Nagel’s Knowledge vs. Dawkins’ Ignorance

UnknownIn my opinion, more than enough has been said to show that the New Atheists, when it comes to most of the topics they like to discuss, have no idea what they are talking about. They essentially state this themselves–in that Dawkins, Krauss, and Co. admit ignorance of both philosophy and theology.

It, therefore, makes no sense at all for anyone to listen to them as if they knew what they were talking about.

That said, what is the situation for those that actually do know what they are talking about? Where is the debate over things like theism and materialism among professional philosophers?

The short answer is: heading back toward theism.

For the long answer, I want to get into the recent controversy surrounding the eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel. For those who aren’t familiar with him, Nagel is one of the most well-respected philosophers in the english-speaking world. He is a professor at NYU, and a brilliant man without (so far as I can tell) so much as a hint of arrogance. He is also an avowed atheist.

And he has attacked the materialistic view so beloved of the New Atheists.

His most recent book “Mind and Cosmos” purports to show us “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”. To anyone who agrees that what most believe today is largely based on what university professors were teaching their students yesteryear, this is a very important book.

As such, it’s worth it to spend a few posts on him, and the best place to start is by dealing with the straw man that keeps being put up in place of Nagel’s argument.

That is, many people think that they can refute Nagel simply by throwing out the standard evidence in favor of evolution. But the argument isn’t with evolution as a scientific theory–it is with the idea that a purely physical theory (like evolution) can ever explain the whole of life.

Judging from how many people have accused Nagel of ignorance about evolution, this can’t be stressed enough: He isn’t arguing that current evolutionary theory can’t explain this or that feature of living organisms, and is therefore false. If that were his argument, it would make sense to give the classic “scientists are working on it” response.

But it doesn’t make sense here. The argument is about what science can, even in principle, ever discover. Nagel has offered good reasons to think that science can’t possibly explain things like consciousness–unless we make some fairly serious adjustments to the scientific method.

That is, we would have to remove the “methodological naturalism” stipulation that is the basis of most vague assertions that science (in some unspecified way) backs materialism.

Without this move, so argues Nagel, science pursued for all eternity could never explain consciousness anymore than painting something red for all eternity could ever make it green. Science, as it currently exists, is simply not the correct method for explaining certain things (such as consciousness).

What is his argument? What are the consequences for theism? For materialism? And what has been the response?

I’ll address these questions in future posts. But, for now, it needs to be made clear what the answer is not: the unreflective and ignorant materialism of people like Dawkins and Krauss.

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8 responses to “Nagel’s Knowledge vs. Dawkins’ Ignorance

  • agnophilo

    You rail against an entire generation of atheists for their supposed universal ignorance then invoke an argument based entirely on ignorance in the same breath.

    I also like how you bash atheists for wading into theology without adequate expertise, then praise a philosophy professor with no expertise in any field of earth or life science for criticizing evolution and material science.

    This blog is an orgy of hypocrisy.

    • Debilis

      You’re free to your opinions, of course, but this is simply a straw man version of what I’ve actually written.
      How so? Hers’s the list:

      1. I didn’t attack an entire generation of atheists
      I criticized particular individuals and their fans. There are many atheists (from all generations, I’d wager) that find Dawkins and Krauss as ignorant as I do.

      2. What I said about the New Atheists is true
      I fail to see how it is “railing” to point out an ignorance that these men publicly admit to. I’m not saying that this makes them terrible people; I’m saying that it makes them ignorant–and that we shouldn’t treat ignorant people as if their views are as likely to be true as knowledgable people.

      3. I didn’t base an argument on ignorance
      Nagel’s argument is based on what is known (about the mind and philosophy of science), not what is unknown. He isn’t speculating based on what we don’t know; he is using reason to draw logical conclusions from what we do.

