If materialism is wrong, what can replace it?

Alvin Plantinga is surely one of the best living philosophers.  He is also an evangelical Christian.  The New Republic, no less, has printed his review of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.  Nagel, an eminent philosopher, is an atheist, but he recognizes the force of the intelligent design arguments and in this book (published by Oxford University Press), he dismantles the materialists’ assumptions.  What is especially interesting, though, is how Plantinga interacts with Nagel and challenges his atheism:

Nagel rejects nearly every contention of materialist naturalism. Mind and Cosmos rejects, first, the claim that life has come to be just by the workings of the laws of physics and chemistry. As Nagel points out, 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.”

The second plank of materialist naturalism that Nagel rejects is 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, but also genetic drift, and perhaps other processes as well. These processes, moreover, are unguided: neither God nor any other being has directed or orchestrated them. Nagel seems a bit less doubtful of this plank than of the first; but still 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 supports the commonsense view that the probability of this happening in the time available is extremely low, and he believes that nothing like sufficient evidence to overturn this verdict has been produced. . . .

he 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. Physical science can explain the tides, and why birds have hollow bones, and why the sky is blue; but it cannot explain consciousness. Physical science can perhaps demonstrate correlations between physical conditions of one sort or another and conscious states of one sort or another; but of course this is not to explain consciousness. Correlation is not explanation. As Nagel puts it, “The appearance of animal consciousness is evidently the result of biological evolution, but this well-supported empirical fact is not yet an explanation—it does not provide understanding, or enable us to see why the result was to be expected or how it came about.”

Nagel next turns his attention to belief and cognition: “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.” We human beings and perhaps some other animals are not merely conscious, we also hold beliefs, many of which are in fact true. It is one thing to feel pain; it is quite another to believe, say, that pain can be a useful signal of dysfunction. According to Nagel, materialist naturalism has great difficulty with consciousness, but it has even greater difficulty with cognition. He thinks it 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.” He is thinking in particular of science itself.

Theism would account for all of this and Nagel mostly agrees, though he raises some objections that Plantinga easily disposes of.  But here is where the issues get especially interesting.  What is Nagel’s reason for atheism, even though he cannot accept materialistic naturalism?  In an earlier book, quoted by Plantinga, Nagel is very honest in articulating what, I suspect, lies behind much atheism:

I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers…. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.


So Nagel proposes a couple of other, admittedly half-formed, explanations for life and mind:

There are two main elements to Nagel’s sketch. 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. In this way Nagel proposes to avoid the lack of intelligibility he finds in dualism.

Of course someone might wonder how much of a gain there is, from the point of view of unity, in rejecting two fundamentally different kinds of objects in favor of two fundamentally different kinds of properties. And as Nagel recognizes, there is still a problem for him about the existence of minds like ours, minds capable of understanding a fair amount about the universe. We can see (to some degree, anyway) how more complex material objects can be built out of simpler ones: ordinary physical objects are composed of molecules, which are composed of atoms, which are composed of electrons and quarks (at this point things get less than totally clear). But we haven’t the faintest idea how a being with a mind like ours can be composed of or constructed out of smaller entities that have some kind of mindedness. How do those elementary minds get combined into a less than elementary mind?

The second element of Nagel’s sketch is what we can call natural teleology.His idea seems to be something like this. 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.

Plantinga takes these up, showing how theism is a much better hypothesis.

via Why Darwinist Materialism Is Wrong | The New Republic.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

    In a sense, very much a restatement of the thought processes that occurred at the Fall. If not prior, then certainly immediately after.

  • Pete

    “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

    In a sense, very much a restatement of the thought processes that occurred at the Fall. If not prior, then certainly immediately after.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Reminds me of a quote I read a few weeks ago: An atheist cannot find God for the same reason that a thief cannot find a policeman.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Reminds me of a quote I read a few weeks ago: An atheist cannot find God for the same reason that a thief cannot find a policeman.

