I have in my hand a copy of Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford University Press, 1997). The last essay in The Last Word is entitled, "Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion." One hopes that Nagel does not consider it the last word on the topic given its fragmentary nature and occasional perversity. But it's a good essay nonetheless. Everything by Thomas Nagel is worth reading. Herewith, a bit of interpretive summary with quotations and comments.
Nagel's essay begins by pointing out a certain Platonism in the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, a Platonism that is foreign to pragmatism as usually understood. Nagel quotes Peirce as saying that the aim of science is "eternal verities," a notion at odds with the Jamesian view that the true is that which it is good for us to believe. What science is after is not a set of beliefs conducive to our flourishing but a set of beliefs that correspond to the world as it is independently of us. The researcher aims to "learn the lesson that nature has to teach. . . ." But to do this, the inquiring mind must "call upon its inward sympathy with nature, its instinct for aid, just as we find Galileo at the dawn of modern science making his appeal to il lume naturale [the natural light]. . . ."
Nagel finds these "radically antireductionist" and "realist" thoughts "entirely congenial" but "quite out of keeping with present fashion." (129) And talk of an "inward sympathy" of the inquiring mind with nature he finds "alarmingly Platonist."
But why should Nagel be alarmed at the Platonist view that reason operating properly mirrors the antecedent structure of reality? His alarm is rooted in the suspicion that the Platonist view is "religious, or quasi-religious." (130) A rationalism such as the Platonic "makes us more at home in the universe than is secularly comfortable." (130, emphasis in original.) That there should be a fundamental harmony between mind and world makes people "nervous" nowadays. This uncomfortableness and nervousness is one manifestation of the fear of religion in intellectual life.
Nagel makes it clear that he is talking about the fear of religion as such, and not merely fear of certain of its excesses and aberrations, and confesses that he himself is subject to this fear:
I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that. (130, emphasis added)
Nagel admits that he may just have a "cosmic authority problem." But then he says something very perceptive in a passage that may be directed against Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett:
My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. (131)
Let me give an example of my own of the overuse of evolutionary biology. After Dawkins introduced the term 'meme' along about 1976, Dennett ran with it like a crazed footballer. Roughly, a meme is a self-replicating entity that plays on the cultural level the role that the gene plays on the biological level. They are like ideas, except that they are thought of -- literally, Dennett assures us -- as brain parasites. (Consciousness Explained, p. 220) A brain infested with these self-replicating parasites is really all that a mind is: "a human mind is itself an artifact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes." (CE, p. 207)
Now this is not the place to begin a critique of the meme meme; my only point for the nonce is that Nagel is on to something. Fear of religion with its attendant cosmic authority problem may well be a good part of what is driving this 'philosophy fiction' of Dennett and other fanciful ideas that stem from the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology.