Aristotle Redux: A Review of Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos” Part 3

Aristotle Redux: A Review of Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos” Part 3

A Review of Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”

Part 3 of a review in three parts by Ian Kluge

In part 1 of and part 2 of his review of Thomas Nagel’s controversial new book called Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, Ian Kluge describes the book as attacking the foundations of modern science on the basis of its inability to explain the nature of the mind.

Nagel believes there is a gap between conscious experience and our physical description of our reality, leading Nagel to conclude:

Materialism requires reductionism; therefore, the failure of reductionism requires an alternative to materialism (Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, p. 15).

What are those alternatives? Ian describe Nagel as exploring “monism” and “pan-psychism”, resurrecting “Aristotle’s concept of potentiality as a constitutive aspect of nature,” and exploring “the lack of a guiding principle in evolution.”

The conclusion of Ian’s review is below.

What Does Aristotle Say?

Let us take a moment to see what Aristotle says and if it necessarily conflicts with modern science as it is alleged to do. According to Aristotle, teleology refers to the final cause, “that for the sake of which” (Aristotle, Physics, 198a) a being acts or an organ functions. Their actions are goal-directed or purposive, which is to say biased or disposed or prejudice in favor one particular end-state over others. To claim there is no such final cause, or purpose in living creatures leads to the absurd claim that all our internal organs, for example, just coincidentally ‘happen’ to function together to keep us alive by mere random actions. This is simply not credible; it is mere dogmatism. We must, of course, keep in mind that there are two kinds of teleology. Internal or immanent teleology means that each being and kind of being has its own final cause which we see in distinct species and members of species be they ducks or electrons. Kittens do not grow up to be cucumbers; the growth process is oriented towards becoming a certain kind of thing. We also see this kind of teleology in the way our physical organs are organized to work towards the goal of keeping our whole organism alive. Aristotle refers to internal causality when he discusses the development of teeth in pigs (Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals, 789a).

Modern biology accepts internal teleology – except it does so under the name of ‘function.’ Science define[s] ‘function’ cybernetically in terms of persistence towards a goal under varying conditions, in terms of the contribution that a structure or action makes to the realization of a goal stage (Robert Audi, editor, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 906).

‘Function,’ i.e. “persistence towards a goal” is simply a re-wording of Aristotle’s ‘teleology.’ Because the function is purposive, the attainment of a certain condition or final cause, all living beings exhibit internal teleology. That is why it still plays a part in natural selection (see Bunnin and Yu, editors, The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy, p. 679 – 680). On the other hand, external teleology is observed when things strive for an external goal, e.g. the repayment of debts, attaining a degree or making a loved one happy. Achieving this external goal may have internal aspects, e.g. the feeling of satisfaction, but the actual goal is external and requires efforts for something beyond oneself. Nagel – and science – reject external teleology but not internal teleology. In his view, “[t]eleology is a naturalistic alternative that is distinct from all three other candidate explanations: chance, creationism and directionless physical law” (Nagel, p. 91).

Values and Teleology

In Mind and Cosmos, Nagel recognizes that the “idea of teleology implies some kind of value in the result toward which things tend, even if teleology is separated from intention” (Nagel, p. 97). Nature, in other words, is disposed or biased towards certain developments above others and this makes them inherently valuable in the natural scheme of things. These values arise from teleology in the same way they rise from theology – by appeals to the ‘wishes’ or ‘dispositions’ of something larger than humanity, God in one case, nature in another. What might such natural values be? From Nagel’s perspective, it is clear that whatever preserves and enhances consciousness is good and whatever impairs it is bad. That is a small beginning but it entails other values, e.g. the importance of pursuits that improve the quality of consciousness, such as art, music and literature.

Nagel’s belief on this matter is quite radical because it violates a dogma of modern non-Continental philosophy (I call this the ‘Anglo-American axis’ in modern philosophy): Hume’s claim that we cannot get from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought.’ If teleology is biased towards consciousness, then it follows that it is of value, i.e. working with this bias is better than working against it. This explains why Nagel professes to be an ethical realist who believes that values are not wholly matters of personal intentions, preferences or beliefs. He emphasizes this by saying:

An adequate conception of the cosmos must contain the resources to account for how it could have given rise to beings capable of thinking successfully about what is good and bad, right and wrong, and discovering moral and evaluative truths that do not depend on their own beliefs (Nagel, p. 106; emphasis added).

Grounded as they are in natural, evolutionary processes, these values are objective, i.e. independent of personal or cultural circumstances and preferences. Furthermore, they are not merely products of religion or philosophy but are matters for scientific investigation.

In short, provided we recognize teleology, ethics can have a scientific foundation (see Ian Kluge, “Ethics Based on Science Alone?” forthcoming publication in Lights of Irfan). I show how any attempts to base ethics on current scientific thinking are logically inadequate and miss the point.

