Does Scientific Materialism Deserve a Cognitive Privilege?
I want to parse a Tweet. Yes, a Tweet.
One can hardly make much of an argument in 140 characters, I admit, but sometimes brevity brings clarity.
Responding to this interaction between Thomas Nagel and Alvin Plantinga on the epistemic failure of scientific materialism, Daniel Foster of National Review Online tweeted this response:
I'm an admirer of Nagel and Plantinga and I want scientific materialism to be false, but this is, sadly, weak stuff.
The fact that Foster finds Nagel and Plantinga's arguments "weak stuff" does not particularly interest me. So do lots and lots of other people.
No. What interests me is his stated desire that he wants scientific materialism to be false, but is having difficulty coming to that conclusion. What that implies is that Dan Foster has, in effect, cognitively privileged scientific materialism. A "privilege" is a "right or immunity granted as a particular benefit, advantage, or favor." The benefit, advantage, or favor being granted to scientific materialism is that it has the preeminent right to be the baseline. It is what we are to take for granted. There the edifice stands. Those who want to chip away at its foundations, men like Nagel and Plantinga, have the burden of proof, the responsibility to undermine a system that stands self-evidently and self-justifiably true. "I want them to be right; but first they must overcome my privileged assumption that they are wrong."
This is to miss Nagel's and Plantinga's point altogether.
Their point (a philosophically ruthless and perhaps uncomfortable one) is that scientific materialism is not entitled to privileged status at all. It is not self-evident, self-justifying, an edifice that must be taken for granted as the baseline. It is precisely this sleight-of-hand they are challenging, a sleight-of-hand so effective it has largely produced the widespread privileging of its construct--so widespread Dan Foster has not shaken it. It is simply not the case that scientific materialism must be taken as true and that the burden of proof must be passed on to any and all challengers.
Like Sauron and his Tower of Barad-dur, proponents of scientific materialism want you to see The Edifice, and despair. And, like Mordor, they wage a scorched-earth campaign on all challengers. The Edifice seems so imposing, its worldview so ubiquitous, they want you not to notice that you are cognitively privileging something that actually has nothing to recommend such a privilege.
Plantinga, Nagel, and many, many others are refusing to play that game. They are pointing to The Edifice and declaring: "A house of cards can make no demand or claim on me. It is entitled to nothing. Certainly not cognitive privilege."
Keeping with my metaphor, I think Alvin Plantinga is a real-world Tom Bombadil.
Mordor has no claim on him. Or me.