Skip to comments.Prominent Atheist Professor Thomas Nagel Calls Intelligent Design Scientific and Constitutional
Posted on 09/15/2008 6:28:32 AM PDT by big black dog
Prof. Thomas Nagel, a self-declared atheist who earned his PhD. in philosophy at Harvard 45 years ago, who has been a professor at U.C. Berkeley, Princeton, and the last 28 years at New York University, and who has published ten books and more than 60 articles, has published an important essay, "Public Education and Intelligent Design," in the Wiley InterScience Journal Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 36, issue 2, on-line at http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/118493933/home (fee for access US $29.95).
Prof. Nagel's paper is a significant and substantial opening, at America's highest intellectual level, that encourages all intelligent, educated, informed individuals particularly those whose interest in this issue derives from intellectual curiosity, not the emotional advocacy excitement for any side that it is legitimate as a matter of data, science, and logic, divorced from all religious texts and doctrines, to consider that intelligent design may be a valid scientific approach to understanding how DNA and the complex chemical systems of life came to attain their present form. Prof. Nagel's article is well worth the price to put it in the library of any inquiring mind.
As anyone who has watched TV's Crime Scene Investigation knows, scientific investigation of a set of data (the data at the scene of a man's death) may lead to the conclusion that the event that produced the data (the death) was not the product of natural causes not an accident, in other words but was the product of an intelligence a perpetrator.
But of course, the data at the crime scene usually can't tell us very much about that intelligence. If the data includes fingerprints or DNA that produces a match when cross-checked against other data fingerprint or DNA banks it might lead to the identification of an individual. But even so, the tools of natural science are useless to determine the "I.Q." of the intelligence, the efficiency vs. the emotionalism of the intelligence, or the motive of the intelligence. That data, analyzed by only the tools of natural science, often cannot permit the investigator to construct a theory of why the perpetrator acted. The mental and conscious processes going on in the criminal's mind are outside the scope of the sciences of chemistry and physics.
Thus it is obvious that scientific methods can lead to the conclusion that an intelligence did something, even if those same methods cannot tell you who specifically did it, or why they did it. Everyone who has read or watched a Sherlock Holmes story knows this.
Prof. Nagel applies this principle to the evolution/intelligent design debate. Assuming, for purposes of argument, even though he himself is an atheist, to label the intelligence "God," he says "the purposes and intentions of God, if there is a god, and the nature of his will, are not possible subjects of a scientific theory or scientific explanation. But that does not imply that there cannot be scientific evidence for or against the intervention of such a non-law-governed cause in the natural order" (p. 190). In other words, Sherlock Holmes can use chemistry to figure out that an intelligence a person did the act that killed the victim, even if he can't use chemistry to figure out that the person who did it was Professor Moriarty, or to figure out why Moriarty did the crime.
Therefore, Prof. Nagel says, it potentially can be scientific to argue that the data of DNA and life points to an intelligent designer, even if science cannot tell you the identity of the designer or what is going on in the designer's mind.
The Professor then turns to whether any of the intelligent design proponents actually are presenting such a scientific argument. After all, just because it is theoretically possible that someone might present such a scientific argument doesn't mean that any particular individual currently is actually doing that.
Professor Nagel has read ID-supportive works such as Dr. Behe's Edge of Evolution (p. 192). He reports that based on his examination of their work, ID "does not seem to depend on massive distortions of the evidence and hopeless incoherencies in its interpretation" (pp. 196-197). He reports that ID does not depend on any assumption that ID is "immune to empirical evidence" in the way that believers in biblical literalism believe the bible is immune to disproof by evidence (p. 197). Thus, he says "ID is very different from creation science" (p. 196).
Prof. Nagel tells us that he "has for a long time been skeptical of the claims of traditional evolutionary theory to be the whole story about the history of life" (p. 202). He reports that it is "difficult to find in the accessible literature the grounds" for these claims.
Moreover, he goes farther. He reports that the "presently available evidence" comes "nothing close" to establishing "the sufficiency of standard evolutionary mechanisms to account for the entire evolution of life" (p. 199).
He notes that his judgment is supported by two prominent scientists (Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart, writing in the Oct. 2005 book Plausibility of Life), who also recognized that (prior to offering their own theory, at least) the "available evidence" did not "decisively settle" whether mutations in DNA "are entirely due to chance" (p. 191). And he cites one Stuart Kauffman, a "complexity theorist who defends a naturalistic theory of emergence," that random mutation "is not sufficient" to explain DNA (p. 192).
