Notes on “Mind and Cosmos” by Thomas Nagel

Kam Rex Hansen – November 2021


Black = Notes / Summary

Blue = My opinions



My jaw dropped the moment I realized Nagel wants to argue that evolution is insufficient to describe inert matter humans

Nagel thinks the following two transitions are problematic for material reductionism:

(1) primordial soup single cell life

(2) single cell life humans 4 billion years later

Both seem very reasonable to me, especially (2) given the mathematics of evolution (frequency of mutations, diversity of environments on earth’s crust, and the process of speciation). Albeit (1) is still a mystery.


Nagel admits that to offer critique is not to offer a more plausible alternative. Unlike religious people, Nagel doesn’t see evidence of intelligent design in a friend’s smile, but rather is compelled toward “complications to the imminent character of natural order”. Recognition of materialism’s limits is the first step toward opening the door for other possibilities. I agree. It’s a bold task though. I’m genuinely inspired by Nagel’s human spirit of wanting to try.


——Chapter 2: Antireductionism and the Natural Order——


War between materialism and antireductionism is alive and healthy in contemporary philosophy.


If the mind cannot be reduced to the physical, Nagel proposes there is a domino effect, biology, chemistry, etc all go down with it.


“We and other creatures with mental lives are organisms, and our mental capacities apparently depend on our physical constitution” — I contend that the “other creatures” part is an assumption (solipsism) and the ‘apparently’ should be changed to ‘absolutely’ because the connection between mental and physical is undeniable: drugs, brain trauma, etc.


Nagel assumes consciousness is not physically reducible but doesn’t offer an argument. In my opinion, the jury is still out.


“Materialism requires reductionism; therefore, the failure of reductionism requires an alternative to materialism” Nagel proceeds to say he doesn’t intend to argue against reductionism, but rather to explore the consequences of rejecting it.


Definitions from google:

Reductionism: all properties of a system can be explained in terms of its constituent parts and their interactions

Antireductionism: not all properties of a system can be explained in terms of its constituent parts and their interactions

Materialism: nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications



What explains the order of the natural sciences? At some point, “this is the way they are” will be the end of the sequence of why’s. I agree with this.


Reductionism: the phenomenon can be understood from more fundamental constituents. The world is intelligible, simpler explanations are more likely true makes Nagel an objective idealist, like Hegel and Schelling.


Nagel starts jumping around at this point. Many of his sentences are unrelated to their neighbors. E.g. “The intelligibility of the world is no accident. Mind, in this view, is doubly related to the natural order”. Sentences like this really sour my confidence in Nagle’s project. If you have something to say, say it.



Nagel summarizes/steal-mans the materialist’s view and then says he’s puzzled that people take it as self-evident. I agree with him. The gaps in our knowledge leave a lot of room for mystery and allow for the possibility of truths radically divergent from materialism. Nagel says this alone is sufficient motivation to begin exploring alternatives. I agree with him. Still though, Nagle seems to presuppose that consciousness cannot be purely material. I say the jury is still out.



Nagel discusses two forms of intelligibility

Theism: mind physical law

Materialism: physical law mind

Both are incomplete, Nagle says. The incomprehensible divine mind is the stopping point of theism. (I can’t imagine a form of existence wherein the butt of the “why, why, why” is not “that’s just how things are”. I cannot imagine it.)



Theism and materialism contrast most sharply in their understanding of ourselves.

I love this next part. Nagel says the shared ambition of these two approaches is transcendence, I.e. we want the world view must encompass ourselves in a larger world view, and that larger worldview must encompass itself.


Nagel says both (logical and spiritual) rely on the facilities of humans to understand the world and don’t leave room for radical skepticism— the possibility that our beliefs about the world are systematically false. I whole heartedly agree.


Nagel says he believes in the legitimate aim of a transcendent understanding, albeit a more modest one wherein radical skepticism isn’t ruled out. The aim would be to offer a plausible picture of how we fit into the world. I’m hungry to hear what he has to say, but not holding my breath.



Critique of theism and materialism

Theists reject natural order by demanding “intervention” to explain brute facts: life from dead matter and existence of consciousness.


