Some “Thoughts on Mind & Cosmos” by Thomas Nagel

by Stephen McAndrew*

I have been a fan of Thomas Nagel since I first read his essay “What It’s like To Be a Bat”. His lucid, common sense analysis was striking to me as an undergraduate philosophy student. I was therefore intrigued about his latest book – Mind and Cosmos, especially since there was such a furor surrounding it. There has been much talk, well in certain circles, about Mind and Cosmos.

In the debates between theists and non-theists, Nagel’s book has lauded by the theist side for championing their cause, and treated as a dangerous betrayal by nontheists. (1)  But I think the book is neither. Sure the subtitle, Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, may lead you to think that he has landed firmly in the camp of theism, but I think that would be to go too far. We have to keep in mind that just because Nagel holds neo-Darwinism to be false doesn’t mean that he believes theism is true. Nagel makes it more than clear that he is not a theist, he just doesn’t want to base his atheism on something he considers to be false. And that indeed is laudable.

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So what has caused all the fuss? Nagel claims in Mind and Cosmos that the dominant naturalistic worldview, which holds that a blind process of natural selection is responsible for our existence, is fundamentally flawed. It should also be noted that he mentions his doubts on the likelihood the ability of purely physical laws to explain the origin of self-reproducing life forms, and the likelihood of natural selection producing the life forms we see today in the available geological time. (2) However, the first sticking point for Nagel comes in his area of specialty – philosophy of mind. Essentially, he holds that the project to reduce the mind to physical properties has failed because of the intractable problem of explaining consciousness.

As Nagel explained in his paper “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”, consciousness is essentially subjective and connected with a single point of view. (3) He explains that we can understand how a bat’s perception systems works but cannot understand what it is like to be a bat. Therefore, he contends that consciousness cannot be reduced to purely physical processes because that would ignore the subjectivity of consciousness…

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RC*Stephen McAndrew is the Ratio Christi chapter director for the State University of New York University at Buffalo (UB).  Born in Dublin, Ireland, he graduated from Trinity College Dublin with an honors degree in French and Philosophy.   After graduating summa cum laude from law school at UB, he worked as an associate in a large firm concentrating his practice on mergers and acquisitions and securities law matters for a large law firm for four and a half years.  He currently practices law as a solo practitioner.   His first book,  Why It Doesn’t Matter What You Believe If It’s Not True, is an examination of the contradiction between moral relativism and international human rights law was published February 2012.  He has been accepted into the Ph.D program at UB starting in Fall 2013.  He lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children.