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Peter Hichens recently concluded a review of A.C. Grayling's recent book The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanismwith an interesting question. He said that the interesting question about God was not so much whether he exists or not, but why both sides of the argument want their answer to be right. Are protagonists on both sides of the debate more worried about being right, or being wrong?

This book is interesting because it comes from an Atheist philosopher, who is challenging some of the most sacred and cherished beliefs of atheism. Specifically he challenges whether the reduction of all life and knowledge to smaller and smaller parts provides an adequate explanation of the world as it is, or as it is experienced in our consciousness. His conclusion is that it is not an adequate or complete explanation of how things are. He does not think this is just because of gaps in current knowledge that will eventually be filled. He thinks the idea of reducing everything to physics and chemistry is neither sensible nor justifiable, or even a rational hope.

Nagel is really pointing out a flaw in the paradigm of materialism. I think he achieves what he is trying to show, and in this he is echoing the work of many others who have challenged the attempt to reduce all life and experience to physics and chemistry.

In saying this Nagel is going against the current atheistic materialist consensus advocated strongly by many of the disciples of Dawkins. They will dislike this book and think it is wrong -as they deny the existence of anything that is not material as nonsense, no existence and utterly immaterial. They say they will alter their minds if "new evidence emerges to support extra-ordinary claims"; but they have such tight rules of evidence that there's no type of evidence they could admit as credible.

Nagel has written a well argued critique of materialism and reductionism and it is well worth reading. It joins a growing list of significant books such as Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity and Philosophical Foundations of Neurosciencethat challenge the idea that we are nothing but physical and chemical reactions. I think he achieves the demonstration of the incompleteness of materialism well. I am less sure his suggested alternatives are fully successful.
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on 27 December 2012
The author casts doubts on the reigning materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature and on psychophysical reductionism, especially on human consciousness, reason and values. He poses the unusual but crucial question "how to understand nature as a system capable of generating mind" instead of the usual efforts to understand mind as a product of nature (p. 72). Rejecting the intelligent design hypothesis, the author tentatively suggests a secular teleological view of the cosmos in the direction of emergence of life, and later human consciousness and reason.
This is exciting iconoclasm of widely accepted views on which modern sciences are based. Thus, the arguments refute the hopes of cognitive sciences to explain consciousness as a reflection of material processes of the brain. As admitted by the author, the presented alternative hypotheses are speculations, but they stimulate fresh rethinking of what is all too easily widely accepted.
I have problems with some arguments, such as reliance on "common sense" (e.g., pp. 5, 7), on what is "plainly undeniable" (p, 29), and the "evident truths of ethics" (p. 31); neglect of the importance of religions as grounding of values; regarding most of "reasoning" as conscious, with downgrading of tacit and depth processes; rejecting very low probability possibilities as "too accidental to count as a genuine explanation (p.94); and complete neglect of the possibility that the proposed teleology of "the universe gradually waking up" (p.117) may include a tendency built into humanity to create a super-human species while terminating its own existence.
Only at the end does the author mentions that "It is perfectly possible that the truth is beyond our reach, in virtue of our intrinsic cognitive limitations" (p.128). Indeed, I think that it is very likely that only a meta-mind may be able to understand the human mind and its evolution. This fits the opinion of the author in other writings that humans cannot achieve a "view from nowhere." Such fundamental problematic should have been discussed at length at the beginning of the book.
These and other problems in no way diminish the importance of this book, which is recommended to all who want to consider unconventional perspectives of the place of humanity in the cosmos, while taking a critical look on purely physical-causal views of the universe.

Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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on 25 September 2013
Nagel sets out, as he says "not so much to argue against reductionism as to investigate the consequences of rejecting it - to present the problem rather than to propose a solution".In doing this he bravely challenges many of the givens of modern thought, especially scientific thought. He identifies three areas - consciousness, cognition and value which he claims a purely physically derived understanding of the world cannot explain. He accepts science will go on to explain many things it has not yet explained, but his key point is that we should not assume that physical reductionism will ever provide all the answers, (in this he includes the current formulation of Darwinism). And in not being able to provide the answers he argues we must re-think our whole approach to understanding the world. This is a short book, densely argued, and sometimes a bit repetitive. I suspect it will become regarded as an important book. Like any really interesting argument, you may completely disagree with it, but it is still worth reading.
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on 2 June 2014
After several decades in which the orthodoxy of philosophical materialism has gone almost completely unchallenged in Western thought the paucity of its arguments (and evidence) are finally becoming clear.