Nagel agrees with the theist that these brute facts are unlikely to arise only from the laws of physics, but states he’s searching for a more intelligible theory that explains the natural order from within rather than reject it (which he admits is his ungrounded intellectual preference).


Materialists make the error of trusting science which emerges from the mind of apes. He says, “evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends”. I vehemently disagree. I take leading models of suspension bridges very seriously if I am to build a bridge, and I would be correct to have near total confidence in them. (I can do this while simultaneously not harboring any delusions about what science can and can’t answer).



Nagel proceeds in this section to say we ought to have confidence in our own reason, despite the mystery of its origin.

In addition to reject theism and materialism, Nagel says he wants to reject a third category, that is to give up self-understanding and only seek to understand our point of view toward the world from within. “The question is there whether we answer it or not… it remains the case we’re the product of the big bang, decided from bacteria over billions of years of natural selection. That is part of the true understanding of ourselves.” — interesting, Nagel apparently believes in evolution but still thinks reason is a mystery from physical law (this is a contradiction in my opinion, consciousness is a mystery, reason is not). Also in my view, evolution and the big bang are far more speculative than the existence of my sensory input. The former requires multiple assumptions, the latter is bedrock and requires none.


Nagel summarizes chapter 2 by reiterating some past points: consciousness, knowledge, and reason along with the mystery of life are true facts about our situation. They cannot be ignored, nor can they be explained by physical law alone.


——Chapter 3: Consciousness——


Here, Nagel will argue that “physical law will never enable us to understand the irreducibly subject centers of consciousness”. I’m very excited to read this section because it’s an area I’ve been curious about for quite some time but I’m not well aquatinted with the philosophical arguments on either side.


Our nervous systems are grounded in the physical world. Developments in neurophysiology “have encouraged the hope of including the mind in a single physical conception of the world”.

Descartes said it couldn’t be done: mind and matter are distinct though they interact (dualism). Nagel then defines: dualism, idealism, and materialism.

I’m grateful Nagel defines idealism because I was getting conflicting definitions from a google search when he used it previously. Idealism: the mind is the ultimate reality, and the physical world is in some way reducible to it. (Wow, maybe I’ve been an idealist all along and never knew it). Interesting that Nagel decides to define all his terms on pg 37(?).


Conceptual behavioralist has tried to place the mind in the physical realm. Nagel argues (and I agree), that this strategy is “verificiationist”. Ah, X in the physical real leads to Y mental state. But “behavioralism leaves out the mental state itself”.


In the 1950s an alternative was developed called “psychophysical identity theory” which is the scientific hypothesis that mental events are physical events in the brain (X = Y where X is physical event and Y is mental state) this can only be confirmed by future developments in science, Nagel says. Personally, I think this is where the evidence will lead us. Nagel refutes this theory by saying it raises a further question: What is it about X that also makes it Y? X must have a property conceptually distinct from the physical properties that define X. This is required for X = Y to be scientific and not just a conceptual truth. <— I’ll admit, I don’t know what Nagel means here. Oh okay, he’s basically saying that “psychophysical identity theory” is “conceptual behavioralism” in sheep’s clothing. I would push back and say the jury is still out. Nagel himself admits that psychophysical identity theory must be confirmed by further scientific inquiry. People recognize the hard problem of consciousness is not yet solved and are working on solving it, i.e. explaining how mental states can emerge from the physical realm. It may be done through panpsychism, some alternative understanding, or it may prove impossible. But in any case, the jury is still out. Nagel offers no argument for X ≠ Y beyond “it doesn’t seem to be”, which I find disappointing. Yes, I agree that experience of a pleasant taste seems to be something extra than our mind austerely computing “eat this”, but it could be that “extra” is emergent from the physical, THAT IS the hard problem for which the jury is still out. Ok I need to calm down, Nagel ends the chapter by saying this exact point, that is, progress on this question may still occur.



Nagel will make a hypothetical point— “if psychophysical reductionism is ruled out, this infects our entire naturalistic understanding of the universe, not only our understanding of consciousness”. I agree, but how are you going to rule it out while the jury on the hard problem is still out?


