According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Evolution and the Separate Problems of Teleology and Human Consciousness

"Nagel believes that (currently unknown) teleological laws of nature
might mean that life and consciousness arise with greater probability than
would result from the known laws of physics, chemistry, and biology."

Thomas Nagel in his newest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, has asserted that neo-Darwinism in its present form is incomplete without its own correspondent metaphysical element called teleology to complete it. By which is meant that without some form of externally imposed guidance, or pre-disposition, Darwinian evolution could not have happened as it has, providing life-and-light within creation's processes. However, as has been shown in our previous discussions of evolution, the process itself is fully capable of obtaining the results we see (and experience) today without any superimposed external processes to the system itself - including that of God Himself (from a scientific standpoint, and not a biblical one). That it is fully self-contained, and self-evolving, to the stage and state that it is presently found to be in, as per the design of our Creator-God. Who cannot be found by science but gives to science its own forms and meaning as it studies His handiwork and creative re-imaging. And, I think, finds God daily should it look with the eyes of faith and not proof. But, strictly speaking, God is unprovable, even scientifically, which is a poor answer to give any who would see God everywhere - but then again, this is the mystery of the unfathomable God of the universe hidden to the eyes of nonbelief. To one, a rock appears as a collection of cosmological debris collected to the earth by gravitational pull and random chance. To another, it bears the imprint of God's holy majesty and wonder. Verily, truth and wonder, meaning and expression, lies in the eyes of the beholder, does it not?

If, however, what is meant by the term "teleology" is that element of God's Sovereignty which guides and directs the ever-evolving majestrarium of nature towards the creation of life and renewal, the Christian Evolutionist would then be in complete agreement. We would, however, statedly observe it to be a divine teleology implicit within the overall plan and direction, guidance, formation, maintenance, and sustenance, of creation by the Creator-God as set within the larger teleological process of divine redemption. A process that utilizes all the elements, and processes, of evolution, but that also supersedes those elements in some mystical fashion heretofore unexplained when observing the biologic, cosmologic, and sentient forms of life. An implacable process bearing the imprint of the Creator in all facets of its birth, being, and future possibilities, when perceived through biblical revelation. But when observed scientifically, can only be seen by the purely physical processes of evolution itself - and not the Creator Himself - as famously observed by Stephen Hawking, a British cosmologist, who searched the vast voids of heaven to prove the absence of God.

As such, God's Sovereignty has been interplayed here at Relevancy22 with the ideas of Relational Theism, free will and sin (please see the appropriate sidebars to the right of this web blog as further reference). We have especially worked through the area of God's divine Sovereignty in the Science sections under cosmology and evolution, human development and consciousness. So that, according to Thomas Nagel, avowed atheist  and naturalist, Darwin's theory of evolution is not without that (theological) element of teleology, which, as a Christian, I take to mean the "directive purpose and imaging of a Sovereign God who places life-and-consciousness within a living, evolving, system (the cosmos) constituting both sentient and non-sentient, living and non-living, matter." Matter void of the imprimatur of God to the scientific researcher, but everywhere bearing that same imprint to the eyes of faith.

On the other hand, though we have already accepted and integrated the concept of God's Sovereignty within the strict definition of evolution itself without relying on the need for some other additive (metaphysical) property (whether it be teleology, or something else) as proposed by Nagel, there is yet another evolutionary element that he has noticed. It is the metaphysical element that Nagel deems as human consciousness. That, in itself, is as much - and more - a difficult process to align with Darwinian reductionism as its metaphysical twin of teleology. To which Nagel finds many interpretive roles but none that satisfies human existence within its dialogue of evolutionary progress by casual chance and destructive circumstance. Any previously posited ideas of evolutionary human development along the lines of conciousness has left Nagel with the nagging feeling that something still is missing. Ideas like conceptual behaviorism, physical identity theory, causal behaviorism, and functionalism, to name a few. Each, in their own way, addresses consciousness, but not in a way that is fundamental in Nagel's view of teleological structure.

