from a prominent atheist, strikes me as the most logically consistent. This week on ToTheSource:
Fact one: Thomas Nagel is an atheist. As he’s made clear on many occasions, he wants to be an atheist. As he said, famously, in The Last Word, “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
Fact two: Thomas Nagel is brave enough to have a clear and critical look at one of the great intellectual supports of modern atheism, the neo-Darwinian account of nature. He has found it “prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection.”
Fact three: Nagel realizes he’s in for a drubbing precisely because he dares to question materialist scientific orthodoxy. “I realize that such doubts 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 [in science] as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.”
Let’s look at fact three. As Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard has reported, the response by the secular scientific community to Nagel’s book has resembled nothing so much as a heresy hunt of those who allow no questions that might undermine atheist orthodoxy. Nagel, one of the most respected living philosophers, has now been effectively excommunicated for daring to speak the unspeakable.
But go back to fact two. Nagel isn’t criticizing neo-Darwinism because he has suddenly become a theist. He is still trying to avoid theism, even while he now regards as fundamentally flawed the reductionist attempt to explain anything and everything as a chain of meaningless, mindless cosmic accidents.
The problem at the heart of neo-Darwinism, so Nagel argues, is that it explains away what it needs to explain—the very things we experience as human beings in our everyday life, the very things that make us human.
We experience ourselves as conscious, living creatures, fundamentally distinct from rocks or machines that have no such inner experience. Neo-Darwinism explains this away by asserting that consciousness is an illusion because we are really reducible to complex chemical reactions that are in no way living or self-aware. We are a molecular machine that mistakenly thinks it is alive. Or, neo-Darwinism affirms that we really are conscious creatures, but that the complexity of consciousness is simply an historical accident of purely material, random causes.
For Nagel, both explanations are false to the facts. Consciousness is not illusory, but is one of the very real, complex and amazing facts that science must explain—not explain away. Further, that something so amazingly complex as consciousness could arise by accident is even more implausible than that life itself could have arisen by a series of unimaginably fortunate accidents.
The same is even more true for our ability to reason. For neo-Darwinists, our capacity to reason must be reducible to its original utility in the struggle to survive. As a result, reason doesn’t really tell us what is true, but what may or may not seem useful on a very rudimentary, practical animal level. But, Nagel argues, reason does tell us what is true, and does so in elaborate and astounding ways in science itself, ways that go far beyond what could ever be produced in the mere struggle to survive. Neo-Darwinism therefore fails to explain reason, and reason is a fundamental fact that science must try to explain, not explain away. Mind is not an accident of a mindless cosmos; somehow, the cosmos is built from the beginning to produce mind.
Finally, neo-Darwinism asserts that morality must always be accidental and relative: what we regard as moral is an accident of our evolutionary history, and what we believe to be morally good is relative to that history. As Nagel notes, neo-Darwinism thereby ultimately undermines any notion that we truly grasp, through our reason, what is really, independently, morally good. It destroys our moral capacities, rather than explains them. But, Nagel asserts, we actually have developed into creatures who truly know what is morally good, just as we have developed into creatures who can discover truths in regard to nature, mathematics, logic, and philosophy.
Therefore, argues Nagel, our account of this evolutionary development must be entirely rethought and reconstructed from the ground up. Any legitimate account of evolutionary science must explain how we have developed the extraordinary, magnificent, and very real capacities for consciousness, rationality, and morality. Anything less will not be science, but mere materialist ideology posing as science.
That is why Thomas Nagel made his fellow atheists hopping mad. They realize—and I think rightly so—that Nagel, an atheist, is doing two things that would ultimately reduce their established secular worldview to rubble.
First, he is daring to question the reductionist, materialist assumptions because, on their own terms, they are proving to be incoherent and inadequate. To state the obvious, a view of science that asserts that reason cannot know the truth is at odds with that science’s own claims to being true.
Second, in showing neo-Darwinian reductionism to be inadequate, and upheld more by ideology than evidence, Nagel is (whatever he may intend or desire or fear) opening the door to allow a Divine foot in. Materialism purposely reduced the world to a random, purposeless mindless mechanism so that any upward rung of a ladder leading up to God might be knocked out. Nagel is arguing that we need to put those rungs back in place—as the facts demand.
Can it be done without those rungs leading up to God? Nagel understands that his attempt to outline a non-reductionist theory of nature might very well lead to a strengthening of theism—much against his own inclination. But unlike his atheist adversaries, he is brave enough to face the facts, and give it a try.