Monday, February 11, 2013

Thomas Nagel and a Vanishingly Small Probability

Barn in Monroe County

I'm reading reviews of NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. Nagel is an atheist, and especially famous for his wonderful essay "What Is it Like to Be a Bat." 

In Nagel we have a powerful and brilliant philosopher arguing against materialist naturalism. Nagel "rejects the claim that life has come to be just by the workings of the laws of physics and chemistry." (Plantinga, "Why Darwinist Materialism is Wrong") Uh-oh. Nagel is in trouble. One should never, ever question scientific orthodoxy. 

Alvin Plantinga writes: "The second plank of materialist naturalism that Nagel rejects is the idea that, once life was established on our planet, all the enormous variety of contemporary life came to be by way of the processes evolutionary science tells us about: natural selection operating on genetic mutation, but also genetic drift, and perhaps other processes as well."

"The probability, with respect to our current evidence, that life has somehow come to be from non-life just by the working of the laws of physics and chemistry is vanishingly small. And given the existence of a primitive life form, the probability that all the current variety of life should have come to be by unguided evolution, while perhaps not quite as small, is nevertheless minuscule. These two conceptions of materialist naturalism are very likely false."

If materialist naturalism is true then, reasons Nagel, it is especially improbable that consciousness and reason should come to be. The physical sciences, on their own, cannot account for human consciousness (or any consciousness for that matter). Plantinga writes:
"Physical science can explain the tides, and why birds have hollow bones, and why the sky is blue; but it cannot explain consciousness. Physical science can perhaps demonstrate correlations between physical conditions of one sort or another and conscious states of one sort or another; but of course this is not to explain consciousness. Correlation is not explanation. As Nagel puts it, “The appearance of animal consciousness is evidently the result of biological evolution, but this well-supported empirical fact is not yet an explanation—it does not provide understanding, or enable us to see why the result was to be expected or how it came about.”"

For all this and more Nagel has been receiving serious blame from Darwinians. One should never, especially as an atheist scholar, question the gospel of natural selection. Nagel “is questioning a certain kind of orthodoxy, and they are responding in the way the orthodox respond,” said Alva Noë, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, who gave the book a rare positive, if not uncritical, notice on NPR’s Web site." ("An Author Attracts Unlikely Allies")