Prof. Nagel acknowledges that "evolutionary biologists" regularly say that they are "confiden[t]" that "random mutations in DNA" are sufficient to account for "the complex chemical systems we observe" in living things (p. 199) but he disagrees. "Rhetoric" is the word Professor Nagel uses to rejects these statements of credentialed evolutionary biologists. He judges that the evidence is NOT sufficient to rule out ID (p. 199).
He does not, however, say that the evidence compels acceptance of ID; instead, some may consider as an alternative to ID that an "as-yet undiscovered, purely naturalistic theory" will supply the deficiency, rather than some form of intelligence (p. 203).
In light of these considerations, Prof. Nagel says that "some part of the high school curriculum" "should" include "a frank discussion of the relation of evolutionary theory to religion" but that this need not occur in biology classes if the biology teachers would find this too much of a "burden" (p. 204). Significantly, Prof. Nagel who is a professor of law as well as a professor of philosophy concludes that, so long as the proposal is not introduced by religiously-motivated persons "as a fallback from something stronger," but by persons "more neutral" or "without noticeable religious beliefs," it would be constitutional to "mention" ID in public school science classes, because doing so genuinely furthers "the secular purpose of providing a better understanding of evolutionary theory and of the evidence for and against it" (p. 203). He makes clear that the "mention" must be a "noncommittal discussion of some of the issues" (p. 205).
He acknowledges the prevailing attitude in the mainstream science community is that ID represents a "fundamentalist threat," fearing that allowing even a noncommittal discussion of ID in science classes could lead to the fundamentalists gaining the power to suppress "the right to teach evolution at all" (p. 205). He also acknowledges the possibility that students who arrive in class with religious objections to evolution already in mind may seize on the mere mention of ID as a basis for "build[ing] much more than is warranted" from that favorable mention (p. 204, quoting Kent Greenawalts Does God Belong in Public Schools?).
But to Prof. Nagel, these fears are not sufficient to bar, as a matter of constitutional law, the accurate statement, in public school science classrooms, that intelligent design, while possibly wrong, is a scientific approach to the question of how DNA and the complex chemical structure of life came to achieve its present form (pp. 204-205).
Prof. Nagel makes clear his right, as an intelligent, educated a "layman" (p. 199), to judge for himself the evidence that random mutation is a sufficient explanation for DNA and the complex chemical systems of life. He rejects any rule that well-educated, intelligent laymen such as himself must simply accept the assertions of the leading evolutionary biologists that the evidence in favor of evolution disproves intelligent design. Using his informed judgment, he rejects the claim that the scientific data "decisively" disproves intelligent design. He, an atheist, says that as a matter of science, intelligent design could possibly be correct. And he says it would be constitutional to say as much in a public school science class.
For all those who, like myself, have some education in science (at MIT while earning a bachelor of science in architecture, I earned As and Bs in physics, chemistry, calculus, introductory astrophysics, and ecology), have maintained a lifelong interest in science, and who became interested in this issue out of their intellectual curiosity about science, Professor Nagel's conclusion both is very refreshing, and really rather obvious.
The mainstream science community's crusade against fundamentalism seems unnecessary in the eyes of persons such as myself, who never encountered any fundamentalists at any point in grade school, high school, university, and thereafter, nor in my children's education. When I interested myself in the data, my heart was empty of both a fear of fundamentalism, and a longing for fundamentalism. Prof. Nagel has approached the data with the same freedom from bias.
Perhaps fundamentalism is a stronger force than my experience reveals. But that should be irrelevant to the scientific analysis of data. The emotionalism which scientists have brought to this issue since before the Scopes Trial, even if directed against a real, rather than imaginary target, has introduced a non-scientific motivation into the hearts of evolutionary biologists that has biased and rendered unreliable their evaluation of the data, especially the relatively recent data concerning DNA and molecular biology.
Moreover, those who are convinced that we are not-very-far-descended from troupes of apes that engage in group dominance struggles should monitor themselves for the possibility that they are engaged less in a search for truth than in a search for dominance. An Achilles' Heel of modern science is the satisfying sense of pride that comes from having successfully dominated the people around you. Its origin is from the apes and its goal is to flatter emotion, not to facilitate reason.
Lothar Schäfer is the author of the book, In Search of Divine Reality - Science as a Source of Inspiration, . The book is, in essence, a brilliant description of the encounter of Science and Religion, wherein Schäfer proposes that the traditional conflict between the two disciplines is mainly one involving classical, Newtonian Science; and many of its most pressing issues have obtained an entirely different meaning by the change in world view effected by the discovery of Quantum Mechanics.
