Nagel: A Voice of Reason

Thomas Nagel’s new book, Mind and Cosmos, has many naturalists and atheists all bent out of shape and throwing hissy fits.  Why?  Because Nagel is an atheist and claims to not have a religious bone in his body.  His more rabid critics would feel much better if he were a theist of some type (then it would all make sense they think).  When it’s one of your own though, it’s sort of like sea-sickness—the world seems off balance somehow—the boat is rocking.  So now his fellow travelers are throwing up all over themselves, or, onto page it would appear.  However, what Nagle is- is a voice of reason.  He is not a secular fundamentalist.  As with all fundamentalism, God forbid someone get out of lockstep and break ranks.
It is fascinating when reading Nagle’s critics as it becomes clear they don’t really understand what he is asserting or why he is being fair to someone like Plantinga.  A really good example is in a letter exchange between Nagle and professors of philosophy Georges Rey and Galen Strawson, here and here.
Notice the confusion between those who hear or read the word psychology or, we might substitute, the notion of “intuition” and what Nagle is really addressing in his review.  No one is saying that we rely entirely upon intuition or that one intuition is as good as any other.  Who is saying this?  No one in this conversation.  And to read it that way, is entirely a matter of projecting and imposing one’s own view of what Nagle, in addressing Plantinga, and others (I would include Eric Reitan) are communicating when they speak of subjectively responding (sensing or intuiting) to what they have eventually concluded is an objective reality, namely God’s existence or presence.  The same sensing, by the way, that the vast majority of peoples and cultures have attested to since time immemorial.  In other words, to the question: “Why do I feel this way or sense this to be true about myself and the world around me or in response to a narrative like the Christian story?”  Their answer is: “Perhaps I am responding to a real and true presence in this universe (outside my mind and feelings) and a true narrative.”  The intuition, along with our reason, logic, experience, and a host of other factors is in response to…something—is the assertion. 
No one is simply saying because I “feel” this way, or “intuit” this, that it is “only” or “just” a matter of psychology or emotion, or that feeling a certain way makes something true, in and of itself, but rather is it possible I am responding to something true and real.  That is the question.  To see how this notion of intuition, which I presume is what others are describing as psychology/emotion- is misconstrued and misunderstood see this post and comment section.  Clueless.
The truth is that the atheist responds subjectively (intuitively) as well to others and the surrounding world as to these types of questions.  His view is entirely one of intuition in the sense already expressed.  However, I would stress one key difference.  Very few are atheists from childhood.  Most are “educated” into the view.  I find that many atheists say something like, “Yes, I have a sense of wonder and my feelings and emotions often lead me to think there is something more to this life, but then I check myself and go back to my reason and rationalism, which helps me put things in perspective.”  It is definitely not a default “natural” position.  The atheist almost has to live in opposition to himself.  He has to act as if the universe and the human condition are contrary to how he is moved at times or to some of his deepest intuitions.  The atheist never gets a day off.  He must willfully remind himself, at key moments, indeed the most powerful emotional moments—that all he is feeling or intuiting is pure bunk—there is nothing there—it is all psychological—it is all in his mind.  The same thing happens, conversely, when a Christian fundamentalist has to keep reminding himself that he must believe in a literal 6 day creation, regardless the science.
But this cry for evidence is a red herring.  As Nagel notes:
“The result is a standoff: whether atheists or theists are right depends on facts about reality that neither of them can prove.”
Of course, I would say that this doesn’t really make it a “standoff.”  It is only a problem for those who thought they could settle such a question by “facts” and “evidence” in the same way we might settle a question like, “How far is the sun from the earth?”  If one cannot see that these are two infinitely different questions, then one has no business being in this type of conversation.  And to say something like, “well, if we can’t prove it the way I think it has to be proved, then it’s not a fact,” is question begging as it only demonstrates one’s a-priori commitment to empiricism.  It is a self-referential statement about what one believes, not about what might actually be true as to God’s existence.  It also fails because no one is asserting a God who can be weighed on a scale or picked up on radar.  Thus, it is a double-failure.  Those with either approach have no idea what they are talking about.  It is a colossal question begging philosophy fail.  And this from people who disparage philosophy.  They disparaged it, because they do not understand it and they do so…by way of philosophy!  Of course, I’m sure the irony is lost on them.  Oh well. 
Bottom line: The atheist lives by faith (which encompasses intuition) just as the theist does.  The question of God’s existence can only be resolved, for each person on a personal basis, by how compelling and beautiful the differing narratives are and by how closely and deeply they address the fundamental “why” and “meaning” questions that people have asked and pondered since time immemorial.  I would also add that whichever narrative can best address the problem of evil and whichever narrative can best inspire and give hope and comfort to those who are going through the most difficult times in life, is the narrative that most people will be drawn to and adopt.  Could they be wrong?  Of course.  Could the atheist be wrong?  Of course.  So which narrative will you choose?
But the idea that we can settle the question in a laboratory, in a test-tube, by some electronic measuring device, or by some other strict empirical means is laughable and only tells us that anyone looking for God in such places is looking for a god of his own creation and certainly not the Christian God.
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107 Responses to Nagel: A Voice of Reason

  1. RonH says:

    I don't depart from science on what science can speak authoritatively about, Burk. Beyond that, am I not free to explore?

