Nagel and his critics, Part I

Thomas Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos, which I reviewed favorably for First Things, has gotten some less favorable responses as well.  (See Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg’s reviewin The Nation, Elliott Sober’s piecein Boston Review, and a blog post by Alva NoĆ«.)  The criticism is unsurprising given the unconventional position staked out in the book, but the critics have tried to answer Nagel’s arguments and their remarks are themselves worthy of a response.  

I’ll examine these criticisms in some further posts in this series, but in this first installment I want briefly to state some criticisms of my own.  For while I think Mind and Cosmos is certainly philosophically important and interesting, it has some shortcomings, even if they are perhaps relatively minor given the book’s limited aims.

First, the book’s subtitle is somewhat misleading.  From a description like Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, you’d expect an attempt at a systematic demolition of the view in question.   But that is not really what the book offers.  Nagel actually puts forward only sketches of various arguments againstthe materialist and neo-Darwinian form of naturalism he opposes.  The bulk of his short book is devoted instead to the positive task of developing an alternative form of naturalism, and a tentative and inchoate one at that.  

I hasten to add that it would be a grave mistake to suppose that sketchy arguments are all Nagel has to offer against the “materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature.”  On the contrary, from his justly celebrated 1974 article “What is it like to be a bat?” to his book The Last Word and in other works, Nagel has put forward penetrating criticisms of prevailing naturalist dogmas.  He has also written favorably of criticisms developed at length by other writers (such as John Searle).  Mind and Cosmos is essentially the work of a philosopher who has already either developed himself or discovered in other writers decisive grounds for rejecting the prevailing form of naturalism and is eager finally to move beyond this negative task and to begin the search for an alternative.  Nagel’s critics should keep this in mind and not pretend that to answer him it will suffice to respond merely to the brief summaries of anti-materialist arguments he provides in this newest book.

Still, Nagel perhaps has unwittingly given ammunition to those among his critics who are likely to be less than charitable or fair-minded.  It would have been advisable to emphasize that the anti-materialist arguments he puts forward in Mind and Cosmos are just summaries of points developed more fully elsewhere.

A second problem with the book is that Nagel’s comments about the theism he rejects are essentially directed not at theism per se, but at what is really only a currently prominent but historically parochial version of theism.  As my longtime readers no doubt already suspect, what I am referring to is the essentially anthropomorphic “theistic personalist” conception of God associated with writers like Plantinga, Swinburne, and Hartshorne and which is at least implicit in writers like William Paley and contemporary “Intelligent Design” theorists -- and which differs radically from the classical theism of Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, Averroes, et al., which has its philosophical roots in the Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic traditions.  

To be sure, though he is an an atheist, Nagel is polite to his theistic rivals.  But he seems acquainted only with the work of ID writers and of Plantinga (whose book Where the Conflict Really Lies he recently reviewed).  Nagel also seems to think that the immanent teleology he is willing tentatively to consider is a rival to a theistic account of the world, when in fact it was an integral part of the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas and other Aristotelian-Scholastic theists.  (I have, of course, said a lot in defense of classical theism and against theistic personalism, and much of it can be found here.  I have also criticized ID at length and discussed the difference between immanent and extrinsic teleology and related matters in another series of posts.  My own review of Plantinga’s most recent book is forthcoming.)  

A third weakness of Mind and Cosmos is that Nagel does not seem aware that his essentially neo-Aristotelian position, though certainly a minority view in contemporary philosophy, is not nearly as eccentric or novel as many readers might suppose.  Nagel cites John Hawthorne and Daniel Nolan’s important recent article “What Would Teleological Causation Be?” but there are many other “mainstream” contemporary academic philosophers he could have cited in defense of a neo-Aristotelian revival.  There are, for example, “new essentialist” philosophers of science like Brian Ellis and Nancy Cartwright; “dispositional essentialist” metaphysicians like C. B. Martin, John Heil, Stephen Mumford, and George Molnar; more broadly neo-Aristotelian metaphysicians like Kit Fine and E. J. Lowe; neo-Aristotelian ethicists like Philippa Foot and Michael Thompson; and “analytical Thomist” metaphysicians like David Oderberg, Gyula Klima, and John Haldane.  Tuomas Tahko’s recent anthology Contemporary Aristotelian Metaphysics and John Greco and Ruth Groff’s forthcoming anthology Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism provide evidence that these diverse strands of neo-Aristotelian thinking might yet become a self-conscious philosophical movement.  And it is one to which Nagel might consider looking for reinforcements.

But as I say, these points may not be relevant to the main aim of Nagel’s book.  And as I will argue, some of the objections of Nagel’s less friendly critics are not as powerful as they suppose.  We’ll get to that.  In the meantime, head on over to Maverick Philosopher, where our friend Bill Vallicella is writing up his own series of posts on Nagel’s book.
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