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Potentiality and Actuality

Perhaps the most amazing features of Mind and Cosmos is the re-introduction of key aspects of Aristotelian metaphysics: potentiality and actuality and the additional concepts they entail, along with teleology, i.e. inherent predispositions or biases in matter. It would be interesting to know if Nagel was aware that by re-introducing ‘potentiality’ into nature, he was also implicitly re-introducing the Aristotelian concept of change and evolution as the activation of actualization of potentials. But this, of course, leads us even deeper into Aristotle’s metaphysics. Potentials – because they are potential – cannot activate themselves and must be activated by an external, already activated or actualized thing (if we follow this chain of events, we end at Aristotle’s Prime Mover and Aristotle’s view that an infinity of real, individualized things or events is impossible). Once Nagel has introduced ‘potentiality’ this conclusion is logically inescapable – though Nagel himself passes over it. Furthermore, the concept of potentiality also re-introduces the idea of ‘essence’ since each kind of thing is defined by the potentials it has. As the old adage goes, we cannot make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. They are two different things with their own unique potentials. Thus Nagel has – inadvertently? – brought back the notion of essence into science.

While Mind and Cosmos has special importance to anyone interested in the philosophy of science, it is of special interest to Catholics and Baha’is. Thomism, the dominant philosophy among Catholic thinkers, is based on Aristotelian thought as applied to the Gospels. The Baha’i Writings, however, go further: the revealed scriptures themselves actually endorse key elements of Aristotle’s metaphysics and build various arguments on them (Ian Kluge, “The Aristotelian Substratum of the Baha’i Writings,” Lights of Irfan, Vol. IV, 2003). For example, they assert that animals and humans have different potentials, (`Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 96) and, thereby, different essences – which suggest that the behaviors acceptable in animals are not acceptable from humans. Our task is to free ourselves from our lower, animal natures and to actualize our spiritual potentials. That is why Baha’u’llah says, “To act like the beasts of the field is unworthy of man,” (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 214) which is to say, we must not act against our specifically human potentials and essence. From this it follows that certain ethical rules have an objective basis and are not at the mercy of subjective preferences. The principle of internal teleology is evident in the statement that all things “must strive after the perfections of their own degree.” (`Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 249). Finally, the Baha’i Writings explicitly endorse that teleology i.e. final causes for which potentials actualize, entails the concept of an efficient cause (which can actualize a potential), a material cause (that in which the potentials inhere) and a formal cause (the particular “bias” – as Nagel calls it – of the physical forces which determine the result).

Will Science Be Open to an In-depth Critical Examination of Some of its Core Concepts?

Mind and Cosmos leaves us with one “overwhelming question” (T.S. Eliot, The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock): will science take serious note of his arguments – he is, after all, a well established philosopher of mind – or will science ignore him, or worse. Will he suffer the same fate as Anthony Flew, the foremost atheist philosopher of the twentieth century, when he announced his belief in deism on the basis of intelligent design? Will he be labeled as being stupid, brainwashed, wicked or insane as Dawkins does to all “defectors” from the contemporary version of Darwinism? How open will science be to an in-depth critical examination of some of its core concepts? It’s hard to tell since the book has only been out since 2012 but early indications seem to be negative.

However, from my perspective as a Baha’i and neo-Aristotelian, I welcome the return of Aristotle’s common sense concepts to our analysis and understanding of reality.

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4 thoughts on “Aristotle Redux: A Review of Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos” Part 3

  1. I would like to know more of a comparison between Classical Platonism and Aristotlileanism. I have read some comparison and contrasts between the two including your article on your website that delved into it a little, but would like to delve much much deeper into Classical Platonism, Old Platonism, or just Platonism or whatever name to use to distinguish from Middle and Neo Platonism.

  2. Unfortunately, since your question isn’t really about the review of Nagel’s book, I don’t think this is the appropriate place and time to discuss this. Wikipedia can give you the outlines and I know a web-search will give you all sorts of schoialrly references.

  3. Hi Ian:

    Great piece! There is a fascinatingly similar article by British philosopher Galen Strawson in a recent London Review of Books article (see reference below) that explores similar territory. Strawson claims, in a very well written piece, that “real” philosophical naturalists and “real” empiricism involve recognizing that everything we know is accessed through our mind and that it follows that it is the mind that is most natural – or, if you will, the basis for all empirical knowledge. Shades of `Abdu’l-Baha!

    I particularly like his comment on Kant’s idea that all thing known are seen through the means of our “sensory-intellectual constitution:

    I’m trying to approach a defensible version of physicalist naturalism about the mind by stressing a point that has never entirely disappeared ever since it was made so forcefully by Locke: our ignorance. One way to characterise this ignorance is to start from the Locke-Hume idea that when we observe causation, we can only ever observe regularity, not causal power as such.

    One can plausibly extend this into the – broadly speaking – Kantian view that when we make epistemic contact with any concrete reality X other than our own current experience, we can only ever have access to an appearance of X, an appearance that is necessarily a function not only of how X is, in itself, but also of how X affects us given how we are in ourselves, given, in particular, our sensory-intellectual constitution. (Kant doesn’t even exempt our access to our own current experience from this limitation.)

    He concludes by predicting that he won’t change anybody’s minds:

    I end with a prediction and a challenge. The prediction is that no philosopher who disagrees will take any notice of this argument. I’m sorrowfully confident about this for a reason Hobbes gave in 1645, which has a vast amount of empirical support: ‘Arguments do seldom work on men of wit and learning, when they have once engaged themselves in a contrary opinion.’


    Strawson, G., 2013. Real Naturalism. London Review of Books [Online] vol. 35 no. 18 pp. 28-30. Available from [Accessed 21 October 2013].

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