Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos is subtitled “Why the Materialistic Neo-Darwinist Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False,” so obviously it’s moving in controversial territory. Unsurprisingly, it has been hotly rejected by the orthodox (though not that hotly), and praised by theistic creationists even though it entirely denies creationism and theism. Nagel thinks that Darwinian explanations of evolution cannot explain the emergence of things like consciousness and that a different kind of explanation will be needed.
I’m not crazy about this book myself, but it has some good points, and I have some respect for Nagel himself. I will review it as objectively as I can and in some detail.
It should be made clear that Nagel does not actually question the fact of evolution, merely the explanation that it has been guided by natural selection. For some reason or other, Nagel is not convinced by the power of natural selection to do this. He doesn’t really say why — it’s pretty much just an argument from incredulity. The first chapter does contain enough references to sources I hadn’t read that are supposed to support his views that it left me thinking maybe there’s something there worth looking into, but that something wasn’t given here. Mind you, the only author referenced whom I had really read was Stuart Kauffman, who surely would not support Nagel’s stance. Kauffman thinks self-organisation in addition to natural selection has had a role in evolution, but his self-organisation is something you get free as a surprising result of the known laws, not something you need to add like Nagel supposes. So Kauffman’s view mainly implies everything could have evolved more easily than Darwinism supposes — not less easily. (It should be said that Kauffman does think natural selection without self-organisation would not be enough.) Nagel’s stance that creationist arguments against evolution have brought out good points doesn’t really inspire confidence either, considering what I know of them. Continue reading