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.

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The Heathen Manifesto – a quick review

Over in the Guardian‘s website, prominent atheist Julian Baggini has written a Heathen Manifesto in which he calls for atheists everywhere to stop insisting on a polarised society and try to listen a little more to what he calls the “moderate middle”, those who lack religious belief but are also turned off by the froth and vitriol of Dawkins et al.

As Baggini puts it in his introduction:

“This manifesto is an attempt to point towards the next phase of atheism’s involvement in public discourse. It is not a list of doctrines that people are asked to sign up to but a set of suggestions to provide a focus for debate and discussion. Nor is it an attempt to accurately describe what all atheists have in common. Rather it is an attempt to prescribe what the best form of atheism should be like.”

I rather like Baggini. More than many other atheist writers he is willing to conduct a reasoned dialogue rather than simply engaging in posturing and rhetoric. And I was very interested in his manifesto, so let’s go through it briefly. I’ve kept his headings to give this some sort of structure, and inserted my own comments at various junctures. Baggini’s manifesto is in italics, my own insertions are in normal typeface. Some sections have been trimmed for brevity.

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On the relative efficacy of cathedral demolition strategies

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I do not believe there is an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca – or Chartres, York Minster or Notre Dame.

– Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

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Cathedrals are too high for bulldozers. In the Soviet Union under Stalin and the German Democratic Republic under Ulbricht they used explosives instead.

        – Richard Schröder, Professor of Philosophy in Berlin

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Revisiting the Law

Recently, I’ve been reading through the Old Testament. I haven’t read the latter books of the Pentateuch for a while, so it was an interesting experience. The Pentateuch makes up the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and also comprises the Jewish Torah. This collection is also referred to as the Books of the Law, which is what Jesus is talking about when he mentions “the Law and the Prophets” (e.g. Matt. 5:17, Matt. 7:12).

Genesis and the first half of Exodus are largely composed of narrative, but from that point on there are indeed large chunks of detailed instruction from God which dominate the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. And when you hear people talking vaguely about “all those crazy rules and stuff in the Bible”, it’s generally the last three books of the Pentateuch that they have in mind. So as I worked my way through these books, I was expecting to find an endless list of obscure and arbitrary prohibitions.

In contrast, I was delighted at just how sensible all the laws are. But there are a few important things to bear in mind as you read them.

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Censorship and bad Apples

The media lines are all humming with outrage about an iPhone app. Not the one that lets you avoid police checkpoints if you’re driving drunk, nor the one that gives detailed instructions on abusing illegal drugs – those are still readily available on the App Store.

No, the biggest story at the moment is about a self-help app from Exodus International. It provides information to assist people who want to make a lifestyle change.

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It’s not the “what”, it’s the “why”

I’m currently reading “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon. The book is set in New York during the late 1930s and ’40s – the Golden Age of comic books – and the titular heroes of the novel are budding comic book creators.

In an early scene they are discussing a potential hero for their own story: Should he fly? Should he be super-strong? Should he be invisible? (A little hard to draw that one, perhaps, but anyway…) Various combinations of superpowers are discussed, until Clay, the writer, has a sudden moment of revelation:

It’s not the what, it’s the why.

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Non-moral nature

I’m visiting some colleagues in Hobart at the moment, so I have a new route that I walk to work each day. It’s a tranquil and tree-lined avenue with some lovely gardens, especially now when all the spring flowers are in bloom.

Running alongside the path is a stream, and this morning, in that stream, were some ducks. Mostly they were doing normal duckish things – paddling about, quacking and nibbling the odd bit of water vegetation. But it’s spring, so they were also pretty frisky. In particular, there were two drakes which both seemed very keen on a female duck, which in turn was doing her best to paddle away from them. But the drakes were not to be discouraged. They held her head under the water and had their way with her despite all her struggling and flapping.

Just another day on the river. A light breeze, the delicate scent of flowers in the air and avian gang-rape in the water.

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