The Nagel Flap: Mind and Cosmos

THE HEDGEHOG REVIEW: VOL. 15, NO. 3 (FALL 2013) John H. Zammito

“If there were a philosophical Vatican, the book would be a good candidate for going onto the Index.” It was a philosopher’s joke, the philosopher in this instance being the respected Cambridge scholar Simon Blackburn. But its swipe at a slim volume produced by fellow philosopher Thomas Nagel summed up a sentiment shared far less lightheartedly by many of today’s leading thinkers and scientists—so many, in fact, that The Guardian named it the “Most Despised Science Book of 2012.” And for what reason? Well, most likely for claims such as this: “The dominance of materialist naturalism is nearing its end.” Or for the equally defiant assertion that materialist naturalism, so called, “will come to seem laughable in a generation or two.” Such jabs capture both the pious wish and the incendiary intent behind Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. But what exactly did Nagel intend, and what exactly has he unleashed? Was his book addressed primarily to experts—philosophical or scientific—concerning the legitimate frontiers of inquiry, or was it composed explicitly with an eye to broader political-cultural agitation? Consider, first, the flap itself, a verbal brawl that has hardly abated since the publication of Nagel’s work in the autumn of 2012. Reconnoitering not only the published reviews, but the vast Internet commentary the book has set off, proves perturbing. Above all, the intemperate character of much of the reception underscores the rhetorical recklessness of the book. In his early and penetrating review in the New Statesman, Blackburn grasped both prongs of the rhetorical danger in Nagel’s work: “I regret the appearance of this book. It will only bring comfort to creationists and fans of intelligent design.... It will give ammunition to those triumphalist scientists who pronounce that philosophy is best pensioned off.” That is, Blackburn said, creationists would find Nagel’s views supportive of their insurgency against the scientific community, while idolaters of science would find evidence in it for dismissing any philosophical scrutiny of that community’s undertakings. Neither outcome is, as Blackburn realized, salutary for a proper assessment of science. Hence his offhand consignment of the book to the Index Liborum Prohibitorum. Even if meant as a joke, Blackburn’s remark was sufficient incitement to the intelligent design community to anoint Nagel as a heroic heretic persecuted by an entrenched materialist orthodoxy. It enabled advocates of intelligent design to twist the whole reception of the book 1

because he simply gestures back to claims already propounded. logical force. in many cases even before they read his work. What turned Plantinga’s still sedately academic response into the opening round of a media frenzy was the uptake in the press and on the Internet by those who felt that Nagel was being persecuted for his ideas by an oppressive academic orthodoxy. as several commentators have noted. not because Nagel has no arguments at his disposal but. The catalyst for the jump from agitated academic reception to mass media uproar may have been Harvard psychologist Steve Pinker’s tweeted response to the Leiter-Weisberg review: “What has gotten into Thomas Nagel? Two philosophers expose the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker. This one is short.blogspot.” to use Nagel’s own phrase from a 1997 essay. The most important intervention on the other side came from the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. whose extensive blog posts on the subject (“Nagel and his Critics”: edwardfeser. The journalists and the blog responders soon flooded the media with more rancorous representations. Plantinga made it clear in his review in The New Republic that he believed that Nagel should come all the way over to the side of religion. and a somewhat more tolerant online assessment by University of Exeter philosopher of science John Dupré. philosophers of science. Throughout his 128-page book. 2 . Of course. The language of “heresy” aimed to embarrass the allegedly “authoritarian” materialists in terms painfully invoking their own “fear of religion. most of Nagel’s books are short and philosophically dense.into what might be called the “heresy” discourse.” Foremost in this cadre was Edward Feser. in a dismissive review in The Nation by University of Chicago legal scholar Brian Leiter and University of Pennsylvania philosopher Michael Weisberg. The exasperated tone with which evolutionary scientists. but its density consists in as many pronouncements as arguments. and others on the side of science and philosophy received Nagel’s book was struck early. with whom Nagel had long been in dialogue. Nagel has deliberately incited all this.” Pinker’s tweet evoked a lot of heat from those who felt sympathy for Nagel. moral lawfulness). The result has been less than edifying. which has in fact dominated all subsequent reactions.com) stayed on a fairly high philosophical level. The media have run with this way of putting it ever since. consciousness. the “reductive materialists. he faults the adequacy of the current empirical science of evolution as well as the strategies of inquiry into areas that science has not yet successfully theorized (origin of life.