As a Christian Evolutionist, part of the solution we have found here seems to be come through Edward O. Wilson's novel studies in eusociality (or, eusocialism) which gives rise to the evolutionary idea of survivalism through super-cooperation and personal sacrifice as determined by group selection. A non-prominent trait that would counter-balance the older, more primal Darwinian idea of individual selection found within all living species. Which then might explain the conscious traits of reason and value, and even objective moral truth (which has been subjectively internalized by a group). And it is to this idea of eusociality that the article below has neglected to take into account, if we were to hold to a stricter account of evolution as its own process set apart from outside interference, when thinking through the quality we know as consciousness. Moreover, it is realised that Wilson's concept of eusociality is a relatively new concept (2012) and as such, may have been overlooked by both Nagel and/or the article's reviewer.

Overall, for the Evolutionary Creationist, the concept of God's Sovereignty partnering with a creation He has (and is) forming does not release us from the idea of God's integral involvement with His creation. Quite the contrary. Even as the idea of Natural Theology notices the same (cf. Part IV below). Not only did God decree evolution as the process by which life may come, but so also continues its maintenance and sustenance through actively partnering non-coercively with this same divinely initiated process. So that, in the end, there is a supernatural (as versus natural) teleology that is unfolding. A teleology of redemption to a creation become corrupted by corruptible indeterminacy and free will as originally planned, initiated, and implemented by God within the ancient foreknowledge and wisdom of His holy councils. Full-well knowing that with indeterminacy and free will must also come His respondent decrees of redemption, renewal, rebirth, reclamation, regeneration, revival, reconstruction, and resurrection. This is what would set a Theist apart from a Naturalist - one who would see within nature, nature's God, and not the god of Nature itself. One who would refuse transferring God's ontic being and qualities into the  very essence and activity found resident within God's own creation circumscribed in His divine image. Hence, though nature reflects God, in itself it is not God, no less than we ourselves who are made in our Creator-Redeemer's image.

Amusingly, the confluence of these many ideas seems to mystify the naturalist scientist and philosopher alike. Causing some to deny it, and others to question if there isn't something more to Darwinian evolution's materialistic reductionism (which is a very good question to ask). And while it is best to continually lean towards the evolutionary idea of a creation that is complete in itself, as a theology (and as a teleology) we know that that cannot be the case. For our Creator-God Redeemer is creation's image, identity, sustenance, guide, and ground-of-being. Thus, by small, infinitesimal degrees, this same God nudges creation towards both life and light using the tools He has set in place (evolution), or is setting in place (such as consciousness, group selection, eusociality, redemption, etc). So that, by whatever process we name it, God is there, resident within-and-without the parameters of His creation as its God. Its Creator. Its Redeemer. Whose God is our God in His majesty and wonder.

So that, for the Evolutionary Creationist, the biblical doctrine of Sovereignty is always the implied - and latent - concept behind any evolutionary theory of creation. One in which a theist can sympathize with all natural nontheists questioning the absence of any metaphysical synergies found within an evolutionary concept of creation built primarily upon materialistic processes devoid of its crucial complementary process of teleology. A metaphysical concept that is central to, and gives meaning to, the very process of evolutionary creation itself. An observation that does not go unnoticed by the Christian evolutionist holding a similar view of evolutionary process and construction, but recognizing that this teleological process is supernatural in its natural occurences, and flows under the heading of God's sovereignty.

In conclusion, I am including several previous articles from Relevancy22 that revisits each of the issues I've addressed in my composition above, to help provide a more complete theology behind the topics involved (mostly found in the words and phrases which I have emboldened). They are given as helps towards further discussion and debate. However, to these several articles will be found many, many more (at least 10% of the articles written here have been on the intensely interesting subject of evolution) to which I would encourage further discovery and assessment. Thank you.
R.E. Slater
January 27, 2013
How God Created by Evolution:
A Proposed Theory of Man's Evolutionary Development

What Do We Mean by God as "Creator-Redeemer"?

Can the 5-Point Calvinist Really Say, "Jesus Loves Me This I Know?"
A Discussion on Indeterminacy and Free Will

Eusociality and the Bible, Part 2 of 2
Which came first - human consciousness or eusociality?
Or, put another way, which created which?

