Vie chretienne Cosmos Arts Engin de recherches Plan du site


Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos,
A Review.

Nagel's Mind and CosmosPaul Gosselin (2024)

Nagel is of course a secular Jew, one of many... Yet the subtitle of his recent Mind and Cosmos (2021) book, why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false, not so subtly suggests that he is not entirely happy as a secular Jew. Something appears to bother him. Some form of cognitive dissonance perhaps. Clearly Nagel believes that the materialistic origins myth, also known as the theory of Evolution, is lacking in certain regards when it comes to an explanation of the origin of mind or self. Yet it is a bit ironic that Nagel hedges his bets as he claims neo-Darwinism is “almost certainly false”. A philosopher should be able to explain how anything can be “almost certainly false”... But if one were to look in Mind and Cosmos for a list of specific deficiencies in the theory of Evolution's explanation regarding the origin of mind or self one would come away largely disappointed[1]. This just seems to be assumed. Perhaps Nagel has addressed such concerns elsewhere, but doesn't bother to offer us any information in this regard. Apparently postmodern scholars such as Nagel, while they are masters of insinuation and flashy, ambiguous rhetoric[2], are typically incapable of providing specifics when making assertions. In most cases it would appear that intricate philosophical hand waving is favoured rather than arguments resting on logic, proof and evidence. Here is a bite-sized sample of Nagel's rhetoric (2012: 56)

Yes, of course... Who knows, maybe this assertion was the inspiration for Nicolaus Copernicus' heliocentric solar system, Isaac Newton's physics or Einstein's Relativity Theory? Seriously? Perhaps scientists might agree, if there was a chance they were able to figure out what Nagel is talking about[3]... so where is Nagel taking us? Nagel is clear enough that he believes the theory of Evolution does not offer an adequate explanation of the origin of consciousness, Reason or self. He assures us that Evolution doesn't cut it, so what is the solution to this dilemma?? Other researchers have come to the same conclusion as Nagel yet not gone any further. It appears to be a dead end. In 2008 for example, a conference[4] was held in Altenberg, Austria that was attended by sixteen leading evolutionary scientists expressing dissatisfaction with neo-Darwinism. So in the years since has a (materialistic) alternative to neo-Darwinism been proposed which would provide mechanisms explaining the millions of wildly diverse organisms we find in the biosphere (along with mind and self)? The answer is of course no...

Regarding the origins (or basis for) reason and logic within the constraints of the materialistic origins myth, such issues are briefly discussed by Nagel in chapter 4 [Cognition]. Perhaps Nagel is preoccupied by chilling observations from the atheist scientist (geneticist and communist) J. B. S. Haldane who once wrote (1930: 209):

If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.

Nagel (very strangely) phrases his understanding of this issue as follows (2012: 74)

The question I now want to pose is whether our cognitive capacities can be placed in the framework of an evolutionary theory that is in this way no longer exclusively materialist, but that retains the Darwinian structure. It is a hypothetical question, since there may not be such a theory. But I will talk as if there were.
The problem has two aspects. The first concerns the likelihood that the process of natural selection should have generated creatures with the capacity to discover by reason the truth about a reality that extends vastly beyond the initial appearances—as we take ourselves to have done and to continue to do collectively in science, logic, and ethics. Is it credible that selection for fitness in the prehistoric past should have fixed capacities that are effective in theoretical pursuits that were unimaginable [or useless?? - PG] at the time? The second problem is the difficulty of understanding naturalistically the faculty of reason that is the essence of these activities. I will begin by considering a possible response to the first problem, before going on to the second, which is particularly intractable.

"intractable"... No kidding... But reading on further into this chapter one would look in vain for a plausible explanation of the origins of reason and logic within the constraints of the materialistic origins myth. The quote below appears to be Nagel’s best shot  (2012: 88)

Suppose we have reason because our brains have reached a level of complexity at which reason emerges.

How sad. How bland. Thus (undefined) “complexity” would appear to be Nagel’s magic wand, his deus ex-machina to get him out of this tight spot...

