The Last Word, by Thomas Nagel (Oxford University Press, 160 pp.; $19.95, hardcover); Objectivity: The Obligations of Impersonal Reason, by Nicholas Rescher (University of Notre Dame Press, 264 pp.; $35, hardcover; $16, paper). Reviewed by Ric Machuga, professor of philosophy at Butte College.
A mere 30 years ago I was an undergraduate philosophy major wrestling with intellectual doubts surrounding my emerging Christian faith. Back then Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayers, B. F. Skinner, and their acolytes were proclaiming that Christ's claims to be the Son of God were simply not true and that anyone who believed them was irrational. Seeking to be both rational and a Christian, I had to come to grips with their arguments.
Today, there is good news and bad news for Christians. The good news is that the Russells, Ayerses, and Skinners have died and left no intellectual heirs. In the postmodern world, Christians are not so likely to be told that their faith is not true. The bad news is that now when we proclaim Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, we will most typically be greeted with a Pilate-like sneer: "What is truth?" For us, Thomas Nagel's little book The Last Word and Nicholas Rescher's slightly bigger book Objectivity: The Obligations of Impersonal Reason are a godsend.
The heart of Nagel's manifesto is that—contrary to the rampant subjectivism and perspectivism of the day—he really does know that things like rabbits exist. He flat-out denies that "the first person, singular or plural, is hiding at the bottom of everything we say or think." A person need not preface all statements with "for me rabbits exist" or "for us it is true that there are rabbits." Instead, Nagel argues that there is nothing philosophically presumptuous, and certainly nothing arrogant, in simple assertions about rabbits. Nor are questions about the existence of rabbits of mere theoretical interest. The result of postmodernity's ubiquitous retreat to the first person is "a growth in the already extreme intellectual laziness of contemporary culture and the collapse of serious argument throughout the lower reaches of the humanities and social sciences." Few readers of CHRISTIANITY TODAY will dispute the seriousness of what is at stake.
So how does Nagel propose to combat such nefarious influences? The skeptic's arguments always begin by viewing reason from the outside. Reasons are given to justify a knowledge claim, but instead of examining the reasons themselves, the skeptic seeks to get behind reasons and look instead at causes. The skeptic is the one who says, "Yes, I know you say that you believe X because of reasons a, b, and c. But a, b, and c are really [said with a slight snicker] the product of your language, or your culture, or your economic class, or your deeply repressed will to power."
But as Nagel persuasively argues, this attempt to evaluate reasons from outside the realm of reasoning is doomed to failure: "The familiar point that relativism is self-refuting remains valid in spite of its familiarity: We cannot criticize some of our own claims of reason without employing reason at some other point to formulate and support those criticisms."
Despite its familiarity (especially to those who cut their philosophical teeth on C. S. Lewis's many refutations of such reasoning, most notably in the third chapter of Miracles and in the wonderful metaphor in the Abolition of Man that he who sees through everything sees nothing), Nagel's various applications of the ancient argument will more than repay the effort this very accessible book demands of a lay reader.
Nagel's book is also rich with tidbits for readers who like to keep track of current philosophical debates. For example, the more moderate and pragmatic versions of antirealism—as described in the current jargon—like to trace their roots to the American philosopher C. S. Peirce and his "idea of convergence at the end of inquiry." One of the reasons this notion has appeal to those who feign doubts about rabbits is that we will never have to worry about what else might be discovered at the end of inquiry (moral obligation? immorality? God?) because, like the mathematical asymptote, the end of inquiry will never be reached.
But did Peirce really intend to define truth as convergence? Nagel has his doubts; here is just one of his quotes from Peirce himself: "The soul's deeper parts can only be reached through its surface. In this way the eternal forms, that mathematics and philosophy and the other sciences make us acquainted with will by slow percolation gradually reach the very core of one's being, and will come to influence our lives; and this they will do, not because they involve truths of merely vital importance, but because they [are] ideal and eternal verities."
Nagel's second line of argument will also be familiar to many. Robust philosophical realism about even the most mundane kinds of things has always pointed toward the supernatural. Some will find this shocking and attempt to dismiss it as little more than special pleading by theists. Nagel is himself a little shocked about the direction in which he seems to be going. He explicitly says, "I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that." So much for special pleading!
Nagel's final chapter, "Naturalism and Religion," is especially rewarding. There the reader will find such morsels as this: "much of the scientism and reductionism of our time [is supported by] the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind." The substance of Nagel's argument is that epistemology can't be naturalized—that is, reason can never be explained or reduced to nonreason.
