Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Thomas Nagel, Heretic; or: Question Materialist Orthodoxy, Get Excommunicated

Let me say again: when you have to look to the NRO to make sense on something, you're in a bad way.

[Saints preserve us! It's''s...the Weekly Standard! The truth must have been too much for me, and my brain tried to preserve my sanity...  Well, their backgrounds are both pretty blue...]

The semester started and I misplaced my copy of Mind and Cosmos before finishing it. It's still on the reading list, and, no doubt, around here somewhere...

But this article will give you a big old insight into the state of contemporary academic philosophy in America.

I'm less interested in the specifics of Nagel's arguments than I am in his treatment by the kind of philosophical celebrities/opinion-makers mentioned in this piece. (Note: philosophical celebrity != good philosopher...)

The fact is that materialism and naturalism, on certain common/hard-core interpretations, are simply not innocuous doctrines, but, rather, views that seem to entail that many of our most important ideas are deeply confused. For some reason certain people don't bat an eye at giving up freedom or moral obligations. They seldom seem to reflect on the fact that we'd also apparently/possibly need to give up on ideas crucial to science and philosophy themselves, such as that of justified belief and rationality.

I am, of course, not making an argument here. I'm just gesturing quickly at the problem. One could go externalist/reliabilist, of course, and cobble together some successor notion to justified belief...though I don't think it works. At all. But my point isn't about the particulars of the philosophical arguments. Rather, I'm just pointing out that the sociological facts about contemporary academic philosophy are pretty scary. Even someone of Nagel's stature can become anathema by questioning the materialist/naturalist orthodoxy. And, note: that orthodoxy, though, well, orthodox, is entirely unproven. It's a position. There are things to be said for it. Its problems are fairly well-known.

Nagel isn't crazy, not by any stretch of the imagination. He might be wrong, of course. But the people here who are acting crazy--and not acting like philosophers--are his detractors. You can be skeptical of naturalism and materialism without being a kook, or religious (egad!) or a mystery-monger, or ignorant, or muddle-headed or retrograde or any such thing. I'm skeptical about both naturalism and materialism (on the apparently intended interpretations), and I got here because I used to think those doctrines were true, but, after thinking through them, I concluded that they were inconsistent with the proposition that I was thinking through them in a rational/reasonable/justified way. So I adopted the hypothesis that they might very well be false (on the intended interpretations), and I maintain that hypothesis to this day. I'm willing to give it up on the basis of arguments, and I might do so some day. But the kind of pogrom being conducted against Nagel isn't going to make me any more sympathetic to the orthodoxy.


Anonymous Myca said...

(Note: philosophical celebrity != good philosopher...)

See also: Zizek

10:29 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

The saddest thing about Nagel's recent work, to me, is that I find myself largely inclined to avoid it. I simply can't allow myself to descend into the pathetic name-calling and puerile posturing surrounding the text and passing for philosophy.

I am interested in whether or not you think Nagel's work brings something new to the table when it comes to debates about materialism or naturalism. I feel as though, as you said, the problems with those positions are fairly well known. Does Nagel hit on something new, or is it primarily a recap/summary presented by a philosopher who's become frustrated with the stubbornness with which the position(s) is (are) maintained today?

It seems to me that philosophers as far back as the ancient Greeks became quickly aware that materialistic/naturalistic cosmology alone will not suffice for philosophy, and that there is more to the universe than materialistic/naturalistic theories would have one believe. If Nagel is bringing something new to the discussion, I'm interested, but at the cost of exposing my brain to the ridiculous "debates" which seem to be springing up around the topic, I'm not sure if it's worth it.

As a non-professional, very amateur philosopher, I just don't have time for that sort of thing.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


*@#$&%. *^*#&%$$%&#^. *#!@&#&@$*$#&%%^^!!@. *%#(*$@$^^&*%+$@#+$^(%&7=!!!!!!!!

(Come to think if it, that's all more coherent than the stuff that dildo says.)

2:24 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Up to the point at which I stopped reading (temporarily), there was nothing terribly new other than Nagel's flirtation with defending the ID folks like Behe. Other than that, pretty standard stuff, though well done. I think this is intended to be a kind of popular book.

5:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Winston, you've got to stop linking to these disingenuous NRO pieces. First the feminism one, and now this. Both articles have almost no substantial work to do beyond building great giant straw men, that the author can convince conservatives are ubiquitous, powerful, and bent on persecuting dissent. This way, the next time the conservative reader wants to deny climate change, or suggest that white men are the truly oppressed, and some "intellectual" argues against him, he can beat his breast and remind himself that even Nagel, redistributionist atheist, is persecuted for even slight deviations from doctrine.