and here Nagel makes some interesting and important claims. in the Hegelian one. he maintains that philosophy is empowered “to recognize what can and cannot in principle be understood by certain methods. It is not that Nagel takes up these matters. 3 . the standards for explanation in science.. and still more.Still. this is a tactic that both gulls uninformed readers and annoys specialists in the glibness of its sweeping assertion. The upshot would put us near Hume’s naturalism. in terms of the modern Western philosophical tradition. but it remains—here.. is a manifesto. in short. that is. Yet in his elaboration. more or less unified understanding could take in the entire cosmos as we know it. the adequacy of current evolutionary theory as empirical science. This book. Locke’s proposal of a role for philosophy as “underlaborer” to science needs to be set against Plato’s vision of a philosopher-king. the formulation of what a unified theory should include. But in addition to the question of epistemology. a speculative conceptualization. finally. but how he does so. The subtitle has the pugnaciousness of a broadside pamphlet. and. In particular. The Role of Philosophy Nagel asserts that philosophy should “investigate the limits of even the best developed and most successful forms of contemporary scientific knowledge. The question is “whether any. but every proposed set of timeless and universal standards for valid knowledge has proved contingent and in need of revision. The style and the brevity suggest that Nagel aimed for a wide readership. Philosophy may indeed raise important scruples about particular arguments in terms of their unexamined premises or internal inconsistencies. one problem with Nagel is his complacency regarding philosophy’s entitlement to pronounce on the adequacy of every other form of human understanding.” Quite so. Nagel says something very important—an idea that inspires and regulates scientific enterprises. and even the internal history of the philosophy of science and of theory of knowledge (epistemology) more generally—rather grandiose. we can recognize in it a regulative ideal in the Kantian sense. the epistemic sovereignty of philosophy. the pervasive invocations of “common sense” hint at this rhetorical strategy. whether nature is goal driven. that has engendered the flap. Yet the issues Nagel raises deserve dispassionate reflection. Five stand out: the role of philosophy in relation to the sciences. Thus. I think. the question of metaphysics has been central to the Western philosophical tradition.” Totality (which has been a recurrent idea in Western metaphysics) may seem by now quite unattainable. So.” That notion of “in principle” seems—in light of the history of science. I believe. current science studies. the question of teleology.

when it arises. we cannot stop trying. there are three relevant constraints. these ideals serve essentially to guide inquiry. Just because one can conjure a logically possible alternative does not make this a meaningful challenge to an empirical scientific theory based on actual evidence.Of course.” and he proposes to “defend the untutored reaction of incredulity” since “available scientific evidence. has to be based ultimately on common sense. not personal dispositions. The rhetoric here might well elicit suspicion of demagoguery. The Standards for Explanation Nagel acknowledges “putting a great deal of weight on the idea of explanation. ideals are. Nagel cannot use this alternative to defend commonsense disbelief. concerned with procedure and not with substantive content. and the goal of intelligibility at which it aims. even the most far-reaching cosmological theories. the incredulity of common sense has been humbled repeatedly by science over the course of several centuries. does his invocation of “common sense” fit in? Nagel complains that current life science “flies in the face of common sense.” He presents the reader with a complex set of distinctions that 4 . in particular) to make. and. to evoke a rational requirement raises yet another philosophical conceit. Yet—and this is the decisive point for me—drawing the line limiting what one can possibly know is always contingent on a particular historical situation. Finally. To insinuate otherwise is Nagel at his incendiary worst. in all this. and that it is unlikely that we will ever know everything. Moreover. and on what is plainly undeniable. as Nagel insists. and Nagel is quite aware of each. First. everything we believe. They can never prove what they envision. But Nagel makes an even more provocative assertion in this vein: “After all. the best evidence we have of scientific validity is a consensus of scientific opinion.” Really? Is there anything commonsensical about quantum mechanics? And what right has common sense to sit in judgment here? Should we vote on the Higgs boson? Should we elevate “common sense” (whose? how established?) over scientific consensus on issues like global warming? To credit scientific consensus. it is unequivocally speculative. does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense. Still. We cannot know what we cannot know: all we can be sure of is that we don’t know yet. ultimately unattainable. They are methodological. Where. Hence.” This is an extraordinary claim for a serious philosopher (of science. On many incisive accounts. is not to submit uncritically to scientific authority. we should not. Second. Finally. when they do formulate content. It is to recognize that the resources for the appraisal of scientific claims are other scientific claims: evidence and analysis. in spite of the consensus of scientific opinion. by definition.

