The neo-Darwinian materialist account offers a picture of the world that is unrecognizable to us—a world without color or sound, and also a world without free will or consciousness or good and evil or selves or, when it comes to that, selflessness. “It flies in the face of common sense,” he says. Materialism is an explanation for a world we don’t live in.
Nagel dissents from the materialist fold, which includes such luminaries as Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins, in that he argues for an account of consciousness in which there is a reality outside of the chemical and physical processes of matter in motion, and that it is possible for us to grasp that reality. For this thoughtcrime, Fergusen notes, he has been pilloried by many contemporary materialist philosophers. The alternative offered by this particular brand of materialism:
The most famous, most succinct, and most pitiless summary of the manifest image’s fraudulence was written nearly 20 years ago by the geneticist Francis Crick: “ ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.”
This view is the “naturalism” that the workshoppers in the Berkshires were trying to move forward. Naturalism is also called “materialism,” the view that only matter exists; or “reductionism,” the view that all life, from tables to daydreams, is ultimately reducible to pure physics; or “determinism,” the view that every phenomenon, including our own actions, is determined by a preexisting cause, which was itself determined by another cause, and so on back to the Big Bang. The naturalistic project has been greatly aided by neo-Darwinism, the application of Darwin’s theory of natural selection to human behavior, including areas of life once assumed to be nonmaterial: emotions and thoughts and habits and perceptions. At the workshop the philosophers and scientists each added his own gloss to neo-Darwinian reductive naturalism or materialistic neo-Darwinian reductionism or naturalistic materialism or reductive determinism. They were unanimous in their solid certainty that materialism—as we’ll call it here, to limit the number of isms—is the all-purpose explanation for life as we know it.
As Daniel Dennet puts it, we are "moist robots." Based on the reaction that Nagel has provoked, one might think that he's crossed over to the other side along with religious types like me. But no, he has not reenacted the apostasy of Anthony Flew. Would that he had. It would make it much easier for his critics to dismiss him. He has simply called into question the metaphysical claims that materialists want to make on the basis of what scientists can tell us about the world:
Materialism, then, is fine as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go as far as materialists want it to. It is a premise of science, not a finding. Scientists do their work by assuming that every phenomenon can be reduced to a material, mechanistic cause and by excluding any possibility of nonmaterial explanations. And the materialist assumption works really, really well—in detecting and quantifying things that have a material or mechanistic explanation. Materialism has allowed us to predict and control what happens in nature with astonishing success. The jaw-dropping edifice of modern science, from space probes to nanosurgery, is the result.
But the success has gone to the materialists’ heads. From a fruitful method, materialism becomes an axiom: If science can’t quantify something, it doesn’t exist, and so the subjective, unquantifiable, immaterial “manifest image” of our mental life is proved to be an illusion.
Now, for my part, I find this totally uncontroversial and indeed obvious, but it is remarkable to read an account of the degree to which it has escaped a certain brand of philosopher, who one might expect to have at least considered the matter. I've been making (and earlier hearing from others) this argument for a very long time. I'm simply glad that others have picked up on it as well.
The core problem of materialism is not only that it engages in a sort of question-begging conflation of ontic and noetic categories, but also that it utterly fails to account of human life or experience. Having opted to describe the world according to the very strictest interpretations of their materialist premise, they've managed to destroy any coherent account of the world as something which we perceive and in which we dwell. What's more, they've rendered any means of determinging how to live in such a world utterly impossible. As Ferguson notes:
As a philosophy of everything it is an undeniable drag. As a way of life it would be even worse. Fortunately, materialism is never translated into life as it’s lived. As colleagues and friends, husbands and mothers, wives and fathers, sons and daughters, materialists never put their money where their mouth is. Nobody thinks his daughter is just molecules in motion and nothing but; nobody thinks the Holocaust was evil, but only in a relative, provisional sense. A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions—understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots—wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath. Say what you will about Leiter and Weisberg and the workshoppers in the Berkshires. From what I can tell, none of them is a psychopath. Not even close.
It would be impossible, Ferguson argues, to attempt to live a human life on the basis of the presumptions of metaphysical materialism. He points out that this is a matter of some heated debate among the materialists, some of whom want to embrace the full implications of their philsophical presuppositions (which they treat as conclusions), and others of whom want to perpetrate a version of Plato's "noble lie," allowing the masses to continue to delude themselves by believing in such concepts as "self" and "morality," while allowing the cogniscenti to know better (while, apparently, not behaving any differently).
But this is a fundamental problem with materialism as a philosophy: If it can give us no account of beauty, or truth, or goodness, and allows us no resources that we can use to understand our lives and the world in which we dwell, then it's a poor kind of philosophy at the end of the day. And its failure is rooted precisely in its inability to understand that the epistemic presuppositions of scientific materialism are not the metaphysical premises of the world-in-itself. Whatever the contours of that reality may be, they aren't accessed in any uniquely authoritative way by the tools of materialist analysis, which simply provides one candidate among many for the description of underlying reality.
And, as Ferguson notes, since a thoroughgoing materialism would render us ethically monstrous, even materialists should be comforted by the shaky foundations on which they've built their metaphysical world.