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Defecting from Darwinian Naturalism: A Review of Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos

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About a decade ago I would muse on what it might take for intelligent design to win the day. Clearly, its intellectual and scientific project needed to move forward, and, happily, that has been happening. But I was also thinking in terms of a watershed event, something that could have the effect of a Berlin Wall coming down, so that nothing thereafter was the same. It struck me that an event like this could involve some notable atheists coming to reverse themselves on the evidence for design in the cosmos.

Shortly after these musings, Antony Flew, who had been the most notable intellectual atheist in the English-speaking world until Richard Dawkins supplanted him, announced that he had come to believe in God (a deistic deity and not the full-blooded deity of ethical monotheism) on account of intelligent design arguments. I wondered whether this could be the start of that Berlin Wall coming down, but was quickly disabused as the New York Times and other media outlets quickly dismissed Flew’s conversion as a sign of his dotage (he was in his eighties when he deconverted from atheism). Flew, though sound in mind despite what his critics were saying (I spoke with him on the phone in 2006), was quickly marginalized and his deconversion didn’t have nearly the impact that it might have.

Still, I may have been on to something about defections of high profile intellectuals from Darwinian naturalism and the effect that this might have in creating conceptual space for intelligent design and ultimately winning the day for it. In 2011 we saw University of Chicago molecular biologist James Shapiro deconstruct Darwinian evolution with an incisiveness and vigor that even the ID community has found hard to match (for my review of his Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, go here; for my exchange with Shapiro on this forum, go here).

A Most Disconcerting Deconversion

Thomas Nagel, with his just published Mind & Cosmos, has now become another such defector from Darwinian naturalism. Appearing from Oxford University Press and subtitled Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, this slender volume (it’s only 130 pages) represents the most disconcerting defection (disconcerting to Darwinists) from Darwinian naturalism to date. We’re still not talking the Berlin Wall coming down, but it’s not hard to see it as a realistic possibility, off in the distance, after reading this book.

Because intelligent design is still a minority position that is widely marginalized by the media and mainstream science, it’s easy for defenders of intelligent design to wax apocalyptic. Indeed, it’s a very natural impulse to want to throw off the shackles of an oppressive and powerful majority, especially when one views their authority as unwarranted and unjust. So I have to keep my own impulses in check when I make comments about the Berlin Wall coming down (by the way, I had an uncle, aunt, and cousins who lived in “West Berlin” at the time as well as relatives in Poland, so my interest in the Berlin Wall is not merely hypothetical). But Thomas Nagel is a very major intellectual on the American scene and his no-holds-barred deconstruction of Darwinian naturalism is just the sort of critique, coupled with others to be sure, that will, if anything, unravel Darwin’s legacy.

Nagel is a philosopher at New York University. Now in his 70s, he has been a towering figure in the field, and his essays were mandatory reading, certainly when I was a graduate student in philosophy in the early 1990s. His wildly popular essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” takes on reductionist accounts of mind, and his books Mortal Questions (Cambridge, 1979) and The View from Nowhere (Oxford, 1986) seemed to be in many of my fellow graduate students’ backpacks.

Reading Nagel’s latest, I had the sense of watching Peter Finch in the film Network (1976), where he rants “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” (in that famous monologue, Finch also says “I’m a human being, my life has value” — a remarkable point to make three years after Roe v. Wade; to see the monologue, go here). Now Nagel in Mind & Cosmos, unlike Finch in Network, is measured and calm, but he is no less adamant that the bullying by Darwinists needs to stop. Perhaps with Richard Dawkins in mind, who has remarked that dissenters from Darwin are either ignorant, stupid, wicked, insane, or brainwashed, Nagel writes,

I realize that such doubts [about Darwinian naturalism] will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.