Nagel proceeds to make the following argument: 1. Consciousness is one of the most important characteristics of biological organisms and therefore 2. theories that explain the emergence of such organisms must include an explanation for the appearance of consciousness. I disagree. First, it’s not logically clear to me why 2 must follow from 1. Also, 1 is an odd claim. Consciousness is not integral to our function as biological species and could just be a happy accident. From the first-person experience of the world, however, it is of course the first and the only characteristic that matters.



Nagel discusses intelligibility and explanation. An explanation of consciousness will need to entail why it is likely that conscious beings evolved and not just merely behaviorally complex beings. (I agree). Nagel sees the physicalist response “well something had to happen, so why not this?” as an axiomatic commitment to reductive materialism. I disagree, insofar as the physicalist admits his ignorance and admits the hard problem is hard. Such a response is merely taking the opposite side of the anthropic argument.


Nagel sets aside dualism which would abandon hope for an integrated explanation.


“What interests me is the hypothesis that biological evolution is responsible for the existence of conscious mental phenomena, but that since these phenomena are not physically explainable, the usual view of evolution must be revised” — it’s a fascinating hypothesis but Nagel does nothing to persuade me towards it (though this is one of my favorite sentences in the book). If a superior theory of evolution does come along, like Einstien’s theory of gravity encompassed Newton’s, so too will the new theory encompass Darwin’s.


Nagel explains conjunctive explanations: A to B to C. If A explains B and C is a consequence of B, then A doesn’t necessarily explain C. It seems clear to me that the reverse is true.

Both of Nagel’s examples are problematic

Example 1:

A = 4 independent causes for 4 deaths

B = 4 people died, who happen to be in the same family

C = “the death of several members of the same family”

In this case, B and C are physically equivalent events, but Nagel slips in an extra detail “that they are of the same family” to semantically muddle the link between A and C.


Nagel’s example is like my following example, which I think shows its absurdity:

A = I added fertilizer to the grass

B = The grass grew, and it happens to be purple

C = The fertilizer made purple grass grow


Example 2:

A = typing 3 + 5 into a calculator

B = the appearance of the figure ‘8’

C = the device produced the right answer


Ok, I now see Nagel’s point. A explains B, and B explains C, but A does not explain C. I was focusing on ‘causation’ rather than ‘explanation’ in the first example. Nagel’s decision to focus on explanation seems odd to me. In doing so, he places the emphasis on the completeness of our understanding as opposed to why the world is the way it is. The difference here seems related to disagreements on the anthropic argument.


Example of relevance:

A = evolutionary history

B = the appearance of certain organisms

C = the consciousness of these organisms


Nagel’s conclusion: a psychophysical theory must be historical. I agree, but not for the example Nagel gives. Causation is what matters, not explanation. Explanation broken into pieces like this is nothing more than a game of semantics. Nagel could reduce the length of this argument by sticking with causation and its transitory property: Evolution caused us. We are conscious. And therefore, evolution caused consciousness (if a psychophysical theory comes about). A psychophysical theory of consciousness from inert matter could still be correct even if it fails to explain the evolutionary roots, but I think that will naturally come along for the ride if such a theory is one day produced.


Nagel states 4 things a psychophysical theory of consciousness would have to explain, linking consciousness to evolutionary concepts like adaptability and heritability. (I agree, the best theory would do so— although it doesn’t have to and it would not in the case that consciousness is a byproduct like ‘the redness of blood’ that serves no function). Nagel’s next statement is the most perplexing I’ve encountered thus far in the book: “This would mean abandoning the standard assumption that evolution is driven by exclusively physical causes”. I don’t see any logical link between the two statements. It still could be the case that the hard problem is solved, and it turns out consciousness is emergent.



Nagel paints a picture for what an explanation of consciousness might look like.

An explanation of consciousness will have two parts: constitutive (the way things are) and historical (how they came to be).

