Why exactly are Alvin Plantinga and Tom Nagel reviewing each other? And could we have expected a more dismal intellectual result than Plantinga on Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos in the New Republic? When two self-perceived victims get together, you get a chorus of hurt: For recommending an Intelligent Design manifesto as Book of the Year, Plantinga moans, “Nagel paid the predictable price; he was said to be arrogant, dangerous to children, a disgrace, hypocritical, ignorant, mind-polluting, reprehensible, stupid, unscientific, and in general a less than wholly upstanding citizen of the republic of letters.”
My heart goes out to anybody who utters such a wail, knowing that he is himself held in precisely the same low esteem. My mind, however, remains steely and cold.
Plantinga repeats (as does Nagel) the old argument that “natural selection is interested in behavior, not in the truth of belief” except insofar as the latter contributes to “the presence of predators, or food, or potential mates.” This is an unforgiveably constricted view of human evolution. Humans have big brains and are social animals. Societies composed of such creatures may value predictive capacities, theoretical insight, and even abstract thought. It is not more than a high school gibe to say “it is only the occasional member of the Young Humanist Society whose reproductive prospects are enhanced by accepting atheism.” Plantinga’s self-refutation argument concerning materialism is only slightly less jejune.
The remainder of the review (roughly the second half) is devoted—nice word!— (a) to lamenting Nagel’s “discomfort and distress at the thought that there might be such a being as God,” and (b) an expression of unease at Nagel’s own teleological metaphysics. Plantinga is not in favour of this kind of pagan thinking.
To defend against the expected tu quoque: it is not my intention in this post to defend my view of the intellectual shortcomings of these two eminent gentlemen. I have sketched my views elsewhere, and undertake a slightly fuller engagement with Nagel in a review that will appear in the Philosopher’s Magazine in January.
I just want to ask the New Republic: What the hell were you expecting from this review?