Mind and Cosmos : Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, Hardback Book

Mind and Cosmos : Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False Hardback

3.5 out of 5 (5 ratings)


In Mind and Cosmos Thomas Nagel argues that the widely accepted world view of materialist naturalism is untenable.

The mind-body problem cannot be confined to the relation between animal minds and animal bodies. If materialism cannot accommodate consciousness and other mind-related aspects of reality, then we must abandon a purely materialist understanding of nature in general, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such. No such explanation is available, and the physical sciences, including molecular biology, cannot be expected to provide one. The book explores these problems through a general treatment of the obstacles to reductionism, with more specific application to the phenomena of consciousness, cognition, and value. The conclusion is that physics cannot be the theory of everything.


  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press Inc
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Philosophy of mind
  • ISBN: 9780199919758



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Showing 1 - 5 of 5 reviews.

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Nagel argues.that a Darwinian/reductive account of evolution cannot provide an acceptable explanation of consciousness, reason or moral value. He proposes an alternative which can be quickly characterised, or caricatured, as 'intelligent design without a Designer'. As Nagel sees it, the evolution of consciousness, reason and value, can only be understood in a teleological framework. This is not an implicit plea for a new theism, though it is quite likely that there will be theists who will seek to conscript Nagel to their cause. The argument is least convincing, as Nagel concedes, on the evolution of moral values. But perhaps the argument is not the thing that matters in the end. What Nagel is really on about, I believe, is that thinkers who are not theists still have to engage with the deepest issues, at the margins of the thInkable. Atheism can be a comfortable refuge, if one allows it to be so. This is a short book, but not a quick or easy read. Nagel worries and worries away at his central deep questions and there is much room here for disagreement with his tentative conclusions. It is, however, a welcome antidote to premature certainties.

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Modern science assumes the causal closure of physics or what is referred to as the completeness of physics. If the forces physics describes are the only forces in the world, then everything can be explained in terms of those forces without remainder. And so, when Neo-Darwinian informed science explains the evolution of humankind and our behavior, it assumes the causal closure of physics. This is referred to as naturalism or the naturalistic stance.The author, a philosophy professor at New York University since 1980 does not believe in the causal closure of physics. Why doesn’t he believe in the causal closure of physics? It’s because he doesn’t believe the Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution can explain the origin of consciousness, meaning, value and morality. What are his reasons? 1)The probability of it happening by chance is too low.2)There hasn’t been enough time for consciousness to evolve.What evidence does he provide? It’s just a gut instinct based on his common sense intuitions. However, his common sense intuitions haven’t been honed by a scientific education. In a shocking admission in the beginning of the book, Mr. Nagel admits that his only scientific knowledge is from reading popular science books. When reading the book, it is clear that he is not even widely read in popular science. It is also clear that many of his ideas come from reading popular pseudo-scientific books written by creationist and intelligent design advocates.Since he believes physics is not casually closed or complete, Mr. Nagel has to invent another force acting in the world to complete it. This force is mind. It is a position known as panpsychism:. All matter has a mental aspect, or, alternatively, all objects have a unified center of experience or point of view. How this mysterious something extra is supposed to explain consciousness or its evolution is never explained. It reminds me of Moliere. Why does opium make us sleepy? It makes us sleepy due to its dormative properties. This smacks of ad hocism. His whole argument is the argument from incredulity: P is too incredible (or: I cannot imagine how P could possibly be true); therefore, P must be false. Since he can’t understand how science can explain consciousness, it is therefore unexplainable in terms of existing science. His limitations are the scientific community’s limitations. This is the height of narcissism and evinces contempt for the scientific communities ability to discover the nature of reality.One of his unstated assumptions is that a justificationist perspective informs science, which if true, makes it vulnerable to Münchhausen’s trilemma. All attempts at justifying a position end in one of three states:1)Circular reasoning,2)Infinite regress3)Axiomatic or fideism.Mr. Nagel accuses naturalistic Neo-Darwinian science of falling prey to all three. Naturalist epistemology can’t justify itself without begging the question, reason couldn’t have evolved because it would involve an infinite regress, and thirdly, naturalism is an ideology. Accusing science of being an ideology is a rhetorical ploy used by creationists and ID proponents. Since they cannot refute evolutionary science, they claim it is an ideology. Once asserted to be an ideology, they employ the tu quoque argument and claim that everyone has to adopt foundational assumptions that cannot be proven.However, since Popper, a falsificationist perspective informs science. Although this is at the cost of certainty, the benefit is explaining why science is a never-ending open-ended endeavor. Given science’s progress thus far, it is excessively premature to give up and seek other explanations for the evolution of consciousness, meaning, value and morality.Mr. Nagel does not hold his beliefs subject to the implications of science, but instead, holds beliefs and then states that science is therefore wrong. For example, Nagel states, “Street holds that a Darwinian account is strongly supported by contemporary science, so she concludes that moral realism is false. I follow the same inference in the opposite direction: since moral realism is true, a Darwinian account of the motives underlying moral judgment must be false, in spite of the scientific consensus in its favor.”Mr. Nagel never says why moral realism is true, he just states that it is. His beliefs are based on his innate sense of how things just have to be. He’s an atheist for the same reason. He says he just doesn’t have a sense that god exists, therefore he doesn’t. Elsewhere he says. “However, in my case the scientific credentials of Darwinism, and these other examples, are not enough to dislodge the immediate conviction that objectivity is not an illusion with respect to basic judgments of value.”Mr. Kant believed that the world was Euclidean and that this was a necessary truth of reason. It later turned out he was wrong. He is also believed Newtonian mechanics accurately described the world. We later found is doesn’t. Mr. Nagel believes that the law of the excluded middle is a truth of logic. However, if the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, this is not the case. Basing our beliefs on our intuitions is a poor way to proceed. All modern science is based on its rejection.Because of his self-professed scientific illiteracy, he is completely unaware of how game theory can explain the logic of behavior or how biosemiotics is beginning to explain how meaning and value can arise in a completely mindless material universe.. The problem with Nagel’s book is that it is ultimately anthropocentric. All prior life forms were precursors to the ultimate expression of the universe: humans. He has no concept that we might be mere way stations along the road to some future that doesn’t include humans or consciousness. Whatever the future brings, it will certainly include a post-human humanity with entirely different needs, morals, and values. Like all pre-Darwinian thinkers, he lives in a world of stasis. He believes in a platonic world that contains eternal truths. However, he provides no method for ascertaining what those truths are or when we’ve discerned them. According to Mr. Nagel, some mysterious teleological process has guided evolution that resulted in consciousness and value. He cannot accept that we are negentropic energy sinks that have effloresced out of a mindless material universe and will one day disappear without leaving a trace.Claiming that the material world contains mind and is guided by a teleological process adds nothing to the scientific description of the world. There’s no way to test for it. The beauty of this, however, is that fideists can add all the non-testable, non-refutable beliefs they need to a theory to get back to their religion. But this is not science.The subtitle of the book is: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. Mr. Nagel comes no where close to doing this. Instead the book is a embarrassing collection of non sequiturs.

