The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 3 (Fall 2013)

The Nagel Flap: Mind and Cosmos

John H. Zammito

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.3 (Fall 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

Mind and Cosmos illustration by David Metcalfe

Illustration: 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.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2013

(Volume 15 | Issue 3)

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.”

Pinker’s tweet evoked a lot of heat from those who felt sympathy for Nagel, in many cases even before they read his work. The most important intervention on the other side came from the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, with whom Nagel had long been in dialogue. Plantinga made it clear in his review in The New Republic that he believed that Nagel should come all the way over to the side of religion. What turned Plantinga’s still sedately academic response into the opening round of a media frenzy was the uptake in the press and on the Internet by those who felt that Nagel was being persecuted for his ideas by an oppressive academic orthodoxy, the “reductive materialists.” Foremost in this cadre was Edward Feser, whose extensive blog posts on the subject (“Nagel and his Critics”: stayed on a fairly high philosophical level. The journalists and the blog responders soon flooded the media with more rancorous representations. The language of “heresy” aimed to embarrass the allegedly “authoritarian” materialists in terms painfully invoking their own “fear of religion,” to use Nagel’s own phrase from a 1997 essay. The media have run with this way of putting it ever since. The result has been less than edifying.

Nagel has deliberately incited all this. Throughout his 128-page book, he faults the adequacy of the current empirical science of evolution as well as the strategies of inquiry into areas that science has not yet successfully theorized (origin of life, consciousness, logical force, moral lawfulness). Of course, most of Nagel’s books are short and philosophically dense. This one is short, but its density consists in as many pronouncements as arguments, not because Nagel has no arguments at his disposal but, as several commentators have noted, because he simply gestures back to claims already propounded. Still, this is a tactic that both gulls uninformed readers and annoys specialists in the glibness of its sweeping assertion. The style and the brevity suggest that Nagel aimed for a wide readership. In particular, the pervasive invocations of “common sense” hint at this rhetorical strategy. The subtitle has the pugnaciousness of a broadside pamphlet.

This book, in short, is a manifesto. Yet the issues Nagel raises deserve dispassionate reflection. Five stand out: the role of philosophy in relation to the sciences; the standards for explanation in science; the adequacy of current evolutionary theory as empirical science; the formulation of what a unified theory should include; and, finally, the question of teleology, that is, whether nature is goal driven. It is not that Nagel takes up these matters, but how he does so, that has engendered the flap.

The Role of Philosophy

Nagel asserts that philosophy should “investigate the limits of even the best developed and most successful forms of contemporary scientific knowledge.” Quite so. Yet in his elaboration, he maintains that philosophy is empowered “to recognize what can and cannot in principle be understood by certain methods.” That notion of “in principle” seems—in light of the history of science, current science studies, and even the internal history of the philosophy of science and of theory of knowledge (epistemology) more generally—rather grandiose. Philosophy may indeed raise important scruples about particular arguments in terms of their unexamined premises or internal inconsistencies, but every proposed set of timeless and universal standards for valid knowledge has proved contingent and in need of revision. So, one problem with Nagel is his complacency regarding philosophy’s entitlement to pronounce on the adequacy of every other form of human understanding, the epistemic sovereignty of philosophy. Locke’s proposal of a role for philosophy as “underlaborer” to science needs to be set against Plato’s vision of a philosopher-king. The upshot would put us near Hume’s naturalism, I believe.

But in addition to the question of epistemology, the question of metaphysics has been central to the Western philosophical tradition, and here Nagel makes some interesting and important claims. The question is “whether any... more or less unified understanding could take in the entire cosmos as we know it.” Totality (which has been a recurrent idea in Western metaphysics) may seem by now quite unattainable, but it remains—here, I think, Nagel says something very important—an idea that inspires and regulates scientific enterprises. Thus, in terms of the modern Western philosophical tradition, we can recognize in it a regulative ideal in the Kantian sense, and still more, a speculative conceptualization, in the Hegelian one.

