More Things in Heaven and Earth

In philosophical circles, it was once heresy to challenge Darwinian reductionism. That is now changing

Critique Faith
Taking his name in vain: Charles Darwin, himself a theist, didn’t believe in the completely random mutation of genes

“The search for final causes is utterly useless in physics.” Descartes’s resounding pronouncement in 1641 heralded the beginning of the end of trying to explain things by reference to purposes, goals or end-states. Descartes was a believing Catholic, and he argued strongly for the existence of a divine creator behind the cosmos; but he thought it was the height of rashness and presumption to attempt to delve into God’s inscrutable purposes. And as far as physics was concerned, he saw no place for teleology: the only useful explanations had to be couched in terms of mathematical laws and micro-mechanisms. The new scientific age was born.

The biological world, for a while, seemed to defy the march of mechanical physics, since the thrustings and strivings of living things seem ineliminably purposive. But as we all know, these too were eventually captured by the modern Darwinian synthesis. True, everyone continues to use the language of function and purpose (the kidneys are there for the sake of filtering the blood; the tomcat climbs over the garden fence in order to copulate with the female next door). But these, we are told, are just convenient shorthands. There was no purpose in the evolutionary chain that led to mammals having kidneys, just a series of random mutations that happened to confer a selective advantage. And in striving to reproduce, the cat is merely (in Richard Dawkins’s trenchant phrase) a “lumbering robot” responding to the stimulus of the pheromones emitted by the female, a response in turn dictated by the programming of its genes.

Yet out of this blind series of material mechanisms unrolling over countless millennia came the strange anomalous beings that are us: able to create new ideas, to initiate new courses of action, able to delve into the structure of logic and mathematical truth, able to perceive and respond to beauty, to feel the call of goodness and justice. In short, the supposedly blind process of evolution seems to have been moving inexorably towards the emergence not just of survival-based responsiveness to the environment, such as the other animals have, but of self-conscious reflection and cognitive grasp of a whole rich world of independent meaning and value.

All this generates a niggling doubt that something in the modern Darwinian materialist worldview doesn’t quite add up. True believers, of course, have no doubts. The militant atheist Daniel Dennett gleefully tells us in a recent retrospective roundup of his ideas that Darwinism is the “universal acid”: it will eat through “just about every traditional topic . . . ethics, art, culture, religion, humor, and yes, even consciousness . . .” But although in many quarters it is heresy to question the Darwinian consensus, one of Dennett’s most distinguished compatriots, the philosopher Thomas Nagel has recently dared to do so. His book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, has called down the predictable fury of the orthodox cultural establishment, its devotees perhaps all the more exasperated by the fact that Nagel cannot be condemned as a religious crank, since he is an avowed atheist. Indeed, Nagel is on record in previous writings as saying, rather weirdly, that not only does he not believe theism is true, but that he hopes it isn’t true: “I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Despite his aversion to theistic cosmology, Nagel explores with extraordinary precision and clarity the striking features of our human experience that don’t seem to fit comfortably with the materialist world-picture. He is famous for an earlier article focusing on consciousness which pointed out that consciousness has an ineliminably subjective aspect-“what it is like” for the experiencing individual-which cannot be captured by even the most complete scientific account of the subject’s brain and behaviour. To this he now adds a lot more. What needs to be explained, and what the current scientific consensus has trouble explaining, is “not only the emergence from a lifeless universe of reproducing organisms and their development by evolution to a greater and greater functional complexity; not only the consciousness of some of those organisms and its central role in their lives; but also the development of consciousness into an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value”.

Our mind is an “instrument of transcendence”. To anyone familiar with the typical current philosophical landscape in the anglophone world, this is an amazing phrase to come out of the mouth of an analytic philosopher. Yet Nagel is not talking about immortal souls: he accepts that that the relevant mental processes are inseparable from the physical processes of the body and brain. But the purely physical nature of these processes doesn’t settle the question of what kind of reality we gain access to when we use our brains and think about the world. And Nagel has the integrity to admit just how strange, from the point of view of modern materialist orthodoxy, that reality is. Our reason gives us access to “objective, mind-independent truths” which include the eternal and necessary truths of logic and mathematics, and the domain of objective moral truth. 

Those of us who learned philosophy in the sceptical, post-positivist world of the 1960s and ’70s were taught to believe that moral truth was a sham, a mere projection of our passions and preferences. But since then there has been a decisive shift to objectivism about morality. Most philosophers have now come to accept the intuitively obvious view that there are genuine objective reasons that make it wrong to hurt someone gratuitously, and these reasons are not a mere function of self-interest or the imperatives of survival. Yet how can the purely mechanical processes of nature give rise to this remarkable human capacity to detect these objective moral truths? Nagel’s brave conclusion is that the “conception of the natural order that made this possible must be expanded”. Instead of the blind mechanical processes of the official neo-Darwinian story, we may have to take seriously the idea that the cosmos has an inherent teleology, some kind of inbuilt drive towards the emergence of consciousness, and eventually rational and moral awareness.

