I took this piece off the blog archives and put it on its own page so that more people will notice it.  I know it’s long, and may require some extra attention, but it deals at some depth with the most fundamental question of all: what is reality?  Is there a “spirit world” somewhere out there that stands opposed to the one we live in? 

The “mind body problem” is one of the ways the issue is framed.  But it need not be the only one.  I would hope that this review might stimulate a wider discussion of our dualist tradition.  Do we belong here in this family of material things?  I believe we have to decide we do before we can give it the care it deserves.

A Critique of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos,

By Tony Equale


In my opposition to reductionism I came across what seemed an ally in Thomas Nagel.  His new book Mind and Cosmos (Oxford U.Press) published in September 2012 continues a long effort on his part to address the “mind-body problem.”  Specifically, in this study, he tries to show that Darwinian natural selection, using matter and its mechanisms as understood by physics and chemistry alone, cannot explain emergent features of cosmic reality such as life and mind.  His analysis is complex and nuanced.  He does not dispute evolution’s role as the exclusive agent of biological emergence; his problem is with what he calls its “materialist” assumptions.

At the end of the day Nagel arrives at no alternative vision, and that is a disappointment.  He is against “psychophysical reductionism” (meaning the reduction of mind to matter) but he clearly admits he has nothing to take its place:  “To argue … that there is a lot it can’t explain,” he says, “is not to offer an alternative.” (p.12).  His subtitle promises to show, “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False” but he never tells us what he thinks is true.  Despite his ringing support for “the ideal of discovering a single natural order that unifies everything on the basis of a set of common elements and principles …”(p. 7), he concedes, “my aim is … to present the problem rather than to propose a solution.” (p.15)

I feel that Nagel’s failure to reach a satisfying conclusion to this saga is not only disappointing, it is mistaken. And it is also misleading; for to say there is no other alternative as good as reductive materialism undermines the challenge to reductionism, and reductionism implies dualism.  I have a big problem with both.

This failure to settle on an alternative is something of a mystery.  Nagel himself is clearly in search of a unified vision which he announces at the start:

My target is a comprehensive, speculative world picture that is reached by extrapolation from some of the discoveries of biology, chemistry, and physics — a particular naturalistic Weltanschauung that postulates a hierarchical relation among the subjects of those sciences, and the completeness in principle of an explanation of everything in the universe through their unification. (p. 4).

His goals are clear, but is there a clue in this opening declaration as to why such a vision eludes him?  Nagel apparently has something in mind, but he doesn’t make it explicit.  Thus begins an ambigüity that obtains throughout the book.  We see it here in the use of the word “extrapolation.”  I believe it camouflages an unregenerate positivism which explains his dalliance with dualism … and why his quest is stalled.  It may have jammed his circuits.

Positivism assumes that scientific knowledge is the only valid truth.  It also believes science should provide a philosophical interpretation for its own facts.  It is a huge self-justifying circularity and reductively materialist.  Nagel recognizes that “among the scientists and philosophers who do express views about the natural order as a whole, reductive materialism is widely assumed to be the only serious possibility.” (p. 4).  Does that make him feel constrained to answer them on their terms?

I believe there is enough evidence already gathered by science to provide the foundations for an alternative “conception of nature,” but it will be a philosophical interpretation using philosophically authenticated data and methodology to give coherence to the facts of science.  I hope to sketch out my version of it in the course of this essay.  Nagel is locked in combat with the reductionist paradigm and I believe he is trying to answer it with positive science.  Submitting to reductionist criteria would mean getting tangled in the ancient dualist trap, for it’s my contention that positivism cannot avoid reductionism, and reductionism requires dualism.

Dualism sees the world divided between a dead, passive, inert matter and a living conscious spirit.  Without some version of “spirit,” a dead, inert matter cannot explain life.  You may claim you are not dualist, but if the matter you are dealing with is dead, you need something other than matter to account for life and mind.  If it’s other than matter, what else could it be?


I suspect the metaphysical dualism latent in the reductionist premises of positivism is the underlying reason for Nagel’s inability to move forward.  His circuits jam because he does not agree with dualism, but he cannot avoid it.  He’s not alone in this.  Since the time of Descartes in the 17th century, we have all been programmed to think that “mind” is not part of nature, and philosophers have been trying to understand how the two can co-exist and relate to one another.  We can forgive this waste of time and energy, however, because it’s not really our fault, or even Descartes’.  Europe had already been brainwashed by 1500 years of unchallenged dualism in Christian thought and culture.  I am referring to Plato’s (350 bce) theory that there are two different “kinds of being” in the universe, spirit and matter, and that each is defined as completely contrary to the other.  The nightmare is that this illusion wasn’t just an ancient philosophical theory, it came to dominate the ancient mediterranean world and resulted in a millennial cultural belief sustained beyond doubt and beyond debate throughout Europe by universal religious affirmation backed up by an inquisitorial system of terrifying effectivenessIt meant that not only did philosophers believe it, but so did all the people formed in western Christian ideology, right down to the lowliest landed peasant.  Yes, we all … including Descartes and Nagel … can be forgiven.

Under this fiction it was considered something of a miracle that mind and matter interacted at all.  I am not in the least surprised that Nagel is still trying to punch his way out of that same paper bag.  While he acknowledges that “mind” is not different from “nature” he continues to assume that it is different from matter for he says repeatedly that “materialism” is not sufficient to explain life and mind.  In Nagel’s lexicon, reductionism and materialism are the same thing.  “Materialism requires reductionism, therefore the failure of reductionism requires an alternative to materialism.”(p.15)

The “problem,” says Nagel, is that we are part of nature.  It’s the first undeniable datum.  How we conceive the natural world must not only include us numerically, it must include us comprehensibly, intelligibly and, in a sense, supereminently, because we represent the most stunning display of virtuosity that “nature” has come up with to date.  Personally, I don’t see that as a “problem” but rather as the solution.  What nature has done in us is the most astonishing revelation of what nature is because between us and nature there is no distance, no difference, no remainder — the identity is absolute.  In us mind and nature are one and the same thing.  But for me there’s one thing more, and it is something that Nagel’s mental presets seems to prevent him from acknowledging:  nature is matter and nothing but matter.

