The Universe Is Waking Up

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A review of Thomas Nagel Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False

Oxford University Press, 2012, 130pp.

Thomas Nagel is an American professor of philosophy, perhaps best known for his 1974 article, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, in which he argued that consciousness, as is occurs in creatures like bats and human beings, means having a point of view on things.[1] There is something it is like to have conscious experience, even if we cannot imagine exactly what it is like, as in the case of bats, which use echo-location to find their way around and to catch their food. Hence there are facts about the world, that there is something it is like to be a bat, which we cannot even imagine. This point leads to Nagel’s conclusion, which is to highlight the difficulty of supposing that we could explain the subjective nature of conscious experience in terms of objective properties, like brains and neurons. Such an attempt to explain the mind in terms of the brain would be reductionist in the sense that it would involve a reduction of mental properties to physical properties. But such a reduction is not possible in this case. Following Nagel, the mind–body problem in philosophy gained new significance. David Chalmers has argued that consciousness constitutes a ‘hard problem’ for philosophy.[2] Colin McGinn has argued that, because of human cognitive limitations, we are not able to understand how subjective experience is related to objective properties, and that consciousness will remain a mystery.[3] Other philosophers, such as Daniel Dennet, believe on the contrary that consciousness can be accommodated within a materialistic world-view.

Scientists, it must be said, are more concerned about their research than these difficult philosophical problems. Nevertheless there are plenty of neuroscientists who also admit they have no idea how the brain ‘produces’ conscious experience. Thomas Nagel’s most recent book, Mind and Cosmos, starts from these familiar conundrums of the mind–body problem, and goes on to question the whole neo-Darwinian world-view, which tries to explain nature in terms of physical matter and forces interracting to produce the world of life and of human experience. The slightly sensational sub-title for this book, Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, is presumably the publisher’s way of grabbing attention, and shows that the book is aimed at a non-specialist readership. What Nagel really argues, however, is that the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature is partial rather than false, because it cannot adequately explain the appearance of consciousness. What would be false, in this view, would not be the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature but the metaphysical claim that materialism can completely explain everything.

Nagel’s basic argument is this. If materialism cannot explain consciousness, then materialism cannot be a complete explanation of the natural order. This argument is more interesting than it looks. It is perhaps easy to suppose that we could fully explain the beginning of the universe in terms of matter and forces and so on. But if the arising of life and subsequently consciousness cannot be explained in terms of matter and forces – that is, that life and consciousness are not susceptible to reductionist explanations – then materialism has not explained the natural order. Life and consciousness must always have been possibilities within the natural order, even before the conditions for their actual arising were not fully present. Therefore materialism is not a complete theory. Nagel does not stop there. In a chapter on ‘Cognition’, he goes on to argue that the faculty of reason, by which he means the capacity (for a few of us) to intuit truths that are independent of the mind, such as mathematical or logical truths, cannot be explained by evolutionary theory alone. Neo-Darwinian theory must explain the appearance of faculties such as reason as somehow adaptive, but we cannot explain the capacity for insight into the truth in terms of adaptation for survival. And in a chapter on ‘Value’ Nagel argues that our capacity to make correct moral judgements is based on the objectivity of good and bad, it being an objective matter that certain actions are good and certain bad, which is similarly inexplicable in terms of materialism alone. For each of these broad areas – consciousness, cognition and value – Nagel sketches what might count as more satisfactory explanatory theories. One such sort of theory would be intentional – that God has set up the natural order is such a way that there is consciousness, that we can intuit the truth and know good and bad. But Nagel does not explore intentional theories as he does not believe in God. He plays with panpsychism – the theory that mind is somehow in everything – but does not find this kind of metaphysical theory very useful. His preferred tentative solution is what he calls ‘teleological naturalism’, meaning the theory that the natural order is biased in some way towards the emergence of life and consciousness, as more-than-likely directions or potentials of development. He does not develop this theory but merely indicates that it might at least be along the right lines.

It has to be said that Nagel’s book has received some very critical reviews.[4] This is partly because of the polarised nature of debate in the US. Nagel’s denial of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory plays straight into the hands of Creationists, who seem to eagerly seize on any criticism of evolution. It has to be said that, although Nagel clearly states that he is an atheist, he also tells the reader how stimulating he finds the work of Michael Behe and Stephen Beyer, two prominent exponents of intelligent design theories for the origin of life.[5] Sometimes intellectual openness can be a political mistake. Professional scientists and philosophers have also criticised Nagel’s book in different ways, because it does not take into account the kinds of details which are important in the disciplines in which these people work. However, Nagel’s book is meant to be a readable book exploring big issues. Nevertheless, it must be said that Nagel does not make any attempt to present or answer quite reasonable philosophical objections to some of what he puts forward, perhaps especially in relation to the idea that moral values are objective.

