The Last Word: Maybe Not
“I want atheism to be true,”writes professor Thomas Nagel, “and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.”
Thomas Nagel is Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University. The previous quote from his 1997 book The Last Word continues with these words, “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.”
This passage is quoted on a regular basis by Christian apologists. It is a helpful insight into an atheistic worldview, and, perhaps, though it will surely be contested by secularists, an insight into a certain kind of moral bias that can influence a rejection of theism. But I have a feeling Nagel’s admission will soon be eclipsed in its use by apologists in light of his latest publication.
In his most recent book Mind and Cosmos Nagel argues, as stated in the subtitle of the book, that “the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.” I’ve yet to read the book (I’m waiting for it to arrive at my local Barnes and Noble). It is reported that a good part of the book supports Alvin Plantiga’s thesis that unguided evolution cannot properly account for the trust we place in our brain’s ability to comprehend the world.
The layman’s description would have to be something like, “If our brain is itself the effect of a long series of accidents, then our brain is itself an accident and is not reliable.” Plantiga’s use of the argument is, as one would expect, much more sophisticated. This is not a new critique, and is easily found in other author’s like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Arthur Balfour James. And the difficulty can be traced all the way back to Charles Darwin, who offered a similar concern in his personal correspondence in a letter in 1881:
“With me the horrid doubt always arises, whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”
While Darwin might get a pass for expressing such intellectual challenges, it seems that distinguished philosophy professors are not given the same privilege. At least not according to Jerry Coyne, biology professor at the University of Chicago. Coyne admits he has not yet read Nagel’s book, like myself, though this does not keep him from offering this provocative caption, “A good philosopher gone bad.” Anyone familiar with Jerry Coyne will be neither surprised nor alarmed at his rejection of Nagel’s unread book.
So is Nagel really a good philosopher gone bad? Coyne might kindly let the University of New York know that such a nincompoop is on their philosophy faculty. But since Coyne has yet to read the book I wonder if his caption is more of a repulsion of any thinking (or writing for this matter) that suggests there might be a God. It seems more of a statement of his own philosophical commitments than it is any kind of review of the publication.
It’s a good reminder that our critiques of others are dangerously autobiographical. They often say as much, if not more, about ourselves as they do of those we criticize.
Unlike Coyne, I’ll wait to read the book for myself before offering any sort of review. After all, it only seems appropriate that Nagel should be given the last word. But in anticipation of reading Mind and Cosmos here’s a quote to serve as kind of an appetizer from Nagel’s response to Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism. I don’t think it represents a philosophical mind gone bad, but rather a skeptical mind that is refreshingly open: as skeptical minds should be (by definition).
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.