Footnote 20 – Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False

Footnote 20 – Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 3-7, 9-11.

Thomas Nagel is University Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Law at New York University.  He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy.  In 2008, he was awarded the Rolf Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy and the Balzan Prize in Moral Philosophy.

Excerpts from the Introduction:

“One of the legitimate tasks of philosophy is to investigate the limits of even the best developed and most successful forms of contemporary scientific knowledge….Scientists are well aware of how much they don’t know, but this is a different kind of problem – not just of acknowledging the limits of what is actually understood but of trying to recognize what can and cannot in principle be understood by certain existing methods.”

“My target is a comprehensive, speculative world picture that is reached by extrapolation from some of the discoveries of biology, chemistry, and physics – a particular naturalistic Weltanschauung that postulates a hierarchical relationship among the subjects of those sciences, and the completeness in principle of an explanation of everything in the universe through their unification.  Such a worldview is not a necessary condition of the practice of any of those sciences, and its acceptance or nonacceptance would have no effect on most scientific research.

“… for a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works. 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.”

“…It is 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. We are expected to abandon this naïve response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples.”

”…My skepticism is not based on religious belief, or on a belief in any definite alternative.  It is just a belief that the available scientific evidence, in spite of the consensus of scientific opinion, does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense. That is especially true with regard to the origin of life…. 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 as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.”

“…doubts about the reductionist account of life go against the dominant scientific consensus, but that consensus faces problems of probability that I believe are not taken seriously enough, both with respect to the evolution of life forms through accidental mutation and natural selection and with respect to the formation from dead matter of physical systems capable of such evolution. The more we learn about the intricacy of the genetic code and its control of the chemical processes of life, the harder those problems seem.”

“…In thinking about these questions I have been stimulated by criticisms of the prevailing scientific world picture from a very different direction: the attack on Darwinism mounted in recent years from a religious perspective by the defenders of intelligent design.  Even though writers like Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer are motivated at least in part by their religious beliefs, the empirical arguments they offer against the likelihood that the origin of life and its evolutionary history can be fully explained by physics and chemistry are of great interest in themselves.  Another skeptic, David Berlinski, has brought out these problems vividly without reference to the design inference. Even if one is not drawn to the alternative of an explanation by the actions of a designer, the problems that these iconoclasts pose for the orthodox scientific consensus should be taken seriously. They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair.

“Those who have seriously criticized these arguments have certainly shown that there are ways to resist the design conclusion; but the general force of the negative part of the intelligent design position – skepticism about the likelihood of the orthodox reductionist view, given the available evidence – does not appear to me to have been destroyed in these exchanges. At least, the question should be regarded as open. To anyone interested in the basis of this judgment, I can only recommend a careful reading of some of the leading advocates on both sides of the issue – with special attention to what has been established by the critics of intelligent design.  Whatever one may think about the possibility of a designer, the prevailing doctrine – that the appearance of life from dead matter and its evolution through accidental mutation and natural selection to its present forms has involved nothing but the operation of physical law – cannot be regarded as unassailable.  It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis.”

More follows.

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