  • Tom Hering

    Pete, Hebrews cites Abel as the first hero of faith. Cain, though he doubted God’s forgiveness, didn’t disbelieve the existence of God. Indeed, he spoke with God. And questions of belief and unbelief in God’s existence don’t apply to Adam and Eve at all. Even after the Fall, they heard Him walking in the garden, and hid from His face. He was a known presence for them. And Genesis says explicitly that the time of Seth and Enosh was a time when men began to call upon the name of the Lord. So atheism had to be a later development.

  • Tom Hering

    Pete, Hebrews cites Abel as the first hero of faith. Cain, though he doubted God’s forgiveness, didn’t disbelieve the existence of God. Indeed, he spoke with God. And questions of belief and unbelief in God’s existence don’t apply to Adam and Eve at all. Even after the Fall, they heard Him walking in the garden, and hid from His face. He was a known presence for them. And Genesis says explicitly that the time of Seth and Enosh was a time when men began to call upon the name of the Lord. So atheism had to be a later development.

  • Pete

    Tom (@3)

    I guess what I was trying to get at was the atheistic impulse, rather than actual atheism. Consider: you are Adam. You’ve just acted counter to the only negative command God has given you. The consequence of which is this (to you) foreign thing called “death”. You’re going to want, at that point, to believe God doesn’t exist. Like J. Dean said @2 – the thief not wanting there to be a cop. Or like coming upon a grizzly bear in the woods – maybe he doesn’t see me or, better yet, maybe I’m just imagining this bear.

  • Pete

    Tom (@3)

    I guess what I was trying to get at was the atheistic impulse, rather than actual atheism. Consider: you are Adam. You’ve just acted counter to the only negative command God has given you. The consequence of which is this (to you) foreign thing called “death”. You’re going to want, at that point, to believe God doesn’t exist. Like J. Dean said @2 – the thief not wanting there to be a cop. Or like coming upon a grizzly bear in the woods – maybe he doesn’t see me or, better yet, maybe I’m just imagining this bear.

  • Tom Hering

    Pete, there’s little if any difference between the atheistic impulse and atheism – between not wanting God to exist and actually believing He doesn’t exist. But what you’re really talking about, I think, is the hope that the bear doesn’t kill, and the cop doesn’t arrest, and God doesn’t carry out justice, i.e., the desperate hope that their nature isn’t what you know it to be. And that’s a very different thing from believing that God, the cop, and the bear don’t exist.

  • Tom Hering

    Pete, there’s little if any difference between the atheistic impulse and atheism – between not wanting God to exist and actually believing He doesn’t exist. But what you’re really talking about, I think, is the hope that the bear doesn’t kill, and the cop doesn’t arrest, and God doesn’t carry out justice, i.e., the desperate hope that their nature isn’t what you know it to be. And that’s a very different thing from believing that God, the cop, and the bear don’t exist.

  • Pete

    Tom (@5)

    What I am really talking about I think, is the hope (expressed very forthrightly above by Thomas Nagel) that God doesn’t really exist. A hope that doubtless has its origin in the law being “written on our hearts” and the resultant sense that we have broken someone’s (or, Someone’s) rules. That problem needs to be addressed in some manner – either by denial (atheism), or some form of justification – either of our own doing (most religions) or by God’s doing (orthodox Christian approach).
    Certainly, the existence of the problem seems to be a rock in the shoe of the atheists. The whole “there is no God, and I hate Him” idea.

  • Pete

    Tom (@5)

    What I am really talking about I think, is the hope (expressed very forthrightly above by Thomas Nagel) that God doesn’t really exist. A hope that doubtless has its origin in the law being “written on our hearts” and the resultant sense that we have broken someone’s (or, Someone’s) rules. That problem needs to be addressed in some manner – either by denial (atheism), or some form of justification – either of our own doing (most religions) or by God’s doing (orthodox Christian approach).
    Certainly, the existence of the problem seems to be a rock in the shoe of the atheists. The whole “there is no God, and I hate Him” idea.

  • SKPeterson

    Part of the problem is directly related to that of the Fall – the desire to be (like) God. That also is a part of what Nagel is saying: I don’t want there to be a God, because I then have to put aside the pretenses that I am in charge. Nagel is in the uncomfortable position of not wanting to believe the logical conclusion found in the evidence of his own argument.

