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Shock! Intelligent Design, Darwin Doubts Get Respectful Discussion in New York Review of Books

David Klinghoffer

Well it’s not entirely shocking since the reviewer is Thomas Nagel, atheist philosopher at NYU whose new book we’ve touched on here already. Nagel has had kind words for intelligent design theorists in the past, so it’s only natural that he brings to bear his open-minded perspective in reviewing Alvin Plantinga’s recently published Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. (Both books are from Oxford University Press.)
The surprise is that the New York Review of Books assigned Nagel, Darwin heretic, to write about Plantinga, Darwin heretic, in the first place. Take it from me, someone who used to be a book-review editor, these things don’t happen by chance. A startling match like this was the subject of careful thought and editorial discussion. A positive review of a book that criticizes Darwinian evolution and values intelligent design thinking was not an unexpected outcome to the assigning editor.
Writes Nagel:

Most of Plantinga’s book is taken up with systematic discussion, deploying his epistemology, of more specific claims about how science conflicts with, or supports, religion. He addresses Richard Dawkins’s claim that evolution reveals a world without design; Michael Behe’s claim that on the contrary it reveals the working of intelligent design; the claim that the laws of physics are incompatible with miracles; the claim of evolutionary and social psychologists that the functional explanation of moral and religious beliefs shows that there are no objective moral or religious truths; the idea that historical biblical criticism makes it unreasonable to regard the Bible as the word of God; and the idea that the fine-tuning of the basic physical constants, whose precise values make life possible, is evidence of a creator….
About evolution, Plantinga argues persuasively that the most that can be shown (by Dawkins, for example) on the basis of the available evidence together with some highly speculative further assumptions is that we cannot rule out the possibility that the living world was produced by unguided evolution and hence without design. He believes the alternative hypothesis of guided evolution, with God causing appropriate mutations and fostering their survival, would make the actual result much more probable. On the other hand, though he believes Michael Behe offers a serious challenge to the prevailing naturalist picture of evolution, he does not think Behe’s arguments for intelligent design are conclusive, and he notes that in any case they don’t support Christian belief, and perhaps not even theism, because Behe intentionally says so little about the designer.

Nagel concludes:

I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view — how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.

No, it’s not like the NYRB has endorsed intelligent design, but their allowing a non-dismissive treatment like this should make you say Wow. First the news from the ENCODE project; now this small but important opening in a prominent and previously sealed shut intellectual fortress of the Darwinist worldview. This has been a week of nice surprises!