The constitutive will either be:

1.              reductive - the constituent elements of the mind are conscious (panpsychism)

2.              emergent - the constituent elements of the mind organize into a conscious entity

Nagel states both demand a “beyond-physical” realm to the universe, and only now, is it dawning on me that Nagel is defining consciousness as non-physical. OK, but couldn’t you likewise define “love” to be nonphysical? Or even take a concept that could exist in a world of unconscious computers, e.g. “the game of minesweeper”. Would Nagel’s take this concept (i.e. the collection of rules that define minesweeper as a concept larger than their physical manifestation within the computer’s substrate) qualify as a non-physical entity?


“Neutral monism” = splitting the difference between materialism and dualism. It’s a bit of both. In my opinion, still dualism.



The historical side will now be addressed.

Historical account for how conscious beings arose from the world can take 3 forms:

(1) causal - explanations lies in the elementary constituents of the universe (which are also constituents of the organism)

(2) teleological - causal + principles of self-organization on a larger scale

(3) intentional - a being intervenes, e.g. God put genetic order in place that allows for the evolution of conscious creatures


This section is really interesting. Nagel paints a vivid picture of what 3 independent theories may look like. We should not forget the assumptions that go into this, which from my perspective are: (1) consciousness serves evolutionary purpose, not “redness of blood” side effect type-thing (2) psychophysical reductionism is false (this one Nagel states as an assumption, but I don’t see its necessity. Rather, these 3 seem like they could be psychophysical theories themselves to me) and (3) this is a very complete understanding of consciousness (it could be we find the buck stops at constitutive, which in my opinoin would still be very impressive).


Nagel reiterates (evolution as we presently understand it) + (a constitutive theory of consciousness) cannot equal an explanation for the appearance of consciousness, even if there is a causal link. yes! precisely my point earlier. It’s good to see agreement between us here. By changing the conversation from “causation” to “explanation”, Nagel demands the theory be robust, transcendent, complete, etc.




The teleological and intentional alternatives are considered.

Either answer to constitutive explanation, reductive or emergent, could be combined with an intentional explanation of the historical account, i.e. the “because God set it up this way” idea. However, such a solution falls outside of natural order.

For natural order, you either have pure efficient causation or there are natural teleological laws governing the organization over time (Aristotelian and largely a banished philosophy). Nagel is sympathetic to teleological possibilities, i.e. principles of change over time tending toward certain outcomes.



Concluding remarks and transition into the following sections, which will discuss perception, belief, desire, action, and reason.

“In contrast to dualism, I suggest we not renounce the aim of finding an integrated naturalistic explanation of a new kind. It would require many stages over a long period of time, beginning with greatly expanded empirical information about the regularities in the relation between conscious state and brain states in ourselves and closely related organisms. Only later could reductive hypotheses be formulated on this evidentiary basis.”



—— Chapter 4: Cognition ——


“What we take ourselves to be doing when we think about what is the case or how we should act is something that cannot be reconciled with reductive naturalism” I’m surprised Nagel think so. It seems clear that behavioral complex organisms, such as humans, that carry out computation will inevitably have some software, some processing of information, some hierarchy of needs and priorities that produce reason. The fact it feels like something to think (consciousness) is mysterious. But strip consciousness from the equation and I see a system that materialism is perfectly capable of describing. Let’s see if Nagel changes my mind.


“The question I now want to pose is whether our cognitive capacities can be placed in a framework of evolutionary history that is no longer exclusively materialist but retains the Darwinian structure. It is a hypothetical question, since there may not be such a theory. But I will talk as if there were.”


The problem has 2 aspects:

(1) Is it credible that selection for fitness can lead to theoretical pursuits that were unimaginable 4 billion years ago? (science, logic, and ethics)

(2) Can the faculty of reason be naturalistically understood?



Nagel will start by addressing (1).

My answer to the question is: yes. First of all, the absence of a single concusses in philosophy is solid evidence against our ability to discover truth. We manipulate theoretical patterns in mathematics and we discover physical patterns in the sciences. These are the only domains at which we’ve proven our competence and yes, both pattern discovery and pattern manipulation are consistent with evolved, behaviorally-complex species. So my answer to (1) is yes.


