Last month, I wrote a review of Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, to which my good friend and colleague James Barham then wrote a response. Both my review and Barham’s response appeared here at ENV.
It’s been on my mind to reply to Barham (and indirectly to Nagel), but with the Thanksgiving holidays and other pressing matters, it’s only now that I’m able to do so. On no substantive points do I think I need to change my original review. Yet Barham’s response does suggest places in my review that could use clarification.
Barham interprets my review as “appreciative yet also highly critical.” I would have put it differently, namely, I see my review as “critical yet also deeply appreciative.” As I read Nagel’s book, there was much more that I agreed with than I disagreed with. And even on our key points of difference, namely, Nagel’s desire for unification in explanation and for a non-reductive teleological naturalism, I have sympathies.
Barham, like Nagel, sees Judeo-Christian theism as requiring a transcendent God who moves miraculously in nature and thus must violate the principles by which nature operates. Certainly, biblical miracles like the resurrection of Jesus seem to go beyond the powers of nature, requiring the supernatural rather than the merely natural. But for the operation of nature outside salvation history, it’s not clear that God needs to act miraculously. It’s conceivable that God — yes, the Judeo-Christian God — could realize his will in natural history through teleological principles that did not require intermittent divine interventions.
Thus, I probably should have stressed in my review that Judeo-Christian theism is compatible with God creating a world that operates by teleological principles, with the result that God, as Charles Kinsley once put it, makes a world that makes itself. In fact, as a Christian, I would say that no core doctrine of my faith is jeopardized by this view. Read the Apostle’s Creed, for instance, and you’ll find nothing about the mode of divine creation, whether by direct intervention or by (teleological) secondary causes. To be sure, God is presented there as creator, but both options are left open, at least when it comes to the basic creeds of the Church.
That said, I don’t believe that God worked in natural history exclusively through such teleological principles. Rather, I’m much more ready to believe in God’s direct activity in nature, especially at key origin events. Why? Besides theology, there’s exegesis, namely, determining what God’s special revelation in Scripture teaches. Scripture presents God as a hands-on deity and not as a grey eminence who tries as much as possible to work through surrogates behind the scenes. And then there’s science, namely, determining what God’s general revelation in nature teaches. With regard to the latter, there seems to be just too much discontinuity in the natural order, especially in biology, for me to believe that God acted exclusively through secondary causes, even if these follow teleological principles. The origin of life, for instance, presents grave challenges here, as Nagel admits in Mind & Cosmos.
Nonetheless, if the evidence of nature should ever compellingly underwrite a natural order operating by nothing but teleological principles of the sort that would satisfy Barham and Nagel, I could be happy. I might still have some exegetical issues to work out, but in that case I would find no fundamental disharmony between science and theology. It would just be that instead of intervening miraculously, God accomplished his purposes in nature through processes and potentialities embedded in nature — embedded in nature because God created nature and put those processes and potentialities into nature. Many Christians in fact take this line. Nagel’s complete-on-its-own-terms, self-making world, would thus itself call for explanation and find its explanation in God.
Nagel (and possibly Barham) would regard such a theological interpretation of his unified teleological view of nature as superfluous, and I would enjoy debating this question with him. I think where that argument would go in my favor is over the intelligibility of the world to our minds (a point that Nagel puzzled over much in his book): Why, in a world governed by teleological principles, should the world be intelligible to itself, as it is because of our presence? A deity with a conscious mind who creates creatures in his image at least offers a rationale for that possibility. Nagel’s complete unified natural teleological world has greater difficulties here, at least in my view.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The point to realize, and one that I should perhaps have underscored with greater force in my review, is that we are nowhere near having to debate such questions right now. We’re way upstream from them logically speaking, with the far prior question being whether such teleological principles have sufficient merit to be taken seriously in the first place.
Now it’s at this point that Barham calls me to account for saying that Nagel’s invocation of a unified conception of nature centered on teleological principles has no rational justification. Barham argues, by contrast, that Nagel is within his rational rights to look for just such a conception of nature. Insofar as Barham and I disagree here, it’s because we are using the term “rational justification” differently.
