Thursday, March 21, 2013

Nihilism, Explicit or Incognito?

I did say that the book has created a firestorm. Simply everyone is talking about it. Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard has one of the best-written essays on it I've seen so far, but rather than talk (yet again) about Thomas Nagel's book Mind and Cosmos I want to focus on something Ferguson says about a recent confab of atheistic materialist intellectuals at which Nagel's book was a major topic of discussion. What Ferguson observed at the meeting dovetails with one of the major themes of my own In the Absence of God.

First a bit of background. Modern atheists are of two minds about how they should present their worldview to the public. Specifically, there's debate within the skeptical community over how frank they should be in discussing the implications of atheism for both our human desire for ultimate meaning and our need for an objective basis for moral judgment. One faction insists that atheists should be up-front with the general public about the fact that, on atheism, there just is no ultimate meaning to human existence nor is there anything beyond our own tastes in which to ground moral obligation. These universal human aspirations and yearnings are simply unfulfillable illusions.

The other faction argues that admitting that would be a public relations disaster for atheism. It's better, this group maintains, to be more circumspect and oblique about the nihilistic implications of atheism lest the public perceive that atheism offers to quench our existential thirsts with glassfuls of dust. Here's Ferguson:
One notable division did arise among the participants, however. Some of the biologists thought the materialist view of the world should be taught and explained to the wider public in its true, high-octane, Crickian form. Then common, nonintellectual people might see that a purely random universe without purpose or free will or spiritual life of any kind isn’t as bad as some superstitious people—religious people—have led them to believe.

Daniel Dennett took a different view. While it is true that materialism tells us a human being is nothing more than a “moist robot”—a phrase Dennett took from a Dilbert comic—we run a risk when we let this cat, or robot, out of the bag. If we repeatedly tell folks that their sense of free will or belief in objective morality is essentially an illusion, such knowledge has the potential to undermine civilization itself, Dennett believes. Civil order requires the general acceptance of personal responsibility, which is closely linked to the notion of free will. Better, said Dennett, if the public were told that “for general purposes” the self and free will and objective morality do indeed exist—that colors and sounds exist, too—“just not in the way they think.” They “exist in a special way,” which is to say, ultimately, not at all.

On this point the discussion grew testy at times. I was reminded of the debate among British censors over the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover half a century ago. “Fine for you or me,” one prosecutor is said to have remarked, “but is this the sort of thing you would leave lying about for your wife or servant to read?”
Ferguson's entire essay is worth reading, unless you've already had your fill of the intellectual brouhaha over Nagel's book, but it's even more worth contemplating the fact that adherents of the worldview Nagel criticizes in Mind and Cosmos hold to a view whose consequences are so awful that many of them are afraid that, were the view to be universally accepted, civilization would collapse. There's something fundamentally dishonest about trying to persuade people to accept a metaphysical belief whose existential consequences one is reluctant to be frank about. It also says something about the nature of the belief in question.

If it's true that you can judge the quality of a tree by the quality of its fruit then we are justified in being suspicious that any plant whose fruit is so bitter, rotten and toxic that it dare not be offered straightforwardly to the public is itself noxious and hollow.