John West on Atheist Philosopher Thomas Nagel's "Simple but Profound Objection to Darwinism"
Tomorrow is Darwin Day, which we celebrate here as Academic Freedom Day, and you'll have to wait till then to learn the identity of our Censor of the Year. In the meantime enjoy this provocative excerpt (via Intercollegiate Review) from John West's updated and expanded book, out this week, Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science.
In an all new added chapter, West recounts among other recent developments the sensation that followed the publication of Thomas Nagel's book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. The renowned atheist philosopher expressed admiration for advocates of intelligent design including Meyer, Behe, and Berlinski.
What was the nub of his critique of neo-Darwinism?
Nagel ultimately offered a simple but profound objection to Darwinism: "Evolutionary naturalism provides an account of our capacities that undermines their reliability, and in doing so undermines itself." In other words, if our mind and morals are simply the accidental products of a blind material process like natural selection acting on random genetic mistakes, what confidence can we have in them as routes to truth?
The basic philosophical critique of Darwinian reductionism offered by Nagel had been made before, perhaps most notably by Sir Arthur Balfour, C.S. Lewis, and Alvin Plantinga. But around the same time as the publication of Nagel's book came new scientific discoveries that undermined Darwinian materialism as well. In the fall of 2012, the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) project released results showing that much of so-called junk DNA actually performs biological functions. The ENCODE results overturned long-repeated claims by leading Darwinian biologists that most of the human genome is genetic garbage produced by a blind evolutionary process. At the same time, the results confirmed predictions made during the previous decade by scholars who think nature displays evidence of intelligent design.
New scientific challenges to orthodox Darwinian theory have continued to proliferate. In 2013 Stephen Meyer published Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, which threw down the gauntlet on the question of the origin of biological information required to build animal body plans in the history of life. The intriguing thing about Meyer's book was not the criticism it unleashed from the usual suspects but the praise it attracted from impartial scientists. Harvard geneticist George Church lauded it as "an opportunity for bridge-building rather than dismissive polarization -- bridges across cultural divides in great need of professional, respectful dialogue." Paleontologist Mark McMenamin, coauthor of a major book from Columbia University Press on animal origins, called it "a game changer for the study of evolution" that "points us in the right direction as we seek a new theory for the origin of animals."
Even critics of Darwin's Doubt found themselves at a loss to come up with a convincing answer to Meyer's query about biological information. University of California at Berkeley biologist Charles Marshall, one of the world's leading paleontologists, attempted to answer Meyer in the pages of the journal Science and in an extended debate on British radio. But as Meyer and others pointed out, Marshall tried to explain the needed information by simply presupposing the prior existence of even more unaccounted-for genetic information. "That is not solving the problem," said Meyer. "That's just begging the question."
C. S. Lewis perceptively observed in his final book that "nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her." Lewis's point was that old paradigms often persist because they blind us from asking certain questions. They begin to disintegrate once we start asking the right questions. Scientific materialism continues to surge, but perhaps the right questions are finally beginning to be asked.
It remains to be seen whether as a society we will be content to let those questions be begged or whether we will embrace the injunction of Socrates to "follow the argument . . . wherever it may lead." The answer to that question may determine our culture's future.