Thomas Nagel—The atheist who dared to question materialism
A reviewer reveals why so many academics are upset with one of their own
Published: 27 March 2014 (GMT+10)
Philosopher Thomas Nagel, who made a serious challenge to materialism in his book Mind and Cosmos,1 is still the focus of heated debate.
At a gathering of philosophers and scientists that included Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, a workshop on naturalism turned into an all-out attack on Nagel, a Professor of Law and Philosophy at New York University.
Nagel’s claim that materialists’ conception of nature is wrong was too much for the workshop participants, according to Andrew Ferguson, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.
In an article titled ‘The Heretic’, Ferguson discussed what happened in the workshop and also considered why Nagel’s book so angered his critics.2
While Ferguson’s report is challenging reading, he asks probing questions of his own about materialism in general while sometimes poking fun at philosophers and scientists.
At first, Nagel’s name was not mentioned at the workshop until after Dennett said some philosophers had “refused to incorporate the naturalistic conclusions of science into their philosophizing, continuing to play around with outmoded ideas like morality and sometimes even the soul.”
Ferguson’s take on this scene is amusing:
There it was! Tom Nagel, whose Mind and Cosmos was already causing a derangement among philosophers in England and America.
Dennett sighed at the mention of the name, more in sorrow than in anger. His disgust seemed to drain from him, replaced by resignation. He looked at the table.
“Yes,” said Dennett, “there is that.”
Around the table, with the PowerPoint humming, they all seemed to heave a sad sigh—a deep, workshop sigh.
Tom, oh Tom … How did we lose Tom …
Ferguson goes on to discuss why academics, scientists and philosophers are so angry at Nagel for, as one put it, his alleged “shoddy reasoning”.
He notes some of the barbs:
“Thomas Nagel is of absolutely no importance on this subject,” wrote one. “He’s a self-contradictory idiot,” opined another.
Ferguson is far more open-minded than Nagel’s critics but, at the same time, holds fast to evolutionary orthodoxy in a revealing observation:
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.
Ferguson is taken by what he sees as Nagel’s challenging approach:
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.
Tellingly, Ferguson points out:
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.
And this observation would not have won Ferguson any friends in the Dennett-Dawkins camp:
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’.
It’s clear from what Ferguson wrote and the objections raised by Darwin defenders worldwide that, even if you’re part of the evolutionary in-crowd—whether academic, scientist or philosopher—you must unquestioningly toe the line.
References and notes
- Nagel, T., Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Oxford University Press, 2012. Return to text.
- Ferguson, A., The Heretic. Who is Thomas Nagel and why are so many of his fellow academics condemning him?, weeklystandard.com, 25 March 2013. Return to text.
In Re: “Thomas Nagel—The Atheist Who Dared To Question Materialism”
Please, please forgive me my friends, if I wrongly read into this report a little smug satisfaction that an atheist has been scorned and shunned by his own. Let us not forget that this is not due to Nagel’s conversion, and is instead a thinking man’s conception of evolution taken to its absurd ends. Please remember Proverbs 24:17-18. Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: Lest the LORD see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him.One can have a right understanding of young-earth creation, and still wind up in hell.
Thomas Nagel does seem to represent the scientific equivalent of Israel’s reception of the gospel through the apostle Paul. Paul’s response was “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.” Romans 10:1. Here is a man who needs encouragement to follow the light he has been given to the end of the road—a confrontation with God’s truth at his very heart.
It's surprising that you came away with such an impression given we only highlighted what others were saying about Nagel which was summarized in the final paragraph thus: "It’s clear from what Ferguson wrote and the objections raised by Darwin defenders worldwide that, even if you’re part of the evolutionary in-crowd—whether academic, scientist or philosopher—you must unquestioningly toe the line."
There is no 'satisfaction' in writing about Nagel and his detractors and your charge that "One can have a right understanding of young-earth creation, and still wind up in hell", we suggest is misguided.
We would encourage all unbelievers with (2 Peter 3:9): "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance."
(I am from Norway)
First: Thank you CMI for providing a solid and steady stream of updated and highly interesting articles, defending a coherent and extensive Biblical worldview!
It's interesting to see a debate between evolutionists, which proves the
CMI position on the unavoidableness of having presuppositions (when starting to apply scientific methodologies) absolutely right.
