Thomas-Nagel.jpg

The Perils of Intellectual Apostasy

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

  1. Crow
    Paul A. Rahe: 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. ….

    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.

    It is indeed distressing. Becuase I’m younger than Dr. Rahe, I do have something of a dog in this fight, but because I see no solution to this crisis outside of the collapse of the higher ed. bubble, I welcome that development (though I do so with a jaundiced eye, noting the many deficiencies of what is likely to follow)

    In the aftermath, perhaps rebuilding is possible–first at the small outposts that will admit it, or can be made to admit it through guile. The precondition for such rebuilding is having clarity about what ‘higher education’ means.

  2. TeamAmerica

    Prof. Rahe- I suspect that the narrow-mindedness of many in the media, Hollywood or the academy is due to the role leftist ideology plays in their lives. For these people, public morality, i.e. loving humanity in the abstract, is a substitute for  traditional religiously derived personal morality. You might term this phenomenon Clinton/Letterman/Maher/Wintour Syndrome. The are all known for treating flesh-and-blood human beings abominably, but are able to excuse their behavior and feel good about themselves because they are working to ‘save humanity.’

  3. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    A Beleaguered Conservative

    Paul A. Rahe

    flownover: Dr Rahe,

    Lazily I scanned your post, but wanted to cut to the chase, and question why we shouldn’t let the system implode ?

    Understanding that your job depends on this system , I apologize. I still want to stake my position on the question of why not ? Is higher education irreparably compromised by these ponytails in tweed ?

    Edited 32 minutes ago

    We are letting the system implode, and I am 64. So I no longer have a dog in the fight. · 3 minutes ago

    If all the embers go out, we risk descending into an age of barbarism — an age where we never look up, an age where we admire nothing high, an age where self-satisfaction is mandatory.  The system is surely imploding, but I was taken aback to read Professor Rahe’s comment that he does not have a dog in this fight.  We all have a dog in this fight.  We can strive to keep the embers alive, however faint they may be.  · 8 hours ago

    Fair enough. I was alluding to the claim that “my job” depended on “the system.”

  4. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    R. Craigen: On the matter of how consciousness arises, none of the voices in this tale appear to acknowledge the existence of a very good — though as yet unproven — proposal for a framework:  the Penrose-Hameroff proposal.

    Hameroff is a mere researcher in anaesthesiology, seemingly obscure and, frankly, a little odd.  Yet he is no slouch in the matter of the biological substrates of consciousness, and he has contributed significantly to what began as speculation on the part of Penrose, who had a bright idea but lacked the knowledge of cortical physiology to work out how it connects to the brain.

    If there is interest I’ll say a bit about the proposal, but you can also look it up.  I suppose it’s “good enough” for comment-field banter that Penrose’ own pertinent credentials are impeccable, so I’ll lay out a bit here.

    Rouse-Ball professor of Mathematics at Oxford

    Mentor of Stephen Hawking, with whom he shares the Wolf prize in physics . . .

    · 8 hours ago

    You should give us a blogpost on the subject.

  5. ctruppi

    As someone astutely pointed out earlier in this thread, this phenomena has pervaded every corner of life. A conservative friend recently moved to a town near Princeton and got himself elected to the local school board there. Apparently, the local citizens making up the board were all highly educated, limousine libs. This friend and his wife were basically ostracized from local circles because he had the temerity to not only bring up conservative solutions to some of the local problems facing the schools, but showed up at the next meeting with actual case study examples and other hard data to support his position. He was labeled a trouble maker and a kook and people whispered that he likes to piss off people (I know because my sister lives there and is a limousine lib).In all these areas – universities, media, local school boards, etc – we now have a high-priest class charged with protecting the faith and weeding out the heretics. Our culture can not survive in its present state as long as this keeps happening.

  6. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    R. Craigen

    Paul A. Rahe

    We are letting the system implode, and I am 64. So I no longer have a dog in the fight. · 26 minutes ago

    Paul you, Nagel, Penrose, Orlando Bloom, me, and an army of academics who have either moved on to the great tweed pasture or will one day soon, still have our minds and voices, and can at minimum leave the battle in a blaze of glory.  You may believe you have no dog in the fight but I propose that, rather, you have nothing to lose.   · 8 hours ago

    You are right, and that is one of the reasons I write so freely on Ricochet. I did things in Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift that would make me unclubbable as well.

  7. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    TeamAmerica: Prof. Rahe- I suspect that the narrow-mindedness of many in the media, Hollywood or the academy is due to the role leftist ideology plays in their lives. For these people, public morality, i.e. loving humanity in the abstract, is a substitute for  traditional religiously derived personal morality. You might term this phenomenon Clinton/Letterman/Maher/Wintour Syndrome. The are all known for treating flesh-and-blood human beings abominably, but are able to excuse their behavior and feel good about themselves because they are working to ‘save humanity.’ · 1 hour ago

    Indeed.

