I have been delighted with what I have read so far of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos. As fully declared by the book’s subtitle–”Why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false”–Nagel takes the position that evolution (that is, the concept that life on earth is purely the result of natural selection acting on random variations) is simply not true and is insufficient as an explanation for what we see all around us. Going further, he points out that if there can be no materialist reduction life to simple, unguided action by unbiased physical and chemical laws, then there must be something in addition to those physical and chemical laws at work–something that is in some way goal-oriented.
Thomas Nagel is unquestionably an atheist and this makes his conclusions, I believe, all the more damaging to the materialist cause: He has no religious-based objection to evolution and is not interested in defending a deity of any sort. Many who attack the arguments of Christians, theists, or simply design proponents work to discount those arguments by pointing to the religious beliefs or motivations of those putting the arguments forward (whether real or not). Of course, this does not have anything to do at all with the strength of those arguments, which should be considered on the merits of their reasoning and evidence. In the real world, however, knocking the messenger is an effective way to fully discredit the message in the eyes of the public, regardless of whether or not it should be so.
As Nagel is an atheist, the lazy-man’s routine punching bag–faith in a Creator–is not available. Yet even without a “god” to fight for, so to speak, he still finds the “goo to you by way of the zoo” stories of purely materialistic, mechanistic, and mindless evolution to be completely unconvincing. Some might accuse him of simply defending his own philosophical turf from encroaching Darwinists in that he has been arguing for the non-materialist view of mind for decades, but I hope that his arguments are considered on their merits.
I’ve only started the book and am into the second or third chapter (haven’t been able to revisit it in a while). But the introduction was very promising. Let me quote here some selections…
“…I believe there are independent empirical reasons to be skeptical about the truth of reductionism in biology. Physico-chemical reductionism in biology is the orthodox view, and any resistance to it is regarded as not only scientifically but politically incorrect. But for a long time I have the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works. The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes. This is just the opinion of a layman who reads widely in the literature that explains contemporary science to the nonspecialist. Perhaps that literature presents the situation with a simplicity and confidence that does not reflect the most sophisticated scientific thought in those areas. But it seems to me that, as it is usually presented, the current orthodoxy about the cosmic order is the product of governing assumptions that are unsupported, and that it flies in the face of common sense.
“I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life. It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. We are expected to abandon this naïve response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for an explanation, supported by some examples. What is lacking, to my knowledge, is a credible argument that the story has a nonnegligible probability of being true.”
“What is lacking, to my knowledge, is a credible argument that the story has a nonnegligible probability of being true.” That’s good stuff. And the turn of phrase “untutored reaction of incredulity” concerning evolution is appreciated, as well. It puts succinctly a concept that my wife and I struggled to find words for in some long car ride discussions.
Nagel makes clear that he is not motivated by religious belief, which would be clear to anyone familiar with his work as he is a committed atheist. Concerning his belief that the neo-Darwinian/reductionist account of life and evolution is false, he says,
My skepticism is not based on religious belief, or on a belief in any definite alternative. It is just a belief that the available scientific evidence, in spite of the consensus of scientific opinion, does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense.
Among the things I appreciate in this statement is the idea that one need not accept a bad idea simply because one does not yet have a better one to take its place. Richard Dawkins seems fond of saying that evolution is “the only game in town” — a statement that is not only downright false but also misleading as an argument in favor of evolutionary theory. What if the only game in town is Russian Roulette? Do we still play? To accept a theory simply because one wants to avoid the implications of having a Creator (or even a “little c” creator) and this seems to be the only working way of doing so at this point is truly stupid. If Nagel made only this point, his statement would be of great value.
Even braver, perhaps–though he has defended the scientific nature of their work before–is Thomas Nagel’s giving of credit to some of neo-Darwinism’s critics:
“In thinking about these questions I have been stimulated by criticism of the prevailing scientific world picture from a very different direction: the attack on Darwinism mounted in recent years from a religious perspective by the defenders of intelligent design. Even though writers like Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer are motivated at least in part by their 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. Another skeptic, David Berlinski, has brought out these problems vividly without reference to the design inference. Even if one is not drawn to the alternative of an explanation by the actions of a designer, the problems that these iconoclasts pose for the orthodox scientific consensus should be taken seriously. They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair.”
