Monday, October 16, 2006

Nagel on Dawkins' Latest Book

Following up on my last post, Thomas Nagel has an excellent review in The New Republic of Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion (subscription required). He describes the book as "a very uneven collection of scriptural ridicule, amateur philosophy, historical and contemporary horror stories, anthropological speculations, and cosmological scientific argument." While Nagel is not a religious person himself, he finds Dawkins' arguments for the non-existence of God unconvincing (incredibly, the book contains a chapter entitled "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God". Well, then I guess we'd better cancel church this Sunday). According to Nagel, the primary flaw in Dawkins's thinking is a lack of imagination, in that he can only conceive of two grand explanations: a "physicalist naturalism" and "the God Hypothesis" (read, crude theism). But these "stark alternatives may not exhaust the possibilities". Moreover, Nagel points out that both perspectives require faith, notwithstanding Dawkin's outlandish claims for science:
"All explanations come to an end somewhere. The real opposition between Dawkins's physicalist naturalism and the God hypothesis is a disagreement over whether this end point is physical, extensional, and purposeless, or mental, intentional, and purposive. On either view, the ultimate explanation is not itself explained. The God hypothesis does not explain the existence of God, and naturalistic physicalism does not explain the laws of physics."

Dawkins is clearly perplexed and angry that, 400 years since the dawn of the Enlightenment, so many people continue believe in God. So why aren't people satisfied with a purely scientific understanding of the world? Are they deluded? Dawkins certainly thinks so. But for Nagel, the explanation lies in the fact that the reductionist worldview offered by modern science simply doesn't do justice to reality as experienced by actual humans:
Dawkins, like many of his contemporaries, is hobbled by the assumption that the only alternative to religion is to insist that the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in particle physics, string theory, or whatever purely extensional laws govern the elements of which the material world is composed.

This reductionist dream is nourished by the extraordinary success of the physical sciences in our time, not least in their recent application to the understanding of life through molecular biology. It is natural to try to take any successful intellectual method as far as it will go. Yet the impulse to find an explanation of everything in physics has over the last fifty years gotten out of control. The concepts of physical science provide a very special, and partial, description of the world that experience reveals to us. It is the world with all subjective consciousness, sensory appearances, thought, value, purpose, and will left out. What remains is the mathematically describable order of things and events in space and time.

That conceptual purification launched the extraordinary development of physics and chemistry that has taken place since the seventeenth century. But reductive physicalism turns this description into an exclusive ontology. The reductionist project usually tries to reclaim some of the originally excluded aspects of the world, by analyzing them in physical--that is, behavioral or neurophysiological--terms; but it denies reality to what cannot be so reduced. I believe the project is doomed--that conscious experience, thought, value, and so forth are not illusions, even though they cannot be identified with physical facts.

Dawkins fails to realize that science will never be able to provide an adequate basis for a complete understanding of human existence. It can only give us abstractions which, however useful they may be, are not the substance of life. What Johann Hamann says of historical events is also true of scientific theories and the law of nature; they "are like that wide valley full of dry bones - and lo, they were very dry. No one but a prophet could presage that veins and flesh would grow on these bones and that skin would cover them. As yet there is no breath in them, until the prophet prophesies unto the wind and the word of the Lord speaks..."


Lee said...

Nagel's book The Last Word, in addition to being a great read, walks right up to the edge of religious belief and strives mightily not to fall in. Nagel sees (correctly, IMO) that naturalism has a very difficult time accounting for the trustworthiness of reason.

Kip said...

Science has had some extraordinary successes, but in the areas that truly touch on the spiritual -- life and consciousness in particular -- it has failed spectactularly.

Apart from a tremendous increase in understanding the purely physical processes of life and thought, science is no closer to answer these questions than the magi of Babylon.

It's marvellous to understand what part of the brain lights up when we hear Mozart, but it brings us no closer to understanding what life and thought actually are.

To a rational dualist this should be an adequate proof of a spiritual dimension -- if the answer is not behind the first door, it must be behind the second.

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Steven Carr said...

Supernaturalism has an even more difficult time accounting for the trustworthiness of reason.

Once you posit supernatural beings that can interfere with your thought processes, you pretty much abandon all claims to know that you are thinking rationally.

Perhaps science has questions which cannot be answered. That is still more honourable than having answers which cannot be questioned.

By the way, what is the supernatural explanation of why we light up when we hear Mozart?

Where was that answer published?

Bruce said...

Thomas Nagel is a very mediocre philosopher. His book on objectivity is poor, rambling stuff. I haven't read "The Last Word" yet, but I bet it's as bad. I reckon Nagel envies Dawkins because Dawkins' speculations on "What it's Like to be a Bat" are way more imaginative and well-thought-out than his own.

Matt S. said...

Leave it to Thomas Nagel to elucidate perfectly the flaws in Dawkins latest book. Personally, I think he is the most astute philosopher living; his 'Mortal Questions" is the philosophy book I would most recommend to anyone interested, but somewhat na├»ve, about the subject. It is proper for a philosopher to review Dawkin's book; it IS a work of philosophy. The argumentation is logical and the conclusions are drawn from philosophical analysis, not scientific empiricism. As for poster Bruce, not a fan of Nagel, I ask him to elaborate on his distaste for Nagel's essay "What is it like to be a bat?” a seminal work in the philosophy of mind. I think that what scientists tend to not see, and what philosophers do, is that belief in a totally physical or material ontology of the world is a PHILOSOPHIC position, arrived at through reason and not contingent empirical observation. As such, scientific results cannot, prima facie, justify materialism (though they can certain be interpolated into the arguments for or against.) This being said, as Nagel points out, the arguments for full reductionist materialism aren't as strong as many scientists would think. Many scientists fail to appreciate this, dismissing any possible truths outside the physical. In my opinion the study of consciousness will never really get of the ground until our categories of reality are appropriately expanded. Belief in entities that are not "physical" has nothing to do with belief in God; a creature Nagel nor I have any faith in. I suppose any non-materialist could be described as religious, but only in a very nominal sense. The moral of this story is: if you're going to write a book of philosophy, you better be ready to engage at that level of debate. As Dawkins illustrated, a great scientist does not a philosopher make.