Sometimes Thinking Can Make You Unpopular!
It was Rene Descartes (1596-1650) who famously said “Cogito ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am.” Obviously thinking at that time was an activity held in high esteem. And we might suppose that thinking is a skill that we all appreciate today too. That however is not necessarily so. Consider for example the recent case of American philosopher of science Thomas Nagel. You might expect that thinking is what philosophers are paid to do. That is what Dr. Nagel thought too.
Thomas Nagel (b. 1937) has enjoyed a long and esteemed career among the intellectual elite in the United States. His 1974 article “What is it like to be a bat?” is regarded as a modern classic in the philosophy of the mind. Apparently it still is popular in undergraduate philosophy classes. In addition, Dr. Nagel, over the years, has published on a wide variety of topics focusing particularly on philosophy of the mind and consciousness.
It is hard to understand this man’s present unpopularity with other academics, especially in science. His beliefs are so typical of the group: atheist with radical left political leanings. Nevertheless, when he published his 2012 title Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press), his colleagues declared that he was an embarrassment and a traitor. It appears that when Dr. Nagel articulated some negative thoughts about Darwinism and evolution, his reputation sank like a stone. It is evident that no matter how eminent a person is, he is not allowed to question popular views concerning evolution.
Dr. Nagel did not undergo a change of mind. He is still an atheist, who once declared in a famous chapter entitled “Naturalism and the Fear of Religion” (in The Last Word. 1997. Oxford University Press): “I want atheism to be true … It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” (p. 130) Thus when his fellow academics criticize him as a self-contradictory idiot, they cannot blame background attitudes different from their own. The British publication, the Guardian, ranked Mind and Cosmos as the “most despised science book” of 2012. Apparently the reviews were numerous and overwhelmingly negative. It seems that nobody is allowed to think for themselves when it comes to Darwinism. So what precisely did Dr. Nagel argue?
He began by discussing the view that everything in the universe came about only as the result of the operation of processes working on matter. This view, he said, does not make sense. Yet scientists insist that this is the only possible explanation for everything. (p. 4) Thus he elaborates: “I realize that such doubts will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program [process and matter only] as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.” (p. 7)
He continued by turning his attention specifically to evolution: “the prevailing doctrine – that the appearance of life from dead matter and its evolution through accidental mutation and natural selection to its present form has involved nothing but the operation of physical law – cannot be regarded as unassailable [not possible to attack]. It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed hypothesis.” (p. 11 italics mine) The reason for this dominance of the popular naturalistic interpretation of nature and life, he said, is that nobody can think of an alternative that does not involve God.
Although Dr. Nagel does not believe in God, he nevertheless declares that the mainstream approach to science must be wrong. The reason he says this is because matter and natural processes cannot explain consciousness. Thus he declares: “The existence of conscious minds and their access to the evident truths of ethics and mathematics are among the data that a theory of the world and our place in it has yet to explain.” (p. 31) Since he rejects the supernatural, he hopes to find some kind of purpose in nature that could explain intention, values and mind without appeal to the work of God. One might suppose that his fellow philosophers would appreciate Dr. Nagel’s objective.
The scientific community however cannot forgive an individual who writes of neo-Darwinism: “I find this view antecedently unbelievable – a heroic triumph of idealogical theory over common sense.” (p. 128) In a parting shot, he further describes the neo-Darwinian interpretation not only as “invalid“ or wrong, but also “laughable“. He is quite sure that a new scientific interpretation will appear within a couple of generations, but it may be just as invalid. After all, when it comes to science, humans will believe almost anything, he suggests. (p. 128)
Thus Dr. Thomas Nagel has attracted a great deal of unflattering attention. His crime was to point out flaws in the current scientific orthodoxy. None of his colleagues can blame his religious views, his are the same as theirs. It is evident that independent thinking about origins is neither encouraged nor allowed among mainstream scientists. The majority allow a herd mentality to tell them how to think. We can discard the idea of scientific objectivity. Dr. Nagel`s experience certainly tells us a lot about mainstream modern science.
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