New Books in Philosophy, Theology, and Apologetics – April 2012

* Philosophy and the Christian Worldview: Analysis, Assessment and DevelopmentDavid Werther and Mark D. Linville, eds (Continuum, Feb. 2012)

“The editors have aptly assembled an impressive array of Christian philosophers to honor Professor Keith Yandell’s remarkable contributions to the philosophy of religion. The contributors, along with Yandell himself, rigorously assess various truth claims pertaining to religious beliefs, and in so doing, provide some significant rational support for the truth of the Christian worldview.” –Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary.

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* True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of AtheismTom Gilson and Carson Weitnauer, eds. (Patheos Press, March 2012)

“True Reason,” edited by Tom Gilson and Carson Weitnauer, brings together a compendium of writers–philosophers, apologists, ethicists, theologians, historians–who look carefully at the best arguments atheism has and evaluate their validity, logic, assumptions, and naturalist conclusions.  Authors include noted philosopher William Lane Craig and popular apologist Sean McDowell, along with Gilson, Weitnauer, John DePoe, Chuck Edwards, Matthew Flannagan, Peter Grice, Randy Hardman, David Marshall, Glenn Sunshine, David Wood, and Samuel Youngs. Each chapter tackles a different atheist argument and brings reason fully into the discussion.”

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* Equality, Freedom, and ReligionRoger Trigg (Oxford University Press, Jan. 2012)

“Roger Trigg looks at the assumptions that lie behind the subordination of religious liberty to other social concerns, especially the pursuit of equality. He gives examples from different Western countries of a steady erosion of freedom of religion. The protection of freedom of worship is often seen as sufficient, and religious practices are separated from the beliefs which inspire them. So far from religion in general, and Christianity in particular, providing a foundation for our beliefs in human dignity and human rights, religion is all too often seen as threat and a source of conflict, to be controlled at all costs. . . . Given the central role of religion in human life, unnecessary limitations on its expression are attacks on human freedom itself.”

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* The Historical Jesus: An Essential GuideJames H. Charlesworth (Abingdon Press, 2008)

“Recent years have seen an explosion of talk about the historical Jesus from scholarly settings as well as media outlets (including sensational TV documentaries and national magazines). How is the student of the Bible to assess these various claims about Jesus? And what difference does knowledge of his time and place make for Christian faith, theological thinking, and historical research? James Charlesworth presents the solid results of modern study into the life and times of Jesus, especially regarding the role of the Essenes, the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the nature of messianic expectation, and much more. No one today is better equipped than James Charlesworth to lead students through the thickets of controversy that surround much of contemporary historical Jesus research.”

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* Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly FalseThomas Nagel (Oxford University Press, Oct. 2012)

“In Mind and Cosmos Thomas Nagel argues that the widely accepted world view of materialist naturalism is untenable. The mind-body problem cannot be confined to the relation between animal minds and animal bodies. If materialism cannot accommodate consciousness and other mind-related aspects of reality, then we must abandon a purely materialist understanding of nature in general, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology . . . “

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Philosophy Word of the Day — Thomas Nagel

Thomas Nagel teaching an undergraduate course ...

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“American moral and political theorist.  Born in the former Yugoslavia, Nagel was educated at Cornell, Oxford, and Harvard.  He taught at Princeton from 1966 to 1980, and subsequently at New York University.  His work is centrally concerned with the nature of moral motivation and the possibility of a rational theory of moral and political commitment, and has been a major stimulus to interest in realistic and Kantian approaches to these issues.

“One of the most discussed papers of modern philosophy of mind has been his ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’, arguing that there is an irreducible, subjective aspect of experience that cannot be grasped by the objective methods of natural science, or by philosophies such as functionalism that confine themselves to those methods.  Works include The Possibility of Altruism (1970), Mortal Questions (1979), The View from Nowhere (1986), and Equality and Partiality (1991).”

Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 244.

* Some will remember that Nagel came under attack in 2009 for naming Stephen C. Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell one of the best books of the year.  Philosopher and historian David Gordon, among others, came to Nagel’s defense.