The crucial negative thrust of naturalistic explanation is to reject supernatural interventions. He himself admits to “trying to meet a set of conditions that seem jointly impossible. “Reduction” entails forms of explanation that are unidirectional in time. In practice.” not only in biology (evolution) but even in physics (cosmology). teleology. while certainly never contradicting the laws of physics.” I suspect that may not be coherent. which has definite negative and affirmative characteristics. Accordingly. And the very term model accentuates the constructive character of theory. move always from parts to wholes. geology. we will have to wrestle with Nagel’s commitment to the “transcendent.structure the balance of his argument. “an explanation must show why it was likely that an event of that type occurred. For theists.” Reductive explanatory models have been the basis for the triumph of the physical sciences since the seventeenth century. leaving four forms of explanation available to modern naturalistic understanding. as Nagel notes. Under the constitutive. the only resolution to the conundrums Nagel invokes is divine causation. and follow systematic.. What is the affirmative character of naturalistic explanation? Nagel distinguishes between “constitutive” and “historical” explanation. exemplified for Nagel in the laws of physics. is that a great deal in the natural world is simply resistant to such mechanistic. But we need to add that there has also been a propensity to shift the argument from models of causation to models of correlation. Constitutive explanation is the systematic formulation of laws that are true regardless of place or time. “special sciences” (chemistry. calling for a form of explanation at once “transcendent” and “naturalistic. universal rules.” Ultimately. biology) have formulated models at higher levels of organization which. to the annoyance of the otherwise sympathetic proponents of intelligent design. Nagel believes very seriously that “historical understanding is part of science.” Nagel happily affirms. just as the accounts have shifted from absolute claims to probabilistic ones. part-to-whole (“atomistic”) explanation. Modern science endeavors to discern the “intelligibility of the natural order. he discerns two varieties—“reduction” and “emergence”—and under the historical.. Hence. as Nagel emphasizes. The problem. historical explanation must complement constitutive explanation.” But let us begin with “naturalistic” explanation. But in addition to accepting such constitutive understanding. from within. minimizing the incongruity of “brute facts” by always applying to types. three varieties—efficient causation. Nagel constructs a schema of explanations in terms of these two dimensions. 5 . operate in the indeterminate spaces within these laws to establish patterns of higher-level order not apparent at the lower levels. but his acknowledged “fear of religion” stymies such a move. and divine intervention—but he dismisses the divine recourse.

the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes. But with that. they require empirical evidence and analysis.” In this “heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense. the notion of “emergence” tips toward an even larger and more controversial notion. “teleology. 6 .” but rather in his turn to rhetorical protests that “any resistance *to the idea of natural selection+ is regarded as not only scientifically but politically incorrect.” that is. and no doubt this was Nagel’s ambition. No issue in the book has kindled a greater firestorm of controversy. It is not unreasonable of Nagel to suggest that the sciences may need new frameworks if they are to advance in this endeavor. He finds it “prima facie highly implausible” that “a sequence of viable genetic mutations should have occurred that was sufficient to permit natural selection to produce the organisms that actually exist. The Adequacy of Evolutionary Theory Nagel is certainly correct to say that we have no viable theory of the origin of life. and “cause” and “history” as modes of understanding.” which will need separate consideration. Philosophy could be of aid in clarifying the research program through which to make needed advances.” he caustically alleges. The sciences have long wrestled (if hitherto without success) with the enormous difficulties facing any account of life’s emergence from inorganic matter according to existing laws of physics and chemistry. But Nagel’s rhetoric is hardly conducive to advancing dialogue. Nagel goes particularly overboard in disputing the case for natural selection in evolution.” He also observes that “the more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code. how entities or events develop and maintain themselves according to internal principles. on the ground that anything else would not be science. to be credible.” Resorting to an ideological argument here constitutes an evasion of the empirical-scientific one. Perhaps we need to reappraise our notions of “life” and “matter” as objects. offers a cardinal instance.” These are judgments about an empirical science.” Nagel’s other variety of constitutive explanation. To invoke a standard of “prima facie” plausibility—whatever that may be—simply begs many questions.That is the essential meaning of “emergence. “almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct. This is most evident not in his concession that “this is just the opinion of a layman. Nagel’s footnote gesture to the literature is woefully insufficient for so drastic an assertion. The recent rise of scientific theories of “self-organization.

