Andrew Ferguson writes on the the explosion of hostility toward Thomas Nagel after the publication of his 2012 book, Mind and Cosmos. Here is my overview of the book. More detailed posts on the same book are collected under the Nagel rubric.
For a non-philosopher, Ferguson's treatment is accurate. Here are a couple of interesting excerpts in which he relates the thoughts of Daniel Dennett:
Daniel Dennett took a different view. While it is true that materialism tells us a human being is nothing more than a “moist robot”—a phrase Dennett took from a Dilbert comic—we run a risk when we let this cat, or robot, out of the bag. If we repeatedly tell folks that their sense of free will or belief in objective morality is essentially an illusion, such knowledge has the potential to undermine civilization itself, Dennett believes. Civil order requires the general acceptance of personal responsibility, which is closely linked to the notion of free will. Better, said Dennett, if the public were told that “for general purposes” the self and free will and objective morality do indeed exist—that colors and sounds exist, too—“just not in the way they think.” They “exist in a special way,” which is to say, ultimately, not at all.
What amazes me is that people like Dennett fail to appreciate the utter absurdity of what they are maintaining. He obviously believes that civilization and civil order both exist and are worth preserving. This is why he thinks the sober materialist truth ought not be broadcast to hoi polloi. And yet the preservation of civilization and its order require the widespread acceptance of such illusory notions as that of moral responsibility and freedom of the will. But if these notions are illusory, then so are Dennett's value judgment that civilization is worth preserving and his factual judgment that civilization exists.
It is absurd (self-contradictory) to maintain both that civilization is valuable and that every value-judgment is illusory.
It is also absurd to urge that the truth ought to be withheld from the ignorant masses. There is no room for 'ought' in Dennett's eliminativist scheme. Nor is there any room for rational persuasion. Rational persuasion requires that there be reasons, and that people are sensitive to them. But in Dennett's world reasons must be as ultimately illusory as consciousness and free will and all the rest of Wilfrid Sellars' Manifest Image.
It is absurd to attempt to persuade rationally if reasons are illusory.
It is also absurd to put forth 'truths' on a scheme that allows no place for truth.
When all of the following are consigned to the junk heap, then the very eliminativist project consigns itself to the junk heap: consciousness, intentionality, purposiveness, qualia, truth, meaning, , moral responsibility, personhood, free will, normativity in all its varieties . . . .
It's nonsense and the various emperors of this Nonsense are naked. And yet Dennett and Co. can't see it:
“I am just appalled to see how, in spite of what I think is the progress we’ve made in the last 25 years, there’s this sort of retrograde gang,” he said, dropping his hands on the table. “They’re going back to old-fashioned armchair philosophy with relish and eagerness. It’s sickening. And they lure in other people. And their work isn’t worth anything—it’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.”
There was an air of amused exasperation. “Will you name names?” one of the participants prodded, joking.
“No names!” Dennett said.
The philosopher Alex Rosenberg, author of The Atheist’s Guide, leaned forward, unamused.
“And then there’s some work that is neither cute nor clever,” he said. “And it’s by Tom Nagel.”
There it was! Tom Nagel, whose Mind and Cosmos was already causing a derangement among philosophers in England and America.
Dennett sighed at the mention of the name, more in sorrow than in anger. His disgust seemed to drain from him, replaced by resignation. He looked at the table.
“Yes,” said Dennett, “there is that.”
Around the table, with the PowerPoint humming, they all seemed to heave a sad sigh—a deep, workshop sigh.
Tom, oh Tom . . . How did we lose Tom . . .
Thomas Nagel may be the most famous philosopher in the United States—a bit like being the best power forward in the Lullaby League, but still. His paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” was recognized as a classic when it was published in 1974. Today it is a staple of undergraduate philosophy classes. His books range with a light touch over ethics and politics and the philosophy of mind. His papers are admired not only for their philosophical provocations but also for their rare (among modern philosophers) simplicity and stylistic clarity, bordering sometimes on literary grace.