"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Was Darwin Wrong?

 Most of us believers in evolution at one time or another have to wonder why ‘Nature’ or natural selection followed a predictable course, one small incremental change to encourage survival after another, and then all of a sudden all bets are off, the 4.5 billion history of tiny changes in protoplasm, feather tips, or finger length are themselves history, and along comes Man whose intelligence represents a quantum leap from his nearest evolutionary relative.  What happened? we ask.  Did Nature decide that it was working too slowly and had to hurry up and get to the end of the line?  Or did God intervene, waiting until just the right moment?

Currently there are only two theories explaining how we got to where we are – Natural Selection and Intelligent Design.  Natural selection can be thought of either as a godless enterprise set in motion randomly after the Big Bang, or a God-driven one.  That is, there is a God and Natural Selection is his design for creating people who will then, through their intelligence, come to know Him.  Intelligent Design believes that while God did indeed create Man as a special, knowing, species; the did not do it through Natural Selection.  How could we be related to the apes or common slugs if an all-knowing God with both hindsight and foresight did the work?  Why would he put us through all that bestiality and hairiness?

Eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel has explored other options; and in a review of his recent book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, Alvin Plantinga (New Republic, 11.16.12) describes Nagel’s criticism of Darwinism and his conclusions.

Nagel rejects nearly every contention of materialist naturalism.  First, the claim that life has come to be just by the workings of the laws of physics and chemistry. This is extremely improbable, at least given current evidence: no one has suggested any reasonably plausible process whereby this could have happened. As Nagel remarks, “It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis.”

Nagel also rejects the idea that once life was established on our planet, all the enormous variety of contemporary life came to be by way of the processes evolutionary science tells us about: natural selection operating on genetic mutation. He thinks it incredible that the fantastic diversity of life, including we human beings, should have come to be in this way: “the more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes.”

Nagel then turns to the question I raised above – how to account for the quantum leap in intellectual abilities from ape to Man?

Nagel thinks it is especially improbable that consciousness and reason should come to be if materialist naturalism is true. “Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science.” Why so? Nagel’s point seems to be that the physical sciences—physics, chemistry, biology, neurology—cannot explain or account for the fact that we human beings and presumably some other animals are conscious.

Even more challenging is our ability to reason.  In evolutionary terms, there was no reason for human beings to have the ability to see beyond their natural world, to speculate, to hypothesize, and especially to figure things out without ever seeing them.  Einstein deduced that nothing was faster than the speed of light; and only decades later were scientists able to test and confirm his theories.

Nagel said that “the problem that I want to take up now concerns mental functions such as thought, reasoning, and evaluation that are limited to humans, though their beginnings may be found in a few other species.”  He believes that it is monumentally unlikely that unguided natural selection should have “generated creatures with the capacity to discover by reason the truth about a reality that extends vastly beyond the initial appearances.”

Having got to this point, Nagel now has to step into uncharted waters.  He, as an atheist has rejected theism which offers a perfectly logical explanation for why natural selection cannot be correct: there is God behind creation, and once one accepts that and the fact that He is an all-powerful and all-knowing being, explaining elements of human evolution not convincingly proven by Darwin, is easy.  The quantum leap in intelligence between ape and Man was a deliberate divine intervention for a purpose.

Nagel offers his own vision:

First there is panpsychism, or the idea that there is mind, or proto-mind, or something like mind, all the way down. In this view, mind never emerges in the universe: it is present from the start, in that even the most elementary particles display some kind of mindedness. The thought is not, of course, that elementary particles are able to do mathematical calculations, or that they are self-conscious; but they do enjoy some kind of mentality.

Nagel himself has trouble with this idea which contains a basic contradiction – if small bits of intelligence, embedded in every molecule since the dawn of time has contributed to our now enormous mental abilities; how, then, is it possible that we cannot explain this phenomenon?  The reviewer, a Catholic professor of philosophy at Notre Dame agrees.

Nagel’s second theoretical explanation is the following:

At each stage in the development of our universe (perhaps we can think of that development as starting with the big bang), there are several different possibilities as to what will happen next. Some of these possibilities are steps on the way toward the existence of creatures with minds like ours; others are not. According to Nagel’s natural teleology, there is a sort of intrinsic bias in the universe toward those possibilities that lead to minds. Or perhaps there was an intrinsic bias in the universe toward the sorts of initial conditions that would lead to the existence of minds like ours.

This for the reviewer and for me is hard to accept. 

Does it really make sense to suppose that the world in itself, without the presence of God, should be doing something we could sensibly call “aiming at” some states of affairs rather than others—that it has as a goal the actuality of some states of affairs as opposed to others?

After reading this review I am still left with my original conclusions that there is such a thing as natural selection; and that however it was put into motion, it has inexorably facilitated the evolution of the human species.  I am not concerned whether or not God (if there is such a being) set the process in motion billions of years ago, and whether or not He had a design in mind for so doing.  I am persuaded enough by the fossil record to be convinced that we are the result of billions of years of improved feather tips and taste buds. 

I still cannot resolve in my mind the question I posed at the beginning of this post – How can one explain the quantum leap in intelligence, cognitive ability, and sophisticated reasoning when simply having a little more brain power than the previous generation would have sufficed.  In other words, why did we quickly evolve a brain capable of Einsteinian insight when all we needed was to build a better club to bash brains out?

Nagel, always a provocateur, but never dishonest, provided the best answer:

“I am certain that my own attempt to explore alternatives is far too unimaginative. An understanding of the universe as basically prone to generate life and mind will probably require a much more radical departure from the familiar forms of naturalistic explanation than I am at present able to conceive.”

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