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On Heretics and “Heroic Feats of Cognitive Dissonance”

I’ve been spending some time in the first two chapters of Genesis over the last few weeks as we make our way into a summer worship series on creation.  And one cannot read very far in the literature about the first two chapters of the bible without at some point encountering the predictable, tendentious battles between evolutionary naturalism and creation, science and religion, etc.  It seems to me that those who get the most excited about these issues often quite badly misunderstand either the nature of science or the nature of religion.  Or both.  And this tends to lead to a considerable amount of heat and not a great deal of light being generated in public discourse on this issue. 

This is true in the church, certainly.  But it is also true in the academy.  One of the articles on these matters that I recently came across is “The Heretic” by Andrew Ferguson (from The Weekly Standard).  It discusses the NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel’s recently published Mind and Cosmos and its reception by the wider philosophical/scientific community.  When I was an undergraduate studying philosophy, Thomas Nagel was widely admired.  We had to read his famous work on phenomenology and consciousness called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”  His work also figured prominently in every class on Philosophy of Mind.  But Nagel has fallen from grace, it seems.  Quite rapidly, in fact.

Why?  Well, because Mind and Cosmos calls into question the dominant and widely accepted worldview (in the academy and beyond) of evolutionary naturalism (the subtitle of the book kind of gives it away: “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False”).  Nagel is still an atheist, of course (he’s not crazy!), but he is convinced that there is more going on in the story than most accepted accounts of the nature of our world will allow.  He is prepared to consider that nature might be inherently teleological—that some kind of goal might be built into the structure and mechanisms of reality.  And for this, he has been savagely pilloried by his fellow academics.  It is a still, evidently, a dangerous thing to depart from the cherished orthodoxies of those in positions of power and influence.

I’ve not yet read Mind and Cosmos so I cannot comment on the book’s merits or lack thereof.  But the reaction to its publication as described in Ferguson’s article is fascinating, even if entirely unsurprising.  The passion and fervour with which Nagel is mocked and ridiculed by thinkers like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins for departing from the materialistic script is truly remarkable.  One would think (or hope, at least) that intellectual discourse might be a bit more measured and restrained.  One would think that the academy would be a safe place to broach a wide variety of ideas and possibilities.  One would think that seriously considering the possibility of purpose in the cosmos would not lead to one being labelled “retrograde” or having one’s mental faculties called into question.  One would, alas, be wrong.

Be that as it may, it seems to me that Nagel is at least asking important questions.  For him, a worldview of evolutionary materialism is too threadbare.  It doesn’t account for enough of our experience of the world.  It tells part of the story, but not the entire story.  It can’t do justice to how we think about and participate in some of the most important things in life—things like freedom, love, beauty, and wonder.  In other words, Nagel seems to be wrestling with what most of us sense intuitively (imagine that—a philosopher with his feet in the general vicinity of the ground?!).  Ferguson puts this very well in the article:

As a philosophy of everything [evolutionary materialism] is an undeniable drag. As a way of life it would be even worse. Fortunately, materialism is never translated into life as it’s lived. As colleagues and friends, husbands and mothers, wives and fathers, sons and daughters, materialists never put their money where their mouth is. Nobody thinks his daughter is just molecules in motion and nothing but; nobody thinks the Holocaust was evil, but only in a relative, provisional sense. A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions—understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots—wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath.

Ferguson goes on:

Mind and Cosmos can be read as an extended paraphrase of Orwell’s famous insult: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” Materialism can only be taken seriously as a philosophy through a heroic feat of cognitive dissonance; pretending, in our abstract, intellectual life, that values like truth and goodness have no objective content even as, in our private life, we try to learn what’s really true and behave in a way we know to be good. Nagel has sealed his ostracism from the intelligentsia by idly speculating why his fellow intellectuals would undertake such a feat.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is said to have remarked that scientists can tell us everything about human beings except “what it is to be born, to live, or to die.”  I think this is as true today as it was in Kierkegaard’s nineteenth century.  The difference, I think, is that today we are less capable of recognizing (or more unwilling to acknowledge) this “heroic feat of cognitive dissonance” that we are daily performing.  We cheerfully live as if freedom were real, goodness and beauty were objective, and truth and morality were universal and binding, while rarely bothering to inquire as to whether or not our meta-assumptions about the nature of the world allow for the very elements of human life and experience that we most highly prize.

And Thomas Nagel’s sanity is questioned?

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Intriguing. Perhaps I might need to read that one.

    My take:

    1) Science is the practice and discipline of figuring out how the cosmos works and what it is made of
    2) Faith gives us the reasons why it is the way it is and defines the purpose of the cosmos

    They can mutually inform… but faith should not dictate to science hows and what… and science should not dictate to faith why and purpose.

    As a mathematician, engineer, computer geek, etc… I see so much beauty in science, beauty that, as Nagel said, points to something more than simply pure science can describe… And even if I look at evolution, I see in it a guiding force. Reading “Where is God When It Hurts” by Yancey… and he points out in that book the amazingly complex system that is the human pain reflex and how complex that nervous system is in interpreting things as pain and how IMPORTANT it is for pain to actually exist in order to focus the body towards healing that which is damaged… And even in something as unpleasant as pain we see the beautiful goodness of a God who made sure we know when we’ve injured ourselves so we can seek out healing… and when that system is disrupted (leprosy, diabetic nerve damage, fibromyalgia), the immensity of the damage that is done to the human body when it can no longer properly process pain… Yes, there is a God…and science has shown me that…

    June 26, 2013
    • Well said, Robert! For me, science is a wonderful for understanding what is, but it can never tell us what ought to be. The is/ought distinction is regularly ignored or simply not realized by scientists and philosophers alike. We need to use the right tools for the right jobs.

      (Where is God When It Hurts? is one of my favourite Yancey books.)

      June 26, 2013
    • Lamoureux’s is certainly an important voice on these questions.

      June 26, 2013

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