In reality the so-called “miraculous interaction” between mind and nature is a display of their absolute identity.  That’s the way nature presents itself.  That’s the way it should be taken.  There is no miracle; consciousness is completely natural, and nature is exclusively made of matter.  The solution is that the bag does not exist; it is a dilemma of our own making.  There are not two “substances” out there, vital conscious spirit enlivening a dead, inert matter; there is only one, and if you want to know what it is, you only have to look at the data — what human and other living organisms are doing right before your eyes always and everywhere.  The presumption has to be for some sort of monism.  Nagel appears to agree:

Among the traditional candidates for comprehensive understanding of the relation of mind to the physical world, I believe the weight of evidence favors some form of neutral monism over the traditional alternatives of materialism, idealism, and dualism. (pp 4-5)


We have a penchant for mistrusting our perceptions. I believe that is because modern science had a traumatic birth.  The physical and astronomical discoveries of the 17th century contradicted accepted wisdom so dramatically that the culture never recovered.  Certain traditional beliefs based on our spontaneous perceptions and our holy books were exposed as erroneous; it suggested that our perceptions were unreliable.  Reliable perception came to be restricted to the laboratory.

But that generated problems of its own.  The science lab is professionally committed to eliminating all but a very narrow range of data — data that can be registered on devices that convert perceptions into measurable quantities.  Aspects of things, no matter how essential to their significance for us, that cannot be measured are in fact expunged and ignored in the laboratory.  Any “interpretation” made on such sanitized data must necessarily be truncated.  What the thing IS cannot be accurately determined because its place in the universe of things and human meaning is formally omitted. 

The fundamental elements and laws of physics and chemistry have been inferred to explain the behavior of the inanimate world.  Something more is needed to explain how there can be conscious, thinking creatures whose bodies and brains are composed of those elements. If we want to try to understand the world as a whole, we must start with an adequate range of data, and those data must include the evident facts about ourselves. (p.20  emphasis mine)

That statement, from my point of view, is dead accurate.  The relevant data have been omitted in a reductionist world-view.  What Nagel calls “starting with an adequate range of data” is critical.  Philosophy has the preliminary responsibility to define and defend what qualifies as data if it is to accomplish its second and most important task: an accurate interpretationwhat is “needed to explain” it and draw a coherent picture of the cosmos. 

But there is a possible glitch in Nagel’s statement.  The term “something more” will be misunderstood if mis-taken in a substantive sense.  It’s the “thing” in “some-thing” that’s the potential problem; it suggests a need for “more” data or the presence of “some other” factor or substance.  It’s a positivist predilection.  But there is no other “thing;” the already gathered data is quite sufficient.  As Wittgenstein said, “problems are solved not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known.” (Phil. Invest., p.109).  The “more” has to be the way we think about it.  We have to understand it otherwise than we do.  And the basis for thinking otherwise is the acknowledgement that we started from a reductionist misper­cep­tion — an inadequate range of data.  Once we allow ourselves to see what is really there, the solution presents itself: matter is a living self-embracing dynamismThat we find matter able to re-incar­nate itself in increasingly complex and consciously supple forms and finally into a thinking organism, is a logically linear development of what it is: an irrepressible energy to exist.

The determination that there is “thinking” going on here is a direct perception (interior as well as exterior) working from philosophically validated data that is not within science’s purview to disqualify.  It is not initially an induction or an inference or a posterior analysis.  And as with any perception, even those in the lab, there is no further validation.  There is an inescapable unprovable starting point here as there is in all disciplines.  You, the philosopher, like the scientist, have to decide whether you can trust what you see.


By “posterior analysis” I mean we unfortunately allow what we learn only later to substitute for direct perception.   Consider: to even ask the question of “mind and body” is to begin from a posterior analytical point of view derived from traditional spirit-matter dualism — i.e., the assumption that human persons are separable living “souls” that have been infused into inert material bodies.

To substitute posterior analysis for an accurate description of the phenomenon is a common habit of the times we live in.  We do this in all areas, even where the presence of “spirit” is not an issue.  To explain what I mean, let’s take a familiar example: water.  That water is “H2O” by posterior analysis — an undeniable scientific fact — does not tell you what water is as directly perceived as a relational entity within a universe of entities.  Evoking H and O tells you its components; it may tell you what it was and what it may again become, but it falsifies the present reality for human perception.  Water is present in the cosmos and to human perception as water: a liquid that vaporizes at a certain temperature and freezes at another … its unique collaboration with gravity has created mighty rivers and earth-moving glaciers whose erosive meanderings have carved landscapes of indescribable beauty and deep fertility; water is essential to the sustenance of life in all its forms — the human organism is itself 60% water; water covers more than 2/3 of the earth’s surface with vast oceans that have spawned and harbor an uncountable number of living species from protozoa to aquatic mammals of high intelligence.  On our earth, water cycles through its aparitions as vapor, ice and liquid continuously without ever reverting to its components.  Neither hydrogen nor oxygen as and by themselves show the slightest resemblance to this behavior and their presence has an entirely different significance for the living history of our planet.  If you keep thinking of water as some variant of hydrogen or oxygen you will never know what it does and how it is related to life on this earth … you will never understand it as water.  Water is not a phenomenon, a concoction of the brain, it is a real composite.  The philosophical “datum” is the composite: “water;” the scientific — posterior analytical, reductionist — is H2O: the components.  To understand water, you must perceive it in its integrity as a composite — derived as much from the unique arrangement of its components as from the components themselves — which account for its relational behavior telling us what it is.  The components are not more real than the composite.  (They are themselves composites of more fundamental components.)  “H2O” makes you think you really know water, when you don’t.  H2O  is a symbol — a shorthand — a “scientific metaphor” no less a “symbol” than the word “water” itself which has no such explanatory pretensions … and like any metaphor, if you take it literally, you will be deceived.

