Slipping Off the Atheist Dude Ranch?: Strict Naturalism and Atheist Philosopher Thomas Nagel

Before philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote this in the most current edition of the Times Literary Supplement about Stephen Meyer’s new book (ticking off a lot of atheists), he wrote this, in the New Republic, in late 2006, concerning philosophical naturalism’s reductionist project:

I believe the project is doomed – that conscious experience, thought, values, and so forth are not illusions, even though they cannot be identified with physical facts.

And yet Nagel also acknowledged that:

Any anti-reductionist view leaves us with very serious problems about how the mutually irreducible types of truths about the world are related. At least part of the truth about us is that we are physical organisms composed of ordinary chemical elements. If thinking, feeling and valuing aren’t merely complicated physical states of the organism, what are they? What is their relation to the brain processes on which they seem to depend? More: if evolution is a purely physical causal process, how can it have brought into existence conscious beings?

I see the anti-reductionist’s explanatory dead-ends as well, but I’m still glad to see so prominent a philosopher giving non-reductionist ideas consideration. I too have been toying with the thesis that mind might not reduce to matter (because strict naturalism seems so inadequate). And so I ask (with Nagel): What if mental things can’t be reduced to physical things? What, in other words, if there are two independent ontological mysteries (mysteries of being): the physical and the mental? I know. This is dualism. But given strict naturalism’s serious problems, does dualism deserve a second look? Maybe, for example, we should posit that free will really exists. Is that just crazy? Or are we, indeed, actors crashing the “determinate atoms dancing in the void” party?

Free will is in the house?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Slipping Off the Atheist Dude Ranch?: Strict Naturalism and Atheist Philosopher Thomas Nagel

  1. josefjohann says:

    Philosopher’s Syndrome: Mistaking a failure of imagination for an insight into necessity. [photo: Thomas Nagel]

    But seriously, we know that aspects of mind have neural correlates. As Harris pointed out in his NYT piece, we know that frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy are associated with defecits in moral reasoning. Knowing this, it is regrettable that that someone such as yourself (santi) should be tempted to pre-emptively conclude that naturalism, as it is embodied in the still-unfolding fields of cognitive science, neuroscience are “inadequate.” It’s no accident that dualism feeds on the corpses of gaps previously left to God.

    I just hope the CDC does something about the syndrome before it becomes and epidemic.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Joseph:

    I want science to push as far into the explanatory as possible. But what you’ve offered is a promissory note on the future. Promissory atheism—or promissory naturalism—is fine, and it’s the only way forward (to attempt natural, as opposed to supernatural, explanations for things). But the impasses have to be fairly evaluated each and every day. How probable today (not at some unspecified point in the future) does a natural explanation for the laws of physics, or the first cell, or the mind, or free will look? Those “stocks” go up and down according to what science discovers from day to day. I’m just saying, “Keep an open mind. Maybe something more is going on.” I like the ambivalences of agnosticism.

    —Santi

  3. josefjohann says:

    To be blunt, that shows a disturbing lack of seriousness for the import of empiricism. If we brought the stock analogy a little closer to focus, we could say that the day to day effect on empiricism of various experiments are akin to adding or removing a few centimeters off the top of Mt. Everest.

    It would be profoundly misguided to, for example, regard the failure of a particular method of cognitive neuroscience as a failure of the whole of empiricism, rather than recognize it as a failure of a particular instantiation of an empirical method which can readily be replaced with a new one, fresh with potentiality. It is a misunderstanding of what a failure of an experiment means, because the underlying

    In this context the only function of agnosticism on this point is to shelter an inclination toward spirituality that can’t be motivated by its having any positive explanatory power in its favor, because it just doesn’t have any. You can be open to the idea that there is something other than what is natural, but that isn’t nearly enough to warrant the level of ambivalence you put on display every day at this blog. Furthermore, it suggests to me that you respond to these questions with a spiritual weariness, because it’s easier to favor the marshmallow-soft path of least resistance than it is to confront the cruel and crackling details of an empirical world rife with its muck and tangled roots, promising 100 failures for every gain.

  4. josefjohann says:

    let me finish that sentence:

    … because the underlying principle by which we ask empirical questions is the same thing speaking back to us when we learn that we have failed. (I.e.- we have positive results contrary to our expectations)

  5. santitafarella says:

    Joseph:

    You said: “In this context the only function of agnosticism on this point is to shelter an inclination toward spirituality that can’t be motivated by its having any positive explanatory power in its favor, because it just doesn’t have any. You can be open to the idea that there is something other than what is natural, but that isn’t nearly enough to warrant the level of ambivalence you put on display every day at this blog. Furthermore, it suggests to me that you respond to these questions with a spiritual weariness, because it’s easier to favor the marshmallow-soft path of least resistance than it is to confront the cruel and crackling details of an empirical world rife with its muck and tangled roots, promising 100 failures for every gain.”

    I really think that you hit it on the head. I’m Hamlet (who can’t figure out if he’s heard from a ghost, and so makes a mess of things in all his confused dithering). I do what you are saying, no doubt. I do have an impulse to the mysterious and the spiritual. My brain is empirical; my heart mystical. I like the wide ranging potentiality of being able to entertain both sides—but you are right that I’m a bit of a softy (perhaps in the head because of it).

    —Santi

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