“Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament"
By Thomas Nagel
I devoured this book in less than a week, I enjoy reading Nagel that much. This book is a collection of essays dealing with religion, politics and humanity, often the subjects over lap, as in perhaps the most interesting essay of this book “Public Education and Intelligent Design” an essay for which previously I was only able to read an abstract.
Nagel in this essay and in the others dealing with religion proves himself to be quite an open minded atheist. Indeed, posting a few quotes from this essay and others to may face book page made atheist friends of mine quite uneasy. I had to laugh as he was accused of being a “new age Philosopher” and “guilty of religious thinking”, read: “guilty of questioning scientific dogma, guilty of thinking." Here’s an atheist willing to take on Dawkins for shoddy scholarship. Here is an atheist willing to say evolution, especially evolutionary reductionism, meaning the doctrine that all of life, even the origin of it, can be explained by evolutionary processes just doesn’t make sense. He as a professor of constitutional law is also willing to argue that Intelligent Design can and probably should be taught in school if for nothing else to expose students to differing ways of thinking, though he thinks biology teachers might not be up for the task. Read into that what you want, I suppose.
Nagel himself, is one who seems to wish that evolution was true, but admits that so far it is less than convincing. He hesitates to endorse Intelligent Design, and holds to his atheism maintaining that there may be other alternatives. However, he blames the “fear of religion, something he himself admits as an influence in his own life, for leading many scientifically minded atheists to cling to a defensive, world flattening reductionism hobbling their own imagination and creativity that might lead to further scientific discoveries.
This isn’t a science text book, nevertheless he applies an open mind, all the more open because he is willing to face his fear after acknowledging it, to the subjects of evolution and intelligent design. He also argues that evolution has worked itself into a bind when it comes to DNA in that “The problem that originally prompted the argument from design, namely, the overwhelming improbability of such a thing (DNA) coming into existence by chance, simply through the purposeless laws of physics, remains just as real for this case. Yet this time we cannot replace chance with natural selection.” He also hints that the overwhelming acceptance of evolution originally, as an alternative to design theory, may have been more due to the desirability of the results, the elimination of a need for God, than to any great evidence in its favor.
His essays on Politics concentrate more in the realm of international law than anything else. I am sympathetic to his thoughts here as well. Acknowledging a responsibility to fellow man and the spread of human rights to those born in other societies, especially those to whom we are connected in trade, he yet believes that “the global scope of justice will expand only through developments that first increase the injustice of the world by introducing effective but illegitimate institutions to which the standards of justice apply, standards by which we may hope they will eventually be transformed.” He bases this argument on the way in which sovereign states in the west have risen and reformed themselves, and points to organizations such as the World Trade Organization and its clout to get countries to conform to standards of human rights in order to foster trade. He points to Turkey’s massive reforms to join the U.N. Yet he sees that there is a need for countries to protect their sovereignty also, and though he seems to detest the Bush administration, understands and agrees with them for not having signed the Kyoto protocols.
In the process of all this he offers some intriguing critiques of the political philosophy of Rawls both where domestic and foreign policies are concerned. Nagel it seems is less willing to play what if games, and rather tackle the questions of what is, and what should be.