“The first problem only arises if one presupposes realism about the subject matter of our thought”

Nagel seems to be tittering on the edge of semantic-manipulation and nothing more.


Nagel says that there is a stronger case for anti-realism of morals than there is for anti-realism of science. “Evolutionary theory is the best explanation for our faculties and an evolutionary account cannot be given of how we’d be able to discover judgment-independent moral truth”

Anyways, assuming realism, Nagel says the best response to (1) is one grounded in evolutionary psychology. Nagel then paints a picture of how our cognitive capacities would evolve— supple intelligence is adaptive… generalize from experience, allow these generalizations to be confirmed or disconfirmed, maintain logical consistency in belief, modify beliefs when an inconsistency arises, etc. Next, language allows beliefs to be collectively created, accumulated, and transmitted. Nagel says whether this process, churning throughout prehistoric history, could give rise to human’s abilities to produce modern theoretical physics is questionable, “but perhaps the claim could be defended”.


Nagel moves to moral truth next. Perhaps there is something about evolution that refines our ability to create value judgment- projecting good and bad for our kin. Avoid suffering, seek flourishing, etc. Very similar to the picture Nagel paints for the evolution of scientific truth.



It seems so often we project our own semantic boundaries onto a problem, and whittle away, shifting and moving concepts in and out of boundaries. Meanwhile, the cloud of our true ignorance looms largely overhead. Clearly, Nagel is in awe of the existence of certain phenomenon: ethics, theoretical physics, life, consciousness. Would one expect zero mystery? Why not re-cast the question as ‘how many things would we expect to be surprising given a completely materialist world.”  And then draw a distribution of “phenomenon” (y-axis) and “human mystery/ awe in such phenomenon” (x-axis). If the current matches the expected, then we are good. For example, Nagel this its slightly far-fetched to say evolution could produce the cognitive faculties which led to the teeming, sophisticated body knowledge about theoretical physics, though he admits this claim could be defended.


Any statements beyond “my sensory experience is real” and “I must act” requires an assumption. We are woefully incapable of ranking the validity of these assumptions and therefore ultimately doomed in our search for certain truth. Instead, our truth seeking should be motivated by pragmatism. It feels like something to be me AND I must act. Even suicide or laying in bed counts as something.


“I must act” is a statement that describes the relationship between our sensory input and our environment.


Implicit in these statements being our only certain knowledge, is the fact everything else is uncertain. I.e. you could add an infinite number of subsequent facts: “I don’t know how I got here”, “I don’t know with certainty what happens after death”


Essay’s introduction describes philosophy as a bundle of knowledge. How it should be considered with respect to other fields.

Draw a cartoon of philosophy being taken out as a pillar beneath mathematics and science and carried over to the art institute. The two enterprises are left to sit on the toothpicks of two premises: “the reality of my sensory input”, “my relationship with my environment”


It is extremely useful both for artistic (deep, meaningful communication) and serves the pragmatic purpose of sharpening the cognitive faculties of its pupils. For example, philosophy students score extremely high on the LSAT.


Am I an idealist? A radical skeptic? Or a radical agnostic?



Nagel doesn’t think evolution can explain reason. Because reason so often is used to suppress our biological desires. I reject this. It seems a tension between impulse and “measured action” (action wherein possibilities are considered and filtered through experience-based knowledge and belief) would be highly advantageous in nature. As our species became civilized, we created environments that disproportionally reward measured action.

Nagel says an evolutionary account of reason presupposes reason (because we used reason to deduce the laws of evolution in the first place) and therefore is circular. “Eventually the attempt to understand oneself in evolutionary naturalist terms must bottom out in something that is grasped as valid in itself— something without which the evolutionary understanding itself would not be possible.”




Wouldn’t any account of reason presuppose reason? Reading onto section (4) and (5), Nagel continues to put a lot of stock into this argument that reason from evolution is circular and therefore false. My argument: Humans use reason to construct theories; therefore, any theory of reason’s emergence will presuppose human’s ability to reason, and therefore be circular. Would the situation be different if a computer came up with the theory? Constituent elements —> reason within humans —> reason within computers —> computer’s reason is used to generate theory of how constituent elements generated the computer’s reason (presupposes reason in computers). Boom, circle. This is semantics.


