Saturday, April 4, 2009
Give me that old time atheism
Last night I was dipping into Roy Abraham Varghese’s Great Thinkers on Great Questions, an interesting collection of interviews with a number of prominent philosophers (including A. J. Ayer, G. E. M. Anscombe, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Ralph McInerny, Brian Leftow, Gerard Hughes, and many others) on topics mostly related in one way or another to religion. Some of Ayer’s remarks brought to mind how different earlier generations of agnostics and atheists had been, not merely culturally (as Roger Scruton has noted) but philosophically. Ayer, though a notorious lifelong foe of religion, was not a materialist. In his famous book Language, Truth, and Logic, he attempted (as he reminds us in the Varghese volume) to reduce physical objects to “sense-contents,” entities which were intended to be neutral between mind and matter but which were in fact (as Ayer admits) closer to the mental than to the physical side of the traditional mental/physical divide. Hence the resulting position was “much more nearly mentalistic than physicalistic.” And to the end of his life he apparently always rejected any attempt to reduce the mental to the physical.
The reason for this is that even agnostic and atheist philosophers of Ayer’s generation generally recognized that materialism is just prima facie implausible. As I have noted in some earlier posts (here and here), and as I discuss at length in The Last Superstition, dualism was by no means a deviation from the broadly mechanistic conception of matter contemporary philosophy has inherited from the 17th century, but rather a natural consequence of that conception, given its highly abstract and mathematical redefinition of the material world. If matter is what the mechanistic view says it is, then (it seems) there is simply nowhere else to locate color, odor, taste, sound, etc. (as common sense understands these qualities, anyway), and nowhere else to locate meaning (given the banishment of final causes from the material world), than in something immaterial. And until about the 1960s, most philosophers (the occasional exception like Hobbes notwithstanding) seemed to realize that, short of returning to an Aristotelian hylemorphic philosophy of nature, the only plausible alternatives to dualism were views that tended to put the accent on mind rather than on matter – such as idealism, phenomenalism, or neutral monism.
The last of these, as its name implies, was officially committed to the view that the basic stuff out of which the world is constructed is “neutral” between mind and matter, but notoriously it tends to collapse into either phenomenalism or idealism. In my atheist days, it was the version of neutral monism developed by Bertrand Russell (or rather a riff on that version developed by F. A. Hayek) that I took to be the most plausible approach to the mind-body problem. (In recent philosophy, Russell’s views have been developed, in a way that seeks to avoid any sort of idealism, by Michael Lockwood; and, in a way that to some extent or other concedes their idealistic implications, by Galen Strawson and David Chalmers. In my Russellian days I was more attracted to Lockwood’s approach.) After a brief flirtation with materialism while an undergrad, I was more or less inoculated against it by John Searle’s writings, and came to regard the Russellian approach as the most plausible way to defend a naturalistic (if non-materialistic) view of the world.
Most naturalistic philosophers are not at all attracted to this approach, however, precisely (I would suggest) because of its tendency to collapse into some sort of philosophical idealism. For to make mind out to be the ultimate reality is – as the history of 19th century idealism shows – to adopt a view which must surely strike most naturalists as “too close for comfort” to a religious view of the world. To be sure, Chalmers and Strawson do not take their position in anything like a religious direction, but so far few other naturalists have been willing to follow them.
But if they were wise, they would do so. Chalmers and Strawson are in fact among the most interesting philosophers of mind writing today, in part because of their attempt to defend a kind of naturalism while acknowledging the very deep philosophical difficulties inherent in materialism. (Strawson famously dismisses materialism as “moonshine.”) As I have been lamenting in recent posts, most contemporary philosophical naturalists (to say nothing of non-philosophers who are naturalists, such as the New Atheists) have only the most crude understanding of the theological views they dismiss so contemptuously. In the same way, they tend also to be absurdly overconfident about the prospects of a materialist or physicalist account of the mind.
Earlier generations of philosophical atheists or agnostics – Ayer, Russell, Popper, to name just three – knew how difficult it is to defend such an account, and thus avoided grounding their atheism or agnosticism in a specifically materialist metaphysics. Some of their contemporary successors – Lockwood, Chalmers, Strawson, Nagel, Searle, Fodor, McGinn, Levine, among others – have, to varying degrees, some awareness of the same problems. Consequently, at least some of these people realize that naturalism itself (which seems most plausible precisely when spelled out in materialist terms) is by no means obviously right; it is something that requires a very great deal of effort to defend, and cannot blithely dismiss its rivals. Unfortunately, the bulk of contemporary philosophical naturalists – Dennett and Rey being by no means idiosyncratic in this regard – seem forever lost in their dogmatic slumbers.
ADDENDUM: I should note that Strawson does sometimes call his version of Russell's position "real materialism," and that Lockwood has occasionally said similar things. By contrast, Grover Maxwell, another Russellian who influenced both Lockwood and Strawson, repudiates any kind of "materialist" label even though his views are more or less identical to theirs. And Chalmers sometimes characterizes his own variation on Russellianism as a kind of "dualism"! So, the terminology here can get confusing. The point is that all of these authors reject materialism in the standard (Smart, Armstrong, early Putnam, Davidson, Dennett, Churchland, et al.) sense.