The philosopher's critique of evolution wasn't shocking. So why have his colleagues raked him over the coals?
Thomas Nagel is a leading figure in philosophy, now enjoying the title of university professor at New York University, a testament to the scope and influence of his work. His 1974 essay "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" has been read by legions of undergraduates, with its argument that the inner experience of a brain is truly knowable only to that brain. Since then he has published 11 books, on philosophy of mind, ethics, and epistemology.
But Nagel's academic golden years are less peaceful than he might have wished. His latest book, Mind and Cosmos (Oxford University Press, 2012), has been greeted by a storm of rebuttals, ripostes, and pure snark. "The shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker," Steven Pinker tweeted. The Weekly Standard quoted the philosopher Daniel Dennett calling Nagel a member of a "retrograde gang" whose work "isn't worth anything—it's cute and it's clever and it's not worth a damn."
The critics have focused much of their ire on what Nagel calls "natural teleology," the hypothesis that the universe has an internal logic that inevitably drives matter from nonliving to living, from simple to complex, from chemistry to consciousness, from instinctual to intellectual.