We could recast this as:

Possibility for reason is within the constituent elements the possibility for reason was realized within humans humans used reason to understand that the constituent elements of life contain the possibility for reason. (wait, maybe this actually presupposes reason as well).


Is this a “highly plausible transcendent theory” or a “false circular argument?” So often, the projection of words onto reality over-simplifies and makes it easy for philosophers to think they’re shifting well-defined concrete blocks via the rues of logic to construct a “valid argument”. Perhaps the blocks are actually clumps of silty mud. Pretending they are blocks with well-defined boundaries seems to be an illusion that philosophers often fall into. The most popular philosophical dilemmas are the ones that most people have had. The “greatest hits” album, if you will. These are condensed into an intro to philosophy course, or a “philosophy of religion” course. Naturally, culture and religion corral us towards sharing common dilemmas, e.g. arguments for the existence of God, and these are the ones that appear in textbooks. But equally large dilemmas pop up any time you begin to analyze anything and use language to project square boundaries onto problems that are intrinsically more complex than the framing of the problem would suggest.



What is the cognitive faculty that links our innate dispositions (formed through evolved) to the world of objective reality, Nagel asks, then continues talking about reason. “Each part of our lives is a lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself”



“A theory of everything must explain the development of consciousness into an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value.”

“It is trivially true that if there are organisms capable of reason, the possibility of such organisms must have been there from the beginning” —> trivially true but powerful sentence.

Nagel continues to talk about possible explanations for the emergence of reason.



Roger White makes an interesting point. “Non-intentional explanations are to be preferred, if possible (some would say at all costs) to intentional ones — hence the motivation to find a non-intentional explanation of life.” White invites us to reconsider this “nonintentional bias” with the following argument:


S = some event (i.e. the existence of life, molecularly replicating systems)

BI = hypothesis that the process that produced S had an intentional bias

BN = hypothesis that the process that produced S had a nonintentional bias

C = the chance hypothesis


S confirms a hypothesis, only if that hypothesis raises the likelihood of S. (I agree with this).


White argues that BN and C are equal, and neither increase the likelihood of S. “even if there is a non-intentional bias from purposeless physical law, it could be a bias toward any type of outcome whatever, so it cannot make the appearance of life more likely than anything else.”


This argument is unsettling to me. It seems philosophical pursuits of this variety are fundamentally flawed endeavors. By defining the problem in his own terms (intentional bias vs non-intentional bias, likelihood of a certain hypothesis), White cuts a narrow slice of the problem. He just as easily could have cast the question as “likelihood that the hypothesis that induces rapture”, or “likelihood the hypothesis is related to bugs.”


White, in my opinion, points out the flaw in his argument for us by restating it in this way: The molecular configurations of life stand out because they are marvelous. But there is no conceivable reason that the blind forces of nature of physical attributes should be biased toward the marvelous.


White projects his own subjective judgment of “marvelous” onto molecular biology, and then within his own well-defined boundaries questions the likelihood of intentionally-biased vs. nonintentionally-biased hypotheses being correct. Is an electron in an electric field not also marvelously simple? Or the death of a neutron star marvelously complex? Alan Iverson voice: bias, we’re talking about bias? Why not discuss the theories themselves?


Nagel restates his preference for a teleological solution. Physics gives probability distribution for future states of the universe and teleological principles select within that, a certain slice which actually happens. Perhaps, Nagel says, the teleological gives rise to physical laws that change over time. Both to me seem compatible with physics.


—— Chapter 4: Value ——


Nagel states that “the reality of value” is something that requires explanation separate from cognition and consciousness.

“The reality of value” is highly controversial. Some believe that values are subjective, i.e. the right answer depends on our attitudes or dispositions. In contrast, Nagel believes values are real, i.e. there is a right answer.



Many critiques of value realism fall into the trap of thinking value realism requires one to invoke the metaphysical. But Nagel says it is “metaphysical only in the sense that it denies that all basic truth is either natural or mathematical”. Value realism does not maintain that value judgments are made true or false by anything else, natural or supernatural.


