Do naturalists have more to lose? If not, why are they crucifying Thomas Nagel?
Matt DeStefano wrote a response to my article “Do atheists simply want to know the truth? Does anybody?” titled “Do Christians have more to lose?” Matt starts out agreeing with my observation that academics can become emotionally and personally invested in positions they defend and as a result, the pursuit of a particular thesis and defense of one’s views is not merely a detached pursuit of truth. Instead, it carries a personal dimension. Matt then concludes, “This all seems right to me so far.”
Unfortunately after agreeing with that much, Matt’s analysis then goes off the rails. The charge is a familiar one: Christians, and other people identified with “religious” communities and employed by institutions with a “religious” identity, have another level of emotional commitment and an additional set of strictures which mean they have “more to lose” than those unaffiliated with a religious community. Matt wraps up the analysis like this:
“The conversation about the earnest search for truth is an important one, and the psychological and sociological underpinnings of belief often go unnoticed. We should welcome a discussion on these issues, but we shouldn’t pretend that all beliefs will be equally emotionally valenced, and that all parties engaged in debate have the same amount to lose by renouncing their position. It is unreasonable to compare the endorsement of (relatively) impersonal philosophical positions to the utterly personal nature of religious beliefs.”
By the way, in the article Matt gives an example to prove his point. He notes that philosopher Frank Jackson changed his views on epiphenomenalism and everybody went “Hey, Jackson changed his views on epiphenomenalism.” But when a Christian scholar changes their views on, say, the incarnation, the chant comes: Crucify!
It’s a misleading example. After all, Christian philosophers are free to change their views on epiphenomenalism as well. So the comparison is apples and oranges.
Matt’s analysis is skewed since non-Christian scholars at non-Christian institutions (or Christian scholars at non-Christian institutions) have a lot to lose both practically and ideologically.
Let’s start with the practical. Have you heard of Alain Prost? One of the truly great Formula 1 drivers he was fired by Ferrari after he lost a race and blamed the quality of the car. It doesn’t matter how good a driver you are, there are certain things you just don’t say. Likewise, it doesn’t matter how good a scholar you are, there are certain administrators and donors and others in the constituency that you learn to behave around … or face the consequences.
Midway between the practical and ideological we have cases like Norman Finkelstein’s tenure denial at DePaul University. Finkelstein was an assistant professor at DePaul and one of the world’s leading political scientists when he was denied tenure. As one of the students at ratemyprofessor.com commented:
“God, Finkelstein was the greatest. I’m so glad I had him when I did. It’s absolutely ridiculous DePaul denied him tenure. Everyone should transfer schools to follow Finkelstein.”
By any objective measure, Finkelstein should have been granted tenure. His writing, teaching and public service were all exemplary. And yet he was denied tenure. While the committee refused to provide its reasons, a campaign led by Alan Dershowitz was the clear cause. This campaign was both ideological (Finkelstein’s persistent criticism of Israel’s human rights record) and personal (Finkelstein’s claim that Dershowitz plagiarized), complemented by Finkelstein’s somewhat irascible, combative personality.
Does it make sense to make statements about how Christian scholars at Christian universities have more to lose than Finkelstein, an atheist, teaching at a secular school? No, it doesn’t. So I object to DeStefano’s attempt to establish some principled difference between Christians (or religious people) and everybody else. Everything depends on the particular scholar in a particular circumstance.
But now we come to the purely ideological. What happens if you violate naturalism? Here I’ll be brief because the fallout from Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos has been well documented elsewhere. Just consider Andrew Ferguson’s fascinating article “The Heretic: Who is Thomas Nagel and why are so many of his fellow academics condemning him?” It is no surprise that scholars are heaping insults on Nagel, a worldclass philosopher and atheist, for daring to challenge philosophical naturalism. After all, this ain’t just mere epiphenomenalism. This is a theory that goes to the very foundations for many of these folk. Kind of like challenging the incarnation at a Christian school, eh?