Regarding his dissatisfaction with neo-Darwinism and its inability to explain consciousness, Nagel keeps his cards close to his chest. It almost sounds like at any point he might shout “Mind!! Nature has a MIND and this is what explains mind and self in humans” That would be a logical[5] proposal (though perhaps leaning into mystical territory), a sufficient Cause to explain the observed effect, but Nagel doesn't say anything of the sort. Of course, were he to do so, he would immediately lose his street cred as a “secular Jew”. Even after reading Mind and Cosmos from start to finish, it is clear that Nagel never blurts out anything remotely approaching “Nature has a MIND!” He has carefully avoided this temptation. One would assume that he is aware that any such claim would immediately raise the question WHO's mind?? Such ruminations would of course be the beginning of a drift into heretical territory... Raising such questions would not only endanger Nagel's street cred as a “secular Jew”, but, being a university professor in a secular university, chances are good that claims of this sort might have an impact on his pay check... Even postmodern philosophy professors have to think of such matters from time to time seeing that flashy, ambiguous rhetoric is generally not accepted as payment for credit card bills... Chances are even Nagel has heard of "cancel culture".

As noted above Nagel keeps his cards close to his chest regarding what he feels might be a plausible explanation for mind and self in humans. Around the middle of this book we find Nagel toying with various views on the market (this seems to be a pattern), but he remains non-committal. At one point he discusses a panpsychism proposal offered by Tom Sorell. Panpsychism basically asserts that consciousness/MIND is present everywhere in nature and in matter (though expressed variably). Then Nagel throws this in (2012: 57)

But Nagel is very quick to hedge his bets and a few lines further backpedals, observing (2012: 58): “Any further consequences of their more than-physical character at the microlevel remain unspecified by this abstract proposal.” If you want to avoid painting yourself into a corner, a backdoor is always handy... Keep things vague. Good move.

While keeping his own views on the origin of consciousness to himself, Nagel does at least provide us with a nutshell description of available explanations. Nagel begins with the materialistic view, which basically excludes any cause outside the material world. This view Nagel typically calls “reductionism”. Here is Nagel's nutshell description of the available explanations for consciousness (2012: 58-59)

Clearly Nagel is allergic to the “intentional account”, which would logically involve interventions by an Intelligent Agent. As a philosopher Nagel must be aware that there is no logical objection to such a hypothesis. PERSONALITY is a logical explanation for persons. A PROGRAMMER is a good explanation for programs. Ultimately it all boils down to a basic ideologico-religious question: Does your worldview make room for (or exclude) an Intelligent Agent[7]? As a self-respecting postmodern philosopher Nagel does NOT clue us in on why he buys into a worldview that excludes an Intelligent Agent as an explanation for conscious selves rambling around the surface of planet Earth and reflecting on their place in the universe. In any case, here and there Nagel does drop hints that he buys into proposal (2), that is the teleological account. Here is one such hint (2012: 72): “The question is how to understand mind in its full sense as a product of nature – or rather, how to understand nature as a system capable of generating mind.” Hmmm... notice how Nagel phrases that? While he uses standard materialistic jargon here, one guesses he hopes most will not notice he is slipping in heresy (that is, a non-materialistic cause)? And further into the book Nagel drops an additional hint (2012: 123)

And while dropping such hints, in the lines below this quote he readily admits that in academia, such proposals are unlikely to become popular. Another way of putting this is that in universities the teleological hypothesis is viewed as suspect heresy[8], not kosher. Now when dealing with more than one conscious being, it soon becomes impossible to avoid moral issues and values.

It may be useful to note that this is not the first time Western intellectuals have attempted to deal with such issues. In his autobiography (Surprised by Joy), Lewis observed that shortly after WWI when he began his university studies the problem of morality (Hume's is/ought paradox?) prompted some to toy with a non material Cause for morality (1955 : 209-210)

“But there were in those days all sorts of blankets, insulators, and insurances which enabled one to get all the conveniences of Theism, without believing in God. The English Hegelians, writers like T. H. Green, Bradley, and Bosanquet (then mighty names), dealt in precisely such wares. The Absolute Mind — better still, the Absolute — was impersonal, or it knew itself (but not us?) only in us, and it was so absolute that it wasn’t really much more like a mind than anything else. And anyway, the more muddled one got about it and the more contradictions one committed, the more this proved that our discursive thought moved only on the level of “Appearance”, and “Reality” must be somewhere else. And where else but, of course, in the Absolute? There, not here, was “the fuller splendour” behind the “sensuous curtain”. The emotion that went with all this was certainly religious. But this was a religion that cost nothing. We could talk religiously about the Absolute: but there was no danger of Its doing anything about us. It was “there”; safely and immovably “there”. It would never come “here”, never (to be blunt) make a nuisance of Itself. This quasi-religion was all a one-way street; all eros (as Dr. Nygren would say) steaming up, but no agape darting down. There was nothing to fear; better still, nothing to obey.”

