Nagel's Nag about Naturalism and Praise for Plantinga

In the New York Review of Books, philosopher Thomas Nagel reviews Alvin Plantinga’s recent book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, a book written by one whom he describes as “a philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist”. Nagel’s overall assessment of Plantinga’s new book is summed up where he writes “Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view.” Nagel’s rather positive assessment is particularly surprising when realizing that he has been no friend of theism. Recall his words in a famous work of his: “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 about my belief. I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that” (Thomas Nagel, The Last Word, 1997).

So why is Nagel so positive of Plantinga’s views? And just what is “the deepest problem” of naturalism which Plantinga points out? Let’s take each in turn.

What makes Nagel – a nontheist – so positive about Plantinga? Among the many reasons that could be offered, I highlight especially two: (1) Plantinga’s now rather famous “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism” (EAAN, herafter); and (2) the Christian explanation of why human minds are able to grasp truths in the natural world. The basic thrust of EAAN is that, if the tenets of evolution and naturalism are true, then there is no reason to believe that our beliefs are truth-bearing; for if all that is needed for evolution is right behavior, then whether our beliefs are true or false do not matter. (Paul, a tiger-loving man, may run up a tree to flee from a hungry tiger, not because his beliefs track the truth of the situation at hand but, because he thinks the best way to play with tigers is to run away from them.) On the one hand, Nagel objects to this argument, suggesting that “there is an intimate connection between the content of a belief and its role in controlling an organism’s behavioral interaction with the world.” Having true beliefs matter when it comes to survival. On the other hand, on naturalism, it is hard to see the evolutionary advantage of, say, assessing “evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson.” In other words, Why would the study of quantum physics be helpful for evolutionary adaptation? It wouldn’t.

Secondly, Nagel praises Plantinga’s view, suggesting that “the theistic conception explains beautifully why science is possible: the fit between the natural order and our minds is produced intentionally by God.” That is, while Christian theism offers a cogent account of why human minds grasp truths in the natural world, naturalism seems to offer less: “[Plantinga] is also right,” Nagel says, “to maintain that naturalism has a much harder time accounting for that fit.”

To our second question: What, according to Nagel is “the deepest problem” of naturalism which Plantinga exposes in his book? Simply this: “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.” Even more simply: naturalism’s nightmare is explaining how humans emerged on the scene of history to such a level of sophistication so as to apprehend and articulate the laws which got them there in the first place.

Nagel’s nag with naturalism is that it would have to regard much of the natural world as “unexplained mystery;” Plantinga’s point about naturalism is that it already does.

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