Incidentally this does not return us to "God" but suggests a broader perspective in which consciousness and matter are both part of the natural world.
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on 3 April 2013
Regardless of whether or not you have a strong view on the central question addressed in this book - namely, the adequacy or otherwise of reductive materialism as an explanation for mental phenomena - there is no doubt that it is a compelling read. Anyone interested in this topic, or indeed the relationship between science and philosophy more generally, will find 'Mind and Cosmos' very rewarding. As always, Nagel's style is highly accessible and presents few obstacles to the non-specialist reader.

That said, I was surprised by some aspects of Nagel's analysis. The early chapters lead one to expect that he is going to present a withering critique of materialism. However, if this was his intention, the book does not really deliver the goods. In fact, rather unusually for those who choose to attack materialism head-on, he devotes surprisingly little space to setting out a critique of physical reductionism. Instead, his approach seems to be to take the inadequacy of the materialist world view as a given, almost as though it were an unspoken assumption he can safely expect his readers to share. To state, as he does, that materialism has a 'negligible likelihood' of being true sounds eloquent, but is not, in itself, a persuasive rebuttal. This somewhat undermines Nagel's attempt, in the second half of the book, to sketch out the outlines of a possible 'naturalistic' alternative to both dualism and physical materialism. For, unless it is clear that materialism is false in at least some respects, the need for an alternative is not self-evident.

Moreover, Nagel's claim that any such naturalistic alternative would require a radical breakthrough in our conceptual understanding of the relationship between mind and the physical world also seems incorrect. There has always been an alternative to materialism and idealism - it is called monism, and it is expressed in classic form in the writings of Baruch Spinoza. But Spinoza was unequivocal in rejecting teleology, and this seems more plausible to me than Nagel's attempt to locate a form of natural teleology in a Godless universe that allegedly has no goals or objective moral values. To say of 'God or Nature' that it is entirely self-contained, and the most powerful and valuable thing that can possibly exist, is not the same thing as saying that it has goals or purposes. After all, if the cosmos has an unconstrained power to give rise to everything that could possibly exist, it is unclear why it would need to set itself external, time-dependent goals; it will deliver infinite diversity timelessly. So it is perfectly consistent to maintain, on the one hand, that the universe must have the potential to give rise to human consciousness, while at the same time denying that this is a goal Nature sets for itself. I would have found the second half of 'Mind and Cosmos' more interesting if Nagel had acknowledged this possibility and explored its implications more fully, since it clearly has a crucial bearing on the question of whether teleology is required to explain the phenomenon of mind, consciousness, and other manifestations of organised complexity.

Still, the fact that Nagel is raising these issues, and stimulating the range of responses found in these and other reviews, itself justifies the price of the book.
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on 18 February 2015
Much academic philosophy seems like indulgent sophistry, the product of tenured members of university philosophy departments. However, the world is undoubtedly a very complex place, so there are no simple answers, no trite conclusions.
Thomas Nagel is a brilliant philosopher who attempts to address some of the fundamental problems that only philosophers can address. Here, he takes on the currently fashionable materialist scientism that has come to dominate the public imagination with the demise in the western world of popular theism. In this, he is attempting to reclaim for humanism some of the ground that in public discourse has been lost to materialism. The book succeeds resoundingly in this: it is eloquent, well argued and completely convincing.
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on 22 January 2013
This is a return to form for Nagel. Critical analysis of the flaws of philosophically trendy positions is where he has always been strongest.In many ways this book can be viewed as a sequel to his famous 'What is it like to be a bat?' essay in Mortal Questions as it explores the implications of accepting his rejection of a purely materialist/physicalist theory of mind for our scientific understanding of the world and moral philosophy.
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on 22 June 2016
There are some good reviews here of this book, I will just add a few comments and impressions of my own, rather that a descriptive narrative.

I did find it a relief that Nagel expressed his incredulity at the offhand way the vast problem, for materialism, of the appearance of self-replicating organisms is usually dismissed, or glossed over, with highly implausible non-explanations. I have felt the same dis-belief for a long time, but Nagel expresses it much better here. Indeed he quotes Francis Crick as saying the appearance of these organisms seems like a miracle.

He is also scathing about other nonsense (in my view) such as off-loading difficult questions to multiple universes, characterizing that as "a cop-out, which dispenses with the attempt to explain anything."

I didn't get the impression that he was out to undermine materialism as such, more that he feels it must be re-thought, and the discussion expanded to include a plausible theory for the coming into being of consciousness and value, with his present preference being for a teleological explanation. He explains this very well and clearly.

