NagelThomas Nagel is one of the panjandrums of consciousness, author of the classic paper ‘What Is It Like To Be A Bat’ and so a champion of qualia; but also an important figure in inspiring the Mysterian school of pessimism.

Now he has inspired new controversy with his book ‘Mind and Cosmos: Why The Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.’ Probably the part of the book which has elicited the most negative reaction is the doubts Nagel expresses about evolution itself, or rather about the currently accepted view of it. It’s not that Nagel disbelieves in evolution per se, but he thinks there are important gaps in its account; in particular he doesn’t think it accounts satisfactorily for the origin of life, or for the availability of the large range of living forms on which natural selection has worked. He is not endorsing Intelligent Design but he thinks some of its proponents have arguments which deserve a wider and more sympathetic readership.

That does seem a bit alarming. It’s true, I think, that we don’t yet have a full and convincing story of how life came out of inert chemistry. I’d also agree that some of the theories put forward in the past – like the naked replicators championed by Richard Dawkins in the Selfish Gene – look a bit sketchy and optimistic. But none of that would stop me putting my money on the true story being a fully materialist one in which Darwinian evolution plays an early and crucial role. Nagel’s second problem, with the way nature seems to have provided a remarkable fund of variation in organisms, of a kind which lent itself to the emergence of sophisticated organisms, just seems misconceived. He offers no statistical analysis or other reasoning as to why the standard account is unlikely, just mere incredulity. It seems amazing that that could have happened; well yes, it does, but then it also seems amazing that we’re sitting on a huge oblate spheroid which is rotating and orbiting round an even vaster sphere of terrifying thermonuclear activity; but there it is.

The real problem is that Nagel wants these doubts (together with some more specific objections to standard materialism) to justify a large metaphysical change in our conception of the whole cosmos. His book professes only to offer tentative and inadequately imaginative speculations, and the discussion is largely at a meta-theoretical level – he isn’t telling us what he thinks is the case, he’s discussing the kinds of theory that could in principle be advocated – but it’s clear enough what kind of theory he would prefer to reductive materialism. What he leans towards is a teleological theory; one in which some underlying principle drives the world towards a particular goal. He does not want this to be an intentional goal; he does not want God in the picture or any other Designer; rather he wants there to be a natural push towards value; value being conceived as a sort of goodness or moral utility, although this part of the speculative potential theory clearly needs development.

Nagel’s critique of evolution may seem alarmingly misplaced, but the idea of introducing teleology to fill the gaps seems really astonishing. What, we’re going to abandon the idea that DNA came together through natural selection and say instead that it came together because it sort of wanted to or was sort of meant to? The history of science has been a history of driving out teleological explanations – and the reason that represents progress is that teleological explanations are just not very good; they are usually vacuous and provide no real insight or predictive power.

In some ways what Nagel is after seems like an inverted law of entropy. Instead of things running down and tending to disorder, he wants there to be something built into the cosmos that shoves things towards elaboration, complexity, and indeed self-awareness (he positions the evolution of human consciousness as a peak of the process, and likens it to the Universe waking up). In itself that vision is quite appealling, but Nagel wants it to be driven by the worst kind of teleology.

I’m not sure what the official ontological status of the law of entropy is – it could be a meta-law which says the laws of nature must be such that entropy always increases, or it could be something that emerges from those laws (perhaps from any viable set of laws) – but it is definitely fully compatible with the rest of physics. If Nagel’s new teleology worked like this, it might be viable, but he actually supposes it is going to have to discreetly intervene at some point and turn events in a direction other than the one mere physics would have dictated. This seems a disastrous requirement. If there’s one thing the whole weight of science goes to prove, it’s that the laws of physics are not intermittent or interruptable; every experiment ever conducted has contributed evidence that they are consistent and complete. Yes, there are some places in quantum physics or wherever where some might hope to smuggle in a bit of jiggery-pokery, but I think on examination even these recondite areas offer no real hope of a loophole.

This is a general issue with Nagel’s case. We can sympathise with the view that evolution is not a Theory of Everything, but the other theories we need should be compatible with the broadly materialist world view which, despite some problems, is really the only fully-worked out one we’ve got: but Nagel hankers after something stranger and thinner.

What about those other theories? Nagel isn’t basing his argument simply on his doubts about evolution; he has three places in which he thinks the standard materialist view is just not adequate. Consciousness, unsurprisingly, is one; cognitive thought, more unexpectedly, is another; and the third is his concept of value. In the next post let’s consider what he has to say about each.


  1. 1. Arnold Trehub says:

    Peter, yours is the most thoughtful review of Nagel’s book that I have seen. I look forward to your next post.

  2. 2. Henry Harrison says:

    Sound like Nagel’s looking for a thermodynamic theory of evolution, like the one first put forward in Swenson & Turvey (1991), “Thermodynamic reasons for perception-action cycles,” and recently elaborated in two 2012 special issues of the journal Ecological Psychology.

    Basically, nature’s drive to produce entropy at the fastest possible rate means that local pockets of order are inevitable, because local negentropy can speed up the global rate of entropy production. From this view, evolution has produced systems that are increasingly more proficient at seeking out and destroying negentropy, guided by the physical selection principle of maximum entropy production.

