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Mind and Cosmos: Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s Brave Critique of Scientific Reductionism

How our hunger for definitive answers robs us of the intellectual humility necessary for understanding the universe and our place in it.

“The purpose of science is not to cure us of our sense of mystery and wonder,” Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky famously noted, “but to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate it.” And yet, we live in a media culture that warps seeds of scientific understanding into sensationalist, definitive headlines about the gene for obesity or language or homosexuality and maps where, precisely, love or fear or the appreciation of Jane Austen is located in the brain — even though we know that it isn’t the clinging to answers but the embracing of ignorance that drives science.

In 1974, philosopher Thomas Nagel penned the essay “What It’s Like To Be A Bat?”, which went on to become one of the seminal texts of contemporary philosophy of mind. Nearly four decades later, he returns with Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (public library) — a provocative critique of the limits of scientific reductionism, exploring what consciousness might be if it isn’t easily explained as a direct property of physical interactions and if the door to the unknown were, as Richard Feynman passionately advocated, left ajar.

To be sure, Nagel is far from siding with the intellectual cop-outs of intelligent design. His criticism of reductive materialism isn’t based on religious belief (or on any belief in a particular alternative, for that matter) but, rather, on the insistence that a recognition of these very limitations is a necessary precondition for exploring such alternatives, “or at least being open to their possibility” — a possibility that makes mind central to understanding the natural order, rather than an afterthought or a mere byproduct of physical laws.

He writes in the introduction:

[T]he mind-body problem is not just a local problem, having to do with the relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living animal organisms, but that it invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history.


Humans are addicted to the hope for a final reckoning, but intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole.

As a proponent of making the timeless timely again through an intelligent integration of history with contemporary culture, I find Nagel’s case for weaving a historical perspective into the understanding of mind particularly compelling:

The world is an astonishing place, and the idea that we have in our possession the basic tools needed to understand it is no more credible now than it was in Aristotle’s day.


The greatest advances in the physical and biological sciences were made possible by excluding the mind from the physical world. This has permitted a quantitative understanding of the world, expressed in timeless, mathematically formulated physical laws, But at some point it will be necessary to make a new start on a more comprehensive understanding that includes the mind. It seems inevitable that such an understanding will have a historical dimension as well as a timeless one. The idea that historical understanding is part of science has become familiar through the transformation of biology by evolutionary theory. But more recently, with the acceptance of the big bang, cosmology has also become a historical science. Mind, as a development of life, must be included as the most recent stage of this long cosmological history, and its appearance, I believe, casts its shadow back over the entire process and the constituents and principles on which the process depends.

Ultimately, Nagel echoes John Updike’s reflection on the possibility of “permanent mystery”:

It is perfectly possible that the truth is beyond our reach, in virtue of our intrinsic cognitive limitations and not merely beyond our grasp in humanity’s present stage of intellectual development.

Though Mind and Cosmos isn’t a neat package of scientific, or even philosophical, answers, it’s a necessary thorn in the side of today’s all-too-prevalent scientific reductionism and a poignant affirmation of Isaac Asimov’s famous contention that “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.”

Image: Orion Nebula; public domain courtesy of The Smithsonian

Published October 30, 2012




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