Of course, there are three relevant constraints, and Nagel is quite aware of each. First, ideals are, by definition, ultimately unattainable. Second, these ideals serve essentially to guide inquiry. They are methodological, concerned with procedure and not with substantive content. Finally, when they do formulate content, it is unequivocally speculative. They can never prove what they envision. Yet—and this is the decisive point for me—drawing the line limiting what one can possibly know is always contingent on a particular historical situation. We cannot know what we cannot know: all we can be sure of is that we don’t know yet, and that it is unlikely that we will ever know everything. Still, we cannot stop trying, and, as Nagel insists, we should not.

Where, in all this, does his invocation of “common sense” fit in? Nagel complains that current life science “flies in the face of common sense,” and he proposes to “defend the untutored reaction of incredulity” since “available scientific evidence, in spite of the consensus of scientific opinion, does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense.” This is an extraordinary claim for a serious philosopher (of science, in particular) to make. On many incisive accounts, the best evidence we have of scientific validity is a consensus of scientific opinion. Moreover, the incredulity of common sense has been humbled repeatedly by science over the course of several centuries. Finally, to evoke a rational requirement raises yet another philosophical conceit. Just because one can conjure a logically possible alternative does not make this a meaningful challenge to an empirical scientific theory based on actual evidence. Hence, Nagel cannot use this alternative to defend commonsense disbelief.

But Nagel makes an even more provocative assertion in this vein: “After all, everything we believe, even the most far-reaching cosmological theories, has to be based ultimately on common sense, and on what is plainly undeniable.” Really? Is there anything commonsensical about quantum mechanics? And what right has common sense to sit in judgment here? Should we vote on the Higgs boson? Should we elevate “common sense” (whose? how established?) over scientific consensus on issues like global warming? To credit scientific consensus, when it arises, is not to submit uncritically to scientific authority. It is to recognize that the resources for the appraisal of scientific claims are other scientific claims: evidence and analysis, not personal dispositions. To insinuate otherwise is Nagel at his incendiary worst. The rhetoric here might well elicit suspicion of demagoguery.

The Standards for Explanation

Nagel acknowledges “putting a great deal of weight on the idea of explanation, and the goal of intelligibility at which it aims.” He presents the reader with a complex set of distinctions that structure the balance of his argument, calling for a form of explanation at once “transcendent” and “naturalistic.” I suspect that may not be coherent. He himself admits to “trying to meet a set of conditions that seem jointly impossible.” Ultimately, we will have to wrestle with Nagel’s commitment to the “transcendent.” But let us begin with “naturalistic” explanation, which has definite negative and affirmative characteristics. The crucial negative thrust of naturalistic explanation is to reject supernatural interventions. Modern science endeavors to discern the “intelligibility of the natural order... from within,” Nagel happily affirms, to the annoyance of the otherwise sympathetic proponents of intelligent design. For theists, the only resolution to the conundrums Nagel invokes is divine causation, but his acknowledged “fear of religion” stymies such a move.

What is the affirmative character of naturalistic explanation? Nagel distinguishes between “constitutive” and “historical” explanation. Constitutive explanation is the systematic formulation of laws that are true regardless of place or time, exemplified for Nagel in the laws of physics. But in addition to accepting such constitutive understanding, Nagel believes very seriously that “historical understanding is part of science,” not only in biology (evolution) but even in physics (cosmology). Accordingly, historical explanation must complement constitutive explanation. Nagel constructs a schema of explanations in terms of these two dimensions. Under the constitutive, he discerns two varieties—“reduction” and “emergence”—and under the historical, three varieties—efficient causation, teleology, and divine intervention—but he dismisses the divine recourse, leaving four forms of explanation available to modern naturalistic understanding.

