Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: A Review
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Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: A Review

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Thomas Nagel (BPhil Oxford, PhD Harvard) is University Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Law at New York University, Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, recipient of the 2008 Rolf Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy, and recipient of the Balzan Prize in Moral Philosophy.

Dr. Nagel, who has made highly respected contributions to modern philosophical thought in works like “What is it like to be a bat?”, The Possibility of Altruism, and The View from Nowhere, has lately lost his place among the philosophical elite. His precipitous fall is the consequence of his criticisms of evolution which he set forth and defended in his 2012 book (Oxford Press): Mind and Cosmos—Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.

Dr. Nagel’s main purpose in his most recent work is to critique materialist naturalism from many angles with the aim "to argue that the mind-body problem is not just a local problem...but that it invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history" (3).[2]

Specifically, Nagel makes four points regarding Evolution’s inadequacies: 1. Evolution fails to explain how inanimate became animate; 2. Evolution fails to explain how consciousness came to be; 3. Evolution fails to explain the development of rational/abstract thought; 4. Evolution fails to explain the existence of objective moral values.


First, Nagel says psychophysical reductionism has failed (4). Nagel finds the mind to be an irreducible part of nature (16) which cannot be fully explained by physical science (14). Additionally, he does not find the evidence from science for reductionism convincing. In particular, Nagel finds the traditional evolutionary explanation of the rise of life and consciousness to be more and more unbelievable. In fact, he says, "that it flies in the face of common sense" (5).

Second, Nagel finds the negative argument of the Intelligent Design Argument to be effective against the evolutionary explanation for the existence of life and consciousness. He says,

The general force of the negative part of the intelligent design position— skepticism about the likelihood of the orthodox reductive view, given the available evidence--does not appear to me to have been destroyed in these exchanges. At least, the question should be regarded as open. To anyone interested in the basis of this judgment, I can only recommend a careful reading of some of the leading advocates on both sides of the issue—with special attention to what has been established by the critics of intelligent design. Whatever one may think about the possibility of a designer, the prevailing doctrine—that the appearance of life from dead matter and its evolution through accidental mutation and natural selection to its present forms has involved nothing but the operation physical law —cannot be regarded as unassailable. It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis (11).

Third, instead of adopting the orthodox materialist position, Nagel believes that “the weight of evidence favors some kind of neutral monism" as opposed to materialism, dualism, or idealism (4-5).

Fourth, Nagel believes that the existence of life, consciousness, cognition, and objective moral values (Nagel is a moral realist), requires an explanation that makes more sense than random mutation and natural selection. He says,

with regard to evolution, the process of natural selection cannot account for the actual history without an adequate supply of viable mutations, and I believe it remains an open question whether this could have been provided in geological time merely as a result of chemical accident, without the operation of some other factors determining and restricting the forms of genetic variation...With regard to the origin of life, the problem is much harder, since the option of natural selection as an explanation is not available (9-10).

Fifth, Nagel believes Natural Teleology is the most plausible explanation for the existence of life, consciousness, cognition, and objective values (91):

I am drawn to a fourth alternative, natural teleology, or teleological bias, as an account of the existence of the biological possibilities on which natural selection can operate. I believe that teleology is a naturalistic alternative that is distinct from all three of the other candidate explanations: chance, creationism, and directionless physcal law (91).

Sixth, in positing teleology, Nagel is not endorsing God as the Designer. Rather, he maintains his atheism (95) and asserts that the teleology he is imagining is imminent, natural, and monist (95).

Seventh, Nagel is a moral realist and he employs the Argument from Reason against the materialist naturalist explanation of the development of reason arguing that if our reasoning capacity developed through natural selection for the purpose of survival fitness, the only thing our reason can be relied on for is survival. It cannot be relied upon for making true judgments about oneself or the world. Consequently, no one has any reason to believe that anything their reason tells them is true is actually true—including materialist naturalism (107). Again, Nagel believes that to be able to trust our reason, we must believe that our reason developed per some kind of design. According to Nagel, a natural law-like tendency toward order, life, consciousness, cognition, etc.

In summation of these arguments, Nagel calls for a new approach to investigating the universe. "I have tried to show," he says, "that this approach is incapable of providing an adequate account, either constitutive or historical, of our universe" (127). Nagel is optimistic that the orthodox view will one day soon be set aside in favor of a better approach. He says, "I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two--though of course it may be replaced by a new consensus that is just as invalid" (128).


First, it means that even honest atheists can see the problems with evolution. Evolution has not and cannot explain how life came from non-life. Nor has Evolution explained how life became conscious—moved from strict sensory relation to the world to have a sense of self, a perception of oneself as related to the world. Evolution cannot explain how man developed the cognitive capacity to think abstractly about his world. And, Evolution cannot explain how we have come to have objective moral values—some things are really right and some things are really wrong.

Second, Nagel’s book revives an old but effective argument against Neo-Darwinian Evolution made most strongly in the twentieth century by C.S. Lewis, the Argument from Reason. This argument very simply says that if reason is the product of survival pressures via natural selection, it is not designed to determine truth and may not be relied upon to do so. Rather, it is only designed and reliable for the purpose of helping one survive. The piercing implication of this argument is that our reason cannot be used to give us any truth and so, evolutionists and atheists have no grounds for believing that their beliefs about evolution or atheism are true.

Third, Nagel’s arguments are based in the objections to evolution raised by the best Intelligent Design theorists, men like Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Stephen C. Meyer. Each of these men has proposed successful arguments against the standard evolutionary theory. Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, has raised irreducible complexity. Dembski, a philosopher and mathematician, has demonstrated the astronomical improbability of life originating by chance. Meyer, author of The Signature in the Cell (the book that turned Antony Flew from atheism to deism), has demonstrated the necessity of a Designer based upon the great complexity of the human genome. These arguments, now approaching twenty years old, are still strongholds for Christian faith. Each of us should be familiar with them.

Finally, God and Creation are still the best explanations for the complex, conscious, moral life that we see all around us on this Earth. May we use this and other valuable resources to defend our faith and to help our children.

[1] By Source, Fair use,

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

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