Book Review: Mind & Cosmos by Thomas Nagel

New York University professor and philosopher Thomas Nagel has put forth a new book called Mind and Cosmos, Why The Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception Of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. As a prize winning author on moral philosophy, Nagel answers from a philosophy of science perspective the difficulty of the mind and brain in evolution. Though the problem is staggeringly complex, Nagel enters into the fray with the insight of a modern philosopher and not a technician.

Because of his abstractions, the book may be frustratingly unscientific for some and theoretically pleasing for others. His concepts require no small level of thought and if one misses a few days between readings, it may be difficult to remember the context of pervious departure. Though only 127 pages, the book packs a punch, covering a lot of ground. With such weighty concepts, it can be difficult to track Nagel’s arguments as he does a lot of switchbacks on this mountainous topic of the mind. But his basic premise is that mind is somehow central in the quest to “a theory of everything.”

If it’s possible to summarize Nagel’s premise, it would be that materialistic evolution, as explained by physics and chemistry today, is incapable of explaining profound functions of the mind. Evolution and “reductive materialism” (p.49) is insufficiently equipped to account for the sequence of steps from non-living matter to a replicating molecule capable of consciousness. But it’s not because evolution is wrong, says Nagel, it’s just incomplete.

Nagel’s insight is helpful on several levels. He pointedly challenges the shortfalls of traditional Darwinian explanations for the origin of the mind. In fact, if there is any take away value from this book, it’s his articulate denunciation of Darwinism to account for the mind. He writes “If evolutionary biology is a physical theory…then it cannot account for the appearance of consciousness and of other phenomena that are not physically reducible” (p.14-15).

In so many words, Nagel asks and answers two questions. Why is the world intelligible? And, is consciousness a product of brain activity? Consciousness, one of the three complex operations of the mind that Nagel develops (the other two being cognition and value), does not have a purely chemical explanation. There must have been some kind of non-historical psychophysical account, or what Nagel calls “ emergence.” An emergent account better explains “the mental character of organisms by principles specifically linking mental states and processes to the complex physical functioning of those organisms” (p.54-55).

Nagel and Theism

Nagel ultimately rejects a historical causal account as this would have emergent characteristics, where consciousness is a mysterious side effect of evolution. Instead, mind for Nagel is integral from the beginning. Teleology, especially natural teleology, is an interesting option for the emergence of consciousness. But Nagel downplays teleology because any theistic implications are “obscure” (p. 67).

When Nagel dismisses “intentional causation,” he sounds the classic science rebuff where invoking God leads to metaphysical issues that science cannot comment on. It’s not that God is no explanation, but that creationism does not give “a comprehensive account of the natural order” (p. 26). If God cannot be out right disproven, He’s irrelevant.

When Nagel gives fuller treatment to theism, he tackles theistic evolution and in the process attempts to do justice to more evangelical positions. God, he says, could have set the wheels in motion “with the initial conditions that gave rise to conscious beings through chemical and biological evolution.“ But this “Aristotelian concept… was banished at the birth of modern science” (p.66).

In the end, Nagel feels that invoking God gets into that no man’s land of “the intentions of the creator” (p. 94) which is scientifically useless. Theism infringes on the self-organization tendencies that are at the origin of the universe. Nagel marginalizes God into the category of teleology and determinism where “the laws of nature entail their possibility, but they do not explain their actuality” (p. 95).

For the mind, Nagel doesn’t find theism any more satisfying or credible than a comprehensive materialistic worldview (p.22). Theism “makes physical law a consequence of the mind” (p.21). Though he discounts theism, strangely on page 95 he almost uses theism as the standard when he says “some form of teleological naturalism should…seem no less credible than an interventionist explanation”. It’s interesting how theism is always in the back of the mind.

Nagel’s Monism

Nagel favors more of a “neutral monism” where the mind is connected to the development of organisms as a result of chemical and biological evolution. As such, this theory is more science friendly and expansive for future research. Monism for Nagel means that mind was not just an after effect in the development of life, but was integral, built in or co-involved with the process from the beginning. His monism is tangible where the physical states of the central nervous system are also states of consciousness (p.57). He cites panpyschism, where all of the elements of the physical world are mental as well. Consciousness is still the result of biological evolution on some level but it’s our concept of evolution that needs to be amended, not the elimination of it. He says a comprehensive emergence of the mind co-existent with evolution is needed.

Nagel addresses other problems of mental function such as thought, reasoning, and evaluation in a chapter entitled “cognition”. Nagel has to assume with Darwinists that perception and desire are real in organisms, otherwise survival would be impossible. Modern philosophy, with it‘s emphasis on the mind in interpreting reality, can be a problem for the Darwinist since organisms must accurately perceive reality to survive. Though faintly referring to Descartes, it would have seemed appropriate for Nagel as a philosopher of science to have addressed the problems of a Kantian gap. It appears Nagel is riding a contradictory line: he is a realist to the extent science is knowable, but philosophically retains a Kantian agnosticism. 

Other Problems of the Mind

Other classic problems of the mind that Nagel tackles are language, reason and altruism. Nagel says humans acquired language to transmit knowledge. But language should not be thought of as an extension or add on feature of consciousness. He doesn’t give a specific pathway, but he speculates that “something has happened that has gotten our minds into immediate contact with the rational order of the world…” (p. 85). Altruism has been a classic problem for Darwinists, and Nagel proposes that “value” ( his term for altruism) is a product of consciousness and cognition. He is rather profound when he says right and wrong are shaped by facts, and facts lead to value. When we slow down to avoid hitting a dog running across the road, we do so because hitting it would be bad. Facts determine value and therefore things are good or bad in their own right. Even in emerging organisms, such as a bacteria, there is the possibility of a good or bad outcome. Value then evolves and is accumulated from consciousness and cognition in some kind of emergent, antireductionist, cascading process.

