The Weekly Standard has a compelling story highlighting philosopher Thomas Nagel and his rejection by fellow atheists for questioning materialism. The article, cleverly titled “The Heretic,” appears here. It begins by noting how Nagel found himself so despised by his colleagues:
Thomas Nagel is a prominent and heretofore respected member of the country’s intellectual elite. And such men are not supposed to write books with subtitles like the one he tacked onto Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.
Imagine if your local archbishop climbed into the pulpit and started reading from the Collected Works of Friedrich Nietzsche. “What has gotten into Thomas Nagel?” demanded the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, on Twitter. (Yes, even Steven Pinker tweets.) Pinker inserted a link to a negative review of Nagel’s book, which he said “exposed the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” At the point where science, philosophy, and public discussion intersect—a dangerous intersection these days—it is simply taken for granted that by attacking naturalism Thomas Nagel has rendered himself an embarrassment to his colleagues and a traitor to his class.
The article goes on to detail the quick condemnation the book gathered, noting that The Guardian awarded it the prize for Most Despised Science Book of 2012.
“Thomas Nagel is of absolutely no importance on this subject,” wrote one [commenter on a negative review of Nagel’s book]. “He’s a self-contradictory idiot,” opined another. Some made simple appeals to authority and left it at that: “Haven’t these guys ever heard of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett?” The hearts of still others were broken at seeing a man of Nagel’s eminence sink so low. “It is sad that Nagel, whom my friends and I thought back in the 1960’s could leap over tall buildings with a single bound, has tripped over the Bible and fallen on his face. Very sad.”
Nagel doesn’t mention the Bible in his new book—or in any of his books, from what I can tell—but among materialists the mere association of a thinking person with the Bible is an insult meant to wound, as Bertie Wooster would say. Directed at Nagel, a self-declared atheist, it is more revealing of the accuser than the accused. The hysterical insults were accompanied by an insistence that the book was so bad it shouldn’t upset anyone.
Nagel’s main thrust in the book, and the reason for the ferocious anathema imposed upon him by other scientists and philosophers of science, is that materialism—the idea that everything can be explained (eventually) in terms of physics—actually fails to do just that.
Nagel insists that we know some things to exist even if materialism omits or ignores or is oblivious to them… It doesn’t explain, for example, why the world exists at all, or how life arose from nonlife. Closer to home, it doesn’t plausibly explain the fundamental beliefs we rely on as we go about our everyday business: the truth of our subjective experience, our ability to reason, our capacity to recognize that some acts are virtuous and others aren’t. These failures, Nagel says, aren’t just temporary gaps in our knowledge, waiting to be filled in by new discoveries in science. On its own terms, materialism cannot account for brute facts. Brute facts are irreducible, and materialism, which operates by breaking things down to their physical components, stands useless before them. “There is little or no possibility,” he writes, “that these facts depend on nothing but the laws of physics.”
These things are known to be real by sheer common sense; the fact that materialism rejects them as the effects of solely physical processes seriously undercuts the ideology’s ability to make sense of the world.
Read all of Andrew Ferguson’s article at The Weekly Standard. At more than 6,500 words, it’s a longer read, but well worth it.