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Mind and Cosmos

Douglas A. Felch

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, by Thomas Nagel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, 144 pages, $24.95.

In current discussions related to science and the Christian faith, many apparent conflicts between science and religion actually operate at the level of rival worldview or religious perspectives between theism and naturalism. Theism asserts that God has created the world and brought about life in all of its variety and complexity. Naturalism assumes there is no God and that complex life evolved through some process, not yet fully understood, of natural selection (hence NS).

This is sometimes framed as a creation/evolution controversy, but the issues are more complex. The Christian perspective does not forbid that God used some kind of process, at least in part, to bring about life, nor do Christian scientists reject Darwin’s principle of NS. Darwin’s theory states simply that certain variations in a living creature existing within a certain environment are selected out according to the likelihood of allowing that creature to survive or thrive. It is a simple and elegant principle. It is also true. Evidences of NS are clearly observable in variations within species, the development of antibiotic resistance in certain bacterial diseases, and the challenge to existing ecosystems by invasive species (such as the threat to the Great Lakes ecosystem by Asian carp).

So the question is not whether NS is a true scientific and explanatory principle. It most certainly is. The question is this: how much can it explain?

At this point the divide between theism and naturalism (not between theism and natural selection) becomes apparent. Naturalistic evolutionists appeal to NS as a “theory of everything.” For naturalists, NS must not only account for variations in species, disease adaptation, and ecological equilibrium, but also must explain how life arose from non-life and how it developed in all of its variety and complexity. Since nature is all there is, and there is no God, all of life must be accounted for by the mindless, purposeless, and entirely random process of NS. But does NS have sufficient explanatory power to bear the weight of being a theory of everything?

Many Christian scientists and thinkers doubt this. The intelligent design (ID) movement, developed by Michael Behe and others, argues that many biological systems are irreducibly complex, making it difficulty to account for the incremental evolution of such multifaceted biological systems (such as the eye) on the basis of NS alone.[1] Similarly, the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga points out the difficulty for evolutionary naturalists to account for the trustworthiness of our mental faculties, because the evolutionary process that has allegedly led to the formation of our minds is itself unintelligent and random and does not select for truthfulness.[2]

Some naturalistic scientists, including the “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennent, have strongly resisted such arguments and have insisted that the materialistic perspective provides all that is necessary to account for the emergence of life, mind, intelligence, consciousness, and self-reflection.

It is in this context that the philosopher Thomas Nagel raises a significant challenge to the view that NS can be successfully used as a theory of everything in Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. What make this refutation of Neo-Darwinism especially noteworthy is that Nagel is an avowed atheist who explicitly rejects the theistic worldview perspective. Nonetheless, he argues that the current materialistic Darwinian evolutionary model is insufficient to account for the emergence of life, and, among human beings, of consciousness, intelligence, and value. For his position he has been severely criticized by many of his colleagues.[3]

The Critique of Materialism

In his first chapter, Nagel suggests that the attempt to use the physical processes of NS as a theory of everything is nothing more than “materialistic psychophysical reductionism.” It is materialist in that it insists that the fundamental stuff of the universe is simply matter in motion. It is reductionist in that it tries to explain the emergence of consciousness and cognition as simply another aspect of material in motion.

Nagel is skeptical of such materialistic explanations of the emergence of both life and cognition. Regarding the former, he observes:

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 explanation, supported by some examples. What is lacking, to my knowledge, is a credible argument that the story has a non-negligible probability of being true. (5–6)

Accordingly, Richard Dawkins’s account of the evolution of complex structures like the eye can no longer be viewed as legitimate. Further, NS cannot be applied to the origin of life from non-life, because NS can only function among organisms that are already existing (9–10).

