A Case Against Materialism: Thomas Nagel’s Book “Mind and Cosmos”

This is an extract from an essay titled The Heretic by Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard (March 25)

Materialism…is fine as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go as far as materialists want it to. It is a premise of science, not a finding. Scientists do their work by assuming that every phenomenon can be reduced to a material, mechanistic cause and by excluding any possibility of nonmaterial explanations. And the materialist assumption works really, really well – in detecting and quantifying things that have a material or mechanistic explanation. Materialism has allowed us to predict and control what happens in nature with astonishing success. The jaw-dropping edifice of modern science, from space probes to nanosurgery, is the result.

But the success has gone to the materialists’ heads. From a fruitful method, materialism becomes an axiom: if science can’t quantify something, it doesn’t exist, and so the subjective, unquantifiable, immaterial “manifest image” of our mental life is proved to be an illusion.

Here materialism bumps up against itself. Nagel insists that we know some things to exist even if materialism omits or ignores or is oblivious to them. Reductive materialism doesn’t account for the “brute facts” of existence – it doesn’t explain, for example, why the world exists at all, or how life arose from non-life. Closer to home, it doesn’t plausibly explain the fundamental beliefs we rely on as we go about our everyday business: the truth of our subjective experience, our ability to reason, our capacity to recognize that some acts are virtuous and others aren’t. These failures, Nagel says, aren’t just temporary gaps in our knowledge, waiting to be filled in by new discoveries in science. On its own terms, materialism cannot account for brute facts. Brute facts are irreducible, and materialism, which operates by breaking things down to their physical components, stands useless before them. “There is little or no possibility,” he writes, “that these facts depend on nothing but the laws of physics.”

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7 responses to “A Case Against Materialism: Thomas Nagel’s Book “Mind and Cosmos”

  1. It’s a brave or foolish scientist that thinks that “every phenomenon can be reduced to a material, mechanistic cause” and consequently dismisses that which she cannot explain.
    That said, it is surely novel and misleading to characterize “our fundamental beliefs [and]… the truth of our subjective experience, our ability to reason, our capacity to recognize that some acts are virtuous and others aren’t” as irreducible brute facts. In their infinite variability from person to person and from time to time they are just the opposite.

  2. On a related note, it is the French mathematical genius, the religious mystic,
    and a precursor of existentialism who writes ‘Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed’.
    ‘A vapor, a drop of water, is enough to kill a human being’.
    ‘But even if the universe should crush him, man would still be more noble than that which destroys him, because he knows that he dies, and he realizes the advantage that the universe possesses over him; the universe knows nothing of this.’

    • May I recommend to you – and to anybody else – Rebecca West’s novel. THE THINKING REED. She was inspired by the same author who inspired you. It’s up to you to tell us the name.

  3. Elisabeth Ecker

    Jan, who is the French mathematical genius and religious mystic?

  4. Blaise Pascal

  5. Even if there are classes of ‘brute facts’ as stated here, they are vastly different in character, from ‘why life rather than not life?’ through ‘why are some things right and others wrong?’ (to which some good answers have been given, logical if not materialist) to ‘the truth of our subjective experience’ (which, given the commonness of hallucinations and mistaken evidence, should not be given a whole lot of credence).

    A lot of the writers in the ‘materialism isn’t everything’ vein conclude that therefore there is some kind of evidence of the existence of a deity. There isn’t. Why would anyone be satisfied with an ‘explanation’ of any of these ‘facts’ that simply labels the black box they inhabit as ‘god’?

  6. It’s just as plausible to label the black box “as-yet-unexplained-by-science” as it is to call it “god”.