I mean, did you really read this Nagel article? Despite the author's tone of wry familiarity with philosophers and their crazy notions, he does not understand the distinctions between physicalism, naturalism, empiricism, and materialism. ("David Hume, the father of modern materialism." For realz. "Materialism", which is almost never used by Dennett et al, is the author's default term, most likely because it vaguely associates these philosophers with Marx.) The author makes as if the Dawkins crowd has some sort of stranglehold over academic philosophy, that a little dualism or moral rationalism will destroy your career, then spends time finding quotes from economics bloggers (!) to support this. We know this is very far from true, that Zombie-fueled dualism is an equally powerful and popular position in philosophy of mind, and that explicit moral nihilism is almost never defended. Virtue theory is practically the conventional wisdom amongst ethicists, yet to read this article you'd think Phillipa Foot had been shot in a ditch. Ridiculous.

Don't support the Conservative strategic self-pity machine.

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Myca said...

The thing I find the most frustrating about Zizek is how perfectly he represents every reason the average person has to scorn Philosophy ... so of course he's become popular as the modern face of Philosophy. He validates every assumption and prejudice.

1:46 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Thanks for your comments. A few replies:

1. I don't read the Weekly Standard piece as disingenuous. Wrong maybe...

2. Nope on the straw man point, and vehemently so.

3. I'm not typically sympathetic with the hermeneutics of suspicion (as they say), so I'm not smitten by your hypothesis about what sneaky motives the WS might have. I'm not sympathetic with those guys typically, but even a stopped clock is right twice a...well, you see where I'm going with this...

4. Um...are you seriously asking whether I read the article? No, of course not. Rhetorical device. Ok.

5. re: 'materialism': isn't that the term Nagel mostly uses? And isn't that the term that most people still use? We'd say 'physicalism'...but that's not a term with a lot of currency. *Maybe* it's a sneaky reference to Marx...but that's not the smart bet.

6. Erm, did you read the bit about Dennett et al. joking (?) about Nagel having gone insane? Have you seen any of the vitriolic crap that Leiter has written about the book?'s not all economics blogs... Still, I'm getting around to the part where I take your point...

As for the real facts about philosophy:

a. Isolated as I am from what the cool kids think these days, I may, indeed, put too much weight on sayings by what pass for pop philosophers among the remnants of analytic philosophy...the e.g. Dennetts. Very possibly guilty as charged.

b. In fact, the Phil Papers survey says that more than 50% of academic philosophers accept or lean toward physicalism, with most of those accepting, while fewer than a third accept or lean toward dualism, split about equally. So that *is* way more support than I normally think of there being. Still, 14% accepting dualism...not really huge numbers there...

I guess I wouldn't say that virtue ethics is the conventional wisdom among ethicists... Though I *will* admit that my own predilection for seeing compatibilism, consequentialism, and basically anything intellectually descended from Hume as tantamount to normative nihilism is...not obviously uncontroversial... Ahem.

Now, the reception of Nagel's book *has* attracted a lot of scorn from scientists, and at least some very notable scorn from philosophers...and I was pretty appalled by the stuff reported by the WS... And I wrote in response to that. Upon reflection, you are, of course, right that I'm jumping to conclusions. But the comments by Dennett and Alex Rosenberg from the naturalism workshop were appalling. An esoteric version of naturalism and an exoteric version? Really? Jebus...

Also: I left philosophy of mind behind before everybody went ga ga for Chalmers... And I still remember a friend saying, in one of Bill Lycan's phil mind classes: "we're 3/4 of the way through a philosophy of mind seminar, and the word 'dualism' hasn't been uttered once; isn't that a little weird?" He was nearly sniggered out of the room...

So there's a biasing fact about my perspective...

Anyway, thanks for the criticism.

Duly noted.

Will mull it over.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Cheers, brother. I miss you.

11:15 PM  
Blogger Dark Avenger said...

Hey, Tom, ready to deny reality again in favor of what the Church Fathers wrote centuries ago?

8:45 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Ah. I'm reminded of why the proprietor of this blog keeps him/herself anonymous. I don't blame him/her.

And if you're going to approve DA's comment dissing me, the only person hereabouts who signs his real name, principle requires you approve this comment. And so---

I do tell the story as an example of the debasement of modern academy about the PhD and small-college professor who'd "heard" that Aquinas had been "disproved" and so never bothered with him.

