Parenting in America   /   Fall 2013   /    Essays

The Nagel Flap: Mind and Cosmos

Is Nagel’s book heretical?

John H. Zammito

Illustration by David Metcalfe.

“If there were a philosophical Vatican, the book would be a good candidate for going onto the Index.” It was a philosopher’s joke, the philosopher in this instance being the respected Cambridge scholar Simon Blackburn. But its swipe at a slim volume produced by fellow philosopher Thomas Nagel summed up a sentiment shared far less lightheartedly by many of today’s leading thinkers and scientists—so many, in fact, that The Guardian named it the “Most Despised Science Book of 2012.” And for what reason?

Well, most likely for claims such as this: “The dominance of materialist naturalism is nearing its end.” Or for the equally defiant assertion that materialist naturalism, so called, “will come to seem laughable in a generation or two.” Such jabs capture both the pious wish and the incendiary intent behind Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. But what exactly did Nagel intend, and what exactly has he unleashed? Was his book addressed primarily to experts—philosophical or scientific—concerning the legitimate frontiers of inquiry, or was it composed explicitly with an eye to broader political-cultural agitation?

Consider, first, the flap itself, a verbal brawl that has hardly abated since the publication of Nagel’s work in the autumn of 2012. Reconnoitering not only the published reviews, but the vast Internet commentary the book has set off, proves perturbing. Above all, the intemperate character of much of the reception underscores the rhetorical recklessness of the book. In his early and penetrating review in the New Statesman, Blackburn grasped both prongs of the rhetorical danger in Nagel’s work: “I regret the appearance of this book. It will only bring comfort to creationists and fans of intelligent design.... It will give ammunition to those triumphalist scientists who pronounce that philosophy is best pensioned off.” That is, Blackburn said, creationists would find Nagel’s views supportive of their insurgency against the scientific community, while idolaters of science would find evidence in it for dismissing any philosophical scrutiny of that community’s undertakings. Neither outcome is, as Blackburn realized, salutary for a proper assessment of science. Hence his offhand consignment of the book to the Index Liborum Prohibitorum.

Even if meant as a joke, Blackburn’s remark was sufficient incitement to the intelligent design community to anoint Nagel as a heroic heretic persecuted by an entrenched materialist orthodoxy. It enabled advocates of intelligent design to twist the whole reception of the book into what might be called the “heresy” discourse, which has in fact dominated all subsequent reactions.

The exasperated tone with which evolutionary scientists, philosophers of science, and others on the side of science and philosophy received Nagel’s book was struck early, in a dismissive review in The Nation by University of Chicago legal scholar Brian Leiter and University of Pennsylvania philosopher Michael Weisberg, and a somewhat more tolerant online assessment by University of Exeter philosopher of science John Dupré. The catalyst for the jump from agitated academic reception to mass media uproar may have been Harvard psychologist Steve Pinker’s tweeted response to the Leiter-Weisberg review: “What has gotten into Thomas Nagel? Two philosophers expose the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.”

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