Thomas Nagel and the Failures of Neo-Darwinism

Indeterministic philosopher Thomas Nagel has taken quite a shot at neo-Darwinism with his latest book, “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.” Reviews by neo-Darwinists show predictable disgust with the whole project:

Of course, this is nothing particularly new. Immaterialists have been fighting Darwin and evolutionary ideas for nearly two centuries. Nagel has been at it for a half century. Sales among the creationist crowd are sure to boom (it is #1,617 on Amazon). Nagel is, nonetheless, an atheist, which only proves that the philosophical struggle is not merely between atheism and theism, but between determinism and indeterminism. Taking advantage of the mainstream’s belief in finity, Nagel once again drags out the old complaints against reductionism. As I have mentioned many times, classical mechanism assumed there were a finite number of causes for every effect. When a particular set of finite causes inevitably failed to predict perfectly, indeterminists could invoke “causes” that did not involve matter in motion. Nagel has gotten famous for doing exactly that.

Like mainstream physics, neo-Darwinism is vulnerable to Nagel’s anti-reductionistic critique. Not having a clear “cause” for evolution, it has allowed Nagel to propose “teleology” as the cause. From Wikipedia: “A teleology is any philosophical account that holds that final causes exist in nature, meaning that design and purpose analogous to that found in human actions are inherent also in the rest of nature.” We don’t use teleology in the physical sciences. As my major professor admonished, it would be silly to say “the rock wanted to fall off the cliff” or that “water wanted to run downhill.” Nagel gets away with teleology, not because neo-Darwinism is materialistic, but because it is not materialistic enough. It runs out of matter in motion right where it needs an infinite amount of it.

I try to refrain from quoting myself, but I am particularly proud of this passage from "The Scientific Worldview" (p. 170-171):

“Requiem for Neo-Darwinism

Like all expedients, neo-Darwinism, the mechanism of evolution conceived as the combination of occasional natural selection and the gene as the organism personified, will meet a timely, evolutionary death. In a way, it will be sad to see this theory go. It was, after all, a deterministic improvement upon its predecessors. It guided biology, though errantly, through more than a century of progress. Its displacement will not be easy, for at bottom, the struggle between Univironmental Determinism and neo-Darwinism must become a significant historical phase in the eternal clash between the two great philosophies, determinism and indeterminism.

Today the scientific world cries out for a universal theory of evolution, but it cannot have one without overtly embracing determinism. In so doing it must discard the microcosmic bias of systems philosophy and adopt the univironmental view instead. The evolution of any microcosm is never a “self organizing” process, but the result of the reciprocal interaction of microcosm and macrocosm. The special relationship between evolution and biology must be destroyed. The midwives of the idea of evolution must yield their charge to a broader perspective. Evolution is not merely the property of every living thing; it is the property of every single thing.”

The fact that neo-Darwinism is subject to the flimsy arguments of an indeterministic atheist shows how much it is married to regressive physics. Neo-Darwinists really are not clear on what their mechanism is. They invariably believe in the “creation” of the universe, while denying creation in biology. The “cause” of evolution has been staring them in the face ever since Newton discovered the First Law of Motion. Evolution cannot involve any “purpose” as we know it, but simple motion of bodies already in motion. Those bodies cannot speed up or change direction of their own accord. The universal mechanism of evolution, univironmental determinism, predicts that whatever happens to an xyz portion of the universe is determined by the infinite matter in motion within and without. The “purpose” sometimes attributed to evolution is merely the result of Newton’s object colliding with another object in an infinite universe. Whether we call it "Least Motion" or "Least Effort" makes no difference. No microcosms will ever be able to speed up or change direction independent of the macrocosm.


Westmiller said...

Thomas Nagel, even though he's an atheist, is using the old "God of the Gaps" argument: if we don't know the cause for something, "God Did It" is a sufficient explanation. Nagel offers five arguments against "Neo-Darwinism", which amount to:

1. Ignorance
2. Ignorance
3. Ignorance
4. Ignorance
5. Therefore, teleology must be the answer.

Of course, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Simply because evolution hasn't answered all the questions that might be posed doesn't mean that there are no answers.

However, I'm not convinced that the proper response is changing the paradigm. Neo-Darwinism is true, as far as we know: genes change and nature selects.

As you point out, teleology (the belief that the evolution of the universe is "aimed" at some worthy objective) is totally irrational. Natural selection rewards success and knowledge is more successful than ignorance. So, it's no surprise that Homo Sapiens evolved, nor that their intelligent actions facilitated their continued survival. Standing that whole process on it's head is an evasion, not a revelation.

It may be true that we will never know enough to "predict perfectly" the future evolution of sapience, but that's just admitting that humans will never be omniscient or prescient; imaginary qualities that can't be achieved, even by Gods.

Glenn Borchardt said...

Thanks Bill. As you recognized, Nagel's is the old "god of the gaps" argument, which stems from the fact that the universe is infinite. With UD, we solve that problem with the Third Assumption of Science, uncertainty (It is impossible to know everything about anything, but it is possible to know more about anything). We don’t have to make up stuff to fill in the gaps—we just keep on investigating them.

Folks still interested in this controversy from the neo-Darwinism vs. creationism standpoint may want to check out this NYT article:


Note that Nagel’s book “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False” was chosen by the Guardian as the “most despised science book of 2012.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2013/jan/04/most-despised-science-book-2012)