Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Nagel's Critics

I've written several times in the last month or so about philosopher Thomas Nagel's new book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. The book has stirred a hornet's nest of criticism, probably because Nagel was himself a materialist and still is an atheist, yet he finds materialism and the Darwinian view that is its chief intellectual buttress deeply unsatisfying and intellectually untenable.

VJTorley at Uncommon Descent casts a gimlet eye upon the arguments of some of Nagel's critics and finds them uniformly unconvincing. The fascinating thing about the reviews he examines is the degree of faith that the reviewers place in materialism. His column is a bit long, but his lede paragraph is a good summation:
I do not wish to question the sincerity and learning of the reviewers, but I was deeply shocked by their unshakable attachment to Darwinism. Reading through the reviews, I was astonished to find the authors arguing that even if the origin of life should prove to be a fantastically improbable event that would not be expected to happen even once in the entire history of the cosmos, even if scientists are utterly unable to predict the general course of evolution, even if all attempts to reduce the science of biology to physics and chemistry are doomed to failure, even if it can be shown that we will never be able to explain consciousness in terms of physical processes, and even if neo-Darwinism proves to be incompatible with the existence of objective moral truths, such as “Killing people for fun is wrong,” we should still prefer Darwinism to any other account of origins, for to do otherwise is unscientific. I have to ask: whence such madness?
These are indeed astonishing admissions by Nagel's critics, and Torley examines them more thoroughly in his essay. The reviewers as much as assert that even if materialism is an utter explanatory failure we should still cling to it because science relies on materialist assumptions, and we cannot abandon science. Better to be scientific but wrong than to perhaps find the truth by abandoning materialism, especially if the truth might be that life can only be adequately accounted for as the product of the design of an intelligent mind.

The inviolable rule that any explanation must be a materialist explanation, even if materialist explanations cannot account for the empirical data science discovers, reminds me of a line from William James' The Will to Believe. James writes that, "a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth, if these kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule."

So it would.