    I don't do the whole “god of the gaps” thing either. God underlies everything. “In him we live and move and have our being”, as St. Paul said. I know. Mystical balderdash. For me, Christianity doesn't explain everything so much as connect everything. “God” isn't an answer. “God” is an even bigger question.

    Speaking of mystery… This is curious. From where I sit, it is naturalists who avoid mystery. All of human experience has authoritatively been reduced to electrochemical reactions in the brain. Things we haven't worked out yet? Oh, no bother… just a matter of running the right studies. We'll get there, no worries. Consciousness? Doesn't really exist. Free will? Just an illusion (see “consciousness”). Art? Beauty? Purpose? Meaning? Good? Evil? Spandrels, all. The whole universe is one big deterministic mechanism, of which we are an insignificant, random part. I'm not feeling the mystery.

    I've got all the mystery and wonder of (true) science, and a whole 'nother level of mystery and wonder on top of that. I don't know what kind of diminished, hidey-hole kinda world you think I live in, but since I can't even make out the horizon it feels pretty big to me. Yeah, there are lots of itty-bitty christianities out there… I grew up in some pretty hard-core fundamentalism. Human beings fear open spaces, and we like to wrap our certainties tight about us. But this says more about us than it does about God.

    I think I've got anything atheism has, and more. Just can't see as how I'm all that better off by dropping my Christianity, Burk. I'm not hurting anyone, near as I can tell. Yep, lots of folks are hurting people in the name of religion — even Christianity. People tend to screw up everything they get involved in, be it religion or science. Christianity has something to say about that also…

    You shouldn't let any of this puzzle you. It's just my little primate brain making up stuff to help me function in a big scary world. It makes me feel good and has even helped me reproduce. Like… what else is there, right?


  2. Burk Braun says:


    Thanks for your robust answer. If god is such a question, why do you think you have the answer? It is funny how all this “exploring” ends up in belief, and in belief in your inherited traditions. I would say Bernard is the more honest explorer.

    Lastly, you are indeed hurting people with your belief. Calling on supernaturalism is bad science. If you think that love, beauty, and art come from anywhere but our brains in communication with others, you are promoting crap science. You might just as well believe that cell phones work by magic. It is a sad situation and one that brings down the level of education and discourse all around the country.

    Anyhow, best wishes for your holidays. I will be exploring unicorns, though probably not believing in them.


  3. RonH says:

    Not claiming to have the answer, Burk.

    Bernard is an honest explorer, and I respect him for that. Where he and I diverge I think can be best summed up in Chesterton's aphorism, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

    Calling on supernaturalism is bad science.

    Indeed. And Michelangelo's David is bad music. However, I forgive your category error, seeing as you only have one category to work with.

    Your claim that I'm hurting people with my belief is completely unsupported by evidence. (Shoot, Burk, I'm not sure you even know what I believe.) In fundyworld, this is known as “demonizing”. Your projections on me sound precisely like the fundy preachers of my youth who would always insist that atheists couldn't possibly be moral or have an honest unbelief in God — simply because their little world could allow for nothing else. I know fundamentalism when I see it, Burk, and the shoe fits you very, very well.

    But that's okay. I have… um… faith that science can help us understand the causes of fundamentalism, so there may be help for you in this life. And if not, God will have a good time bringing you 'round afterwards.

    Merry Christmas, Burk! God bless us, every one!


  4. Burk Braun says:

    Ron, I am intrigued by your extreme response. You claim not to have the answer, but also claim to be a solid Christian, convinced that the rest of the world will or may come around to your view. So what is your view, if it has no answers? Darrell posits that all Christians at least share the Nicene creed, which states a number of counter-scientific facts/beliefs. Like that god made all things, and Jesus was incarnated from god somehow, and ascended to heaven, and that he will come back.

    If all this super-belief and metaphysics in your great adventure could be quarantined from reality, then I wouldn't have any problems with it. But it always impinges. There is no point to having religious beliefs, as I understand it, without them impinging on quite concrete reality, helping someone's prayer, or making love happen without biology being responsible, hoping for eternal life after death, etc.. Or do you take up a pure deism? Do you see religion differently?

    That is my sticking point. I know it is hopelessly science oriented and parochial, but it does seem to be the point where religions make the least sense and the most presumptions. Eric's project has been to paint (his) religion as “reasonable”, and this area, it manifestly is not as far as I can see. Whether it leads to moral good, great art, and blossoming love I can leave aside for the moment- that does not bear on its correctness. The object of opening the mind is not to have it fall out.

    No need to respond ..


  5. RonH says:

    Yes, Burk, as a Christian I believe all those wacky things in the Nicene creed, including the bits about resurrection. Especially those bits, in fact. And, yes, those bits aren't scientific in that resurrection is a miracle. If science could explain it, it wouldn't be a miracle now, would it?

    That sound was your wheels falling off, right? Yes, Christianity has a complete impossibility at its center. The Incarnation and Resurrection have been making rational people like you scratch their heads for two thousand years. But that impossibility in the center is what gives everything else form. It's hard to express… but going back to Chesterton yet again (as I can never avoid doing for long):

    The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything—Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility.

    There. All clear now?

    I'll save you some trouble: If Darrell, Eric, and Dianelos haven't been able to shed any light on this for you, I don't stand a chance.


  6. Burk Braun says:

    Thanks, Ron, that is indeed completely clear now. Happy holidays again.


  7. RonH says:

    LOL! Glad I could help, Burk.

    Happy holidays to you also, whatever you choose to celebrate!


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