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Little Book, Big Waves — Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, Nine Years Later

Photo credit: Mark Harpur via Unsplash.

Philosopher and atheist Thomas Nagel’s little book, Mind and Cosmos, from 2012, continues to make big waves. He credited intelligent design proponents including Stephen Meyer and Michael Behe with helping to undermine (per the subtitle) “the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature.” Writing for the journal Public DiscourseMatthew J. Franck calls it a book that “stuck” for him, meaning one that sticks around in his “thinking and writing in various ways,” despite being outside Franck’s academic discipline:

My last recommendation is of a book that came to my attention in a more ordinary way — accompanied by widespread attention, acclaim, and criticism. Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos (2012), coming in at only 126 pages plus notes, is a brisk but densely argued brief against the view, dominant among most contemporary scientists, that a reductionist materialism can explain, well, us — creatures with consciousness and cognition who believe that our value judgments are rooted in reality. Nagel’s daring and iconoclasm are evident in his subtitle, Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. He was persuaded, he writes, by the “intelligent design” school of Darwin critics that the standard evolutionary account of the human mind comes up short. Nagel does not embrace the “design” thesis himself, but his thrusting it away rests on the rather feeble ground that he “lack[s] the sensus divinitatis that enables — indeed compels — so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose.”

Franck, among other distinctions, is Associate Director of the James Madison Program and Lecturer in Politics at Princeton.

The Future of an Illusion

Nagel put a “sell by” date on the Darwinist idea of mind:

I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two — though of course it may be replaced by a new consensus that is just as invalid. The human will to believe is inexhaustible.

As a colleague points out, Nagel’s departure from the “right-thinking consensus” is on a par with Yale computer scientist David Gelernter’s 2019 farewell to Darwinism: both are major thinkers who showed that rejecting that orthodoxy can be done. Their courage also persuades me it will be done, by others of equal stature, giving intellectual permission to others in turn, until the tipping point that Nagel forecasts comes to pass. Of course, his sober warning about the next “consensus” must also be heeded.