Lothar Schäfer is the Edgar Wertheim Distinguished Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He received his Ph.D. (in Chemistry) from the University of Munich in 1965, and is the recipient of numerous awards for his scientific work. His current research interests include topics in Applied Quantum Chemistry and Molecular Structural Studies by Electron Diffraction.
In a review of Schäfers book, Professor Quentin Smith, Department of Philosophy, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, writes:
Schäfers book is an integrative approach to Modern Science and Religion that aims to show how some traditional religious and philosophical notions can be understood or redefined in terms of modern science. The scientific explanations are reliable and the scientific interpretations of religious ideas are interesting and should be taken seriously and respectfully by even the most sober-minded adherents of the scientific world-view. Rather than science being opposed or subordinated to religion, religious views are refashioned in terms of currently accepted scientific theories. Most of the arguments of the book are based on conclusions drawn from the phenomena of quantum reality and it is one of the clearest introductory explanations of quantum mechanics on the market. Schäfers book is written in a lively and accessible style that will appeal to the general reader. I really enjoyed reading this book.
On the Foundations of Metaphysics in the
Mind-like Background of Physical Reality
by Lothar Schäfer
That the basis of the material world is non-material is a transcription of the fact that the properties of things are determined by quantum waves, - probability amplitudes which carry numerical relations, but are devoid of mass and energy. As a consequence of the wave-like aspects of reality, atoms do not have any shape - a solid outline in space - but the things do, which they form; and the constituents of matter, the elementary particles, are not in the same sense real as the real things that they constitute.
Rather, left to themselves they exist in a world of possibilities, between the idea of a thing and a real thing, as Heisenberg wrote, in superpositions of quantum states, in which a definite place in space, for example, is not an intrinsic attribute. That is, when such a particle is not observed it is, in particular, nowhere.
In the quantum phenomena we have discovered that reality is different than we thought. Visible order and permanence are based on chaos and transitory entities. Mental principles - numerical relations, mathematical forms, principles of symmetry - are the foundations of order in the universe, whose mind-like properties are further established by the fact that changes in information can act, without any direct physical intervention, as causal agents in observable changes in quantum states. Prior to the discovery of these phenomena information-driven reactions were a prerogative of mind. The universe, Eddington wrote, is of the nature of a thought. The stuff of the world is mind-stuff.
Mind-stuff, in a part of reality behind the mechanistic foreground of the world of space-time energy sensibility, as Sherrington called it, is not restricted to Einstein locality. The existence of non-local physical effects - faster than light phenomena - has now been well established by quantum coherence-type experiments like those related to Bells Theorem. If the universe is non-local, something that happens at this moment in its depths may have an instantaneous effect a long distance away, for example right here and right now. By every molecule in our body we are tuned to the mind-stuff of the universe.
In this way the quantum phenomena have forced the opening of a universe that Newtons mechanism once blinded and closed. Unintended by its creator, Newtons mechanics defined a machine, without any life or room for human values, the Parmenidian One, forever unchanging and predictable, eternal matter ruled by eternal laws, as Sheldrake wrote. In contrast, the quantum phenomena have revealed that the world of mechanism is just the cortex of a deeper and wider, transcendent, reality. The future of the universe is open, because it is unpredictable. Its present is open, because it is subject to non-local influences that are beyond our control. Cracks have formed in the solidity of the material world from which emanations of a different type of reality seep in. In the diffraction experiments of material particles, a window has opened to the world of Platonic ideas.
That the universe should be mind-like and not communicate with the human mind - the one organ to which it is akin - is not very likely. In fact, one of the most fascinating faculties of the human mind is its ability to be inspired by unknown sources - as though it were sensitive to signals of a mysterious origin. It is at this point that the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Ever since the discovery of Humes paradox - the principles that we use to establish scientific knowledge cannot establish themselves - science has had an illegitimate basis. Hume was right: in every external event we observe conjunction, but infer connection. Thus, causality is not a principle of nature but a habit of the human mind. At the same time, Hume was not right in postulating that there is no single experience of causality. Because, when the self-conscious mind itself is directly involved in a causal link, for example when its associated body takes part in a collision, or when the mind by its own free will is the cause of some action, then there is a direct experience of, and no doubt that, causal connections exist. When this modification of the paradox is coupled with the quantum base, a large number of pressing problems find their delightful solutions.
