Atheist 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.