In arriving at these conclusions, Nagel credits some of the discussions developed by Michael Behe and Stephen Meyers, two of the proponents of the ID movement:

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. (10)

However, while Nagel is open to some of the insights and criticisms of the ID movement, he is not the least bit sympathetic to their theistic leanings:

I confess to 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.... Nevertheless, I believe that defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific worldview that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents precisely to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion. (12)

In a footnote accompanying this declaration that he lacks the sensus divinitatis, he further admits that he is not simply unreceptive but also strongly adverse to the idea. Alvin Plantinga notes in his review article on Mind and Cosmos an earlier reference of Nagel to his attitude on religion:

I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.... It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.[4]

Plantinga is saddened by Nagel’s rejection of theism, but also observes that Nagel’s discomfort seems more emotional than philosophical or rational (8–9).[5]

Although Nagel is appreciative of the scientific accomplishments of reductive materialism (which he believes will continue to be productive), he does hope his critique will lead to a new openness to find substitute solutions. If the materialist perspective is shown to fail to provide adequate explanation for the emergence of consciousness in the evolutionary story, this may provide an additional “reason for pessimism about purely chemical explanations of the origin of life as well” (12) and may eventually lead to a better, although still non-theistic, alternative. Nagel himself, however, is unable to provide a convincing alternative.

Antireductionism

Having framed the issue in his introduction, Nagel pursues his project in four succeeding chapters. In Chapter 2, “Antireductionism and the Natural Order,” he considers the explanations of the presence or emergence of human consciousness provided by theism and materialistic naturalism, weighs them in the balance, and finds them both wanting. Theism is deficient because (in his mind) it does not offer a sufficiently substantial explanation for our capacities within the natural world but pushes the quest for intelligibility outside the natural world by appeal to divine intervention. For Nagel, “Such interventionist hypotheses amount to a denial that there is a comprehensive natural order” (26).

On the other hand, materialistic naturalism is deficient because it does not offer a sufficiently credible account of the emergence of human consciousness. “Evolutionary naturalism provides an account of our capacities that undermines their reliability, and in so doing undermines itself” (27). Nagel agrees with Alvin Plantinga that “mechanisms of belief formation that have selective advantage in the everyday struggle for existence do not warrant our confidence in the construction of theoretical accounts of the world as a whole” (27). This is because natural selection selects for survival not for truth or the trustworthiness of our minds, which are themselves the product of a random evolutionary process according to materialistic naturalism.

Further, what is true of the mental realm also applies to the moral sphere with equally detrimental consequences:

The evolutionary story leaves the authority of reason in a much weaker position. This is even more clearly true of our moral and other normative capacities—on which we often rely to correct our instincts.... Evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends. (28)

If that is true, why is it that naturalistic evolutionary theory has dominated the intellectual landscape? Nagel comments:

The priority given to evolutionary naturalism in the face of its implausible conclusions about other subjects is due, I think, to the secular consensus that this is the only form of external understanding of ourselves that provides an alternative to theism—which is to be rejected as a mere projection of our internal self-conception onto the universe, without evidence. (29)

If both theism and naturalism are inadequate, what is the alternative? Nagel suggest that it opens the way to a third approach which takes into full consideration our nature as intelligent, conscious, and moral beings. While he is not able to provide an explicit alternative, he does sketch out its parameters:

The essential character of such an understanding would be to explain the appearance of life, consciousness, reason, and knowledge neither as the accidental side effects of the physical laws of nature nor as the result of intentional intervention in nature from without but as an unsurprising if not inevitable consequence of the order that governs the natural world from within. That order would have to include physical law, but if life is not just a physical phenomenon, the origin and evolution of life and mind will not be explainable by physics and chemistry alone. (32–33)

In the following three chapters, Nagel continues his negative critique of the materialistic reductionist account of the emergence of “Consciousness “(Chapter 3), “Cognition” (Chapter 4), and “Value” (Chapter 5).

Consciousness

In his discussion of consciousness and cognition, Nagel finds it doubtful that either one could emerge if materialistic evolutionary naturalism is true.

Consciousness is an obvious obstacle to physical naturalism because of its irreducibly subjective nature, a subjectivity that provoked the mind/body dualism of Descartes. While current evolutionary thought rejects such dualism in favor of a materialistic monism, its attempts to find an alternative “begins a series of failures” (37) because it tries to reduce mind and its experiences to physical processes or observable behaviors. However, the experience of mind cannot ultimately be suppressed, because “conscious subjects and their mental lives are inescapable components of reality not describable by the physical sciences” (41).

