Thomas Nagel and the Religious Temperament

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Doing without religion

When I was a boy at a Catholic public school the Headmaster, a monk, used to insist that all the pupils learn the Catechism by heart. This was a little grey book containing questions and answers. It opened like this:

Q. Who made me?
A. God made me.

Q. Why did God make me?
A. God made me to know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this life and to be happy with him for ever in the next.

The Headmaster used to say to us: "Some people ask what is the meaning of life? You don't have to ask that; you know what the meaning of life is." The answer, of course, was contained in the first two items in the Catechism. Even at the time I found this a bit restricting; I rather liked the romantic thought of searching for the meaning of life. When, in my twenties, I ceased to believe in Catholicism, I felt this to be a liberation rather than a loss.

Divesting myself of belief systems has generally been a liberating experience. The less I adhere to such systems, the better I feel. Nevertheless, the loss of a religious perspective does entail the absence of a sense of meaning, and this can be a real regret. People speak of a God-shaped hole in one's life; I wouldn't go that far but I understand what they mean. In the presence of some believers one can find oneself, as the atheist Thomas Hardy put it in a poem, "hoping it might be so."

Nagel's view

This is the theme that Thomas Nagel takes up in his impressive new essay, "Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament." It is in effect a sequel to the final chapter of his book "The Last Word", in which he talks about the fear of religion.

In his new article Nagel, himself an atheist, sets out to discover whether it is possible to find a non-religious answer to what he calls the cosmic question: how can one bring into one's individual life a full recognition of one's relation to the universe as a whole?

Many non-believers, Nagel finds, regard this question as unanswerable and probably meaningless, therefore absurd. Their position is what he calls affectless atheism or hard-headed atheism. It is perfectly possible, starting from this position, to take a deep interest in scientific questions about biology and the cosmos, but knowledge of such matters does not translate into an answer to the cosmic question.

One possible answer to it is humanism. Many non-believers do describe themselves as humanists, but I've never felt very happy with that appellation. Nagel doesn't seem to be much attracted by humanism either.

Humanism and its relatives take us outside of ourselves in search of harmony with the universe, but not too far outside. They do not really give us a way of incorporating our conception of the universe as a whole into our lives and how we think of them. Their cosmic ambition is limited.
To which I would add that, as a species, humanity does not seem to me to be such a resounding success.

Some philosophers hold that evolutionary biology offers a perspective that is larger than that of the human one from which we naturally start. It seems "to offer the possibility of a transformative self-conception—one that is larger than even the universal human perspective."

This has been pretty much my own position for a good while now, so I was somewhat disconcerted to find that Nagel regards it as inadequate. Evolutionary biology cannot provide an answer to the cosmic question, he says, because it is "radically anti-teleological".

This implies that it is not suited to supply any kind of sense to our existence, if it is taken on as the larger perspective from which life is lived. Instead, the evolutionary perspective probably makes human life, like all life, meaningless, since it makes life a more or less accidental consequence of physics.
The real difficulty is to explain the origin of life. Darwinism cannot do this because it assumes the existence of life for natural selection to act on. A related question concerns the appearance of consciousness, which Nagel regards as a further mystery.

A solution?

In an an attempt to answer the cosmic question, Nagel suggests that we consider a form of non-religious teleology—teleology as part of the natural order. Ideas of this kind are generally resisted by secularists, because they seem to lead back to a religious view, which they wish to escape from (hence the "fear of religion"). But Nagel thinks it may be possible to have a natural teleology.

This would require, first, that the laws of physics are not fully deterministic, so that the development of the universe might follow more than one path. Second, these possible paths would have different probabilities and the more probable ones would tend to produce life.

The point of these speculations is to explain why atheism needn't entail reductionism. There may be the alternative of some kind of Platonism, according to which there is a nonaccidental fit between us and the world order. There is a natural order, and over time it generates beings that are not only part of it but are able to understand it.

Would Nagel's solution really help?

As Nagel acknowledges, it is questionable how much difference this idea really makes to our situation. It does not provide our lives with a cosmic purpose or solve the problem of evil, for example. "But in the Platonic conception even the biological and cultural evolution that has led to the starting point at which each of us arrives on Earth and reaches consciousness is embedded in something larger, something that makes that entire history less arbitrary than it is on the reductive view."

It seems this is the best we can hope for if we are not religious. But if we reject both the Platonic and the religious views, Nagel concludes, we must go back to hard-headed atheism, humanism, or the absurd. "In that case, since the cosmic question won't go away and humanism is too feeble an answer, the absurd has my vote."

After reading Nagel's article, I realize that I had not fully thought out the implications of my own view of the cosmic question. So I now have a great deal to think about, which is excellent; there's nothing like having one's fundamental assumptions shaken up. I'm not sure how I'll vote myself, but I do accept that these two possibilities—Platonism or the absurd—are probably the only real choices I have.

Notes and references

  1. Nagel's article can be found at a number of places on the Internet, including here.

  2. Paul Davies,in The Goldilocks Enigma favours a quite similar idea to Nagel's: namely, that there may be a teleological element built into the laws of nature. But he uses Platonism in the opposite sense to Nagel's, saying that "abandoning Platonism would make room for teleology"! This is because he uses Platonism to mean the view that the laws of physics exist in some abstract realm of which our world is the pale reflection. This, he says, is the view of most theoretical physicists and he thinks that to incorporate teleology we would need a less rigid and absolutist approach. But this semantic difference aside, Nagel and Davies seem to be saying much the same thing.

  3. See also Thomas Nagel and the Fear of Religion.