 

Philosophy Word of the Day – Consciousness

The Knight's Dream
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Explaining the nature of consciousness is one of the most important and perplexing areas of philosophy, but the concept is notoriously ambiguous. The abstract noun “consciousness” is not frequently used by itself in the contemporary literature, but is originally derived from the Latin con (with) and scire (to know). Perhaps the most commonly used contemporary notion of a conscious mental state is captured by Thomas Nagel’s famous “what it is like” sense (Nagel 1974). When I am in a conscious mental state, there is something it is like for me to be in that state from the subjective or first-person point of view.

But how are we to understand this? For instance, how is the conscious mental state related to the body? Can consciousness be explained in terms of brain activity? What makes a mental state be a conscious mental state? The problem of consciousness is arguably the most central issue in current philosophy of mind and is also importantly related to major traditional topics in metaphysics, such as the possibility of immortality and the belief in free will. (Continue article)

(Via Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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In Defense of Thomas Nagel

A few days ago I mentioned the recent attacks against philosopher Thomas Nagel by philosopher Brian Leiter of Leiter Reports due to Nagel’s choice of Stephen Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell as one of the best books of 2009.  In a review of one of Nagel’s recent books, philosopher and historian David Gordon defends Nagel’s right to recognize Meyer and comments on Leiter’s gratuitous attacks.

Nagel’s remarks on Intelligent Design are of great philosophical significance. He is an atheist and does not accept the view that a designing mind directed the evolutionary process. But he opposes what he deems a contemporary prejudice in favor of reductionist naturalism. He doubts that Darwinism can adequately explain the existence of objective value and looks instead to an immanent teleology in the world.

Although he does not accept Intelligent Design, Nagel refuses to dismiss the movement as merely religious. Critics claim that design cannot be a legitimate scientific hypothesis; but at the same time, they maintain that the theory can be shown to be false. Nagel pertinently asks, how can both of these assertions be true together? Further, Nagel sees no constitutional obstacle to teaching Intelligent Design.

Nagel’s opinions on this issue have led to a remarkable episode. Brian Leiter runs a blog, Leiter Reports, which is read by philosophers, owing to detailed accounts of promotions, jobs, and other news about philosophy departments. Leiter’s comparative rankings of philosophy departments also attract much attention. Leiter obtrudes his own political and social views on his audience; were he to present these in a separate venue, it is a safe bet that his audience would vastly diminish. Among Leiter’s many aversions, the Intelligent Design movement ranks among the foremost: he often attacks what he calls the “Texas Taliban.”

When Nagel’s article on Intelligent Design appeared, Leiter could not contain his rage (see here and here). We were presented with the unedifying spectacle of Leiter’s speaking in abusive and condescending terms about one of the foremost philosophers of the past half-century. Nagel’s The Possibility of Altruism, The View From Nowhere, and the essays collected in Mortal Questions are classics of contemporary philosophy.

Matters worsened when Nagel recommended in The Times Literary Supplement Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell as one of his “Best Books of the Year.” Meyer is a leading proponent of Intelligent Design, and his book argues that naturalistic accounts of the origin of life on earth confront severe difficulties. Only a designing intelligence, Meyer contends, can account for the intricately specified information contained in DNA. Nagel did not endorse Meyer’s conclusion but praised the book for its account of the “fiendishly difficult” problem of life’s origin.

This recommendation aroused Leiter to new heights of contumely. It seems quite likely that Leiter never bothered to look at Meyer’s book. He quoted from an English professor of chemistry protesting Nagel’s claim that natural selection cannot account for DNA because it presupposes its existence. The chemistry professor, echoed by Leiter, said that natural selection exists in the preorganic world: was not Nagel ignorant to deny this? Both Leiter and the chemist ignored the fact, much emphasized by Meyer, that such resorts to natural selection are controversial. To appeal to the fact of their existence against Nagel is to assume what is much in dispute. Leiter extended his attack to accuse Nagel of ignorance of the relevant fields of study. Nagel has never claimed authority in biology; but had Leiter bothered to read Nagel’s well-known essay, “Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness,” he would discover that Nagel has more than a passing acquaintance with neurobiology.