This failure carries over to attempts to account for the emergence of consciousness by materialistic evolutionary process. While physical science can explain a good many facts about our world, it is unable to provide any explanation of the emergence of consciousness (46). Nagel finds trying to explain simply the development of the purely physical characteristics of organisms by evolutionary theory difficult enough (48) and “the confidence among the scientific establishment that the whole scenario will yield to a purely chemical explanation hard to understand” (49). However, if the emergence of consciousness is added to the mix, the problems become intractable. If evolutionary materialism cannot account for the rise of consciousness, there is little hope that it can provide an intelligent account of the world in which we find ourselves:

The existence of consciousness is both one of the most familiar and one of the most astounding things about the world. No conception of the natural order that does not reveal it as something to be expected can aspire even to the outline of completeness. And if physical science, whatever it may have to say about the origin of life, leaves us necessarily in the dark about consciousness, that shows that it cannot provide the basic form of intelligibility for this world. (53)

Any solution must be either reductive or emergent (as in the case of chaos or complexity theory). However, both of these result in an end product, consciousness, that bears no resemblance to its cause and is qualitatively different from its physical origins (54–56).

In sum, we are left with three alternative explanations: causal, teleological, or intentional. A causal explanation would argue that consciousness arises out of the “properties of the elementary constituents of the universe” (59). A teleological explanation would point to principles of self-organization or complexity that go beyond the physical laws of causality. An intentional explanation would point to the intervention of an intelligent being (such as God) in order to combine the constituent elements and self-organizing elements to bring about consciousness. Nagel finds the first two inadequate and obscure, and the last an option for theists, but personally unsatisfactory. Nonetheless, Nagel remains optimistic about some form of naturalistic explanation: “I believe that it makes sense.... The more a theory has to explain, the more powerful it has to be” (69).

Cognition

The problem is even more pronounced with the development of belief and cognition, because “it is not merely the subjectivity of thought but its capacity to transcend subjectivity and to discover what is objectively the case that presents a problem” (72). These include such activities as thought, reasoning, evaluation and belief formation, and the use of language. The presence of such cognitive abilities generates two intractable difficulties for Darwinian evolutionary theory:

The first concerns the likelihood that the process of natural selection should have generated creatures with the capacity to discover by reason the truth about a reality that extends vastly beyond initial appearances—as we take ourselves to have done and to continue to do collectively in science, logic, and ethics.... The second problem is the difficulty of understanding naturalistically the faculty of reason that is the essence of these activities. (74)

The first problem is intractable because it requires that the process of mutation and natural selection be able to account not only for physical characteristics, but also the human experience of desire and aversion, the ability to discern the presence of other minds, the ability to think logically, and the ability to formulate logical abstract structures through language (77). The second problem arises because

any evolutionary account of the place of reason presupposes reason’s validity and cannot confirm it without circularity. Eventually the attempt to understand oneself in evolutionary, naturalistic terms must bottom out in something that is grasped as valid in itself—something without which the evolutionary understanding would not be possible. Thought moves us beyond appearance to something that we cannot regard merely as a biologically based disposition, whose reliability we can determine on other grounds. It is not enough to be able to think that if there are logical truths, natural selection might very well have given me the capacity to recognize them. That cannot be the ground for my trusting my reason, because even that thought implicitly relies on reason in a prior way. (81)

Despite these strong arguments against materialistic naturalism, Nagel continues to reject the theistic alternative as “unscientific” (89) and opts instead for what he calls a “natural teleology” in which organizational and developmental principles are “an irreducible part of the natural order and not the result of intentional or purposeful influence by anyone” (93). Although he admits that this view is not fully developed, he believes it is a coherent possibility and is more congruent with his atheism (95).

