One challenge I bring to different worldviews is, “Is it livable? Can one actually live within the framework and the truths proposed by that worldview?” I sometimes asked my professors who were radical skeptics or hard determinists, “What you lectured on today is fine and interesting within the walls of this classroom, but once you leave this classroom and once you leave this university to go home, what you have just proposed you will be unable to live out with your wife, or your children, or your friends. It is impossible. So why do you argue for a position that no one either wants to live out or can actually live out?”
Thomas Nagel published a philosophical critique of one popular worldview last year. In Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Nagel has questioned the truth of materialism, also known as naturalism or reductionism. This worldview states that only matter exists. All of life, in fact all of reality, is ultimately reducible to pure physics. The friendship that two people share? Only the firing of neurons in the brain? The colours you experience on a bright spring day? Only molecules bouncing around and interacting with light. In reality there is no friendship and there are no colours.
Nagel believes there is more to this world than the merely physical. There is more to the colours and emotions we experience through our consciousness than molecules and neurons. And for this critique of the materialist worldview, he has been branded a heretic.
Andrew Ferguson has written a marvellous and insightful article, “The Heretic“, in which he explores why Thomas Nagel has been so widely rejected by his fellow atheists for questioning materialism. It is long, but well worth reading.
Ferguson notes that many of Nagel’s critics know materialism is not livable, and so they shy away from materialism’s logical consequences. They “fudge” on materialism, and he chides them for it.
You can sympathize with [Nagel’s critics] for fudging on materialism. As a philosophy of everything it is an undeniable drag. As a way of life it would be even worse. Fortunately, materialism is never translated into life as it’s lived. As colleagues and friends, husbands and mothers, wives and fathers, sons and daughters, materialists never put their money where their mouth is. Nobody thinks his daughter is just molecules in motion and nothing but; nobody thinks the Holocaust was evil, but only in a relative, provisional sense. A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions—understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots—wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath. Say what you will about [Nagel’s critics]. From what I can tell, none of them is a psychopath. Not even close.
Applied beyond its own usefulness as a scientific methodology, materialism is, as Nagel suggests, self-evidently absurd. Mind and Cosmos can be read as an extended paraphrase of Orwell’s famous insult: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” Materialism can only be taken seriously as a philosophy through a heroic feat of cognitive dissonance; pretending, in our abstract, intellectual life, that values like truth and goodness have no objective content even as, in our private life, we try to learn what’s really true and behave in a way we know to be good. Nagel has sealed his ostracism from the intelligentsia by idly speculating why his fellow intellectuals would undertake such a feat.
As a scientific methodology, a materialist approach to the world has its uses. I’m not aware of anybody who denies its usefulness within the scientific enterprise. But applied to all of reality, materialism goes terribly wrong. I agree with Ferguson: one would have to be a psychopath to live out the assumptions and principles of the materialist worldview. For that reason alone, I have to reject it.