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Atheist Philosopher Says Darwinist-Materialist View is Wrong? What Next?


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Initial post: Dec 7, 2012 10:51:17 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 7, 2012 10:54:27 AM PST
Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel has written a book claiming that a materialistic cosmology and a Darwinian view of biological life are almost certainly false. Nagel's atheist bona fides were not previously in doubt, as far as I know, and even now, he recoils at the idea of needing to believe in some sort of Supreme Being.

Christian analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga reviews Nagel's book in the current issue of New Republic:

http://www.tnr.com/print/article/books-and-arts/magazine/110189/why-darwinist-materialism-wrong

I wrote to Plantinga a few days ago offering some comments as an atheist. He was kind enough to write back and, although his schedule (still very busy writing at age 80) would not allow him to engage in a debate by e-mail, he sent me a paper he had authored on theodicy.

I posted something about this on my Facebook page, and this morning, a Facebook friend who is a minister commented that it was interesting to see "a crack in the facade." I posted back the following:

"Whether or not a completely materialistic and neo-Darwinian account of the universe and life are, or ever will be, adequate, I am not educated enough to say [though I am strongly in favor of it]. I will certainly read Nagel's book, but until I do, I would suggest the following points:

"1. If Dawkins, Gould (if he were still living), Stephen Pinker, and others got up, gave a press conference, and said 'Nagel has convinced us; we now acknowledge that a purely materialist cosmology must forever remain radically incomplete and inadequate to explain the universe, life, and consciousness,' we would still have a problem, in my view.

"2. One aspect of the problem would consist of the fact that the lack of a factual explanation (even a lack that somehow can never be remedied) does not mean that a fanciful explanation becomes acceptable. There was a time when no one knew what caused AIDS, but that didn't make it OK to attribute it to spirits of the dead, a claim that added nothing to knowledge.

"3, The other aspect would lie in the problem of dysteleology, an issue that was known even to the ancients. We live in a universe that began with an explosion and is still rapidly flying apart into oblivion, where planets are subject to devastating strikes by comets and meteors or of being swallowed altogether by black holes, in a solar system whose sun will one day destroy, first all life on earth and then, finally, the planet itself, on a planet where life did not arise until the planet was already billions of years old and where, later, 99% of all life forms that ever existed were obliterated in a catastrophe, and where the fossil record shows a history of millions of years of false starts and dead ends in life forms. We are just one of millions of species, the largest part of which are accounted for by species of beetles, a scheme in which our species alone is capable of abstract thought and complex symbolic speech, inhabiting bodies whose musculo-skeletal structure is ill-adapated to an upright gait, and in which our physical systems contain organs that are not only not useful but may cause severe or even fatal health risks.

By no possible stretch of the imagination can such a condition be attributed to *design*--the very idea, as I see it, is preposterous, as I wrote to Plantinga himself the day after I read his review. Despite his continuing very busy schedule, he graciously replied and even attached a paper on theodicy, which I read with interest.

"As I see it (and I'm sure Plantinga does as well), the issue is not whether religious belief is appealing but whether it is true. If it were true, and known to be true, that there really was an all-wise and all-holy Creator of all and that absent fellowship with Him, our mental and spiritual lives were miserably impoverished, then of course there would be nothing to do but for Dawkins and others to ask themselves if they were willing to surrender to the inevitable or just continue wasting their readers' time with vain bluster.

"But if there is really not such a Being--or, nearly as important, if there may or may not be one but the facts, in the nature of the case, can never be known--then it must be equally true that religious believers are expending a great deal of time and energy on an illusion, rather like adults still playing with dolls. One may deliver all the meals on wheels he likes, but if he has convinced himself that but for a belief in an invisible spirit, he would be out practicing cannibalism, instead, he must be very sadly mixed up, whatever good points he may have.

"In any case, I welcome the continuing debate among thinkers and will be interested to read what Nagel says, as well as more of Plantinga's material."

Posted on Dec 7, 2012 11:06:24 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 7, 2012 11:08:33 AM PST
Songbird says:
Funny, I have a friend who had an email debate with Plantinga too. They discussed PoE and free will.

I'll come back and comment later. That just caught my eye.

Posted on Dec 7, 2012 11:20:11 AM PST
[Deleted by the author on Dec 13, 2012 8:19:17 PM PST]

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 11:23:57 AM PST
He was very nice, and we even had a very tenuous personal connection, since he and his wife were fellow-undergrads at Calvin College in Grand Rapids with my late stepfather (stepdad and Plantinga were born the same year), and he didn't remember stepdad, but his wife did. I wish he had had time to respond at greater length.