  • SKPeterson

    Part of the problem is directly related to that of the Fall – the desire to be (like) God. That also is a part of what Nagel is saying: I don’t want there to be a God, because I then have to put aside the pretenses that I am in charge. Nagel is in the uncomfortable position of not wanting to believe the logical conclusion found in the evidence of his own argument.

  • Jon

    What strikes me is the tortured nature of his efforts to find some comfort in his beliefs. He’ll grasp at straws, proposing hypotheses he knows he knows he has no way to support or test. He constructs, ironically, in his own mind, the kind of universe he wishes he had, but knows he can’t have. How very sad that is.

    Do you think he’s ever actually heard the Gospel?

  • Jon

    What strikes me is the tortured nature of his efforts to find some comfort in his beliefs. He’ll grasp at straws, proposing hypotheses he knows he knows he has no way to support or test. He constructs, ironically, in his own mind, the kind of universe he wishes he had, but knows he can’t have. How very sad that is.

    Do you think he’s ever actually heard the Gospel?

  • http://gslcnm@msn.com Pastor Spomer

    “Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science.”

    Perhaps the most prevalent way of dealing with the problem of consciousness, is to deny that it exists at all. Some neurologists theorize, and affirm that experiment supports, that all behavior that we attribute to consciousness, is a merely complex interplay of neurons. So, just as your computer isn’t literally ‘thinking’ about whatever you have up on your monitor, a person isn’t thinking in the way we mean by the word thinking. Instead as person’s brain is just an interplay of tissue and environment.

    One difficulty with this approach is that it only works in a strictly objective sphere. I can affirm that that guy over there is just a machine that only appears sentient, but I can’t apply this to my own subjective mind. While each of us has undeniable evidence of our own mind, it’s another thing, to quantify the mind of another.

    Consequently, this materialistic explanation of mind meets the criteria for objective science, even though few can bring themselves to actually believe it for themselves. (Some dogmatic atheists claim to have achieved, what I may paradoxically call, this state of conscious,. Christopher Hitchens once said, “I don’t have a body. I am a body.”)

    One may anticipate that this material account of mind would fail in the public square, even among the intelligentsia. However, wide spread subjective belief, isn’t the criterion for public currency. There are different, more esoteric standards for the scientific and academic communities. These standards have more to do with usefulness, and measurability.

    Yet, I wonder how long we could go on pretending that we aren’t really doing things like wondering and pretending.

  • http://gslcnm@msn.com Pastor Spomer

    “Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science.”

    Perhaps the most prevalent way of dealing with the problem of consciousness, is to deny that it exists at all. Some neurologists theorize, and affirm that experiment supports, that all behavior that we attribute to consciousness, is a merely complex interplay of neurons. So, just as your computer isn’t literally ‘thinking’ about whatever you have up on your monitor, a person isn’t thinking in the way we mean by the word thinking. Instead as person’s brain is just an interplay of tissue and environment.

    One difficulty with this approach is that it only works in a strictly objective sphere. I can affirm that that guy over there is just a machine that only appears sentient, but I can’t apply this to my own subjective mind. While each of us has undeniable evidence of our own mind, it’s another thing, to quantify the mind of another.

    Consequently, this materialistic explanation of mind meets the criteria for objective science, even though few can bring themselves to actually believe it for themselves. (Some dogmatic atheists claim to have achieved, what I may paradoxically call, this state of conscious,. Christopher Hitchens once said, “I don’t have a body. I am a body.”)

    One may anticipate that this material account of mind would fail in the public square, even among the intelligentsia. However, wide spread subjective belief, isn’t the criterion for public currency. There are different, more esoteric standards for the scientific and academic communities. These standards have more to do with usefulness, and measurability.

    Yet, I wonder how long we could go on pretending that we aren’t really doing things like wondering and pretending.

  • http://gslcnm@msn.com Pastor Spomer

    One interesting thing about this problem which Nagel addresses is that it illustrates that good old Philosophy is still needed and relevant. One can’t advance knowledge far without some at least some functional metaphysics. So take THAT Steven Hawkings! Pthpthpthppth!