Does teleology, a tendency to move or unfold towards some goal, imply an intelligent designer? In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas argued just this in the fifth of his five “ways”  or proofs of God’s existence: “things which don’t have knowledge do not tend towards a goal unless they are guided by something with knowledge and intelligence, as an arrow is guided by the archer. Hence there is some intelligent being by whom all natural things are directed to their goal or end; and this we call ‘God’.” But Nagel, ever averse to theism, is thinking of some purely naturalistic account that might do justice to the teleological tendency in things-though he admits we can only speculate about what form such an account might take.

The waters have been muddied here, not by Nagel, but by the so-called “theory” of Intelligent Design, some of whose supporters would like to promote a designer God as a scientific alternative to Darwinian evolution. But that seems radically misguided. Science necessarily operates within the natural world, investigating the structure of things and attempting to discover the hidden mechanisms of nature that account for how things behave. It searches, in one of Dennett’s more helpful pieces of terminology, for “cranes”-solid workmanlike mechanisms that perform the laborious task of explanatory lifting. And it doesn’t help to invoke “skyhooks”-futile attempts to short-circuit all the hard work of empirical scientific research by appealing to some miraculous solution from on high.

So are we back with the Darwinian “cranes” of random mutation and natural selection? Nagel thinks this won’t do: he is sceptical about “the likelihood that [in the available geological time], as a result of physical accident, a sequence of viable genetic mutations should have occurred that was sufficient to permit natural selection to produce the organisms that actually exist.” Well, the actual probabilities are a matter for the scientists to work out. But we may need to beware of words like “accidental”, which are so often used in discussions of evolution. For if we suppose that the biological process is accidental in the sense of not consciously guided, it doesn’t follow that it must therefore be inherently random and chaotic. On the contrary, most biologists (Darwin included) maintain that once the relevant combination of circumstances happens to arise, then, given the natural properties of the relevant structures, the resulting evolutionary processes can be expected to occur in an in principle perfectly predictable and lawlike fashion. The Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, suggested some time ago that the universe may be “biophilic”-intrinsically apt to produce life (and we might add “noophilic”-apt for the eventual emergence of intelligence). As Professor Brian Cox put it in his recent television series The Wonders of Life, “far from being some chance event . . . the emergence of life might have been an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics”. Nagel is perfectly entitled to express his doubts about this supposed “inevitability”; but again, the issue is one for scientists to investigate, not for philosophers to try to decide in advance.

Suppose, then, that it turns out that the neo-Darwinian picture survives the probabilistic objections raised by Nagel. Notice that this would still leave the door open for the theist, who accepts the processes of evolution as part of a natural order, but maintains that this natural order ultimately reflects divine purposes. If this is right, science, even modern biological science, does not necessarily have to be on a collision course with religion (despite what the redoubtable Dawkins would have us believe). Obviously science and religion have often locked horns in the past, and many religious fundamentalists today still see them as in conflict. But a more careful look at the available options tells a different story. Evolution, though in itself a “blind” or mechanical process, can be part of the natural order ultimately ordained by the creator.

On this picture, which seems to me the most attractive one, we look purely to science for a valid explanatory account of the mechanisms and processes by which the universe developed from its original state, and by which, over vast swathes of time, life and intelligence arose. The religious outlook does not offer a rival account to this scientific one, but instead interprets the entire natural world and all its beautiful and intricate physical processes as a manifestation of divine creativity.

Of course the beauty and goodness we discern are not (to say the least) all pervasive features of the cosmos; there is much that is amiss-and the problem of evil and suffering turns out, in a brief sentence at the close of his book, to be Nagel’s final reason for setting his face against a “benign” theistic teleology. But religious believers have never tried to maintain we live in a comfy world. The Judaeo-Christian tradition puts suffering at the centre of religious understanding: it recognises the fact that our nature is conflicted, we often turn away from the good, and that, as Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, “the whole creation groans in travail”. A teleological framework is certainly not supposed to mean things have arrived at perfection; on the contrary, it typically points to an end-state that is not yet fully realised.

But the atheist may ask why we should bring in God at all. If Darwinian theory does the explanatory work in accounting for how we got here, doesn’t this make God redundant for all practical purposes? To answer this, we need to go back to the other strand in Nagel’s argument, not his worries about the likelihood of intelligent life emerging in the available time, but his insistence on the remarkable nature of our human capacity to grasp the objective truths of logic and morality. Perhaps Darwinian naturalism might possibly be able to explain how, building on capacities initially shaped in a purely functional way by the struggle for survival, we could develop the ability to undertake “free-floating” types of mental activity (for example, mathematical and moral inquiry) which transcend the empirical demands of feeding, shelter and reproduction; but it does not seem able to accommodate the idea that the objects of such inquiry transcend the empirical world, and reflect a timeless objective truth whose authority we are constrained to acknowledge whether we like it or not.

The cosmos revealed by science is an astonishingly beautiful and unified whole, seemingly able to generate, over billions of years, the intricately ordered processes of life and, eventually, the amazing human capacities for rationality and reflective thought and responsiveness to beauty and goodness. All this will strike the believer as strongly compatible with a religious worldview. The beautiful and intricate world disclosed by science certainly doesn’t prove God’s existence; and we know, moreover, that we are conflicted creatures who are still very far from reaching our true goal. But for all that, our grasp, however imperfect, of an objective domain of truth and beauty and goodness tells us that we inhabit a cosmos in which the religious believer can still feel at home.