The philosopher Thomas Nagel is not taking phone calls.
His secretary at New York University says there have been hundreds, all wanting to reach the modern “heretic,” as a current magazine cover labels him, but he is not taking the bait.
Handout"What has gotten into Thomas Nagel?"
All he did was argue in a new book the evolutionary view of nature is “false,” and now grand forces have descended upon him. He does not want to talk about it.
The vicious reception handed Mind & Cosmos, which urges deep skepticism about evolution’s explanatory power, illustrates the perils of raising arguments against intellectual orthodoxy.
One critique said if there were a philosophical Vatican, Prof. Nagel’s work should be on the index of banned books for the comfort it will give creationists. Another headline proclaimed Prof. Nagel is “not crazy.”
The book has won a British booby prize for “Most Despised Science Book” and prompted sneering remarks the author is centuries behind the times, and somehow missed the Enlightenment.
“What has gotten into Thomas Nagel?” tweeted Steven Pinker, the Canadian cognitive scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Mr. Pinker also called Mind & Cosmos “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.”
The impassioned shunning of Prof. Nagel parallels the experience of some climate-change skeptics. By the time it became a political mega-issue a decade ago, environmentalism had come to resemble religion, complete with myths of the Fall and the Apocalypse, pilgrimages, iconography, scripture, prophecies, tithes and Al Gore as a secular saint.
Now evolutionary science, in its opposition to creationism, is staking out a similar position in the culture wars. In the absence of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins is emerging as the anti-pope of a New Atheism, whose orthodoxy inspires the brutal treatment of heretics, even as it lures adherents into a simplistic, unreflective, fanciful faith in its own methods.
Its main failing, he argues, is it fails to account for how consciousness fits into the natural order. Instead, it regards it as an afterthought, an accidental quirk, a trinket on the tree of life, less important to life’s story than the random physical mutations of genes.
By putting physics at the top of a scientific hierarchy, he argues, modern Darwinism offers a dogmatic system of thought that is intoxicating precisely because it offers the illusion of freeing us from religion.
“For a long time I have found 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,” he writes in the book, which is subtitled “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.”
“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 [about the origin of life] as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.”
Dave Chan for National Post/FilesRichard Dawkins is emerging as the anti-pope of a New Atheism, whose orthodoxy inspires the brutal treatment of heretics.
He acknowledges he is a scientific “layman,” however well read, but his point is not a scientific one. It is a philosophical one about the limits of a science that subordinates biology to physics. He calls it “reductive materialism” and argues the more we learn about life, the less believable it gets, and the more central mind and consciousness seem to the true picture.
Believing, as Darwinists do, life arose first from accidental chemical reactions in the primordial ooze, and, once established, progressed via the mechanism of natural selection to create all the wonders of human consciousness, “flies in the face of common sense,” Prof. Nagel writes.
In his view, the modern evolutionary conception of nature requires about as much unscientific faith as believing Rudyard Kipling’s moralistic Just So Stories from 1902, such as the one that says the camel got his hump from a genie as a physical manifestation of his laziness.
In the culture wars, praise from the wrong side can be as harmful as criticism from the right. For a proper academic – the author is professor of philosophy and law at NYU – it is dangerous to be praised by a leading proponent of intelligent design as a “defector from Darwinian naturalism,” as William Dembski of the creationist Discovery Institute put it in a review.
But Prof. Nagel, an atheist, is not quite that. He says his book is meant to be a defence of “the untutored reaction of incredulity.”
‘I realize that such doubts will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten’
He is a skeptical philosopher putting science in its place. The book is untainted by the supernatural, relying instead on the traditional tools of logic and, as he puts it, “common sense.”
It follows a similar train of thought to his famous 1974 paper, “What is it like to be a bat?” in which he argued even the most complete physical description of a bat will still leave you ignorant of what it is like to fly around using echolocation. Mind, experience, consciousness – what philosophers call qualia – are somehow separate from the physical picture, and not reducible to it.
Prominent thinkers have walked this anti-Darwin ground before, so much so critics call it a “cottage industry.”
In the past few years, two books have made similar points and received similar treatments: Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s What Darwin Got Wrong and Raymond Tallis’s Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.
Prof. Nagel has, too, writing of the “counterorthodoxy” that emerged in defence of U.S. science education against legislative efforts to introduce intelligent design and how it displayed a “tendency to overstate the legitimate scientific claims of evolutionary theory.”
