February 21, 2015

MIND OVER MATTER:

The Book That Deflated Darwin Day (John G. West, February 11, 2015, Intercollegiate Review)

Mind and Cosmos has been denounced in The Nation and the Huffington Post, attacked by prominent academics including evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker at Harvard and biologist Jerry Coyne at the University of Chicago, dubbed the "most despised science book of 2012" by the London Guardian, defended in the New Republic (where Nagel's critics were blasted as "Darwinist dittoheads" and a "mob of materialists"), reported on in a feature story for the New York Times, and put on the cover of the Weekly Standard, which depicted poor Professor Nagel being burned alive while surrounded by a cabal of demonic-looking men in hoods.

Nagel attracted special displeasure for praising Darwin skeptics like mathematician David Berlinski and intelligent-design proponents like biochemist Michael Behe and philosopher of science Stephen Meyer. As the New York Times explained, many of Nagel's fellow academics view him unfavorably "not just for the specifics of his arguments but also for what they see as a dangerous sympathy for intelligent design." Now there is a revealing comment: academics, typically blasé about everything from justifications of infanticide to the pooh-poohing of pedophilia, have concluded that it is "dangerous" to give a hearing to scholars who think nature displays evidence of intelligent design.

Unfortunately for Nagel, he is a serial offender when it comes to listening to the purveyors of such disreputable ideas. In 2009 he selected Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design as a book of the year for the Times Literary Supplement. Written by my Discovery Institute colleague Stephen Meyer (whose ideas are discussed in the original conclusion to this book), Signature in the Cell made the case for purpose in nature from the existence of the digital information embedded in DNA. After being denounced by one scientist for praising Meyer's book, Nagel dryly recommended that the scientist should "hold his nose and have a look at the book" before dismissing it.

Apparently unconcerned about being accused of consorting with the enemy, Nagel insisted in Mind and Cosmos that "the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific world view that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents precisely to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion." Nagel added that he thinks this antireligious materialist worldview "is ripe for displacement"--an intriguing comment considering that he himself remains an unrepentant atheist.

Nagel ultimately offered a simple but profound objection to Darwinism: "Evolutionary naturalism provides an account of our capacities that undermines their reliability, and in doing so undermines itself." In other words, if our mind and morals are simply the accidental products of a blind material process like natural selection acting on random genetic mistakes, what confidence can we have in them as routes to truth?

The basic philosophical critique of Darwinian reductionism offered by Nagel had been made before, perhaps most notably by Sir Arthur Balfour, C. S. Lewis, and Alvin Plantinga. But around the same time as the publication of Nagel's book came new scientific discoveries that undermined Darwinian materialism as well. In the fall of 2012, the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) project released results showing that much of so-called junk DNA actually performs biological functions. The ENCODE results overturned long-repeated claims by leading Darwinian biologists that most of the human genome is genetic garbage produced by a blind evolutionary process. At the same time, the results confirmed predictions made during the previous decade by scholars who think nature displays evidence of intelligent design.

New scientific challenges to orthodox Darwinian theory have continued to proliferate. In 2013 Stephen Meyer published Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, which threw down the gauntlet on the question of the origin of biological information required to build animal body plans in the history of life. The intriguing thing about Meyer's book was not the criticism it unleashed from the usual suspects but the praise it attracted from impartial scientists. Harvard geneticist George Church lauded it as "an opportunity for bridge-building rather than dismissive polarization--bridges across cultural divides in great need of professional, respectful dialogue." Paleontologist Mark McMenamin, coauthor of a major book from Columbia University Press on animal origins, called it "a game changer for the study of evolution" that "points us in the right direction as we seek a new theory for the origin of animals."

Even critics of Darwin's Doubt found themselves at a loss to come up with a convincing answer to Meyer's query about biological information. University of California at Berkeley biologist Charles Marshall, one of the world's leading paleontologists, attempted to answer Meyer in the pages of the journal Science and in an extended debate on British radio. But as Meyer and others pointed out, Marshall tried to explain the needed information by simply presupposing the prior existence of even more unaccounted-for genetic information. "That is not solving the problem," said Meyer. "That's just begging the question."

C. S. Lewis perceptively observed in his final book that "nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her." Lewis's point was that old paradigms often persist because they blind us from asking certain questions. They begin to disintegrate once we start asking the right questions. Scientific materialism continues to surge, but perhaps the right questions are finally beginning to be asked.

Posted by at February 21, 2015 2:59 PM
  

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