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Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False

2.8 6
by Thomas Nagel

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The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture,


The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology.

Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history, either. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such.

Nagel's skepticism is not based on religious belief or on a belief in any definite alternative. In Mind and Cosmos, he does suggest that if the materialist account is wrong, then principles of a different kind may also be at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic.

In spite of the great achievements of the physical sciences, reductive materialism is a world view ripe for displacement. Nagel shows that to recognize its limits is the first step in looking for alternatives, or at least in being open to their possibility.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"If evolutionary biology redraws its boundaries as this book says it must, then the dialogue between theology and science will be considerably altered." —Anglican Theological Review

"[This] troublemaking book has sparked the most exciting disputation in many years... I like Nagel's mind and I like Nagel's cosmos. He thinks strictly but not imperiously, and in grateful view of the full tremendousness of existence." — Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic

"A sharp, lucidly argued challenge to today's scientific worldview." — Jim Holt, The Wall Street Journal

"Starts with a boldly discerning look at that strange creature, mankind, and comes to some remarkable speculations about who we are and what our place is in the universe... The very beauty of Nagel's theory - its power to inspire imagination - counts in its favor." — Richard Brody, The New Yorker

"An intense philosophical takedown of Neo-Darwinism and scientific materialism. It's a brave and contrarian book. Reminds me of Wittgenstein's remark: 'Even if all our scientific questions are answered, our problem is still not touched at all.'" — E.L. Doctorow, The New York Times Book Review

"Nagel's arguments against reductionism should give those who are in search of a reductionist physical 'theory of everything' pause for thought... The book serves as a challenging invitation to ponder the limits of science and as a reminder of the astonishing puzzle of consciousness." — Science

"Mind and Cosmos, weighing in at 128 closely argued pages, is hardly a barn-burning polemic. But in his cool style Mr. Nagel extends his ideas about consciousness into a sweeping critique of the modern scientific worldview." — The New York Times

"His important new book is a brief but powerful assault on materialist naturalism... [Nagel has] performed an important service with his withering critical examination of some of the most common and oppressive dogmas of our age." — The New Republic

"[This] short, tightly argued, exacting new book is a work of considerable courage and importance." — National Review

" Provocative... Reflects the efforts of a fiercely independent mind." — H. Allen Orr, The New York Review of Books

"[Nagel] is an avowed nonbeliever, but regularly enrages the New Atheist crowd because he is determined to leave open a space... for the incomprehensible, for the numinous... and writes very honestly about that." — James Wood

"This short book is packed like a neutron star. I found myself underlining so much that I had to highlight some underlining with further underlining and flag up this underlining in turn. Mind and Cosmos is a brave intervention." — Raymond Tallis, The New Atlantis

"Challenging and intentionally disruptive... Unless one is a scientific Whig, one must strongly suspect that something someday will indeed succeed [contemporary science]. Nagel's Mind and Cosmos does not build a road to that destination, but it is much to have gestured toward a gap in the hills through which a road might someday run." — The Los Angeles Review of Books

"A model of carefulness, sobriety and reason... Reading Nagel feels like opening the door on to a tidy, sunny room that you didn't know existed." — The Guardian

"Fascinating... [A] call for revolution." — Alva Noe, NPR's 13.7

"The book's wider questions — its awe-inspiring questions — turn outward to address the uncanny cognizability of the universe around us.... He's simply doing the old-fashioned Socratic work of gadfly, probing for gaps in what science thinks it knows." — Louis B. Jones, The Threepenny Review

"[Attacks] the hidden hypocrisies of many reductionists, secularists, and those who wish to have it both ways on religious modes of thinking ... Fully recognizes the absurdities (my word, not his) of dualism, and thinks them through carefully and honestly."—Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

"Mind and Cosmos is a mind-provoking, challenging, and enjoying read which carries the mark of Nagel's unique blend of originality, elegance, and intellectual honesty." —Philosophical Psychology

"Mind and Cosmos is...extraordinarily ambitious. Nagel proposes not merely a new explanation for the origin of life and consciousness, but a new type of explanation: 'natural teleology.'" — Inference: International Review of Science

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Oxford University Press
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New Edition
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5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Nagel is University Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Law at New York University. His books include The Possibility of Altruism, The View from Nowhere, and What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. In 2008, he was awarded the Rolf Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy and the Balzan Prize in Moral Philosophy.

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Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False 2.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
perak More than 1 year ago
A pointlessly drawn out argument from personal incredulity.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
To compare birds to reasoning creatures commits the fallacy of equivocation. Birds have built-in programming and physiology that enable them to use earth's electromagnetic field or solar motions, seasonal changes, etc. to pursue innate intincts - a simple stimulus-response dynamic. There is no mental consideration of ideas and pilotage calculations, nor a synthesis of thesis and antithesis to adduce a most likely outcome of limited data of which one can base a course of action upon. The fact that we are discussing such issues and possess volitional and emotional opinions regarding them is huge proof that humans are not ontologically the same as non-human animals. The more vehemently one denies this evident fact, the more one proves the case. Monkeys and mules don't have the ability to care one way or the other.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nagel’s fundamental premise is that the evolution of the universe, galaxy, sun, life, and society all imply a direction, a teleology, a point of order into which the universe is collapsing. Like de Chardin’s omega point, people like Nagel have often posited a singular destiny that then determines all order in the universe. An evolving order of the cosmos in time parallels the evolution of life’s molecular organization. An evolving order of consciousness parallels the evolution of reason along with commerce and government. Reason, according to Nagel, differentiates human consciousness from that of other sentients and yet that differentiation, reason, is at the root of the science-philosophy debate. Nagel describes reason with this example: If I decide, when the sun rises on my right, that I must be driving north instead of south, it is because I recognize that my belief that I am driving south is inconsistent with that observation, together with what I know about the direction of rotation of the earth. I abandon the belief because I recognize that it couldn’t be true. This reasoning, Nagel claims, is different from a simple sensation, for example, seeing a tree. When I see a tree, I see it because it is there, but not just because it is there. If you are having a hard time seeing the difference between seeing a sunset and a tree, you are not alone. How about just because you write a sentence does not then give the sentence useful meaning. How about: If I believe what I see is a tree, and then further observe that the tree is made of colored mortar and plastic leaves, I abandon my belief because I recognize that it could not be true. Which of these statements represents simple perception and which reason? Fundamentally, Nagel’s reason is simply a more complex conscious feeling. Imagination and feeling are nice words that describe conscious reasoning. For Nagel's driving south example, we imagine a destination when driving south based on many sensations like signs and verbal directions and we choose actions for that journey. Then, the sensation of a sunrise to our right poses a conflict with our first imaginings. With the sunset to our right, we then imagine that we actually journey north, not south, despite other sensations to the contrary. If we feel that the direction of the sunrise is a more reliable sensation that the other sensations that led to our original belief, we change our belief. This example does not seem like a very convincing demonstration of higher reasoning. After all, birds reason with similar sensations for their migratory flights. Is this the same reasoning that differentiates human consciousness? Nagel tries to differentiate human abstract thought as reason from the simpler thinking of sentient consciousness. Neither his words nor the examples seem to differentiate human reason from other sentient consciousness except in complexity. Still I thought his arguments were engaging and his exposition was illuminating although with some flaws. This is what I desire when I read about the mind and cosmos.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is full of physologal reasoning and not much science. It is difficult reading.