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Thomas Nagel is Admirably Fair-Minded

Thomas Nagel’s review [1] of Alvin Plantinga’s new book Where the Conflict Really Lies is a model of intellectual fairness and honesty — the kind of thing that’s so rare that it’s rather a shock to see it. Nagel is quite straightforward in distancing himself from Plantinga’s religious beliefs:

It is illuminating to have the starkness of the opposition between Plantinga’s theism and the secular outlook so clearly explained. My instinctively atheistic perspective implies that if I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true, the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith. From Plantinga’s point of view, by contrast, I suffer from a kind of spiritual blindness from which I am unwilling to be cured. This is a huge epistemological gulf, and it cannot be overcome by the cooperative employment of the cognitive faculties that we share, as is the hope with scientific disagreements.

And at the end he writes,

The interest of this book, especially for secular readers, is its presentation from the inside of the point of view of a philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist—an outlook with which many of them will not be familiar. Plantinga writes clearly and accessibly, and sometimes acidly—in response to aggressive critics of religion like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His comprehensive stand is a valuable contribution to this debate.


I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.

Again: this is really remarkable. Having confessed that he “cannot imagine believing what [Plantinga] believes,” Nagel nevertheless must acknowledge that Plantinga is doing excellent philosophical work and that his arguments cannot be easily dismissed. Moreover, Nagel clearly relishes simply being exposed to ways of thinking so alien to his own — he obviously finds it refreshing. “It is of great interest to be presented with a lucid and sophisticated account of how someone who holds these beliefs understands them to harmonize with and indeed to provide crucial support for the methods and results of the natural sciences.”

Would that we all might be so fair-minded, and find intellectual difference something not to be feared but “of great interest.”

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Thomas Nagel is Admirably Fair-Minded"

#1 Comment By James K.A. Smith On September 19, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

Agreed. And Plantinga is reviewing Nagel’s new book, “Mind and Cosmos” for the New Republic. I expect respectful repartee.

#2 Comment By Patrick Harris On September 19, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

I must say, your arrival at TAC has cemented its place as my preferred source of incisive commentary. From what I can see, your interests complement the existing blog writers splendidly, and I am more than a little pleased to have a fellow Alabamian on the lineup. Keep up the good work, sir. I’ll be returning for more.

#3 Comment By bayesian On September 19, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

Thanks for this, Dr. Jacobs, and I am very happy to see you here (You were one of my favorite contributors to TAS).

I also liked Nagel’s review, and am inspired by it to at least consider reading Plantinga’s book, since the review implies that I have a fair chance of understanding what Plantinga is trying to say.

I stand very much on Nagel’s shore of the epistemological gulf (although, as a tyro fan of coherentism, I suppose I’m really afloat on the gulf, frantically reassembling my leaky vessel, plus it’s probably at least a three sided gulf, since Nagel is so strongly anti-reductionist), but have tried to understand some of Plantinga’s work that other secular philosophers take seriously (e.g. his modal version of the ontological argument), and have found the task hopeless.

Thank you, Dr. Smith, for the heads up about Dr. Plantinga’s review. Since he will be writing for a general audience, it should be accessible (it does strike me as somewhat odd that he’s reviewing in TNR rather than e.g. NYRB or NYT. Do you know why?).

#4 Comment By Henry Chappell On September 19, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

The review impressed me as well. In fact it sent me straight to amazon.com. I’m a little bothered by Mr. Smith’s comment about Plantinga reviewing Nagel’s book, though. Working out here in the sticks, I don’t have a sense of the liklihood of literary back-scratching.

#5 Comment By nadezhda On September 19, 2012 @ 5:42 pm

Nagel is admirably fair-minded to Plantinga, but not so fair-minded to “secularism.” Nagel sets up (and apparently personally embraces) a strawman “naturalism” to contrast with Plantinga’s metaphysical Trinitarianism, which itself goes far beyond any doctrinally neutral “theistic” metaphysics.

I was quite taken aback that Nagel’s “naturalism” seems to be a pretty narrowly reductionist materialism that reflects a sterile epistemology that’s been trapped in arguing over extreme versions of scepticism (e.g. brains in vats) for what seems like at least a half century of analytical rabbit holes. If in only that sense, boy was Rorty right!

There’s too much exciting non-reductionist stuff going on today in neuroscience, evolutionary biology and epigenetics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, moral philosophy, and epistemology for Nagel to conflate “secularism” and “naturalism” with stale positivist atheistic materialism.

Like Larry Arnhart at [2], I certainly welcome Platinga’s demonstrations of the compatibility of evolution not only with theism but with a doctrinally rigorous version of Christianity. But also like Arnhart, I think Plantinga is far from having made a serious case that evolutionary science requires a theistic metaphysical foundation. I’d even go further, and suggest that one can have a place for a deity in one’s metaphysics without buying Platinga’s imago dei version, which pretty much requires buying Platinga’s God.

I also really, really, really dislike the hint of biological essentialism about religiosity, which Nagel seems to consider as part of his “fair-mindedness”. It’s too easy to take the next step — that people who aren’t naturally religious (whatever in heaven’s name that might mean) are damaged goods because they’re missing something essential that makes people human. Such an argument is often implicit in claims that morality requires belief in God. What? Did God fail to design those people with a “God gene”? This sort of “us” and “them” is as bad as the Dawkins types who portray people who believe in a deity as superstitious knuckle-draggers.

So though Nagel’s approach is a decided improvement over Dawkins et al, until he contrasts Plantinga’s approach with something other than a strawman, I can only summon up a cheer-and-a-half for his fair-mindedness.

#6 Comment By nadezhda On September 19, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

@ bayseian — it’s probably at least a three sided gulf, since Nagel is so strongly anti-reductionist

Yes, he is anti-reductionist, isn’t he. Which is why I was so taken aback by the false dichotomy he presented. Nagel did admit, “Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.” But then, crickets. No suggestion that there are a whole lot of other debates going on. And Platinga’s “theism” shouldn’t be equated with “theism” generally — it’s a very strictly defined version of Christianity. The vast majority of the world’s religions, to say nothing of various Christianities, wouldn’t fit within Platinga’s metaphysics.

#7 Comment By Ken Z. On September 19, 2012 @ 7:15 pm

I was impressed, too. Nagel had to beware, though. A hatchet job on Plantinga would have invited Plantinga to do to Nagel what he did to Richard Dawkins in a long essay in *Books and Culture* a couple of years ago. As a combination of sharp logic and withering sarcasm, it was pitch perfect.

#8 Comment By Tex Tradd On September 19, 2012 @ 11:15 pm

Nagel’s 1974 essay “What is it like to be a bat?” is well worth pondering. Easy to find on the Internet and well written.

The difficulty for standard cognitive neuroscience, with it’s materialist ontology, in accounting for the experience of animals is formidable. Nagel confronts the problem of phenomenal experience not nicely mapping onto the set of measurables and observables neuroscience uses.

Put another way: that mental image you have of Romney’s mannequin-like face doesn’t exist for neuroscience as something that can be directly measured (one could argue that indirectly measuring it can be done through fMRI etc, possibly). Nagel opens up and explains the general problem of why this is quite nicely.

#9 Comment By Scott Lahti On September 20, 2012 @ 1:04 am

See also the long [3] launched by Thomas Nagel’s plumping in its “Books of the Year” roundup in 2009 for Stephen C. Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design.