Edward O Wilson

John Caputo: Towards a Radical Theology, Not a Radical Atheism:
A Review of Modern Atheism, Atheology and Divine Inexistence

Index to past articles on "Science & Religion"

by H. Allen Orr
February 7, 2013

by Thomas Nagel, Oxford University Press, 130 pp., $24.95

‘A Sun of the Nineteenth Century’; cartoon from Puck magazine showing Charles Darwin
as a shining sun, chasing the clouds of religion and superstition from the sky, 1882

[Nagel's Posited Concept of Teleology]

The history of science is partly the history of an idea that is by now so familiar that it no longer astounds: the universe, including our own existence, can be explained by the interactions of little bits of matter. We scientists are in the business of discovering the laws that characterize this matter. We do so, to some extent at least, by a kind of reduction. The stuff of biology, for instance, can be reduced to chemistry and the stuff of chemistry can be reduced to physics.

Thomas Nagel has never been at ease with this view. Nagel, University Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, is one of our most distinguished philosophers. He is perhaps best known for his 1974 paper, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” a modern classic in the philosophy of mind. In that paper, Nagel argued that reductionist, materialist accounts of the mind leave some things unexplained. And one of those things is what it would actually feel like to be, say, a bat, a creature that navigates its environment via the odd (to us) sense of echolocation. To Nagel, then, reductionist attempts to ground everything in matter fail partly for a reason that couldn’t be any nearer to us: subjective experience. While not denying that our conscious experiences have everything to do with brains, neurons, and matter, Nagel finds it hard to see how these experiences can be fully reduced with the conceptual tools of physical science.

In Mind and Cosmos, Nagel continues his attacks on reductionism. Though the book is brief its claims are big. Nagel insists that the mind-body problem “is not just a local problem” but “invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history.” If what he calls “materialist naturalism” or just “materialism” can’t explain consciousness, then it can’t fully account for life since consciousness is a feature of life. And if it can’t explain life, then it can’t fully account for the chemical and physical universe since life is a feature of that universe. Subjective experience is not, to Nagel, some detail that materialist science can hand-wave away. It’s a deal breaker. Nagel believes that any future science that grapples seriously with the mind-body problem will be one that is radically reconceived.

As Nagel makes clear in the subtitle of Mind and Cosmos, part of what he thinks must be reconceived is our reigning theory of evolutionary biology, neo-Darwinism. Neo-Darwinism maintains, or at least implies, that the origin and history of life can be explained by materialist means. Once the first life arose on earth, the fate of the resulting evolutionary lineage was, neo-Darwinists argued, shaped by a combination of random mutation and natural selection. Biological types that survive or reproduce better than others will ultimately replace those others. While natural selection ensures that species constantly adapt to the changing environments around them, the process has no foresight: natural selection responds only to the present environment and evolution cannot, therefore, be aiming for any goal. This view, Nagel tells us, is “almost certainly false.”

Before creationists grow too excited, it’s important to see what Nagel is not claiming. He is not claiming that life is six thousand years old, that it did not evolve, or that natural selection played no part in this evolution. He believes that life has a long evolutionary history and that natural selection had a part in it. And while he does believe that intelligent design creationists have asked some incisive questions, Nagel rejects their answers. Indeed he is an atheist. Instead Nagel’s view is that neo-Darwinism, and in fact the whole materialist view elaborated by science since the seventeenth century, is radically incomplete. The materialist laws of nature must, he says, be supplemented by something else if we are to fold ourselves and our minds fully into our science.

His leading contender for this something else is teleology, a tendency of the universe to aim for certain goals as it unfolds through time. Nagel believes that (currently unknown) teleological laws of nature might mean that life and consciousness arise with greater probability than would result from the known laws of physics, chemistry, and biology.

Scientists shouldn’t be shocked by Nagel’s claim that present science might not be up to cracking the mind-brain problem or that a profoundly different science might lie on the horizon. The history of science is filled with such surprising transformations. Nor should we dismiss Nagel’s claims merely because they originate from outside science, from a philosopher. Much the same thing happened when natural theology—the scientific attempt to discern God’s attributes from His biological handiwork—gave way to Darwinism.

