What Philistinism Looks Like

For anyone who wants to take a peek into what is perhaps the most radical philistinism of our time, I recommend “The Heretic,” Andrew Ferguson’s long and thoughtful essay in the current Weekly Standard. In part, Ferguson’s piece is an account of the ostracism of Thomas Nagel, the distinguished NYU philosopher who first entered the academic empyrean with his clever 1974 meditation on the mind-body problem, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (short answer: very difficult for us humans to say). But the case of Thomas Nagel’s academic proscription is only half of Ferguson’s story. The other half concerns the breathtaking, almost comic village-idiot sort of philistinism displayed by those presiding over Nagel’s ostracism.

Why and by whom was Thomas Nagel ostracized?  At first blush, he would seem to be an unlikely candidate for the we-now-cast-you-into-outer-darkness treatment by his peers. He has espoused all the right (i.e., decidedly left-leaning) political opinions. And his philosophical work,  though sophisticated in its insistence on the irreducibility of consciousness in understanding experience, operates well within the prescribed boundaries of academic acceptability (no God-talk, for example).

But last year, Nagel committed an unpardonable sin. He published a book called Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. Yikes. Ferguson shows in hilarious if also disturbing detail how the orthodox high priests of the neo-Darwinian consensus — chaps like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins — have read Nagel out of the fraternity of OK people for daring to question the tenets of their faith.

I’ve seen this play before.  The late David Stove, whom some observers regard as the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, was always troubling to the academic establishment because of his political conservatism.  But he had earned the plaudits of the academic philosophical elite with his penetrating criticisms of irrationalism and idealism and other work. That changed irrevocably when Stove dared to criticize some aspects of Darwinism in Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution. The bien pensant elders shuddered in horror and withdrew their secular imprimatur and nihil obstat. What could obstat  more than criticizing aspects of Darwinism? (Stove did not, by the way, deny the fact of evolution. It’s just that he thought that Darwinian and, especially, neo-Darwinian orthodoxy was “a ridiculous slander on human beings,” which it is.) I recounted the story of Stove’s ostracism in my introduction to Darwinian Fairytales and in “Who Was David Stove?” a more general essay about his work which I first published in The  New Criterion.

One of my favorite expressions of the philistinism of the Neo-Darwinian confraternity is E. O. Wilson’s contention that “an organism is only DNA’s way of making more DNA.”  Query: is E.O. Wilson only “DNA’s way of making more DNA?” How about J.S. Bach?

Ferguson quotes a more extended version of this absurdity from the great scientist 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.

No more than, eh? Nothing but, you say? As a specimen of materialist reductionism, that is hard to beat. The idea the Cricks and Dennetts and Dawkinses of the world wish us to take on board is that really, at bottom, our experience of ourselves and the world counts for nothing. That flowering crab apple outside your window, for example, is not really a beautiful celebration of spring, but merely an agglomeration of biological processes.