He sees this trend in the shunning of people who offer plausible arguments from probability theory that the Earth is not old enough for some of the genetic evolution story to be accurate. As an aside, he makes a plea for civility on a field that, like environmentalism, is known for its shrill polarity.
He praises intelligent design proponents Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer as “iconoclasts” whose ideas “do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair.”
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty ImagesA variety of skulls are on display as part of an exhibition on Charles Darwin at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, in 2005.
Still, the response to Mind & Cosmos has been especially vicious. Prof. Nagel’s “common sense” argument is being compared to the once similarly commonsensical view the Earth must be flat.
Calling the book “an instrument of mischief,” two critics wrote the ambitious subtitle “seems intended to market the book to evolution deniers, intelligent-design acolytes, religious fanatics and others who are not really interested in the substantive scientific and philosophical issues.”
This has been the common intellectual response – the friend of my creationist enemy is also my enemy.
As the New Republic‘s Leon Wieseltier, a rare supporter, put it: “For the bargain-basement atheism of our day, it is not enough that there be no God: there must be only matter.”
Though mind remains a major topic in philosophy, it has been traditionally shunted to the edges of the physical sciences, in favour of a quantitative, math-based understanding of physical laws. Even when it takes a central role, as in neuroscience, consciousness is frequently described as simple information processing, as if brains were nothing more than computers made of meat, with consciousness as a running program – known as the computational theory of mind.
This theory is evident in U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent pledge to raise $3-billion for a “Brain Activity Map” and the European Union’s funding of a $1.3-billion Human Brain Project.
Both these projects seek to map the functions of grey matter. To question this foundational theory, however, even to sketch its limitations, is to invite scorn.
Prof. Pinker, whose tweet is one of the snarkiest reviews of Prof. Nagel’s book, believes the computational theory of mind resolves the paradox of how mind emerges from matter.
“It says that beliefs and desires are information, incarnated as configurations of symbols. The symbols are the physical states of bits of matter, like chips in a computer or neurons in the brain,” he wrote in How the Mind Works. “Computation has finally demystified mentalistic terms.”
Philosophers point out this fails to solve the “hard problem” of consciousness. The soft problems are how to explain the various functions of the brain, as the Brain Activity Map would do. The hard problem is how to explain what it feels like to be conscious, to explain mind in terms of matter, not just describe it.
Four hundred years ago, French philosopher René Descartes tried to solve this conundrum by saying mind meets matter in the pineal gland, which we now know to be a part of the brain that produces hormones, including melatonin.
Undergrads forced to read Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy like to chuckle over this, seeing how far science has come, but other efforts to solve the “hard problem” have been no more successful.
In his book, Prof. Nagel rejects them all: materialism (the idea that human consciousness can be fully explained in terms of matter and physical laws), idealism (we have no direct access to physical reality, only to our thoughts about it, so the question ends there), and dualism (matter and mind are fundamentally separate and distinct, not explainable in terms of the other, as in Descartes).
Rather, he favours what he calls a “neutral monism,” a view that is neutral because it does not favour matter over mind, but is designed to be noncommittal and aware of its own ignorance.
His way out of this thicket is the most controversial part of Mind & Cosmos – and the ripest target for critics – as it seems to verge on the fanciful, suggesting consciousness is not an accidental by-product of evolution, but was somehow written into the universe from the beginning.
“Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself,” he writes.
In this, the skeptic invites skepticism and he knows it: “But at some point it will be necessary to make a new start on a more comprehensive understanding that includes the mind,” he counters.
“In the present climate of a dominant scientific naturalism, heavily dependent on speculative Darwinian explanations of practically everything, and armed to the teeth against attacks from religion, I have thought it useful to speculate about possible alternatives.”
When he puts it like that, it seems odd such dry philosophy has elicited such a storm of denunciation. As in religion, though, the heretics provide the fuel, but it is the faithful who light the fire.
Are natural forces working alone enough to explain the origins, the complexity and the diversity of life on Earth?
To most scientists, it is simply unscientific to consider possibilities other than natural forces. To consider a supernatural origin for life is the same as believing in a flat Earth, simply ridiculous for any thinking person. They say any theory of a special creation must be rejected, no matter how strong the evidence for it must be, and the best natural explanation must be accepted, no matter how weak the evidence for it may be.
