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Book Review - Mind & Cosmos by Thomas Nagel

“If mind is a product of biological evolution — if organisms with mental life are not miraculous anomalies but an integral part of nature — then biology cannot be a purely physical science.” (page 15)

This book's subtitle asserts that "the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false." I agree, and my reason is that it ignores and dismisses everything we know about expanded consciousness. Nagel doesn't mention that reason, but he has a lot more to say about it.

This book is on the Expanded Consciousness 101 reading list to demonstrate that there is a widespread call, even within academia, for science to change. Like The Flip, this book is a well-reasoned manifesto to provoke academics to get unstuck from the beliefs that bind them. Whereas The Flip prioritizes the intractable influence of first-hand experience in shaping our knowing of reality, Mind & Cosmos employs the polemics of the philosophy department.

Now I know that the average website reader does not have the stamina to wade through all the philosophy -isms and compound sentence structures to get to the end of this 128-page essay. However, I want you to know about the controversy this book provoked among academics when it was published in 2012 (do an internet search!). I’ll do my best to describe its main points here so you can see what all the fuss was about.


Nagel takes a stand against the dominant paradigm in modern Biology. With a precise subtitle, “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False,” he targets the thought leaders and influencers at research institutions in the United States.

The first chapter doles out a tongue-lashing for academics adhering to political orthodoxy over common sense. Nagel makes it clear that he’s not arguing on the side of the usual suspects (i.e. intelligent design), but for a naturalistic alternative that includes a better understanding of the mind. There’s so much sass here that it’s hard to choose my favorite quote, so here are two:

“Physico-chemical reductionism in biology is the orthodox view, and any resistance to it is regarded as not only scientifically but politically incorrect.” (page 5)

“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.” (page 7)

After the provocative first chapter, the rest of the book is mostly devoted to imagining what might come next after the materialist paradigm is toppled. Halfway through the second chapter, however, I confess that the philosophical rambling became too rambly (and Euro-centric) for me to fully engage. Here are my impressions of the final chapters.

Trying to follow Nagel’s discussion in the Consciousness chapter just made me feel like our alpha-bros are all lost because they’re missing a practical experience of subtle energy. On page 12, Nagel confessed that he lacks sensus divinatus. This was a new term for me that I had to look up. What I discovered is that protestant reformers interpreted the sensation of their light bodies in a religious way instead of an anatomical way, as I do. (And it's called Fitra in Islam.) I invite Nagel to try my Feel Your Light Body class!

With persuasive arguments criticizing Evolutionary Psychology in the Cognition chapter, Nagel makes a strong case that the field is faith-based and defies common sense. I don't entirely disagree. Ev psych has made a lot of progress in understanding religion to be our propensity to build social coalitions with shared beliefs. It's ironic to me that any academic field, including Evolutionary Psychology, would qualify as a religion according to its own definition.

The last chapter is called Value, and it contains a particularly opaque discussion of morality and ethics that I guess must function to tie up loose ends.

Take home message:

Nagel is the boy in the story of the Emperor's new clothes. He calls out the uncomfortable truth that, when it comes to understanding the mind and reality, most academics cave to peer pressure and reinforce hegemony instead of following their common sense and independent judgment. If the juicy, experiential approach in The Flip seems too far out for some readers, then Mind & Cosmos offers a drier approach within the ivory towers of academic philosophy.

“Above all, I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world.” - (pg 127)

I appreciate Nagel’s efforts to do that.

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