I have recently come across Thomas Nagel's book "Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False", which I've only skimmed. I've also just finished reading "What's it like to be a bat".

He vehemently argues against materialism, and is a prominent dualist. He claims there is more to consciousness than can be explained by evolution alone, and that the emergence of life and intelligence must have a teleological explanation. Teleological here meaning that there was purpose or intention in the way life and humans evolved.

He is also an atheist and maintains that he is not a proponent of intelligent design, even if he has argued that ID shouldn't be dismissed offhand the way the scientific community does, because it asks the right questions, even if it doesn't have the right answers.

To summarize his position:

  • Reductionist materialism and evolution don't explain life and consciousness.
  • Life has a teleological origin.
  • There is no God.
  • Life was designed with a purpose, but there is no designer.

My questions:

  1. Although he calls himself and atheist, isn't this really pantheism?
  2. Is this related to Hegel's world spirit?
  3. If this is not pantheism, can this be construed as some (very convoluted) form of emergentism?
  • (at least one definition of) pantheism required identifying the cosmos with the divine. Nothing in this question indicates that Nagel does this -- the idea that the source of the telelogical origin is (a) not divine and (b) not identitical with the entire universe is consistent with what is written here. – Dave Jun 22 '15 at 13:43
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    Are you sure you don't have pantheism confused with panpsychism? The former identifies "the universe" with an actual divinity; the latter, Nagel has explicitly argued for. See plato.stanford.edu/entries/panpsychism/#4.1 – Ryder Oct 19 '15 at 13:29
  • @Ryder I don't think that I am. The way I see it, pantheism is the a subset of panpsychism, where the panpsychic substance has the additional property of having a causal effect on the material world, and thus acting as it's first cause, hence the connection with the teleological view. – Alexander S King Oct 19 '15 at 19:51

I had assumed both pantheism and Hegelianism are monist and not fundamentally incompatible with monotheism, if abstractly rendered. For Hegel and many idealists Geist may appear wholly arbitrary to individual humans, but cannot in essence "contradict itself" in any eventuality. I am not sure if pantheisms are so bound by reason as to exclude spontaneous interventions.

In any case, if Nagel is indeed a "dualist" he in not a monist of either stripe. Yet it makes no sense to speak of teleological purpose or order without some conscious subject for whom that order is in principle recognizable. That capacity is presumably latent in human consciousness. His "teleology" may be referring to a "negentropic" increase of complexity to the point of self-reference.

Alas, compared to the sheer biomass, historical presence, and genetic diversity of bacteria, this vaunted "progress of complexity" is a mere random fluctuation and momentary byproduct. While I agree with both Kant and Nagel that "argument from design" deserves our respect, I have yet to hear what an "undesigned" universe might look like, by way of comparison. Sorry, rambling...


It is incorrect to assume that a belief that some things in the universe are designed necessarily implies a belief in a Designer. According to some (see Daniel Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" as an example) evolution provides an automated process of design that does not require any oversight. So it does not follow that a belief that there is purpose and intent (taken to be expressed in designed features) requires a belief in in a "Designer." On this account, evolution automatically drives a process of design for the "purpose" of making creatures better able to survive and reproduce themselves. Thus one can believe in design and not be a theist or pantheist in any recognizable sense.

  • I only came across D. Dennett's explanation of teleological purposes after having posed the question, and it does indeed offer a very compelling argument for their being a teleological cause for certain events. However, given that Nagel is a dualist and Dennett isn't, I doubt that they're talking about the same "Teleology". – Alexander S King Oct 19 '15 at 19:54
  • Oh yes, they have famously argued over "what it is like to be a bat" many times. Dennett is a most determined materialist, and Nagel a most determined dualist. Makes for fascinating discussions. – M Willey Oct 19 '15 at 21:59

It seems as if your support for classifying Nagel as a panthesist is to take him at his word in regard to his claims about his beliefs without exception except when it comes to his claim about his atheism. I don't see any reason to carve out this exception or to assert Nagel is using "atheist" incorrectly based on the evidence provided in the question. Therefore, no.

  • please expand your initial answer to explain the difficulty in explaining "teleology". It might also be good to give a definition of "pantheist" and an explanation of why the two are not compatible... (I know it may seem obvious, but Hegel, for instance, has been accused of (a) being a pantheist, (b) being an atheist, and (c) being a Christian. Depending on who is making the accusation and what they mean by the terms, they may all be right ... so make clearer what definitions you're working from rather than arguing with the OP about their intelligence) – virmaior Jun 21 '15 at 6:23
  • I've deleted a comment war that was turning less than pleasant. – virmaior Jun 21 '15 at 6:23
  • @virmaior Teleology is a red herring, the logical structure of the Questioner's reasoning remains philosophically poor for the reasons stated and the premise that Nagel is more likely to be mistaken about Nagel's religious beliefs than the questioner is statistically low to the point that it's supposition is patently absurd. – ben rudgers Jun 21 '15 at 13:29
  • I think you're missing my point. Edit your answer to make the above points clearer as they are parts of your answer that are unclear in the terse shorthand as written. Depending on the definition of "pantheist" you are operating under (Cf. Schopenhaeur's pantheism (plato.stanford.edu/entries/pantheism)), you may either be reasonably right or horribly off in seeing it as some sort of diametric opposite of atheism. But again, edit your answer to make clear the definitions you're using rather than have comment wars. – virmaior Jun 21 '15 at 15:20
  • @virmaior If Nagel says he's an atheist as the question asserts, then arguing that this assertion is mistaken based on the assumptions that other more ambiguous assertions by Nagel should be taken as 1) not mistaken and 2) inconsistent with atheism is poor reasoning. Nagel's alleged assertion of atheism is the sort of assertion about which Nagel can be certain. That atheism is anathema to the questioner, doesn't make their assertion in nominal question form of Nagel's non-atheism well reasoned. Were there really a question a different answer might be given. There isn't and hence there can't. – ben rudgers Jun 21 '15 at 15:56

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