I would have been particularly interested to hear his response to what has been, for a long time, one of my most fundamental objections to the existence of a God: if he is there, we should not be here. That is, his perfection should prevent him, not only from creating, but from doing anything at all, since any change from his original perfect condition cannot represent anything better. To create anything at all besides himself is either to create a being of equal value, in which case one is superfluous, or a being of lesser value, in which case he has violated his own nature and committed an imperfect act.

All those are very old arguments, but I have never seen them refuted. Christians always respond that God "desires" fellowship with us, but a perfect, omnipotent being outside of time cannot *have* anything to "desire" in the first place, since he must always have eternally done whatever was good to do and, thus, ensured that all was as good as it could possibly be already.

As I said to Plantinga, it seems to me that one reason people can speak of a God is that they don't think seriously enough about what must be true if he were really there and were perfect.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 11:28:59 AM PST
I agree; some debates are worthless, and I am reminded of the same when I hear scientifically illiterate fundamentalists parroting the line "teach the controversy," a controversy that would not exist but for their own ignorance.

I meant the word "debate" only in as neutral a sense as possible. Plantinga is a noted Christian philosopher whose work has earned respect even from those who would otherwise dismiss religious belief out of hand, and Nagel, on the other hand, is a well-known atheist philosopher who suddenly comes out and claims that no amount of detail supporting the Darwinian view can account for the fact of human consciousness. To the extent that other thinkers respond, even to refute him, I suppose there will be a debate.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 12:14:02 PM PST
[Deleted by the author on Dec 13, 2012 8:19:51 PM PST]

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 12:23:55 PM PST
Stan Furman says:
I don't think when Nagel says that Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False he instead has an "all-wise and all-holy Creator of all" in mind instead.
:)))

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 12:35:22 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 7, 2012 12:39:11 PM PST
Some efforts in philosophy may be futile, but I think some are worthwhile. For instance, my argument about perfection stands or falls, apart from whether I know much about biology or physics.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 12:38:39 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 7, 2012 12:39:51 PM PST
I think that's a safe bet! ;-) Nor did I mean to imply that belief an in "all-wise and all-holy Creator of all" was the only possible alternative to unbelief, which would be silly. Honestly, one form of a Supreme Being that seems rather more plausible to me is the "thinking ocean" in Stanislaw Lem's novel "Solaris," which serves as a sort of planetary brain; when human astronauts visit, the ocean is far too advanced to communicate meaningfully with them on their own level, so it does the only thing it can think of, which is to take the humans' thoughts and mirror them back to them in the form of physical embodiments of those thoughts (e.g., one astronaut's dead wife).

Posted on Dec 7, 2012 1:19:33 PM PST
'probabilist says:
--------------------------------------------------------
re: atheist vs. empiricist

An atheist may or may not be an empiricist. Atheists who hold to the views promoted in the Romantic era of philosophy act on their feelings and reject the rule of Reason. So being the one does not denote being the other.

We use words to communicate, so whatever you or I feel words should mean, the common parlance is the last arbiter. Dictionaries are nothing more or less than historical records of what most people who use a given word mean by it.

Do you believe marriage between races is miscegenation? For many decades that was the word for it. It means "the disgusting immoral union of people of different races." The opprobrium is built into the definition. Now we call it mixed-race marriage or simply "marriage" because we've thrown off the shackles of the white Southern quasiintellectuals who cooked up "miscegenation."

Ditto, to some extent, "atheism." Deconstruct it. It defines us as people who are not theists. It says NOTHING else about us. I'm not blonde haired. I'm not green-eyed. I'm not obese. I don't have Morton's Foot. I'm not Finnish. But you wouldn't call me ablonde, agreeneyed, aMortonsFooty, or aFinnish.

Meaning that so-called atheists have accepted the term of opprobrium layed on them by people who think all that's needed to know about us is what we aren't.

You can embrace that in the way that homosexuals embraced the word "queer." Or the way in which blacks may address each other with the N-word, though you probably shouldn't.

Or you can reject it as a misnomer, as I do. "Empiricist" says exactly what I actually am. You know a lot about me when I use that. I know very little about you when you use "atheist," because it isn't the name of a philosophy, and using it reinforces the theists' belief that what we are is indeed what we are not. The word expresses theistic jingoism.
--------------------------------------------------------

- Ehkzu,
on the thread titled "What Mitt Romney actually believes."

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 1:34:03 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 7, 2012 1:36:42 PM PST
probabilist, thanks for sharing that post. I can see Ehkzu's argument up to a point, though I find it lacking in some ways.

On the one hand, he says a word means what people take it to mean, not what we think it ought to mean, but on the other, he then turns around and complains that "atheist" does, indeed, have a charged meaning for many people even though, technically, it ought to carry no special connotations.

