Friday, March 15, 2013

Free Thinking

For the last two or three centuries religious skeptics have been pleased to refer to themselves by the self-flattering term "freethinkers." Today that word is fraught with irony since there's no group of people more disdainful of "free thought" than freethinkers. Just ask Thomas Nagel.

As we've mentioned on previous occasions Nagel has written a book that has created a firestorm of controversy, and not a little calumny, because he had the temerity to express doubt that materialism, and thus Darwinism, offers satisfactory accounts of consciousness, cognition, and moral value.

This heresy from a prominent philosopher who is himself a former materialist has earned him the opprobrium of those eager to celebrate heretics as long as their apostasy is from theistic religion. Free thinking is only free, apparently, for those who think the proper thoughts, and Nagel doesn't.

Leon Weiseltier in The New Republic has a perceptive essay on the hypocrisy of those who extol intellectual rebellion against orthodox religion but seek to suppress it when it's naturalistic religion that's called into question. Here are a few paragraphs from his column:
Is there a greater gesture of intellectual contempt than the notion that a tweet constitutes an adequate intervention in a serious discussion? But when Thomas Nagel’s formidable book Mind and Cosmos recently appeared, in which he has the impudence to suggest that “the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false,” and to offer thoughtful reasons to believe that the non-material dimensions of life—consciousness, reason, moral value, subjective experience—cannot be reduced to, or explained as having evolved tidily from, its material dimensions, Steven Pinker took to Twitter and haughtily ruled that it was “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.”

Here was a signal to the Darwinist dittoheads that a mob needed to be formed. In an earlier book Nagel had dared to complain of “Darwinist imperialism,” though in his scrupulous way he added that “there is really no reason to assume that the only alternative to an evolutionary explanation of everything is a religious one.” He is not, God forbid, a theist. But he went on to warn that “this may not be comforting enough” for the materialist establishment, which may find it impossible to tolerate also “any cosmic order of which mind is an irreducible and non-accidental part.” For the bargain-basement atheism of our day, it is not enough that there be no God: there must be only matter.

Now Nagel’s new book fulfills his old warning. A mob is indeed forming, a mob of materialists, of free-thinking inquisitors. “In the present climate of a dominant scientific naturalism, heavily dependent on speculative Darwinian explanations of practically everything, and armed to the teeth against religion,” Nagel calmly writes, “... I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world.”

This cannot be allowed! And so the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Secular Faith sprang into action. “If there were a philosophical Vatican,” Simon Blackburn declared in the New Statesman, “the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index.” I hope that one day he regrets that sentence. It is not what Bruno, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Voltaire, Hume, Locke, Kant, and the other victims of the anti-philosophical Vatican had in mind.

I understand that nobody is going to burn Nagel’s book or ban it. These inquisitors are just more professors. But he is being denounced not merely for being wrong. He is being denounced also for being heretical. I thought heresy was heroic. I guess it is heroic only when it dissents from a doctrine with which I disagree. Actually, the defense of heresy has nothing to do with its content and everything to do with its right. Tolerance is not a refutation of heresy, but a retirement of the concept.

I am not suggesting that there is anything outrageous about the criticism of Nagel’s theory of the explanatory limitations of Darwinism. He aimed to provoke and he provoked. His troublemaking book has sparked the most exciting disputation in many years, because no question is more primary than the question of whether materialism (which Nagel defines as “the view that only the physical world is irreducibly real”) is true or false.
Weiseltier has more at the link. It's interesting that so many of Nagel's critics have shied away from actually addressing his arguments and have aimed their fire at him personally. That's what people do, of course, when their worldview is threatened and they realize they have no convincing defense.

You might wish to check out Alvin Plantinga's column on Nagel's book in the same magazine. It's a treat.