The Philosophy Café

this month's topic:

Thomas Nagel and the Teleological Hypothesis


January 23, 2013
8:30 PM


Used Books Department
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138


This event is free; no tickets are required.

The Philosophy Café at Harvard Book Store is a monthly gathering meant for the informal, relaxed, philosophical discussion of topics of mutual interest to participants. No particular expertise is required to participate, only a desire to explore philosophy and its real-world applications. More information can be found at

The Philosophy Café is held on the third Wednesday of each month at 7:30 in the Used Book department on the lower level of Harvard Book Store.

This month:

Most of us think of natural processes as being without intent or purpose. True, when continents drift and collide, mountains form. But continents are not thought of drifting in order to form mountains – that’s just a byproduct of their drift. Similarly, according to Darwinian theory, sentient beings such as ourselves are the products of millions of years of evolution. But evolution did not intend to create sentient beings – again it was just one of the results of the application of blind forces. Or was it?

Thomas Nagel, a philosopher at NYU, would like to challenge the view that evolution is blind and without purpose or goal. In his teleological hypothesis, he posits that the theory of  evolution as currently understood is incomplete. A complete theory of evolution would be goal-based rather than blind.

Of course teleology is usually associated with theism. For example Francis Collins, a biologist as well as a committed Christian, believes that evolution is nothing more than God’s method for creating life on Earth. It is teleological in that God fully foresaw the results of the evolutionary process and decided to use it because it fulfilled His purpose.

However Nagel is an atheist and so his teleology is non-theistic. He is a believer in the essential correctness of the theory of evolution. However it is his instinct that Darwinian evolution based only on chance to produce variation is inadequate to explain the diversity and complexity we see and has utterly failed to explain the emergence of consciousness and conscious experience. So his favored theory would be an evolution which incorporates some kind of teleological principle. As he puts it

Teleological laws would assign a higher probability to steps in state space that have a higher “velocity” toward certain outcomes.   . . .

This is a frankly teleological hypothesis because the preferred transitions do not have a higher probability because of their immediate characteristics, but only in virtue of temporally extended developments of which they form a potential part. [Nagel: Mind and Cosmos, p. 93]

He freely admits that an evolutionary theory based 0n purpose does not currently exist. However he is confident that if it could be developed it would explain not only conscious experience, but all of cognition and even the existence of value and morality as well.

In our discussion, we will consider how Nagel’s dissatisfaction with present explanations for the rise of consciousness, morality and value lead to his teleological hypothesis. We will also consider some of the other popular competitors to Nagel’s theory, including a weaker form of Cartesian dualism called property dualism, panpsychism and physicalism.  



Thomas Nagel: Mind and Cosmos

Thomas Nagel: What it is Like to be a Bat

Wikipedia: Panpsychism

Laura Truman: A Zombie, a Bat, and a Metaphysicist Walk into a Bar:  Property Dualism Examined

Used Books Department
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138

Walking from the Harvard Square T station: 2 minutes

As you exit the station, reverse your direction and walk east along Mass. Ave. in front of the Cambridge Savings Bank. Cross Dunster St. and proceed along Mass. Ave for three more blocks. You will pass Au Bon Pain, JP Licks, and the Adidas Store. Harvard Book Store is located at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Plympton St.

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