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Where Darwin fears to tread

Where Darwin fears to tread

The atheist philosopher Simon Blackburn eviscerated Thomas Nagel's new book, Mind and Cosmos, in the New Statesmen, concluding that “if there were a philosophical Vatican, the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index.” Philosophers are not always as reasonable as they might be when reviewing other philosophers’ books, but even by the standards of academic cage-fighting, this was a bit brutal. Why?

The answer is that Thomas Nagel, who is Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University and recognised by many, including Blackburn, as one of the most important analytic philosophers of his generation, spends this short book vigorously carving up the most sacred cow of our age, namely the idea that Darwinism explains everything.

Nagel’s argument is that the naturalism and materialism that underpin the ‘neo-Darwinian’ explanation of everything, from bacteria to ballet, are not fit for purpose. There are some things that they cannot explain, not simply through lack of data but in principle.

These vary from the origins of life to human consciousness, cognition and our commitment to moral realism. This is a mixed bag of objections, from different sources and with different merits. When Nagel says the more we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard (Darwinian) historical account becomes, one can hear Dawkins and others shouting from the wings that an argument from incredulity isn’t an argument at all. The fact that Nagel’s incredulity has been “stimulated” by criticisms levelled at Darwinism by defenders of intelligent design is hardly likely to impress his naturalistic critics (or, for that matter, many theists).

Other objections are more powerful. Nagel points out that the universe is not only intelligible, but far more intelligible to the human mind than we should expect from the pressures of evolution alone. Human consciousness, he argues, is irreducibly subjective: no attempt to explain it in objective, material terms is going to work. Our sense of absolute right and wrong is, he contends, incompatible with undiluted Darwinism, which deals only in relative and immediate goods.

Such problems lead Nagel to the conclusion that ‘mind’ is not an add-on to a material reality “but a basic aspect of nature”, and that “natural teleological laws govern the development of organisation over time”. For those with ears to hear, this is a seismic claim, putting teleology – the idea of final causes that are analogous to design and purpose – back into natural science, whence it was evicted about 400 years ago. No wonder the book has upset some people.

Such a claim alone would be interesting enough coming from one of the world’s leading philosophers, but two other points mark Mind and Cosmos as more engaging still.

The first is the author’s emphatic rejection of any theistic alternative. The kind of teleological idealism Nagel advocates fits well with a Christian understanding of creation, in which mind, value and purpose are woven into reality. Nagel acknowledges this but explains that he is “not just unreceptive but strongly averse to the idea” of divine mind. Rather than fleeing from the arms of evolutionary naturalism into those of its rival in love, Nagel advocates “an alternative secular conception”.

Which leads on to the second point: Nagel doesn’t have an alternative. He is candid about this, his “teleological speculations” being offered “merely as possibilities, without positive conviction”. His objective is to help the “secular theoretical establishment” wean itself off “materialism and Darwinism of the gaps”, rather than to outline a comprehensive alternative.

Entering an on-going (and bitter) battle, without taking conventional sides is a courageous thing to do. Doing so with a sword but no shield is perhaps foolhardy. Nevertheless, Nagel deserves admiration and respect for tackling a difficult subject with honesty, willing to risk howls of outrage in the process.

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel is published by Oxford University Press at £15.99

Posted 28 March 2013

Philosophy, Darwin

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