Saving Atheism from Atheist Philosophers

life-preserver1Thomas Nagel has written some formidable challenges of the currently fashionable materialism. This is the theme of his most recent book “Mind and Cosmos”. (And, personally, may I voice my disappointment with the title? Given that his previous book was called “The Last Word”, I was hoping this one would be titled “P.S.”)

I’m not sure that I’d recommend the book to everyone, but I would recommend his summary of it. It gives one a good overview without delving into the technical. It even includes a much more straightforward version of a point that (as far as I remember) is not directly stated in the book.

That is this: as he’s laying out the options, he’s fairly open about the fact that philosophers of mind seem to have chosen their favorite position largely to avoid theism.

An atheist himself, Nagel is honest enough to admit to a certain amount of personal bias. (He says of theism “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.”) Thus, he’s offering other atheists what he sees as an escape from a physicalist belief system that (as he’s shown) is looking less and less defensible, without returning to the dreaded theism. He was actually caught off guard by the the fact that many theists see him as something of an ally.

But he is an ally to theists, whether he wanted to be or no. He’s far too committed to the truth to take back what he’s said unless someone can actually deal with his arguments. And what he’s said is devastating for the materialism that functions as the greatest bastion of atheist thought.

I hope to get to his atheism at some point, but perhaps it’s worthwhile to point out another reason why the standard (but fading) materialist view of consciousness is wrong.

For most of the twentieth century, experts held that consciousness is simply a part of the material world (i.e. brain functions). The first and most devastating problem with it was outlined in a previous post, but there is another I’d like to mention. It’s been called the “China-head” objection. This is the analogy:

There are about as many people living in China as there are neurons in a human brain. So, if consciousness is simply the pattern of neurons firing in the brain, what would happen if the Chinese people were to send each other text-messages in a brain-like pattern? Would that series of messages be conscious?

Most of us would find an answer of “yes” a little hard to swallow.

But this follows logically from the idea that consciousness is simply a pattern of activity. Anyone who wants to reject it, or reject the idea that a very complex collection of rocks tied to springs whacking one another is conscious, needs to admit that there is more to consciousness than a pattern of activity.

Now that this idea of consciousness is being revealed as false (for this and other reasons), there’s a great deal of scrambling to find a better view. And at least part of this is motivated by a desire that allows us a view that can still avoid theism, as Nagel admits.

Right now, a trendy phrase is “non-reductive” materialist (or, really, “non-reductive physicalist”). That is, a materialist who doesn’t believe that the mind can be fully “reduced” to material parts–that it is somehow emergent. But I think it’s fairly clear why the days are numbered for this approach. Materialism is, by its nature, a reductive philosophy. That was the idea, after all. Materialists rose to stature by promising to explain just as much without having to propose anything other than matter. To take back that claim now is to abandon the core, and key attraction, of materialism.

This is why “non-reductive materialists” have had such a hard time offering a view that isn’t either (a) simply a denial of mind written in very complex language or (b) something that isn’t materialism or physicalism at all, masquerading as physicalism.

Nagel, seeing (rightly, in my view) that this isn’t going to work, has opted for (c), throw out materialism altogether. Which, whether he likes it or not, means throwing out nearly all the main reasons why atheism was embraced by academia in the first place. It shields atheism from criticism, but only by cutting it off from its support.

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