I shall not reveal his [or her] true identity as I'm a man of honor, but I'd hoped to find him having made some progress intellectually or politically since I left him last, rather than still hanging out with the same group of mouthy sophomores who are now a bit too long in the tooth to be cute anymore.

To find you still here on a tiny safe homefield with "Myra," The Mystic, and The Dark Avenger as readers/sycophants disappoints me. Neither does RateMyProf have much to offer to your credit.

WS, you always needed to read Ed Feser, if only to challenge him. Challenge yrself now. And I do thank you for the CS Peirce, the very good one thing you ever taught me. For that alone I remain in your debt.

Peace. Out. You know where to find me and if you do it'll be with arms open.

12:34 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Wow, dude, I was going to say that it was nice to hear from you--which I reckon it still is--but I don't really understand much of anything you wrote above.

I would have thought you'd be referring to me, though none of that fits... Maybe the RateMyProfessors stuff...I wouldn't know what that looks like. So anyway...I'm baffled.

For the record, I've been busy, and approved DA's comment with such a quick glance that I didn't even realize it was directed at you, and I remember thinking "what's he talking about?" because, the 'Tom' part didn't register, and I thought he was making fun of me for supporting Nagel.

I always approve any comment that isn't spam or crazy, and, for trusted commenters, I often publish them automatically and read them at my leisure.

Anyway, I've gotta admit, it is kinda bad form, DA, to go kicking our old crony Tom in the 'nads when he drops by to say 'hi'...

I do realize he can be frustrating, but jeez man.

Anyway. I doubt the story you tell, Tom, about some professor somewhere saying that he'd "heard that Aquinas had been disproved." But philosophers say all sorts of stupid things. That is a drop in the bucket compared to some of the shit I've heard.

Anyway, the quality of civility is not strained.

9:42 AM  
Blogger Dark Avenger said...

I'm sorry, Tom, that you found my little satirical question so off-putting, but I don't know why putting my real name to my comments here wouldn't endanger my job or do anything to my life at all.

My real name is Frank Cuffman.
Does that revelation do anything for you?

You, of all people, should be aware that the identity of a speaker/writer doesn't have anything to do with the truth or falsity of a proposition.

E = mc^2 is still true regardless whether it's scrawled in crayon by a 5 year old child on construction paper or cited in a scientific paper by, say, Stephen Hawkings.

12:24 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yeah, it seems to be that complaints about anonymity in such cases are misplaced.

And, actually, I'm still anonymous--to the extent that I am--more out of habit than anything else.

Well, scratch that. If I were non-anonymous, there are lots of things--like, e.g., feminism--that I'd basically have to quite writing about unless I wanted to risk professional blowback.

Still, my anonymity is of a decidedly half-hearted variety...

3:13 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:45 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

[Tom's comment above deleted]


Ok, Tom, this is getting more than a little creepy...downright stalkerish, in fact.

I've always thought you seemed like a decent fellow in many ways, and I've done something like my best to be friendly. But there are limits. Following my ratings on Ratemyprofessor, hypothesizing about my personal life and giving me personal advice about things you know nothing of, spinning out fantasies about my views about my place in the world...I'm just gonna go ahead and say that's all really fucking weird.

I published your comment at first, because I publish all criticism...but then I deleted it, because, well, it was nuts, and I'm using my discretion here and exercising my perogative as blog honcho. I don't have to give your nonsense a platform. Don't you have a platform of your own?

For the record, Tom's non-personal criticisms amounted to:

1. Tom claims I allegedly once said that I was "under the impression that Aquinas had been refuted." I can't believe that, nor for the life of me imagine what someone who said such a thing would be thinking...unless it was about some specific issue. For example, it would make sense to say something like "I was under the impression that Aquinas had been refuted with respect to his views of substantial form" or some such specific thing. Who knows? I've said many stupid things, and it's possible that I said this. If so, it was stupid. But it's probably made up.

2. Tom claims that my "ratings" on have been "slipping," and, basically, that my students hate me and I suck as a teacher. Ferchrissake. What is this, some kind of cat fight? I feel rather as if I should just ignore this, but I'll just say: I don't read ratemyprofessor, nor does any other prof I know of who doesn't have a self-esteem problem. There's a clear consensus about my teaching, based on lots of data of various kinds, which is at odds with Tom's assertions.

Ok, Tom.

Go in peace.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Dark Avenger said...

Tom reminds me of this quote from Voltaire:

I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: "O Lord make my enemies ridiculous." And God granted it.

11:40 AM  

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