Such matters come up in chapter V. While examining the moral realist perspective, that is the belief that there are moral absolutes, Nagel lurches into mythological issues[9], that is the unavoidable BIG QUESTIONS about where we come from and who we are (2012: 112):

One could get the impression that Nagel is leaving himself a loophole so he can play the “I'm a good moral person” game. After all, coherent moral nihilism is a hard sell... That said, it does leave us wondering if Nagel is in fact denying that Neo-Darwinism undermines moral values? It would almost appear so... To sort this out it may be useful to contrast Nagel's philosophical attempt to unpaint himself out of a corner to rather blunt and unambiguous statements coming from a scientist, that is the biologist William Provine regarding Neo-Darwinism, morals and materialism (Access Research Network 1995):

Now such observations will be hard to swallow for any materialist who has invested in the illusion that “I'm a good moral person”. It should be noted that the many variations on the “I'm a good moral person” claim immediately raise questions such as “Where do you get your concepts of good or morality?” That said, even professional philosophers may find the “I'm a good moral person” mantra useful when applying for research funding... Being a philosopher, one would assume Nagel has read the writings of Frederick Nietzsche. He should then be aware that Nietzsche had had very little respect for attempts to preserve moral rules once one had bought into the Darwinian worldview. In his 1889 essay Twilight of the Idols (ix.5), Nietzsche cynically remarked:

Clearly, Nagel does not appear too fond of the idea of playing the moral-less or value-free Nietzschian Übermensch... Were he to openly do so, perhaps his research funding would dry up...Even postmodern philosophers have to factor in such issues.

Looking at conversion to postmodernism from another angle

We have noted Nagel's drifting away from the materialistic worldview (being actually only the mature phase of the Modern/Enlightenment worldview) into the postmodern worldview. Quoting myself (2016b) here is a nutshell explanation of the shared concepts and differences between Modern and Postmodern worldviews.

Granting the above, I think it justified to claim that Mind and Cosmos documents part of Nagel's own drift away from orthodox Modern views and into postmodernism. That said, the picture becomes blurred as postmoderns typically avoid owning any EXPLICIT ideologico-religious creed or belief system. Now denying one's belief in an explicit religion/ideology (as do Freemasons[12]) does have the distinct advantage of shielding one's beliefs from critique and comparison. For example, postmodern institutions conducting surveys involving questions on individuals belief systems will typically offer options such as

Here's the thing. The “Irreligious” category is misleading as when closely examined only provides the information that the respondent rejects monotheistic beliefs. Thus it is a negative statement and does NOT provide any positive information about the specific beliefs this individual does believe.

But getting back to Nagel's drift/conversion into postmodernism, perhaps it may be instructive to look at this by way of comparison with someone with no professional philosophy background. I am referring to the American sci-fi novelist Kurt Vonnegut. In a high school graduation speech he once gave, Vonnegut described his own drift towards postmodernism as follows (1975: 163-64):

Another example of a modern lurching into postmodernism has to do with a lesser-known member of the Inklings Circle (which included JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis). I am talking about Owen Barfield who was an early postmodern (along with Nietzsche) and who is sometimes misleadingly portrayed as Christian, but was in fact much influenced by the occultist teachings of Rudolf Steiner and became heavily involved in Anthroposophy. In his Worlds Apart (1963) book, Barfield comes across both as a serious critic of the materialistic origins myth (like Nagel), but also as a convinced proponent of occultist beliefs such as astral voyages. Here's a related anecdote. In the 1970s I met a professor at university who was at the time a Darwin devotee and fervent Marxist, haranguing students to join the struggle against capitalism. Some twenty years later, I met him (after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall) and discovered that he had abandoned communism and converted to the postmodern belief system, which had led him to abandon materialism and become interested in the occult and astral voyages... He had become a kind of shaman... Chances are that Nagel will end up following this path... Another fellow pilgrim along the postmodern path appears to be the Belgian psychologist Mattias Desmet who is also clearly tired of the materialistic dogmas that dominated the 20th century...


