The intelligibility of the world

by Neil Rickert

As I recently mentioned, I intend taking some quotes from Nagel and presenting my position.  I’ll start with a comment on intelligibility:

The intelligibility of the world is no accident. Mind, in this view, is doubly related to the natural order. Nature is such as to give rise to conscious beings with minds; and it is such as to be comprehensible to such beings. Ultimately, therefore, such beings should be comprehensible to themselves. And these are fundamental features of the universe, not byproducts of contingent developments whose true explanation is given in terms that do not make reference to mind. (p. 17 of “Mind and Cosmos”).

When I look at that quote in my Kindle software, I see a note that 94 readers have highlighted that particular text.  So this is not merely Nagel’s opinion.  It is a view that is enthusiastically shared by a number of readers.

You can see Nagel’s human exceptionalism in that quote.  He seems to presuppose that nature exists for the purpose of creating conscious minds.  And in his final sentence of that quoted paragraph he is quite clear that he is rejecting evolution (“byproducts of contingent developments”) a priori.


My aim, in this post, is not to directly argue evolution vs. design.  Rather, I want to disagree with Nagel’s assertion about intelligibility.

There’s no doubt, of course, that we see the world as intelligible to us.  But let’s review a little history.

Radioactivity is an aspect of the world that is intelligible to us.  However, it was not discovered until the late 18th century.  It would not have been intelligible to Aristotle.  However, Aristotle would not have seen it as an unintelligible part of the world, for he would not have seen it at all.  Radioactivity would have been invisible to Aristotle.

Or look at electricity, which we find intelligible.  Aristotle would have been familiar with lightning and with the effects we attribute to electrostatics.  But our modern use of electrical currents and of electronics (as in the computer I am using) would not have been intelligible to Aristotle.  It would have been invisible to him, though it is intelligible to us.

Daylight was intelligible to ancient people (such as depicted in Genesis) as a luminosity of the sky that was independent of the sun.  By contrast, we know that daylight is due to the scattering of the sun’s light off atmospheric molecules.  The solar system was intelligible to the Ptolemaic astronomers as the sun and planets moving around the earth, with complex paths (cycles and epicycles for the planets).  To us, the solar system is intelligible as the planets (which include the earth) moving around the sun in approximately elliptic paths.

Just as radioactivity and electrical currents were not intelligible to Aristotle, it is quite possible that there are aspects of our world that are not intelligible to us.  Just as daylight was intelligible to ancient people in a way that we now know to be mistaken, it might turn out that we are similarly mistaken about aspects of the world that seem intelligible to us.

What we can say, is this:

Those aspects of the world that are intelligible to us are intelligible to us in just the way that they are intelligible to us.

Now this might be a remarkable thing.  Indeed, I have just remarked on it.  However, it seems entirely tautological.  What it amounts to, is that the intelligibility of the world that Nagel and many highlighters find important, is little more than an illusion.  It is brought about by the fact that our perceptual systems pick out what is intelligible to us, and leave everything else as mostly invisible.

And this is what we should expect from an evolved perceptual ability.  A perception that presented us with an unintelligible world would be useless or perhaps even harmful.  There would be no selective pressure for that kind of perceptual ability to evolve.  A perception that presents the intelligible aspects of the world is, however, very useful, so should be favored by selective pressures.

Science and intelligibility

On the previous page in his book, Nagel writes:

Science is driven by the assumption that the world is intelligible. That is, the world in which we find ourselves, and about which experience gives us some information, can be not only described but understood. That assumption is behind every pursuit of knowledge, including pursuits that end in illusion.

I find myself very much doubting that.  Of course, I cannot read the minds of others to see what drives them.  However, it looks to me as if scientists are not making an a priori assumption of intelligibility.  It seems to me that scientists are pragmatists.  They study some aspect of the world that they find puzzling, in the hope that they will reach a better understanding.  However, if they fail in that study, they move onto another puzzle.  If they partially succeed, they redirect their study toward what is succeeding.  History books record the successes, but say little of the failures.  So recorded history presents a misleading picture of how science works.  The old saying “nothing succeeds like success” suggests a better idea of what drives science.

2 Comments to “The intelligibility of the world”

  1. “However, it looks to me as if scientists are not making an a priori assumption of intelligibility. It seems to me that scientists are pragmatists.”

    I think there may be a problem of semantics here. I can’t see much difference between “an a priori assumption of intelligibility” and “study[ing] some aspect of the world that they find puzzling, in the hope that they will reach a better understanding.” Either way, scientists do what they do in expectation that the puzzle will be intelligable.


    • We seem to be disagreeing about what Nagel meant by “assume”.

      • John purchased a lottery ticket because he assumed it would win.
      • John purchased a lottery ticket in the hope that it would win.

      Those two assertions seem very different.


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