A Masterful Essay on the Heretic Philosopher Thomas Nagel


Andrew Ferguson is a master of the long-form essay. He knows how to tell a story, and he is especially gifted at observational humor. But he also becomes so conversant with his subject matter that he seems to be able to communicate, even teach, the material with fluidity and ease. For a case in point, I’d highly recommend his new cover story for The Weekly Standard on atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel and the arguments of, and reaction to, his book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Here is an excerpt:

You can sympathize with Leiter and Weisberg for fudging on materialism. As a philosophy of everything it 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. Say what you will about Leiter and Weisberg and the workshoppers in the Berkshires. From what I can tell, none of them is a psychopath. Not even close.

Applied beyond its own usefulness as a scientific methodology, materialism is, as Nagel suggests, self-evidently absurd. Mind and Cosmos can be read as an extended paraphrase of Orwell’s famous insult: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” Materialism can only be taken seriously as a philosophy through a heroic feat of cognitive dissonance; pretending, in our abstract, intellectual life, that values like truth and goodness have no objective content even as, in our private life, we try to learn what’s really true and behave in a way we know to be good. Nagel has sealed his ostracism from the intelligentsia by idly speculating why his fellow intellectuals would undertake such a feat.

You can read the whole thing here.

See also reviews of Nagel’s book by Alvin Plantinga and by Thomas Woodward.

HT: @John_Starke

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