      4. I didn’t praise anyone for criticizing science
      I specifically pointed out that Nagel’s argument doesn’t oppose any scientific theory. He himself accepts evolutionary science (as do I, incidentally).
      So, Nagel wasn’t speaking without expertise. His argument is, specifically, about the philosophy of mind (where he is an expert).
      And, personally, I find it somewhat astonishing that this mistake is being made when I specifically pointed out that Nagel hasn’t said anything against science in my post.

      5. This doesn’t remotely address the point I was making
      This may seem a bit of a shift in topic, but I’ve run across quite a few lately who seem to confuse mocking a position with answering its logic.
      As such, I’d like to underscore that the content is completely untouched. I’ve pointed out directly that Nagel isn’t discussing science, and the response here simply assumes, without giving a reason, that it is about science.

      So, yes, Nagel was speaking with great knowledge in Mind and Cosmos. And, yes, Dawkins was speaking out of a near total ignorance in The God Delusion.

      To anyone who is an atheist, I’d urge that person to be an atheist of Nagel’s sort, rather than Dawkins’.

      • agnophilo

        “You’re free to your opinions, of course, but this is simply a straw man version of what I’ve actually written.
        How so? Hers’s the list: 1. I didn’t attack an entire generation of atheists
        I criticized particular individuals and their fans. There are many atheists (from all generations, I’d wager) that find Dawkins and Krauss as ignorant as I do.”

        “New atheists” is a generalization referring to the current generation of atheists, so no.

        “2. What I said about the New Atheists is true
        I fail to see how it is “railing” to point out an ignorance that these men publicly admit to.”

        This is just semantics.

        “I’m not saying that this makes them terrible people; I’m saying that it makes them ignorant–and that we shouldn’t treat ignorant people as if their views are as likely to be true as knowledgable people.”

        In other words if we think little of an entire group, we don’t have to seriously think about what they have to say and can virtually pre-dismiss the arguments or point of view of anyone belonging to that group. This is more psychology than philosophy, what you’re describing is a defense mechanism, not logic.

        “3. I didn’t base an argument on ignorance
        Nagel’s argument is based on what is known (about the mind and philosophy of science), not what is unknown. He isn’t speculating based on what we don’t know; he is using reason to draw logical conclusions from what we do.”

        His argument is that we don’t understand the mind and science never will. How is that not an argument based on ignorance?

        “4. I didn’t praise anyone for criticizing science
        I specifically pointed out that Nagel’s argument doesn’t oppose any scientific theory. He himself accepts evolutionary science (as do I, incidentally).”

        So saying science will never figure out something because it is fundamentally flawed is not a criticism of science. You’re defending your position by simply pretending things aren’t what they are.

        “So, Nagel wasn’t speaking without expertise. His argument is, specifically, about the philosophy of mind (where he is an expert).”

        Then by that standard dawkins is an expert in zoology so he wasn’t speaking without expertise either.

        “And, personally, I find it somewhat astonishing that this mistake is being made when I specifically pointed out that Nagel hasn’t said anything against science in my post.”

        What?

        “5. This doesn’t remotely address the point I was making
        This may seem a bit of a shift in topic, but I’ve run across quite a few lately who seem to confuse mocking a position with answering its logic.”

        Pointing out that it’s an argument from ignorance (common logical fallacy”) doesn’t answer it’s logic? Showing that your own argument in one instance can be used against you in another doesn’t answer the blog’s logic? Whatever.

        “As such, I’d like to underscore that the content is completely untouched. I’ve pointed out directly that Nagel isn’t discussing science, and the response here simply assumes, without giving a reason, that it is about science.”

        To quote the blog:

        “The argument is about what science can, even in principle, ever discover. Nagel has offered good reasons to think that science can’t possibly explain things like consciousness–unless we make some fairly serious adjustments to the scientific method.”

        Every argument you’re making is based on simply pretending the blog is something else.

        “So, yes, Nagel was speaking with great knowledge in Mind and Cosmos. And, yes, Dawkins was speaking out of a near total ignorance in The God Delusion.”

        It is valid to criticize someone for speaking outside of their field of expertise, but you only seem to think it’s bad when you disagree with what the person is saying. You are a hypocrite.

