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Thomas Nagel

May 10, 2013

In the latest issue of National Review, Jonah Goldberg has a piece titled: “The New Anti-Atheists: Believers are getting some reinforcements.” In it, he writes that though Christianity has been under assault by celebrity atheists, “Perhaps just in time, some allies are walking onto the field.” The article focuses on primatologist Frans de Waal, but also mentions psychologist Jonathan Haidt and philosopher Thomas Nagel. Nagel was featured on the cover of The Weekly Standard, where Andrew Ferguson wrotes about Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos, and the furor that it caused among the neo-Darwinist/New Atheist/determinist materialist reductionist whatever camp. Mind and Cosmos also received a positive write-up in National Review by M.D. Aeschliman. It seems that Christians and theists have chosen Nagel as an ally against materialism.

And with good cause. After all the snark that Christians have taken from the “New Atheist” camp, it’s refreshing to see a brilliant atheist philosopher come to dismantle their ideas. Nagel’s book is an opportunity for Christians to say, “Look: Even atheists are sick of Richard Dawkins.” And it proves once and for all that rejecting the most stringent forms of evolutionary naturalism do not make you a trailer-park-dwelling Bible-thumper.

Rumours have spread that Nagel intends to duct-tape Daniel Dennet to a chair and shave off his beard.

But despite Nagel’s brilliance, and despite the fact that he takes on Dawkins and Dennet, I find it problematic that Christians are beginning to take him on as an ally. For whatever his intellectual achievements, his skilled arguments, and his breadth of mind, Thomas Nagel is still an atheist through and through. He himself has said (in The Last Word) that he doesn’t just believe there is no God. He hopes there is no God.

I will admit that I haven’t read Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, though I plan to at some point. The most I’ve read of Nagel is the introduction to The Last Word, his book about reason and relativism . I didn’t finish it, mainly because I was at a busy point in the semester, and despite Nagel’s lucidity, philosophy is still not beach reading. So as far as Nagel’s philosophy goes, I am not qualified to comment on anything more than its basic contours. However, there are two points that I think need to be made.

A Book I Haven’t Read

Nagel has set himself up as the enemy of evolutionary naturalism–the idea that the universe is nothing more than a completely purposeless entity governed by pointless chance, that values, purpose, morals, logic and other things of the sort are merely constructs of our own mind, and that we are nothing more than “moist robots,” dirty bags of water, animals whose brains are fooling us by making us think we have a “self.” In response to this idea, Nagel offers something more like emergent evolution, restoring the role of purpose, values, and the self in metaphysics. He even argues for what may be called intelligible design–life isn’t a fluke, but is built in to the nature of the universe. Because of his opposition to the mechanistic Darwinian view, Christians have viewed Nagel’s view as closer to theirs than Dawkins’ or Dennet’s, and therefore taken him on as an ally.

The problem is that Thomas Nagel is an atheist. While Christians may think that his view of the world is better than the pure materialist view (and certainly I would prefer it), it is still an atheist view, built on atheist foundations, with no reference to God or Christ. Many Christians today think that somehow they have achieved a victory when some person moves from hardened atheism to something vaguely close to belief in God–witness the jubilation over Antony Flew’s silly conversion to theism. The problem is that Christians are not called to convert people to belief in teleology, “fine-tuning,” intelligent design, non-materialism, theism, miracles, or what-have-you. Christians are called to convert people to Christ. As refreshing as Nagel’s ideas seem, his entire theories are still opposed to Christ. To borrow an illustration from Doug Wilson, if we are studying Nagel, we need to be studying him like Wellington studied Napoleon, not like Lydia studied Wickham.

The second issue is that Christians feel like Nagel has legitimized being against materialism. The thought is that now that an atheist opposes this idea, we can be confident in opposing it as well. The reaction to Nagel’s book is part of a greater trend of Christians looking to “allied” atheists for support–if an atheist thinks such-and-such as well as us, he’s unbiased by his religion, and therefore more reliable. This sets up atheism as a sort of neutral ground. Atheism, however, is not a neutral ground. Atheism (or atheisms) has its faith commitments, its presuppositions, and its cultural baggage, just as much as Christianity or any religion. Just because a Christian supports an idea that is backed up by his faith does not mean the idea isn’t legitimate. Christians need to be more confident in their ideas (if they are good ideas). We don’t need to look to the Thomas Nagel’s of this world for approval.

One of Nagel’s most famous essays is “What is it like to be a Bat?”

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