When Darwin produced his book The Origin Of Species, he proposed a system in which species change over time through minor variations, which built up over millions of years to create new species. Natural selection occurs where the environment favours certain traits. These get passed on to offspring, while those without those traits die off without offspring. This is survival of the fittest, with the traits that made them the fittest becoming the norm of the species.
Then (as now) that idea gave a creation story to atheism. While before it was impossible for an atheist to answer the question “How did we get here?” Darwin now provided an answer: we came from simpler creatures (which themselves formed from chemical reactions) that improved themselves generation after generation until we emerged.
So the Bible informs us that man was created without fault, but fell from his glory, and introduced pain and death to the world – a corruption of what should be; while Naturalism says man is the result of millions of years of steady progress, each version better than the previous generations, with us improved over our ancestors, and flaws in our species simply undesirable traits yet to be weeded out (as those advanced thinkers, the Nazis, tried to do).
Opposition to naturalism first came from what is known as Young Earth Creationism. They believe in the literal interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis in the Bible, where God created the world in six days. Now this was originally considered an “ignorant” point of view in face of scientific evidence, until Dr. Henry Morris and Dr. John Whitcomb published The Genesis Flood in 1961, which argued that such geological features as the Grand Canyon was not caused by a small amount of water over a great deal of time, but rather a great deal of water over a short amount of time (such as that caused by a world-wide flood). It was this book that kicked off the modern Scientific Creationism movement, and as Morris, and later Duane Gish and others from the Institute for Creation Research won debate after debate against materialists, and a reasonable scientific doubt had been raised against Darwinian Fundamentalism.
Old Earth Creationism is also Bible based, but differs from the Young Earth version by interpreting the word “day” to mean eon (as is possible in the original language of the Book of Genesis).
We also find there are those who believe in evolution, but God directed it, and those that believe that God is the original cause but has been not been involved since the Big Bang, kind of like a master billiards player who breaks, and then watches as the balls go where he intended.
But there is one idea that is common to all these theories and more, but also stands alone: Intelligent Design.
Intelligent design advocates believe that certain natural features give the appearance of being designed, so perhaps they were.
This movement started from the evidence that natural forces working alone were not enough to explain the complexity of life, in particular two types of complexity:
1: Specified Complexity (as theorized by Dr. William Dembski). If you were on a beach, and saw “Sue loves Rob” formed in the sand, you would not guess it was created by the movements of the waves, but rather that it had an intelligent cause. The letters in a sentence are neither random nor repeating, they are what we call specified complexity and like the words in this article, morse code, Microsofts' Windows NT, the German language, or ancient cave drawings, they have an intelligent cause. And along with those other examples, I must include a code written with four letters which contains more information than the Encyclopedia Brittanica and can be found in each cell of your body: DNA.
2: Irreducible Complexity, (as theorized by Dr. Michael Behe in Darwins Black Box). Take a mousetrap: It has 5 working parts, and utterly fails to function if any one of those parts are removed. You can add and improve it, but you must always keep those five parts. Now when we look at the human eye, we see that it is like the mousetrap in that we can reduce some of the parts, but not all, we are left with several interconnected but separate parts essential for the working of the eye. Take one of these parts away and you don't get an eye that works at diminished capacity, you get an eye that doesn't work at all. Complex features such as the eye, the cell, the blood clotting system and others might have improved over time, but there is no good theory about how they came about in the first place.
Both Naturalism on one side and Creationism or Intelligent Design on the other draw on the same evidence, but interpret it in wildly different ways. The fact is that evolution does happen, but only on a small scale. It can modify species, but it can never create new body plans, new organs, or new creatures. But a Darwinist must claim it can because of his dogma, not evidence.
For this issue is at the core of the current culture war that all Christians are facing. On one side you have those that are considered the intellectual elite telling us that we are the product of blind, purposeless chemical reactions and there is nothing to us beyond the materials from which we are accidently formed, simple primates with freakishly big brains.
I am convinced that we are wonderfully created, that our lives have purpose. I am convinced that God is involved in every aspect of our universe and our lives. I am convinced that life is inexplicable without Him. I am convinced that my thoughts are more than just simple electrical impulses in my neurons. I am convinced I was created by a God who loves me.