Like the nature of reality, the nature of knowledge is counter-intuitive, and not at all like the automatic confidence that we have in sensations of this phenomenon. The basis of knowledge is threefold. The premises are experience of reality, employment of reason, and reliance on certain non-rational, non-empirical principles, such as the Assumptions of identity, factuality, permanence, Causality, and induction. Where do these principles come from? Neither from an experience of external phenomena, nor from a process of reasoning, but from a system program of the self-conscious mind. By being an extension of the mind-like background of nature and partaking of its order, mind gives the epistemic principles - those used in deriving knowledge - certainty. Since they are not anchored in the world of space-time and mass-energy but are valid nevertheless, they seem to derive from a higher order and transcendent part of physical reality. They are, it can be assumed, messengers of the mind-like order of reality.
In the same way, moral principles. Traditional societies based their social order on myths and religious explanations. By assuming a purpose in the world, they told people why things are the way they are, and why they should act the way they were supposed to act. In the animist ontogenies values and knowledge derived from a single source, and life had meaning in an animist covenant as Monod called it. By destroying the ontological base of the animist explanations, - their astronomy, physics, and chemistry, - science also destroyed the foundations of their values.
In this process Monod saw the origin of the contemporary sickness in culture, das Unbehagen in der Kultur: on the one hand science is the basis for our power and survival; on the other, it has broken the animist covenant, rendered life meaningless in the process, and disconnected the world of values from the world of facts.
The sickness of spirit and the concomitant erosion of moral standards are the great danger for the future of mankind, already apparent in the public adoration of violence and debased behavior. At its roots is the unsolved question, on whose authority are the moral principles to be based now that the authority of the animist myths has been found lacking?
For those who are willing to listen, the answer is: on the authority of mind. In the same way that the self-conscious mind grants certainty to the epistemic principles, it invests authority in the moral principles. Like the former, the moral principles are non-empirical and non-rational, - not derived by a process of logic nor verified by experience - messengers from a higher reality beyond the front of mass-energy sensibility.
Epistemic principles give us a sense of what is true and false; moral principles, of what is right and wrong. The former establish the certainty of identity, permanence, factuality, causality; the latter, of responsibility, morality, honesty. By the same process that allows us to accept, without possible verification, the epistemic principles, we can also accept the authority of the moral principles. Violation of any one of them will put us in contrast to the nature of reality. If the nature of the universe is mind-like, it must be assumed to have a spiritual order as well as a physical order. As the epistemic principles are expressions of physical order, the ethical principles are expressions of the spiritual order of physical reality. By being an extension of the transcendent part of the nature and partaking of its order, mind establishes the authority of the ethical principles.
The challenge of reality and the ability to explore it are wonderful gifts to mankind. Understanding reality requires refinement of thought. That is, it has to do with culture. It requires an effort, is not afforded by automatic, intuitive reflex. Making sense of the world takes the response to a challenge, not the complacency of common sense. It is one and the same as striving for the moral life. An important part of it is the need to become aware of the specific character of human nature, to recognize the human mystery as Eccles called it: the mystery of how mind and body interact, how self-conscious human beings with values emerged in an evolutionary process supposedly based on blind chance and brutality. The evidence is growing that there is more to human nature than the laws of physics or chemistry, more to the process of evolution than blind chance and brutality; that evolution is more than, as Monod wrote, a giant lottery, and human beings live at the boundary of an alien world that is deaf to our music and indifferent to our hopes and suffering and crimes.
The barbaric view of reality is mechanistic. It is the easy view of classical science and of common sense. In epistemology mechanism is naive realism, the view that all knowledge is based on unquestionable facts, on apodictically verified truths. In physics mechanism is the view that the universe is clockwork, closed, and entirely predictable on the basis of unchanging laws. In biology, mechanism is the view that all aspects of life, its evolution, our feelings and values, are ultimately explicable in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry. In our legal system, mechanism is the view that the assumption of precise procedural technicalities constitutes perfect justice. In our political system, mechanism is the view that the assertion of finely formulated personal rights constitutes the ideal democracy. In our public administration, it is the view that responsible service manifests itself by the enforcement of finely split bureaucratic regulations. All of these attitudes are the attitudes of barbarians.
The quantum phenomena have taught us that, without naive realism, knowledge is possible. They have taught us that, without naive animism an ethic of knowledge, as Monod has called it, and a life with values are possible. Principles exist which are valid even though they cannot be verified. The discovery of the quantum phenomena has established a new covenant - between the human mind and the mind-like background of the universe - one that provides a home again to the homeless and meaning to the meaningless life. Whether or not the human mind is separate of the brain, as Sherrington and Eccles thought, I do not know. But I do not doubt that it is human only in some parts, and in others shares in the mind-like background of the universe. It is now possible to believe that the mind is the realization of universal potentia, a manifestation of the essence of the universe. Therefore, the only good life is in harmony with the nature of reality.
Nuclear-fired XP-404 Long-Duration Popcorn Popper activated...
