach as a possibility. He regards the other two types of objection as marginal.

One vital implication of Nagel’s line of argument is that the underlying structural assumptions for how science is done both can and should be reconfigured. Nagel believes a successful reconfiguration would bypass the predicament described within the four types of objections, and would necessarily reunite all known aspects of natural phenomena. It must be both valid and possible to rigorously investigate those aspects of phenomena which were originally (but not of absolute necessity) excluded from the scientific process. This new scientific methodology would have to forge a different relation between subjectivity and objectivity than is currently accepted. One could imagine C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures‘ becoming obsoleted.

Also, Nagel’s analyses should be welcomed by open-minded persons because it is a potentially freeing maneuver, inviting us to subject an assumption become axiom become dogma to fair and rigorous scrutiny. Regardless of how deliberately or consciously the original methodological choices originated, their effect over time has been to close off honest investigations due to a logically unsupported commitment to the presently most dominant theoretical paradigm. Basically, Nagel is contending that since no one in the scientific community has any convincing idea as to how mentation phenomena could have developed from strictly physical processes, it is logically worthwhile to consider that such properties were fundamentally an aspect of the cosmos in the first place. All resistance to this possibility seems to stem from simple unwillingness to go against conformity with the predominant opinion. There is absolutely no scientific justification for not considering that mentation might be a fundamental aspect in the universe. A thorough review of the original scientific ground rules, and what they’ve become, is one of the most important possible intellectual undertakings in our present situation. The cultural symptoms potentially addressed by this study are vast and include the schism between the humanities (or their outright dismissal) and sciences within western culture. It would reinvigorate the humanities because it is a philosophical research program, not an exclusively scientific one. The psychological impact of decades of unquestioned supremacy for the physical sciences and technology upon society is widely unrecognized, but serious and perceptive thinkers are active more and more in this area. Perhaps the best implication of the direction Nagel is indicating is that science in general does not deserve the authoritative stance accorded to it in contemporary life, because it’s built-in blind spot happens to coincide with what is most central and intimate to each individual.


I wish many would read and think about Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos but recognize that some might want to ease into this thinker a bit before committing to a denser work. Suggested therefore are two shorter pieces from him, one a review of Dawkin’s 1999 book, Unweaving the Rainbow, and the other a sympathetic look at Alvin Plantanga’s 2011 book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Also, you can read a reasonably balanced review of Nagel’s book here.

Handy INDEX — scan through all available articles


  1. A fascinating post, a subject that for many years, in many ways I had followed, and ponder, like the Teleological argument, the initial Singularity, and our subjectivity, the fact of our solipsistic mental nature.
    And yes, I found Thomas Nagel challenge to scientist valid, and exciting for Science to raise to the challenge, who too easily are trying to dismiss philosophers to the dustbin of History.
    In my view a mistake of a few centuries old, and their now ingrained prejudices a hard task to overcome.
    However living in the age of Knowledge, and Heraclitus πάντα ῥεῖ: panta rhei,

    “Ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers.”

    Something great may come out of all of these. 🙂


    1. Wow, how nice to see some Greek within the commentaries! Thanks much for reading and reflecting upon this post, now nearly three years old. I’m glad it sits with you comfortably. I think Nagel simply needs a few more allies, more sympathetic voices with credentials which thought leaders would take seriously, despite themselves. I cannot function at those levels, but I can still poke at the leviathan. I’m working now upon a similar piece along the lines of getting clearer about the distinctions between subjective and objective,a nd seeing just where our legitimate knowledge resides. Thanks again.


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