and they have. his hopes are pinned on “finding an integrated naturalistic explanation of a new kind” that would recognize a systematic propensity not only toward complexity (already a plausible if contested notion in the sciences) but toward life. concerning natural selection. have a perfectly viable third-person explanation of these so-called realities in terms of physical laws. as even Nagel concedes. and rationality—in Roger White’s phrase.” So what is going on here? Nagel appears to be willfully aiding and abetting what he calls the “skepticism” of partisans of intelligent design. and it has established measures of evidential and statistical support that cannot be dismissed on a personal whim. and value. 7 . we must make sense of “the reality of such features of our world as consciousness. not laypeople. not supplant. Advocates of neuroscience and artificial intelligence insist that they will.” Scientists. for him. intentionality.” Nagel writes. confirm scientific hypotheses. natural selection in the explanation of evolution. consciousness. meaning. an odd choice of words.” In what seems.” and such a view simply ignores these nonmaterial dimensions of the human world. how will their immense body of truth be combined with other elements in an expanded conception of the natural order that can accommodate those things?” The Scope of a Unified Theory of the “World” “We humans are parts of the world. That is. a world “biased toward the marvelous. thought.” Above all. Nagel wants science to acknowledge that “organisms with mental life are not miraculous anomalies but an integral part of nature.The theory of evolution by natural selection has been nuanced and revised in the century and a half since Darwin proposed it. he adds that “that is part of the true external understanding of ourselves. someday. but. But what he really wants is to supplement.” For Nagel. descended from bacteria over billions of years of natural selection. it has achieved extensive scientific consensus in this modified form. Therefore. Even Nagel maintains that “we are products of the long history of the universe since the big bang.” (Nagel acknowledges White as one of the two most important influences on the composition of his book. It is an impertinence to term it merely “an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis. “materialism is the view that only the physical world is irreducibly real. purpose. and the desire for a unified world picture is irrepressible.) All of Nagel’s vitriol against “reductionist materialism” is in service to his aspiration toward a more holistic understanding of our world: “If physics and chemistry cannot fully account for life and consciousness.

Of course. Of course.” it seems more prudent to adopt a deflationary stance toward these extravagant notions of “truth” and “reason. The second is more ontological. meaning. conventionally termed normativity. which exercises a causal influence on us. For the moment. but a very difficult one. Nagel wants to go for more than just consciousness.” that it “should not be construed in terms of an extra metaphysical component of the world. Might all these realities belong to that “third world” of objectivity conjured by Karl Popper? Rather than follow Nagel in conceiving of reason as “an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value. Nothing in that arsenal need be “timeless. not a prohibition. these philosophical issues cannot be settled in a review essay. Instead. such science is indisputably in its infancy. Nagel is a metaphysical rationalist in at least two senses. fallibility) and ontological economy (one world. expanding the set of things that really exist. upon moral realism. The reason for trust is simply success in use. triggering a strong reaction from Daniel Dennett in defense of reductionism. and value. have made more extensive arguments along these lines. The starting point is this powerful proposition: “The intelligibility of the world is no accident.” I find this a mystifying conception of reality. his concern extends to “intentionality. And that gives Nagel credibility in claiming that consciousness is “the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism. affirming the real power of rational rules in logic or moral choice.” rather than accept that “the distinctive thing about reason is that it connects us with the truth directly. not transcendent illumination.” such as David Chalmers. There cannot even be a 8 . He maintains that such “realism does not add anything to the catalogue of entities or properties. we must take the “hard problem” of consciousness as just that: a problem. To conclude as much is not to deny the possibility.” That is. but it does deflate the present value of the promissory note. nature is at least in some measure rationally comprehensible. let us see how Nagel’s metaphysical rationalism motivates his overarching concerns in Mind and Cosmos. As I have noted. given current science. The first has a more epistemological tenor. Nagel insists upon the reality of the “timeless domains of logic and mathematics. not Popper’s three).” yet we have strong reason to trust in it as the best resource currently available.” Thus we come to the crucial issue of the transcendent. thought. recognizes that our arsenal of rational-logical and moral presuppositions has grown (and changed) over time.But promises are cheap. purpose.” and. even more extravagantly. but all in a largely academic context. I think. on the grounds of epistemological humility (contingency.” Other proponents of the “hard problem.” I find more philosophically viable a pragmatism that.

