Mind and Cosmos

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

One star for the great cover design*, one star for the surprise and entertainment I got from reading such backwards thinking. (2/5)

My two-sentence summary of the book:

Consciousness, reason and value cannot be the products of Darwinian evolution. So they must be among the building blocks of the universe, guiding evolution towards self-awareness and value formation.

Nagel is wise enough to concede that his ideas are “unlikely to be taken seriously in the present intellectual climate”. He explains that he is not so much making detailed truth claims as carrying out an exercise in thinking about possible non-theistic alternatives to the materialist Neo-Darwinian paradigm which is “ripe for displacement”. Being a materialist Neo-Darwinist, I didn’t agree with the motivation but I was curious about the results as a philosophical enterprise; in the end I fell squarely into the group who cannot take it seriously. Rarely do I come across a book this much filled with arbitrary assumptions, bad argumentation and wishful thinking.

I haven’t read Nagel enough to analyze his output throughout his life but I always find it sad when you can feel that the author is an old person when you’re reading analytic philosophy – not from the language or style but from the thinking, especially from an inclination towards common sense.

“After all, everything we believe, even the most far-reaching cosmological theories, has to be based ultimately on common sense, and on what is plainly undeniable.” (p.29)

Common sense died in 1543. It was buried in 1859. In 1905 it was exhumed for autopsy, and in 1920s its ashes were scattered over the sea. It’s sad that some important philosophers of mind (Nagel, Searle, …) still believe in it.



* Seriously, look at all these marvelous covers. It seems like anti-reductionist authors always get better covers than the reductionists, and they fool me into giving higher ratings with that. I’d like to change that.

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  1. Ömür

    Hello dear Cem,

    I have read you “review” of the book a couple of times, not because I had to understand your criticisms that might somewhat be considered as a “philosophical” or “scientific” discussion of the matter at hand but because I am afraid among what you presented here there was (and is!) none such.

    In philosophical discussions (in the context of criticizing an opponent’s views) we do roughly the following: we first read, and understand the view and the particular argument(s) presented in support thereof, then we try to clearly state the premises and the conclusion of the argument (we may criticize the author if s/he has not done well regarding the clear statement of the argument in the target text), then we see whether the logical connection between the premises and the conclusion is valid, if so we then go on to see whether the argument is sound – evaluate the premises one by one, and the other arguments and considerations that the author gave to support the claims of the truth of each of the premises. On the other hand, of course, we may occasionally be somewhat (further) justified in rejecting the argument by criticizing the conclusion in isolation from the rest of the argument because, e.g., it is counterintuitive (but not because it is [allegedly] “backward thinking”) – however, only in addition to the above-mentioned steps. Without those steps, therefore, this kind of “criticism” is no genuine one at all, and decidedly not a review.

    Greetings from a materialist Neo-Darwinist…

    • dencemond (Author)

      Hello Ömür,

      You’re absolutely right that the book “reviews” I post here are not proper reviews in the sense you’re describing; they’re mostly short summaries of what I thought about the book, written for and taken from my Goodreads account. Yes, the “genuine” review method you describe is the academically/scientifically/philosophically right way to do it, but I’m not an academician and I don’t think (or claim) that this blog is an academically/scientifically/philosophically important place. (I certainly don’t think that the writers of these books are going to read here and respond.) I’m just a person who loves to read in these areas in his free time and I can barely find time to write these short pieces, for a small percentage of the books I read, on Goodreads. Then I post some of them on this blog. So if you’re a professional scientist/philosopher, you have every right to ignore them.

      Nevertheless, I believe that this sort of short impressions about books/films/etc. are valuable in their own right, functioning as opinion-transfers between people who don’t always have time/motivation to write/read the professional reviews you delicately describe. I’ve found many such writings by other people very helpful before/after reading a book.

      A note on details: As I try to stress in the post, I would not (and I think nobody should) reject an argument because it’s counterintuitive, and my words “backwards thinking” were not actually a direct criticism – I used it to define Nagel’s argumentation that starts from an unusual point (which usually is the end point), and I explicitly write that I got surprised and entertained by it, which is a good thing in philosophy, in my book.

      For the reasons that made you write your comment, I was reluctant to post my Goodreads reviews here and to use the word “review” but I couldn’t find another word that does the job without sounding strange. Now that somebody (you) took it seriously enough to write about it, I’ll rethink. I’ll be happy to hear if you have any suggestions.


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