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.