Tag Archives: evolution

Nagel’s Knowledge vs. Dawkins’ Ignorance

UnknownIn my opinion, more than enough has been said to show that the New Atheists, when it comes to most of the topics they like to discuss, have no idea what they are talking about. They essentially state this themselves–in that Dawkins, Krauss, and Co. admit ignorance of both philosophy and theology.

It, therefore, makes no sense at all for anyone to listen to them as if they knew what they were talking about.

That said, what is the situation for those that actually do know what they are talking about? Where is the debate over things like theism and materialism among professional philosophers?

The short answer is: heading back toward theism.

For the long answer, I want to get into the recent controversy surrounding the eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel. For those who aren’t familiar with him, Nagel is one of the most well-respected philosophers in the english-speaking world. He is a professor at NYU, and a brilliant man without (so far as I can tell) so much as a hint of arrogance. He is also an avowed atheist.

And he has attacked the materialistic view so beloved of the New Atheists.

His most recent book “Mind and Cosmos” purports to show us “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”. To anyone who agrees that what most believe today is largely based on what university professors were teaching their students yesteryear, this is a very important book.

As such, it’s worth it to spend a few posts on him, and the best place to start is by dealing with the straw man that keeps being put up in place of Nagel’s argument.

That is, many people think that they can refute Nagel simply by throwing out the standard evidence in favor of evolution. But the argument isn’t with evolution as a scientific theory–it is with the idea that a purely physical theory (like evolution) can ever explain the whole of life.

Judging from how many people have accused Nagel of ignorance about evolution, this can’t be stressed enough: He isn’t arguing that current evolutionary theory can’t explain this or that feature of living organisms, and is therefore false. If that were his argument, it would make sense to give the classic “scientists are working on it” response.

But it doesn’t make sense here. The argument is about what science can, even in principle, ever discover. Nagel has offered good reasons to think that science can’t possibly explain things like consciousness–unless we make some fairly serious adjustments to the scientific method.

That is, we would have to remove the “methodological naturalism” stipulation that is the basis of most vague assertions that science (in some unspecified way) backs materialism.

Without this move, so argues Nagel, science pursued for all eternity could never explain consciousness anymore than painting something red for all eternity could ever make it green. Science, as it currently exists, is simply not the correct method for explaining certain things (such as consciousness).

What is his argument? What are the consequences for theism? For materialism? And what has been the response?

I’ll address these questions in future posts. But, for now, it needs to be made clear what the answer is not: the unreflective and ignorant materialism of people like Dawkins and Krauss.

The Boy Who Cried “No Wolf”

cuIn expounding his atheism, Alex Rosenberg nicely enshrines the materialist view on biology:

The banishment of purpose from the universe as a whole also provides for the banishment of purposes that are supposed to make sense of human and other biological activities. When physics disposed of purposes, it did so for biology as well. It is the causal completeness of physics that purges purpose from all living things and their lives. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 46)

Of course, it is controversial that even chemistry is fully reducible to physics. For Rosenberg to simply declare that biology (and, elsewhere in the book, everything else that exists) is so reducible is more than a bit presumptuous.

I think it would strike most of us as inherently wrong to say that bodily organs have no purpose, but that is the materialist’s position. The heart isn’t actually for pumping blood, on this view, that is simply what it does. Appeals to evolution claim that this is purely a matter of what helped past organisms survive, and that any concept of the heart actually having a purpose is sheer illusion.

But I find myself increasingly skeptical of theories which wave off large swaths of fundamental experience as illusion. It seems more than a bit like sophistry to simply throw out anything that one’s personal philosophy can’t explain. There are more things in heaven and earth, after all, than are dreamt of in materialist philosophy.

Or, to paraphrase a more contemporary thinker: to deny the reality of what one cannot explain is the crudest form of cognitive dissonance.

And, indeed, purpose can’t be explained by pure materialism, even biologists consistently make reference to the purpose of organs in professional journals. It is understood, apparently, that this is simply shorthand. We’re promised that philosophers of biology will come along later to rephrase all of these comments in terms that don’t mention purpose.

But many are starting to feel that the materialists have made this promise so many times that they’re starting to forget that they’re even making it anymore. The issue of purpose, which was supposed to have been long-since handled, still hasn’t gone away even among scientists. It’s rather like a weird case of a boy crying “No wolf”, where materialists can be consistently heard shouting the non-existence of something rather obvious. How long are we supposed to go on believing them?

To be absolutely clear, none of this is an argument against evolution as science. This doesn’t comment at all on the theory itself. It is, rather, an argument against the philosophical add-on that organs don’t serve an objective purpose. That is, it is an argument for teleology.

So, admitting to teleology wouldn’t discredit evolution, but it does deal a major blow to materialism. I think this is significant, because it can’t be a discovery of science that keeps people from accepting this view (Rosenberg’s overtures notwithstanding). In fact, the way we do science is more in line with a belief in teleology than a rejection of it. It seems more likely, therefore, that it is a commitment to materialism that is the trouble.