  8. Group Captain Mandrake
    Robert Lux

    Group Captain Mandrake:  I have been unable to find any other reviews by [...] biologist/philosophers such as [...] Alex Rosenberg

    I shouldn’t presume such men to hold final court in such matters (if that’s what you imply; forgive me if I misread you), as I think the whole problem is the fallacy of scientists privileging science to make philosophic or metaphysical claims.

    No, all I meant was that Rosenberg is both a philosopher and a biologist and has written some interesting articles about evolution with a philosophical input (rather like Philip Kitcher).  I would like to have seen his take on Nagel’s book. 

    My other point that was there didn’t seem to be any detailed reviews by scientists other than Allen Orr.   All the reviews cited were by philosophers and those reviews are actually worth reading in full as I discovered when I followed up on the links in Wieseltier’s article.

  9. Group Captain Mandrake
    Robert Lux

    Rosenberg’s Duke colleague Michael Gillespie — a formidable scholar of German philosophy and a Straussian — wrote a fine little piece on Rosenberg, followed by discussion between Straussians and analytic philosophers (a rare combo):  http://bit.ly/YcfA8b · 7 hours ago

    Thank you, the links that you provided are very interesting.  I’d have to be wide-awake to understand the thrust of the arguments, but I do think they provide an excellent example of civilized discussion between philosophers.   It is my belief that that was precisely and solely the intention behind the reviews of Nagel’s book by Orr (scientist) and Sober, Weisberg/Leiter and Blackburn (philosophers), all of whom reviewed Nagel’s book (Wieseltier does not cite Sober).  Nagel wrote a philosophical work and other philosophers (and one scientist) naturally responded with what seem to me to be well-argued reviews. 

  10. Tuck

    “…for they did not regard the university as an instrument for transforming the world. ”

    Professor, I think you’re kidding yourself.  The progressives have been at it for longer than we’ve been alive.  (I’m working my way through Coolidge…).

    From Wikipedia:

    “Progressive scholars, based at the emerging research universities such as Harvard, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Chicago, Michigan, Wisconsin and California, worked to modernize their disciplines. The heyday of the amateur expert gave way to the research professor who published in the new scholarly journals and presses. Their explicit goal was to professionalize and make “scientific” the social sciences, especially as history,[4] economics,[5] and political science.[6] Professionalization meant creating new career tracks in the universities, with hiring and promotion dependent on meeting international models of scholarship.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressive_Era

    We all know how that turned out.

     P.S. “Modernize” and “make ‘scientific’” are of course code-words for “make sure no-one who disagrees with them is invited”.

  11. JamesB

    The good professor may indeed have proven that the universe is not a closed system which can produce life.  Or he may not have. I guess its a very important question for those who need to believe that only materialism matters.

    Theology, however, is a different question.  If there is a God, it is nearly impossible to discover him by studying his creation.  His creation is close enough to a close system to fool most people. 

    So, the only way to discover God is to have him reveal himself to us through human interaction.  Lucky for us, from Noah to the latest “Near Death” experience, God has done so many times.  If you are an athiest, you are essentially claiming that every one of these witnesses is either lying or delusional.   The materialists who control the academy show no evidence of the delusional or lying nature of these witnesses.  They only claim that a natural closed system explanation is good enough. 

    I’m not claiming it to be true, but God might have created a universe where a closed system material explanation for life is possible.  If so, discovering that solution doesn’t solve the question of God’s existence.

  12. The Mugwump

    It seems that lefty scholars and philosophers have completely abandoned the admonition to “know thyself” before inflicting their ideas on the rest of us.  But then if you’re a gross materialist, there isn’t anything to know, is there?  If we’re all just so many test tubes and consciousness is a mere byproduct of matter, where is the value in any human idea?  How is it that these ideologues hold so fiercely to their ideas after embracing a philosophy of self-abnegation?  A materialist philosophy renders the entire cosmos meaningless and pointless, so why argue so vociferously over nothing?  This is not philosophy; it’s intellectual nihilism.    

  13. John Walker

    I am neither a scientist nor a philosopher, but it seems to me this work brings into stark contrast  what this humble engineer believes to be the central puzzle of our existence.  Once you have a replicator, it is entirely plausible that it can explore the possibilities of its environment, even as it transforms it (for example, the change in the Earth’s atmosphere from reducing to oxidizing due to biological organisms) through the process of variation and selection of evolution.

    The central mystery is how that first replicator came to be.  The more you know about chemistry, the less plausible it appears that it could have come about by chance.  See No Free Lunch and Signature in the Cell for details of how improbable is the spontaneous generation of the first replicator from a primordial soup.

