David Hegg | The ‘Upstream’ Ethics of Intellectual Honesty

David Hegg
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident. "Ethically Speaking" runs Saturdays in The Signal.

By David Hegg

This column is all about this premise: It is more ethical, and more beneficial, to seek the truth and tell the truth than to drift along with the current of a culture that is manifestly taking us down the stream of absurdity. Here’s an illustration of how we ought to be swimming upstream against that culture.

While most have never heard of him, Thomas Nagel is at the center of a controversy that threatens to pull the curtain away from the great and terrible Oz of our day. I am speaking about the almost universally accepted belief that all of life – indeed, every element of the universe and all that exists in it – can be reduced to physical particles, themselves the product of physical processes guided by the principle of natural selection. In other words, the immaterial part of us was produced by purely material processes. 

Nagel, the highly respected university professor in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Law at New York University and recipient of several prestigious philosophical awards, has dared to propose that there is much more to us than the physical, and that things like consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought, and value cannot be accounted for through purely physical processes. Material processes cannot bring about immaterial products. 

In his book “Mind and Cosmos,” Nagel exposes not only the ungrounded assumptions of modern “reductionist neo-Darwinian” theory but also presses still deeper to show that the scholarly scientific establishment has long considered it as settled dogma that the fields of chemistry and physics can explain the reality of all things. His whole purpose in writing is to show that this “dogma” cannot stand up to the questions being asked of it, and along the way he brings to light an even more astounding situation.

He has this to say, after describing the basis of his certainty that the “materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly wrong.”

“I realize that such doubts will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.” 

It is all too apparent, according to Nagel, that being politically correct by upholding evolutionary theory as unassailable truth is a prerequisite to being respected in the scientific community. 

What he is really speaking to is the issue of scholarly honesty. Long ago we abandoned ourselves to science, and to the cult of intellectual progress. We believe that scientific research, which to be sure has discovered and brought to society myriad beneficial things, can be trusted to be scrupulously honest, following the evidence where it leads even if that means scrubbing away private bias. Turns out there is reason to doubt the intellectual honesty of many who are using our research dollars in some of the world’s most prestigious institutions. You’ll have to read the book to get the full picture, but there are a few things we can learn from this brief introduction.

At the core of Nagel’s critique is the ethical value we call honesty. It comes in a wide array of dress including trustworthiness, impartiality, transparency, and not least of all, a radical commitment to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. 

Thomas Nagel is no theist, as he makes clear in the introduction to the book. Nevertheless, he shows great intellectual honesty when speaking about intelligent design and its proponents. Though, he says, they may be motivated in part by religious beliefs, “the empirical arguments they offer against the likelihood that the origin of life and its evolutionary history can be fully explained by physics and chemistry are of great interest in themselves … (T)hey do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair.”

As a theist, I am, of course, drawn to much that Nagel is presenting. However, my appreciation is based as much upon his ethics as his viewpoint. He has a higher commitment to honesty as a philosopher than he has to being accepted by the academic establishment. He isn’t afraid to swim upstream against scholarly opinion if that opinion is manifestly biased and bordering on systemic dishonesty. 

He has broken with his tribe in order to pursue truth. Our nation could use more men and women like Thomas Nagel, in all walks of life and positions of power. In the long run, it will be our ethical backbone rather than our political correctness that matters. 

David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays. 

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