Nagel has a different take on the same example:

To show that water is H2O … it is necessary to show that the chemical or physical equivalence can account fully and exhaustively for everything that is included in the ordinary prescientific concept of water — the manifest properties on the basis of which we apply that concept.  Not only must the scientific account explain causally all the external effects of water, such as its effect on our senses. It must also account in a more intimate manner for its familiar intrinsic properties, revealing the true basis of those properties by showing that they are entailed  by the scientific description.  Thus, the density of water, its passage from solid to liquid to gas at certain temperatures, its capacity to enter into chemical reactions or to appear as a chemical product, its transparency, viscosity, electrical conductivity, and so forth, must all be accounted for in a particularly strong way by its chemical analysis as H2O, together with whatever laws govern the behavior of such a compound. In brief, the essential intrinsic properties of water on the macro level must be properties that simply follow  from the behavior of H2O under normal conditions. Otherwise it will not be possible to say that water is constituted  of H2O and nothing else.  (Thomas Nagel, “The Psychophysical Nexus” p.10, emphasis mine.  This essay is chapter 18 of his Concealment and Exposure and Other Essays, New York, Oxford University Press, 2002).

Nagel’s reductive analysis of H20 is repeated in Mind and Cosmos on p. 40-41.  The phenomenological perception embracing the relational features that I sketched above, by which the behavior of water is uniquely significant to human beings and to the biota of the planet, while it does not call for the presence of something other than two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen, is not exhausted by the properties of the components.  There is something fundamentally transforming about the chemical valences — the new unique and specific arrangements — among those three atoms that makes water something other than hydrogen and oxygen.  The “something transforming” is not a physical or chemical substance, but it is a new arrangement making water a “new thing.”  That re-arrangement is critical to the way we relate to water.  Water does not behave like either H or O, and what accounts for its new behavior is not a “new substance.”

The reductionist point of view which omits “macro” features as irrelevant to reality, is prejudicial.  Nagel’s claim that “[H2O] accounts in a more intimate manner for their familiar intrinsic properties, revealing the true basis of those properties” while scientifically true, distorts the perceived reality because what he means is “that they are entailed by the scientific description.”  The word “entailed” is a level-changer.  It refers to a reductive shift from a spontaneous holistic perception to “scientific description” — posterior analysis.  These features are simply not the same.  Some laboratory instruments may find hydrogen and oxygen to be the same whether they are encountered separately as gases or as water, but human beings do not … nor does the earth.  To claim they are the same is to substitute our instruments for our selves.  That is what I mean by a prejudicially reductionist perception; it is a posterior analytical substitution required by positivist preference and it does not provide us with an adequate range of data.  Philosophy needs to help us identify reality accurately.  H2O is not an accurate picture of reality.  What Philosophy validates must not only be visible to instruments and expressable in their measurements, it must also be visible to our poets and expressable in song.

I use the case of water as a methodological example only.  Our “problem” is human intelligence.  In this case, if there is nothing else in the human organism than matter … and we can verify that there is not … then there is no other possibility: the new arrangement among the atoms and molecules in the neurological-endocrine systems of the human organism — whatever they are — must account for it.  Notice that the same organic components found in organisms mentally less prodigious than we are, do not suddenly acquire the ability to think as if the evolution of intelligence were the result of a learning process.  In nature the appearance of emergent abilities is always accompanied by a new, often exponentially more complex arrangement of the very same components.  If thinking is made operative by new arrangements of the same components, its ultimate explanation must reside in those components and the matter from which they are made.

We might think of it as similar to the way water’s chemical relationships are different from those of its two components.  Water interacts with magnesium and iron, for example, in ways that oxygen and hydrogen do not; what’s responsible for that new interaction is the new arrangements which turn H and O into water, nothing else.  There is no new component, no “something else.”  Again: the specific gravity of oxygen and the specific gravity of hydrogen don’t simply “add up” to the specific gravity of water in the proportion of two-to-one, but because of the particular way the atoms share their electrons and bind together — the new arrangement — an entirely new relative density comes into play.


Relative density

Water   (4oC)


Sea   water






Here’s the chart of values.  The gases become liquid at the same temperature and change their specific gravity (relative density) to become instrumental for a myriad of geological, topographical and pedological (soil formation) functions.  They also take on unique properties significant for the constitution and metabolism of organic matter.  Water has these relationships critical to the creation and maintenance of life that H and O do not.  None of these properties were presaged by hydrogen and oxygen, even though what emerged from the relationship is strictly due to and only to those two elements — there is nothing else there.

There is no deus ex machina doing this.  It is simply the result of H and O being what they are that their latent properties and potential relationships are activated by their coming together in that special proportion: two-to-one.  But it is not “reductionist” because it cannot be said that the macro features are nothing more than a re-display of their components’ properties.  The macro features are new behavior specific to a new entity created by the new arrangement of the old components.  The description is critical to the perception and the reality.  The perception of water is not reducible to two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom but rather to those atoms bound together in a unique arrangement that results in the properties of water.  Those properties were not predicted in advance from looking at H and O; their unique relationship resulting in water was discovered only after it happened.

