February 17, 2013


Why Darwinist Materialism is Wrong : According to a semi-established consensus among the intellectual elite in the West, there is no such person as God or any other supernatural being. a review of Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian  Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False  By Thomas Nagel (ALVIN PLANTINGA, 11/06/12, New Republic)

Now you might think someone with Nagel's views would be sympathetic to theism, the belief that there is such a person as the God of the Abrahamic religions.  Materialist naturalism, says Nagel, cannot account for the appearance of life, or the variety we find in the living world, or consciousness, or cognition, or mind -- but theism has no problem accounting for any of these.  As for life, God himself is living, and in one way or another has created the biological life to be found on Earth (and perhaps elsewhere as well).  As for the diversity of life: God has brought that about, whether through a guided process of evolution or in some other way.  As for consciousness, again theism has no problem: according to theism the fundamental and basic reality is God, who is conscious.  And what about the existence of creatures with cognition and reason, creatures who, like us, are capable of scientific investigation of our world?  Well, according to theism, God has created us human beings in his image; part of being in the image of God (Aquinas thought it the most important part) is being able to know something about ourselves and our world and God himself, just as God does.  Hence theism implies that the world is indeed intelligible to us, even if not quite intelligible in Nagel's glorified sense.  Indeed, modern empirical science was nurtured in the womb of Christian theism, which implies that there is a certain match or fit between the world and our cognitive faculties.

Given theism, there is no surprise at all that there should be creatures like us who are capable of atomic physics, relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and the like.  Materialist naturalism, on the other hand, as Nagel points out, has great difficulty accounting for the existence of such creatures.  For this and other reasons, theism is vastly more welcoming to science than materialist naturalism.  So theism would seem to be a natural alternative to the materialist naturalism Nagel rejects: it has virtues where the latter has vices, and we might therefore expect Nagel, at least on these grounds, to be sympathetic to theism.

Sadly enough (at least for me), Nagel rejects theism.  "I confess to an ungrounded assumption of my own, in not finding it possible to regard the design alternative [i.e., theism] 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."  But it isn't just that Nagel is more or less neutral about theism but lacks that sensus divinitatis. In The Last Word, which appeared in 1997, he offered a candid account of his philosophical inclinations:

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.

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.

Here we have discomfort and distress at the thought that there might be such a being as God; but this discomfort seems more emotional than philosophical or rational.

So is there a strictly philosophical problem with theism, according to Nagel?  As far as I can see, the main substantive objection that he offers is an appeal to that notion of unity.  A successful worldview will see the world as intelligible; and intelligibility, as Nagel conceives it, involves a high degree of unity.  The world is intelligible only if there are no fundamental breaks in it, only if it contains no fundamentally different kinds of things.  Descartes, that great dualist, thought that the world displays two quite different sorts of things: matter and mind, neither reducible to the other.  Nagel rejects this dualism: his reason is just that such dualism fails to secure the unity necessary for the world's being intelligible.

Yet is there any reason to think that the world really is intelligible in this very strong sense -- any good reason to think that there is fundamentally just one kind of thing, with everything being an example of that kind, or reducible to things that are?  Here three considerations seem to be necessary.  First, we need to know more about this requirement: what is it to say that fundamentally there is just one kind of thing?  It is not obvious how this is to be understood.  Aren't there many different sorts of things: houses, horses, hawks, and handsaws?  Well, perhaps they are not fundamentally different.  But what does "fundamentally" mean here?  Is the idea that the world is intelligible only if there is some important property that houses, horses, hawks, and handsaws all share?  What kind of property?

Second, how much plausibility is there to the claim that this sort of unity really is required for intelligibility?  Clearly we cannot claim that Descartes's dualism is literally unintelligible -- after all, even if you reject it, you can understand it.  (How else could you reject it?) Is it really true that the world is more intelligible, in some important sense of "intelligible," if it does not contain two or more fundamentally different kinds of things?  I see little reason to think so.

And third, suppose we concede that the world is genuinely intelligible only if it displays this sort of monistic unity: why should we think that the world really does display such a unity?  We might hope that the world would display such unity, but is there any reason to think the world will cooperate?  Suppose intelligibility requires that kind of unity: why should we think our world is intelligible in that sense?  Is it reasonable to say to a theist, "Well, if theism were true, there would be two quite different sorts of things: God on the one hand, and the creatures he has created on the other.  But that cannot really be true: for if it were, the world would not display the sort of unity required for intelligibility"?  Won't the theist be quite properly content to forgo that sort of intelligibility?

I come finally to Nagel's positive thesis.  Materialist naturalism, he shows, is false, but what does he propose to put in its place?  Here he is a little diffident.  He thinks that it may take centuries to work out a satisfactory alternative to materialist naturalism (given that theism is not acceptable); he is content to propose a suggestive sketch.  He does so in a spirit of modesty: "I am certain that my own attempt to explore alternatives is far too unimaginative.  An understanding of the universe as basically prone to generate life and mind will probably require a much more radical departure from the familiar forms of naturalistic explanation than I am at present able to conceive."

There are two main elements to Nagel's sketch.  There is panpsychism, or the idea that there is mind, or proto-mind, or something like mind, all the way down.  In this view, mind never emerges in the universe: it is present from the start, in that even the most elementary particles display some kind of mindedness.  The thought is not, of course, that elementary particles are able to do mathematical calculations, or that they are self-conscious; but they do enjoy some kind of mentality.  In this way Nagel proposes to avoid the lack of intelligibility he finds in dualism.

But we haven't the faintest idea how a being with a mind like ours can be composed of or constructed out of smaller entities that have some kind of mindedness. How do those elementary minds get combined into a less than elementary mind?

Of course someone might wonder how much of a gain there is, from the point of view of unity, in rejecting two fundamentally different kinds of objects in favor of two fundamentally different kinds of properties.  And as Nagel recognizes, there is still a problem for him about the existence of minds like ours, minds capable of understanding a fair amount about the universe.  We can see (to some degree, anyway) how more complex material objects can be built out of simpler ones: ordinary physical objects are composed of molecules, which are composed of atoms, which are composed of electrons and quarks (at this point things get less than totally clear).  But we haven't the faintest idea how a being with a mind like ours can be composed of or constructed out of smaller entities that have some kind of mindedness.  How do those elementary minds get combined into a less than elementary mind?

The second element of Nagel's sketch is what we can call natural teleology.His idea seems to be something like this.  At each stage in the development of our universe (perhaps we can think of that development as starting with the big bang), there are several different possibilities as to what will happen next.  Some of these possibilities are steps on the way toward the existence of creatures with minds like ours; others are not.  According to Nagel's natural teleology, there is a sort of intrinsic bias in the universe toward those possibilities that lead to minds.  Or perhaps there was an intrinsic bias in the universe toward the sorts of initial conditions that would lead to the existence of minds like ours.  Nagel does not elaborate or develop these suggestions.  Still, he is not to be criticized for this: he is probably right in believing that it will take a lot of thought and a long time to develop these suggestions into a truly viable alternative to both materialist naturalism and theism.

It's easy enough to demonstrate the falsity of materialism generally and Darwinism specifically, but it's always amusing what comes after.  Mr. Nagel can make the intellectual case for theism, but just can't take the emotional step to faith.  This tells us much about him and the social milieu within which he functions but nothing about Creation.

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Posted by at February 17, 2013 9:32 AM

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