Thomas Nagel (4 July 1937 - )
Nagel, a philosopher, lawyer, and educator who was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), came to the United States in 1939 and became a naturalized citizen in 1944.
He is the son of Carolyn (Baer) and Walter Nagel. In 1958 he married Doris Blum (divorced in 1973) and in 1979 Anne Hollander.
In 1958 he received his B.A. from Cornell University; in 1960 a Bachelor of Philosophy from Corpus Christi College, Oxford University in England; and his Ph. D. in 1963 from Harvard University.
Teaching and Visiting Appointments
His teaching has included being Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley 1963-6; Assistant Professor, Princeton University 1966-9; Associate Professor, Princeton University, 1969-72; Professor, Princeton University 1972-80; Professor of Philosophy, New York University 1980 to date; Chairman, New York University Philosophy Department, 1981-6; Professor of Philosophy and Law, New York University, 1986 to date; Fiorello LaGuardia Professor of Law, 2001-3; and University Professor, Fiorello LaGuardia Community College, 2002 to date.
His visiting appointments have included Rockefeller University, 1973-4; University of Pittsburgh 1976; Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, 1977; University of the Witwatersrand, 1982; U.C.L.A., 1986-7; All Souls College, Oxford, 1990; U. C. Berkeley, 2004.
Lectures and Fellowships
Nagel has lectured widely, including the following: Tanner Lecturer, Stanford University, 1977; Tanner Lecturer, Oxford University, 1979; Howison Lecturer, U.C. Berkeley, 1987; Thalheimer Lecturer, Johns Hopkins University, 1989; John Locke Lecturer, Oxford University, 1990; Hempel Lecturer, Princeton University, 1995; Whitehead Lecturer, Harvard University, 1995; Immanuel Kant Lecturer, Stanford University, 1995; Townsend Lecturer, U.C. Berkeley, 1999; AND Storrs Lecturer, Yale University, 2004.
Fellowships received include the following: Guggenheim Fellowship, 1966-7; NSF Fellowship, 1968-70; NEH Fellowship, 1978-9; and NEH Fellowship, 1984-5.
Also he is Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1980 to date; Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, 1988 to date; Honorary Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, 1992 to date; and Associate Editor, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1970-82.
Nagel has written the following, all of which have been translated into several languages:
- The Possibility of Altruism, Oxford University Press, 1970
- Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, 1979
- The View from Nowhere, Oxford University Press, 1986
- What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy, Oxford University
- Press, 1987
- Equality and Partiality, Oxford University Press, 1991
- Die Grenzen der Objektivität, (translated essays) Stuttgart, Reclam, 1991
- Other Minds: Critical Essays, 1969-1994, Oxford University Press, 1995
- The Last Word, Oxford University Press, 1997
- The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice (with Liam Murphy), Oxford University Press, 2002
- Concealment and Exposure and Other Essays, Oxford University Press, 2002
- Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False xford University Press, 2013
Nagel is often quoted for an essay that was published in The Philosophical Review, "What is it like to be a bat?" In it, he poses the mind-body problem and discusses its ramifications in philosophy. The question, which originally was posed by Timothy L. S. Sprigge, leads to Nagel's view that the subjective aspect of the mind may not ever be sufficiently accounted for by the objective methods of reductionistic science, that "[i]f] we acknowledge that a physical theory of mind must account for the subjective character of experience, we must admit that no presently available conception gives us a clue how this could done." Further, "it seems unlikely that any physical theory of mind can be contemplated until more thought has been given to the general problem of subjective and objective." (p. 405)
Upon announcing the Mellon Foundation's Distinguished Achievement Award in 2005, an award that will total up to $1,500,000 for New York University over three years, the Foundation wrote that Nagel "has shown how careful philosophical thought can contribute to the consideration of important public issues."
Nagel's areas of specialization include political philosophy, ethics, epistemology, and the philosophy of mind.
A retired philosophy professor, Eric Walther of the C. W. Post Campus of Long Island University in New York State, has suggested that his choice of a book for those who first become interested in philosophy is Nagel's What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy.
Dr. Nagel lives near the university campus in New York City in the same building where Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt once lived.
Awaiting a New Darwin
H. Allen Orr, University Professor and Shirley Cox Kearns Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester, writing in The New York Review of Books (7 February 2013), includes the following in his evaluation of Mind and Cosmos:
- Nagel concedes that many philosophers do not share his skepticism about the plausibility of reducing mind to matter. And I can assure readers that most scientists don’t. I, however, share Nagel’s sense of mystery here. Brains and neurons obviously have everything to do with consciousness but how such mere objects can give rise to the eerily different phenomenon of subjective experience seems utterly incomprehensible.
