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An Excerpt from The Last Word

Thomas Nagel
From: Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture Volume 5, Number 2, Spring 2002 pp. 160-163 | 10.1353/log.2002.0028

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 5.2 (2002) 160-163 From a Logical Point of View

I don't mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deepernamely, the fear of religion itself. 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 wellinformed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.

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. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning, and design as fundamental features of the world. Instead they become epiphenomena, generated incidentally by a process that can be entirely explained by the operation of the nonteleological laws of physics on the material of which we and our environments are all composed. There might still be thought to be a religious threat in the existence of the laws of physics themselves, and indeed the existence of anything at allbut it seems to be less alarming to most atheists. This is a somewhat ridiculous situation. First of all, one should try to resist the intellectual effects of such a fear (if not the fear itself), for it is just as irrational to be influenced in one's beliefs by the hope that God does not exist as by the hope that God does exist. But having said that, I would also like to offer somewhat inconsistently the reassurance that atheists have no more reason to be alarmed by fundamental and irreducible mind-world relations than by fundamental and irreducible laws of physics. It is possible to accept a world view that does not explain everything in terms of quantum field theory without necessarily believing in God. If the natural order can include universal, mathematically beautiful laws of fundamental physics of the kind we have discovered, why can't it include equally fundamental laws and constraints that we don't know anything about, that are consistent with the laws of physics and that render intelligible the development of conscious organisms some of which have the capacity to discover by prolonged collective effort some of the fundamental truths about that very natural order? (I am interpreting the concept of "physics" restrictively enough so that the laws of physics by themselves will not explain the presence of such thinking beings in the

space of natural possibilities. Of course, if "physics" just means the most fundamental scientific theory about everything, then it will include any such laws if they exist.) This need not be a particularly anthropocentric view. We are simply examples of mind, and presumably only one of countless possible, if not actual, rational species on this or other planets. But the existence of mind is certainly a datum for the construction of any world picture: At the very least, its possibility must be explained. And it seems hardly credible that its appearance should be a natural accident, like the fact that there...