Review by

The very controversial thesis argued by Nagel in this book is that two very big pieces are missing in the modern scientific/naturalistic worldview: why is there consciousness, and why would it evolve at all. Attached to these questions are the problems of reason, value, and free will. Nagel admits that he doesn't have an answer to these questions, but as a philosopher, not a scientists, his job is to point out these glaring holes, not to solve them. He argues that, based on these gaps, a completely materialistic explanation for the cosmos is not tenable. The alternative worldview that Nagel supports is neither material nor ideal, but a dual aspect neutral monism which includes both physical and mental properties of the cosmos. Furthermore, he criticizes the standard neodarwinian account of efficiently caused complexity, arguing for either a teleological or intentionally designed explanation for the directionality of the universe. He does not think the standard materialistic 'chance' explanation suffices to properly explain what we see. I can understand why many people would scoff at this line of questioning, without a reasoned or evidence-based alternative it is hard to stomach. The only reason why I agree with Nagel is because I think I've glimpsed an alternative. I admire Nagel's courage, and admire that he lets his curiosity and inquisitive nature lead him to these questions regardless of how contrarian they appear to be.

Review by

The greatest mystery of the universe is that it is understandable by human cognition. Combine that with the origin of life and the origin of consciousness and the problem of values and you've got the gist of his argument. Not convincing but indirectly thought provoking.

Review by

This is a very small book about some big issues; namely the "relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living animal organisms" and its relation to the cosmos. Thomas Nagel has written a provocative book aimed at both serious readers and other philosophers. Whether he succeeds in his goal of explaining the implausibility of materialist theories is in doubt, but there is no doubt that he provides some challenging ideas about the way we can philosophize about the nature of mind.The book starts sort of in midstream discussing modern materialist theories; with a focus on the "failure of psychophysical reductionism." This is the position in the philosophy of mind that proposes that the physical sciences will be ultimately capable of providing a theory of everything. It is known as as reductionism. In addition to attacking this he proposes that the development of mind raises questions that the evolutionary theory of the development of life forms can explain the complexity that is evident today. He also criticizes the idea that consciousness is merely a side-effect. In this he is successful at least from this reader's perspective. It seems evident that life is more than just an accident that keeps happening.After a discussion of anti-reductionism and the natural order the book follows with chapters on consciousness, cognition, and values. In his discussion of cognition he proposes a teleological, or goal-oriented, development of "biological possibilities". This is presented as an alternative to the alternatives: chance, creationism, or directionless physical law. He does not recognize that evolutionary theory suggests that certain developments might be inevitable, or at least predictable. His proposals are made as reasonable alternatives to theories that he suggests have reached a dead end. In presenting them he does not argue from proof, but rather suggests his alternatives provide what may be considered a new paradigm that will allow progress in areas like the relationship of consciousness and the brain and evolutionary development.He concludes that the best alternative is a naturalistic, though non-materialist, alternative. Thus Mind 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. Some questions that were raised in our discussion of this book included whether there is life or consciousness elsewhere in the universe, if the ability to create life in the laboratory would have any bearing, and if we could create consciousness in computers would this make a difference? Unfortunately the author does not explore these and many other issues in this short book. While Nagel is an atheist, he adds that even some theists might find his proposed views acceptable; since they could maintain that God is ultimately responsible for such an expanded natural order, as they believe he is for the laws of physics.