Thomas Nagel: a heretic amongst heretics?

There’s a fantastic article at The Weekly Standard about Thomas Nagel. Nagel may not be as much of a household name as Dawkins, but he is probably America’s most prominent philosopher and a serious intellectual heavyweight. But his latest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, was roundly attacked by the self-proclaimed “brights” of atheism. In short, Nagel thinks that the worldview of philosophical materialism is wrong, despite being a very useful presupposition of science. For voicing these thoughts, Nagel has been branded a heretic by his fellow atheists.

The most interesting aspect of this drama is that Nagel is actually just voicing what every one of those critics believes. Or at least, he’s voicing the line of thought that is revealed by their actions. Because nobody actually lives as if materialism were true (unless they are certifiably insane). As the article puts it:

As a philosophy of everything [materialism] is an undeniable drag. As a way of life it would be even worse. Fortunately, materialism is never translated into life as it’s lived. As colleagues and friends, husbands and mothers, wives and fathers, sons and daughters, materialists never put their money where their mouth is. Nobody thinks his daughter is just molecules in motion and nothing but; nobody thinks the Holocaust was evil, but only in a relative, provisional sense. A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions—understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots—wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath.

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.”

Apparently, the acceptance by “freethinkers” is contingent on your committment to the idea that thinking freely is impossible.


P.S. – For anyone wanting a more in-depth review of Nagel’s work and the criticisms it has attracted, check out the posts by Edward Feser on the subject.



10 thoughts on “Thomas Nagel: a heretic amongst heretics?

  1. Nagel assures us that this book “is just the opinion of a layman who reads widely in the literature that explains contemporary science to the nonspecialist.” And he repeats throughout it that his central objection is that much of science “lies in the face of common sense,” that it is inconsistent with “evident facts about ourselves, that it “require[s] us to deny the obvious,” and so on.

    This is why most reviewers pillory this philosophical book, not because they – like Nagel – continues the confusion between the principle of reducing all sciences to physics (which is materialism) and the attempt to do so. Simply put, emergent properties of complex biology must be consistent with the laws of physics if we are to claim to know anything about them. Rejecting this philosophical approach to materialism thus negates all claims to knowledge based on what works for everyone everywhere all the time, but this is exactly what Nagel would have us do. You can reject materialism on philosophical grounds, sure, but that means you must also then throw away all knowledge based on it. Nagel doesn’t explain this.

    The central criticism of Nagel’s book is that he transports his philosophical problem with materialism to naturalism as an essential component of scientific methodology, meaning our approach to understanding natural processes described by the various sciences regardless must be done whether they are reducible to physics alone or not. And it is here where critics find a rich vein to mine: materialism and naturalism need no a priori philosophical justification as Nagel insists they must, but are fully justified by their fruits, by explanations and understandings of natural processes that consistently and reliably work for everyone everywhere all the time. This success Nagel utterly fails to address in his quest to be the philosopher king. In fact, what he is suggesting is that we really should abandon a massively successful scientific research program because he finds some scientific claims hard to square with what he thinks is obvious and “undeniable,” such as his confidence that his “clearest moral…reasonings are objectively valid”?

    What Nagel is arguing is that a massively successful scientific research program like the one inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection “is almost certainly false” on philosophical grounds… not because of any compelling evidence or competing explanation to suggest as much but because it will help sell books to those who wish to substantiate by any means available scientific results they don’t like, such as evolution deniers, intelligent-design supporters, religious creationists, and others who are not at all interested in understanding the substantive issues and consequences under review.

    That’s why the book has been pulverized by real scientists busy extracting knowledge from reality that is then successfully applied to our technologies, applications, and therapies that dare to work for everyone everywhere all the time.

    • As if on cue, the defense springs forth…

      This is ridiculous. He doesn’t make any suggestion about “abandoning scientific research”. He’s just pointing out that materialism can never be a “claim” of science, as you call it, as it is a presupposition of science.