Well, which is it?

He also says one might embrace the word as some gays have embraced "queer," though, he adds, "you probably shouldn't."

Really? Why not?

Granted that atheism says nothing about my taste in music or my predilection for walking for fitness, it can still serve, as in my mind it does, as a flare fired off in the dark. In that regard, it is something of which one can be justly proud.

I certainly don't go around saying "Hi, I'm Michael and I'm an atheist," but if the subject comes up, I relate, calmly and reasonably, what my position is. In that context, what else am I supposed to say? "I'm a naturalist" would tell most people that I studied butterflies; "I'm a materialist" would sound like a confession that all I wanted was a MacMansion; "I'm an empiricist" would be taken by most listeners to mean that I was in favor of imperialism. I could say "I'm a God denier," but that sounds as if I'm a person like a climate science skeptic or an anti-vaccine crusader. To me, "atheist" is admirably apt and exact.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 1:55:56 PM PST
'probabilist says:
Thanks, Michael. I found this very helpful.

'prob

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 2:05:02 PM PST
[Deleted by the author on Dec 13, 2012 8:20:13 PM PST]

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 2:09:08 PM PST
John Donohue says:
Philosophers talking about evolution --- oh my. How about philosophers giving their opinion about aeronautical design. I'm sure that their insights would be oh so useful to the actual engineers who design airplanes and rockets.

Here is a wikipedia quote from Nagel: "In his Mind and Cosmos (2012), Nagel argues in favor of skepticism about materialist and reductionist views of the emergence of life and consciousness, writing that the standard neo-Darwinian view flies in the face of common sense.[8] He argues that the principles that account for the emergence of life may be teleological, rather than materialist or mechanistic.[9]"

Get this "flies in the face of common sense"! Really -- I wonder what Nagel thinks of quantum superposition?

As to Plantinga -- "Plantinga has argued that some people can know that God exists as a basic belief, requiring no argument. He has developed this argument in two different fashions: firstly, in God and Other Minds, by drawing an equivalence between the teleological argument and the common sense view that people have of other minds existing by analogy with their own minds......Plantinga has also argued that there is no logical inconsistency between the existence of evil and the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good God."

Believe me, the fact that Plantinga supports some view or other does not make me more likely to embrace it.

Finally, arguments from authority are bogus.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 2:18:31 PM PST
Re Huggins, 12-7 11:28 AM: Interesting stuff here. Re Nagel's "no amount of detail supporting the Darwinian view can account for the fact of human consciousness", this is nonsense. My cat is conscious; it knows when someone is offering a lap upon which to sit. Even the poppies in my front yard have a rudimentary consciousness: they open up to the sun during the day, and close down at night. The only assets required for human consciousness are the five senses, the ability to apply them to one's own corpus, and some reasoning ability.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 2:21:47 PM PST
The theistic objection, raised by Chesterton in his "Orthodoxy," echoed by C.S. Lewis in his "Miracles," and developed by Plantinga, is that if materialism is true, our minds evolved only to know where to find food, shelter, and mates, not to engage in meta-cognition. I personally find such an argument unconvincing; it sounds to me like saying that because someone was taught the alphabet only so he could read a bus schedule, it is incredible that he could ever have learned to comprehend Shakespeare.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 2:22:53 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 7, 2012 2:24:32 PM PST
Re Donohue, 12-7 2:09 PM: Agreed. In particular, ANY teleological argument about the real world (such as Nagel's) is invalid on its face; it has long been known that no deductive conclusion can be drawn which is not inherent in the original premises. Which means that ANY deductive argument about the real world must contain at least one premise about the real world, so it is impossible to deduce the existence (or non-existence) of a god from logic alone. Something from the real world (can you say, "evidence"?) MUST be included.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 2:36:45 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 7, 2012 3:57:15 PM PST
>As to Plantinga -- "Plantinga has argued that some people can know that God exists as a basic belief, requiring no argument. He has developed this argument in two different fashions: firstly, in God and Other Minds, by drawing an equivalence between the teleological argument and the common sense view that people have of other minds existing by analogy with their own minds......Plantinga has also argued that there is no logical inconsistency between the existence of evil and the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good God."

I haven't read "God and Other Minds," which I understand was kind of a rehearsal for his later three books on warranted beliefs, but my understanding of its argument is that the issue of whether or not to believe in God is the same sort of issue of whether to believe that we are really communicating with other minds (in the people we meet) as opposed to robots who are merely spitting out cleverly scripted routines. It's sort of the Turing Test question stood on its head.

