Friday, September 16, 2016

Nagel's Religionist Authority Problem

Thomas Nagel is confused.  He has described what he calls the "cosmic authority problem" as if it haunts all atheists.
The priority given to evolutionary naturalism in the face of its implausible conclusions is due, I think, to the secular consensus that this is the only form of external understanding of ourselves that provides an alternative to theism. - Nagel
In his essay Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion, he writes the passage that has been quoted by many a theist as evidence of the irrational nature of atheistic thinking:
I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear.  I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that 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.
It's not so difficult to see why Nagel is so conflicted.  On the one hand, he is an atheist who is intellectually unsatisfied with the simplistic theistic claims of God as the answer to all questions.  If the theists are correct, then reality is no longer logically coherent.  In a universe like that, anything goes.  Nature is subject to the whims and arbitrary dictates of an all-powerful God, who can bend the rules of reality, or simply make them up as he goes.  This is indeed a disconcerting prospect.

But on the other hand, he is also intellectually unsatisfied with scientific theories that deny some of the deeply ingrained theistic-based beliefs that remain in the psyche of certain atheists who don't fully understand how science addresses those issues.  In particular, Nagel is haunted by the theistic belief that the human mind is something that exists outside the realm of physical reality, and can't be explained by physical sciences.  To Nagel, the idea that mental processes might be reducible to physics and chemistry is unthinkable.

When Christians cite Nagel on this subject, they tend to see what he's saying from their own perspective that fails to account for the real nature of his fears.  When he speaks of things like the irreducibility of mind, they take his words as authoritative.  "Here's an atheist who gets it," they think.  And when he speaks of his fear of believing in God, they take that as proof of the irrational nature of atheism - it's just an admission that he irrationally hides from the reality of God that he knows deep down inside is true.  But what Nagel really fears is the intellectual consequences of God-belief.

But if we make an attempt to understand what he's saying, we see more clearly why Nagel is conflicted and confused.  As an atheist, he understands the incoherence of theistic belief, and he doesn't want to submit to that.  But he still has remnants of theistic belief due to his lack of scientific understanding, and he also sees that there are intelligent people who do believe.  Could it be the case that there's really something to it?  Don't they have the right idea about things like the immaterial nature of mind?

Aside from his lack of scientific understanding, what Nagel doesn't seem to realize is the fact that many atheists don't share his fears and his sense of conflict.  Like many other atheists, especially those who are more scientifically oriented, I have no problem whatsoever with the idea that mind is just an aspect of physical reality.  I have no serious doubts about the reality of evolution as a natural process that is capable of producing what we see in nature.  And this isn't just my willingness to be part if the "in group", as many theists would like to think.  It is based on education and evidence - evidence that most theists refuse to examine or consider while trying to justify their theistic-based beliefs about mind.  And with that understanding, it is easy to conclude that the God-did-it theory of everything, along with their ideas about spirit beings, is intellectually vapid.  We have no fear of what doesn't exist, and that includes any realistic prospect that theism might actually be true.

Nagel's real problem is this: his lack of scientific understanding, and his consequent refusal to relinquish the theistic conceptions of things he doesn't understand better from a scientific perspective.  This is what I call the "religionist authority problem".


  1. HERE is an interesting critique of Nagel's perspective.

  2. Ah yes. It's Michael Chorost, the cyborg. Nagel does have his fans.

    1. With an apt riposte from Jerry Coyne, a researcher who actually worked decades at the coal-face of genetics and knows a bit about evolutionary naturalism.

      The irony here, right in the midst of this philosophical milieu, what do you find? You find anti-scientific philosophy of the Nagels and Chorosts striving for a piece of the action, positing unsupported, unsubstantiated and tendentious notions like 'natural teleology' in belief of their own sense of relevance to the debate. To which the ubiquitous Godsquad autonomically infers as evidence for the 'goddidit' claim.


    2. What I find interesting about these guys - Chorost and Klinghoffer both - is the use of argumentum ad verecundiam. They don't know the first thing about real science, so they hold people like Nagel up as a visionary who's going to revolutionize the field, despite the fact that the vast majority of real scientists have exposed their pablum for what it is. They find anyone with a PhD who is willing to agree with them, and then they think they are standing on solid ground, with the support of the "scientific community".

    3. "They find anyone with a PhD who is willing to agree with them, and then they think they are standing on solid ground, with the support of the "scientific community"."

      Yes. And a turkey with a PhD is still a turkey.

  3. A staple of aplogetics is to pretend that the Enlightenment didn't happen. In their (alternate) world, Aristotle and Aquinas are considered the ultimate authorities on epistemology, and those fringe characters in our world who make mention of them are the leading thinkers of our time. That's why no one outside of apologetics has ever heard of Nagel, or Leowontin, et al. Those poor people are exalted in the cargo cult that is apologetics -- they are virtual celebrities among a fringe group who can't imagine that the rest of the world is working on real problems and making things that their isolation prevents them from even comprehending.

    1. Nagel's excuse is that he isn't a scientist. Lewontin doesn't have that excuse. This is just the result of religious-inspired thinking intruding upon science. The inevitable outcome is garbage that is seized upon by the scientifically ignorant as being supportive of their unscientific beliefs.