- Despite this, I can’t go so far as to conclude that mind poses some insurmountable barrier to materialism. There are two reasons. The first is, frankly, more a sociological observation than an actual argument. Science has, since the seventeenth century, proved remarkably adept at incorporating initially alien ideas (like electromagnetic fields) into its thinking. Yet most people, apparently including Nagel, find the resulting science sufficiently materialist. The unusual way in which physicists understand the weirdness of quantum mechanics might be especially instructive as a crude template for how the consciousness story could play out. Physicists describe quantum mechanics by writing equations. The fact that no one, including them, can quite intuit the meaning of these equations is often deemed beside the point. The solution is the equation. One can imagine a similar course for consciousness research: the solution is X, whether you can intuit X or not. Indeed the fact that you can’t intuit X might say more about you than it does about consciousness. . . .
- Here’s another problem. Nagel’s teleological biology is heavily human-centric or at least animal-centric. Organisms, it seems, are in the business of secreting sentience, reason, and values. Real biology looks little like this and, from the outset, must face the staggering facts of organismal diversity. There are millions of species of fungi and bacteria and nearly 300,000 species of flowering plants. None of these groups is sentient and each is spectacularly successful. Indeed mindless species outnumber we sentient ones by any sensible measure (biomass, number of individuals, or number of species; there are only about 5,500 species of mammals). More fundamentally, each of these species is every bit as much the end product of evolution as we are. The point is that, if nature has goals, it certainly seems to have many and consciousness would appear to be fairly far down on the list. . . .
- None of this is to suggest that evolutionary biology will not, someday, change radically. Of course it might; any science might. Nor is it to suggest that materialism represents some final unassailable view and that teleology or, for that matter, theism will inevitably be spoken of in the past tense by many scientists. It is to say that the way to any such alternative view will have to acknowledge the full powers of present science. I cannot conclude that Mind and Cosmos does this.
A Crique in Nation
Nation (22 October 2012 ) has a highly negative view by Michael Weisberg and Brian Leiter about Nagel's book, one that concludes,
- Nagel endorses the idea that explanation and prediction are symmetrical: “An explanation must show why it was likely that an event of that type occurred.” In other words, to explain something is to be in a position to have predicted it if we could go back in time. He also writes, “To explain consciousness, a physical evolutionary history would have to show why it was likely that organisms of the kind that have consciousness would arise.” Indeed, he goes further, claiming that “the propensity for the development of organisms with a subjective point of view must have been there from the beginning.”
- This idea, however, is inconsistent with the most plausible views about prediction and explanation, in both philosophy and science. Philosophers of science have long argued that explanation and prediction cannot be fully symmetrical, given the importance of probabilities in explaining natural phenomena. Moreover, we are often in a position to understand the causes of an event, but without knowing enough detail to have predicted it. For example, approximately 1 percent of children born to women over 40 have Down syndrome. This fact is a perfectly adequate explanation of why a particular child has Down syndrome, but it does not mean we could have predicted that this particular child would develop it. Causes alone are frequently deemed sufficient to explain events; knowing enough to predict those events in advance is an important scientific achievement, but not essential to explanation.
- Nagel doesn’t think so, and because of that, he advocates the reintroduction of teleological reasoning into science. (Teleology—the idea that natural phenomena have built-in purposes or ends—was central to Aristotelian science, and it remained very influential until the scientific revolution.) In his discussion of the origin of life, Nagel says that natural teleology would mean that, “in addition to physical law of the familiar kind, there are other laws of nature that are ‘biased toward the marvelous.’”
- This is an astonishing though certainly evocative phrase (Nagel adapts it from another writer), yet Nagel offers no further explication of it. He does admit that this proposal “flies in the teeth of the authoritative form of explanation that has defined science since the revolution of the seventeenth century.” Unfortunately, he is also extremely unclear about what he means by “natural teleology,” other than assuring the reader that it is neither part of standard physical laws nor the introduction of theology. One might think that “principles of self-organization or of the development of complexity over time,” which Nagel gives as examples of natural teleology, are the sort of things studied by mainstream protein chemists, developmental biologists and condensed-matter physicists. But apparently these sciences, which study how complex order can be built up from simple physical processes, are not on the right track. Nagel never explains why.