.” And yet he writes. of course. for this proved a cosmically distinctive occurrence by virtue of our capacity to theorize that cosmos. as Nagel says. “it is trivially true that if there are organisms capable of reason.” yet “the development of value and moral understanding.hope for science without this premise. we are part of the natural world.” We owe ourselves an account of “how the natural order is disposed to generate beings capable of comprehending it. and the rational is actual.” He further reasons that “the appearance of reason and language in the course of biological history seems.” That leans too far toward suggesting (as the absolute idealists clearly did) that evolution was aimed precisely at us. We are only ineptly construed as it. and with them a metaphysical vision of natura naturans from Spinoza: “the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself. But if we believe in a natural order. or even to think about it.” And that is the heart of the matter: “The ability of creatures like us to arrive at such truth.” The metaphysical point Nagel is conceiving here was put succinctly by Hegel long ago: the actual is rational. requires explanation. In Nagel’s words. At the same time. the possibility of such organisms must have been there from the beginning. is the latest stage in the evolution of physical organisms. nature has generated creatures capable of rationally comprehending it. man as a “thinking reed.. Blaise Pascal’s profound register for human dignity (and misery).. It suffices that we happened. like the development of knowledge and reason and the development of consciousness that underlies both these higher-order functions. something. “Nature is such as to give rise to conscious beings with minds..” 9 . and it is such as to be comprehensible to such beings..” This romantic re-enchantment of the world will surely incite many a protest not only about exceeding the reach of human understanding but also about exaggerating the importance of our participation in cosmic self-realization. must explain this possibility. and that we have science is the strongest evidence of its plausibility. a viewpoint that drastically overestimates our biological salience. from the point of view of available forms of explanation. Science only exists as our rational act. How can all this be? Now. Nagel denies falling into this “anthropocentric triumphalism. Nagel recognizes that in his commitment to the principle of sufficient reason he is indeed approaching the German absolute idealists. forms part of what a general conception of the cosmos must explain.” To treat that condition humaine as illusion is to rob science literally of its raison d’être... And yet. to be sure. “The evolution of mind. something radically emergent. We don’t need to presume that we are the purpose of the evolution of life on earth. The paradox binding our arbitrary emergence in time and space with our unique capacity to grapple conceptually with an encompassing infinity was.

” That is. the only adequate form of historical explanation seems to Nagel to be teleological: “a cosmic predisposition to the formation of life. within the constitutive order of explanation. here we find a tacit revival of his theory of the elementary constitution of the world by immaterial points of force in his Monadology! The problem is.” The key contention is that “in addition to the laws governing the behavior of the elements [of nature] in every circumstance.” In exploring such possibilities. but “without depending on intentions or motives. to natural teleology. Nagel is taking up metaphysical lines that stretch back far into the Western tradition. as the least difficult solution. Teleology Nagel candidly acknowledges the sketchiness of his evocation of “natural teleology. if earlier we recognized Nagel’s explicit affirmation of Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason. consciousness.Nagel conceives.. a “neutral monism” that holds that “constituents of the universe have properties *already at the micro level+ that explain not only its physical but its mental character”—that is. at last. constitutive explanation in the sciences needs to be extended from “reductive” to “emergent” strategies.” Hence. and constitutive explanation must be supplemented by historical explanation.” We have come. 10 . there are also principles of self-organization or of the development of complexity over time that are not explained by those elemental laws.” which he terms a “throwback to the Aristotelian conception of nature.. In particular. that at the lower level there are “no predictable local effects. over geological time?” Accordingly. there is no historical model based on efficient causation that suffices: “How can a nonmaterialist monism help to explain its appearance in actuality. “requiring the smallest alteration to the prevailing physical form of naturalism. as Nagel understands it. Teleology. and the value that is inseparable from them. This would enable a “reductive” constitutive explanation to be linked to an efficient-causal historical explanation.” and no “compositional explanation” for their aggregation into wholes at higher levels. first. it governs the way in which things develop over time. the path they are most likely to follow to selfrealization. while nevertheless acknowledging the irreducibility of the mental to the physical. But second. constrains the set of future possibilities. “reductive” models prove insufficient and “emergent” ones appear necessary. every basic building block of the universe has not only physical but immaterial properties. That is. which allow them *the basic building blocks+ to be detected individually. making some more likely.