Nagel does not contest the the evolutionary account of the biological origin of species, but it can't be the whole story because it is self-defeating to give such an account of human rationality the last word. If reason itself does not have the last word, then there can be no reason to trust the evolutionary account of reason: "The reliance we put on our reason implies a belief that even though the existence of human beings and of ourselves in particular is the result of a long sequence of physical and biological accidents, … nevertheless the basic methods of reason we employ are not merely human but belong to a more general category of mind." So if matter by itself never creates mind, where did our minds come from? Nagel says "we are left with a profound problem."
And Nagel is left with a profound problem, as long as his wants and his reason point in opposite directions. Nonetheless, he is to be commended for his courage in acknowledging that "a fear of religion" has had "large and often pernicious consequences for modern intellectual life" and for his humility to add, "I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself … and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers."
Enter Nicholas Rescher. While Rescher and Nagel cover much of the same ground, Nagel's primary goal is to refute subjectivism, including the more moderate advocates of naturalized epistemology; whereas Rescher's primary goal is to flesh out the alternative: normative epistemology. Nagel argues, in effect, that reason can be impersonal; Rescher carries the argument one step further. His thesis is that reason has a moral obligation to be impersonal.
Broadly speaking, Rescher is working within the Aristotelian tradition. In this tradition, rights and obligations are always connected to needs. People have the right to what they need and a corresponding obligation to cultivate their talents in such a way that their own needs and the needs of others are met. Needs, in turn, flow from our nature as "rational animals." Just as our biological nature carries with it a need for food, drink, and shelter, our rational nature carries with it a need to reason objectively.
Objectivity does not require a "view from nowhere" or a "God's eye point of view." Both of these are unattainable, at least for us. What objectivity does require is that people be willing to ask: What would someone else standing in my shoes say or believe about this situation? "Rationality is universal," says Rescher, "but it is circumstantially universal—and objectivity with it."
Yes, all rational judgments must be made from some particular perspective. After all, we are not disembodied spirits; rather, we are rational animals whose particular location in space and time is inescapable. But that does not mean that all perspectives are equally valid. Only those perspectives that consciously seek to remove all that goes "against the dictates of reason: phobias, groundless anxieties, delusions, senseless antipathies, and irrationalities of all sorts" have a claim to objectivity.
Though the definition of rationality implies a "monolithic uniformity," there is necessarily a "pluralistic diversity of appropriate answers to the question 'What is it rational to do?' " The universal human need for shelter is fulfilled differently in different times and places. We all need houses, but a rational Eskimo builds his house differently from a rational forest dweller. So, too, "We need to build a cognitive home for ourselves in this world; to create a viable thought-structure for our beliefs, choices and evaluations. Here too one must simply do the best one can … [so that] what we do can be seen as circumstantially appropriate by anyone."
Objectivity, then, does not imply infallibility. It merely implies that people form their "judgment on the basis of the available experience, including that of other individuals and cultures insofar as this is vicariously accessible." Ptolemy's and Galen's understanding of astronomy and the cardiovascular system were both rational in contrast to the systems propounded by the astrologers and quacks who were their contemporaries.
To this claim someone will certainly object: Since all four were wrong, what sense does it make to say that the first two were acting rationally whereas the astrologers and quacks were not? If any knowledge claim might be mistaken, then there is no way to know that all knowledge claims aren't mistaken. But logic itself refutes this argument. While any $100 bill might be counterfeit, it is conceptually impossible that all $100 bills might be counterfeit.
One of the standard postmodern responses to such defenses of rationality is to question the validity of "Western" logic. It is simple arrogance, the postmodern skeptic might say, for Rescher to claim that all people have an obligation to adopt our standards of logic and rationality. While it is true that we seek to avoid contradictions, other cultures have quite different standards of rationality. So who are we to say that our standards are obligatory?
This sort of response has become so embedded in the conventional wisdom of the day that it is hard to remember that its rhetorical force has only recently become persuasive. Rescher brilliantly cuts through such bluster. Suppose, he says, that some primitive society should "deem it rationally appropriate (or even mandatory) to attribute human illness to the intervention of the rock-spirits." Anthropological observations do indeed show that other peoples have goals and problem-solving techniques different from ours, but those different goals and/or processes "do not mean that they have a different rationality any more than those blowguns of theirs mean that they have a different rifle."
And far from producing megalomania, the universality of reason's obligations produces humility, because it forces one to ask: If I were in living in the shoes of the Azande or Wazonga, would I want them to employ my current "Western" standards of rationality in their relations with me?
No generic answer is possible; it all depends on the particulars of the question. Would I want missionaries to put a blouse on my wife? Probably not, since it rains so much where I live that she would certainly get sick walking around in wet clothes all day. Would I want them to vaccinate my children against the standard childhood killers? Probably, since I love my children just as much as Westerners love theirs. Would I want them to lovingly communicate the truth of the gospel? Of course, since I am just as much a rational animal as anyone else, and no rational person lives by bread alone.
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