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Roasting a Straw Man: Evolutionist Michael Ruse on Thomas Nagel

Jonathan Witt


If you’re driving along and notice that a bright philosopher has just mangled beyond recognition the argument of another bright philosopher, a tap on the brakes and a bit of careful rubbernecking is in order.

If you then notice that the one who has done the mangling is Darwinist Michael Ruse, and what he mangled is an argument by eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel against Darwinism, then it’s worth pulling over and taking an even closer look.

And if upon doing this you find that Ruse has not only badly mischaracterized Nagel’s argument but is pouring lime powder on it beside an open grave, then it’s time to get out of your car and call out something like, Hey buddy, cut that out. You don’t have to do this. There’s a better way.

The illustration does not exaggerate. Let’s lay Ruse’s characterization and dismissal of Nagel’s argument beside Nagel’s actual argument, then you decide.

The Ruse

The mangling occurred earlier this week at an Oxford University Press blog (“Darwinism as religion: what literature tells us about evolution“). And by the way, Ruse and Nagel are both atheists. Here’s the key passage from Ruse:

Just as we have the proselytizing Darwinian New Atheists, so we have today a vocal anti-Darwinian party, consisting somewhat surprising not only of the evangelical Christians of the American South but of some of today’s most eminent atheist philosophers, notably Thomas Nagel, OUP author of Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (2012). As his subtitle reveals, Nagel’s worry is less about the science and more about its supposed religious-cum-metaphysical implications, namely that Darwin plunges us into a hateful world without value and meaning.

Ruse makes Nagel sound a bit like someone who has just learned that, Gosh, scientists are telling us the earth actually revolves around the sun instead of the other way around, and goodness, mightn’t that make us feel rather marginal and inconsequential? Do we really want to go there?

Now, maybe Nagel, following Matthew Arnold, does worry that, thanks to Darwinism, our world

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight.
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

But whether or not Nagel carries this worry, it isn’t his argument against Darwinism, never mind Ruse’s suggestion.

Nagel’s Actual Argument Against Darwinism

Nagel’s case against Darwinism is complex and nuanced. But it has at least two key parts. I’ll only mention the first one, and do a bit more unpacking of the second one, since the second one comes closer to Ruse’s straw-man characterization.

First, Nagel argues that modern evolutionary biology, a physical theory, cannot account for consciousness. Since evolutionary theory purports to explain the origin of humans, the theory’s inability to explain human consciousness is a major strike against it. One finds this laid out plainly in the introduction to Mind and Cosmos.

Ruse is free to agree or disagree with that argument, but he shouldn’t mischaracterize it as only the worry that “Darwin plunges us into a hateful world without value and meaning.”

And here is a second pillar of Nagel’s argument, in his own words, from Mind and Cosmos: “Evolutionary naturalism provides an account of our capacities that undermines their reliability, and in doing so undermines itself.”

Nagel makes the same point at a bit more length on the same page ofthe book:

The evolutionary story leaves the authority of reason in a much weaker position. … Evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends. (28)

Darwinian evolution might have selected for true and reliable reasoning about the natural world around us, but it might also have selected for all sorts of other ways of arriving at conclusions — maybe a mix of several — and who’s to say which has predominated? So, for instance, perhaps natural selection opted for a line of primates with an ability to form convictions more readily than the evidence allowed, since in “nature red and tooth and claw,” sometimes the worst decision is the delayed decision.

If Darwinism undermines the ground of reason, Nagel asks, what ground do we have to stand on to insist that reason reliably guides us to the supposed truth of Darwinism?

Darwin Anticipates Nagel

We have oceans of evidence for the human tendency to irrationality. And Darwin made extra room for irrational animal behavior through his complementary theory of sexual selection. So the concern that Darwinian evolution saddled humanity with profoundly unreliable faculties for reasoning about biological origins is hardly an idle worry.

Darwin himself didn’t consider it an idle concern. John West points this out in a review of Mind and Cosmos:

This objection is not new. Indeed, it reaches back to Charles Darwin himself. Darwin published a lengthy tome, The Descent of Man, purporting to prove that his theory of unguided evolution could explain basically everything, including man’s mind and morals. Yet in his private writings, he expressed a lingering reservation over the impact of his theory on the trustworthiness of reason. In a letter written in 1881, he disclosed that “with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

Remember, though: Nagel isn’t arguing that we shouldn’t trust our natural faculties. He’s arguing that since we are properly confident of our natural faculties (even if they aren’t foolproof and we are free to indulge in irrational behavior), then the fact that Darwinism logically entails that we can’t trust our natural faculties is itself a strike against Darwinism.

Here’s Nagel on page 29 of Mind and Cosmos:

The failure of evolutionary naturalism to provide a form of transcendent self-understanding that does not undermine our confidence in our natural faculties should not lead us to abandon the search for transcendent self-understanding. There is no reason to allow our confidence in the objective truth of our moral beliefs, or for that matter our confidence in the objective truth of our mathematical or scientific reasoning, to depend on whether this is consistent with the assumption that those capacities are the product of natural selection. Given how speculative evolutionary explanations of human mental faculties are, they seem too weak a ground for putting into question the most basic forms of thought. Our confidence in truth of propositions that seem evident on reflection should not be shaken so easily (and, I would add, cannot be shaken on these sorts of grounds without a kind of false consciousness).

He turns the line of his argument squarely against Darwinism:

It seems reasonable to run the test equally in the opposite direction: namely, to evaluate hypotheses about the universe and how we have come into existence by reference to ordinary judgments in which we have very high confidence. It is reasonable to believe that the truth about what kind of beings we are and how the universe produced us is compatible with that confidence. After all, everything we believe, even the most-far-reaching cosmological theories, has to be based ultimately on common sense, and on what is plainly undeniable.

So Why Did the Intelligent Ruse Mangle a Skeptical Nagel?

That’s Nagel’s argument in a nutshell. And he gives us what I’ve conveyed above all in the book’s introduction and the chapter immediately following the introduction. In other words, Ruse didn’t need to read far into the book to get this.

But if Ruse did get it, he didn’t give it to us in his OUP post. Instead he gave us an unrecognizable mischaracterization of Nagel’s critique.

Three possibilities. (1) Ruse isn’t smart enough to understand Nagel’s argument. We can reject that. Ruse is an intelligent man. (2) Ruse didn’t read far enough into the book and relied on someone else for a summary of Nagel’s position. Perhaps, but the argument is so central to Nagel’s book that this explanation seems unlikely. Or (3) Ruse willfully misrepresented Nagel’s core argument because it was so much easier to dispense with an attack on Darwinism from a distinguished philosopher and fellow atheist simply by mischaracterizing the attack.

I don’t mean that Ruse necessarily did this consciously. It might have been wishful thinking working hand-in-glove with this or that pressing publication deadline. Who knows? The good news is that Ruse’s philosophical position on that human enterprise called scientific reasoning allows plenty of room for the possibility of irrational behavior on the stage of science, so Ruse should be well positioned dispositionally to consider why he behaved as he did.

Photo: Burning Man Festival, 2004, by Aaron Logan [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.