      And thus it’s absurd to say that materialism is “fully justified by its fruits”. Based on a presupposition of materialism, all phenomena which are explored by materialist methodology are found to be material. That’s not a discovery, that’s just how presuppositions work.

      • But it’s not just a presupposition, Sentinel, in which case your criticism would stand: it is revealed as a post hoc justification to be valid. The validity is not based on the presupposition, on the assumption of naturalism (let’s keep our terms clear) to be true; its validity is based on what works.

        Because naturalism works extraordinarily well to produce knowledge, this helps fortify the principle of materialism. If you’re willing to abandon the principle of materialism, then you are going to undermine (methodological) naturalism. That’s the heart of the epistemology of science. If you undermine naturalism, then you’re going to have to explain how and why and by what associated mechanism causal effect seems to have worked so remarkably well! And this is exactly what Nagel is trying to argue we should do!

      • tildeb: [naturalism] is not just a presupposition… it is revealed as a post hoc justification to be valid.

        This is logically incoherent. No presupposition can be shown to be valid from within a system that incorporates that presupposition. You are saying, in effect: “Based on scientific evidence, science proves that the assumptions of science are valid.” This makes no sense. (Unless, of course, you’ve taken a huge change of tack and are accepting non-scientific evidence as capable of proving anything).

        Of course, by engaging in this conversation at all, I’m assuming that naturalism is not true. Because if it is, then everything must be reducible to physics. And then you have no free will, no agency, and no thought. You are just a moist robot. In which case you are unable to exercise your free will and thought processes in a constructive conversation. Which would mean that the discussion is a waste of time.

        Which was kind of the point of Nagel’s book.

      • Yes, I’ve come across this identical argument to ‘explain’ how we can’t logically justify the use of numbers because the notion of quantity cannot be both a presupposition as well as a part of the explanation.

        Perhaps it might help to clarify the term ‘presupposition’ to be equivalent to an hypothesis. This hypothesis is then used as a guide for explaining action that seems to work for everybody everywhere all the time. I think this a rather important factor when reviewing the value of the hypothesis. Don’t you?

        If people wish to reject the explanation that seems to work for everyone everywhere all the time on logical grounds based on discrepancies of word meanings contained within the hypothesis, then hey, whatever rocks your boat. But rejecting the explanation for this reason, over and above accepting the compelling evidence that it works reliably and consistently well, seems to me to be a very peculiar and counterproductive preference. Because the hypothesis is shown to work, we can then conclude that it is of explanatory value not because we bend words to make it so in order to compete with the word smith logicians but because of all the compelling evidence that it is accurate, reliable, and can be put to practical use. That’s why methodological naturalism is fully justified by its fruits. The philosophical arguments against it must account for these fruits or be dismissed as the metaphysical navel gazing they are.

      • Aww, it would be lovely for your argument if “a ‘presupposition’ were equivalent to an hypothesis”.

        But it’s not. So I’m afraid your whole argument is rubbish.

      • Based on a presupposition of materialism, all phenomena which are explored by materialist methodology are found to be material. That’s not a discovery, that’s just how presuppositions work…

        But it’s not just a presupposition, says I, because it works….

        So I’m afraid your whole argument is rubbish.

        … writes he on a computer who then posts it by internet. Yes, Sentinel, it’s all material presupposition just as you say… right up to the moment you hypocritically use this fatally flawed presupposition knowing through the logic you employ that its actual transmission to be just a silly, silly notion by a bunch of philosophical ignoramuses.

        Science works? Impossible! Don’t be ridiculous.

      • Your comment makes no sense.

        Of course science “works”. I’ve never suggested otherwise. I’m a scientist. It would be pretty obtuse to work in the field if I didn’t think science “works”.

        But a presupposition cannot be proved by any system that is based on it. It’s the very essence of question-begging.

  2. So the point is that Nagel’s book is criticized on it’s lack of scientific merit. The notion that it’s somehow about atheists castigating another atheist is nothing but a red herring. It’s simply a bad thesis unsupported by reality.

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