Nevertheless, I think Nagel’s book is of great interest for western Buddhists, because it puts forward a critique of, and ideas for alternatives to, the predominant materialist worldview of our times. Nagel’s starting point is not simply that he finds materialism partial or unconvincing, but that he himself has a metaphysical view or vision of reality that just cannot be accommodated within materialism. This vision is that the appearance of conscious beings in the universe is somehow what it is all for; that ‘Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself’.[6] Nagel’s surrounding argument is something of a sketch, but is entirely compatible with a Buddhist vision of reality as naturalism, including the possibility of insight into reality (under the topic of reason or cognition) and the possibility of apprehension of objective good (under the topic of value). His naturalism does this while fully conceding the explanatory power of physics, Darwinian evolution and neuroscience.[7] Most Buddhists are what one might describe as intuitive non-materialists, but they have no way to integrate their intuition into the predominantly materialistic scientific world view. I see the value of Nagel’s philosophy in Mind and Cosmos as sketching an imaginative vision of reality that integrates the scientific world view into a larger one that includes reason, value and purpose, and simultaneously casts philosophical doubt on the completeness of the predominant materialism of the age.


[1] Thomas Nagel, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ in The Philosophical Review 83:4 (1974), pp.435–50.

[2] David Chalmers, ‘Facing up to the problem of consciousness’ in Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2:3 (1995), pp.200–19.

[3] Colin McGinn, ‘Can we solve the mind-body problem?’ in Mind 98 (1989), pp.349–66. McGinn has also written a work of popular philosophy on the problem of consciousness: The Mysterious Flame: conscious minds in a material world, New York: Basic Books, 1999.

[5] Mind and Cosmos p.10, and see the footnote there for references to works by Behe and Beyer.

[6] Mind and Cosmos p.85.

[7] This point is important, however, for emphasising that consciousness depends on the body and brain, and ceases when they cease functioning. While the Buddhist tradition, in line with most non-scientific thinking, assumes the possibility of some sort of disembodied consciousness, the Buddha himself appeared to deny it, as I discuss in Dhivan Thomas Jones, This Being, That Becomes: the Budha’s teaching of conditionality, Cambridge: Windhorse, 2011, p.67f.

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5 thoughts on “The Universe Is Waking Up

  1. “If materialism cannot explain consciousness, then materialism cannot be a complete explanation of the natural order. This argument is more interesting than it looks.” Really? Any decent sceptic could tell you that materialism can’t be a complete explanation of anything. But then nor can any other metaphysical theory, because it will be equally speculative and go equally far beyond experience. How then is it possible to come up with “a more satisfactory explanatory theory”?
    Nagel appears to be doing just the same as any other metaphysician, which is to selectively apply sceptical arguments to undermine the theories he dislikes, whilst ignoring the ways in which similar sceptical points would similarly undermine his supposedly more “satisfactory” alternatives. Pyrrho and the Buddha dismantled all this thousands of years ago, but nobody listens to them. It’s all a complete waste of time, and even less interesting than it looks.

  2. Hello Robert. As far as I can tell, Nagel does not employ sceptical arguments to undermine materialism, but on the contrary argues that materialism is partial and incomplete. I am all for sceptical arguments to undermine speculative metaphysics, but Nagel’s book is concerned not with speculative metaphysics but with materialism as the predominant metaphysical world view associated with modern scientific knowledge, which permeates the hearts and minds of all educated and no-so-educated western people. I think the moment for scepticism comes once actual doubt about materialism has arisen, and this book encourages that doubt to arise.

    • Hello Rahula. ‘Intuitive non-materialism’ is a phrase I made up to describe (i) a view held intuitively, i.e. pre-theoretically, as a matter of common-sense or intuition, rather than necessarily as a result of rational reflection, and (ii) a view that the universe cannot be explained solely in terms of the matter and forces which modern science especially physics takes to be the basic stuff out of which everything is made. So to translate: an intuitive non-materialist is someone who thinks that there must be something more to life and consciousness than organisations of matter.

  3. Pingback: Rebirth and Consciousness | Dhivan Thomas Jones

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