They (the secular evolutionists) are now getting to realize and experience what many Biblical Creationists (like CMI) has been saying for a long, long time.
Perhaps it would be fruitful for the world universities to consider a broader approach of study and research, from a standpoint of openly expressing given presuppositions, axioms, etc, when entering research and applying methodologies?
Everybody has presuppositions, why not be open about it; that is the honest thing!
In my view good science also contains humility about human and methodological limitations: being open about all our presuppositions, axioms, influences; limitations of what a set of methodologies can prove, what are raw facts, what are interpretations and insertions or applications (if these) into a larger model.
And how those things again may shape presuppositions.
Being open with the startingpoint(s);is the honest thing.
To 'disguise' an underlying 'atheism' as 'objectivity' is fraudulent and an obvious attempt at sneaking atheistic preferances and values into the educational systems.
Let's be honest.
The desperate attempts to salvage Darwin's Evolution despite all evidence and at all costs is almost a religious following. If the medical field had advanced at the pace of the theory of Evolution, we may still be bleeding sick patients of their bad blood.
"For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God" (1 Cor. 3:19a). One listens to these "wise" scientists/philosophers and realise how stupid they sound in the light of God's Word, science and common sense! I sometimes wonder how real common sense actually works in their practical living.
yeah it seems like common since is not a common virtue in the philisophical naturalistic crowd.
Nagel has nailed that point-materialism goes against common sense. Design is obvious and he would do well to acknowledge the Designer-our loving Creator
Presumably they are upset because they believe that the mind is only caused by physical and chemical laws enabled by accidents but they are confronted with Nagel’s mind which is telling them that the mind is not solely caused by these laws!
This obvious contradiction is not about tensions between materialist, neo-Darwinian orthodoxy and common sense but tensions between materialist, neo-Darwinians and the laws of logic. Since logic is non-material and Nagel is applying the laws of logic to show that it is “highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection”, his critics are in a dilemma because the proving of their case relies on the use of the non-materialist phenomenon of logic, which ultimately refutes his critics arguments.
It’s even worse when Dennett states “… outmoded ideas like morality …” because then they cannot then use the argument that Nagel’s mind is lying, deceitful, etc., because these notions (which are some of the corner stones of morality) doesn’t exist in their world! Right and wrong is relative within his critic’s worldview and in Nagel’s worldview.
I have to conclude that their anger is an outpouring of irrationality because effectively they have given up the laws of logic by their solely materialism, Darwinian approach yet at the same time expect everyone else to abide by the laws of logic. Their sadness is a result of the absurdity of their cause.
Yet the Lord is longsuffering and not willing for any to perish. 2 Peter 3:9 “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”
Here I was thinking that good science is based on the free sharing of all opinions and hypotheses. It seems that the Dawkins-Dennet brand of atheist is not really interested in science itself, but in warping science to feed an anti-theistic bias.
Thank you for this article that really hits the spot! This is the level at which we should be challenging atheistic dogma. I have been able to use Nagel's statements to challenge people to think again about Darwin's influence on our minds and culture.
This article exposes a nascent but powerful difference between the faiths of creationists and evolutionists.
Creationists' faith is based on historical revelation (the Bible) which provides a logical and reasonable basis that is supported by natural revelation (nature). Believers can therefore defend their faith intelligently and convincingly in an "eyes-wide-open' fashion.
Evolutionists on the other hand have assumption and a blind faith as their basis for their belief in their creed. This leads to illogical, unreasonable, sometimes laughable arguments in defence of evolution which itself has its roots in the minds of its proponents, resulting in not only the blind leading the blind but fools arguing amongst themselves.
Do you think they'll excommunicate him for his heresy?
Thanks for that snippet. Delightful to read how gradually the truth is coming to the surface for all to see - even those who can't (don't want to) understand what they are seeing in front of their own eyes, & hearing with their own ears!
This is a point for praise, that our heavenly Father is raising up His chosen persons, in His chosen places, at His chosen timing, to declare the truth. Keep up your fantastic work, CMI - our world needs to hear what GOD has said and done!
And in spite of themselves, powers-that-be in the evo-establishment can't ignore forever what you are doing and saying in His name!
"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." With common sense arguments like that, it's little wonder Thomas Nagel has upset Richard Dawkins and his intellectual elitist mates.
Extreme intolerance from extremist, fundamentalist secular humanists.