Continuing on about Nagel’s argument against the physicality of mind, we come to Philip Kitcher’s response to Nagel. Kitcher is a respected philosopher, which is why I was rather shocked to find such anti-intellectual sentiments in his article.
Rather than simply focus on how terrible his argument is, however, I want first to point out how common it is.
In fact, his basic approach can be seen in the comments section of this blog: the idea that, if an argument shows that there is something in our fundamental experience that can’t be explained by materialism, then what we need to do is quit thinking about it.
Personally, I find it hard to express how fundamentally close-minded I find this. Really, I doubt that I can improve on the words of Chesterton. “There is a kind of thought that stops thought, and that is the only kind of thought that ought to be stopped”.
But thought that stops thought is exactly what is being promoted by a professor in the New York times. He writes:
“Philosophy and science don’t always answer the questions they pose — sometimes they get over them.” And, in case anyone thinks he’s lamenting poor behavior on the part of philosophers and scientists, he adds this: “With luck, in a century or so, the issue of how mind fits into the physical world will seem as quaint as the corresponding concern about life.”
Part of me was shocked, but I had to admit that I’ve encountered the basic sentiment in many self-identified atheists. Until now, I’d assumed that it was the provence of the uneducated to claim that we stop thinking when thinking starts to contradict their view. But it seems that this isn’t the case.
In fact, it has often seemed that secularists’ real, lived answer to the issues of meaning of life, morality, and God are not so much denials of theists’ answers as a studious avoiding of the questions. Ignore a question long enough, and it will start to feel unimportant.
At least, this would explain why I continue to encounter such complete indifference to life’s biggest questions.
So, I’m forced to admit that it isn’t all that surprising when the materialist’s answer to the fact that mind cannot be purely physical is “just don’t think about it”.
But this doesn’t even rise to the level of an argument from ignorance. It isn’t the fallacious “we don’t know that I’m wrong, so I’m correct” it is the even more fallacious “we do know I’m wrong, but if we make ourselves willfully ignorant of that fact, we won’t know, so I’m correct”.
The second problem with this ‘argument’ is less severe, but largely by making the first one worse. That is, this tactic rather blatantly contradicts the original case for materialism.
Those that know something about the history of philosophy know that materialism became popular based on its promise that it could explain the world more simply than other views. The idea was that we should dispense with the non-material because we can explain everything without it. Ockham’s Razor, and all that.
But now that it’s being shown that materialism can’t explain the things it was supposed to explain, materialists are suddenly claiming that we just stop thinking that all reality can ever be given a unified explanation. Apparently, we should also stop thinking about the fact that there are more unified explanations on offer.
So, we accept materialism because it can explain everything that theism can, only more simply. Except that it can’t, it simply denies most of those other things. And, in the case of mind, we’ll just agree not to think about that.
And, when one asks why we’re materialists in the first place, we’ll be sure to dismiss that as a silly question.
This is all rather dogmatic, and it is not made less so by claiming that materialism is somehow “good enough” or “gets us pretty far”. These are simply false claims. Nothing shown to be false can be good enough for anyone committed to being rational, and, while science gets us very far, it doesn’t need materialism to do its job.
This is not to mention the very obvious fact that the greatness of science runs counter to the attitude that we refuse to ask questions when the answers threaten to destroy our pet theories.