DIARIST MARCH 8, 2013
Is there a greater gesture of intellectual contempt than the notion that a tweet constitutes an adequate intervention in a serious discussion? But when Thomas Nagel’s formidable book Mind and Cosmos recently appeared, in which he has the impudence to suggest that “the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false,” and to offer thoughtful reasons to believe that the non-material dimensions of life—consciousness, reason, moral value, subjective experience—cannot be reduced to, or explained as having evolved tidily from, its material dimensions, Steven Pinker took to Twitter and haughtily ruled that it was “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” Fuck him, he explained.
Here was a signal to the Darwinist dittoheads that a mob needed to be formed. In an earlier book Nagel had dared to complain of “Darwinist imperialism,” though in his scrupulous way he added that “there is really no reason to assume that the only alternative to an evolutionary explanation of everything is a religious one.” He is not, God forbid, a theist. But he went on to warn that “this may not be comforting enough” for the materialist establishment, which may find it impossible to tolerate also “any cosmic order of which mind is an irreducible and non-accidental part.” For the bargain-basement atheism of our day, it is not enough that there be no God: there must be only matter. Now Nagel’s new book fulfills his old warning. A mob is indeed forming, a mob of materialists, of free-thinking inquisitors. “In the present climate of a dominant scientific naturalism, heavily dependent on speculative Darwinian explanations of practically everything, and armed to the teeth against religion,” Nagel calmly writes, “... I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world.” This cannot be allowed! And so the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Secular Faith sprang into action. “If there were a philosophical Vatican,” Simon Blackburn declared in the New Statesman, “the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index.” I hope that one day he regrets that sentence. It is not what Bruno, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Voltaire, Hume, Locke, Kant, and the other victims of the anti-philosophical Vatican had in mind.
I understand that nobody is going to burn Nagel’s book or ban it. These inquisitors are just more professors. But he is being denounced not merely for being wrong. He is being denounced also for being heretical. I thought heresy was heroic. I guess it is heroic only when it dissents from a doctrine with which I disagree. Actually, the defense of heresy has nothing to do with its content and everything to do with its right. Tolerance is not a refutation of heresy, but a retirement of the concept. I am not suggesting that there is anything outrageous about the criticism of Nagel’s theory of the explanatory limitations of Darwinism. He aimed to provoke and he provoked. His troublemaking book has sparked the most exciting disputation in many years, because no question is more primary than the question of whether materialism (which Nagel defines as “the view that only the physical world is irreducibly real”) is true or false.
And so scientists are busily animadverting on Nagel’s account of science. They like to note condescendingly that he calls himself a “layman.” Yet too many of Nagel’s interlocutors have been scientists, because Mind and Cosmos is not a work of science. It is a work of philosophy; and it is entirely typical of the scientistic tyranny in American intellectual life that scientists have been invited to do the work of philosophers. The problem of the limits of science is not a scientific problem. It is also pertinent to note that the history of science is a history of mistakes, and so the dogmatism of scientists is especially rich. A few of Nagel’s scientific critics have been respectful: in The New York Review of Books, H. Allen Orr has the decency to concede that it is not at all obvious how consciousness could have originated out of matter. But he then proceeds to an almost comic evasion. Finally, he says, we must suffice with “the mysteriousness of consciousness.” A Darwinii mysterium tremendum! He then cites Colin McGinn’s entirely unironic suggestion that our “cognitive limitations” may prevent us from grasping the evolution of mind from matter: “even if matter does give rise to mind, we might not be able to understand how.” Students of religion will recognize the dodge—it used to be called fideism, and atheists gleefully ridiculed it; and the expedient suspension of rational argument; and the double standard. What once vitiated godfulness now vindicates godlessness.
The most shabby aspect of the attack on Nagel’s heterodoxy has been its political motive. His book will be “an instrument of mischief,” it will “lend comfort (and sell a lot of copies) to the religious enemies of Darwinism,” and so on. It is bad for the left’s own culture war. Whose side is he on, anyway? Almost taunting the materialist left, which teaches skepticism but not self-skepticism, Nagel, who does not subscribe to intelligent design, describes some of its proponents as “iconoclasts” who “do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met.” I find this delicious, because it defies the prevailing regimentation of opinion and exemplifies a rebellious willingness to go wherever the reasoning mind leads. Cui bono? is not the first question that an intellectual should ask. The provenance of an idea reveals nothing about its veracity. “Accept the truth from whoever utters it,” said the rabbis, those poor benighted souls who had the misfortune to have lived so many centuries before Dennett and Dawkins. I like Nagel’s mind and I like Nagel’s cosmos. He thinks strictly but not imperiously, and in grateful view of the full tremendousness of existence; and he denies matter nothing except the subjection of mind; and he speaks, by example, for the soulfulness of reason.