Thanks for putting all this up, ETL.
I’ll also be checking your Obama-Marxist work on your homepage.
Anyone knowledgeable in science would conclude that CSI writes new laws of science in order to make a TV production.
A philosophy guy thinks philosophy is Science? Surprising! Not.
An unknown agent acting at some unknown time in the past using unknown abilities is a “scientific approach”? Declaring anything too Scientifically complex for a philosophy major to understand as the realm of the divine is a “scientific approach”?
Sure. Keep telling yourself that it IS Science, while the outfit pimping this philosophical hypothesis says they wish to overturn the very foundation of Science.
Wake me when he gets his degree in Constitutional law.
Philosophy is the first science, actually, and is at its heart about questing for fundamental and universal knowledge.
You seem not to have read the article in question. The point is simple: it is scientifically possible to search for whether or not the current explanation of evolution is able to reasonably explain the creation of new life forms. If it cannot, one can reasonably use scientific tools to determine whether or not the DNA present on Earth bears signs of having been designed rather than created by mere happenstance. This is all scientifically relevant and possible.
Remember modern physics is based upon fundamental and postulated particles that could not be proven by the scientists who postulated them. For a scientist to postulate the existence of a Designer is perfectly in keeping with this method (see Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg for many examples of scientists using those things they could see to formulate scientific principles about things they could not).
Perhaps the problem is that you are not familiar with the history of the sciences (evidently particularly not philosophy, since you have discounted figures such as Lucretius who was a philosopher who studied what we would now call physics). Instead of addressing the issue with a reasonable argument, you laughed off the fundamental premises by pretending they were else than they really are. This is called a straw-man argument, something that philosophy students would know all about, but which you evidently are not capable of grasping.
But philosophers have been left behind by modern science. They may have started things out millennia ago, but they are now little more than janitors to the overall scientific endeavor (to stretch a metaphor).
Yes, science was once known as “natural philosophy”. And by concentration only upon natural explanations for natural phenomena science has gleaned an amazing about of useful knowledge about the universe.
My point is that it is not at all surprising to me that a philosopher thinks that a philosophy of “intelligent design” is a “scientific approach”. He seems to think any and all philosophy is a “scientific approach” and chaffs at the idea that people know and care about science because it accomplishes things and gains knowledge while philosophy accomplishes nothing and gains no knowlde while they wax philosophic about how far their discipline have been left behind in the estimation of their fellow men.
And thanks for the insults!
You are right. I postulate that the Designer was my father. Prove me wrong.
I cannot fathom how a Christian that believes the earth is about 6000 years old can support a philosophy that says that a "designer" created man from a sea of chemicals and has a leader that says the 'designer' is most probably dead since there has been no evidence of his interaction in the evolution of may for the last few hundred million years ...
Intelligent Design ping!
"Oh! I get it Thomas, that's your Serbian Jew double-bluff"
Why would God change the laws of nature he himself has established? Aren’t they perfect? As Ditfurth once asked: is the world imperfect enough to require constant intervention?
I will put it in other words. We don’t know what happened. We only take some empirical data, and then extrapole currently known laws of nature to the past: this way we tell what we think has happened in the past. But, of course, it is possible that in that the past laws of nature were other than today (i.e. that relatively to what happens today, there was some “intervention”).
But now, the question is: if laws of nature were other in the past (if it proceeded another way...), then either we would have proofs (by seeing something non-standard, i.e. not simple cause-effect but theleology), or empirical data is purposely manipulated so that we come to wrong conclusions (that the world IS simple and causal). But who would bother and why? Who is trying to misguide us? Are we the ones to look for God, or rather should this God say something if we’re to know him? After all, our brains evolved to survive, not to find transcendental truths... if there is no single centre holding all the truth, then everyone will come to other conclusions.
Anyway, it is more important to ask what leads you to survival and power than to desperately look for a god. And this philosopher is apparently a little afraid of the atheist revolution, so he plays god’s advocate now.
Is it permitted to awaken you with the fact that he's also a professor of law....?
You begin with a strawman (presuming to represent how God would act);
... follow with an appeal to common practice ("...only take some empirical data, and then extrapole currently known laws of nature to the past...")
.... couple that with another strawman (you offer only one of many possibly alternatives -- that the laws of nature were different once -- and kick the stuffing out of it as if you had dealt with them all);
... then you present a false dilemma ("But now, the question is: if ... then either...")
... there are probably a few more between middle and end, but I tired of looking for them;
... and to finish it off, you end up with a nice juicy ad hominem against the professor himself.
All in all an impressive performance. Nicely done.