Value

As Nagel’s discussion progresses from consciousness, to cognition, to value, the obstacles they pose for materialistic naturalism loom larger and larger. The existence of a moral sense poses serious problems for evolutionary naturalism. Human beings are for the most part confident that moral judgments have objective validity. While we may disagree on the precise meaning of what constitutes something being right and wrong, the reason why they are right or wrong is not viewed as simply fantasy or opinion, but real. Therefore:

An adequate conception of the cosmos must contain the resources to account for how it could have given rise to beings capable of thinking successfully about what is good and bad, right and wrong, and discovering moral and evaluative truths that do not depend on their own beliefs. (106)

According to the reductionist narrative, morality evolved as part of the strategy for survival. Certain behaviors, like being nice to others, proved to be beneficial to the community. These were labeled as “good.” Risky behaviors such as being continuously angry or pugnacious were quickly identified as “bad.” However, neither behavior was really good or bad, they were only branded as such in order to perpetuate or eliminate them.

This account, argues Nagel, flies in the face of the way our moral senses actually do function. Moral sense and nuance goes far beyond anything that might be required for adaptive survivability.

The human world, or any individual human life, is potentially, and often actually, the scene of incredible riches—beauty, love, pleasure, knowledge, and the sheer joy of existing and living in the world. It is also potentially, and often actually, the scene of horrible misery, but on both sides the value, however specific it may be to our form of life, seems inescapably real....Therefore the historical explanation of life must include an explanation of value, just as it must include an explanation of consciousness. (120)

However, it is precisely this kind of explanation that materialistic Darwinianism is unable to provide because NS can only demonstrate what is, not that what is has objective value.

Nagel admits that the intentional or theistic explanation does provide a coherent explanation of value, but he again chooses to set that aside in favor of his preference for a natural teleology in which “the natural world would have a propensity to give rise to beings of the kind that have a good—beings for which things can be good or bad” (221). He admits that his movements in this direction are offered “merely as possibilities, without positive conviction” (124). What he is positively convinced of is the inadequacy of materialistic Darwinianism to account for our moral nature (125).

Nagel’s Conclusion

In his two-page concluding chapter, Nagel is apologetic that his own attempts to explore alternatives to materialistic reductionism are “far too unimaginative” (127), but he is unwavering in critique of materialistic evolutionary orthodoxy:

I find this view antecedently unbelievable—a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense. The empirical evidence can be interpreted to accommodate different comprehensive theories, but in this case the cost in conceptual and probabilistic contortions is prohibitive. I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two—though of course it may be replaced by a new consensus that is just as invalid. The human will to believe is inexhaustible. (128)

Assessment

What should we do with Nagel’s critique of materialistic naturalism? His atheistic perspective is at one and the same time happily insightful but also disappointingly limiting. His critique reinforces what various Christian theists have been saying about naturalistic evolution for some time, but his personal rejection of Christian theism is lamentable and his vague quest for some pan-psychic alternative, simply lame.

The Orthodox Presbyterian theologian and apologist Cornelius Van Til famously argued that all non-Christian thought hangs itself on the horns of the dilemma between rationalism and irrationalism. That is, unbelievers want what the Christian worldview has to offer in terms of intellectual stability and moral authority (the rational pole), but ground their own views in something that is ultimately arbitrary, meaningless, purposeless, or valueless (the irrational pole).

Nagel’s critique of materialistic evolutionary naturalism is useful in vividly illustrating Van Til’s point, but sadly he himself does not escape the dilemma Van Til outlines. Nagel also wants what the Christian worldview has to offer but grounds that hope in a physical or metaphysical reality that he admits he cannot articulate and only vainly hopes can be discovered.

Endnotes

[1] Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: The Free Press, 2006).

[2] This essay is available in many forms as well as in online video presented by Plantinga himself. The most recent print form is found in “The Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism.” Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 307–50.

[3] For an intriguing account of the controversy, see Andrew Ferguson, “The Heretic: Who is Thomas Nagel and why are so many of his fellow academics condemning him?” in The Weekly Standard, March 25, 2013, available online at http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/heretic_707692.html?nopager=1

[4] From Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). Cited in Alvin Plantinga, “A Secular Heresy” in The New Republic, December 6, 2012, and found on p. 9 of the online version of the article entitled, “Why Darwinist Materialism is Wrong” at http://www.newrepublic.com/authors/alvin-plantinga

[5] Plantinga, “Why Darwinist Materialism is Wrong,” 8–9.

Douglas A. Felch is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as professor of theological studies at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, October 2013.

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