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Alvin Plantinga reviews Thomas Nagel’s new book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012) in The New Republic. Here’s how it begins:

According to a semi-established consensus among the intellectual elite in the West, there is no such person as God or any other supernatural being. Life on our planet arose by way of ill-understood but completely naturalistic processes involving only the working of natural law. Given life, natural selection has taken over, and produced all the enormous variety that we find in the living world. Human beings, like the rest of the world, are material objects through and through; they have no soul or ego or self of any immaterial sort. At bottom, what there is in our world are the elementary particles described in physics, together with things composed of these particles.

I say that this is a semi-established consensus, but of course there are some people, scientists and others, who disagree. There are also agnostics, who hold no opinion one way or the other on one or another of the above theses. And there are variations on the above themes, and also halfway houses of one sort or another. Still, by and large those are the views of academics and intellectuals in America now. Call this constellation of views scientific naturalism—or don’t call it that, since there is nothing particularly scientific about it, except that those who champion it tend to wrap themselves in science like a politician in the flag. By any name, however, we could call it the orthodoxy of the academy—or if not the orthodoxy, certainly the majority opinion.

The eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel would call it something else: an idol of the academic tribe, perhaps, or a sacred cow: “I find this view antecedently unbelievable—a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense. . . . I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two.” Nagel is an atheist; even so, however, he does not accept the above consensus, which he calls materialist naturalism; far from it. His important new book is a brief but powerful assault on materialist naturalism.

Plantinga goes on to summarize and interact with Nagel’s arguments and alternatives. Along the way he excerpts a quote from one of Nagel’s books written in 1997 which offers some insights into Nagel’s rejection of theism:

I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. . . . It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

You can read the whole thing here.

For those interested, Nagel reviewed Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford University Press, 2011) in The New York Review of Books.

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9 thoughts on “An Atheist Philosopher Predicts Scientific Naturalism Will One Day Be Laughable”

  1. Ah yes, theophobia in the academy! My good friend Dr. Michael Murray, (Executive Vice President, Programs & Vice President, Philosophy and Theology, The John Templeton Foundation) gave an Inaugural Lecture on this titled, “Who’s Afraid of Religion?” I summarized some of Mike’s points here if interested:

    Philosophical naturalism — the view that the physical world is a self-contained system that works by impersonal, blind, unbroken natural laws — comes up suspicious by the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to defend it.

    PN declares that nothing beyond nature could have any conceivable relevance to what happens in nature. But the really big problem with this conclusion is that there is not one shred of scientific evidence to support it. One is only cable of embracing philosophical naturalism by faith (which changes the entire direction of the discussion). Stretching science into a philosophy (or some kind of religion), PN proponents give people the misleading impression that the science of evolution offers more than it is capable of offering.

    Honest scientists (and there are still plenty of them in the Academy) know that it’s simply outside the function of science to resolve such matters. Science can describe in fascinating detail what is within the universe and speak to purposes related to adaptability and survival in the physical world. Only God can prescribe what is beyond the descriptions of scientific inquiry and speak to purposes of eternal significance beyond the limitations of the physical world.

  2. Mark says:

    This is some good old-fashioned Romans 1 honesty … For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.(Romans 1:21-23 ESV)

  3. rc sproul jr says:

    That’s all well and good, but how does Dr. Plantinga’s air conditioning work?

    1. Dr Plantinga has never been more profound than in this clip!

    2. Laurette says:

      That IS the real question.

  4. Jason Dollar says:

    Plantinga writes and quotes Nagel:

    “SADLY ENOUGH (at least for me), Nagel rejects theism. ‘I confess to an ungrounded assumption of my own, in not finding it possible to regard the design alternative [i.e., theism] as a real option. I lack the sensus divinitatis that enables—indeed, compels so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose.'”

    I so much appreciate Nagel’s honesty (as most of us do, I assume), but I gather he is making this statement tongue-in-cheek. Not only does he “lack” the sensus divinitatis (or thinks he does), but he in no way believes such a thing exists. To me, the irony here is astounding. Nagel is being respectful and refreshingly honest on the one hand, but is truly blind in his sinful condition on the other, not seeing the fingerprints of God on creation (Rom 1), or his own personal need for the Gospel of Christ. He assumes there is no such thing as God, or the knowledge of God, but is actually suppressing that truth in unrighteousness.

    Still, his book seems refreshingly honest!

  5. Nathanael Johnston says:

    Thanks for posting this review! There is another excellent review of Thomas Nagel’s new book by the Roman Catholic philosopher Edward Feser in First Things.

  6. Bruce Russell says:

    The claims of scientific materialism certify that permanent and unconcious death is the destiny of us all: nothing to sing about there. I choose to believe what God has shown me in Jesus Christ.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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