That being the case, the materialist owes us a reason to think that the heart merely pumps blood, without having the purpose of pumping blood.

Why Russell was Wrong V: Let’s forget about Paley


Here, we get to Russell’s treatment of Darwinism. To be clear, I am discussing philosophy and theology–not science (as much as I adore science). I’ll not be speaking about the Evolution debate, which receives far more attention than I think due it. Instead I’ll focus on philosophical mistakes I’ve seen made in this debate.

Here, Russell criticizes Paley’s famous “Watchmaker” argument (which states that Creationism is true on the grounds that living things appear as designed as a watch does):

It is an easy argument to parody. You all know Voltaire’s remark, that obviously the nose was designed to be such as to fit spectacles. That sort of parody has turned out to be not nearly so wide of the mark as it might have seemed in the eighteenth century, because since the time of Darwin we understand much better why living creatures are adapted to their environment. It is not that their environment was made to be suitable to them but that they grew to be suitable to it, and that is the basis of adaptation.

I’m often left wondering what so many of the disciples of Russell (Dawkins most of all) would do without Paley. Few arguments from design run counter to Darwin’s theory, and so don’t tend to validate the false “science or religion” dichotomy that drives their rhetoric.

To his credit, Russell does not fall into this trap. Many seem to think that, so long as a discovery of science can be made to counter a theistic argument, we can imply that future discoveries will do the same (so we needn’t waste our time with other arguments). At least, this seems to be the reason why Darwin’s name is so frequently mentioned on topics like cosmology.

For me, the most significant thing about Darwin in the context of a debate on God’s existence is the fact that opponents of theism have a hard time producing a more recent idea which runs counter to (their concept of) theism.

This seems rather like the Galileo argument, where a single person, who lived quite some time ago, is seen as proof of a larger pattern. This is doubly true when one studies closely enough to see that there is nothing about Darwin’s theories which can get the one to the conclusion that God doesn’t exist (nor anything about Galileo’s trial which reveals that “science” was being persecuted, but that is another topic).

If the practice of science in the twentieth century has taught us anything, it is that it does not progress along a predictable course. To infer that science will ultimately establish atheism because of a single, questionable, example (as, say, Richard Dawkins does) is a hasty generalization fallacy, a non-sequitur, and a simple category error. Really, I’ve encountered few positions which pack logical fallacies as tightly as this one.

But, more simply, this is to pretend both that science is philosophy and that we know our future better than Paley knew his.

And this is what Paley did right: rather than try to predict what will be discovered some day, he worked with the information he had. It is sheer intellectual laziness to say that one isn’t going to accept a position until all the facts are in (as many seem to be doing as of late); all the facts will never be in.

I believe that we should trust science. What we should not trust, however, is some concept of what science will one day discover. This is doubly true in answering a question which is, manifestly, not a scientific one.


Richard Dawkins seems to have several roadblocks in his quest to rid the world of religion. While there are better-known issues, I think that perhaps the most persistent and important of them is the existence of Dr. Francis Collins.

Francis Collins is best known as the director of the Human Genome Project, and is now the NIH director. He is also a professing Christian, and a walking contradiction of much of the philosophy of the New Atheists. He is far too respected a scientist for Dawkins to indignantly ask him if he understands the elegance of evolutionary theory. The simple example of Collins has forced the New Atheist writers to qualify many of their statements about the supposed contradictions between faith and science.

But they could learn a great deal more from Collins if they’d care to look. Most particularly, anyone who is interested in the issue of the relationship between evolutionary theory and Christian theology should be aware of the BioLogos foundation. Here, Collins has gathered many experts in both science and theology to promote the idea that there is no contradiction to be found here.

Though there are religious groups who will be offended at the concept, the overwhelming majority of Christians worship in churches which agree with Collins. Atheists interested in supporting evolution, however, seem to stand to gain as much as any Christian from the efforts of this group.

That is to say, there is a clear body of respected Christian scholars explaining to Christians, in terms not offensive to them, why it is theologically acceptable and rationally sound to believe in evolution. If his project were simply about the promotion of science, this would be the best thing that ever happened to Richard Dawkins.

But it isn’t. Dawkins simply waves off Francis Collins as an exception and moves on. The fact is that, though Collins stands a far greater chance of actually persuading religious individuals to believe in evolution, his method would cost Dawkins his favorite banner to wave in the fight: the idea that one must choose between faith and science.

Shallow and prejudiced view of social reality

For this and other reasons, it is becoming increasingly clear that the promotion of science is not at all at the heart of the New Atheists’ attack on religion. Many of them seem willing to jettison science if it means an advance of secularism in our culture.

Therefore, it is also clear that, whether one is a theist or an atheist, the best way forward is not the conflict model of Dawkins, but the more peaceful approach of Collins.