Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos is first and foremost a work of philosophy, not a work of pure science. Many critical reviews of his book are unfortunately miscast in this respect. What is true is that Nagel uses scientifically-derived evidence to support his philosophical arguments—exactly what any competent philosopher ought to do.
Despite the surprisingly short span of pages in the book, the arguments are hard to digest because they demand a fairly sizable familiarity with contemporary arguments in philosophy of mind and philosophy of evolutionary biology. I expect this will make the book a delight to read for those with such familiarity but challenging for those without. While the footnotes and references in the book are relatively sparse, the works cited are well-chosen and successfully do the heavy-lifting where necessary. For example, Nagel refers the reader to Michael Behe, Steven Meyer, and David Berlinski—all formidable thinkers affiliated with the Discovery Institute—when he draws attention to empirical challenges to neo-Darwinism. Nagel does not attempt to summarize these respective challenges but rather expects the reader to follow the citations on his or her own. This decision renders the book more fluid for those of us familiar with these works, but may leave the less-familiar reader perplexed by Nagel’s empirical doubts about neo-Darwinism.
Nagel’s efforts to embrace the quality of arguments offered by those friendly (or at least not hostile) to intelligent design, while simultaneously rejecting the inference to design himself, is refreshingly commendable. Here, Nagel embodies the sage advice of the late Robert Nozick who wrote the following in Anarchy, State, and Utopia:
I like to think intellectual honesty demands that, occasionally at least, we go out of our way to confront strong arguments opposed to our views. How else are we to protect ourselves from continuing in error? It seems only fair to remind the reader that intellectual honesty has its dangers; arguments read perhaps at first in curious fascination may come to convince and even to seem natural and intuitive. Only the refusal to listen guarantees one against being ensnared by the truth (x-xi).
Meyer’s lengthy volume Signature in the Cell (which Nagel received scorn for recommending in 2009) squeezes on the conspicuous problem of reconciling the sophisticated self-reproducing cell with inert material antecedents governed solely by chance and natural law. Nagel rightly recognizes that Meyer’s treatment of the problem is provocative grounds for harboring doubts about the purely materialst account of the cell’s origin. Nagel, though, leaves it up to the reader to consult Signature for the substance of Meyer’s argument. Here’s a representative sample of Meyer’s account in Signature:
If we assume that a minimally complex cell needs at least 250 proteins of, on average, 150 amino acids and that the probability of producing just one such protein is 1 in 10164 as calculated above, then the probability of producing all the necessary proteins needed to service a minimally complex cell is 1 in 10164 multiplied by itself 250 times, or 1 in 1041,000. This kind of number allows a great amount of quibbling about the accuracy of various estimates without altering the conclusion. The probability of producing the proteins necessary to build a minimally complex cell--or the genetic information necessary to produce those proteins--by chance is unimaginably small (213).
In his previous works The View from Nowhere and The Last Word, Nagel firmly established himself as a serious philosophical realist. Nagel labored extensively in The View from Nowhere to include the reality of subjective states in our ontology:
I have argued that the seductive appeal of objective reality depends on a mistake. It is not the given. Reality is not just objective reality. Sometimes, in the philosophy of mind but also elsewhere, the truth is not to be found by travelling as far away from one's personal perspective as possible (27).
Nagel fortified his philosophical realism in The Last Word by attacking popular forms of skepticism—subjectivism and relativism:
In Mind and Cosmos, he continues this tradition with particular emphasis on consciousness and mental properties, like reason and value. His treatment of this task bears the marks of a man honestly attempting to reconcile what is plainly evident about this world with systematic findings of science and mathematics. Nagel insists that there must be a fit between theory and lived life—if ever the two are in conflict, it is theory that must revise itself, not the realities of lived life. Here, he is diametrically opposed to views such as those espoused by Susan Blackmore in Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction. Blackmore writes:Many forms of relativism and subjectivism collapse into either self-contradiction or vacuity--self-contradiction because they end up claiming that nothing is the case, or vacuity because they boil down to the assertion that anything we say or believe is something we say or believe (6).
Nagel, as I suspect most conscious beings do, steadfastly refuses to allow theory to dictate the absurd proposition that he needs to “practice” denying his own selfhood. For Nagel, the mind is neither reducible to the brain nor an epiphenomon of the brain merely because materialistic theory requires it; rather, the mind (including its ineliminative subjective nature) is a bona fide ingredient of the natural world, and whatever theory of reality aims to correctly explain this fact must accept mind as it actually is:We can hang on to the way [the self] feels and assume that a persisting self or soul or spirit exists…or we can reject any persisting entity that corresponds to our feeling of being a self. I think that intellectually we have to take this last path. The trouble is that it is very hard to accept in one’s personal life….It means accepting that every time I seem to exist, this is just a temporary fiction...This is tough, but I think it gets easier with practice (81).