It was the philosopher David Hume who began to dismantle important aspects of natural theology. In a devastating set of arguments, Hume identified grievous problems with the argument from design (which claims, roughly, that a designer must exist because organisms show intricate design). Hume was not, however, able to offer an alternative account for the apparent design in organisms. Darwin worked in Hume’s wake and finally provided the required missing theory, natural selection. Nagel, consciously or not, now aspires to play the part of Hume in the demise of neo-Darwinism. He has, he believes, identified serious shortcomings in neo-Darwinism. And while he suspects that teleological laws of nature may exist, he recognizes that he hasn’t provided anything like a full theory. He awaits his Darwin.

Mind and Cosmos is certainly provocative and it reflects the efforts of a fiercely independent mind. In important places, however, I believe that it is wrong. Because Nagel’s book sits at the intersection of philosophy and science it will surely attract the attention of both communities.1 As a biologist, I will perhaps inevitably focus on Nagel’s more scientific claims. But these are, it appears, the claims that are most responsible for the excitement over the book.

I begin by considering the reasons Nagel believes that materialist science, including neo-Darwinism, is false. I then turn to his alternative theory, teleology.

[Evolutionary Theory's Refutation of Teleology]

Nagel believes that materialism confronts two classes of problems. One, which is new to Nagel’s thought, concerns purported empirical problems with neo-Darwinism. The other, which is more familiar to philosophers, is the alleged failure of materialism to explain consciousness and allied mental phenomena.
Nagel argues that there are purely “empirical reasons” to be skeptical about reductionism in biology and, in particular, about the plausibility of neo-Darwinism. Nagel’s claims here are so surprising that it’s best to quote them at length:
I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life. It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. We are expected to abandon this naïve response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples. What is lacking, to my knowledge, is a credible argument that the story has a nonnegligible probability of being true. There are two questions. First, given what is known about the chemical basis of biology and genetics, what is the likelihood that self-reproducing life forms should have come into existence spontaneously on the early earth, solely through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry? The second question is about the sources of variation in the evolutionary process that was set in motion once life began: In the available geological time since the first life forms appeared on earth, what is the likelihood that, 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?
Nagel claims that both questions concern “highly specific events over a long historical period in the distant past, the available evidence is very indirect, and general assumptions have to play an important part.” He therefore concludes that “the available scientific evidence, in spite of the consensus of scientific opinion, does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense.”

This conclusion is remarkable in a couple ways. For one thing, there’s not much of an argument here. Instead Nagel’s conclusion rests largely on the strength of his intuition. His intuition recoils from the claimed plausibility of neo-Darwinism and that, it seems, is that. (Richard Dawkins has called this sort of move the argument from personal incredulity.) But plenty of scientific truths are counterintuitive (does anyone find it intuitive that we’re hurtling around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour?) and a scientific education is, to a considerable extent, an exercise in taming the authority of one’s intuition. Nagel never explains why his intuition should count for so much here.

As for his claim that evolutionary theory is somewhat schematic and that it concerns events that happened long ago, leaving indirect evidence, this is partly true of any historical science, including any alternative to neo-Darwinism, e.g., the one that Nagel himself suggests. In any case, a good part of the evidence for neo-Darwinism is not indirect but involves experiments in which evolutionary change is monitored in real time.2

More important, Nagel’s conclusions about evolution are almost certainly wrong. The origin of life is admittedly a hard problem and we don’t know exactly how the first self-replicating system arose. But big progress has been made. The discovery of so-called ribozymes in the 1980s plausibly cracked the main principled problem at the heart of the origin of life. Research on life’s origin had always faced a chicken and egg dilemma: DNA, our hereditary material, can’t replicate without the assistance of proteins, but one can’t get the required proteins unless they’re encoded by DNA. So how could the whole system get off the ground?

