Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos

The recent publication of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (1) has excited the intelligent design advocates and drawn scorn from scientists and materialists. Steven Pinker on Twitter called the book “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” Whereas, William Dembski hails the defection of Nagel from the materialistic world-view and the conversion of Anthony Flew from atheist to believer in a Deity as watershed events in moving forward the intelligent design agenda, something like the fall of the Berlin Wall.(2)

Intelligent design and materialism have at least one point of agreement. Both agree that the universe is orderly. Apples fall from the tree at the same rate yesterday, today, and tomorrow. They do not drift upward one day and go sideways the next. The sun rises and sets at precise times based on our position on Earth , the rotation of our planet, and its motion around the sun. Many things are generally predictable even if other things are not so predictable. Both views carry the hope that what is not predictable today is either part of a larger design or will be predictable tomorrow. Yet neither have a satisfactory explanation for why this universe with this particular order – an order that permits life and mind – came into existence.

For intelligent design, the order of the universe came from its design. This, of course, doesn’t explain why this particular design came about, but many advocates can easily take the next step to belief in a Designer for the explanation. The idea of God, however, simply pushes the ultimate question of “why this order “up a level and tells us not to question further.

For science the question of “why this order” is more complicated. One approach to the problem is simply to say that science and religion are in two different domains. The business of science is not to explain why this particular world came in being. Science is about how the world works rather ultimate why explanations. This is comforting for many who do not wish to forsake the knowledge and advantages of science but still want to cling to a belief in God. Yet this too is still unsatisfactory for some scientists so they look for some ultimate theory of everything, some magic equation that brings this particular world into existence. This is what Stephen Hawking meant went he wrote: “…if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God.” (3) Other scientists, uncomfortable even with the idea of a complete theory (after all isn’t that very close to the idea of God), bring out the multiverse theory. This is the idea that our universe is one of many universe produced by random fluctuations in the quantum void. We are here because we happen to be in one of the many universes with laws and properties that permit life such as our own to exist while there are countless more that lack life of any sort. In other words, there is no order or design. There are countless orders and designs and we are living in one that permits ourselves to be here because we are.

For Nagel a fundamental question is why does this particular universe with life and consciousness exist. Nagel, who says he does not believe in the God or intelligent design, still finds the materialistic world-view not only unsatisfying but wrong. The problem is that modern science with its materialistic reductionism cannot explain why the universe has life and consciousness in it.

We can illustrate the Nagel’s argument with a simple example. I am looking out my window now seeing sunlight hitting a pine tree in my back yard. The pine tree has grayish-brown rough bark with gnarls and cracks. As sunlight brightens one side there is a shadow on the other side of tree. Behind the tree are more trees and blue sky. All of what I am seeing is a product of light waves reaching my eyes and being assembled in my brain into colors and images. My perception is totally dependent on my eyes and the neurons of my brain. Yet my perception is not the same as the actions of my eyes and brain. Clearly there is something left over beyond the sensual and neural mechanism that underlie my perception, something beyond chemicals, neurons, and electrical activity. That something is my experience of the gray bark, the sunlit side of the tree, and the blue sky. Even if reductionism could explain in detail everything at the physical level that makes perception happen, it cannot explain the why of my subjective experience. Why is that subjective experience necessary in our universe?

Perception is perhaps the smallest unit of our mental life. The argument could be extended to every aspect of our mental life: ideas, beliefs, abstract thought, values, planning, reasoning, and even fantasy and dreaming. Even our understanding of order, the basis of science, would be included. Order and design imply mind. Order is in the mind of the beholder and there would be no order without a mind to behold it. No matter how deeply the we associate mental activity with neurons and chemistry we still have our subjective mental experience left over.

We can attempt to write this leftover part off as epiphenomena or unimportant, perhaps an illusion, but that still fails to explain why it exists at all. Furthermore, this would reduce everything in science itself to epiphenomena. Einstein’s equation for mass and energy, Newton’s Laws of Motion, and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution themselves would be nothing more than illusions, epiphenomena of neurons firing. Some may willingly go down this route but we might ask them why they would prefer Darwin over Lamark or, for that matter, over intelligent design since all of them would be nothing more than neurons firing anyway. If they wish to claim neurons firing a particular way are better than neurons firing a different way, presumably the difference, then immediately a concept of value has been brought into the picture But the value itself of better proven science over conjecture or non-science is but more neurons firing. So we would have an infinite regress with no reason for preferring any idea or belief over any other since they all ultimately reduce to the same thing and, furthermore, are actually unimportant.

The concept of mind is ultimately unavoidable and materialism offers no help with understanding why it exists and why it was necessary to come into existence even if eventually it might account for the how.

So what does Nagel offer if not intelligent design or materialism? It is natural teleology. “Natural teleology would mean that the universe is rationally governed in more than one way – not only through the universal quantitative laws of physics that underlie efficient causation but also through principles which imply that things happen because they are on a path that leads towards certain outcomes – notably, the existence of living, and ultimately conscious, organisms.” (4) The universe is governed by some principle that brings life about, creates a variety of organisms, and creates organisms with a sense of good and bad.

This view, of course, is what has set off a great deal of furor over this book and for good reason. Teleology offers really no explanation whatsoever. It says that life and consciousness came about because there was some inner imperative in the universe to bring them into existence. It happened because that is the way the universe is made. It happened because it happened. This is a complete non-explanation.

The problem, I believe, that Nagel has set for himself is really the false dichotomy of living and dead, mind and matter, body and consciousness. Nagel with all of his criticism of the materialist view actually has bought into materialist view that the universe is an austere domain of particles moving according to precise laws. Therefore, he must explain life and consciousness. If we begin to think of the universe in terms of information theory and networking, the problem is not nearly so daunting.  We can see life as a phase transition wherein information begins to manipulate the matter it is instantiated in. Evolution is the accumulation of information. Consciousness is another phase transition that leads to a qualitatively different level of control over matter and becomes the inevitable result when organisms reach a high level of complexity. Life and consciousness were baked into the universe at the beginning because the dead, mindless universe never really was dead or mindless. It only required the network of particles and quantum states to run long enough to develop sufficient complexity to create life and eventually consciousness.

Ultimately materialism, intelligent design, and Nagel suffer from a poverty of imagination.  Life and consciousness were there from the beginning and only required the unfolding of time to make their presence known.


1- Nagel, Thomas. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012.


3- Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time. Bantam Book, 1988.

4- Nagel, Thomas Op Cit.

This entry was posted in Consciousness, Origin of Life, Time. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos

  1. Kurtis says:

    I seem to go along with all the stuff that was in fact
    composed in “Nagels Mind and Cosmos | Broad Speculations”.
    Many thanks for all the details.Many thanks,Ricardo


  2. Erik Andrulis says:

    Did you see Kitcher’s blog piece in the NY Times a day or so ago? If you’re interested, check it out. Also, I just blogged about it, here:

    Peace, Ik


  3. Pingback: Mind, Life, and Tensegrity | Broad Speculations

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