Nagel goes down some rabbit holes saying that all philosophical positions require invoking some truth that cannot be explained by deeper truth and ultimately come down to judgment. He fails to convince me that value realism is correct.



“All of this is a prelude to the larger question: What are the implications for the natural order of different conceptions of value?” I don’t understand this question. Nagel’s position: since moral realism is true, a Darwinian account of the motives underlying moral judgment must be false. I’m confused, has Nagel made the case for moral realism yet? I don’t think so. On the contrary, he’s said there will never be evidence one way or the other.



From a Darwinian perspective, the hypothesis of value realism is superfluous.

Nagel believes in value realism nonetheless, that pain is really bad, not just something we hate. I don’t know how one could use reason to come to this position, the existence of ‘good’ seems to be equally presumptuous as the existence of God (and overly-confidence in human cognitive ability). Nagel seems to admit he’s incapable of doing so: “that is just how it glaringly seems to me”. And “something is missing from Darwinism” that explains the existence of moral/value realism.



Similar to consciousness and cognition, a complete explanation for the existence of value will have both constative and historical aspects.


Starting with the constitutive, Nagel says some form of free will allows him to give a friend aspirin to cure his headache. “A conscious control of action that cannot be analyzed as physical causation”. Nagel’s desire for his friend’s headache to go away is the result of his recognition that headaches are bad.


“Human action, in other words, is explained not only by physiology or desires, but by judgments”


It is surprising to me Nagel fails to see that consciousness and cognition are sufficient on their own to explain human judgment. Why is “judgment” a separate category from “reason” in this book? Where is the line between reason (as applied to desire) and judgment? Why can’t Nagel’s motivation for curing his friend’s headache lie in the pro-social bond that will be formed between them? Or in the stochastic firing a certain neuron. Or in God planting that thought in his mind?



Nagel muses about the historical side, although he admits at the onset his thoughts will be “equally inconclusive” as the constitutive side.


Nagel paints a picture of value in the universe that is rich and complex— each species has its own nuggets of value, what’s good for bee isn’t the same as what is good for a bear. Just as he did with consciousness and cognition, Nagel considered 3 types of historical explanations: causal, teleological, and intentional.


The causal could be reductive or emergent. Nagel doesn’t like either. He also doesn’t he like intentional explanations. Therefore, he focuses on teleological.


Nagel seems to be quite fixated on modifying evolution to explain how the universe could “gradually become aware of itself” or “gradually develop values”. In the teleological case for explaining the history of value realism, the universe would create life for the purpose of creating values. Nagel admits such a possibility is unlikely to gain traction in the current intellectual climate, and then takes some shots at evolution by restating that “life from dead matter” is still a mystery. Nagel then transitions from discussing possible historical explanations for the existence of realism into discussing how teleology might solve the “life from dead matter” problem.


—— Conclusion——


“Philosophy has to proceed comparatively. The best we can do is to develop the rival alternative conceptions in each important domain as fully and carefully as possible, depending on our antecedent sympathies, and see how they measure up. That is a more credible form of progress than decisive proof or refutation.”


The intellectual world would be well served by exploring more diverse possibilities beyond materialism. Nagel humbly admits his own attempt to explore alternatives are far too unimaginative.


“It’s perfectly possible that the truth is beyond our reach, in virtue of our intrinsic cognitive limits.” But Nagel thinks we should try anyways. “The ability to generate and reject false hypotheses plays an essential role.” This is the very same spirit that I found genuinely inspiring in Nagel’s introduction. He wins me over, I like Nagel as a person. Nagel ends by giving a prediction that in a generation or two, the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable, and perhaps will be replaced by a new consensus that is just as invalid.


Nagel really assumes that the existence of consciousness, reason, and value are proof that the universe is not merely physical. He doesn’t make direct arguments for this, but rather says he finds materialism “antecedently unbelievable”.


Concluding thoughts:


Very, very glad I read the book and that it was recommended it to me. It feels wonderful to be engaged with philosophy again.



