Mind and Cosmos

Book review of Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos at the The Threepenny Review:

'So mind and cosmos are a pair of strangely mutual astonishments. And in addressing them, Nagel believes that the teleological step is necessary: “The intelligibility of the universe is no accident,” he says. His book suggests that physical matter itself—the proton, the quark, the first stardust—has always been imbued with a purpose, which it seeks to fulfill. This though he’s an atheist....

Nagel doesn’t intend to be an obfuscator or a mystic. He is a dyed-in-the-wool atheist and takes pains to make that clear. He is very much on the side of science. But he feels that science has oversimplified two important mechanisms of nature: mind and evolution. The mind must be more than sparks and drips; and consciousness must have evolved by more than random accident.

Mind and Cosmos lays out a far-reaching, general campaign. He wants to defend not only consciousness against reductionism, as in previous work, but also to defend the higher mental structures of cognition and ethics. Those two mental faculties, too, somehow inhered originally in matter....

In Nagel’s diagram (or rather, gesture), there are three salient attributes of existence which are too wonderful to be explained away mechanistically—consciousness, cognition, and eternal moral law—and they must have been part of physical matter from the beginning. A renowned philosopher, relaxed in his authority and unashamed to display some decent puzzlement, he makes equivocal confessions like “I am not confident that this Aristotelian idea of teleology without intention makes sense, but I do not at the moment see why it doesn’t.”'