Now I present this as an analogy.  I claim Nagel’s entire analysis, starting with the description, is prejudicially reductive.  His phenomenological imprecision evident in the case of water — allowing the results of later analysis to contaminate initial descriptors — illustrates exactly how reductionist assumptions can skew perception.  He says water is reducible in every respect to H and O.  He is using the example in order to say that when we come to the case of life and consciousness the same kind of reduction is not possible.  Immaterial phenomena, he says, like life and mind cannot be reduced to their constituent elements the way water’s perceived behavior is reducible to H2O, but require something else to explain them.  I vehemently disagree.  I am saying that for consciousness, exactly as in the case of water, there is no basis for claiming that “something else” must be there to account for the new activity.  Intelligence is no more a surprising result of matter’s potential than the properties of water are of H and O, the only difference at this point in time is that we know how it works with water, with intelligence we do not know yet.   Nagel’s conclusion that intelligence is insuperably surprising derives directly from the assumption of a dead matter implying his famous “something else” whose dualist evocations he does not acknowledge.

The kind of thinking that needs to be applied if we are going to arrive at a correct understanding of reality includes but transcends science.  And correlatively, what creates the impasse for this problem is the insistence that positivist assumptions, descriptions, data and methodology are the only valid tools for its resolution.  That following a positivist path leads back to reductionism should surprise no one.

Transcending the impasse is not to be found in new or different data, but in a different way of perceiving the same data and a different way of considering and assigning causation.  It is not nearly as satisfying to the imagination as a scientific (positivist) explanation because it feels like we are “flying blindor “working backwards.”  But it is just as logically compelling.  Let me explain:

Consciousness’ and other “immaterial” features’ dependence on the physical and chemical substructures is not as clear as water’s because they are not as simple.  Mind’s origin in matter is highly complex and the data correlating the two spheres of phenomena — the mental and the material — are just now being collected, but they are not insignificant.  There is already enough evidence to show that there is an undeniable correlation between them even though we cannot specify exactly what mechanisms are responsible for every mental phenomenon.  But the data so far do not contradict nor do they indicate a direction contrary to eventual full correlationHence the confidence expressed by many scientists that “it is only a matter of time” is, in my opinion, entirely warranted.

But even when such a point for point correlation between brain activity and thought is finally achieved, the problem will still remain, because the correlation in itself does not clarify the causation.  You still need to explain the fact that mechanical or chemical processes correlate to thinking, and on the other hand, there is nothing to prevent a stone reductionist like Daniel Dennett from concluding that they really don’t because what we call “thinking” is nothing but the robotic activity of a computer.

Dennett uses “self identity” as a paradigmatic example:  phalanxes of unconscious, mindless neurons firing in the human brain in some kind of mysterious coordination (as yet to be fully mapped) and under the direction and impulse from something outside themselves (not yet clearly defined), not only produce thought, but they also produce the “self” that is thinking.  Neurological actions are like computer circuits that appear to think.  Do they?  There’s no way to know, he says, because if we were robots or zombies examining our own brain activity and the “self” it produces, there would be no way to tell the difference between our experience and life because we would have nothing to compare it to.  It feels like life and thinking because that’s the way we’re programmed.[1]

Dennett is saying matter only appears to be alive.  He is working off the assumption that matter is exactly as inert and mechanical as it appears in its “lowest” unrelated and uncomplexified states as studied by physics and chemistry, and that its later appearances in conscious thought are illusions produced by rapid and voluminous activity.  By a radical posterior analysis everything is just quarks and gluonsThe composite is completely reducible to its components.

In contrast, I am saying that matter only appears to be dead.  I am working off the asssumption that matter is radically capable of exactly what we observe it doing in its most complex and evolved composites to date, as spontaneously perceived.  The parallelism is more than a figure of speech.  Matter presents itself and is perceived with equal validity in its composite state.  The difference is that by absolutizing the the (reductively perceived) reality of the components Dennett has to deny reality to the composite.  That what we observe behaving in its more “primitive,” isolated and uncomplexified states, is the very same matter that we later observe functioning under conditions of exponentially increased complexity in living consciousness should lead to the conclusion that, just as in the case of water, it was the new relationships, the special arrangement of the parts, that activated properties of matter that were neither observable nor predictable in its isolated states but nevertheless had to have been there.  Unless something else, some new “substance” or force, were to present itself to observation, the inference has to be that a potential in the substrate itself, activated by the new arrangement, is what accounts for the new behavior just as in the case of water.  There is nothing to warrant inferring the presence of “something else” that is not observable.  This would seem to settle the question even without knowing the details of “how.”

The combination of potential and activator, while undeniable, remains mysterious because we cannot explain in detailed scientific terms how this particular relationship of constituent elements results in the new behavior.  Nagel seems unsatisfied with anything less than a scientific  explanation with a high degree of predictability.  But our lack of scientific knowledge is not sufficient to warrant doubting the fundamental philosophical inference and the general understanding derived from it based on the paradox of a material mechanism being alive and conscious.  There are two specious alternatives to this inference:  (1) there is the (dualist) hypothesis of a separate “spirit” alongside matter, implying that matter does not have the potential for life and mind, requiring “something else” to explain it, or (2) there is the (reductionist) hypothesis of an imagined neuro-mechanism where brain structures are evolved that create the illusion of life, implying, again, that matter really is inert (this is Dennett’s position).  Both are based on the asssumption that matter is dead.  These alternatives do not even have hypothetical validity because the fundamental inference pre-empts them.  It takes priority because the alternatives are based on imaginary scenarios, while the fundamental inference is based on two undeniable facts: we know there is nothing there but matter; and we know conscious and intelligent life when we see it.

Let’s take another example: the acorn.  Nagel hypothesizes the existence of a natural teleological pressure toward life and mind that is non-inten­tional (i.e., non-theist).  I will address his thinking on this conception in more detail later, but right now let’s grant his theory.  A non-intentional bias would naturally result from the very “nature” of a living material energy … a kind of metaphysical DNA … the way the acorn’s bias toward becoming an oak tree results from an embedded potential that originally shows no sign of life whatsoever.  To direct perception an acorn is inert, even in the laboratory.  It does not move in any way, or draw nutrients into itself, or exhale oxygen and yet we say it is alive simply and exclusively because of what it evolves into under certain very specific conditions of soil, warmth, moisture, sunlight and time.