Answer: the first genetic material was probably RNA, not DNA. This might sound like a distinction without a difference but it isn’t. The point is that RNA molecules can both act as a hereditary material (as DNA does) and catalyze certain chemical reactions (as some proteins do), possibly including their own replication. (An RNA molecule that can catalyze a reaction is called a ribozyme.) Consequently, many researchers into the origins of life now believe in an “RNA world,” in which early life on earth was RNA-based. “Physical accidents were likely still required to produce the first RNA molecules, but we can now begin to see how these molecules might then self-replicate.

Nagel’s astonishment that a “sequence of viable genetic mutations” has been available to evolution over billions of years is also unfounded.3 His concern appears to be that evolution requires an unbroken chain of viable genetic variants that connect the first living creature to, say, human beings. How could nature ensure that a viable mutation was always available to evolution? The answer is that it didn’t. That’s why species go extinct. Indeed that’s what extinction is. The world changes and a species can’t find a mutation fast enough to let it live. Extinction is the norm in evolution: the vast majority of all species have gone extinct. Nagel has, I think, been led astray by a big survivorship bias: the evolutionary lineage that led to us always found a viable mutation, ergo one must, it seems, always be available. Tyrannosaurus rex would presumably be less impressed by nature’s munificence.4

[The Problem of Consciousness]

While Nagel’s worries about neo-Darwinism are misplaced, he’s on somewhat firmer (or at least more familiar) ground when he turns to mental phenomena like consciousness. These are, after all, separate problems. A science might explain the evolution of life but leave consciousness—the subjective experience of the saltiness of popcorn, the shock of cold water, or the sting of pain—unaccounted for. Consciousness is Nagel’s big problem:
Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science. The existence of consciousness seems to imply that the physical description of the universe, in spite of its richness and explanatory power, is only part of the truth, and that the natural order is far less austere than it would be if physics and chemistry accounted for everything.
Nagel’s story here starts, as it must, with Descartes. As Nagel writes, Descartes posited that matter and mind are “both fully real and irreducibly distinct, though they interact.” Given this, science was, from the outset, concerned solely with matter; mind belonged to a different domain. While scientists happily toiled under Cartesian dualism, giving rise to a recognizably modern science, philosophers often demurred. Instead, thinkers like Berkeley favored various forms of idealism, which maintains that nature is at bottom mind. Under idealism, then, any reductionist program would be in the business of collapsing matter to mind.

Nagel argues that as a result of a rapid shift whose causes are unclear, these idealist philosophies were “largely displaced in later twentieth-century analytic philosophy by attempts at unification in the opposite direction, starting from the physical.” This approach likely seems natural to most of us. But we live with a tension. Though the materialist program of reducing mind to matter would appear the properly “scientific” approach, we haven’t the slightest idea how it would work. And it’s not for lack of trying. Philosophers have, Nagel reminds us, attempted many ways of tying mind to matter: conceptual behaviorism, physical identity theory, causal behaviorism, and functionalism, to name a few. To Nagel all these approaches have failed “for the same old reason”:
Even with the brain added to the picture, they clearly leave out something essential, without which there would be no mind. And what they leave out is just what was deliberately left out of the physical world by Descartes and Galileo in order to form the modern concept of the physical, namely, subjective appearances.
Nagel is deeply skeptical that any species of materialist reductionism can work. Instead, he concludes, progress on consciousness will require an intellectual revolution at least as radical as Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Nagel’s chapter on consciousness is a concise and critical survey of a literature that is both vast and fascinating. He further extends his survey to other mental phenomena, including reason and value, that he also finds recalcitrant to materialism. (Nagel concludes that the existence of objective moral truths is incompatible with materialist evolutionary theory; because he is sure that moral truths exist, he again concludes that evolutionary theory is incomplete.)

Nagel concedes that many philosophers do not share his skepticism about the plausibility of reducing mind to matter. And I can assure readers that most scientists don’t. I, however, share Nagel’s sense of mystery here. Brains and neurons obviously have everything to do with consciousness but how such mere objects can give rise to the eerily different phenomenon of subjective experience seems utterly incomprehensible.

