Nagel's Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament



Nagel's Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament

The question I have in mind is not, of course, “Is there a god?” Rather it is a general question about the relation of individual human life to the universe as a whole. The question is pointed to by its religious answer: namely that our lives are in some way expressions or parts of the spiritual sense of the universe as a whole, and that we must try to live them in light of this, and not only from the point of view of our local purely individual nature. I believe that the question to which this is one possible response remains to be asked even if a religious response is not available, and it is this: How can one bring into one’s individual life a recognition of one’s relation to the universe as a whole, whatever that relation is?

It is important to distinguish this question from the pure desire for understanding of the universe and one’s place in it. It is not an expression of curiosity, however large. And it is not the general intellectual problem of how to combine an objective conception of the universe with the local perspective of one creature within it. It is rather a question of attitude: Is there a way to live in harmony with the universe, and not just in it?
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"...The woman sings. Can you justify your existence then? Just a little? I feel extraordinarily intimated...Couldn't I try...Naturally, it wouldn't be a question of a tune...but couldn't I, in another medium?...It would have to be a book: I don't know how to do anything else...

They would think about my life as I think about hers: As something precious and almost legendary."

-Sartre, Nausea


His thoughts on intelligent design are interesting:

Although I seem to be constitutionally incapable of religious belief, I find the contemptuous attitude toward it on the part of prominent secular defenders of evolutionary naturalism intellectually unreasonable. Unless one rules out the idea of divine intervention a priori (and setting aside the problem of evil), some version of the argument from design seems to me a perfectly respectable reason for taking that alternative seriously – no less so now that Darwinian theory has been elaborated through the great discoveries of molecular biology...

...I don’t think it is easy to figure out how to reflect this awkward fact in the design of public scientific education for a society that takes no stance
on religious questions. Perhaps it is politically necessary to avoid addressing the question of what religious beliefs are and are not compatible with contemporary scientific knowledge. But if the question were to be taken up, I believe young-Earth creationism and the denial of evolution would go on one side of the line and the existence of God and some forms of intelligent design would go on the other side.


If we're trying to find the sacred in the science, Alan Moore expresses this idea through poetry in his Snakes & Ladders collection. I find the bold particularly poignant:

"We are insensate molecules,
assembled from the accidental
code engraved upon our genes.

Mud that sat up.

Chemicals mingle in our
sediment and in their
interactions and combustions
we suppose we feel
suppose we love.

We reproduce, mathematically
predictable as spores within
a petri dish.

We function briefly then
subside once more to the
unknowing silt.

We are a blind contingency,
an unimportant restlessness
of dirt and yet Rossetti
paints his dead Elizabeth
head tilted back on her
impossibly slim throat, eyes
closed against the golden light surrounding her.

Clay looks on clay and
understands that it is

Through us, the cosmos gazes
on itself, adores itself,
breaks its own heart.

Through us, matter stares
slack-jawed at its own
star-dusted countenance
and knows, incredulously,
that it knows.

And knows that it is


A good review of Nagel's Mind & Cosmos - Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False by physicist Adam Frank:

Is There A Place For The Mind In Physics? Part I

Now, as 13.7 readers know, I am no fan of reductionism. In its grandest claims, reductionism tends to be more an affirmation of a faith then a tenable position about ontology (what exists in the world). However, as a physicist I am more prone to the Emergentist position because it requires a less radical alteration of what we believe does exist out there. Nagel's view asks for such a dramatic reworking of ontology that the evidence better be just as dramatic and, so far, it isn't.

Still, once I got past Nagel's missteps on Darwin, I found his arguments to be quite brave, even if I am not ready to follow him to the ends of his ontology. There is a stiff, cold wind in his perspective. Those who dismiss him out of hand are holding fast to a knowledge that does not exist. The truth of the matter is we are just at the beginning of our understanding of consciousness and of the Mind.

Think about the difference between Galileo's vision of "the real" and Einstein's. At this point in our study of the Mind, are we really so sure of what can, and what cannot, be simply dismissed? Nagel may ultimately be wrong, but he is correct in articulating one limit in the range of what might possibly be right.


If I'm remembering correctly, pretty sure Nagel was virulently attacked by Dawkins following the release of Mind & Cosmos. Unfortunate.

Dawkins way of thinking seems to be on its way out.
Hopefully that's true.

But tons of people attacked Nagel. From what I've read so far, I can understanding why people were frustrated by his discussion of evolution. He really should have put in a basic summary of what he sees as flaws in the materialist account.


When Nature Speaks, Who Are You Hearing?

Where does sacredness live?

Mircea Eliade, the great scholar of religion, tried to articulate how this ancient experience shaped Homo sapiens. Its presence in the life of early hunter-gathers during the Paleolithic and Neolithic worlds was, he claimed, an essential part of the development of human culture. The places where sacredness was experienced — a particularly magnificent tree or an open glade — became the locus of ritual. People wanted to maintain contact with that fleeting sense of possibility and power. Today that sense might be found in temples or churches for those of religious sensibilities or, perhaps, in wild spaces for those who are not (I sometimes feel it in buildings like observatories that are dedicated to science).

But what, if anything, does this experience point too? If you're religious, the answer is easy. It's simply the expression of the divinity you feel is all around. But I am not religious and many like me still feel this enigmatic emotion. When strident atheists like Richard Dawkins speak of the awe they feel before the universe, they too are acknowledging the reality of the experience (even if they are unwilling to give that experience the status it deserves.


Bats, Dogs, and Posthumans

Blindsight sufferers are not aware of seeing anything. But if you throw them a ball, they are often able to catch it; and if you ask them to “guess” the location of a light that they cannot see, they are usually able to turn in the right direction. Apparently their brains are still processing visual stimuli, even though the outcome of this processing is never “reported” to the conscious mind. Such nonconscious mental activity provides the analogy on the basis of which Watts imagines his aliens. In doing so, he manages disquietingly to suggest that consciousness might well be evolutionarily maladaptive, reducing our efficiency and our ability to compete with other organisms.
...This vast environmental surround also subtends our use of analogy in order to grasp “other minds,” or to imagine “what it is like” to be another creature. Degrees of resemblance (metaphors) themselves depend upon degrees of proximity (metonymies) within the greater environment. Consider, for instance, the dog instead of the bat. Dogs are not intrinsically any more similar to us than bats. They operate largely by smell; if anything, this is even more difficult for us to imagine than operating by sound. Blind people can often learn to echolocate with their voices, or with the tapping of their sticks. But it is unlikely that any human being (at least as we are currently constituted) could learn to olfactolocate as dogs do.

Despite this, we feel much closer to dogs than we do to bats. We are much more able to imagine what they think, and to describe what they are like — even on points where they differ from ourselves. This is because of our long historical association with them...
No thought is possible without, or apart from, what I am calling the environmental surround. Doubtless this has been true as long as humanity has existed — indeed, as long as any form of life whatsoever has existed. But why is this situation of special concern to us now? Or better: why has it become so urgent now? I think there are two reasons for this, which I will discuss in turn.


Mind and Cosmos roundup

Feser goes through reviews of Nagel's polemic. He echoes my point that Nagel should have stated this short tract did not, in fact, carry the brunt of his arguments against the materialist paradigm.



'This essay will explore an approach to the mind-body problem that is distinct both from dualism and from the sort of conceptual reduction of the mental to the physical that proceeds via causal behaviorist or functionalist analysis of mental concepts. The essential element of the approach is that it takes the subjective phenomenological features of conscious experience to be perfectly real and not reducible to anything else--but nevertheless holds that their system atic relations to neurophysiology are not contingent but necessary.'