In a short piece titled “God is Dead; So What?”, Richard Ostrofsky, an acquaintance of mine, lays out his overview of the present culture wars from a perhaps characteristically atheist perspective. He cites Matthew Arnold’s poignant 1867 poem ‘Dover Beach’, which I’d not thought about for over 30 years, and happily revisited. But we subtly disagree about the meaning of the cultural impasse this poem intuits, and about exactly what Arnold sensed over 150 years ago, gazing one night out to sea.
Introducing a new series of related articles describing some factual events in my life.
It’s become less than surprising news of late when some intellectual luminary gives a warning about the perils of AI (artificial intelligence), and I count myself among those skeptical of it’s merits. But an unexpected new sci-fi-esque controversy has arisen recently. Figures no less celebrated than astrophysicist Stephen Hawking have sounded the alarm about our collective complacency concerning aliens. As in extra-terrestrials.
The subtitle of Thomas Nagel’s 2012 book, “Mind and Cosmos”, makes evident why it unleashed such a stir within the scientific and philosophical establishments: ‘Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False’. That’s two sacred cows skewered in one fell swoop, the first a kind of hidden dogma not generally exposed to the light of agoric day, and the second a beloved and enshrined foundational darling! What made things worse was that Nagel was/is a serious respected philosopher with decades of establishment credibility, including avowed atheism, prompting figures like Pinker and Dennett to publicly wonder what had gotten into their old colleague. Nagel’s book is not an easy read. You have to keep awake on every page, go slowly, and double back sometimes. Due to this and the ensuing ruckus, he offered a short clarifying summary of the book’s core thesis in a brief NY Times essay a year later, which is the subject of this current article.
Increasingly, voices from many quarters wonder from where our ethical principles should and actually do arise. Recent speculations from psychologists like Johnathan Haidt and Steven Pinker direct attention towards ages of incremental evolutionary adaptive changes to explain our present collective social and even moral psyches. But the hyperbolized science vs. religion cultural battle, in concert with almost daily headlines depicting some new shocking conflict between personal decision and societal norm, signals the need for a wider re-examination of the roots of our ethics.