Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Thomas Nagel, Evolution, and Common Sense

Thomas Nagel, New York University philosophy professor, recently (Oxford, 2012) published Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. A basic point he makes there is that ongoing scientific discoveries are steamrolling Neo-Darwinism: "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 (5). The "governing assumptions" of the "current orthodoxy" are "unsupported," and fly "in the face of common sense" (5). The reason, Nagel says, that so many people subscribe to such a "highly implausible" account (6) is that "almost everyone has been browbeaten into regarding" it as "sacrosanct" (7).

Nagel notes a common predicament created by Neo-Darwinism: "Evolutionary naturalism provides an account of our capacities that undermines their reliability, and in doing so undermines itself" (27). In other words, how can we trust a brain constructed by random mutations selected only for their reproductive and survival advantage? Says Nagel, "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).

So why is it gospel in the scientific arena? "The priority given to evolutionary naturalism," Nagel explains, "in the face of its implausible conclusions" derives from "the secular consensus that this is the only form of external understanding of ourselves that provides an alternative to theism . . ." (29).

Nagel covers many implausibilities relating to evolutionary theory, such as that "natural selection should have generated creatures with the capacity to discover by reason the truth about a reality that extends vastly beyond the initial appearances. . ." (74). That is, why and how did our brains develop such a phenomenal capacity when we needed them only to hunt and to find mates? Nagel finds consciousness itself, together with reason, "symbolic representations, and logical consistency" (78) in need of a more credible explanation than the one offered by evolutionary theory.

Nagel concludes, "It would be an advance if the secular theoretical establishment . . . could wean itself of the materialism and Darwinism of the gaps. . ." (127).

A final note. Professor Nagel is an atheist, who says, "I do not find theism any more credible than materialism as a comprehensive world view" (22). He is not writing as a defender of any theistic alternative to evolution.

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