  3. 3. Vicente says:


    it also seems amazing that we’re sitting on a huge oblate spheroid which is rotating and orbiting round an even vaster sphere of terrifying thermonuclear activity; but there it is

    Not really… not by far compared to the voids in biology. Except for the very first instants (picoseconds), physics can provide a consistent and detailed microscopic (atomic & molecular levels) “description” of the chain of events that lead to the creation of the solar system, from the beginning. I am waiting for an equivalent description of how a bacteria happened to appear.

    I am not denying that energy and matter are surprising by their own right, and I completely agree that intuitions are not satisfactory, not beyond very personal and subjective explanations.

  4. 4. Peter says:


    Well, I grant you there is something specially remarkable about the appearance of the first organisms, though we do have a few hypotheses; we’re not so desperate that we need to invoke teleology (in my opinion). But with the spheroids I was mainly aiming at the view that mere chance can’t reasonably have supplied all the right kinds of variation needed for evolution. That it did may be surprising in a “look at our amazing world” kind of way, but I’m not at all sure it’s biologically or statistically surprising.

    Nagel would probably say I should read up the books of the Intelligent Design people he favours, but to be honest I’m not going to.

  5. 5. Vicente says:

    Yeah, neither am I. I rather have a void than a void filled with myth. But you see human brains don’t tolerate well blank spaces. In fact, science is driven by the same urge.

  6. 6. scott bakker says:

    “But you see human brains don’t tolerate well blank spaces.”

    Once they’ve been pointed out, anyway.

  7. 7. Vicente says:

    After reading the book, I have revisited his famous essay “The absurd”, and I find it difficult to understand this pendulum like motion. He seemed to be quite resigned to the ramdoness of existence. I have observed that often the need to find sense intensifies with age, and courage is not so easy to find (I sympathise that). Is Omega point back on stage?

  8. 8. Callan S. says:

    So when are they going to create some replicating mechanism in a lab, that are both built from (at the earlier period in our planets history) commonly found chemicals and consume/mechanically integrate commonly found chemicals (with the mechanical assistance of sunlight, presumably)

    They are already building tiny little nano motors. No ones gotten onto building a life form? The nano motor would kinda count if it could both build new copies of itself and do so from relatively common materials (but who knows, perhaps somewhere on the planet in the ancient past really uncommon materials converged into one pool or something – not the most impossible of circumstances)

    I guess I should google it rather than, like, actually ask other people! 😉

  9. 9. Vicente says:

    Callan, there was recently news about a US lab (lost the link sorry), creating the conditions to synthetise the 10 basic aminoacids needed for life…(living organism can produce the rest). The paradigm was ARN and then proteins, now it looks proteins and then ARN…

    To me the point is that they look too overoptimistic, from understanding the natural formation of some basic building blocks, to understanding the origin of life there is a long long way… Then evolution starts.

    At some point compatibilists will start to appear. It is silly not to acknowledge that evolutionary mechanisms play a central role in life progress, but it’s not so silly to suspect that there could be something else operating in parallel. Same applies to consciousness and materialism.

  10. 10. Vicente says:


    Sorry, actually the point is to ensemble the 10 essential amino acids into functional folded proteins…

    Still a long way to go.

  11. 11. Callan S. says:

    Thanks, Vicente! Well, I always like to think the mysterious ‘before the universe actually was around – or why the heck a universe ever came around’ is also obviously pivotal to life. Tons of question marks around!

  12. 12. emma kant says:

    “Nagel wants it to be driven by the worst kind of teleology.”

    Is there some kind of ordering of kinds of teleology you are referring to here, with Nagel’s being at the top end of it? I am not aware of such a thing, could you provide a reference to these kinds of teleologies order by badness?

  13. 13. Peter says:

    No doubt we could rate teleologies on several different scales, emma. The one Nagel is asking for is especially bad in my eyes, because the ontologial commitment is large, the need for it is not convincingly adumbrated (to me anyway); it’s not clear how it would fit into our existing physical framework, and in fact it’s not even clear how it works.

    To take an opposite example, the weak version of the Anthropic Principle is teleological in character, but it demands little, makes sense, and banishes a certain kind of puzzlement.

    YMMV, no doubt.

  14. 14. Mark Pharoah says:

    In response to comment 2 by Henry Harrison:
    There is a common misunderstanding of the second law of thermodynamics and entropy. The second law applies only to isolated systems. Life and consciousness are the product of open not isolated systems. Consequently, when Peter says, “Instead of things running down and tending to disorder, Nagel wants there to be something built into the cosmos that shoves things towards elaboration, complexity, and indeed self-awareness”, the idea of emergence, elaboration, or increasing complexity is not inconsistent with thermodynamic principles or with the idea of increasing entropy. This is why I argue that understanding the principles of systems constructs is what is required of an understanding of the emergence and evolution of life and consciousness (

    A general point:
    One can argue that physical states can be said to ‘seek’, by virtue of their tendency toward and tendency to maintain stable systems. So when Peter says, “What he leans towards is a teleological theory; one in which some underlying principle drives the world towards a particular goal… he wants there to be a natural push towards value”, the “underlying principle” is one that will explain the tendency behind the “drive” towards the emergence and evolution of a hierarchy of systems constructs. How the principle then relates to the concept of “value” should certainly be of great interest to philosophers (please see

  15. 15. Chase Hasson says:

    get the greatest large digital clock around

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