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In The New Republic, Plantinga on Nagel (and Stephen Meyer)

David Klinghoffer

This is a refreshing place to find an endorsement of intelligent design. In The New Republic, Alvin Plantinga reviews Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False with, on top of that, kind attention to Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell:

Nagel is not afraid to take unpopular positions, and he does not seem to mind the obloquy that goes with that territory. “In the present climate of a dominant scientific naturalism,” he writes, “heavily dependent on speculative Darwinian explanations of practically everything, and armed to the teeth against attacks from religion, I have thought it useful to speculate about possible alternatives. Above all, I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world.” Nagel has endorsed the negative conclusions of the much-maligned Intelligent Design movement, and he has defended it from the charge that it is inherently unscientific. In 2009 he even went so far as to recommend Stephen Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, a flagship declaration of Intelligent Design, as a book of the year. For that piece of blasphemy Nagel paid the predictable price; he was said to be arrogant, dangerous to children, a disgrace, hypocritical, ignorant, mind-polluting, reprehensible, stupid, unscientific, and in general a less than wholly upstanding citizen of the republic of letters.
His new book will probably call forth similar denunciations: except for atheism, Nagel rejects nearly every contention of materialist naturalism. Mind and Cosmos rejects, first, the claim that life has come to be just by the workings of the laws of physics and chemistry. As Nagel points out, this is extremely improbable, at least given current evidence: no one has suggested any reasonably plausible process whereby this could have happened. As Nagel remarks, “It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis.”
The second plank of materialist naturalism that Nagel rejects is the idea that, once life was established on our planet, all the enormous variety of contemporary life came to be by way of the processes evolutionary science tells us about: natural selection operating on genetic mutation, but also genetic drift, and perhaps other processes as well. These processes, moreover, are unguided: neither God nor any other being has directed or orchestrated them. Nagel seems a bit less doubtful of this plank than of the first; but still he thinks it incredible that the fantastic diversity of life, including we human beings, should have come to be in this way: “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.” Nagel supports the commonsense view that the probability of this happening in the time available is extremely low, and he believes that nothing like sufficient evidence to overturn this verdict has been produced.
So far Nagel seems to me to be right on target. The probability, with respect to our current evidence, that life has somehow come to be from non-life just by the working of the laws of physics and chemistry is vanishingly small. And given the existence of a primitive life form, the probability that all the current variety of life should have come to be by unguided evolution, while perhaps not quite as small, is nevertheless minuscule. These two conceptions of materialist naturalism are very likely false.

It’s interesting: The New Republic is a liberal magazine. In the same issue, the cover story is “It Gets Better: Why Obama Will Avoid the Curse of the Second Term.” The New York Review of Books surprised us recently with a similar respectful treatment of ID. Somehow, these “surprises” are getting to be less surprising.