Such a stance is radical only in the sense that it resists the predominant commitments of the age-- not radical in the sense that it runs afoul of philosophical coherence. What is remarkable about Nagel’s project is that he keeps his sights steadily aimed at the very reality we are attempting to explain. Not only are we interested in the very fabric of this thing we call consciousness, but we also want to know how in the world it is able to direct its awareness onto a myriad of subjects (intentionality); process raw data into holistic, abstract, and non-immediate generalizations about the world (cognition); and contort thoughts and behaviors into alignment with stance-independent maxims of right and wrong, good and bad (values). Rather than deny the existence of these features or appeal to some future, unknown material process that designates these features as physical “residues” of one sort or another, he takes them as fundamental elements of nature. As such, he resolutely maintains that these features must be explained, not explained away.Materialist naturalism leads to reductionist ambitions because it seems unacceptable to deny the reality of all those familiar things that are not at first glance physical. But if no plausible reduction is available, and if denying reality to the mental continues to be unacceptable, that suggests that the original premise, materialist naturalism, is false, and not just around the edges (Mind and Cosmos, 15).
A particularly formidable challenge to neo-Darwinism Nagel mentioned in The Last Word and repeated in Mind and Cosmos shares the philosophical stage with Alvin Plantinga, who crystallized the argument in his 2011 work Where the Conflict Really Lies. The argument suggests that, on a Darwinian evolutionary account of mind, only cognitive functions (e.g. beliefs) that improve survival fitness will be “seen” by natural selection; the content of the beliefs—e.g. whether or not the beliefs are true—are of no material consequence to the selection mechanism. If Smith believes, for example, that Mercury is larger in diameter than Jupiter, but all of his other immediate perceptual faculties are operating properly such that he eats when he’s hungry, finds warmth when he’s cold, and runs when he sees danger, natural selection cannot select against his (apparently) mistaken belief about celestial bodies. For all we know given neo-Darwinism, that belief simply came “along for the ride” when natural selection fixed a particular brain state in Smith for other reasons. The conclusion from this argument is that our cognitive faculties, given neo-Darwinism, do not reliably produce true beliefs with respect to non-perceptual, non-immediate beliefs. Thus, whatever non-perceptual, non-immediate beliefs these cognitive faculties generate are not reliably true. Neo-Darwinism is one such non-perceptual, non-immediate belief generated by these cognitive faculties. Thus, belief in neo-Darwinism is unreliable. Hence, neo-Darwinism is self-defeating: Neo-Darwinism undermines the very cognitive faculties that generate belief in neo-Darwinism. Nagel writes in Mind and Cosmos:
I agree with Alvin Plantinga that, unlike divine benevolence, the application of evolutionary theory to the understanding of our own cognitive capacities should undermine, though it need not completely destroy, our confidence in them. Mechanisms of belief formation that have selective advantage in the everyday struggle for existence do not warrant our confidence in the construction of theoretical accounts of the world as a whole (28).
Nagel’s critique of the adequacy of the materialist, neo-Darwininian account of consciousness, cognition, and value is sharp and biting; however, his proposed alternative has received nearly universal criticism from reviewers. Nagel records his personal aversion to theistic alternatives without much by way of sustained argument. This approach is understandably disappointing to reviewers like Alvin Plantinga and William Dembski who have labored patiently to make their respective cases for theism in the face of unbridled academic hostility, but Nagel’s proposed alternative—teleological naturalism—is offered by Nagel with a great deal of circumspection:
Teleology means that in addition to physical law of the familiar kind, there are other laws of nature that are 'biased toward the marvelous’….I am not confident that this Aristotelian idea of teleology without intention makes sense, but I do not at the moment see why it doesn't (Mind and Cosmos, 92-3).
As one who has nothing invested in any particular outcome, I welcome Nagel’s bold consideration of this teleological alternative. Like him, I am not confident that it makes sense, but it is a welcome deviation from the traditional dichotomy of materialism and theism. As a matter of personal taste, I would prefer Nagel to take up the task of systematically addressing the theistic alternative though. His writings have thus far suggested to me that he is driven to atheism by conviction rather than argument. To wit, Nagel in The Last Word: “It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that" (130). Such locutions strongly lead me to suspect Nagel’s teleological alternative is a reluctant solution rather than an invigorated one.
In any case, Mind and Cosmos is a great contribution to an immensely interesting and lively philosophical debate. I recommend studying the work carefully and following up on his works cited.