Basically I'd have to say that this book was disappointing... Nagel has dived into an interesting subject, but only delivers a vague, tedious proposal. This is enough to wonder if Nagel is just cashing in on the fact that controversial books on origins (as opposed to postmodern philosophy books) generally tend to sell well?

Taking into consideration all the time Nagel spends dropping hints and allusions regarding the origins of consciousness, perhaps Mind and Cosmos should be primarily considered as a propaganda piece, preparing the servile, educated, progressive masses for a new (non-materialistic) origins myth... Nagel does provide evidence of such intentions as he is fond of dropping Yoda-like mythological titbits here and there, such as (2012: 85): “Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.” That appears to be the best Nagel can do. But chances are that a new self-aware AI may turn out to be the ideal oracular mouthpiece for this new origins myth. Time will tell...


Access Research Network (1995) Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?: A debate between William B. Provine and Phillip E. Johnson at Stanford University, April 30, 1994. Volume 16, Number 1

Briggs, William M (2024) If You Think Evolution Thought of Thinking, Think Again. Science Is Not The Answer

Gosselin, Paul (2008) Quel est le système de croyances dominant au XXIe siècle? (Samizdat)

Gosselin, Paul (2016a) Inklings Odd-Ballery: A Review of Owen Barfield's Worlds Apart. (Samizdat)

Gosselin, Paul (2016b) A Review of Charles Taylor's The Malaise of Modernity. (Samizdat)

Haldane,  J. B. S. (1930) Possible Worlds and Other Essays. Chatto and Windus, London

Halpern, Catherine (2005) Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) Le subversif. pp. 52-53 Sciences humaines (mai-juin, HS spécial n° 3)

Jeans, Sir James (1930) The Mysterious Universe. NY MacMilllan

Lewis, C. S. (1955) Surprised by Joy. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich New York 238p. [Ebook]

Nagel, Thomas (2012) Mind and Cosmos: why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false. Oxford U. Press - Oxford, New York - 130 p.

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1895) Twilight of the Idols. (translation by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale)

Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. (1975) Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, Dell Publishing Co. Inc, New York, , 238 p.


[1] - In his Introduction, Nagel does briefly state his misgivings about a materialistic explanation of the origin of life, but skips the issue of the origin of consciousness. Later, on page 123, Nagel comes back to this and does recognize abiogenesis (life coming from non-life) as a serious problem with a strictly materialistic (Neo-Darwinian) view of origins.

[2] - Examining the views of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, Catherine Halpern (inadvertently) highlights a useful contrast between propaganda models among moderns and postmoderns (2005: 52):

This of course sheds useful light on woke propaganda...

[3] - But of course such obscure language has many advantages, one being that wielders of such rhetoric can always conveniently accuse their critics of not having understood them... Could anyone ? But in some instances, wielders of obscure rhetoric can find that this does come back to bite them. Remember the Sokal Affair.

[4] - Later reported on in a book by Suzan Mazur entitled The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry (2010).

[5] - Not a materialistic proposal, of course...

[6] - Ah, the "principles of self-organization”... Notice that no one has ever cashed in on these said principles?? Notice that Microsoft has not fired all it's programmers and replaced them with monkeys pounding on keyboards to produce the next version of Windows? That said, expressions such as "principles of self-organization” are great for filling in space in philosophy treatises and maintaining one's street cred as a secular Jew... Other than that, they are not of much practical use.

[7] - Few are now aware that most early scientists had no ideological conflict with the concept of an Intelligent Agent. For example in his Principia Mathematica Isaac Newton wrote (1687)

And more recently the physicist Sir James Jeans once observed (1930):

[8] - While universities are the recognized seed-bed for cancel culture, Nagel does have the courage to recognize (in print) that Neo-Darwinism has frozen into dogma in most universities (2012: 7):

[9] - Of course Nagel never uses such specific terms...

[10] - Chances are that Provine came to this conclusion based on Scottish philosopher David Hume's is/ought dilemma. But Hume's dilemma is a matter I've looked into elsewhere (Gosselin 2016b).

[11] - And once this step has been taken (denial of free will) then there is the small matter that no justice system can be built on this basis... as all justice systems begin with the concept of individual responsibility. Take that away, then any inquiries or procedures regarding matters of justice become entirely pointless...

[12] - Who typically claim to be only a “Fraternal Association”...