“Reduction” entails forms of explanation that are unidirectional in time, move always from parts to wholes, and follow systematic, universal rules, minimizing the incongruity of “brute facts” by always applying to types. Hence, “an explanation must show why it was likely that an event of that type occurred.” Reductive explanatory models have been the basis for the triumph of the physical sciences since the seventeenth century, as Nagel emphasizes. But we need to add that there has also been a propensity to shift the argument from models of causation to models of correlation, just as the accounts have shifted from absolute claims to probabilistic ones. And the very term model accentuates the constructive character of theory.

The problem, as Nagel notes, is that a great deal in the natural world is simply resistant to such mechanistic, part-to-whole (“atomistic”) explanation. In practice, “special sciences” (chemistry, geology, biology) have formulated models at higher levels of organization which, while certainly never contradicting the laws of physics, operate in the indeterminate spaces within these laws to establish patterns of higher-level order not apparent at the lower levels. That is the essential meaning of “emergence,” Nagel’s other variety of constitutive explanation. The recent rise of scientific theories of “self-organization,” that is, how entities or events develop and maintain themselves according to internal principles, offers a cardinal instance. But with that, the notion of “emergence” tips toward an even larger and more controversial notion, “teleology,” which will need separate consideration.

The Adequacy of Evolutionary Theory

Nagel is certainly correct to say that we have no viable theory of the origin of life. The sciences have long wrestled (if hitherto without success) with the enormous difficulties facing any account of life’s emergence from inorganic matter according to existing laws of physics and chemistry. It is not unreasonable of Nagel to suggest that the sciences may need new frameworks if they are to advance in this endeavor. Perhaps we need to reappraise our notions of “life” and “matter” as objects, and “cause” and “history” as modes of understanding. Philosophy could be of aid in clarifying the research program through which to make needed advances. But Nagel’s rhetoric is hardly conducive to advancing dialogue.

Nagel goes particularly overboard in disputing the case for natural selection in evolution. He finds it “prima facie highly implausible” that “a sequence of viable genetic mutations should have occurred that was sufficient to permit natural selection to produce the organisms that actually exist.” He also observes that “the more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes.” These are judgments about an empirical science; to be credible, they require empirical evidence and analysis. To invoke a standard of “prima facie” plausibility—whatever that may be—simply begs many questions. This is most evident not in his concession that “this is just the opinion of a layman,” but rather in his turn to rhetorical protests that “any resistance [to the idea of natural selection] is regarded as not only scientifically but politically incorrect.” In this “heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense,” he caustically alleges, “almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.” Resorting to an ideological argument here constitutes an evasion of the empirical-scientific one. Nagel’s footnote gesture to the literature is woefully insufficient for so drastic an assertion. No issue in the book has kindled a greater firestorm of controversy, and no doubt this was Nagel’s ambition.

The theory of evolution by natural selection has been nuanced and revised in the century and a half since Darwin proposed it, but, as even Nagel concedes, it has achieved extensive scientific consensus in this modified form, and it has established measures of evidential and statistical support that cannot be dismissed on a personal whim. It is an impertinence to term it merely “an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis.” Scientists, not laypeople, confirm scientific hypotheses, and they have, concerning natural selection. Even Nagel maintains that “we are products of the long history of the universe since the big bang, descended from bacteria over billions of years of natural selection.” In what seems, for him, an odd choice of words, he adds that “that is part of the true external understanding of ourselves.”

So what is going on here? Nagel appears to be willfully aiding and abetting what he calls the “skepticism” of partisans of intelligent design. But what he really wants is to supplement, not supplant, natural selection in the explanation of evolution. That is, his hopes are pinned on “finding an integrated naturalistic explanation of a new kind” that would recognize a systematic propensity not only toward complexity (already a plausible if contested notion in the sciences) but toward life, consciousness, and rationality—in Roger White’s phrase, a world “biased toward the marvelous.” (Nagel acknowledges White as one of the two most important influences on the composition of his book.) All of Nagel’s vitriol against “reductionist materialism” is in service to his aspiration toward a more holistic understanding of our world: “If physics and chemistry cannot fully account for life and consciousness, how will their immense body of truth be combined with other elements in an expanded conception of the natural order that can accommodate those things?”