Nagel has nailed it here. The threat of being branded unscientific in the name of a patently ill-supported Darwinian evolutionary story is the thing that most keeps Darwinism alive (certainly not the evidence for it). We saw a similar phenomenon in the old communist Eastern bloc. Lots of people doubted Marxism-Leninism. But to express such doubt would get one branded as a reactionary. And so people kept silent. I recall David Berlinski, a well-known Darwin skeptic, telling me about a reading group at MIT among faculty there who studied his work but did so sub rosa lest they have to face the wrath of Darwinists.
In Mind & Cosmos, Nagel serves notice on Darwinists that their coercive tactics at ensuring conformity have not worked with him and, if his example inspires others, won’t work with them either. What a wonderful subtitle to his book: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. It’s a dare. Go ahead, make my day, do your worst to bring the wrath of Darwin’s devoted disciples on me. Nagel regards the emperor as without clothes and says so:

For a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works. The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes. This is just the opinion of a layman who reads widely in the literature that explains contemporary science to the nonspecialist. Perhaps that literature presents the situation with a simplicity and confidence that does not reflect the most sophisticated scientific thought in these areas. But it seems to me that, as it is usually presented, the current orthodoxy about the cosmic order is the product of governing assumptions that are unsupported, and that it flies in the face of common sense.

“Overwhelming Evidence”

Darwinists now have many websites in which the experts gush about how wonderful Darwinian evolution is and the laymen (invariably less informed than Nagel) gush back about how wonderfully clear the experts have made evolutionary theory to them, dispelling all doubt and rendering the theory obligatory for all clear thinking people, so that only those wedded to a religious fundamentalism could doubt it. And here comes Nagel, telling the Darwinists that they’re all washed up. It’s a remarkable thing to behold. Darwinism depends for its continued sway not on overwhelming evidence, which it lacks (I got so tired of Darwinists using the phrase “overwhelming evidence” that I finally bought the domain name overwhelmingevidence.com), but on its ability to overwhelm a gullible intelligentsia. Once enough doubt seeps into that group, the theory will prove unsustainable. Nagel’s skepticism may thus play a signal role in Darwinism’s eventual overthrow.

But let’s talk about the book itself. Nagel is a philosopher, and a careful philosopher at that, and his book is a philosophical analysis of Darwinian naturalism and its crashing failure in accounting not just for the origin and subsequent development of life, but also for human consciousness, cognition, and morality. At the back of all Nagel’s arguments is a kind of “no free lunch principle.” He never states it that way, but it is the idea that a cause must be sufficient to account for its effect, and the mechanistic processes of physics, chemistry, and a Darwinian biology, as we know them, are simply not up to the task of explaining life and all that follows in its train (notably consciousness, cognition, and morality).

A leitmotif that appears throughout the book is that our intelligence as well as the intelligibility of the world to that intelligence need to be taken seriously and cannot be dismissed because a Darwinian naturalism would dismiss it as an accident of natural history. For Nagel, this intelligence and intelligibility is the precondition for science, and so its dismissal as a negligible feature of nature is unwarranted. Precisely because the world is an ordered place (i.e., a cosmos) that is intelligible via our intelligence, the conceptual categories with which we understand it must make room for intelligence without eliminating it entirely (as eliminative materialists do) or reducing it to processes that are inherently unintelligent and lifeless (as reductive materialists do).

In critiquing Darwinian naturalism and showing that the world/cosmos has to be a much richer place than materialists make out, Nagel is very strong, reminding me of Phillip Johnson’s powerful critiques of naturalism from the 1990s (cf. his Darwin on Trial and Reason in the Balance). Where Nagel is weaker, much weaker, is on the alternative he proposes. So Darwinian naturalism is wrong. What, then, is right? Nagel stops short of going with intelligent design, and instead tries to hammer out a third way.

A Third Way

I want to pause at this point because I’ve seen this in the past, namely, thinkers, even of high profile and caliber, who see the problems with Darwinian naturalism but then also turn away from intelligent design. What’s going on here? Is it that intelligent design just doesn’t have the intellectual horsepower to convince these thinkers, and so they look elsewhere? Although I’m an ID guy, I’ve seen this phenomenon for a while, and I think I can say dispassionately that that’s not what’s going on here. Invariably, I find that there’s nothing wrong with the ID position per se. Indeed, even if the charge is made that ID is not sufficiently developed, one could rightly expect from Darwin doubters and ID diffidents the request for some clear criteria of what they would like to see from an ID program before they would be willing to come on board. But we never see that. The Darwin doubters who are not prepared to follow through with ID are guided, in every instance I know, not by evidential or theoretical concerns about ID but by worldview preferences.
Take Paul Davies. A well-known science writer, Templeton Prize winner, and all around smart guy, he nonetheless has consistently veered back from embracing ID (both Phillip Johnson and I have engaged him on this matter). Writing in his book on the origin of life, The Fifth Miracle, Davies makes clear that existing theory is not going to resolve this problem but also that he’s not going to go with intelligent design. Instead, he’s going to look for some new principles or laws that will account for the complex information-rich structures of life.

