Cognition as a Further Explanatory Gap in Thomas Nagel’s Understanding of Naturalism
The so-called explanatory gap between the physical and the mental has prompted still ongoing epistemological and ontological discussions. However, at least two very different mental states are usually conflated in the debate: phenomenal experience —including emotions and feelings—, which reveals an unavoidable subjective character, and mental acts that attain objective truth. One notable exception is Thomas Nagel, who insists with equal emphasis on both the subjective nature of phenomenal experience and the mind’s capacity to transcend it and grasp objective, timeless truth. In Mind and Cosmos he actually describes four explanatory gaps in traditional naturalism, requiring an expanded set of concepts and ontological principles: 1) from matter to life; 2) from life to sentience; 3) from sentience to cognition; 4) from cognition to value. I will focus on cognition as distinct from sentience, since that gap clarifies the abovementioned distinction and reveals more clearly the need of a richer ontology. Nagel argues also that the appearance of mind and rationality in the universe is not accidental and requires a teleology that is part of the natural order. Nonetheless, a further explanation of truth objectively considered is missing in Nagel’s account and therefore of why mind would be so central in a metaphysical consideration of nature. I will also give some reasons why Nagel’s rejection of theism and his preference for a naturalistic explanation of the universe rest on some misunderstandings, which, duly answered, may also explain the special place of mind in nature.