Thomas Nagel is is an American philosopher. He is currently Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University. He is the recipient of a lot of awards and accolades. You can check him out on Wikipedia if you want a deeper look into his career and works. He well known for his 1974 essay What Is It Like to Be a Bat? with its argument that the inner experience of a brain is truly knowable only to that brain. No one, not even another bat, can truly know what it feels like to be any one particular bat.
He is respected and at times revered …. well, he has been, right up to the publication of Mind and Cosmos – Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. Boy, did this book create a firestorm of criticism and unhappiness.
His basic premise is that evolution is teleological. That means, it has a place it wants to go, an end point, if you will, and a tendency to work toward that end by all that evolving and tweaking and adjusting. Don’t misunderstand. It is not a deity-directed or externally-directed evolution or teleology. It is just … well …. teleological because it is. He claims that the entire universe is teleologically-oriented. Hmmmm. He says that because of this teleological tendency, teleological laws of nature might mean that life and consciousness arise with greater probability than would result from the known laws of physics, chemistry, and biology.
He is anti-reductionist. What does that mean? Reduction – to reduce to the smallest components. Scientists believe the universe, including our own existence, can be explained by the interactions of little bits of matter. But Nagel says, like he did in What Is It Like to Be a Bat? that we cannot explain consciousness by reductionism. There is no way to reduce the experience of consciousness down to little bitty somethings that when put together produce consciousness. And if what he calls “materialist naturalism” or just “materialism” can’t explain consciousness, then it can’t fully account for life since consciousness is a feature of life.
Whew. Heady stuff.
This is not a huge tome of a book. It is rather small by comparison with most philosophical works that contain big ideas. You cannot explain big ideas in twenty-five words or less. Not really. And then those big ideas have to be backed up with your reasoning behind them. And this book is full of big ideas, an iconoclastic work of a book. Love it, hate it, or remain neutral about it , you must admit that it contains ideas that make you question everything you think you know about the universe and consciousness.
What is interesting is that Pierre de Chardin, a French philosopher and Jesuit priest, wrote basically this same thing, back in the early days of the 20th century, in his Phenomenon of Man, but was forbidden by the Church to publish it, which considered it a heresy. de Chardin took a more religious view of this teleology, attributing it to God, but the basic bones of the idea are the same: a teleological evolution.
One of the great things about reading works of different periods is that you can see the seeds of ideas, and follow threads of thought from one era to another.
If you are of a philosophical and scientific bent, you will enjoy reading Mind and Cosmos. Well, perhaps enjoy is not the right word. It is not light reading, it is a serious work. But well worth the effort.