        “To anyone who is an atheist, I’d urge that person to be an atheist of Nagel’s sort, rather than Dawkins’.”

        They both did the exact same thing. You just liked what one of them had to say more than the other one.

    • Debilis

      Okay, here we go for round 2, and otherwise best to you.

      1. No, that is not what the term “New Atheists” means. And, in any case, it is not how I was using it. I’ve been clear about this in the past. I’m referring to a specific group of individuals and their fans. And what I said about those people and their fans is true. Dawkins, Krauss, et all are given to ignorant rants (by their own admission).

      If you agree, and are as frustrated by the fact that people take their ignorant opinions seriously as I am, then I wouldn’t remotely include you in the comments I’ve made about the New Atheists.

      2. Yes it is semantics. That is, you’ve used the word “railing” to refer to someone pointing out a fact that both sides admit (and pointing it out in more polite language than the persons I was describing). Semantically, that is a misuse of the term.

      But I completely agree that this tells us nothing about whether or not God exists.

      3. Nagel’s argument is not remotely “that we don’t understand the mind”. His argument is that we do understand things about the mind that are outside the purview of science.

      Specifically, he’s basing his argument on what everyone knows about the mind, not about what people don’t know. The only thing he adds to that is the fact that it would literally contradict the definition of science to study these things. Which is, again, based on what we do know (this time, about science), not what we don’t.

      Absolutely nothing he’s said is based on what we don’t know.

      4. Where have I said that “science will never figure out something because it is fundamentally flawed”?

      Science is a very powerful tool for investigating the physical universe. It’s not a criticism to say that it doesn’t also investigate mind–that’s not its job.

      So, no, science is not flawed. It is this idea that nothing exists except the kinds of things that science studies that is fundamentally flawed. Science makes no such claim.

      “Then by that standard dawkins is an expert in zoology so he wasn’t speaking without expertise either.”

      How does Dawkins’ expertise in zoology make him knowledgable on the subject of God’s existence? This is where I’ve accused him of speaking out of ignorance, after all. I completely agree that he’s an expert on evolutionary biology, but that simply isn’t the subject being discussed.

      5. “Pointing out that it’s an argument from ignorance (common logical fallacy) doesn’t answer it’s logic?”
      Not if it is completely incorrect, no. The argument never appeals, in any way, to what we don’t know.

      “Every argument you’re making is based on simply pretending the blog is something else.”

      I honestly have no idea what you think this blog is about–or what you think I’m pretending it is.
      Personally, I thought it was fairly obvious that this is an apologetics blog. I’ve been discussing that topic, but there’s no point in attacking my blog in general. We need to deal with the arguments I’ve presented.

      “It is valid to criticize someone for speaking outside of their field of expertise, but you only seem to think it’s bad when you disagree with what the person is saying. You are a hypocrite.”

      Whether or not I, personally, am a hypocrite is beside the point. I have no idea why you seem to care more about that than about understanding the arguments as I’ve actually given them. (This, by the way, is what I meant about mockery being used in the place of argument.)

      Dawkins was speaking outside of his area of expertise in the God Delusion. If you claim otherwise, make your case. We’ll see how good it is, but keep in mind that you’ll not only be arguing with me, but with Dawkins himself (who admits to ignorance on the subject).

      Nagel, however, is an expert on the nature of mind. Again, if you claim otherwise, make your case. You’ll have NYU to contend with on this point.

      But you seem very concerned that I acknowledge that others have spoken outside of their expertise–others who agree with me. Personally, I do acknowledge that. Many have. I simply have no idea what that has to do with anything I wrote about Nagel’s argument.

      “To anyone who is an atheist, I’d urge that person to be an atheist of Nagel’s sort, rather than Dawkins’.”
      “They both did the exact same thing. You just liked what one of them had to say more than the other one.”
      They are not remotely the same. Dawkins and Nagel differ tremendously in what they think about the world.

