Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos” – not quite a review

by Neil Rickert

I have been reading Nagel’s book, “Mind and Cosmos:Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False“, so naturally I want to say something about it.  However, this won’t be the usual kind of review.  There’s no need for that.  There are already plenty of reviews available for this book, some of them scathing critiques and some of them offering high praise.

For myself, I disagree with much of what Nagel writes.  But I find it interesting nonetheless.  Readers of this blog will have noticed that I disagree with a lot of traditional philosophy.  And Nagel particularly emphasizes some of those parts where I disagree.  So, in a way, this highlights my disagreement.  If I were to suggest an alternative title for Nagel’s book, it might be:

  • “What’s wrong with philosophy” on steroids

I may have a few future posts where I pick out some of Nagel’s positions and comment on where and why I disagree.  For this post, however, I want to take a brief overall look at the book.

The main topics

As suggested by the title, part of the book is concerned with criticizing the theory of evolution, most particularly Darwinism.  Chapter 1 (“Introduction”) is particularly concerned with this, though objections to Darwinism can be found throughout the book.

Nagel extends this to a criticism of reductionist materialism and naturalism.  That topic dominates chapter 2 (“Antireductionism and the Natural Order”), but parts of the criticism can be found throughout the book.

Chapter 3 (“Consciousness”) is concerned with human consciousness, which Nagel sees as of particular importance.  Here, he discusses what he sees as a failure of science and reductionist materialism to be able to account for consciousness.  His primary focus here is on the subjective aspects of mind, the kind of issues that he had previously raised in his “What is it like to be a bat?

Nagel continues with a discussion of the more public aspects of mind in chapter 4 (“Cognition”).  Here he is concerned with our ability to have knowledge, to reason, to make judgments, to assess truth.  And, once again, he sees this as unable to be explained by naturalist science.

The book concludes with chapters 5 (“Value”) and 6 (“Conclusion”).  His chapter 6 is mostly an overall summary.  His chapter 5 is concerned with ethics.  That’s a bit outside my own interests in philosphy, so I’ll have little to say on that.  In chapter 5, he does try to make the case for the existence of some sort of natural teleology to explain what he sees as unexplainable by science.

Where does Nagel go wrong?

Nagel comes to the book with some starting assumptions.  One of those assumptions is in his objective idealism:

The view that rational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order makes me, in a broad sense, an idealist–not a subjective idealist, since it doesn’t amount to the claim that all reality is ultimately appearance–but an objective idealist in the tradition of Plato and perhaps also of certain post-Kantians, such as Schelling and Hegel, who are usually called absolute idealists. (page 17)

The other assumption that he seems to make, though perhaps not as explicitly, is what some evangelical Christians refer to as “human exceptionalism”.  These assumptions seem to lead directly to his criticisms of naturalist science and of Darwinism.

Human exceptionalism

This is the view that places humans as the centerpiece of the universe.  For evangelical Christians, this is a consequence of their view that God created man in His own image.  I’m not sure where this view comes from for Nagel, though I expect that his objective idealism is part of what brings him to this view.

Nagel does not quite assert a belief in human exceptionalism, but he comes close when he writes:

My guiding conviction is that mind is not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature. (p. 16)

It is the human mind, not the human body, that Nagel sees as central.

With something like human exceptionalism as a starting assumption, it is almost inevitable that one will conclude that Darwinism is false.  This is what is sometimes called “the bridge hand fallacy”.  If I deal a hand of bridge (the card game), then that particular hand is statistically very improbable.  If I take it that the goal of dealing the hand was to produce just that particular improbable arrangement of the cards, then I am going to conclude that the deck must have been stacked, that it could not have resulted from a random shuffling of the cards.  On the other hand, if I accept that the goal of dealing was just to produce some arrangement of cards, not the particular arrangement that we have, then there is no issue of improbability.  Indeed, it is virtually certain that some arrangement of cards will have been produced.

The view of evolutionary biologists, is that evolutionary processes will produce a diverse biosphere.  However, they do not see any specific outcome as guaranteed.  That humans are a product of evolution is a matter of contingency.  If we could rewind the tape of the universe, and start over, it is possible that nothing at all like humans would arise.

Those who assume human exceptionalism, that humans are a necessary outcome of whatever produced biological life, will see it as highly improbable if only Darwinian processes were available.  That is why they need the idea of a guiding intelligence.

It is, I think, a serious failure of Nagel to start with the assumption that the purpose is to produce something like the human mind, and then to conclude that the universe must contain some sort of natural purpose.  He ought to at least see that his conclusion comes directly from his own starting assumption.

Objective idealism

I perhaps cannot explain quite what is meant by “objective idealism.”  As I occasionally remind the readers of this blog, I am not a trained philosopher.  However, an analogy with Platonist mathematics seems appropriate.  Many mathematicians take the view that mathematical objects (such as numbers) exist objectively and are independent of our thoughts.  However, it is said to take something like a human mind to discern them.  Presumably an objective idealist holds the view that material objects exist independently of the human mind, but it requires a mind to discern those objects.

I take it that most philosophers are not objective idealists.  But there is some sort of idealism that I see in Nagel’s writings that does seem be shared by other philosophers.  He seems to have an idealized view of human reasoning, of language, of rationality, of truth.  And I see that kind of idealism as getting in the way of an understanding of consciousness and of human cognition.


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