Despite this, I can’t go so far as to conclude that mind poses some insurmountable barrier to materialism. There are two reasons. The first is, frankly, more a sociological observation than an actual argument. Science has, since the seventeenth century, proved remarkably adept at incorporating initially alien ideas (like electromagnetic fields) into its thinking. Yet most people, apparently including Nagel, find the resulting science sufficiently materialist. The unusual way in which physicists understand the weirdness of quantum mechanics might be especially instructive as a crude template for how the consciousness story could play out. Physicists describe quantum mechanics by writing equations. The fact that no one, including them, can quite intuit the meaning of these equations is often deemed beside the point. The solution is the equation. One can imagine a similar course for consciousness research: the solution is X, whether you can intuit X or not. Indeed the fact that you can’t intuit X might say more about you than it does about consciousness.

And this brings me to the second reason. For there might be perfectly good reasons why you can’t imagine a solution to the problem of consciousness. As the philosopher Colin McGinn has emphasized, your very inability to imagine a solution might reflect your cognitive limitations as an evolved creature. The point is that we have no reason to believe that we, as organisms whose brains are evolved and finite, can fathom the answer to every question that we can ask. All other species have cognitive limitations, why not us? So even if matter does give rise to mind, we might not be able to understand how.

To McGinn, then, the mysteriousness of consciousness may not be so much a challenge to neo-Darwinism as a result of it. Nagel obviously draws the opposite conclusion. But the availability of both conclusions gives pause.

[Nagel Proposes a Natural Theology to that of Supernatural]

Given the problems that Nagel has with materialism, the obvious question is, What’s the alternative? In the most provocative part of Mind and Cosmos, he suggests one, teleology. While we often associate teleology with a God-like mind—events occur because an agent wills them as means to an end—Nagel finds theism unattractive. But he insists that materialism and theism do not exhaust the possibilities.

Instead he proposes a special species of teleology that he calls natural teleology. Natural teleology doesn’t depend on any agent’s intentions; it’s just the way the world is. There are teleological laws of nature that we don’t yet know about and they bias the unfolding of the universe in certain desirable directions, including the formation of complex organisms and consciousness. The existence of teleological laws means that certain physical outcomes “have a significantly higher probability than is entailed by the laws of physics alone—simply because they are on the path toward a certain outcome.”

Nagel intends natural teleology to be, among other things, a biological theory. It would explain not only the “appearance of physical organisms” but the “development of consciousness and ultimately of reason in those organisms.” Teleology would also provide an “account of the existence of the biological possibilities on which natural selection can operate.”

Nagel concedes that his new theory isn’t fully fleshed out. He hopes merely to sketch the outlines of a plausible alternative to materialism. It’s unfortunate, though, that Mind and Cosmos is too brief to allow consideration of problems that attend natural teleology. For it seems to me that there are some, especially where the view confronts biology.

Darwin himself wrestled with attempts to reconcile his theory with teleology and concluded, reluctantly, that it seemed implausible. While Darwin published almost nothing on such philosophical matters they loom large in his correspondence, particularly with Asa Gray, an American champion of evolution and a Christian. Gray, like Nagel, wanted to believe that, while Darwin had identified an important force in the history of life, nature also features teleology. In particular, Gray suggested that the variation provided by nature to natural selection biases the process in desirable directions.

Darwin, though sometimes vacillating, argued that Gray’s reconciliation was implausible. Exercising his uncanny ability to discern deep truths in prosaic facts—in this case the artificial selection of a pigeon breed by a few fanciers—Darwin wrote Gray:
But I grieve to say that I cannot honestly go as far as you do about Design…. You lead me to infer that you believe “that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines”.—I cannot believe this; & I think you would have to believe, that the tail of the Fan-tail was led to vary in the number & direction of its feathers in order to gratify the caprice of a few men.5
Here’s another problem. Nagel’s teleological biology is heavily human-centric or at least animal-centric. Organisms, it seems, are in the business of secreting sentience, reason, and values. Real biology looks little like this and, from the outset, must face the staggering facts of organismal diversity. There are millions of species of fungi and bacteria and nearly 300,000 species of flowering plants. None of these groups is sentient and each is spectacularly successful. Indeed mindless species outnumber we sentient ones by any sensible measure (biomass, number of individuals, or number of species; there are only about 5,500 species of mammals). More fundamentally, each of these species is every bit as much the end product of evolution as we are. The point is that, if nature has goals, it certainly seems to have many, and consciousness would appear to be fairly far down on the list.

