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From the May/June, 2013
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A Doubting Thomas by Phillip E. Johnson

THE LEADING EDGE by Phillip E. Johnson

A Doubting Thomas

When I first heard of the title and subtitle of Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, I knew I had to read the book, and probably comment upon it in Touchstone. The subtitle succinctly states the thesis I have been advancing ever since 1987, when I first took up writing about Darwinism while on a sabbatical leave in London from my day job as a professor of law at the University of California in Berkeley.

Thomas Nagel is an eminent American philosopher, currently university professor of philosophy and law at New York University. He is well-known for his critiques of reductionist accounts of the mind, particularly in his 1974 essay, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?"

He begins Mind and Cosmos by stating that the mind-body problem is not just a single issue, but that it invades (pervades) our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history. He says that a true appreciation of its difficulty must eventually change our conception of the place of the physical sciences in describing the natural

Exploring Alternatives to Materialism

Early in his book, Nagel explains that the conflict between scientific naturalism and anti-reductionism is a staple of recent philosophy.

On the one side there is the hope that everything can be accounted for at the most basic level by the physical sciences, extended to include biology. On the other side there are doubts about whether the reality of such features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought, and value can be accommodated in a universe consisting at the most basic level only of physical facts—facts, however sophisticated, of the kind revealed by the physical sciences.

He asserts that purely mental entities, including value and meaning, cannot be reduced to physical (or material) causes. He goes on to say that if the existence of mind cannot be explained by a physical cause, then neither can biology be purely physical. The book explores the question of what might be the alternative to materialism.

Nagel's "guiding conviction is that mind is not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature." He refers to the importance of the intelligibility of the world, which allows science to operate. And it requires thinking creatures to appreciate the intelligibility.

While Nagel rejects reductionist materialism, he also cannot accept theism, in which a "comprehensive mental source" rules all. He describes our desire for comprehensive self-understanding and says it cannot be resolved either by reductionist evolutionary thinking or by theism. He reviews the history of thought in this area, logical problems with current explanations, and alternatives such as emergence and theism.

Acknowledging Intelligent Design

He never settles on one of the major alternatives he discusses, but it might be useful to look back at his introduction, a place where an author often highlights what is most important. On page 12, he raises the viewpoint of intelligent design, and indicates that it should be considered seriously. While he doesn't agree with the position entirely, being a self-proclaimed atheist, he indicates that he has "been stimulated by criticisms of the prevailing scientific world picture from a very different direction: the attack mounted . . . by the defenders of intelligent design."

He thinks that the writings of Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer, along with those of David Berlinski, are worthy of careful reading and consideration and do not deserve the "scorn with which they are commonly met." He says, "I believe the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific world view that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents precisely to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion."

I saw that, if as distinguished a philosopher as Thomas Nagel was now taking up a theme similar to mine, then I must have been onto something back in 1987, and my colleagues in the intelligent design movement must not be as intellectually isolated as our Darwinist critics like to suppose.

Nagel may have thought that his brief, cautiously worded acknowledgement of intelligent design was not likely to be controversial, but in fact it set off an explosion that caused some Darwinist reviewers to become so angry that they treated it as if it were the subject of the entire book.

I'm afraid that Nagel is experiencing what happens when you try to subject the faith commitments of Darwinists to a critical analysis of the kind that is common elsewhere in the world of ideas. You are not answered, but denounced as a creationist, or as a friend of creationists, which is just as bad. I hope Nagel stands his ground and helps the world understand that when so-called scientists react to any criticism of their assumptions with wild fury, they are not thinking like scientists, whatever titles they can claim.

Philosophers' Challenge

It would be exciting if Nagel's Mind and Cosmos ignited a freewheeling discussion among philosophers and scientists about the profound questions he raises. Specifically: Is the materialist (neo-Darwinian) conception of nature false, or has it so brilliantly succeeded in explaining most of the problems posed by nature that we can be confident that it will prove successful in solving the few remaining problems, such as how material interactions generate consciousness? All that is necessary, the materialist reductionists will surely argue, is that we give their science sufficient time and financial support, while suppressing disturbing

To meet this fallacious argument, the philosophers must insist that the claims of the materialist not be accepted uncritically—as they usually are—but instead be tested by an impartial review of the evidence.

If such a freewheeling discussion ever occurs, scientific materialists may boycott the proceedings, expressing contempt for any philosophers who presume to sit in judgment over the claims of scientists. Take, for example, Stephen Hawking, who wrote that "philosophy is dead" because philosophers haven't kept up with science. However true that may be of some individuals, my own experience in debate with scientists who hold tenaciously to what Nagel calls reductive materialism in science has convinced me that a bigger problem is with scientists who do not accept such elementary logical precepts as the need to define terms precisely and to use them consistently.

For example, almost anyone can be damned as a creationist if you define "creationism" as the belief that God plays any role in the origin and diversification of life and you define "evolution" so as to encompass any adaptive variation in an existing species, such as the classic textbook examples of the peppered moth and finch beak variations. The latter examples are accepted as proof of "evolution" (the complete explanation of life) because, to true believers, evolution of the Darwinian kind is not a theory, about which there is anything tentative, but a self-evident truth. Thus, evidence is not needed to test the theory, but only for use as illustrations, to convince the unenlightened.

I expect that Nagel's slim volume will receive further rough treatment from devoted reductive materialists, who consider any critique of their philosophy to be an attack on reason itself. But I hope Nagel learns to enjoy the experience of weathering the storm of Darwinist indignation, as I did. I also hope he sells a lot of books.

Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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“A Doubting Thomas” first appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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