There's a new book by philosopher Thomas Nagel called Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. It's currently the #1 bestselling Kindle book in America, and Amazon is temporarily sold out of physical copies. That's a lot of heat on a short (136-page) philosophy book with a tongue-twisting subtitle. To me, it suggests a hunger for a new paradigm - not among comfortably credentialed academics, perhaps, but certainly among the educated public.
The conservative blogger Ace of Spades has a thoughtful take on the controversy that has flared up around the book. Another conservative, Andrew Ferguson, offers a much longer and more thorough discussion.
Nagel does not believe in God, psi, or an afterlife, as far as I can tell. He is leery of all such "spooky stuff." Nevertheless, his awareness of the gaps in materialism - not as a method for investigating certain distinct classes of phenomena, but as a complete explanation of reality - has led him to tentatively embrace the idea that some kind of cosmic self-organizing principle is at work in the cosmos.
For offering this suggestion, he has been lambasted and pilloried by all the usual suspcets, with all the civility and nuance that one would expect of them. Yet his basic point, as recapped by Ferguson, strikes me as eminently sensible:
Materialism, then, 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 nonlife. 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.”
Even though Nagel is preaching to the choir in my case, I intend to read his book. For an academic to openly question the dogmas of materialism is rare enough, and even rarer when he risks tarnishing a formidable reputation. An act of such intellectual honesty and defiant free thinking is inspirational in its own right.