and it matters—to the organism. It is yet another emergent phenomenon in the line from life through consciousness to reason and culture. If humans are the only beings that we know are capable of recognizing or characterizing this organismic agency. Instead.” for short) elaborates important new lines of inquiry into self-organization in life forms. That much of this remains highly speculative can simply be explained by the inevitable need of science to imagine new patterns of order driven by recalcitrant anomalies but inspired by paradigmatic precedents.” By providing the “irreducible principles governing temporally extended development. since for a living being things can either go well or not. lies the prospect for a legitimate elaboration of theory and empirical research toward a more encompassing grasp of emergent complexities in organic life. Science is as developmental and path dependent as organismic life. we discern it in all life. the organism can thrive or perish. even without conscious intention. Recent developments in biology—from evolutionary developmental biology to systems biology—have reintroduced a strong sense of self-organization that makes teleology—a natural teleology.” natural teleology serves as the indispensable historical counterpart to constitutive explanation. He expresses deep ambivalence about this “Aristotelian idea of teleology without intention. if I may invoke the ideas of Thomas Kuhn. transfigures our sense of the physical world. that is. The legacy of Ilya Prigogine concerning “dissipative structures” and the subsequent articulation of “complexity” theories and “chaos” theories in cosmology represent one line.” Such “teleological speculations. particularly living things. Nagel proposes that organic agency—extending vastly beyond the human—offers us empirically observable things that show that value is present in the world. Natural teleology in organic life involves a value dimension. we are not alone in actualizing it. Here are the avenues that might help us move toward closing the great gaps in current understanding. if anywhere. Here. The work of Stuart Kauffman on self-organization is particularly exemplary and exciting in this area. organs can function properly or not. and to its ecosystem. In biological theory. The whole new direction represented by evolutionary developmental biology (“evo-devo. Teleology as the goal-driven self-organization of specific parts of the universe. Mary Jane West-Eberhard intervenes powerfully with Developmental Plasticity and Evolution. Strikingly. the ideas of Susan Oyama and her colleagues in “developmental systems biology” are another line of great interest.Nagel calls such teleological principles “laws of the self-organization of matter.” he 11 . But Nagel backs away from embracing all this. one that does not require an external designer but designs its own course—an important internal theoretical issue in life science.

as Kant argued long ago. and his book has done nothing but entrench established biases on all sides. we certainly want something more than a “brute fact. Elliott Sober’s suggestion that Nagel’s intervention will prove merely a “hiccup” in the forward impetus of science seems the most plausible assessment. authoritarian ideology. without needing to have “significant likelihood” approaching the “unsurprising if not inevitable. But we appear to have lost the opportunity Nagel rather left-handedly offered us to consider—“without either bitterness or partiality. Thus. And. we just don’t have it. or “singularities. were “offered merely as possibilities. Nagel wants general theories about things we have no evidence about beyond their singular emergence on this planet. without positive conviction. Concluding Thoughts on the Controversy Nagel conveys a sense of the intellectual landscape as one dominated by a single.” “an unsurprising if not inevitable consequence of the order that governs the natural world from within.” Yet it does not seem to me that either philosophy or empirical science needs so stringent a stipulation. in every direction. Zammito is the John Antony Weir Professor of History at Rice University.” Life is a singularity: it is one (continuous) event.” But the landscape is far more variegated.acknowledges. empirically.”as Tacitus put it long ago—the challenging frontiers of current knowledge.” Scientific theory has already conceptualized local regions of negative entropy in the physical world (the “dissipative structures” discussed by Prigogine and Schieve). 12 . value] was not vanishingly improbable but a significant likelihood given the laws of nature and the composition of the universe. Actuality is all we need. Still. Nagel wants an explanation that would “show that the realization of these possibilities *of life. we have a set of theoretical possibilities for natural teleology. John H. He is the author of A Nice Derangement of Epistemes: Post-Positivism in the Study of Science from Quine to Latour (2004) and Kant.” Moreover.” That is “not reassuring enough. We need to clarify this as possibility. but it may well be for empirical science. And. features that appear more elaborate in living things. we don’t need high probability.” Nagel resists the notion of “consciousness as a mysterious side effect of biological evolution. Hard lines hardened: that is the upshot. reason. consciousness. and the Birth of Anthropology (2002). “reductionist materialism. human rationality is also a singularity. Herder. These seem to demonstrate. We have only unique occurrences.” This may not be “reassuring enough” for Nagel. in the inanimate world.