Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Nagel on Evolution

Thomas Nagel is one of my favorite philosophers. He's been famous in philosophy circles since he published his essay "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" in 1974. He recently wrote an essay in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs entitled "Public Education and Intelligent Design". In it he argues (among other things) that evolutionary biologists are over-confident when they compare the certainty of evolution with that of a spherical earth. Nagel thinks this is "a vast underestimation of how much we do not know, and how much about the evolutionary process remains speculative and sketchy." I find this interesting because in The View from Nowhere he argued that proponents of evolution are over-reaching in their application of it.

Evolutionary hand waving is an example of the tendency to take a theory which has been successful in one domain and apply it to anything else you can't understand -- not even to apply it, but vaguely to imagine such an application. It is also an example of the pervasive and reductive naturalism of our culture. 'Survival value' is now invoked to account for everything from ethics to language.
Even if randomness is a factor in determining which mutation will appear when (and the extent of the randomness is apparently in dispute), the range of genetic possibilities is not itself a random occurrence but a necessary consequence of the natural order. The possibility of minds capable of forming progressively more objective conceptions of reality is not something the theory of natural selection can attempt to explain, since it doesn't explain possibilities at all, but only selection among them.

This sounds very similar to the Argument from Reason, that some of the properties of mind are inconsistent with naturalism. Victor Reppert has referred to Nagel a few times at Dangerous Idea 2.

Yet while Nagel appears to be anti-naturalist, he is also an atheist. In The Last Word he writes:

In speaking of the fear of religion, I don't mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper -- namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: 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 not a God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that. ...My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time.

A critique of Nagel's recent essay is at Pure Pedantry. The main point of contention is that Nagel is unaware that science is intrinsically naturalistic. The comments over there are interesting as a lot of them seem to disagree with this pronouncement. Via Keith Burgess-Jackson, another atheist who sides with Nagel.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Unknown said...

Well, that is an interesting comment by Nagel. You know, when I first saw it I noticed the same thing that Dr. Reppert did:

What if a Christian were to say that he or she was afraid of atheism using similar terms. Wouldn't the atheists be all over that Christian, claiming once again that this is an admission that Christians only believe what they believe as a result of wishful thinking?

Though I agree with Nagel in 'that proponents of evolution are over-reaching in their application of it.' I mean there is no doubt that evolution does happen, but there are still some unanswered questions and gaps in our knowledge.

Brandon said...

Nagel is actually not anti-naturalist at all; he's what's called a nonreductive naturalist. I imagine he would agree that science is intrinsically naturalistic; he just doesn't think it's intrinsically reductivist -- that is, we have no way of reducing higher-level descriptions of the universe (e.g., in terms of minds, ethics, language) to lower-level descriptions of the universe (e.g., in terms of quantum phenomena), and, indeed, we have reason to think it can't actually be done. But he still thinks that all these things are natural properties, that while they are different and irreducible descriptions what they are describing is the same physical universe, and that in principle science can study them all (just not by reducing them to a single kind of description).

Brandon said...

I meant to add, but forgot, that Nagel's The Last Word shows just how close he comes to the AFR -- it's basically a naturalistic version of the AFR by an atheist who can see why theists would like the AFR but can't move the additional step to theism. It's very well done, and, like much of Nagel's work, very readable.