Wednesday, March 27, 2013

What Did Thomas Nagel Write?

Thomas Nagel, a professor of philosophy, has written a book entitled Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, a book that has been given the singular distinction of being the Most Despised Science Book of 2012.  I have not read this book but here is what one reviewer had to say:
So what caused the offence?

Several things, but consider one: the contention that evolution may tend towards consciousness. Nagel is explicit that he himself is not countenancing a designer. Rather, he wonders whether science needs to entertain the possibility that a teleological trend is immanent in nature.

There it is. The t-word – a major taboo among evolutionary biologists. Goal-directed explanations automatically question your loyalty to Darwin.
That nature would have some sort of direction and purpose has a distinct air of not just “intelligent design.” He is clear that he is not invoking a god of any sort, which leaves EC out in the cold.

The funny thing about the criticism that I can tell is that by just suggesting that there may be a direction in nature, he is drawing evolutionary biologists into the realm of philosophy where they are not as comfortable. In that realm, there is no logical reason for arguing that nature cannot have direction and purpose. When it stays within its own realm and is properly practiced, evolutionary biology has no say in whether or not nature has direction and purpose. That is the purview of the philosophers and theologians. Nonetheless, it has been the impulse of atheists like Dawkins and Myers to cross into the realm of philosophy in evaluating the role of evolution in the world around us. Consequently, when Dawkins released The God Delusion, it was not universally well-received and many critics argued that he had overstepped his bounds.

Darwin provided a mechanism for which evolution could be understood within a naturalistic perspective.  He did not, however, write anywhere that nature was inherently godless and admitted a reluctance to jettison his own beliefs in God, even if they did not take the form of Christianity. Whether or not one believes in God should have no bearing on the acceptance or rejection of evolutionary theory, nor should one's acceptance of evolutionary theory necessitate rejection of belief in God. 


  1. Check out Ed Feser's blog. He writes very cogently about this issue.

  2. I've read Nagel's book. I'll mention just two serious problems. First, Nagel confesses that he is far from an expert on evolution, saying he is "... a layman who reads widely in the literature that explains contemporary science to the nonspecialist" (p. 14 of the Nook edition). That's far from an adequate foundation for critiquing one of the most powerful theories in science.

    Second, Nagel repeatedly appeals to an argument from incredulity. On the same page Nagel says "I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life."

    Paraphrased, Nagel is saying 'We should trust our ignorance and reject what tens of thousands of scientists who do know what they're talking about say.' That's almost precisely what the pastor of a local church told me at a colloquium last Tuesday afternoon, when he was justifying his rejection of the evolutionary account of the diversity of life on earth. Arguments from ignorance have a long and inglorious history in this matter.

    "Common sense" tells us the sun goes round the earth, too, but we suppress our untutored disbelief in that story. "Common sense" tells me the desk at which I am writing is solid matter, while physics tells me it's mostly 'empty' space woven through with fields of force. All kinds of scientific facts are inconsistent with our untutored 'common sense.' Nagel should be ashamed of himself.

  3. "In that realm, there is no logical reason for arguing that nature cannot have direction and purpose."

    Well, except for the total failure, after thousands of years of trying, to explain how such direction and purpose could actually affect the course of events. Maybe that's not a logical reason in the strict sense, but it's a pretty convincing one.

    "When it stays within its own realm and is properly practiced,"

    What's this? A protest by The Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Professional Thinking Persons? ;-)

    "evolutionary biology has no say in whether or not nature has direction and purpose."

    If there were such direction and purpose, we would expect to find evidence of it in evolutionary history. We don't. We find abundant evidence of a process that has no foresight, is extremely wasteful (throwing away most innovations as species become extinct), involves immense suffering, and produces a vast array of stomach-turningly disgusting parasites. But it doesn't even look like a process with the purpose of maximising suffering; it looks like a wholly unguided material process.

    "That is the purview of the philosophers and theologians."

    The purview of theologians is to endlessly discuss the colour and cut of the Emperor's new clothes. The same is true of philosophers who fail to take proper account of scientific findings, as Nagel does.