Thomas Nagel is one of the world’s outstanding living philosophers in the Anglo-American analytical tradition: He publishes his books with the Oxford and Cambridge university presses and writes for The New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement (TLS). Yet since 1996, he has grown increasingly worried about what he then called “Darwinist imperialism.” In the same essay, “Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion,” he criticized “the scientism and reductionism of our time.” Though an atheist, he doggedly adheres to what Matthew Arnold called “the old but true Socratic thesis of the interdependence of knowledge and virtue” — that is, the ultimate indispensability and inseparability of epistemology and ethics, of the true and the good. He rightly credits such a view to philosophers from Plato and Aristotle, across the Middle Ages, through Descartes and Kant, down to Charles Sanders Peirce, and to the contemporary Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga — and himself.
His short, tightly argued, exacting new book is a work of considerable courage and importance. Nagel is worried about Darwinism largely because he believes that its aggressive philosophical naturalism ultimately undermines the bases of both reason and ethics. And far from scorning even popular, religiously based antagonism to Darwinism as a sign of backward ignorance, Nagel has the temerity to defend it as a form of common sense fighting “learned foolishness” and imperialistic but suicidally self-contradictory reductionism. “I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life,” he writes. “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.” He resents the strong-arm, in-your-face atheism of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett as a kind of bluff, and bold-faced cheek: “What is lacking . . . is a credible argument” that the full-throttle Darwinian “story has a [real] probability of being true.” This is plain speaking, and it has gotten the courteous, judicious Nagel in trouble with our dominant boffins.
To compound Nagel’s effrontery, he has also defended the scientific “intelligent design” critics of Darwinism such as Michael Behe, David Berlinski, and Stephen C. Meyer, all associated with the Discovery Institute. He elicited outrage from the Darwinian thought police with his praise of Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, which he chose as one of the books of the year for the TLS in 2009. The “problems that these iconoclasts pose for the orthodox [Darwinian] scientific consensus should be taken seriously,” he writes. “They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair.”
Deeply rooted in the history of philosophical speculation and argument, Nagel is animated by two loyalties: first, an obstinate rationalist insistence on the indispensability of non-contradiction and logical consistency in argument; and second, the residual momentum of a kind of cosmic piety, first articulated by Socrates, that has always seen reason and logic as having an irreducibly non-natural element. It was the great Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) who noted that scientific reasoning itself must be premised on the presupposition that mental functionings are not completely explained or determined by natural processes, because otherwise we would have no warrant for believing that they are true. To this epistemological argument Whitehead added an ethical one equally apparent to Nagel: What reason could naturalistic skeptics such as Hume or T. H. Huxley (or Dawkins or Dennett) give for any moral views they held, Whitehead asked, “apart from their own psychological inheritance from the Platonic religious tradition?”
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.
Nevertheless, in recent decades there has been an increasingly hard-edged, transgressive assault on the very idea that we have minds at all, rather than just biological brains. Particularly promoted as “eliminative materialism” by two philosophers ironically named Churchland, this view has ominous, absurd, and inhuman implications that seem hardly to bother its proponents; but they bother Nagel. For any such theory of reductive naturalism, Nagel writes, “it is not merely the subjectivity of thought but its capacity to transcend subjectivity [emphasis added] and to discover what is objectively” true “that presents a problem.” Nagel knows that in the long history of “objectivity” in the West the word/concept has never meant only or exclusively material or empirical “objectness,” but also disinterestedness and the fair-minded, accurate discernment of truth, the latter being the very soul of both personal sanity and civilization. “The reality of consciousness and cognition cannot be plausibly reconciled with . . . scientific naturalism,” which Nagel says is “flagrantly implausible.”
Appropriately, given the nightmarish quality of much of the history of the last century, Nagel asserts, very movingly, the traditional “truth of moral realism.” He goes on to insist that “from a Darwinian perspective, our impressions of value . . . are completely groundless,” including “the entire elaborate structure of value and morality . . . built up [through] practical reflection and cultural development.” He concludes that “neo-Darwinian” “reductive materialism” is not only bad but “unbelievable — a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense.”
Fifty years ago, the great anti-Darwinian Polish-American poet Czeslaw Milosz, having survived Nazi social Darwinism in Poland, wrote a great lyric “against the mute and treacherous might” of the Darwinian vision of nature, insisting that “the earth teaches / More than does the nakedness of elements.”
The earth — and rationality.
– Mr. Aeschliman is professor emeritus of education at Boston University, professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland, and the author of The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism. Two of his essays have recently been reprinted in The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society.