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Mind and Cosmos

April 18, 2013

I recently read a lengthy and fascinating review of the book Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel.  Nagel is an atheist philosopher who objects to the idea that Darwinism can explain everything about what it means to be human.  I’m not sure how much I agree with him (and I haven’t read the book), but the review prompted some interesting thoughts.

The theory of evolution has been remarkably successful in explaining the diversity of the world’s species in the world.  It has provided answers to many questions about why mammals look the way they do–why we have four limbs, hair, teeth, bones, why our facial nerves attach the way they do, etc.  We can trace the history of genetics through the tree of animal ancestry.  But does that mean everything about humanity can be explained by natural selection?  Nagel doesn’t think so.  He argues that certain aspects of the human mind, like consciousness, intentionality, meaning, value, and a moral sense, can’t reasonably be explained by their survival value alone.

Normally, I’m leery of an approach that divides up the natural world into two categories:  things that science can explain on one side, and things that are caused by the intervention of God on the other.  With that view, the more that is explained by science, the less we can say comes from God.  As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t think those two categories are mutually exclusive.  The natural processes that science describes are processes created and maintained by God.  What is fascinating about Nagel’s suggestion, though, is that he points out that many people believe in Darwinism as a faith rather than a science.  That is, they believe that every aspect of what it means to be human must be explained by natural selection, regardless of a lack of evidence.  They think that because Darwinism has been successful in explaining many things, that it necessarily must be the only explanation for everything.  Guilt, therefore, or jealousy, or the ability to appreciate poetry, must have been bred into the human race by the process of evolution.  Nagel compares this belief to a man with a metal detector who, after great success identifying various metal items, concludes that paper and plastic must not exist, since his metal detector was unable to detect them.

Could consciousness have arisen through genetic variation?  Could symbolic language have provided a survival value to early hominids?  Possibly.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that there is more to a human being than genetics.  A human is physically an animal, but we are more than just the physical.  A person has a soul, a spiritual component that transcends the physical.  Besides being clearly taught in the Bible, this is a truth that has been recognized by philosophers for millenia.  Exactly how our physical and spiritual aspects interact (or how to draw a line between them) has never been easy to define, but I think Nagel is quite right to point out the problem.  Out of fear of being branded as religious (or a desire to reject the idea of God), many Darwinists have resorted to a materialism that is a kind of faith in itself: that if something is outside the realm of science, it must therefore not exist.

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