The Scope of a Unified Theory of the “World”

“We humans are parts of the world, and the desire for a unified world picture is irrepressible,” Nagel writes. Therefore, we must make sense of “the reality of such features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought, and value.” Above all, Nagel wants science to acknowledge that “organisms with mental life are not miraculous anomalies but an integral part of nature.” For Nagel, “materialism is the view that only the physical world is irreducibly real,” and such a view simply ignores these nonmaterial dimensions of the human world. Advocates of neuroscience and artificial intelligence insist that they will, someday, have a perfectly viable third-person explanation of these so-called realities in terms of physical laws. But promises are cheap; such science is indisputably in its infancy. To conclude as much is not to deny the possibility, but it does deflate the present value of the promissory note. For the moment, I think, we must take the “hard problem” of consciousness as just that: a problem, not a prohibition, but a very difficult one, given current science. And that gives Nagel credibility in claiming that consciousness is “the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism.” Other proponents of the “hard problem,” such as David Chalmers, have made more extensive arguments along these lines, triggering a strong reaction from Daniel Dennett in defense of reductionism, but all in a largely academic context.

Of course, Nagel wants to go for more than just consciousness. As I have noted, his concern extends to “intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought, and value.” Thus we come to the crucial issue of the transcendent. Nagel is a metaphysical rationalist in at least two senses. The first has a more epistemological tenor, affirming the real power of rational rules in logic or moral choice, conventionally termed normativity. The second is more ontological, expanding the set of things that really exist. Nagel insists upon the reality of the “timeless domains of logic and mathematics,” and, even more extravagantly, upon moral realism. He maintains that such “realism does not add anything to the catalogue of entities or properties,” that it “should not be construed in terms of an extra metaphysical component of the world, which exercises a causal influence on us.” I find this a mystifying conception of reality.

Might all these realities belong to that “third world” of objectivity conjured by Karl Popper? Rather than follow Nagel in conceiving of reason as “an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value,” rather than accept that “the distinctive thing about reason is that it connects us with the truth directly,” it seems more prudent to adopt a deflationary stance toward these extravagant notions of “truth” and “reason.” I find more philosophically viable a pragmatism that, on the grounds of epistemological humility (contingency, fallibility) and ontological economy (one world, not Popper’s three), recognizes that our arsenal of rational-logical and moral presuppositions has grown (and changed) over time. Nothing in that arsenal need be “timeless,” yet we have strong reason to trust in it as the best resource currently available. The reason for trust is simply success in use, not transcendent illumination.

Of course, these philosophical issues cannot be settled in a review essay. Instead, let us see how Nagel’s metaphysical rationalism motivates his overarching concerns in Mind and Cosmos. The starting point is this powerful proposition: “The intelligibility of the world is no accident.” That is, nature is at least in some measure rationally comprehensible. There cannot even be a hope for science without this premise, and that we have science is the strongest evidence of its plausibility. At the same time, nature has generated creatures capable of rationally comprehending it. In Nagel’s words, “Nature is such as to give rise to conscious beings with minds; and it is such as to be comprehensible to such beings.” And that is the heart of the matter: “The ability of creatures like us to arrive at such truth, or even to think about it, requires explanation.” We owe ourselves an account of “how the natural order is disposed to generate beings capable of comprehending it.”