Nagel has other pockets of brilliance as well, as in the problem of pain. He illustrates pleasure and pain as a bridge to right and wrong. He says reflectively, “would pain be bad if we didn’t mind it”? (p. 99). Is pain bad in itself or does it teach us there is something bad in principle? And if so, is pain good? Does pain lead us to better fitness solely to avoid injury or is there a virtue in the fact that pain is really bad? Good questions.


Though materialism is sorely lacking as a complete explanation for the mind, Thomas Nagel is still an atheist and sold out on the Darwinian mechanisms for the origins and development on life. These presuppositions shape his conclusions. He valiantly tries to carve out some middle ground between materialism and theism for the complexities of the mind, middle ground I’m not sure exists. His neutral monist position is that mind, though developed over time, was central to life from the beginning. But in saying mind, he is not referring to any theistic metaphysical being. If anything, sprigs of eastern religion seem to pepper Nagel’s theory of everything with terms such as “monism”, “trans-physical”, “transmental”, “protopsychic”, transcendent”, and “panpsychism”.

Though Nagel tries to deal with the problems of illusion and distinction in his monism, eventually monism has problems with independent reality. He adheres to realism in so far as the reliability of the scientific method is required for evolution. But he denies a correspondence theory of truth where things are distinct and can be known in their own right, any discovery having analogue to a metaphysical being or absolutes.

Tackling such a difficult subject is commendable. And his theories are logical from his modern philosophical bent. But his assumptions may create some fatal errors in his conclusions. For example, though mind is part of the process, he is a fully committed closed system chemical evolutionist as to the origin of life. He may not be a scientist, but if he addressed the pragmatic problems of chemical evolution, he might arrive at a different philosophy. Has he considered the problems of turbulence in a pre-biotic soup environment, or that cosmic energy breaks apart macromolecules, or the presence of oxygen at the early earth, or the challenge of tertiary structure in DNA?

Likewise, Nagel didn’t delve into the medium and the message problem of evolutionary biology. He mentions DNA on occasion but not the problem of sequence with matter and message. We know DNA is needed to create new cells, yet new cells seem to be created with the DNA. If DNA carries a message, then the message cannot be the product of the chemicals that make up the DNA.

Nagel offers “a revision of the Darwinian picture rather than an outright denial of it” (p. 123), but he is still fully sold on the main mechanism. There are times he uses natural selection and random variation interchangeably as equally generating dynamics. But natural selection is not a generating force; it is a scaling back or reducing dynamic. And mutation has been shown to have a deleterious effect on organisms and has never proven to generate anything above a species.

Nagel doesn’t give a satisfying answer to the questions, “why is there something rather than nothing?” “And why are things the way they are?” He just assumes evolution is true. He mentions extremely speculative ideas such as panspermia for our origins. But the cosmological arguments for the existence of God marry science and logic. If we’re philosophically expounding on origins from natural causes, then demonstrating a first cause from logic seems appropriate. Maybe Aquinas and his first principles should be revisited, which might balance out the Kantian agnosticism that our culture suffers from.

Though brain function requires more than materialistic explanations, Nagel tries to carve out some reductionistic middle ground between mind and spirit. But again I wonder if Aquinas’ view of the mind isn’t more secure: “There must therefore be in the nature of man a proper principle of both operations, to wit, both an active and a potential intellect, and neither of them must be separate in being (or physically distinct), from the soul of man” (Summa Contra Gentiles).

Nagel’s barbs at intelligent design seem uninitiated. He says that an interventionist approach to the mind means making metaphysical claims about the attributes of the designer. But this is untrue. Design enters the scientific arena on science’s terms and concludes from the data that design is the best explanation. If somehow linking mental states to physically functioning organisms is plausible, then why can’t the activity of an intelligent agent be fundamental? Also, how can mind be central to the beginning of the universe and not information, which is intelligent design’s major contribution?

If the origin of values is confusing, they seem more so from an evolutionary developmental standpoint. After presenting quasi- scientific explanations, Nagel seems to be presupposing the thing he is trying to establish as his conclusion. For example, the following statement seems circular: “if we can understand our prereflective impressions of value-instinctive attractions and aversions, inclinations and inhibitions-as appearances of real value, then the cognitive process of discovering a systematic and consistent structure of general reasons and moral principles can be thought of as a way of moving from appearances to reality in a normative domain” (p. 108). What does that mean?

Mind and Cosmos is a good read for a certain curiosity. With such mystery surrounding the mind, perhaps more accurate explanations will lie in abstract ideas. But I didn’t find here an improvement over theistic notions. If you’re a reductionist, you might want more. It’s an intriguing thought that “the mental [is] a physically irreducible part of reality” (p. 62). But I’m left wondering, what is this “something that has happened” to the mind in evolution? (p. 85). Perhaps leaving us with that question is the purpose of the book. Or as he says, “philosophy cannot generate such explanations…but can only point out the obstacles to constructing them out of presently available materials” (p. 68).

Reductionsim says all of reality is reduced to material substances. Monism says all of reality is one, usually referring to some metaphysical force; anything not one with that is an illusion. Nagel’s monism says that mind is behind of all reality. But isn’t that sort of what intelligent design was saying all along? Theism has the best balance of all these aspects of reality. Things exist and can be known in their own right yet there is an ultimate reality beyond all material things.

Copyright by Scott Chandler. All rights reserved.

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About Scott Chandler

As a trained academician, Scott speaks to the issues of our culture with an emphasis on apologetics.
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