When I was an undergraduate at Cornell , then Yale and a graduate student at Oxford, then Yale once again, the American university was an exceedingly lively place in which students were encouraged to explore a diversity of perspectives. The people in charge were, by and large, New Deal liberals — moderate in manner, open to argument, and distinguished first and foremost by their curiosity. They welcomed into the ranks of their colleagues both those to their left and those to their right — for they did not regard the university as an instrument for transforming the world. They supposed, instead, that it was a space within which one could spend one’s time trying to understand that world. Intellectual sparring partners were, in their opinion, a great boon.
Most of the New Deal liberals that I once knew have passed on. They have been replaced in positions of authority by a generation for whom everything is political. Its motto is “the personal is political and the political is personal.” What this means in practice is that the members of this generation tend to regard those at odds with them not as merely wrong and perhaps intriguingly, interestingly wrong but as simply immoral. In the face of an argument or observation that does not sit comfortably with what they believe, they resort to denunciation. The dissenter is labeled a racist or a fascist or something worse, and he is read out of the human race. In this environment, conservatives are no longer welcome. No advertisement states that they need not apply for jobs at certain institutions, but that is nearly always the case.
The key to understanding what has happened is that the new generation has made of the university a political instrument. Its purpose, as they see it, is to help them transform the larger world. Those not on board with the program are interlopers to be demonized and driven out, and the quality of the scholarly work and the teaching they do has no weight. One can write and be widely read. One can be invited to conferences and to give lectures. But, if a job comes open at a major university, one will not even be interviewed. Trust me. I know from long experience.
Every once in a while, however, something happens that shakes things up, and then one sees that things are, in fact, far worse than one ever imagined. Take, for example, the recent furor regarding Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.
Nagel is a distinguished professor of philosophy with an impeccable pedigree. He was born in 1937; did his BA at Cornell, did a B.Phil. at Corpus Christi College, Oxford; and completed his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1963 under the direction of John Rawls before going on to teach at Berkeley, Princeton, and New York University. He has in the intervening years published a host of books, all of them well-received, and he has won just about every honor reserved for members of his profession. On the 4th of July 2012, when he reached the ripe old age of 75, he was at the very top of the heap. But, thanks to his new book, he is rapidly becoming a pariah. The title is sufficient to explain why.
When Steven Pinker of Harvard turned to Twitter and denounced the book as “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker,” Leon Wieseltier, a throwback to the old days of New Deal liberalism who has been the literary editor of The New Republic for decades, responded:
Here was a signal to the Darwinist dittoheads that a mob needed to be formed. In an earlier book Nagel had dared to complain of “Darwinist imperialism,” though in his scrupulous way he added that “there is really no reason to assume that the only alternative to an evolutionary explanation of everything is a religious one.” He is not, God forbid, a theist. But he went on to warn that “this may not be comforting enough” for the materialist establishment, which may find it impossible to tolerate also “any cosmic order of which mind is an irreducible and non-accidental part.” For the bargain-basement atheism of our day, it is not enough that there be no God: there must be only matter. Now Nagel’s new book fulfills his old warning. A mob is indeed forming, a mob of materialists, of free-thinking inquisitors. “In the present climate of a dominant scientific naturalism, heavily dependent on speculative Darwinian explanations of practically everything, and armed to the teeth against religion,” Nagel calmly writes, “… I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world.” This cannot be allowed! And so the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Secular Faith sprang into action. “If there were a philosophical Vatican,” Simon Blackburn declared in the New Statesman, “the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index.” . . .
I understand that nobody is going to burn Nagel’s book or ban it. These inquisitors are just more professors. But he is being denounced not merely for being wrong. He is being denounced also for being heretical. I thought heresy was heroic. I guess it is heroic only when it dissents from a doctrine with which I disagree. Actually, the defense of heresy has nothing to do with its content and everything to do with its right. Tolerance is not a refutation of heresy, but a retirement of the concept. I am not suggesting that there is anything outrageous about the criticism of Nagel’s theory of the explanatory limitations of Darwinism. He aimed to provoke and he provoked. His troublemaking book has sparked the most exciting disputation in many years, because no question is more primary than the question of whether materialism (which Nagel defines as “the view that only the physical world is irreducibly real”) is true or false.
In fact, the question raised by Nagel is a very old question. It accounts for the so-called Socratic turn. The Athenian Socrates began his philosophical career as a would-be scientist. But somewhere along the way he realized that the process physics of Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, and their successors could not make sense of the greatest mystery of all: the existence of the scientist. Put in simple terms, the reductionist science of the materialists is self-refuting — for it eventuates in the reduction of the scientist himself to mere matter in motion. It eventuates in a theory that explains in materialist terms why the theory itself is being proposed and thereby subverts any claim it has to be true. Reduce the scientist to a biochemical reaction and you destroy the science.
Nagel has returned to this conundrum with a vengeance. In doing so, he has broken ranks, and he has been relegated to the class of apostates. It is a good thing that he is 75 and not 25. If he were just starting his career, this book would have ended it.
The most vigorous denunciations have come from the ranks of the scientists. Wieseltier reminds us, however, that Nagel’s book is not a work of science. It is a work of philosophy. It is, he observes,
entirely typical of the scientistic tyranny in American intellectual life that scientists have been invited to do the work of philosophers. The problem of the limits of science is not a scientific problem. It is also pertinent to note that the history of science is a history of mistakes, and so the dogmatism of scientists is especially rich. A few of Nagel’s scientific critics have been respectful: in The New York Review of Books, H. Allen Orr has the decency to concede that it is not at all obvious how consciousness could have originated out of matter. But he then proceeds to an almost comic evasion. Finally, he says, we must suffice with “the mysteriousness of consciousness.” A Darwinii mysterium tremendum! He then cites Colin McGinn’s entirely unironic suggestion that our “cognitive limitations” may prevent us from grasping the evolution of mind from matter: “even if matter does give rise to mind, we might not be able to understand how.” Students of religion will recognize the dodge—it used to be called fideism, and atheists gleefully ridiculed it; and the expedient suspension of rational argument; and the double standard. What once vitiated godfulness now vindicates godlessness.
The thing that bothers Wieseltier the most, however, is another dimensiont of the attack on Nagel:
The most shabby aspect of the attack on Nagel’s heterodoxy has been its political motive. His book will be “an instrument of mischief,” it will “lend comfort (and sell a lot of copies) to the religious enemies of Darwinism,” and so on. It is bad for the left’s own culture war. Whose side is he on, anyway? Almost taunting the materialist left, which teaches skepticism but not self-skepticism, Nagel, who does not subscribe to intelligent design, describes some of its proponents as “iconoclasts” who “do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met.” I find this delicious, because it defies the prevailing regimentation of opinion and exemplifies a rebellious willingness to go wherever the reasoning mind leads. Cui bono? is not the first question that an intellectual should ask. The provenance of an idea reveals nothing about its veracity. “Accept the truth from whoever utters it,” said the rabbis, those poor benighted souls who had the misfortune to have lived so many centuries before Dennett and Dawkins.
I would like to think that Nagel’s debunking of the scientistic orthodoxy now dominant in the academy would usher in a new age of sharp intellectual debate. But nothing that I see in the contemporary university suggests that such a dream is at all plausible. As long as the university is seen as a political instrument, there really are no grounds for hope.
Addendum: See also The Perils of Intellectual Apostasy, Part Two