Sunday, March 24, 2013

Nagel On the Failure of Materialism

Monroe County

As a theistic philosopher and philosophy of religion professor I am interested in atheism-as-philosophical materialism (PM). PM claims that physical facts explain all facts.

Most philosophical atheists are PM-ers. A rare exception is NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel. Nagel rejects PM, thoroughly, in his new book Mind and Cosmos. Nagel writes: "Materialism requires reductionism; therefore the failure of reductionism requires an alternative to materialism." (p. 15) Which means:

  • Since, on PM, physical facts explain all facts, then all facts are, in principle, reducible to physical facts. Always, on materialism. Therefore materialism requires reductionism.
  • But "it seems unacceptable to deny the reality of all those familiar things that are not at first glance physical." (Ib.) What kind of familiar things? Things like "qualia, meanings, intentions, values, reasons, beliefs, and desires." (Ib.) ("Qualia", i.e., qualitative realities such as first-person consciousness.)
Nagel writes: "If no plausible reduction is available, and if denying reality to the mental continues to be unacceptable, that suggests that the original premise, materialist naturalism, is false, and not just around the edges. Perhaps the natural order is not exclusively physical." (pp. 15-16)

This kind of talk excites theists like me for two reasons: 1) atheism-as-PM (today's default atheism, at least for academics as opposed to internet atheists who don't have epistemic access to this discussion) lacks full explanatory power; and 2) non-physical realities exist, seemingly.