Philosophers haven’t reached a consensus on anything, so why grant credence to a philosopher’s opinion? Does studying this question for 50 years make Nagel’s answers more qualified than the layman’s?  Nagel’s contemporaries have investigated the same questions and reached radically different conclusions, and therefore, I believe we must admit that while Nagel may be more ‘informed’, he is not any more qualified. I’m defining ‘qualified’ to mean more likely to have correct answers. “Expertise” may be a better word to use than ‘qualified’.



Nagel prefaces many of his positive statements with disclaimers that “it is his ungrounded intellectual preference, etc” … and then appears to use them as foundational pieces for his arguments. He offers no positive argument in place of physical reductionism. Rather, he paints a picture of what interests him and draws bounds of what he hopes / believes an integrated theory should look like. Thus, Nagel doesn’t make claims, rather he waxes about the different types of philosophical baggage that would result from certain theories. This is not a book to convince me that there is something beyond the physical.


The hard problem of consciousness needs to be solved, end of story. The solution, if it ever does come, will tell us if Nagel’s intuitions turn out to be correct or not. But it’s difficult to suppress the feeling that this book offers a single man’s intuitions and nothing more. Few arguments are made.


Panpsychism (along with probably some other theories on consciousness) is compatible with materialism, so I’m not sure what alternative Nagel is asserting the “something else” might be, if not for a metaphysical realm, i.e. what Nagel would refer to as ‘dualist’. I think there is a possibility of dualism. The fact anything exists at all is such an incredible fact. In the human state (or any exalted state of existence that humans can imagine), that fact cannot have a transcendent explanation. There will always be a “well that’s how things are” at the end of the serious of “why’s?”.


The materialist neo-Darwinian conception of reality isn’t false, it’s just incomplete. And scientist who is under the delusion that science can answer everything is a philosophical goon. It’s deceitful (i.e. strawmanning) to treat that as a serious philosophical position.



I disagree with Nagel’s intuition to ascribe metaphysical mystery to areas of the physical world that our ignorance still renders mysterious, e.g. life from dead matter. Nagel may say I have an axiomatic partiality towards materialism, but I don’t. If anything my biases lie in hoping for a solution outside the physical. Indeed, I accept the ignorance and grant the non-negligible probability that a metaphysical is required for explanation, however, I don’t assume it nor do I think it’s the most likely given the progress of science in the last 200 years. To do so seems like an axiomatic partiality to the opposite. Nagel, interestingly would say that he’s not invoking the metaphysical. Then, I would contest, he’s shifting the goalpost of the definition of physical (indeed, his proposed theories of consciousness all read as if they were physicalist theories to me). If physical is insufficient, it must be metaphysical. That is the definition of metaphysical, anything and everything that is not physical. We have defined these words, physical and metaphysical, to make a 3rd option beyond them impossible. The categories bifurcate all possibilities into two groups, similar to the concepts of “infinite and finite”. And yet, Nagel favors a 3rd category: teleological. From my understanding, teleological laws would affect measurement in the physical world, and therefore could be written down as a physical law.


Science is just the processes of observing patterns in our environment (measurement) and then writing these patterns down in a language (theory) in order to predict future occurrences. Anything that affects the measurement (i.e. sense with our sensory input- sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) is fair game to be included in “science”, material or non-material. It just so happens that no event has occurred thus far that requires invoking a non-material realm to explain it. Maybe consciousness. Maybe dark matter. Maybe the big bang. It seems searching for material-based explanations will be more.


Ranking of mysteriousness:

(1) existence of consciousness in the universe, huge

(2) life from inter mater, medium

(3) single cell to human in 4 billion years, small


No event has occurred that requires we invoked the existence of a non-physical realm to explain it. Can you point to such an event? Nagel makes no argument against this statement in his book. Rather, he says “what if __ cannot be described by materialism”. Let us presuppose that __ cannot be described by the constituent elements of the universe and the interactions between them, and then let us proceed to map out the possible theories that would emerge if this were the case. That’s appears to the be the books project, start to finish.


What would such an event look like? This has me thinking now. Reading this has inspired me to write my own thoughts down in a more organized way—maybe make a short book.