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In The Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson Offers the Best Explication Yet of Nagel’s Book and the Nagel Affair

David Klinghoffer

The Heretic.jpgNagel’s book — by now, do I really need to specify the first name of the author and the title of the book? — oh all right, Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos is important for a variety of reasons.
One is the way it is functioning as an invitation to come in from the cold to thoughtful people who privately doubted the Darwinian-materialist picture of reality but weren’t ready to come out as Darwin skeptics. That was partly because, till now, doing so would typecast you, in some people’s eyes, in an unattractive way.
It would invite catcalls or worse from the Darwin enforcers, not least the bands of stunted, underemployed frequently pseudonymous guys who populate the Darwin blogs and seem to have an amazing amount of time on their hands. (To go along with it, you only wish they had the courage to use their real names.) Anybody “who starts to wander off from the herd,” as Andy Ferguson writes in a wonderful cover story in The Weekly Standard, would invite torrents of personal abuse from this mob.
Reading Ferguson’s funny, lucid and wise essay on the Nagel debate (“The Heretic“), I was left with the reflection that with his little book from Oxford University Press, Nagel who is not only an atheist but arguably “the most famous philosopher in the United States” has granted permission to a lot of private Darwin doubters to air their skepticism. The ruckus over Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False is only getting louder. As it does, the news of that permission will spread.
Like Bill Dembski, I’ve long suspected that high-profile defections like this will be the catalyst that finally dissolves the illusion that all intellectually respectable opinion needs to meekly bow before Darwinian theory. Ferguson’s article in the Weekly Standard is probably the most entertaining evidence so far suggesting that that is exactly what’s starting to happen. Nagel has taken the heat, the personal abuse, himself. Yet, despite his admiration for intelligent design advocates like Stephen Meyer and Michael Behe (if not for ID itself), no one can dismiss him for being religious, a “creationist,” a pawn of the Wedge Document Illuminati, blah blah blah. Everyone who comes after him is thus safe.
As Joshua Youngkin acknowledges, not everybody finds Mind & Cosmos a breeze. Josh recommends reading Nagel’s earlier work for some of the needed context. Short of that, Ferguson provides an invaluable explanation of what Nagel is arguing and why it is ticking people off. Those, in other words, who don’t find it liberating.
There’s almost too much that’s good in Ferguson’s article to know where to begin in quoting from it. Basically, Nagel’s book is a brief for common sense, standing in contrast to materialism: “an explanation for a world we don’t live in.”

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.

On materialism as a scientific method:

[T]he materialist assumption works really, really well — in detecting and quantifying things that have a material or mechanistic explanation. Materialism has allowed us to predict and control what happens in nature with astonishing success. The jaw-dropping edifice of modern science, from space probes to nanosurgery, is the result.
But the success has gone to the materialists’ heads. From a fruitful method, materialism becomes an axiom: If science can’t quantify something, it doesn’t exist, and so the subjective, unquantifiable, immaterial “manifest image” of our mental life is proved to be an illusion.
Here materialism bumps up against itself. Nagel insists that we know some things to exist even if materialism omits or ignores or is oblivious to them. Reductive materialism doesn’t account for the “brute facts” of existence — it doesn’t explain, for example, why the world exists at all, or how life arose from nonlife. Closer to home, it doesn’t plausibly explain the fundamental beliefs we rely on as we go about our everyday business: the truth of our subjective experience, our ability to reason, our capacity to recognize that some acts are virtuous and others aren’t. These failures, Nagel says, aren’t just temporary gaps in our knowledge, waiting to be filled in by new discoveries in science. On its own terms, materialism cannot account for brute facts. Brute facts are irreducible, and materialism, which operates by breaking things down to their physical components, stands useless before them. “There is little or no possibility,” he writes, “that these facts depend on nothing but the laws of physics.”

On evolution and the human brain:

It can perform calculus, hypothesize metaphysics, compose music — even develop a theory of evolution. None of these higher capacities has any evident survival value, certainly not hundreds of thousands of years ago when the chief aim of mental life was to avoid getting eaten. Could our brain have developed and sustained such nonadaptive abilities by the trial and error of natural selection, as neo-Darwinism insists? It’s possible, but the odds, Nagel says, are “vanishingly small.” If Nagel is right, the materialist is in a pickle. The conscious brain that is able to come up with neo-Darwinism as a universal explanation simultaneously makes neo-Darwinism, as a universal explanation, exceedingly unlikely.

Finally, on what a paper tiger materialism is when you come down to it. Jerry Coyne may thump, “The view that all sciences are in principle reducible to the laws of physics must be true unless you’re religious.” But even arch-Darwinists like Coyne can’t really believe in their own reductionism, in the sense of living it out in their daily lives. On the contrary, Coyne, who people say is a nice fellow, lives more or less according to the Judeo-Christian ethos that he expends so much energy in despising. How do we know?

As a philosophy of everything [materialism] is an undeniable drag. As a way of life it would be even worse. Fortunately, materialism is never translated into life as it’s lived. As colleagues and friends, husbands and mothers, wives and fathers, sons and daughters, materialists never put their money where their mouth is. Nobody thinks his daughter is just molecules in motion and nothing but; nobody thinks the Holocaust was evil, but only in a relative, provisional sense. A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions — understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots — wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath.

Yet the ones we know aren’t: “Not even close.”
In a gift from The Weekly Standard, Ferguson’s article is open-access.
UPDATE: I know some readers were disappointed that Leon Wieseltier’s own fantastic take on the Nagel affair, in The New Republic, was not available online to nonsubscribers. Now it is! Read both.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.