New Atheism vs Science

Thomas Nagel has an erudite and punchy review of a new book by “Four Horseman” Daniel Dennett. Read the whole thing here, but here’s the haymaker:

I am reminded of the Marx Brothers line: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” Dennett asks us to turn our backs on what is glaringly obvious—that in consciousness we are immediately aware of real subjective experiences of color, flavor, sound, touch, etc. that cannot be fully described in neural terms even though they have a neural cause (or perhaps have neural as well as experiential aspects). And he asks us to do this because the reality of such phenomena is incompatible with the scientific materialism that in his view sets the outer bounds of reality. He is, in Aristotle’s words, “maintaining a thesis at all costs…”

…There is no reason to go through such mental contortions in the name of science. The spectacular progress of the physical sciences since the seventeenth century was made possible by the exclusion of the mental from their purview. To say that there is more to reality than physics can account for is not a piece of mysticism: it is an acknowledgment that we are nowhere near a theory of everything, and that science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain. It should not disturb us that this may have radical consequences, especially for Dennett’s favorite natural science, biology: the theory of evolution, which in its current form is a purely physical theory, may have to incorporate nonphysical factors to account for consciousness, if consciousness is not, as he thinks, an illusion. Materialism remains a widespread view, but science does not progress by tailoring the data to fit a prevailing theory.

This is, I think, the fatal flaw in the New Atheist project. Its commitment to naturalistic materialism works wonders on glassy-eyed undergraduates and Bill Maher, but it fares less well when live questions of science and philosophy are put to it. Nagel is an atheist like Dennett, but where Dennett’s naturalistic materialism commands every element of his philosophical strategy, Nagel is hung up–like a scientist!–on questions that materialists seem unable (or uninterested) to answer.

Nagel’s right that there’s no reason to go through “mental contortions” for science’s sake. Nor, I would add, is there any reason to debase your humanity and siphon beauty and wonder from your worldview for the sake of “rationality.” There’s a better explanation for everything. You just have to be open to it.