- We conclude with a comment about truth in advertising. Nagel’s arguments against reductionism are quixotic, and his arguments against naturalism are unconvincing. He aspires to develop “rival alternative conceptions” to what he calls the materialist neo-Darwinian worldview, yet he never clearly articulates this rival conception, nor does he give us any reason to think that “the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two.” Mind and Cosmos is certainly an apt title for Nagel’s philosophical meditations, but his subtitle—”Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”—is highly misleading. Nagel, by his own admission, relies only on popular science writing and brings to bear idiosyncratic and often outdated views about a whole host of issues, from the objectivity of moral truth to the nature of explanation. No one could possibly think he has shown that a massively successful scientific research program like the one inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection “is almost certainly false.” The subtitle seems intended to market the book to evolution deniers, intelligent-design acolytes, religious fanatics and others who are not really interested in the substantive scientific and philosophical issues. Even a philosopher sympathetic to Nagel’s worries about the naturalistic worldview would not claim this volume comes close to living up to that subtitle. Its only effect will be to make the book an instrument of mischief.
Nagel's essay, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?", challenged the materialist view of the mind then prevalent, arguing that the subjective experience of consciousness – what philosophers call the "qualia" – could not be fully reduced to the physical aspects of the brain. Jennifer Schuessler, writing in The New York Times, describes Nagel as an author who has attracted unlikely allies: creationists. She writes,
- Such ideas are anathema to modern evolutionary theorists. Mr. Nagel calls for an entirely new kind of science, one based on what he calls “natural teleology” — a tendency for the universe to produce certain outcomes, like consciousness, but without any help from a Godlike agent.
- To many reviewers, however, including some who have themselves been critical of efforts to find Darwinian explanations for all aspects of human behavior, Mr. Nagel’s own arguments fail to grapple with some well-established scientific facts.
- After all, they argue, the evolutionary record shows plenty of lineages moving from complex structures to simpler ones, to say nothing of extinction — both of which throw cold water on the notion of teleology. As for Mr. Nagel’s “untutored reaction of incredulity” (as he himself puts it in the book) that random evolution could have produced conscious beings capable, say, of doing science and philosophy in the 3.8 billion years since life on earth began, some point out that he fails to consider the vast size and age of the universe and the likelihood that consciousness might have emerged somewhere, at some time.
- “I wouldn’t criticize him for not knowing a lot of details about evolutionary biology,” said Elliott Sober, a philosopher of biology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who was highly critical of “Mind and Cosmos” in Boston Review. But Mr. Nagel’s arguments, he continued, are marred by flawed reasoning about probability: “He sees the origins of life and consciousness as remarkable facts which had to have had a high probability of happening. I don’t buy that.”
- The fiercest criticism, however, has come from people who fault Mr. Nagel not just for the specifics of his arguments but also for what they see as a dangerous sympathy for intelligent design.
- “The book is going to have pernicious real-world effects,” said Brian Leiter, a philosopher at the University of Chicago, who has frequently chided Mr. Nagel on his widely read blog. He added, “It’s going to be used as a weapon to do damage to the education of biology students.”
- It’s a charge Mr. Nagel has met with before. In 2009 he caused a furor when he praised Stephen C. Meyer’s “Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design” in The Times Literary Supplement of London. This came hot on the heels of Mr. Nagel’s 2008 scholarly article criticizing the federal court decision, in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, banning the teaching of intelligent design in public school biology classes. (“The political urge to defend science education against the threats of religious orthodoxy, understandable though it may be,” Mr. Nagel wrote, “has resulted in a counter-orthodoxy, supported by bad arguments.”)
- Mr. Nagel’s depiction of a universe “gradually waking up” through the emergence of consciousness can sound oddly mystical — the atheist analytic philosopher’s version of “spiritual, not religious.” And even some readers who admire Mr. Nagel’s philosophical boldness see a very fuzzy line between his natural teleology and the creator God of theists like the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga (who reviewed Mr. Nagel’s book favorably in The New Republic, throwing more red meat to his detractors).
- In his conclusion Mr. Nagel declares that the present “right-thinking consensus” on evolution “will come to seem laughable in a generation or two.” But few of his colleagues seem to see much sign that a radical paradigm shift is imminent, let alone necessary.
- “It’s perfectly fair game for philosophers to say scientists are wrong about stuff,” Mr. Sober said. “Everything depends on whether the arguments are good.”
- “Tom is a provocative philosopher, and his book will interest people,” he continued. But when it comes to changing actual science, he said, “it’s a hiccup.”