Tag Archives: Nagel

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.

Cracks in the Materialist’s Armor

Iron-Man-3-2013-Broken-Armor-HD-Wallpaper-1024x741Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued that “the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”. The thing to be aware of here is that the emphasis is on “materialist”. If you don’t know about Nagel, you should. He is a very well respected philosopher, and is one of the small (but growing) group of academians to reject the dominant view of materialism.

His challenge, therefore, may well be a sign of much bigger changes on the horizons.

Getting to that challenge, Nagel has pointed out that science cannot inquire into certain things (such as consciousness and value), not because it hasn’t had enough time to do so, but because the scientific method has been defined in such a way as to exclude them.

How does that work? It’s rather simple, actually. The early proponents of modern science insisted that anything which cannot be mathematically modeled should be considered “out of bounds” for science. Things like, say, the color red as it looks to a person were defined as non-scientific topics.

Specifically, they were classified as “subjective”. Science could describe the reflective properties of surfaces, or the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, in mathematical terms, of course. But anything like one’s everyday experience of red simply isn’t (according to this view) a property of the outside world.

This is all to say that the actual first person experience we each have is simply not something science studies–or can ever study.

But many (philosophically uneducated) people assume that neuroscience will resolve this issue. “After all” this line of thinking goes “science has described everything else in mathematical terms, so it will only be a matter of time before brain-science describes our experiences in the same way”.

The problem is that this is based on a very sophomoric understanding the philosophical foundation on which neuroscience rests.

In simplest terms, the scientific method cannot be the solution to this problem, because it was exclusive adherence to this method that created the problem in the first place. Essentially, science has been using the mind as a sort of dumping bin for everything that cannot be mathematically modeled.

It goes something like this:

-“The color red as common sense understands it? Can’t be described mathematically. List that under ‘subjective’.”

-“Value judgment? Same problem. Call that ‘subjective’ as well.”

And so on it goes. One can argue that these things actually are subjective, but that is not the point. The point is that science can’t study them. The subjective contents of the mind aren’t going to succumb to the scientific method in the same way the physical world has for the very simple reason that modern people tend to call a thing subjective (or “all in the mind”) if science can’t study it.

And, if we’re going to do that, we can’t turn around and say “everything else but the mind has been explained by science, so it will be, too”.

But what about neuroscience? It undertakes the (very necessary) task of correlating behavior with brain-states. It can tell us, for instance, what particular patterns of neuron activity are associated with a subject claiming to see the color red. What it doesn’t do is tell us any more about the subject’s mental life than that verbal behavior. It simply doesn’t inquire into the subjective.

Proponents of materialism tend to rail at this. They often say that the whole, vast universe is being explained by science, and that it’s silly to think that our minds (this tiny little part of the whole) should be the one exception to its methods.

But, if one understands Nagel, the answer is obvious. Our minds are “the exception” because that is how we’ve chosen to draw our (mostly arbitrary) lines of demarkation. To borrow an analogy from Edward Feser, to say that the mind will be described by science because everything else has been is like a man sweeping all the dirt in the house under the kitchen rug. Then, when someone points to the bump in the rug and says:

“You didn’t get rid of the dirt, you’ve just moved it. What are you going to do about that bump?”

“Simple,” he replies. “I’ll just get rid of it the same way I got rid of all the other dirt in the house. Are you suggesting that this tiny little part of the house is some magical exception to a method that worked everywhere else?”

In this case, it’s obvious that the kitchen rug is the one place that this method will not work, even in principle. The sweep-it-under-the-kitchen-rug trick, even carried out for all eternity, will not solve the problem of the dirt under the kitchen rug. And it isn’t mysterious in the slightest; it’s just a simple fact that follows from the the cleaning method being used.

But the same is true for materialism. The sweep-it-into-the-mind trick isn’t going to explain the mind. This has nothing to do with our current lack of understanding in neuroscience. Nor is it remotely “magical” (a word critics of this argument like to throw around). Neuroscience continued for all eternity couldn’t solve this problem because it is, like all sciences, dedicated to the method of “sweeping” anything that cannot be mathematically modeled into the “subjective pile” (aka the “mind pile”). Therefore, it can’t possibly explain the things in the “mind pile”.

For these and other reasons, Nagel concludes that science (at least as we currently define it) cannot possibly investigate all things that we experience on a daily basis, and that materialism is, therefore, false.

One can attempt to argue with his logic (good luck), but the important thing to note is that none of this has to do with the current limitations of our knowledge. It is about what is possible, even in principle, for science to discover.

And this would mean that materialism, which is the basis of modern atheism, is simply false.

Having shown that there is more to reality than the physical, Nagel sets out to wonder what that “more” might be, while most philosophers set out to try to refute him. I’ll discuss one attempt at refutation soon.