March 16, 2013

RAGING AGAINST GOD:

The Heretic : Who is Thomas Nagel and why are so many of his fellow academics condemning him? (Andrew Ferguson, March 25, 2013, Weekly Standard)

"Evolutionists," one reviewer huffily wrote, "will feel they've been ravaged by a sheep." Many reviewers attacked the book on cultural as well as philosophical or scientific grounds, wondering aloud how a distinguished house like Oxford University Press could allow such a book to be published. The Philosophers' Magazine described it with the curious word "irresponsible." How so? In Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, the British philosopher John Dupré explained. Mind and Cosmos, he wrote, "will certainly lend comfort (and sell a lot of copies) to the religious enemies of Darwinism." Simon Blackburn of Cambridge University made the same point: "I regret the appearance of this book. It will only bring comfort to creationists and fans of 'intelligent design.' "

But what about fans of apostasy? You don't have to be a biblical fundamentalist or a young-earth creationist or an intelligent design enthusiast--I'm none of the above, for what it's worth--to find Mind and Cosmos exhilarating. "For a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe," Nagel writes. "It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection." The prima facie impression, reinforced by common sense, should carry more weight than the clerisy gives it. "I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life."  

The incredulity is not simply a matter of scientific ignorance, as the materialists would have it. It arises from something more fundamental and intimate. The neo-Darwinian materialist account offers a picture of the world that is unrecognizable to us--a world without color or sound, and also a world without free will or consciousness or good and evil or selves or, when it comes to that, selflessness. "It flies in the face of common sense," he says. Materialism is an explanation for a world we don't live in.

Nagel's tone is measured and tentative, but there's no disguising the book's renegade quality. There are flashes of exasperation and dismissive impatience. What's exhilarating is that the source of Nagel's exasperation is, so to speak, his own tribe: the "secular theoretical establishment and the contemporary enlightened culture which it dominates." The establishment today, he says, is devoted beyond all reason to a "dominant scientific naturalism, heavily dependent on Darwinian explanations of practically everything, and armed to the teeth against attacks from religion." I'm sure Nagel would recoil at the phrase, but Mind and Cosmos is a work of philosophical populism, defending our everyday understanding from the highly implausible worldview of a secular clerisy. His working assumption is, in today's intellectual climate, radical: If the materialist, neo-Darwinian orthodoxy contradicts common sense, then this is a mark against the orthodoxy, not against common sense. When a chain of reasoning leads us to deny the obvious, we should double-check the chain of reasoning before we give up on the obvious. 

Nagel follows the materialist chain of reasoning all the way into the cul de sac where it inevitably winds up. Nagel's touchier critics have accused him of launching an assault on science, when really it is an assault on the nonscientific uses to which materialism has been put. Though he does praise intelligent design advocates for having the nerve to annoy the secular establishment, he's no creationist himself. He has no doubt that "we are products of the long history of the universe since the big bang, descended from bacteria through millions of years of natural selection." And he assumes that the self and the body go together. "So far as we can tell," he writes, "our mental lives, including our subjective experiences, and those of other creatures are strongly connected with and probably strictly dependent on physical events in our brains and on the physical interaction of our bodies with the rest of the physical world." To believe otherwise is to believe, as the materialists derisively say, in "spooky stuff." (Along with jumped-up monkeys and moist robots and countless other much-too-cute phrases, the use of spooky stuff proves that our popular science writers have spent a lot of time watching Scooby-Doo.) Nagel doesn't believe in spooky stuff.

Materialism, then, is fine as far as it goes. It just doesn't go as far as materialists want it to. It is a premise of science, not a finding. Scientists do their work by assuming that every phenomenon can be reduced to a material, mechanistic cause and by excluding any possibility of nonmaterial explanations. And the materialist assumption works really, really well--in detecting and quantifying things that have a material or mechanistic explanation. Materialism has allowed us to predict and control what happens in nature with astonishing success. The jaw-dropping edifice of modern science, from space probes to nanosurgery, is the result. 

But the success has gone to the materialists' heads. From a fruitful method, materialism becomes an axiom: If science can't quantify something, it doesn't exist, and so the subjective, unquantifiable, immaterial "manifest image" of our mental life is proved to be an illusion.

Here materialism bumps up against itself. Nagel insists that we know some things to exist even if materialism omits or ignores or is oblivious to them. Reductive materialism doesn't account for the "brute facts" of existence--it doesn't explain, for example, why the world exists at all, or how life arose from nonlife. Closer to home, it doesn't plausibly explain the fundamental beliefs we rely on as we go about our everyday business: the truth of our subjective experience, our ability to reason, our capacity to recognize that some acts are virtuous and others aren't. These failures, Nagel says, aren't just temporary gaps in our knowledge, waiting to be filled in by new discoveries in science. On its own terms, materialism cannot account for brute facts. Brute facts are irreducible, and materialism, which operates by breaking things down to their physical components, stands useless before them. "There is little or no possibility," he writes, "that these facts depend on nothing but the laws of physics."  [...]

Applied beyond its own usefulness as a scientific methodology, materialism is, as Nagel suggests, self-evidently absurd. Mind and Cosmos can be read as an extended paraphrase of Orwell's famous insult: "One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool." Materialism can only be taken seriously as a philosophy through a heroic feat of cognitive dissonance; pretending, in our abstract, intellectual life, that values like truth and goodness have no objective content even as, in our private life, we try to learn what's really true and behave in a way we know to be good. Nagel has sealed his ostracism from the intelligentsia by idly speculating why his fellow intellectuals would undertake such a feat. 

"The priority given to evolutionary naturalism in the face of its implausible conclusions," he writes, "is due, I think, to the secular consensus that this is the only form of external understanding of ourselves that provides an alternative to theism."

In a recent review in the New York Review of Books of Where the Conflict Really Lies, by the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, Nagel told how instinctively he recoils from theism, and how hungry he is for a reasonable alternative. "If I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true," he wrote, "the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith." He admits that he finds the evident failure of materialism as a worldview alarming--precisely because the alternative is, for a secular intellectual, unthinkable. He calls this intellectual tic "fear of religion." 

"I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear," he wrote not long ago in an essay called "Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion." "I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that."

Nagel believes this "cosmic authority problem" is widely shared among intellectuals, and I believe him. It accounts for the stubbornness with which they cling to materialism--and for the hostility that greets an intellectual who starts to wander off from the herd. Materialism must be true because it "liberates us from religion." The positive mission Nagel undertakes in Mind and Cosmos is to outline, cautiously, a possible Third Way between theism and materialism, given that the first is unacceptable--emotionally, if not intellectually--and the second is untenable. Perhaps matter itself has a bias toward producing conscious creatures. Nature in that case would be "teleological"--not random, not fully subject to chance, but tending toward a particular end. Our mental life would be accounted for--phew!--without reference to God. 

I don't think Nagel succeeds in finding his Third Way, and I doubt he or his successors ever will, but then I have biases of my own. There's no doubting the honesty and intellectual courage--the free thinking and ennobling good faith--that shine through his attempt.

The Darwinists are like those Japanese soldiers left behind on tiny islands -- they're the last ones to hear that the war is over and their side was annihilated.


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Posted by at March 16, 2013 6:47 AM
  
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