My question is: how do the bases of inference in the one case differ from the other?  If the presence of life is determined to be undeniably true in the case of the acorn simply because of what it becomes, how does that same reasoning not apply to matter?  The conclusion in each case is an a posteriori assessment of probability.

You may say, unlike matter, a priori the acorn always becomes an oak.  But that’s not true.  It is estimated that the acorn-to-oak ratio in the wild is something like 10,000 to one.  Well then you might say every acorn would have become an oak but one or more of the external variables in the oak equation is missing.  But that is an assumption.  There is really no way of knowing what exactly was missing; it may have been some defect in the acorn itself — making it dead, not alive.  We cannot see life in an acorn, even in the laboratory; any given acorn may be dead.  The presence of life is an infererence — reasoning “backwards” from what acorns do.  There is a higher rate of “reproductive success” in the laboratory where the external conditions can be controlled, but even in controlled conditions the rate of germination with any seed rarely exceeds 85%, so we still cannot predict an oak with certainty and must fall back on the inference that comes from the posterior evidence alone: since nothing other than acorns have become oaks, we conclude acorns are alive and are the exclusive source, origin and cause of oak trees.  Reasoning backwards — “flying blind” — it is undeniable that oaks come from acorns and that acorns are alive despite appearances.  We have no doubt whatsoever that acorns are the source, origin and cause of oak trees.  I use this, again, merely to illustrate the methodological procedures.

In the case of matter we have not achieved the laboratory success that we have with acorns; we have never found a “formula” or “equation” for life or consciousness that we can make work.  And yet we see that everything alive and conscious is made of only matter and nothing else.  The reasoning process, while not facing exactly the same circumstances as the highly evolved acorn where the reproductive vitality is at its most forward level, is substantially the same.  It is undeniable that matter and only matter became living and conscious.  Therefore, reasoning backwards, it is undeniable that matter is the source of life, but reasoning forward there was no way to predict that any given aggregation of matter’s energy would produce life, and the failure to achieve it in the laboratory is no proof against it.  Once you embrace the proposition that life resides in the substrate, all sorts of things fall into place.  Even the apparently lifeless components and their mechanisms are validated because they are only asked to be catalyst-actuators of a living substrate, not account for life.

But, unsatisfying as it may feel to a positivist who demands all answers be given in terms of predictable and imaginable antecedent and consequent events, this solution is clear and inescapable: there is a potential in the substrate that is activated by a new arrangement of its constituent elements (which were themselves re-arranged versions of earlier re-arrange­ments in a long series of steps going back to the big bang) that accounts for life and consciousness, not because there is a non-material “something” alongside of inert matter accounting for each of these “jumps,” but because matter is not inert.  The emergence of life flows from the latent potential of the material substrate similar to the way the potential for water’s characteristics are activated by the new arrangement of H and O and the way the acorn’s innate resident potential to become an oak is activated by the inert conditions of germinationAll these “transitions” are perfectly natural; there is no miracle or outside intervention in any of it.  While the exact mechanisms in each case are not the same but analogous (as one would expect across different levels of emergence), the fundamental dynamic is very much the same: a resident potential is self-actuated by a re-arrangement of elements.  And even were the actual mechanisms to be thoroughly known, there will never be any reason for transcending that formula without including an imaginary “something else” (like “spirit”); they will always be only themselves — inert mechanisms, resolvable into their components.  Unless you are prepared to deny the very existence and character of life and consciousness (which people like Daniel Dennett seem all too prone to do to preserve the fiction of a dead matter), you are forced to only one conclusion: the substrate contains within itself both the potential for conscious life and the ability of its own constituent elements to be re-arranged in such a way as to allow for its activation.



The one area where Nagel seems to take a few tentative steps toward an “alternative vision” is in his support for “natural teleology.”  The idea was first mentioned in the introduction, where he says that doubts about the ability of reductionist evolution to account for the origin of life and later, consciousness

… suggest that principles of a different kind are also at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic. (p. 7).

He characterizes his direction this way:

The teleological hypothesis is that these things [the emergence of life and consciousness] may be determined not merely by value-free chemistry and physics but also by something else, namely a cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value that is inseparable from them. (p. 123, emphasis mine).

Teleology means purpose, intention; but he eschews the supernaturalism implied by that:

I believe that teleology is a naturalistic alternative that is distinct from all three of the other candidate explanations: chance, creationism, and directionless physical law. … (p.91)

…  The existence of teleology requires that successor states in [some subset of emergent features] have a significantly higher probability than is entailed by the laws of physics alone — simply because they are on the path toward a certain outcome.  Teleological laws would assign higher probability to steps on paths in state space that have a higher “velocity” toward certain outcomes.  They would be laws of the self-organization of matter, essentially — or of whatever is more basic than matter. (p. 92-93, emphasis mine).

Nagel is suggesting a “force” in the universe that functions like a “law” which will explain the “upward” bias of natural selection.  Such a “force” would seem to direct evolution to transform inert matter into life and then into mind.  It seems akin to the anthropic principle suggested by some, guiding the evolutionary trajectory toward mind.  The terms “higher probability” and “higher velocity,” clearly evoke an override to the normal pace of self-elaboration — as such it suggests an intervention from the outside.  But this is strange.  For if it is as intrinsically part of nature as Nagel says, then the word “higher” really has no meaning.  The “velocity” and rate of probability would be exactly what they should be because teleology would be as natural as gravity or electromagnetism. It is a “law of the self-organization of matter” and one would expect that it will be ultimately quantifiable and expressed in its own equations.

Nagel is hardly more informative on p. 59 about what he means by this:

A teleological account will hold that in addition to the laws governing the behavior of the elements 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. (emphasis mine)

The passage suggests that Nagel’s model for this “upward” pressure operating above and beyond the ordinary laws of nature could be complexity theory as reflected in the work of people like Stuart Kaufman, most recently in Reinventing the Sacred (2008).  Aside from that passing reference, however, Nagel offers no concrete ground from which this teleological force would arise.  We hear about what he thinks it does but not where it comes from or why it has this teleological bent.   His language suggests something exogenous … that it comes from outside of matter.  Aren’t we dallying with dualism again?

