Monday, December 3, 2012

Atheist Heresy

Alvin Plantinga  reviews Thomas Nagel's new book Mind And Cosmos. Ed Feser has several posts about the book too. Nagel is an atheist who spends most of the book explaining why the most popular atheist philosophy is wrong.
So far Nagel seems to me to be right on target. The probability, with respect to our current evidence, that life has somehow come to be from non-life just by the working of the laws of physics and chemistry is vanishingly small. And given the existence of a primitive life form, the probability that all the current variety of life should have come to be by unguided evolution, while perhaps not quite as small, is nevertheless minuscule. These two conceptions of materialist naturalism are very likely false.
So he provides good evidence for rejecting atheism on its own terms.  Theists often point this out but as you can imagine their judgement is not trusted by atheists. So having this guy out there is a good thing.

Plantinga's article was titled "Secular Heresy." That got me thinking in a different direction. Atheism can't really have heresy. Still Nagel feels like a heretic. He is denying some things that many atheists feel you cannot deny and still be an atheist. But Nagel is in a worse position. His heresy is being proclaimed by mob rule. Other atheists are just shouting him down. They don't want people interested in atheism to think Nagel is one of them. That makes sense from their perspective.

But what can Nagel do to defend himself? Can he argue that what he has proposed is within the bounds of the thing called atheism? That is almost impossible because that thing is ill-defined. In Catholicism there are documents that define orthodoxy. When you are accused of heresy you can go to those documents and try and argue that you have not denied the faith. That what you are proposing can be understood as a legitimate development of the faith. It is a winnable case. There is a magisterium there that matters. You don't need to try and convince the same mob that already condemned you to admit they were wrong.

So it seems that the ill-defined form of heresy is going to be way more oppressive than the precisely defined one. In other words, Catholicism creates a better environment for free thinkers than atheism does. This is ironic because atheists love to describe themselves as free thinkers. It is like the teenager who demands freedom from his parents and then submits to his peer group in everything. It is only freedom from the previous situation and not true freedom.

We have seen this before. What atheism is doing is exactly what protestantism has been doing for a long time. They are trying to keep together some school of thought without an authority to define what that thought is. We know what happens. Authority defaults to the loudest voices. People become afraid to challenge the alpha male in their pack. So free thinking is not really happening. But you don't get unity either. Occasionally somebody does break off and defines another school of thought. In protestantism they are called denominations. Atheism is really too young and undeveloped to have names for these things. Still they do exists and will grow in number. Sola Ratio will not be any more united than Sola Scriptura. It has the same weakness. There is no central authority to hold it together.

Brad Gregory has this quote:
‘Sola ratio’ has not overcome the problem that stemmed from ‘sola scriptura,’ but rather replicated it in a secular, rationalist register. Attempts to salvage modern philosophy by claiming that it is concerned with asking questions rather than either finding or getting closer to finding answers might make sense – if one just happens to like asking questions in the same way that thirsty people just like seeking water rather than locating a drinking fountain, or indeed having any idea whether they are getting closer to one.
So free thinking is possible but harder. It involves being demonized by the current crop of dominant thinkers. Not sure if they will start burning heretics at some point. We advanced beyond that but we can move backwards quite quickly. When the state starts to enforce one school of thought as the only right one then we are in real danger. Nagel need not worry for his physical safety right now. His professional safety is another matter. At 75 he likely does not care. I wonder if a bright young philosopher would be able to survive this kind of heresy. I wonder how many have decided to not take the risk.


  1. Interesting post. I'm curious if you've read his book, I'm personally completely unaware of this guy. You provided a couple of links at the top here, I guess I'll have to bookmark this and read those when I have the chance.

    I'm curious, do you know what he does believe in? If he doesn't think materialism can explain consciousness, does that mean he believes in a soul or spirits or something?

    We've talked about different definitions of atheist in the past and how it means different things to different people. Do you know in what sense Nagel uses the term?

  2. I have not read the book, just a few articles. From the reviews I have read he does not seem to put the full anti-materialist argument in this book. That is better developed in other works. His most famous article is here

    This book is trying to describe what he does believe in. Plantinga goes into it in his review. He admits that it is much weaker, that he only has a rough sketch of something that might not be fully understood for a few generations. He is definitive in rejecting God and definitive in rejecting materialism. He gives better reasons for rejecting materialism. Maybe that is just because I reject it too. But he does not reject it because he has his own pet theory all figured out. He is sure it is wrong because he sees it as inherently implausible.

    Nagel is an atheist in the strict sense of the term. That is someone who is convinced there is no God. He has defended that position in scholarly papers. He does disagree with traditional atheism in many ways so he would not fit into the Dawkins/Hitchins school of thought.