In Defence of Tom Nagel

This is something I must do. I didn’t intend it. I never wished for my life to turn out this way. Life is a tragedy and a farce; my concerns and my views, my position and my stature, my principles, all of these command me to this end. So here I am, defending the detestable, the corrupt, the deeply mistaken. So here I am defending Thomas Nagel.

Nagel’s concern is a problem, a singular problem, that lies at the heart of philosophical naturalism. This sort of naturalism aspired to a complete, objective description and explanation of natural phenomena. It failed. It failed in dozens of ways. Philosophers were swept up in the atomic age, that period of time where science had made inconceivable advancements in understanding the physical world, alongside a similar advancement in technology that stood in testament to the power of science. Science became the model for good philosophy, heralding in a flurry of novel philosophical problems and tensions. Philosophers simply weren’t prepared for this. They faced down problem after problem, from theory-ladenness to confirmation, explanation, and so on. And to escape these, they once again roused the traditional philosophical problems they originally sought to escape. By the 1980s, naturalism was on its deathbed. And Nagel could explain all of this.

In Nagel’s view, the naturalist project was doomed from the beginning: there will always be a lacuna that plagues the objective view. The scientific enterprise, despite its aspirations, always begins from some perspective. Though the objective view can be abstracted away from that perspective, it can only do so by negating that whence it began. That is, the subjective view, the engaged view, will always plague the naturalist project. There will always be this conspicuous discrepancy. There will always be this absurdity. Naturalism fails because it attempts to elide this inconsistency.

Where this inconsistency lies Nagel never makes clear. What stops the objective view from subsuming the subjective into its body? Is it simply incapable of representing those kinds of indexed relational facts? Nagel thinks it is. No matter how it attempts to do that, the objective view can never represent the what-it-is-likeness of the subjective view. It can only accomplish this by imaginatively transposing our own subjective view onto others. And this works sometimes. I can imagine what it is like for Barack Obama to eat an apple, for example, only because I know what it’s like myself to eat an apple. But I cannot imaginatively transpose my subjectivity to creatures with very different faculties than my own. Human echolocation is rudimentary and insensitive: I cannot imagine what it is like to be a bat. Human taste receptors are very different than insect taste receptors: I cannot imagine what it’s like for a cockroach to eat scrambled eggs. There is a tension here, but there is no inconsistency. Two conceptual schemes butt up against each other, but inconsistency is not the kind of relation that can hold between conceptual schemes, except trivially. What matters is whether a single conceptual scheme can coherently represent the basic phenomena the other represents. That is, what matters is whether the conceptual schemes are translatable. And Nagel has not given any reason why they are not.

Instead of arguments to these ends, Nagel gestures. He asserts. He plants his heels in the sand and denies that the naturalist can account for the subjective view. And if Nagel stopped here, there would be nothing terribly wrong. Highlighting a tension is a good thing to do in philosophy, even if there is nothing deeper to be said. But he doesn’t stop there. Nagel wants to make substantive positive claims about consciousness and about life and about metaphysics. He reifies the what-it-is-likeness of the subjective view into some kind of irreducible metaphysical thing so powerful that it can topple one of our most well-supported and well-conceived scientific theories: Darwinian evolution. This is absurd! Evolutionary theory has a number of conceptual problems—all large and diverse theories will. But this massive, well-supported theory cannot be overturned by a hunch about conceptual schemes. That’s just not the way philosophy works. David defeats Goliath not because he is the underdog; he defeats him because he is more capable, more resourceful, because he capitalises on Goliath’s weakness and fragility. And so it is in philosophy. Nagel doesn’t do this. Nagel highlights a tension that naturalists must take seriously—and that some have!—but makes no substantive moves to demonstrate that there is any fundamental, unavoidable inconsistency. This is bad philosophy. Thomas Nagel does bad philosophy. He is a bad philosopher.

But here’s the kicker: bad philosophers are a much greater, much more pernicious threat than bad philosophers. For while the bad philosopher promotes a bad argument, bad philosophers promote a toxic community. That is, there are two ways to be a bad philosopher. There are those who argue poorly and make no great headway on philosophical problems, or who highlight problems that are no great difficulty. Most philosophers, possibly all philosophers, are bad philosophers in this way. There is no shame in that. Philosophy is difficult. But there are also those who demean and belittle their philosophical opponents. They are those who in their hubris command that the dissenters be ridiculed and thrown from the windows of our great ivory tower.

This is what I mean to defend Nagel from. He receives a great deal more abuse than he warrants. Just read the reviews of Mind and Cosmos. Philosophers ask “What has gotten into Thomas Nagel?” and move to much harsher statements about his intellect and abilities. Some say that “[Nagel is] a self-contradictory idiot.” Others go even farther: “Thomas Nagel is not smarter than we are. In fact, he seems to me to be distinctly dumber than anybody who is running even an eight-bit virtual David Hume on his wetware.” And this is not just a phenomenon present in book reviews. It is a communal activity. As Andrew Ferguson relates, at a conference in the Berkshires entitled “Moving Naturalism Forward,” Dan Dennett was “appalled to how, in spite of what I think is the progress we’ve made in the last 25 years, there’s this sort of retrograde gang . . . They’re going back to old-fashioned armchair philosophy with relish and eagerness. It’s sickening. And they lure in other people. And their work isn’t worth anything—it’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.” Dennett did not specify who these philosophers were. Alex Rosenberg obliged: “And then there’s some work that is neither cute nor clever. And it’s by Tom Nagel.” This… this is disgusting. All of it. Every last insult. Every last word. This is not how good philosophy is done. This is not how good philosophers comport themselves. These men—and they are all men—are a stain on philosophy.

If philosophy is worth doing, if philosophy is worth anything, we must root out this kind of bad philosophy. We must foster a healthy community, one in which philosophers are free to explore their varied interests and methods. Thomas Nagel should be free to do philosophy as he wishes; if they do not like it, these mean-spirited naturalists are free to respond. But in the present case, this I think is the major crux of the issue. The Rosenbergs and Dennetts and so on of philosophy, these bad philosophers have no substantive response to Nagel. Nagel employs an established method—a bad method, but an established method nevertheless—that naturalism disavows. Naturalists are doing the same thing. They promote naturalism as a viable philosophical method, one which is distinct from Nagel’s intuitionism. But in their position, they are not warranted to hurl insults across the divide. They must first puncture holes in Nagel’s hull before they can tell him he’s sinking. They must first take seriously Nagel’s method and show that he cannot address the central problems of philosophy before they can insult him. And good luck with that.

Until then, let Nagel prosper. Let Nagel write what he wishes to write. Let Nagel teach what he wishes to teach. Let the light of reason bleach away his errors and ours. Our students deserve this. We deserve this. Philosophy deserves this.

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