      But, if you think that atheists are all the same, as if there is some monolithic view that is atheism, then it is no wonder you feel insulted when I criticize Dawkins. Personally, I’d love for more atheists to realize that Dawkins doesn’t have to speak for them. He’s ignorant, and Nagel is not.

      And I think that not following an ignorant person is a very important thing.

  • keithnoback

    Um, if you think this is headed toward a theistic philosophy, maybe you should think again. Folks like Searle, Chalmers and Kim – professional philosophers – certainly don’t think so. There is a tit for tat argument from authority for you at least. I’ll be interested to see if you can keep theoretic reduction (Nagel’s claim to fame) separated from reductive explanation as you go.

    • Debilis

      You are definitely free to challenge that assumption.
      In fact, I’d welcome a thoughtful contradiction. I am aware that there are non-theistic philosophers (as Nagel himself is an atheist). My claim was that these men hold a few that has more similarities to theism than their predecessors. With regard to things like Chalmers pan-psychism, I think that’s a pretty defensible claim.

      We’ll see how I do more generally, but I will say Nagel’s argument does not depend on conflating these theories. In fact, it depends on understanding the distinctions.

      To cut to the chase, the irreconcilability of reductive physicalism with either qualia or rationality is becoming increasingly apparent. Not only do those mentioned see this, but so do eliminativists (such as Rosenberg).

      But, either way, my real issue with those (such as Dawkins and Krauss) who glorify ignorance of these issues in some strange attempt to make anti-intellectualism out to be a commitment to reason.

      On that note, thank you for taking a more rational approach. It is appreciated.

  • keithnoback

    Wait, did you just thank me for being rational after accusing me of holding an irrational position a few sentences above?
    Anyway, perhaps there is something to this analysis. I suppose the same thing could be said of ideas like reformed orthodoxy, hylemorphism, and panentheism – all moves toward a monist philosophy. What does the cosmology of those theories propose but the Daoists’ ‘secondary abstract’ and the view of the whole thing as an event. They’ve stepped to the mouth of Plato’s cave and have simply yet to walk fully into the light of day. They must abandon their wabid wationalism to fully emerge, however.
    On the other hand, to quote Kim’s conclusion on the mind-body problem, “The position is, as we might say, a slightly defective physicalism – physicalism manqué but not by much. I believe that this is as much physicalism as we can have, and that there is no credible alternative to physicalism as a general world-view. Physicalism is not the whole truth, but it is the truth near enough, and near enough should be good enough.”
    You know that spot in the middle of your back, between your shoulder blades…like that. Not exactly a return to classical theism.

    • Debilis

      Just to be sure, I re-read my comment–and can’t seem to find any accusation of holding an irrational position in it.

      But, getting to the point:
      Though I don’t make the accusation of irrationality, I do disagree. To suggest that reformed theology, hylemorphism, and pantheism are moves toward a monist philosophy strikes me as completely wrong.

      The first two could only be said to be as much if contrasted with something like a cartesian view, which was hardly the dominant view. They are clearly a move away from monism in the present context.

      The situation with pantheism isn’t quite so extreme, but the basic point would apply. The movement is toward dualism, and away from monism.

      This is one more reason why I’m more than a bit incredulous of the claim that any of these positions can be described as “a slightly defective physicalism”. Insofar as they explain what physicalism does not (mind) while retaining the ability to explain matter (which they do), it is physicalism that is a defective form of these ideas.

      So, no, I would not agree that a view which cannot explain the most fundamental part of one’s experience (and even contradicts it, as the eliminativists have argued) to be “good enough”.

      If one is concerned about truth, the arguments put forth by Nagel and others have shown that physicalism denies objective parts of reality. Whether or not it is good enough for this or that purpose, its been shown to be an inadequate view.

      So, to summarize, I agree that this isn’t a return to classical theism, but it is a move in that direction. And this has happened because theism is far better at explaining, rather than denying, human experience than the currently popular (though getting less so) physicalism.

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