Thomas Nagel on Plantinga’s book in New York Review of Books

Just a note to point visitors of my website to a wonderful review of the distinguished philosopher Thomas Nagel of Alvin Plantinga’s latest book Where the Conflict Really Lies in the New York Review of Books. It’s a review with a very interesting twist…

(Thanks to John Teske for sharing the link via IRASnet!)

Nagel is an atheist, but no Richard Dawkins. Nagel is able to write a very generous review essay in which he highlights the differences between his own and Plantinga’s position (which come down to the difference between Plantinga’s faith-based and Nagel’s atheistic worldview). However, in the end, Nagel also underlines the fact that he actually accepts Plantinga’s anti-naturalist argument. The review ends magnificently:

The interest of this book, especially for secular readers, is its presentation from the inside of the point of view of a philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist—an outlook with which many of them will not be familiar. Plantinga writes clearly and accessibly, and sometimes acidly—in response to aggressive critics of religion like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His comprehensive stand is a valuable contribution to this debate.

I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.

In these last words, Nagel underlines the resonances between Plantinga’s anti-naturalist arguments and Nagel’s own views, as he describes them in his latest book Mind and Cosmos. I am currently reading Nagel’s book (we will also read it during a seminar at the Radboud University) will hopefully get back to this very interesting book. In the book, he also points to Plantinga’s anti-naturalistic argument, which Nagel accepts as valid. I thoroughly recommend Nagel’s book, it will probably arouse a lot of discussion in the near future, and it’s a terrific read! I also think that Plantinga’s book is one of the best books in science and religion in recent years, but admittedly, Nagel’s book is the most accessible of the two.

The thing that strikes me is that though I have no anti-naturalistic inclinations as a theologian – I accept methodological naturalism as a tremendously valuable part of the scientific enterprise, though I reject the metaphysical naturalism which I believe is not entailed by methodological naturalism – that it is very interesting to see distinguished philosophers like Nagel and Fodor actually attacking the scientific status quo for not being thorough and rigid enough. Actually, Nagel in effect accuses scientists of being too metaphysically naturalist! But again, I hope to get back to Nagel in a while…

UPDATE, 09/09/2012: It was brought to my attention that the New York Review of Books has made the article subscribers only. So, here is a PDF of the article.

2 thoughts on “Thomas Nagel on Plantinga’s book in New York Review of Books

  1. “He (Plantinga) holds, second, that the naturalistic conception of the world, and of ourselves as products of unguided Darwinian evolution, makes it unreasonable for us to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable, and therefore unreasonable to believe any theories they may lead us to form, including the theory of evolution. In other words, belief in naturalism combined with belief in evolution is self-defeating. ”
    Het lijkt me dat bijzonder weinig wetenschappers dit zullen beamen. Ook niet alle filosofen: zie oner ‘Plantinga’ op

    Tenslotte heeft de wetenschap geen andere mogelijkheid dan ervan uit te gaan dat ‘cognitive faculties’ – in grote mate aangevuld met daarvoor bestemde meetinstrumenten – betrouwbaar zijn. Daaraan gaat niets vooraf.

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