Interesting as that point may be, I really can't see what prevents me from saying that the question of whether, upon engaging in conversation, I am really communicating with another mind or just imagining the whole thing and really constructing the "other" in my own head, is no different from the question of whether I believe in ghosts. In any case, I may read his book at some point.

As to God and evil, in our brief exchange, I wrote to him that I objected to the idea that the greatest good could be realized only if it overcame evil, since that seemed to make the good somehow dependent on evil, instead of being sufficient to itself. To use an illustration from aesthetics, if I go to the opera, I don't appreciate it the more if the lead performer spends part of the second act singing out of tune and then is restored to correct pitch by the end; I wish for a flawless performance.

In any case, Plantinga wrote back that he saw no inconsistency in God allowing evil, since great good does sometimes come from overcoming evil, as in the example of someone who forgives someone else who has grievously injured him.

In the paper he wrote on theodicy that he shared with me, Plantinga wrote that a world requiring incarnation and atonement (Jesus becoming human and dying on the cross for our sins) was superior to a world in which everyone did everything right all the time and had no need of redemption, because the world with atonement showed God's mercy and grace. Again, I think such an argument suffers from the same objection I mentioned above.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 2:39:17 PM PST
John Donohue says:
Robert Saunders >> ANY teleological argument about the real world (such as Nagel's) is invalid<<

It is wonderful how if you give a concept a name derived from Greek it can transform a bogus idea in to pure gold. If Nagel had to say "I think that the Earth was put here for a purpose" he would be relegated to something like "The Real Housewives of Cambridge" but to say that he thinks that he believes in teleology -- voila!!

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 2:58:31 PM PST
[Deleted by the author on Dec 13, 2012 8:21:30 PM PST]

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 3:58:39 PM PST
S. Kessler says:
I read someof the Plantinga article, but the print was so small on my iPad screen that I couldn't read all of it without a great deal of discomfort.

I'm not familiar with Nagel, so I can only respond to Plantinga's version of what Nagelis saying (I'll check out Nagel's book later). My general reaction is that anytime a philosopher rejects a naturalistic explanation for the cosmos and the diversity of life because is is just too improbable I tend to roll my eyes. Rejecting something because you're incredulous, is an automatic fail as far as I'm concerned. Especially when the only alternative to the natural forces explanation is an interventionist explanation involving some form of outside force or intelligent being/deity, whatever. Either someone or something directs the process of biological development or its an unguided process following the laws of the natural world. I really don't see a middle ground. Even if one posits that the guidance only happens intermittently there still has to be some entity outside the laws of physics doing that guiding. Does not compute for me. Somehow, in the theist arsenal when reviewing something like this, the phrase "common sense" inevitably come up and is waved live the American flag at Iwo Jima. See, says Plantinga, Nagel believes a naturalistic explanation defies common sense, too! Well, I think that having to posit a supernatural entity of some kind in the development of life because one is simply incredulous because of improbability calculations demonstrates a lack of common sense.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 4:02:41 PM PST
S. Kessler says:
But what is the alternative to a materialistic natural explanation that doesn't involve some sort of supernatural entity guiding the development of life?

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 4:05:09 PM PST
Please explain how any one man's opinions on how the natural world works have any bearing on whether the natural world in fact works that way?

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 4:06:14 PM PST
>Especially when the only alternative to the natural forces explanation is an interventionist explanation involving some form of outside force or intelligent being/deity, whatever.

Exactly.

>Somehow, in the theist arsenal when reviewing something like this, the phrase "common sense" inevitably come up

"Common sense" is not without value, but it has to be taken with a grain of salt. It is not "common sense" that in ancient times, a general took huge, unwieldy animals from a hot climate, drove them over the Alps, a feat that would hardly be undertaken even today, and used them to battle Rome, and yet we know, if history is to believed, that Hannibal's elephants were in Italy.

Nor is it "common sense" that a man using a mail-order rifle with a defective scope, got off 3 shots in just under 6 seconds (a feat that Marine marksmen subsequently could not replicate) and hit a moving target, 88 yards away, from a very steep angle, when the target was moving away from him--and yet the conclusion of the Warren Commission, that Oswald shot Kennedy, is widely accepted.

If I read Nagel's book and learn that indeed, physicists and/or biologists have been well aware, for years, of supporting arguments for the Darwinist-materialist view that have seemed anomalous and inexplicable even to them, all along, well of course that will bear taking note of, but, in agreement with what you say, the mere fact that it seems to violate Nagel's common sense is not, in itself, sufficient.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2012 4:06:48 PM PST
>But what is the alternative to a materialistic natural explanation that doesn't involve some sort of supernatural entity guiding the development of life?

Exactly.
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Discussion in:  Religion forum
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Initial post:  Dec 7, 2012
Latest post:  Feb 12, 2013

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