The metaphysical point Nagel is conceiving here was put succinctly by Hegel long ago: the actual is rational, and the rational is actual. Nagel recognizes that in his commitment to the principle of sufficient reason he is indeed approaching the German absolute idealists, and with them a metaphysical vision of natura naturans from Spinoza: “the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.” This romantic re-enchantment of the world will surely incite many a protest not only about exceeding the reach of human understanding but also about exaggerating the importance of our participation in cosmic self-realization. Nagel denies falling into this “anthropocentric triumphalism.” And yet he writes, “The evolution of mind... is the latest stage in the evolution of physical organisms.” That leans too far toward suggesting (as the absolute idealists clearly did) that evolution was aimed precisely at us, a viewpoint that drastically overestimates our biological salience. We don’t need to presume that we are the purpose of the evolution of life on earth. It suffices that we happened, for this proved a cosmically distinctive occurrence by virtue of our capacity to theorize that cosmos. The paradox binding our arbitrary emergence in time and space with our unique capacity to grapple conceptually with an encompassing infinity was, of course, Blaise Pascal’s profound register for human dignity (and misery), man as a “thinking reed.” To treat that condition humaine as illusion is to rob science literally of its raison d’être. Science only exists as our rational act. We are only ineptly construed as it. And yet, to be sure, we are part of the natural world.

How can all this be? Now, as Nagel says, “it is trivially true that if there are organisms capable of reason, the possibility of such organisms must have been there from the beginning. But if we believe in a natural order,... something... must explain this possibility.” He further reasons that “the appearance of reason and language in the course of biological history seems, from the point of view of available forms of explanation, something radically emergent,” yet “the development of value and moral understanding, like the development of knowledge and reason and the development of consciousness that underlies both these higher-order functions, forms part of what a general conception of the cosmos must explain.” Nagel conceives, as the least difficult solution, a “neutral monism” that holds that “constituents of the universe have properties [already at the micro level] that explain not only its physical but its mental character”—that is, every basic building block of the universe has not only physical but immaterial properties. This would enable a “reductive” constitutive explanation to be linked to an efficient-causal historical explanation, “requiring the smallest alteration to the prevailing physical form of naturalism, while nevertheless acknowledging the irreducibility of the mental to the physical.” In exploring such possibilities, Nagel is taking up metaphysical lines that stretch back far into the Western tradition. In particular, if earlier we recognized Nagel’s explicit affirmation of Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason, here we find a tacit revival of his theory of the elementary constitution of the world by immaterial points of force in his Monadology!

The problem is, first, that at the lower level there are “no predictable local effects... which allow them [the basic building blocks] to be detected individually,” and no “compositional explanation” for their aggregation into wholes at higher levels. That is, within the constitutive order of explanation, “reductive” models prove insufficient and “emergent” ones appear necessary. But second, there is no historical model based on efficient causation that suffices: “How can a nonmaterialist monism help to explain its appearance in actuality, over geological time?” Accordingly, the only adequate form of historical explanation seems to Nagel to be teleological: “a cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value that is inseparable from them.” We have come, at last, to natural teleology.


Nagel candidly acknowledges the sketchiness of his evocation of “natural teleology,” which he terms a “throwback to the Aristotelian conception of nature.” The key contention is that “in addition to the laws governing the behavior of the elements [of nature] in every circumstance, there are also principles of self-organization or of the development of complexity over time that are not explained by those elemental laws.” Hence, constitutive explanation in the sciences needs to be extended from “reductive” to “emergent” strategies, and constitutive explanation must be supplemented by historical explanation. Teleology, as Nagel understands it, constrains the set of future possibilities, making some more likely, but “without depending on intentions or motives.” That is, it governs the way in which things develop over time, the path they are most likely to follow to self-realization. Nagel calls such teleological principles “laws of the self-organization of matter.” By providing the “irreducible principles governing temporally extended development,” natural teleology serves as the indispensable historical counterpart to constitutive explanation.