Amen to that. While I would disagree that the challenge made by intelligent design advocates is one “from a religious perspective” since intelligent design ideas, in and of themselves, do not describe the implied designer (though I do agree that the men may be motivated by their religious beliefs, as have been many great scientists of our past and, in a way, are all scientists, though that’s a post for another time), I appreciate Nagel’s unbiased view of the gravity possessed by their arguments and evidences. Behe and Meyer are, indeed, abused and scorned by evolutionists with a zeal that one cannot help but feel is religious in its motivation, and it really is manifestly unfair. And to see Nagel reference David Berlinski, as well, is a treat, as I am one of Berlinski’s fans.
Nagel highlights that while he does not find the evidence intelligent designers present in favor of such a designer to be convincing, he does believe that “the general force of the negative part of the intelligent design position–skepticism about the likelihood of the orthodox reductive view, given the available evidence” to be powerful, indeed, and to be essentially strong and intact after much attacking from neo-Darwinian believers:
“Whatever one may think about the possibility of a designer, the prevailing doctrine–that the appearance of life from dead matter and its evolution through accidental mutation and natural selection to its present forms has involved nothing but the operation of physical law–cannot be regarded as unassailable. It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis.”
In all this, again, Nagel speaks as an atheist. But even in this he garners a level of respect from me. Not that I’ve forgotten Psalm 14:1 or Psalm 15:1, but I respect that he is at least honest in his stance, however wrong it may be:
“I confess an ungrounded assumption of my own, in not finding it possible to regard the design alternative as a real option. I lack the sensus divinitatis that enables–indeed compels–so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose as naturally as they see in a smiling face the expression of human feeling”
(He, at that point, adds in a footnote: “I am not just unreceptive but strongly averse to the idea, as I have said elsewhere.”)
Later, he adds, “I believe the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific world view that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents precisely to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion.” If only more of that world view’s “adherents” were as honest.
I am still reading the book, and I think I sense the shape of the argument he is going to make. Rejecting both materialist reduction of all of nature to mindless physical law and the idea of a divine intelligent agent behind the physical realm, he will first begin with the idea that mind is beyond the reach of materialistically reductive explanation–protests by zealous reductionists notwithstanding. (I, myself, have talked about the failures of materialist reductionism in this regard in a number of places–among them, here and here.) He will then point out that if purely material explanations cannot account for the human mind–the chief mechanism by which we experience literally everything else–than material reductionism has failed utterly to account for reality in any complete way at all. In this sense, mind did not have to be the failure point, as any failure point would do: you can’t succeed at explaining reality and leave anything out of your scope. Any unexplainable element is sufficient to prove that there must be something more. I suspect he will then attempt to offer some ideas about what must fill the gap, likely something like the existence a set of “non-material” laws of a teleological (goal-oriented or end-oriented) nature, if I have picked up on his hints properly. Actually, this is interesting given some of the writings of James Shapiro, who seems to suggest a goal-oriented factor in evolution–a purposefully targeted creative system of “natural genetic engineering” within the cell–arguing that blind chance augmented by natural selection simply is not sufficient for the task. (See here and a bit of my post here for more on Shapiro and his “true believer” detractors.)
What Nagel will certainly not offer is any idea that there might be a divine Intelligence behind any of the things he is discussing. At the same time, that is what makes his rejection of “the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature” all the more compelling.
While Mind & Cosmos is not likely to be on most people’s reading list, I hope that it emboldens more people to resist being bullied into accepting neo-Darwinists’ account of the history of life on earth or the unfounded idea that there must be a godless physico-chemical explanation for everything. As Nagel argues, the “untutored reaction” of disbelief in the claims of modern evolutionists should not be abandoned so easily, regardless of the chest-thumping and teeth-baring of Dawkins and his tribe.
I’m looking forward to finishing the book. If anyone out there has already read it, feel free to leave your thoughts.