Nagel takes this same approach, only he’s clearer than most about why he takes it. On the dust jacket, one reads that in place of materialism, Nagel suggests that “principles of a different kind may also be at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic.” The editor who prepared the dust jacket was accurately summarizing Nagel’s proposed alternative, which tries to navigate a third way between Darwinian naturalism/materialism and intelligent design. But what that editor of the dust jacket failed to note is that such an appeal to new yet-to-be disclosed principles is speculative in the extreme and done without rational justification.

Nagel, in the book, is at least straightforward about what drives him to this third way. Davies and others typically make like they are taking this way because it is scientific. But Nagel is a philosopher, and an astute one at that, so he knows what he is doing and why he is doing it. Nagel looks to these unknown (and perhaps unknowable) teleological principles because of his allergy to theism. He admits it openly: “My preference for an immanent natural explanation [cf. teleological principles] is congruent with my atheism.” Elsewhere he’ll refer to his “ungrounded intellectual preference” for such a view, holding up “the ideal of discovering a single natural order that unifies everything on the basis of a set of common elements or principles.”
Now preferences and ideals, whatever else they are, are not grounds and evidence. Moreover, the alternative to Darwinian naturalism and intelligent design that Nagel would like remains for now a speculative possibility, not a fully articulated proposal whose merits can be assessed. It could be argued that Nagel is addressing truly big questions and that our science and understanding of them still falls so far short that he is justified in taking this line, if only because the alternatives are no better developed. But this is not the case.

Darwinian evolution is a well-defined theory. It’s been tried, and it’s failed, as Nagel rightly notes. This is not to say Darwinian evolution is completely wrong, but that it is only a small part of the picture and that the power of natural selection has been way overblown, so that the creative potential in any theory of biological origins needs to be located elsewhere. Nagel looks to unknown and yet to be discovered principles of a sort hitherto unexampled. But why look there given the progress of intelligent design? Nagel thinks the ID community deserves gratitude for underscoring the problems with Darwinian evolution. But nowhere in his book does he even consider ID’s actual positive proposals, such as about design detection, informational constraints, and the limits to evolvability.

My Biggest Disappointment with Nagel

The biggest disappointment I had reading Mind & Cosmos was seeing how entrapped Nagel was and remains in a mechanistic understanding of nature despite his protestations against it. He wants a richer naturalism than Darwin’s, and ID is compatible with such a richer naturalism (I’ve made this point for years – see the introduction to No Free Lunch, 2002, as well as the chapter on naturalism in The Design Revolution, 2004). But he sees intentionality, which he distinguishes from teleology, as leading to a necessarily dualistic and incomplete account of nature, a prospect he wants to forestall by looking to teleological principles (whatever these may be).

Throughout Mind & Cosmos, one sees words like “unified,” “comprehensive,” and “complete” used to describe the view of nature that he desires to account for life’s origin, its development, and its productive consequences (consciousness, cognition, and morality). Such desiderata are fine as far as they go, but I frankly doubt that we will ever achieve them in anything but the most limited endeavors. For instance, I have a complete understanding of the arithmetic of the 12 numbers that account for the hours of the day. But in most circumstances of life our knowledge is never complete or exhaustive. So why make that a criticism of intelligent design?

