The Hubris of Thomas Nagel's New Book Title

Thomas Nagel has a new book coming out in September, titled Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. To me, this is such a ridiculous title. Of course, it’s not surprising coming from Nagel given all his previous work, but still, “almost certainly false”? Where does he get off with such an overblown title? I wonder if his editors changed it in order to be more “punchy”. I look forward to reading it nevertheless, but I can’t imagine there will be any new arguments that haven’t already been responded to by materialists ad nauseam.

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7 responses to “The Hubris of Thomas Nagel's New Book Title

  1. Nick

    Do you feel the same way about The God Delusion? A title which doesn’t even include the qualifier “almost” and, in its choice of “delusion” over “illusion”, implies that religious people cannot see what is basically in front of their faces?

    Perhaps, though, professional philosophers should hold themselves to higher standards. Yet, it is worth noting that this is an intellectual climate in which materialistically-minded thinkers have seen fit to publish books with equally provocative titles. Nagel may simply be playing by those rules, and one hopes that there are no double-standards operating, here.

    • Gary Williams

      Hi Nick,

      That’s a very good question. It almost certainly seems the case that Dawkins chose his title in order to be “punchy” and sell a lot of copies. However, it is difficult for me to be unbiased here given that I am an atheist, and thus agree with the substantive (but maybe not rhetorical) conclusions of Dawkins (i.e. the Christian God, in all likelihood, does not exist). Regardless, there is no doubt that there is a lot of hubris in Dawkin’s title. Perhaps it would have been more intellectually humble for Dawkin’s to title his book differently. Given the difficulties of proving Deism to be 100% false, Dawkins might have been been better off saying something like “The Yahweh Delusion” or “The Anthropomorphic Conception of God Delusion”, but that’s not as catchy.

      However, with that said, I think there is a difference with Nagel’s title insofar as he claims that “Neo-Darwinism” is almost certainly false. If he had just said “Why Materialism is False” I wouldn’t have been as bothered given the controversies of materialism in philosophy of mind, but the fact that he throws in Darwinism too irks me. Anytime a philosopher seeks to undermine a theory with as much scientific support as evolution, my red flag goes off. Similarly with Jerry Fodor’s recent attempt to show the wrongheadedness of natural selection. It’s one thing to go after materialism, but evolution as well? Even if he is not ultimately questioning the established facts of evolutionary theory, the title, to me, implies an attempt to show-up scientists in their own game.

      Also, out of curiosity, besides New Atheists like Dawkins, what professional materialists philosopher have written books with equally provocative titles with claims like “almost certainly false” in them?

      • Nick

        I suppose I would argue that no “important” intellectual (scientist or philosopher) should succumb to the temptation to sell 25% more copies via a punchy, misleading title. It’s not going to stop happening, but that’s what I think, and someone of Nagel’s stature should have known better. I don’t know of any materialist philosophers who have done this, which is a good thing.

        However, I’m not sure that I’m totally clear on your objection to Nagel’s title. Surely, it can’t be wrong for someone who is arguing against neo-Darwinism (which, by the way, is just a particular dominant strand of Darwinism, not the whole of evolutionary theory) to include the fact that they are arguing against neo-Darwinism in the title. Typically, philosophical objections to neo-Darwinism accuse its proponents of being conceptually confused, or of drawing philosophical conclusions from their explanatory models which do not follow. While I think it’s ridiculous for a philosopher to question, say, the fact that generations of fruit flies evolve in laboratory conditions, I do *not* think it’s ridiculous for a philosopher to question the commone neo-Darwinian assertion that, say, all of our mental capacities can be explained by natural selection. That is a philosophical thesis that can be attacked by a philosopher, and I bet that’s what Nagel’s going to do. In short, I think his title is needlessly provocative, but I don’t agree that he should not be allowed to raise the quesetion of the truth of neo-Darwinism in his title. You seem to think that this is out of bounds for a philosopher, but I’m not seeing why, because the boundaries between science and philosophy are very murky, here.

      • Gary Williams

        Hi Nick,

        You’re right, it’s fair game to attack Neo-Darwinianism insofar as it is just one strand of evolutionary theory. However, I think you and I both know that Nagel was fully aware that some naive persons (e.g. Creationists or IDers) might be scanning the title of the book, see that he is a famous philosopher, and conclude “Well gee, Mr Nagel thinks Neo-Darwinianism is bunk, therefore all of evolution is bogus and I dont have to listen to these scientists!”

        To the naive mind, there is no difference between “modern evolutionary theory (broadly construed)” and “Neo-Darwinism”. Thinking that Neo-Darwinism is the only game in town, they might take a book jacket perusal and conclude all of evolution is bogus since a well-respected philosopher like Nagel is saying “it’s almost certainly false”.

        So although I know Nagel isn’t himself a Creationist or IDer, but his provocative title is ripe for such persons to take the wrong conclusion from his book.

      • Nick

        Hi Gary,

        Yes, I was going to mention that very issue: for some, the fact that creationists could use Nagel’s book as fodder is of overriding importance, because that political battle is, for them, more important than any debate within the circle of those who accept the theory of evolution, broadly speaking. I’m always interested to know how those people reconcile their respect for “scientific reason” with this desire to muzzle opponents who might be misinterpreted by stupid people. One of the great methodological principles of modern science is that the “best ideas win”, any hypothesis can (and should) be on the table, in principle. So, it is odd to profess respect for the scientific method, on the one hand, and then to let politics decide what various intellectuals can and can not say, on the other.

        As difficult as it is, I think we’re honor-bound to let Nagel say what he wants to say, even if it means claiming that neo-Darwinism is wrong in his title, even if it means that stupid people will “use” the title in ridiculous ways. To say otherwise is to silently undermine a foundational principle of scientific inquiry.

  2. Matt Sigl

    The title strikes me as straightforward. Certainly it describes what he intends the book to be and the “almost certainly” implies that he thinks his arguments are deeply persuading and unambiguous. Maybe he’s wrong, maybe he’s right, but you can’t knock a guy for naming a book that clearly delineates a POV. For that matter, Dawkins’ title was well-selected too.

  3. Pingback: Weisberg and Leiter’s review of Thomas Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos | Minds and Brains

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