Thomas Nagel again

Thomas Nagel shocked the philosophical world in 2012 with a book called Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. I was reminded of him because of David Bentley Hart, subject of my last posting below.

Hart is a committed Christian and Nagel is an atheist. They are looking at the same mountain from different sides, one from the side of beginning to see what the mountain might really be, and the other from the side of a clear vision of what it is. For each, it is the mysterious mountain.

To Nagel, the question to be explained is whether the account given by Darwinists to man’s capacity for moral reasoning is true. If we have evolved, as everyone admits, then what is our capacity to grasp the difference between good and bad in any fundamental way? Oh yes we can tell the difference between pleasure and pain all right, but is pain really bad or have we just evolved to feel that way? The answer turns on what you mean by “really”.

Nagel got himself into trouble with some quarters by saying that we know that pleasure and pain are good or bad in themselves and we are so constituted that we know this difference really, not just because we have evolved to avoid one and seek the other. This is what is called a realist view: realist in the sense that we truly apprehend the world, and are not confused by demons who actually hold our brains in vats, while we experience this three-dimensional illusion of the world, à la Matrix movies.

Nagel concludes that the Darwinian picture must be incomplete.

The historical question is about our origins: What must the universe and the evolutionary process be like to have generated such beings? Both these questions seem to require some alternative to materialist naturalism and its Darwinian application to biology, but what are the possibilities? (at p.112)

To which David Bentley Hart would say to Nagel, “well done, you are starting to ask the right questions”. Hart takes a view that I share, namely that consciousness is primary and the material universe is secondary:

Once again: We cannot encounter the world without encountering  at the same time the being of the world, which is a mystery that can never be dispelled by any physical explanation of reality, inasmuch as it is a mystery logically prior to and in excess of the physical order. We cannot encounter the world, furthermore, except in the luminous medium of intentional and unified consciousness, which defies every reduction to purely physiological causes, but which also clearly corresponds to an essential intelligibility in  being itself”. (pp.297-298)

In brief:

  • physical explanations do not explain the mystery of being;
  • we cannot experience the world apart from consciousness, which cannot be reduced to material causes; and
  • the world is intelligible.

To which Hart would add, all religions, at all times, have asserted as much.

Below, on a related matter, Hart discusses his disappointments with the atheists: Dennet, Hitchens, and others. Hart’s style is high, wry and dry, and one could wish for a littel more oomph in the presentation, but he is bombing from a great height: the B-52 airstrike so high the newly dead never heard it.

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