The Gods of our Brahmins: Thomas Nagel’s and Rebecca Goldstein’s Intelligent Designers

24 Mar

Goldstein gets praised, Nagel gets burned.

In my last post, I talked about how Rebecca Goldstein has given the atheists (and agnostics to be sure) an intelligent design that even they can love. Of course this begs the question: Why specifically, has Goldstein, unlike Thomas Nagel a couple years earlier, seemed to have gotten nothing but love from the “freethinking” community?

As I said in the previous post, I don’t think that there really is a good rational answer – looking at the big picture both thinkers are essentially dealing with a Logos, or Reason, that has teleological designs (however much Goldstein may want to deny this – please read on). That said, a difference seems to be that Nagel’s teleological “bias towards the marvelous” means that the laws of nature are somehow disposed to create conscious rational beings where Goldstein’s teleological bias towards “the-best-which-just-had-to-happen” just means that while the particular laws of nature are not somehow disposed to create conscious rational beings, nature as a whole somehow is. No, the real reason Nagel is despised and not Goldstein likely has to do with whom he gives props to. From John G. West, author of Darwin Day in America:

Nagel attracted special displeasure for praising Darwin skeptics like mathematician David Berlinski and intelligent-design proponents like biochemist Michael Behe and philosopher of science Stephen Meyer. As the New York Times explained, many of Nagel’s fellow academics view him unfavorably “not just for the specifics of his arguments but also for what they see as a dangerous sympathy for intelligent design.” Now there is a revealing comment: academics, typically blasé about everything from justifications of infanticide to the pooh-poohing of pedophilia, have concluded that it is “dangerous” to give a hearing to scholars who think nature displays evidence of intelligent design.

Unfortunately for Nagel, he is a serial offender when it comes to listening to the purveyors of such disreputable ideas. In 2009 he selected Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design as a book of the year for the Times Literary Supplement. Written by my Discovery Institute colleague Stephen Meyer (whose ideas are discussed in the original conclusion to this book), Signature in the Cell made the case for purpose in nature from the existence of the digital information embedded in DNA. After being denounced by one scientist for praising Meyer’s book, Nagel dryly recommended that the scientist should “hold his nose and have a look at the book” before dismissing it.

Apparently unconcerned about being accused of consorting with the enemy, Nagel insisted in Mind and Cosmos that “the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific world view that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents precisely to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion.” Nagel added that he thinks this antireligious materialist worldview “is ripe for displacement”—an intriguing comment considering that he himself remains an unrepentant atheist.

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….” (quote from article here)

So, the reason people don’t like Nagel has a lot to do with social and political considerations. Again, as I said above, when it comes to the big philosophical picture, I think we are talking about distinctions with little difference. I don’t understand how one can’t conclude that Goldstein is just as teleological as Nagel is, albeit with universal mathematically-infused nature (or maybe nature-infused mathematics) instead of particular physical laws. The only practical difference is, it seems to me, is that Goldstein’s view is not able (yet at least) be empirically tested in any way, particularly in the fact that it seems to require a multiverse, but perhaps in other aspects as well.

with Goldstein things are very different: in her view, the result we are looking at – life, particularly conscious rational life – should not be seen as being improbable

With “Atheist with Soul” Goldstein, life – particularly conscious rational life – should not be seen as being improbable…

To explain what I mean a bit more: presumably, for Goldstein, the neo-Darwinian synthesis can somehow survive in her holistic view, as the efficient cause of beneficial mutations still occur accidentally, improbably, through non-teleological natural laws. Dovetailing along with this view of neo-Darwinism’s supposed viability, Elliott Sober, in response to Thomas Nagel’s book, said “I don’t think that life, intelligence, and consciousness had to be in the cards from the universe’s beginning”. But it seems clear that with Goldstein things are very different: in her view, the result we are looking at – life, particularly conscious rational life – should not be seen as being improbable. I can only assume this is because she thinks mathematics somehow strongly implies that there must be a multiverse as well (a popular ideas among cosmologists which she discusses favorably in her book), and so, despite the astronomical odds against life, etc. occurring, the “best” is nevertheless bound to happen (here, the idea of seemingly infinite places where evolution could occur serves the function that “eternal time” served in past, purely materialistic, accounts).

This raises a number of questions, not least of which is this: when the importance of empirical verification is abandoned (where math, not evidence, is sufficient to prove the multiverse idea), is science still being practiced? In any case, with Goldstein’s view one is still hard pressed to wonder why the universe had to be what it is, namely infinitely large, in order that the odds might somehow work out… so that the non-teleological laws could give us conscious and rational life that gives the impression of having been carefully designed…. Again, it is clear that with Goldstein’s view, consciousness, for example, comes to be something that we can expect – and not because of contemporary neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, which says nothing it to be expected. What is the answer?

The answer is not scientific at all, but is basically philosophical/religious: Mathematics. Beautiful mathematics. This is in charge of not only of the multiverse-shape of the cosmos, but the fact that the laws of nature are fine-tuned for life, and also the fact that our epistemic equipment is capable of discerning this wondrous order!  But here, it is mathematics itself that seems to be operating teleologically (consciously, “reasonably” intentionally?), setting things up just as they need to be in order for the “beautiful best” to happen. Teleology needs to be attributed to something. The notion simply cannot be escaped from – even if by taking this route it might initially seem that scientific explanations still do not need to invoke goals along with mechanistic causes (that is clearly an illusion though – it’s just that the goals are invoked elsewhere, in the whole of nature and its mathematical structure…. of course, it makes no sense to think that what is true for the whole will not have implications for the parts). And this, of course, is just what the philosophy/religion of philosophical naturalism needs, seeing as how, in practice (as is evidenced by its rhetoric) it is always trying to slip teleology in the back door anyway….

Nagel "thinks this antireligious materialist worldview “is ripe for displacement”" No kidding, but...

Nagel “thinks this antireligious materialist worldview “is ripe for displacement”” No kidding, but…

And this means that God – and some kind of personal God mind you (only this really should make sense to us, given that we know no other kind of reasoning besides personal reasoning) – needs to be acknowledged. That, of course, does not mean that such a personal God will be seen or understood to be the Christian God. One might believe in Allah, for example, or some other God entirely: one that is somehow the same as the universe, for example, and has perhaps “evolved” with it….

Should any of this make a difference to Christians – those concerned with historic biblical orthodoxy? I think we should steer far clear from these ideas, and start to think more like simple children when it comes to believing what the Scriptures tell us is true about the universe. After all, as I alluded to in my previous post, it seems clear to me that in both Nagel’s and Goldstein’s systems a strictly theistic view of God is unnecessary (i.e. no transcendence, historical “interventionism”, divine revelation, etc), and both systems could also theoretically allow for all manner of [relatively slow and relatively “ordered”] moral evolution as well – even if Goldstein’s would be more “Platonic” and Nagel’s would be more “Aristotelian”.

And of course this eliminates the need for the eternal law of God and the eternal Gospel (Rev. 14). In other words, this eliminates the Christ, the true Logos. 


Goldstein and Nagel pics from Wikipedia

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Posted by on March 24, 2015 in Uncategorized


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