Nagel seems unaware that C. S. Lewis also made these arguments three-quarters of a century ago, a fact documented in detail in the recent volume The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society. But of course Nagel has already risked enough bad company without associating with Lewis. And we should be grateful that while Nagel ultimately dissents from “the design alternative,” he provocatively adds: “I believe the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific world view that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion.” And: “That world view is ripe for displacement.”
Though Nagel cannot subscribe to what we may call capitalized Intelligent Design, he is dogged in defending what we may call lowercase intelligent design, or the fundamental rationality of the universe in its major enduring features: “Science is driven by the assumption that the world is intelligible,” he says, a fact noted in a famous 1960 essay by the Nobel-laureate physicist Eugene Wigner. Empiricism is ludicrously inadequate for an explanation or understanding of either the natural world or the mind and rational procedures that investigate and can to a large extent understand and manipulate it. Nagel agrees with Whitehead, Lewis, and Plantinga that “the application of evolutionary theory to the understanding of our own cognitive capacities” undermines “our confidence in them,” a lethal self-contradiction.
Nagel’s book is a kind of calmly ticking demolition device that repeatedly detonates Darwinian, scientistic shibboleths and clichés: “The priority given to evolutionary naturalism in the face of its implausible conclusions about other subjects is due,” he writes, “to the secular consensus that this is the only form of external understanding of ourselves that provides an alternative to theism.” Anything but God.
If we take the unique and irreducible character of consciousness seriously, Nagel argues, as opposed to indulging the implausible Darwinian reduction of it, “its implications . . . [threaten] to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture.” Jacques Barzun and Gertrude Himmelfarb had said the same in powerful anti-Darwinian books in the 1940s and ’50s. (Himmelfarb reports that, in personal dealings with her, the Darwinian Julian Huxley refused even to consider that Darwinian theory might have any flaws whatsoever, or to speak with her at all about the subject, despite the publication of her exhaustive, classic book on Darwin.) Though Barzun became provost of Columbia, the most recent historian of that university, R. A. McCaughey, tells us that his critique of scientism “angered some of his science colleagues [who] considered leaving the university” because of it. This in spite of the fact that several generations of distinguished Columbia intellectuals before, during, and after Barzun’s time there — Carlton J. H. Hayes (his teacher), Lionel Trilling, Mortimer Adler, Robert Nisbet, and Fritz Stern (another provost) — explicitly critiqued the depredations and demoralizations of scientism, what Trilling called the “damage” it does “to the mind of the individual.”
Whitehead, Lewis, and the historian and philosopher of science Stanley Jaki have persuasively shown that the 17th-century “Scientific Revolution” was largely the fruit of hundreds of years of scholastic Christian teaching and belief about the rationality of God and therefore the rational penetrability of His creation, a fact obvious in Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Newton, Descartes, and Leibniz. Nagel affirms the point in this book and also in his recent review of Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism in The New York Review of Books. Thus, historically and logically, Christian theism has not been “the enemy of science” that ahistorical, popularizing propagandists such as J. W. Draper, A. D. White, T. H. Huxley, Ernst Haeckel, Richard Dawkins, and Richard Lewontin excoriate.