Remarkable Facts: Ending Science as We Know It
Thomas Nagel, a distinguished philosopher at NYU, is well known for his critique of “materialistic reductionism” as an account of the mind-body relationship. In his new and far-reaching book Mind and Cosmos, Nagel extends his attack on materialistic reductionism—which he describes as the thesis that physics provides a complete explanation of everything—well beyond the mind-body problem. He argues that evolutionary biology is fundamentally flawed and that physics also needs to be rethought—that we need a new way to do science.
Nagel’s new way is teleological—scientific explanations need to invoke goals, not just mechanistic causes. The conventional story of the emergence of modern science maintains that Galileo and Newton forever banished Aristotle’s teleology. So Mind and Cosmos is an audacious book, bucking the tide. Nagel acknowledges that he has no teleological theory of his own to offer. His job, as he sees it, is to point to a need; creative scientists, he hopes, will do the heavy lifting.
Nagel’s rejection of materialistic reductionism does not stem from religious conviction. He says that he doesn’t have a religious bone in his body. The new, teleological science he wants is naturalistic, not supernaturalistic. This point needs to be remembered, given that the book begins with kind words for proponents of intelligent design. Nagel applauds them for identifying problems in evolutionary theory, but he does not endorse their solution.
Nagel’s main goal in this book is not to argue against materialistic reductionism, but to explore the consequences of its being false. He has argued against the -ism elsewhere, and those who know their Nagel will be able to fill in the details. But new readers may be puzzled, so a little backstory may help.