A great advantage is that he is an atheist, thus potentially moving the subject beyond the range of militant-new-atheist-versus-religion conflict. For me personally it is a relief to see questions dealt with objectively, with competing theories contrasted on their merits without regard for what the prevailing (ruling?) consensus may be.

On a technical note, I downloaded the kindle edition to my pc, and everything worked well, including chapter end-note links (not always the case with kindle books!). Both % read and page numbers are given throughout.
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on 18 June 2013
Nagel has argued throughout much of his work that the experiencing-subject, the conscious mind is not easily explained within the current materialist neo-Darwinian idea of nature. In this short book he lays out his argument more broadly and in a systematic way. He argues that any comprehensive idea of the universe needs to provide a unified explanation that includes an explanation of the development of consciousness and of the power of reasoning in beings like ourselves.

This may turn out to be the most important book of the first half of the twenty-first century.
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on 8 May 2016
My first action with a book new to me is to look at the index. With less than a hundred entries in this one, of which sixty are names, I feared a shallow treatment of this challenging title. Sadly the test was right; there isn’t even an entry for ‘consciousness’.

Nagel's basic thesis is that the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, to quote the book's subtitle. He cites as evidence for this the improbability of random genetic mutation being the source of sufficient diversity to allow the evolution of the mind, consciousness, rationality, value-judgement and other such components of human behaviour. He gives no evidence for this conclusion but merely asserts it frequently. He would be right if our behaviour were under genetic control, i.e. instinctive, but much of it isn’t – we learn; and this simple fact makes for a simple explanation.

Three facts point the way to understanding: First, having passed through two evolutionary bottlenecks, human beings have, when compared with nearly related species, little genetic diversity. Second, we have an astonishingly adaptable body form: no other large animal can run, jump, climb, crawl and swim, though many species can do some of these better than we can. Third, we are highly social and recognise about 150 other individuals. This last has led to the evolution of a brain that is amply large enough for the behaviour that causes Nagel’s doubts.

Our massive brains are inhabited by ideas. Ideas resemble living things in that they multiply (by being learned or imitated), they vary (by imperfect imitation) and are selected (by our conscious choices). These attributes are, of course, the mechanism of evolution, so it is clear that ideas and our behaviour can evolve. They not only evolve but can do so in seconds. Nagel’s difficulties on page 78 disappear with this understanding. For human beings to have evolved genetically to survive in all the habitats we presently occupy would have taken millions of years, yet we occupied these habitats in a few millennia, and we did so by exchanging ideas. Mind, consciousness, value-judgements morality etc. and other such attributes are simply explained from this point of view.

Nagel argues that, because mind etc. exist, the propensity for them must have been present in the primordial material at the origin of the universe. He calls the precursor to the mind: 'protomental character of the elements' (pp 61, 63), Then of course the proto-everything-else character must also exist in the elements as well to cover all possible outcomes of random interaction. He suggests that the existence of these propensities influenced the direction of evolution by some evolutionary force other than the Darwinian mechanism. I find this very much harder to accept than the outline sketched above.

Acquaintanceship with chimpanzee politics or primate philosophers, as in Franz de Waal's formulation, reveals that the behavioural components listed above are obviously sensible strategies for enhancing individual and group fitness. In other words higher primates, including our ancestors, who showed the most rudimentary steps towards consciousness, would have been at a reproductive advantage over individuals that did not.

I have another quibble with Mind and Cosmos and it is that Nagel seems unaware, or certainly doesn't cite, two important areas of understanding that are highly relevant to his subject matter. They are the origin of life (pp 56, 63), and human morality (pp 28, 75, 105, 121). Both topics are understood to a reasonably satisfactory level: see the works of Addy Pross and W D Hamilton. Because these two transitions in universal evolution seemed so miraculous, their attribution to divine intervention has come down to us through the ancient Greeks, Aquinas and Descartes to persist in many religious beliefs as the concept of a soul. I suspect that Nagel is still under this influence. At least he could have pointed out that the origin of life, being a transition in chemistry, can be discovered, whereas what constitutes morality, being a fundamental concept, can only be decided on.
Bearing in mind Einstein's scathing definition, invoking common sense as evidence for a thesis is risky (pp 5, 29). In my view, common sense is no more than a bundle of prejudices derived from parental instructions, misremembered experiences and feelings that have their origins in animal ancestors. It evades thinking.

In short, I am not clear why this book was published, other than to satisfy some yearning for an ultimate truth that appears beyond human understanding. That truth is there, of course, as Spinoza pointed out: Deus sive Natura – God as Nature. Creation was immanent, not transcendental.
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