Similarly, Nagel’s teleological biology is run through with talk about the “higher forms of organization toward which nature tends” and progress toward “more complex systems.” Again, real biology looks little like this. The history of evolutionary lineages is replete with reversals, which often move from greater complexity to less. A lineage will evolve a complex feature (an eye, for example) that later gets dismantled, evolutionarily deconstructed after the species moves into a new environment (dark caves, say). Parasites often begin as “normal” complicated organisms and then lose evolutionarily many of their complex traits after taking up their new parasitic way of life. Such reversals are easily explained under Darwinism but less so under teleology. If nature is trying to get somewhere, why does it keep changing its mind about the destination?6

I’ll be the first to admit that these problems may not be fatal. But they represent the sorts of awkward facts that occur immediately to any biologist. Minimally, they pose serious challenges to teleology, challenges that deserve, but do not receive, consideration in Mind and Cosmos.

[Concluding Thoughts]

I will also be the first to admit that we cannot rule out the formal possibility of teleology in nature. It could turn out that teleological laws affect how the universe unfolds through time. While I suspect some might regard such heterodoxy as a crime against science, Nagel is right that there’s nothing intrinsically unscientific about teleology. If that’s the way nature is, that’s the way it is, and we scientists would need to get on with the business of characterizing these surprising laws. Teleological science is, in fact, more than imaginable. It’s actual, at least historically. Aristotelian science, with its concern for final cause, was thoroughly teleological. And the biological tradition that Darwinism displaced - natural theology - also featured a good deal of teleological thinking.

The question, then, is not whether teleology is formally compatible with the practice of science. The question is whether the practice of science leads to taking teleology seriously. Nagel may find this question unfair. He is, he says, engaging in a “philosophical task,” not the “internal pursuit of science.” But it seems clear that he is doing more than this. He’s emphasizing purported “empirical reasons” for finding neo-Darwinism “almost certainly false” and he’s suggesting the existence of new scientific laws. These represent moves, however halting, into science proper. But science, finally, isn’t about defining the space of all formally possible explanations of nature. It’s about inference to the most likely hypothesis. And on these grounds there’s simply no comparison between neo-Darwinism (for which there is overwhelming evidence) and natural teleology (for which there is none). While one might complain that it’s unfair to stack up the empirical successes of neo-Darwinism with those of a new theory, this, again, gets the history wrong. Teleology is the traditional view; neo-Darwinism is the new kid on the block.

None of this is to suggest that evolutionary biology will not, someday, change radically. Of course it might; any science might. Nor is it to suggest that materialism represents some final unassailable view and that teleology or, for that matter, theism will inevitably be spoken of in the past tense by many scientists. It is to say that the way to any such alternative view will have to acknowledge the full powers of present science. I cannot conclude that Mind and Cosmos does this.

  1. Nagel’s work has long attracted the attention of both philosophers and scientists. Indeed the careful reader will notice that I’m mentioned in his new book as a scientist-participant in a workshop that he organized on some of the topics covered in the book; many of the other participants were philosophers.
  2. The field of “experimental evolution” is concerned with watching evolution as it occurs. Because of their short generation time, microbes are the focus of much of this work.
  3. While I’ve heard this concern before, I must admit that I think I only now understand it.
  4. This is not to say that adaptation is rare or that natural selection doesn’t modify the DNA sequences of species. Even species that ultimately go extinct have experienced many previous bouts of successful adaptation.
  5. November 26, 1860; see www.darwinp Historians of science do not all agree that Darwin wholly banished teleology from his thinking; see the exchange between James G. Lennox (1993, 1994) and Michael T. Ghiselin (1994) in Biology and Philosophy.
  6. It’s true that organisms are on average more complex now than they were three billion years ago. But as biologists have long recognized, this doesn’t require any inexorable bias toward complexity. If life starts from a floor of zero complexity, it can on average only get more.

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Index to past articles on "Science & Religion"

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