But even the claim that intelligent design is somehow incomplete for invoking mind and the contingency that comes with it seems ill considered. I remarked a moment ago that Nagel is entrapped in a mechanistic understanding of nature. Nagel, though rejecting Darwin, remains an evolutionist, who sees nature as having produced us through a long natural, albeit un-Darwinian, process. Of course, there’s the factual question whether and to what extent Darwinian evolution has happened at all and the evidential question of what the basis is for believing it. But even if we accept that evolution in the full-blooded monad-to-man sense has happened, why should a designing intelligence operating through an evolutionary process be regarded as substandard, as somehow inferior to Nagel’s proposed teleological processes?

I submit that the problem is Nagel is wedded to a mechanistic conception of science that sees the nuts and bolts of science as determined by physics and chemistry and not by information. Indeed, even though he will cite “information-rich” biological structures as reasons for doubting Darwin, Nagel fails to see that the informational characteristics of these structures are precisely the grounds for thinking them to be the product of intelligent design. A science in which information is not a fundamental entity will necessarily be committed to a form of evolution in which information must be built up gradually from informationally simpler precursors. This, it seems, is Nagel’s view of science.

The problem, however, is that information is now proving itself to be a fundamental entity of science that cannot be explained in this sort of self-assembling gradually-building-up way. Conservation of information results that my colleagues and I have been proving over the last five years at the Evolutionary Informatics Lab (go to the publications page there) show that the information in living systems is never created by material processes but merely shuffled around and that, in fact, the problem of explaining biological information only intensifies as one traces it through material processes.

At this point Nagel might say that we’ve merely proved his point and that some deeper teleological principles are needed to account for the information in biological systems. But in fact, we’ve proved the opposite, because we have no experience at all of abstract principles producing such information while we do know that concrete intelligences are capable of producing it. At some level, Nagel is still committed to the hierarchical reductionism of Richard Dawkins, which sees the world as a system of hierarchical levels in which each level is built up from units residing at lower levels. The problem is that information, the sort we see in biology, cannot be understood hierarchically in this way. Information is holistic, and explaining such information, short of its creation by an intelligence, is always a reworking of prior information that is at least as complex and difficult to explain as the information in question.

This suggests that Nagel’s vision for unity, comprehensiveness, and completeness is doomed to fail. And why not? Mathematicians once aspired to the completeness of their theories, hoping that all mathematical truths could be proven. It took Kurt Goedel to show that this hope was a pipedream and that some mathematical truths would forever lie beyond the remit of our methods of proof. The incompleteness of mathematics has not stopped mathematics dead in its tracks. In fact, it could be argued that some of the best mathematics in history has been done in the wake of Goedel.

A Dream of Completeness

Nagel’s desire for completeness, much like Descartes’s desire for certainty, is an ill-considered desideratum. We’re not God and we’ll never be God. We are finite rational creatures whose knowledge is always going to be limited. Our best evidence from biology suggests that it contains information of a sort that is the result of intelligence. Such an account will necessarily be incomplete because we cannot get into the mind of this designing intelligence and know it completely (though there may be some inferences we can draw about it, such as that we are dealing with a super-intellect that knows a lot about nano-engineering, certainly with respect to the molecular biology of the cell).

In conclusion, I thoroughly enjoyed Nagel’s new book. For its critique of Darwinian naturalism and for underscoring its crashing failure to explain consciousness, cognition, and morality, Nagel is great. He’s a philosopher, and this is a philosophical book, so readers will be treated to a terrific overview of the big problems in philosophy from a master of the art. The book’s weakness is in failing to follow through the logic of intelligent design, looking to ID solely for its critique of Darwinian evolution but being unwilling to dispassionately consider why its critique was tendered in the first place and the alternative it proposes. And this failure, though Nagel would agree without calling it that, results from his allergy to theism and his preference for atheism.

Image: Into the Depths of the Lagoon Nebula, NASA/JPL-Caltech.

William A. Dembski

Board of Directors, Discovery Institute
A mathematician and philosopher, Bill Dembski is the author/editor of more than 25 books as well as the writer of peer-reviewed articles spanning mathematics, engineering, biology, philosophy, and theology. With doctorates in mathematics (University of Chicago) and philosophy (University of Illinois at Chicago), Bill is an active researcher in the field of intelligent design. But he is also a tech entrepreneur who builds educational software and websites, exploring how education can help to advance human freedom with the aid of technology.



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