Unless Nagel were to identify matter itself as the source of this bias toward life and mind we are left in exactly the same position as when we started.  Life remains unaccounted for.  Even granting the ungrounded teleology he adduces, it may explain the upward trend of evolution, but it does not address the “miraculous” metamorphosis from an inert matter to a living organism.  Unless “purpose” emerges from the very intrinsic (immanent) nature of matter itself, it has no transformative power over a dead material substrate.  What Nagel’s treatment seems to suggest is that teleological forces direct development by or to some mechanism that is then the real grounding cause responsible for the emergence (or in Dennett’s case, the deceptive epiphenomenon) of life.  The question, then, has merely been shifted to this other, as-yet-unidentified ground, factor or mechanism.

But for me, this is another indication that Nagel is assuming the inertness of matter and looking for something “outside of matter” to give it life.   None of this is necessary if you think of the substrate itself as a living existential dynamism.  With such an ontologically energized substrate, the emergence of perceptible life and a penetrating consciousness, while their precise forms may not have been predictable, are not surprising in retrospect.  Existential transcendence is of the very nature of the beast.  Matter is driven to transcend its current “moment” of existence in order to exist in the next … and the next … and the next (creating the arrow of time).  Existence is a self-embracing self-projection that at the much more developed level of living organisms equates to “survival.  Nagel himself mentions “what may be more basic than matter,” a phrase that could cover a primordial energy whose various “incarnations” are the components of everything that comes later, but he doesn’t follow up on it.

Nagel’s idea of “natural teleology” puts him on the track of the kind of solution that, in my opinion, stays faithful to all the data, spontaneous and scientific.  But he stops at the doorstep.  And I believe it’s because his “solution” is not immanent in matter.  He is looking for something exogenous that will act upon a dead matter.  His imagination is still (subconsciously?) dominated by a dualist-reductionist world-view that maintains intellectual hegemony over the modern mind.  He can feel the pull of dualism-theism implied in his imagery and assures us that is not his intention:

A naturalistic teleology would mean that organizational and developmental principles of this kind are an irreducible part of the natural order, and not the result of intentional or purposive influence by anyone.  I am not confident that this Aristotelian idea of teleology without intention makes sense, but I do not at the moment see why it doesn’t. (p. 93).

How can Nagel, in the same breath, both affirm and deny that his proposal “makes sense”?  In my opinion, there is only one reason for this kind of vacillation: his suggestion lacks the reductionist data, probity requirements and “peer approval” to which he has voluntarily indentured himself “because 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.” (p.7) He is a positivist looking for a scientific solution and is wracked with remorse and self-doubt at the very thought of the direction his analysis is taking him.  His circuits are jamming.

Here is some of his discussion:

(P.91 emphasis mine)  Much of White’s paper [Roger White, “Does Origins of Life Research Rest on a Mistake?” Noûs 41 (2003)] is taken up with arguing that life is no more to be expected on the assumption of BN — the hypothesis of Nonintentional Bias [Nagel’s natural teleology] — than on the assumption of chance.  That is because even if there is non-intentional bias toward certain outcomes resulting from purposeless physical law, it could be a bias toward any type of outcome whatever, so it cannot make the appearance of life more likely than anything else.  As White (p.467) says,

What makes certain molecular configurations stand out from the multitude of possibilities seems to be that they are capable of developing into something that strikes us as rather marvelous, namely a world of living creatures.  But there is no conceivable reason that blind forces of nature or physical attributes should be biased toward the marvelous.

… unless, I would answer, these “blind forces of nature” are something like acorns which have a “non-intentional bias” toward oak trees embedded in their bones.  A “non-intentional bias” or “natural teleology” could be a workable idea, but if the material base is inert then the teleology must be coming from “outside” matter and its mechanisms … and that puts us back into dualism for if it is “outside” matter, what else can it be but “spirit” in some form or another.




I am as anti-dualist as I am anti-reductionist, and from my point of view Nagel’s insistence on finding a positivist (reductionist) solution inevitably entails an implicit dalliance with dualism.  Reductionism and dualism are metaphysical corollaries.  If matter’s existential energy is not itself responsible for life there has to be “something else” that is … for there is no doubt there is life and mind out there.  In Nagel’s enquiry it is that “something else” — he has vaguely suggested self-organizing complexity — that is the bearer of teleological weight since for him life does not arise from the congenital presence of material energy’s real immanent potential for life and consciousness.  But a naturalistic teleology has to be anchored somewhere.

If Nagel has “complexity theory” in mind for this anchor — and it is not absolutely clear that he does — the behavior patterns emerging from highly complex and voluminous random occurrences still do not solve the problem of life.  They simply identify a new mechanism operating with different, non-deterministic, non-predictable formulae that may “accidentally” propel inert matter into a self-replicating mode.  (There is no experimental proof that it does, by the way, and besides, complexity’s well-known non-predictability should be a major problem for Nagel, for earlier he identified predictability as an essential hallmark of the ultimate solution.[2])  In any case you still have to get from the mechanical self-replication of a dead matter to what we mean by the self-embrace called “life” and its penetrating linear extrapolation, “mind.”  The notions of life and mind are not exhausted in self-replication, even one that evolves.

And then there is the “neutral monism” we saw in the introduction:

Among the traditional candidates for comprehensive understanding of the relation of mind to the physical world, I believe the weight of evidence favors some form of neutral monism over the traditional alternatives of materialism, idealism, and dualism. (pp. 4-5, emphasis mine).