Recent developments in biology—from evolutionary developmental biology to systems biology—have reintroduced a strong sense of self-organization that makes teleology—a natural teleology, that is, one that does not require an external designer but designs its own course—an important internal theoretical issue in life science. The legacy of Ilya Prigogine concerning “dissipative structures” and the subsequent articulation of “complexity” theories and “chaos” theories in cosmology represent one line. The work of Stuart Kauffman on self-organization is particularly exemplary and exciting in this area. In biological theory, the ideas of Susan Oyama and her colleagues in “developmental systems biology” are another line of great interest. Mary Jane West-Eberhard intervenes powerfully with Developmental Plasticity and Evolution. The whole new direction represented by evolutionary developmental biology (“evo-devo,” for short) elaborates important new lines of inquiry into self-organization in life forms. Here, if anywhere, lies the prospect for a legitimate elaboration of theory and empirical research toward a more encompassing grasp of emergent complexities in organic life. Here are the avenues that might help us move toward closing the great gaps in current understanding. That much of this remains highly speculative can simply be explained by the inevitable need of science to imagine new patterns of order driven by recalcitrant anomalies but inspired by paradigmatic precedents, if I may invoke the ideas of Thomas Kuhn. Science is as developmental and path dependent as organismic life. It is yet another emergent phenomenon in the line from life through consciousness to reason and culture.

Teleology as the goal-driven self-organization of specific parts of the universe, particularly living things, transfigures our sense of the physical world. Strikingly, Nagel proposes that organic agency—extending vastly beyond the human—offers us empirically observable things that show that value is present in the world. Natural teleology in organic life involves a value dimension, even without conscious intention, since for a living being things can either go well or not, organs can function properly or not, the organism can thrive or perish, and it matters—to the organism, and to its ecosystem. If humans are the only beings that we know are capable of recognizing or characterizing this organismic agency, we are not alone in actualizing it. Instead, we discern it in all life.

But Nagel backs away from embracing all this. He expresses deep ambivalence about this “Aristotelian idea of teleology without intention.” Such “teleological speculations,” he acknowledges, were “offered merely as possibilities, without positive conviction.” Moreover, Nagel wants an explanation that would “show that the realization of these possibilities [of life, consciousness, reason, value] was not vanishingly improbable but a significant likelihood given the laws of nature and the composition of the universe,” “an unsurprising if not inevitable consequence of the order that governs the natural world from within.” Nagel resists the notion of “consciousness as a mysterious side effect of biological evolution.” That is “not reassuring enough.” Yet it does not seem to me that either philosophy or empirical science needs so stringent a stipulation. Actuality is all we need. We need to clarify this as possibility; we don’t need high probability. And, empirically, we just don’t have it. We have only unique occurrences, or “singularities.” Life is a singularity: it is one (continuous) event. And, as Kant argued long ago, human rationality is also a singularity. Nagel wants general theories about things we have no evidence about beyond their singular emergence on this planet. Still, we certainly want something more than a “brute fact.” Scientific theory has already conceptualized local regions of negative entropy in the physical world (the “dissipative structures” discussed by Prigogine and Schieve). These seem to demonstrate, in the inanimate world, features that appear more elaborate in living things. Thus, we have a set of theoretical possibilities for natural teleology, without needing to have “significant likelihood” approaching the “unsurprising if not inevitable.” This may not be “reassuring enough” for Nagel, but it may well be for empirical science.

Concluding Thoughts on the Controversy

Nagel conveys a sense of the intellectual landscape as one dominated by a single, authoritarian ideology, “reductionist materialism.” But the landscape is far more variegated, in every direction, and his book has done nothing but entrench established biases on all sides. Hard lines hardened: that is the upshot. Elliott Sober’s suggestion that Nagel’s intervention will prove merely a “hiccup” in the forward impetus of science seems the most plausible assessment. But we appear to have lost the opportunity Nagel rather left-handedly offered us to consider—“without either bitterness or partiality,”as Tacitus put it long ago—the challenging frontiers of current knowledge.

John H. Zammito is the John Antony Weir Professor of History at Rice University. He is the author of A Nice Derangement of Epistemes: Post-Positivism in the Study of Science from Quine to Latour (2004) and Kant, Herder, and the Birth of Anthropology (2002).

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