Mind and Cosmos

It isn’t clear to me that anyone could like Thomas Nagel’s latest book Mind and Cosmos if by “like” one means “agree with.” There is something in it for everyone to revile as it defies the traditional categories of naturalism and theism, at least how they are typically construed. Most take issue with the subtitle: “Why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.” Critics as prominent as Brian Leiter (along with Michael Weisberg) and Elliot Sober have weighed in; either they express bewilderment over Nagel’s quixotic quest to undermine science or question the plausibility of his key assumptions. Others like Alvin Plantinga and J.P. Moreland are more sympathetic, but contend that he doesn’t go far enough. (The title of Moreland’s review captures the discontent nicely, “A Reluctant Traveler’s Guide for Slouching Towards Theism.”)

So what is all the fuss about? Nagel is sorely unconvinced a Darwinian mechanism could produce the following in a physicalist universe:

  1. The emergence of life from a lifeless universe in such a short time.
  2. The preponderance of diversity and complexity among life forms in such a short time.
  3. The production of consciousness from unconscious matter.
  4. The existence of objective standards of value and rationality and creatures endowed with the cognitive equipment to grasp them.

For Nagel, these sorts of things are produced by something purposeful, though he cannot bring himself to invoke a intentional supernatural agent for their cause; rather, he appeals to the shadowy concept of “natural teleology.” That is to say, there was a purpose built-in to the initial conditions of the universe such that creatures like us were “in mind”–a panpsychist view of nature if there ever was one.

I refrain from reviewing the main argument of the book, because there are more competent and complete reviews you should read (see above, and this one). But I recommend it to anyone who wants to take the time to slog through it for three reasons: (1) the thesis is fascinating, (2) Nagel’s skill of being able briefly summarize vast swaths of literature is worthy of imitation, and (3) it is a good example of how to “do” philosophy with respect to sorting out contentious subjects without losing sight of the ‘big’ questions.