If we think of a position as being rationally justified because it involves no fundamental inconsistency or contradiction, offers instead a coherent explanatory package, and thus might be true and even ultimately verified as true, I can go along with Barham and say that Nagel’s position is rationally justified (though I have some reservations about what it would mean for a teleological process not just to exhibit purpose in some loose sense but also to deliver multipart contrivances — more on this momentarily). Yet when I referred to rational justification in my review, I had in mind things like evidence, epistemic support, concrete reasons for thinking that a position is true.
Nagel’s position lacks rational justification in this sense, and it lacks it because his position is so ill-defined. In particular, he offers no concrete proposal of what a teleological process capable of originating biological complexity might look like. What I really want to see from him, and Barham, is a detailed articulation of teleological processes embedded in nature capable of producing biological information.
Barham begs the question when he looks to life to provide an example of such processes. Life as it exists on earth, I think we can all agree, is not eternal. It arose at some definite point in natural history. So, what form does the teleology in nature take that causes life to originate? And, once life is here, what form does that teleology take, not in the day-to-day operations of life (which is where Barham focuses), but for generating its ever increasing complexity as life develops from monad to man?
It’s in this conception of rational justification, where it goes beyond mere speculative possibility to include a detailed articulation of that possibility, that I feel Nagel and Barham let us down. It’s a feeling I’ve had for years as I’ve read the self-organizational literature, which promises to deliver teleological processes capable of doing the heavy lifting in biology where the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection acting on random variation has always failed, but without any specificity in laying out what precisely these processes are. Instead, one finds vague gestures at self-organizational processes from nonlinear dynamics/chaos theory in physics (Belousov-Zhabotinsky reactions, Benard cell convection, etc.), but these have never given any indication of having the capacity to deliver the type of information (e.g., coded messages, as in the cell’s transcription and translation mechanisms) that one finds in biology.
Nagel’s vision of a unified nature operating by teleological principles would be nice if it could be made to work, but I see no evidence that it is a workable position, at least not at this point in time. In fact, Nagel admits that he hasn’t a clue. And Barham offers a question-begging answer that looks to life as the prime example of teleological processes in nature when life is itself what needs to be explained by such processes. If such teleological processes should ever receive a detailed articulation, I expect it would be reconcilable with Christian theism. But without such a detailed articulation in hand, I can’t see taking it very seriously. Intelligent design, by contrast, seems to me to be a much better developed position.
Indeed, we know what it is for an intelligence, in acting as a designer, to produce multipart contrivances (under such contrivances we may include coded information, as in DNA). In fact, we have cases where we know the design process in full detail. On the other hand, we have no examples of teleological processes producing such contrivances unless they operate under the direct intention of a designing intelligence. But it’s precisely the “undesigned” teleological processes — that is, processes not under the control of a designing intelligence — on which Nagel and Barham pin their hopes. But such processes give no evidence of being able to produce contrivance. Granted, life is more than contrivance. But it at least includes contrivance. And the Nagel-Barham approach fails to account for it.
So, until Nagel, Barham, and their likeminded colleagues are able to work out such details, I see no reason to take their approach as anything more than a vague speculative possibility. If the choice was between Darwinism and their teleological approach, Darwinism loses. As Nagel so well shows in Mind & Cosmos, Darwinism is bankrupt. Nagel’s unified conception of a nature governed by deep underlying teleological processes, if we continue with the business analogy, is for now an idea that needs proof of concept and a business plan (what I’m calling a detailed articulation). Intelligent design, by contrast, is for now a modest going concern that has solved some interesting problems (e.g., conservation of information — see www.evoinfo.org). Thus, as far as I’m concerned, the smart money is on intelligent design.
POSTSCRIPT: On a completely unrelated note, James Barham is the general editor of an influential educational website, TheBestSchools.org, that has just released an interesting ranking of colleges: “The 50 Best Colleges in the United States.” For its sheer range of undergraduate institutions, it’s like no ranking that I’ve ever seen. Moreover, it includes some ID friendly schools. I encourage readers to have a look.