  14. JamesB
    ~Paules: It seems that lefty scholars and philosophers have completely abandoned the admonition to “know thyself” before inflicting their ideas on the rest of us.  But then if you’re a gross materialist, there isn’t anything to know, is there?  If we’re all just so many test tubes and consciousness is a mere byproduct of matter, where is the value in any human idea?  How is it that these ideologues hold so fiercely to their ideas after embracing a philosophy of self-abnegation?  A materialist philosophy renders the entire cosmos meaningless and pointless, so why argue so vociferously over nothing?  This is not philosophy; it’s intellectual nihilism.     · 9 minutes ago

    One could argue that if there is a devil, Nihilism would be his favourite philosophy.  So then you could argue that what drives these professors is a drive created by the devil.  Not so much demonic possession as demonic partnership.  The Devil is known to be devious, what would be more devious than convincing people to strenuously argue for a demonic belief system while claiming the Devil doesn’t exist?

  15. flownover

    Dr Rahe,

    Lazily I scanned your post, but wanted to cut to the chase, and question why we shouldn’t let the system implode ?

    Understanding that your job depends on this system , I apologize. I still want to stake my position on the question of why not ? Is higher education irreparably compromised by these ponytails in tweed ?

    Studies programs means what exactly ? Redundancy dilutes . 

    I have a 16 yr old and I am not convinced that college will do her any good.  I have paid for the education of her two older siblings, their jobs are totally unrelated to their majors . One of them learned to read well and  she benefits from sharpening her analytical skills. The other ,an extrovert, is a salesman in essence, therefore successful.

    Whither college ? Aren’t the threats of liberal inoculation with minimal promise of employment worse than any employment within the natural skills of the individual ?

  16. tabula rasa

    I have nothing to contribute on the substance of Professor Nagel’s arguments other than this observation: when the professoriat becomes a lynch mob instead of a dispassionate seeker for truth, we’re in bad shape.

  17. Western Chauvinist

    But the punishment for apostasy isn’t just limited to philosophers and intellectuals. It is everywhere the left has taken hold: the judiciary, the media (including news media and entertainment media), and the education establishment from K through post-doc. And for the same reason. The Left turns everything into a political cause. 

    Judges aren’t just there as umpires. They envision their job as putting a thumb on the scale of justice to tip the outcome toward the Left’s favored victim groups. 

    Journalists don’t just report (the facts ma’am), they spin the news to favor the Left’s position. 

    Entertainers aren’t there to entertain and to reflect the values of the audience. Their mission is to move the audience to the ideological left.

    And educators are dedicated to ideological conformity at every level.

    I’m not disagreeing with your observations in this case. I’m just saying the totalitarian impulses of the Left appear wherever the Left dominates.

  18. flownover

    Dr Rahe, 

    Your dog may be uninterested in the hunt, but I think you join in me as we still have pups in need of training.

    I have a pup who is two years away from college and the decision is looming. Her education to date, the best I can afford and keep her in the home , has resulted in an ignorance of most geography (perhaps that is a boy thing) and geopolitics . It is like watching the evolution of the low information voter . Watching a show with her is a study in electronic multitasking or an exhibition of utter distraction . Their brains have even evolved to the point of being able to grasp three separate screens at once.

    I know because it annoys me and I am occasionally quizzing her as to what “just happened” . 

    My question is this : is there any institution that can properly assimilate these kids into an environment of learning without cutting them off from their new wired umbilicals ? iPads can’t replace textbooks unless the teacher controls the feed ? Is Facebook the new doodle ?

  19. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Western Chauvinist: But the punishment for apostasy isn’t just limited to philosophers and intellectuals. It is everywhere the left has taken hold: the judiciary, the media (including news media and entertainment media), and the education establishment from K through post-doc. And for the same reason. The Left turnseverything into a political cause. 

    Judges aren’t just there as umpires. They envision their job as putting a thumb on the scale of justice to tip the outcome toward the Left’s favored victim groups. 

    Journalists don’t just report (the facts ma’am), they spin the news to favor the Left’s position. 

    Entertainers aren’t there to entertain and to reflect the values of the audience. Their mission is to move the audience to the ideological left.

    And educators are dedicated to ideological conformity at every level.

    I’m not disagreeing with your observations in this case. I’m just saying the totalitarian impulses of the Left appear whereverthe Left dominates. · 28 minutes ago

    All too true. Alas.

  20. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    flownover: Dr Rahe,

    Lazily I scanned your post, but wanted to cut to the chase, and question why we shouldn’t let the system implode ?

    Understanding that your job depends on this system , I apologize. I still want to stake my position on the question of why not ? Is higher education irreparably compromised by these ponytails in tweed ?

    Edited 32 minutes ago

    We are letting the system implode, and I am 64. So I no longer have a dog in the fight.

    Hillsdale to be fair is in a time warp. I live in yesteryear.