Despite such apparently decisive language, ambigüity reigns here as well, for “neutral monism” like the “the immanent character of the natural order” and the “ground of teleology” is never fully pursued.  If he really had no doubts that a “neutral monism” (which means neither spirit nor matter) characterizes the substrate, then this much is already established as certain: matter’s energy is the source of life and consciousness.  The rest — what particular mechanism, like the putative “laws of complexity,” may activate that potenital, and whether they are even phenomenally distinguishable from the substrate — may be of interest to science, but not to philosophy, for the philosophical question has already been answered: matter and its mechanisms are responsible for life and consciousness — that means source, origin and cause.  Matter’s energy is an immanent dynamism.  That statement is a conclusion “retropolated” from the “datum” of the human phenomenon to its sufficient and necessary source.  Thinking, as a self-pene­trating self-embrace, is the natural linear development of the existential energy of matter.

Henceforth the words “matter” and “materialism,” like “nature” and “naturalism,” can no longer be permitted their traditional prejudiced reductionist usage.  For too long the discussion has been biased because reductionist assumptions are embedded in the very words we use.  Nagel does not consider it important to confront that anomaly, with the result that his entire treatment, when it is not an implicit opening to dualism, is riddled with ambigüity and ends nowhere.  “Materialism requires reductionism,” he tells us, “therefore the failure of reductionism requires an alternative to materialism.”  That statement leaves no room for the possibility that matter may be very different from the way we have conceived it and still be matter and only matter.  Nagel’s dry and brittle “materialism“ is thirsty for “spirit,” for if it’s an alternative to matter what else can it be?


[Natural teleology] would probably have to involve some conception of an increase in value through the expanded possibilities provided by the higher forms of organization toward which nature tends: not just any outcome could qualify as a telos. That would make value an explanatory end, but not one that is realized through the purposes or intentions of an agent.  Teleology means that in addition to physical law of the familiar kind, there are other laws of nature that are “biased toward the marvelous.”  (pp. 91-92, emphasis mine)

Here is another aspect to Nagel’s teleological hypothesis that ties it in with his final chapter on “value” which shares the “ungroundedness” that characterizes his “natural teleology.”  The teleological law he imagines implies the presence of an “objective good” — a value — which by the criteria he has established for a valid solution transcends mere physical survival.  Thus “consciousness,” inchoate and primitive in the lower animals, is supposed to take on a developmental trajectory of its own because of its instrinsic value, purposely directing evolution to ever greater versions of itself regardless of its value for reproductive success (the “materialist” tool of natural selection).

One may imagine such value-driven growth occurring at the level of purposeful human choice-in-society (mate selection), but I have to ask, what mechanism “selects” for “independent, objective value” at the most primitive — unconscious — levels where this deep-time development necessarily began?  (It almost seems like Nagel is using the Darwinian notion of “selection” in a literal sense.  But pre-intelligent “selection” is a metaphor.  Traits and species come into existence because and only because they survive.  “Selection” can only refer to “reproductive success” or its equivalent.  Anything else would be … most unnatural.)

Secondly, Nagel is still stuck with explaining the phenomenon of consciousness itself.  Aside from how this “good” might function “teleologically” for “purposeful selection,” just what is consciousness and how does it work?  How is an inert, mechanical matter capable of the self-embrace and non-mechanical penetration that it displays in life and consciousness?  An ungrounded “natural teleology” does not answer these constitutional, non-developmental questions.


Nagel does not find the refutation of reductionism where I believe the answer lies: in a re-definition of the substrate.  He makes mention of reductionism’s “dead matter” a number of times but the anomaly does not move him to action.  Theism and Intelligent Design are openly disavowed, but the entire hylozoism/panvitalism historical family of hypotheses are condensed into his cursory treatment of “general monism” which he equates to “panpsychism.”  He deals with it in section 5 of the chapter on consciousness and eventually rejects it because its explanatory qualifications do not include “predictability” … a  criterion which confirms for me the positivist terms of his enquiry.

But even if we conclude that the basis of mind must be present in every part of the universe, that offers no hint of how the monistic properties that underlie consciousness in living organisms lead first to the origin of life and eventually to the appearance of conscious systems on the menu of mutations available for natural selection. … it offers no evident advantage with respect to the historical problem of likelihood. (p.65)

Panvitalism has a very long history in our intellectual tradition.  Here is a very brief background:

Panvitalism/Hylozoism: [gr. hylos “matter;” zoe “life;” pan, “all;” vita “life”] the philosophical doctrine that all matter is animated.  The term was introduced in the 17th century.  The theory is much older and dates from the very beginning of philosophy and occurs in the Ionian school of natural philosophers — Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes.  Heraclitus, Empedocles, and the stoics were close to hylozoism, and elements of it were included in Aristotle’s teachings.  During the Renaissance, it appeared again in the teachings of the Italian natural philosophers Bernardino Telesio, Giordano Bruno, Paracelsus, and others.  Spinoza studied thought as a quality present in all of nature, as an attribute of matter.  After him several French materialists, such as Diderot, Robinet, and Des-champs, acknowledged the general animation of matter. Ernst Haeckel defended a point of view similar to hylozoism. (http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Panvitalism)

I feel the willingness to tolerate the notion of a “dead” matter reveals the latent dualism tainting Nagel’s study as well as others’ with similar perspectives, like Stuart Kaufman.  Descartes’ post-mediaeval definition of matter presupposed the existence of vital spirit.  If there is such a thing as vital spirit, then it is consistent and perfectly acceptable that matter be dead, inert, mechanical and robotic, for spirit can account for everything that goes beyond those characteristics, like life and mind.  But if there is no such thing as spirit, then the vitality evident everywhere on the planet must be a material function.  So without “spirit” you are left with two fundamental choices regarding “matter:” either the material substrate itself includes the potential for life, or life and consciousness are simply epiphenomena, mere appearances generated by some mechanical arrangement of dead matter that creates the illusion of life in conscious minds.    

