Professional philosophy news

Do you only have a brain? On Thomas Nagel

Brian Leiter (law, Chicago) and Michael Weisberg (Penn) review Thomas Nagel‘s (NYU) Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False for The Nation.

Nagel’s is the latest in what has become a small cottage industry involving a handful of prominent senior philosophers expressing skepticism about aspects of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Some, like the overtly Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, have made a career of dialectical ingenuity in support of the rationality of religious faith. Others, such as Jerry Fodor, are avowed atheists like Nagel, and have only tried to raise challenges to discrete aspects of evolutionary explanations for biological phenomena. Plantinga’s influence has largely been limited to other religious believers, while Fodor’s challenge was exposed rather quickly by philosophers as trading on confusions (even Nagel disowns it in a footnote). Nagel now enters the fray with a far-reaching broadside against Darwin and materialism worthy of the true-believing Plantinga (whom Nagel cites favorably). We suspect that philosophers—even philosophers sympathetic to some of Nagel’s concerns—will be disappointed by the actual quality of the argument.

Nagel’s arguments against reductionism are quixotic, and his arguments against naturalism are unconvincing. He aspires to develop “rival alternative conceptions” to what he calls the materialist neo-Darwinian worldview, yet he never clearly articulates this rival conception, nor does he give us any reason to think that “the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two.” Mind and Cosmos is certainly an apt title for Nagel’s philosophical meditations, but his subtitle—”Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”—is highly misleading. Nagel, by his own admission, relies only on popular science writing and brings to bear idiosyncratic and often outdated views about a whole host of issues, from the objectivity of moral truth to the nature of explanation. No one could possibly think he has shown that a massively successful scientific research program like the one inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection “is almost certainly false.” The subtitle seems intended to market the book to evolution deniers, intelligent-design acolytes, religious fanatics and others who are not really interested in the substantive scientific and philosophical issues. Even a philosopher sympathetic to Nagel’s worries about the naturalistic worldview would not claim this volume comes close to living up to that subtitle. Its only effect will be to make the book an instrument of mischief.



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