Thursday, September 20, 2012

Nagel on Plantinga

Thomas Nagel is an interesting philosopher. He's an atheist who, unlike most contemporary atheists, rejects materialism (i.e. the view that matter is the fundamental reality of the cosmos). He's recently written a book titled Mind and Cosmos: Why Materialism Is Almost Certainly Wrong in which he argues that materialist explanations like Darwinian evolution cannot explain the emergence in the human species of consciousness, cognition, or values - by which he means primarily moral values. Since he also rejects theism - which he admits is the most compelling explanation for these things but one he "can't imagine himself accepting" - he's left with the rather dubious alternative of believing that the fundamental reality is mental and personal but that it's not God.

Be all this as it may Nagel has an excellent essay in the current New York Review of Books on another very interesting philosopher, Alvin Plantinga. Nagel reviews Plantinga's latest book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism in which Plantinga makes a compelling case, the force of which Nagel acknowledges, for the claim that there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.

Here's Nagel's opening:
The gulf in outlook between atheists and adherents of the monotheistic religions is profound. We are fortunate to live under a constitutional system and a code of manners that by and large keep it from disturbing the social peace; usually the parties ignore each other. But sometimes the conflict surfaces and heats up into a public debate. The present is such a time.

One of the things atheists tend to believe is that modern science is on their side, whereas theism is in conflict with science: that, for example, belief in miracles is inconsistent with the scientific conception of natural law; faith as a basis of belief is inconsistent with the scientific conception of knowledge; belief that God created man in his own image is inconsistent with scientific explanations provided by the theory of evolution. In his absorbing new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, Alvin Plantinga, a distinguished analytic philosopher known for his contributions to metaphysics and theory of knowledge as well as to the philosophy of religion, turns this alleged opposition on its head.

His overall claim is that “there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.” By naturalism he means the view that the world describable by the natural sciences is all that exists, and that there is no such person as God, or anything like God.

Plantinga’s religion is the real thing, not just an intellectual deism that gives God nothing to do in the world. He himself is an evangelical Protestant, but he conducts his argument with respect to a version of Christianity that is the “rough intersection of the great Christian creeds” — ranging from the Apostle’s Creed to the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles — according to which God is a person who not only created and maintains the universe and its laws, but also intervenes specially in the world, with the miracles related in the Bible and in other ways.

It is of great interest to be presented with a lucid and sophisticated account of how someone who holds these beliefs understands them to harmonize with and indeed to provide crucial support for the methods and results of the natural sciences.
Nagel's review affords the reader an excellent introduction to Plantinga's epistemology which has been extremely influential in philosophy over the last three decades. In fact, Nagel's presentation is so well done that I urge anyone interested in a deeper understanding of Christian epistemology to read it.

After lucidly and respectfully explaining Plantinga's views Nagel concludes with this:
The interest of this book, especially for secular readers, is its presentation from the inside of the point of view of a philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist—an outlook with which many of them will not be familiar. Plantinga writes clearly and accessibly, and sometimes acidly—in response to aggressive critics of religion like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His comprehensive stand is a valuable contribution to this debate.

I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.
In this review, as in his own book, it seems that Nagel tacitly admits that the arguments of people like Plantinga are so strong that the only reason to not accept them is that one simply cannot bring oneself to believe in the God that lies at their core. But why not? Perhaps Nagel gives us a clue in another of his books titled The Last Word. In the last chapter of The Last Word he writes this:
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.
In the end, we'll usually believe what we most fervently want to be true and arguments don't often persuade us to do otherwise.