The Magazine

The Heretic

Who is Thomas Nagel and why are so many of his fellow academics condemning him?

Mar 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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This view is the “naturalism” that the workshoppers in the Berkshires were trying to move forward. Naturalism is also called “materialism,” the view that only matter exists; or “reductionism,” the view that all life, from tables to daydreams, is ultimately reducible to pure physics; or “determinism,” the view that every phenomenon, including our own actions, is determined by a preexisting cause, which was itself determined by another cause, and so on back to the Big Bang. The naturalistic project has been greatly aided by neo-Darwinism, the application of Darwin’s theory of natural selection to human behavior, including areas of life once assumed to be nonmaterial: emotions and thoughts and habits and perceptions. At the workshop the philosophers and scientists each added his own gloss to neo-Darwinian reductive naturalism or materialistic neo-Darwinian reductionism or naturalistic materialism or reductive determinism. They were unanimous in their solid certainty that materialism—as we’ll call it here, to limit the number of isms—is the all-purpose explanation for life as we know it. 

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?”

There was little else to disturb the materialists in their Berkshire contentment. Surveys have shown that vast majorities of philosophers and scientists call themselves naturalists or materialists. Nearly all popular science books, not only those written by the workshoppers, conclude that materialism offers the true picture of reality. The workshoppers seemed vexed, however, knowing that not everyone in their intellectual class had yet tumbled to the truth of neo-Darwinism. A video of the workshop shows Dennett complaining that a few—but only a few!—contemporary philosophers have stubbornly refused to incorporate the naturalistic conclusions of science into their philosophizing, continuing to play around with outmoded ideas like morality and sometimes even the soul. 

“I am just appalled to see how, in spite of what I think is the progress we’ve made in the last 25 years, there’s this sort of retrograde gang,” he said, dropping his hands on the table. “They’re going back to old-fashioned armchair philosophy with relish and eagerness. It’s sickening. And they lure in other people. And their work isn’t worth anything—it’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.”

There was an air of amused exasperation. “Will you name names?” one of the participants prodded, joking.

“No names!” Dennett said.

The philosopher Alex Rosenberg, author of The Atheist’s Guide, leaned forward, unamused. 

“And then there’s some work that is neither cute nor clever,” he said. “And it’s by Tom Nagel.”

There it was! Tom Nagel, whose Mind and Cosmos was already causing a derangement among philosophers in England and America. 

Dennett sighed at the mention of the name, more in sorrow than in anger. His disgust seemed to drain from him, replaced by resignation. He looked at the table. 

“Yes,” said Dennett, “there is that.”

Around the table, with the PowerPoint humming, they all seemed to heave a sad sigh—a deep, workshop sigh.

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