I have gone on at some length about this, because the attempt by Leiter and others to block inquiry that challenges naturalism seems to me altogether deplorable. To some people, evidently, the first line of the False Priestess in In Memoriam is Holy Writ, not to be questioned: “The stars, she whispers, blindly run.” But even if these avid naturalists are correct in their metaphysics, debate needs to be encouraged rather than suppressed. Perhaps Leiter should reread On Liberty. Pending that happy event, one can only say of his abuse that the barking of Bill Sikes’s dog just tells us that Bill Sikes is in the neighborhood.

(HT: Maverick Philosopher)

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Brian Leiter’s Ongoing Attacks Against Thomas Nagel

Thomas Nagel teaching an undergraduate course ...
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By any accounts, Thomas Nagel has proven himself a more nimble philosopher than the hamfisted Brian Leiter. That’s perhaps why Leiter simply can’t get over that Nagel liked Stephen Meyer’s SIGNATURE IN THE CELL (reported at UD here). For Leiter, when scholars of Nagel’s stature endorse books coming out of the rogue Discovery Institute, that endorsement itself constitutes an attack on liberal democracy, cultured discourse, science, etc. Leiter simply can’t let this go. Here are the posts to date on his blog:

leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2009/12/nagels-nonreply.html

leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2009/12/more-comments-from-philosophers-on-thomas-nagels-shameful-stunt.html

leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2009/12/thomas-nagel-jumps-the-shark.html

leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2008/09/nagel-wins-ba-3.html

(Via Uncommon Descent)

Here is a short response from Nagel to a chemist named Stephen Fletcher who criticized Nagel for recommending Signature in the Cell.

Sir, – Stephen Fletcher objects to my recommending Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell in Books of the Year. Fletcher’s statement that “It is hard to imagine a worse book” suggests that he has read it. If he has, he knows that it includes a chapter on “The RNA World” which describes that hypothesis for the origin of DNA at least as fully as the Wikipedia article that Fletcher recommends. Meyer discusses this and other proposals about the chemical precursors of DNA, and argues that they all pose similar problems about how the process could have got started.

The tone of Fletcher’s letter exemplifies the widespread intolerance of any challenge to the dogma that everything in the world must be ultimately explainable by chemistry and physics. There are reasons to doubt this that have nothing to do with theism, beginning with the apparent physical irreducibility of consciousness. Doubts about reductive explanations of the origin of life also do not depend on theism. Since I am not tempted to believe in God, I do not draw Meyer’s conclusions, but the problems he poses lend support to the view that physics is not the theory of everything, and that more attention should be given to the possibility of an expanded conception of the natural order.

THOMAS NAGEL
29 Washington Square, New York 10011.

Another chemist, John C. Walton, defends Nagel here.

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Other Minds

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The problem of other minds is the problem of how to justify the almost universal belief that others have minds very like our own. It is one of the hallowed, if nowadays unfashionable, problems in philosophy. Various solutions to the problem are on offer. It is noteworthy that so many are on offer. Even more noteworthy is that none of the solutions on offer can plausibly lay claim to enjoying majority support.

[. . .]

There are (at least) two problems of other minds. There is the epistemological problem, concerned with how our beliefs about mental states other than our own might be justified. There is also a conceptual problem: how is it possible for us to form a concept of mental states other than our own. It is generally thought that the materials used to fashion the epistemological problem are the very same materials that produce the conceptual problem. The conceptual problem is generally raised in the context of solving the epistemological problem. One view here is that there can only be an epistemological problem if the conceptual problem is solved, but solving the conceptual problem solves the epistemological problem (Malcolm 1962a). That would be just as well since otherwise the epistemological problem would still be with us. More straightforwardly, some have thought that the conceptual problem is the difficult one without, tantalizingly, showing how easy it is to solve the epistemological problem (Nagel 1986, 19–20).

(Via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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Thomas Nagel Selects Signature in the Cell as One of Top Books of 2009

Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel praised Signature in the Cell in the Times Literary Supplement, stating,

Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperCollins) is a detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter – something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin. The controversy over Intelligent Design has so far focused mainly on whether the evolution of life since its beginnings can be explained entirely by natural selection and other non-purposive causes. Meyer takes up the prior question of how the immensely complex and exquisitely functional chemical structure of DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible, could have originated without an intentional cause. He examines the history and present state of research on non-purposive chemical explanations of the origin of life, and argues that the available evidence offers no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause. Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem.

(HT: Uncommon Descent)

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