Nagel’s rejection of  reductionism has to do with his belief in the impossibility of vitality of any kind being generated by the mechanisms of material interaction as offered by a physics-based natural selection, completely bypassing the more fundamental question of the nature of matter — the substrate that the mechanisms are working on.  With an inert matter it seems inevitable that sooner or later he would find himself at an impasse.  He is looking for and cannot find something natural that will magically transform a dead substrate into life and later consciousness.  He will never find it in nature, his circuits will jam, for the very idea is self-contradictory.

There is another view: matter’s energy is an existential dynamism … a thirst and a drive for existence … what Aristotle called act.  What this re-definition does is to put the philosophical (metaphysical, causative) question of the origin of life to rest.  Matter, material energy, is the source of life.  Life is not an alien force that resides in matter as in an anteriorly existing thing, matter IS the living energy of existence pushing back against entropy through time.

But that’s not the end of the story.  If before our redefinition we needed to explain life, now we need to explain the appearance of inertness.  It was precisely different levels of existential forms — from particles responding only to the laws of physics, to autonomous intelligent organisms — that suggested the initiative of something outside of the substrate like a “God” or a mechanism or a “law” explaining this varied development of matter.

Evolution has been given this quasi-divine role in modern times, generating the kinds of misgivings that spawn enquiries like Nagel’s.  We correctly think of evolution as a cause, and it is that; but our redefinition makes clear that evolution, before all else, is the effect of matter’s existential dynamism.  It was that originating energy that drove the extrusion of the pre-life entities that, beginning with the formation of protons after the big bang and their integration with electrons to form hydrogen, have complexified exponentially to elaborate the elegant table of the elements and from there molecules of every possible variety and potential.  The energies that drive evolution did not begin with living organisms.  Evolution is the tool and agent of an existential dynamism.  The energy resides in the material substrate of the universe actuating the drive to exist.  Evolution does not cause life; life causes evolution.  Evolution is the tool of the living substrate, and therefore it is not entirely value-free.  I agree on this with Nagel, there is a “natural teleology” in the cosmos; but it is primordial, rudimentary and unique — the energy to exist.  There is no other.  The one and only “purpose” of material energy is to exist.

Once we have resolved the “source” problem, there is no longer any temptation to lay on the mechanisms stumbled upon by evolution a causative (teleological) burden they cannot bear.  Mechanisms working on a matter that is a living dynamism are not required to explain life because they do not have to cause life.  The very substrate, at its most primordial un-constructed pre-particle level, is an immanent living existential energy providing the only teleology found in nature — the insistence on existence — the drive to survive.

Once the false alienation of matter’s energy from itself is finally eliminated as an option, the baleful consequences that have always followed as unwanted baggage, like dualism and reductionism, disappear as well.  Nagel’s dismissal of the “God” of “intellectual deism,” his characterization of theist religion as “the real thing” and his enthusiasm for its true believing defenders like Plantinga et al,[3] reveal themselves as the inevitable by-products of falling into the trap set by the dualism of our cultureCorrecting the perceptual distortions and false assumptions stemming from that ancient blunder will take more than a declaration of intent.  It will require an arduous long-term program of mental decontamination, painstakingly extirpating one by one the matter-spirit images embedded in the western mindset pre-empting every thought we have.

Once the living and conscious potentialities of material development are acknowledged to be resident in the substrate itself, supernatural theism can be unmasked for what it really is: the unwarranted introjection of an alien source of conscious life which is necessarily alienating.  Evolutionary self-extrusion is an entirely endogenous natural phenomenon.  And correspondingly, the sense of the sacred which haunts and seduces us throughout our conscious lives, will no longer be thought of as coming as a gratuity from another world — an undeserved largesse like a lottery win — but rather radiates, in the way we actually experience it, from the very innards of the substrate of which we are all made.  We can stop resisting its siren call, trust its immanent presence and allow ourselves to fall in love again; we can begin to accept ourselves as immersion-spawned microcosms, the leaves of a Cosmic Tree, ordered, organized and energized by matter’s own existential thirst and potential.  “God” is not dead; it is theism that is dead because dualism is impossible.  It’s the “God” that dualistic theism imagined whose corpse Nietzsche found rotting in the streets.  But the existential energies in which we are immersed, in which “we live and move and have our being,” have not disappeared.  If we have stopped imagining them as a vitality being injected into our lifeless bodies from another world, it’s because we do not deny what our eyes tell us — that life is resident in this one, as much in the dirt under our feet as in the neurons of our brains.  The source of our sense of the sacred, that which the traditional “God” metaphor was created to evoke, is what we and this entire universe of things are made of.  We are part of it like diaphanous sponges in an infinite sea.  The thirst we feel within ourselves to live and grow is the very energy of existence itself.  It is who we are because it is what we are made of — the material energies that were the initiative that fathered us:  ESSE …  WE ARE THAT!


Tony Equale

Willis VA, USA

Nov 8, 2012

[1] Daniel C. Dennett, Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness MIT Press, Cambridge, 2005. Chapter 1, “The Zombic Hunch” passim.

[2] N. refers to this predictability often, as on p.46: “… [evolution] is not yet an explanation — it does not provide understanding, or enable us to see why the result was to be expected …” .  Cf the whole section pp.47ff: “No conception of the natural order that does not reveal it as something to be expected can aspire even to the outline of completeness.”(p.53).  That such a “non-negligible probability” (p.48) should be determined and set in place by the strange and unpredictable patterns of complexity is counter intuitive and would seem to require a vigorous explanation in its own right.

[3] As expressed in: Thomas Nagel, “A Philosopher Defends Religion,” New York Review of Books, Sept 27, 2012


  1. […] [5] Oxford University Press, NY, 2012, for an extensive review see: Tony Equale, “A Dalliance with Dualism?” Nov 2012 http://www.tonyequale.wordpress.com/a-dalliance-with-dualism-2 […]

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