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When a Heretic Speak Heresy Against Heretics

For deviating from the orthodox scientific position, Nagel has been abused, maligned, outcast, and insulted.
Thomas Nagel

Thomas Nagel

Thomas Nagel, a well known philosopher, recently published a controversial book called Mind and Cosmos. I have not read the book. But I have read a lot about the firestorm it has generated.

Nagel is an atheist scientist  / philosopher and he has upset his peers because his book rejects some nearly universally held scientific positions. I am not completely familiar with all the nuances nor the explanations of the nuances of the disagreement but I can describe the broad strokes of the issue.

It seems that the standard opinion among scientists today holds that everything is material, including consciousness. In other words, everything can be explained evolutionarily. Everything. Including the one thing that makes humans different than animals, that is, our consciousness. Nagel argues that consciousness is not material. He argues that humans have something that is quantitatively different than animals and that our consciousness did not simply evolve as everything else has evolved. Nagel remains staunchly atheist and does not attribute this “thing” to God.

Just the subtitle of the book would be enough to raise hairs: “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”

For deviating from the orthodox scientific position, Nagel has been abused, maligned, outcast, and insulted. Indeed, the tables here are turned. Nagel is a heretic of heresy. He is rejecting a nearly universally held position amongst his peers. One could say that despite his theological beliefs, he is more like Maimonides or Spinoza (l’havdil) than Dawkins or Hawking.

The interesting thing is not that his ideas are rejected by nearly everyone in his field, the interesting thing is the reasons for their outrage.

One reason for outrage is simply because some believe his science is shoddy or flat out wrong. This is fair and we can expect scientists to disagree on matters that cannot be measured.

But the second reason for outrage interests me much more. Some scientists are arguing that Nagel’s book is dangerous because it can be construed to lend credence to Intelligent Design and anti-Science religious groups. They accuse Nagel of cavorting with the enemy. In other words, they are more concerned about how his book will be used by the wrong people than they are about the actual content.

Now, I think most of us would agree that this is silly. If the ideas are true then what’s the problem? If the ideas are being used incorrectly, show those who are using them incorrectly the folly of their ways. Don’t silence a voice because it might assist your philosophical opponent. That hardly seems honest.

Yet, this is eerily reminiscent of book bans in the orthodox Jewish world. Sometimes the books themselves are not necessarily bad or wrong, but what might happen to people who read them, or what might happen if the information is misunderstood, or misused is the reason for a ban. This kind of thing happens all the time, even outside the context of bans on books. We often her that something is not “wrong,” but it could be dangerous, so it should not be publicized.

So what are we to make of this brouhaha? Well, first of all, we see that when it comes to some ideas in the science community there is an orthodoxy that is not very different than orthodoxy within religious circles. There are acceptable ideas and there are unacceptable ideas and sometimes their acceptability does not depend on the merits, sometimes it depends on conformity.

If this kind of group-think, pressure to conform, orthodoxy exists in science, and it does to a small degree, can it be any wonder that it will exist in religious groups? Certainly not. It’s presence is not an absolute evil, rather it is a fact of life and must be dealt with, lest it control us. Some people express anger over this orthodoxy and standard of conformity in the orthodox Jewish world. It can definitely be frustrating, but it might help to realize that every group has orthodox beliefs. It’s not just us.

Further, challenging commonly held ideas is risky business. No one comes away unscathed. Whether it is in reputation, confidence, relationships, or whatever, going against the grain takes courage and is likely to yield uncomfortable results. Tread carefully.

But perhaps most of all, Nagel’s opponents are correct. Nagel’s book does give the believer a glimmer of hope in a scientific world that is perceived as anti-religion. Thanks to Nagel, it is possible that even within the scientific community, not everything can be attributed to pure materiality. Nagel won’t call it God, but perhaps we can.

Thank God for Thomas Nagel.

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About the Author: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D. is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at finkorswim.com. Connect with Rabbi Fink on Facebook and Twitter.


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3 Responses to “When a Heretic Speak Heresy Against Heretics”

  1. Stephen Leavitt says:

    Interesting article.

  2. Gil Gilman says:

    This hub bub is not really about science. It is about power. Why should it matter to those espousing evolutionary precepts what anyone thinks? Evolution is not a monolithic edifice. It has cracks, which they choose to ignore, or fill with putty. Furthermore not all scientists espouse contrary view points for religious reasons. Some are just as brilliant, and have as good or better pedigrees thatn those in the lockstep formation. What is more they have courage. It is no great credential to follow the bandwagon. No! Those who critcise Nagel, are much like those in Roman Catholicism who denounced the idea that the world was round.

  3. Asher Kay says:

    Rabbi Fink – I think you're mistaken about a few things.

    First, to my knowledge, no-one has argued that Nagel's ideas are true but dangerous. He was criticized for saying positive things about intelligent design arguments by people who believe that those arguments are both dangerous *and* wrong.

    Second, Nagel has not been abused, maligned or outcast by his peers. His ideas have been strongly criticized. A few of Nagel's critics got a bit personal (Pinker, for example, referred to him as a "once great philosopher"), but none of the published articles about Nagel's book contain criticisms any stronger than Nagel himself has used in his reviews of others' work. And the published criticisms of Mind and Cosmos find fault with its arguments, not with Nagel as a person or his "unorthodoxy".

    In fact, Nagel's ideas are not particularly unorthodox within Philosophy of Mind. Many philosophers are dualists; many have issues with the explanatory power of evolutionary theory; and many believe that the problem of consciousness cannot be solved by scientific inquiry. These are minority positions, but not heretical ones.

    It's important to consider that, for the most part, Nagel is not making a *scientific* argument at all — he's making a *philosophical* one, which many scientists find unconvincing. He makes a few (flawed) probabilistic arguments, but most of his points hinge on either philosophical ideas about moral realism, distinctions between subjective and objective knowledge, or the claim that evolutionary reasoning is circular.

    Though the narrative of Nagel as a "heretic" seems enticing to some, it simply does not fit the facts.

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