Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, a book that attempted to expose logical faultiness of religion and its’ cause of much suffering in the world, is the most read atheistic literature in our times. In this series of articles, I explored different prominent atheists and agnostics’ reviews of The God Delusion.
This article is a follow up of my second atheists’ reviewer, an American philosopher Thomas Nagel, whose review, “The Fear Of Religion”, appeared in The Republic on October 23rd 2006, page 25-29. If you have not read the first part, Nagel’s Review Of Dawkins’ The God Delusion, I will dearly recommend you to do so before reading this closing remark of Nagel’s review of Dawkins’ popular book, The God Delusion.
Nagel’s Third Alternative: No to God Hypothesis And No to Physical Naturalism
The tension between “Dawkins’s physicalist naturalism and the God hypothesis is a disagreement over whether this end point[of what best explain the origin of life] is physical, extensional, and purposeless or mental, intentional, and purposive” correctly observed Nagel. Both views, according to him, fail to explain the grand explanation. “ The God hypothesis does not explain the existence of God, and naturalistic physicalism does not explain the laws of physics”.
Adding my own remark, I believe Nagel here missed or failed to understand the aim of design argument, the God hypothesis, which does not step forward to explain the existence of God. The argument from design simply attempt to argue for the existence of a designer. The grand explaining for the existence or the nature of this designer is a totally different matter.
Nagel offered the Aristotelian view as another possible possibility. He expounded that “there are teleological principles in nature that are explained neither by intentional design nor by purposeless physical causation— principles that therefore provide an independent end point of explanation for the existence and form of living things.”
The positive part of Dawkins’s argument, commented Nagel, is that “Darwin’s theory of natural selection offered a way of accounting, [which is not a result of design nor hopelessly improbable chance], for the exquisite functional organization of organisms through physical causation”. The Complexity that arises, which gives an appearance of design without design, can be radically reduced by the theory of heritable variation and natural selection “purely on the basis of a combination of physical causes operating over billions of years”.
Even though most this story’s detail can never be recovered and that there are also evolutionists’ internal issues on how the process works, “[t]here are also skeptics about whether such a process is capable, even over billions of years, of generating the complexity of life as it is.” The direct analogy to Dawkins’ “Who made God?” explained Nagel, is that,
The theory of evolution through heritable variation and natural selection reduces the improbability of organizational complexity by breaking the process down into a very long series of small steps, each of which is not all that improbable. But each of the steps involves a mutation in a carrier of genetic information—an enormously complex molecule capable both of self- replication and of generating out of surrounding matter a functioning organism that can house it. The molecule is moreover capable sometimes of surviving a slight mutation in its structure to generate a slightly different organism that can also survive. Without such a replicating system there could not be heritable variation, and without heritable variation there could not be natural selection favoring those organisms, and their underlying genes, that are best adapted to the environment.
Darwinian explanation hangs on the prior existence “of genetic material” with have outstanding properties, which preconditioned the possibility of evolution. Nagel explained that “since the existence of this material or something like it is a precondition of the possibility of evolution, evolutionary theory cannot explain its existence.” He went on,
We are therefore faced with a problem analogous to that which Dawkins thinks faces the argument from design: we have explained the complexity of organic life in terms of something that is itself just as functionally complex as what we originally set out to explain. So the problem is just pushed back one step: how did such a thing come into existence?
According to Nagel, an obvious difference between Darwinian explanation to that of God hypothesis is that only the former is observable. “But the problem that originally prompted the argument from design” explained Nagel, is “—the over whelming improbability of such a thing coming into existence by chance, simply through the purposeless laws of physics— remains just as real for this case. Yet this time we cannot replace chance with natural selection.”
In The God Delusion, Dawkins response was “pure hand-waving” at this difficult by claiming it was a one-time event and that given billions of planets in the universe that may permit life, it is likely that a DNA could be formed. Nagel expounded,
Dawkins is not a chemist or a physicist. Neither am I, but general expositions of research on the origin of life indicate that no one has a theory that would support anything remotely near such a high probability as one in a billion billion. Naturally there is speculation about possible non-biological chemical precursors of DNA or RNA. But at this point the origin of life remains, in light of what is known about the huge size, the extreme specificity, and the exquisite functional precision of the genetic material, a mystery—an event that could not have occurred by chance and to which no significant probability can be assigned on the basis of what we know of the laws of physics and chemistry.
Nonetheless it happened and this, according to Nagel, is the reason “why the argument from design is still alive, and why scientists who find the conclusion of that argument unacceptable feel there must be a purely physical explanation of why the origin of life is not as physically improbable as it seems.”
Since time cannot replace chance with natural selection, Dawkins, with “a desperate device to avoid the demand for a real explanation”, invoked “the possibility that there are vastly many universes”. Hence giving chance more chances to create life.
Final Remarks: Fear Of Religion + World-flattening Reductionism
As “an outsider to religion”, Nagel believes, unlike Dawkins, that deciding which one, the God hypothesis or Darwinian evolution, offers a best explanation of what we observe is a tough question to put to rest. He suspect there could be other unthought-of solutions than that offered by these two.
A brilliant observation was made by Nagel when he contended that “[t]he fear of religion leads too many scientifically minded atheists to cling to a defensive, world-flattening reductionism.” He went further,
Dawkins, like many of his con- temporaries, is hobbled by the assumption that the only alternative to religion is to insist that the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in particle physics, string theory, or what-ever purely extensional laws govern the elements of which the material world is composed.
The problem in this reductive view, “the world with all subjective consciousness, sensory appearances, thought, value, purpose, and will left out.” Going against this view, Nagel contended that “ [w]e have more than one form of understanding.” He expounded,
Different forms of understanding are needed for different kinds of subject matter. The great achievements of physical science do not make it capable of encompassing everything, from mathematics to ethics to the experiences of a living animal. We have no reason to dismiss moral reasoning, introspection, or conceptual analysis as ways of discovering the truth just because they are not physics.
He also point out that anti-reductionist view also have “very serious problems about how the mutually irreducible types of truths about the world are related.” It is true that we are physical organism. How do we deal with thoughts, emotions and value, if not mere complicated physical states of organism, asks Nagel. “What is their relation to the brain processes on which they seem to depend? More: if evolution is a purely physical causal process, how can it have brought into existence conscious beings?”
Nagel’s verdict on Dawkins’ famous book could be packed in a single sentence. The God Delusion is “a very uneven collection of scriptural ridicule, amateur philosophy, historical and contemporary horror stories, anthropological speculations, and cosmological scientific argument” and contemptuous flippancy when dealing with the classical arguments offered for the existences of God.
Next: Simon Watson: Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Atheist Fundamentalism
Disclaimers: I am terribly biased and unfairly hard on Dawkins’ The God Delusion. My aim is for us to critically examine Dawkins’ case against the existence of God. Whether we agree or disagree with Dawkins’ conclusions, I believe we ought to wrestle with strength and weakness of his arguments. As far as Nagel is concerned, he found The God Delusion’s case particularly weak. Dawkins could and I believe can do better.