Thomas Nagel—The atheist who dared to question materialism
A reviewer reveals why so many academics are upset with one of their own
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.