Home/Alan Jacobs/Thomas Nagel is Admirably Fair-Minded

Thomas Nagel is Admirably Fair-Minded

Thomas Nagel’s review 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.”

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

leave a comment