  • http://gslcnm@msn.com Pastor Spomer

    One interesting thing about this problem which Nagel addresses is that it illustrates that good old Philosophy is still needed and relevant. One can’t advance knowledge far without some at least some functional metaphysics. So take THAT Steven Hawkings! Pthpthpthppth!

  • Ray

    Determinism means never having to say you’re sorry.

  • Ray

    Determinism means never having to say you’re sorry.

  • Pingback: Science and God’s existence « Christadelphians : Belgian Ecclesia Brussel – Leuven

  • Pingback: Science and God’s existence « Christadelphians : Belgian Ecclesia Brussel – Leuven

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    One should not argue like this. Because the argument “if it is like this / that, then I don’t like it” is no argument at all, but an expression of emotion or personal preference. This goes for both sides of the argument – to prove/disprove God’s existence.

    Just last week I was involved in a long argument of the same kind. The argument was presented like this:

    In fact, these observations can be the foundation for an argument for God-belief that might look like this:
    1. “You” exist.
    2. “You” cannot be identified with anything in your physical body.
    3. Given 1 and 2, “you” must be immaterial.
    4. The best explanation of immaterial realities like “you” is an immaterial source that desires to make immaterial things like “you”.
    And we call this immaterial source that desires to make things like you “God”.
    If we think we really have personal identity, that conviction gives us a good reason to reject Materialism. Personal identity is an anomaly and evidence that the theory/story/metaphysic of Materialism itself is false.

    You can follow it here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2012/11/20/the-argument-from-you-jeff-cook/

    In short: The arguments fails.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    One should not argue like this. Because the argument “if it is like this / that, then I don’t like it” is no argument at all, but an expression of emotion or personal preference. This goes for both sides of the argument – to prove/disprove God’s existence.

    Just last week I was involved in a long argument of the same kind. The argument was presented like this:

    In fact, these observations can be the foundation for an argument for God-belief that might look like this:
    1. “You” exist.
    2. “You” cannot be identified with anything in your physical body.
    3. Given 1 and 2, “you” must be immaterial.
    4. The best explanation of immaterial realities like “you” is an immaterial source that desires to make immaterial things like “you”.
    And we call this immaterial source that desires to make things like you “God”.
    If we think we really have personal identity, that conviction gives us a good reason to reject Materialism. Personal identity is an anomaly and evidence that the theory/story/metaphysic of Materialism itself is false.

    You can follow it here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2012/11/20/the-argument-from-you-jeff-cook/

    In short: The arguments fails.

  • dust
  • dust
  • rlewer

    In other words, “I think, therefore, I am.”

    But how does it happen that we are able to think?

    And is our thinking controlled by outside events? (determinism)
    Or is there an “I” which is not dependent on anything else?
    If there is an “I”, what is its source?

    And can any of this happen without a higher power?

  • rlewer

    In other words, “I think, therefore, I am.”

    But how does it happen that we are able to think?

    And is our thinking controlled by outside events? (determinism)
    Or is there an “I” which is not dependent on anything else?
    If there is an “I”, what is its source?

    And can any of this happen without a higher power?

  • JunkerGeorg

    It’s very simple in one sense: It’s what they ‘want’ to believe is true. Hence, Atheism it is just another form of “enthusiasm”, as all idolatry/unbelief is rooted in the heart. I think this is why Psalm 53:1 says, “The fool says IN HIS HEART, “There is no God.”"

    I find the same thing when I waste my time trying to logically argue abortion with pro-choicers on just scientific/technological/philosophical grounds without bringing the Bible into it. After you remove all the superfluous and contradictory arguments they present, you’re left with the conclusion that if they wanted the baby in the womb, then it’s a living human being. If they didn’t want it, then it is not.

  • JunkerGeorg

    It’s very simple in one sense: It’s what they ‘want’ to believe is true. Hence, Atheism it is just another form of “enthusiasm”, as all idolatry/unbelief is rooted in the heart. I think this is why Psalm 53:1 says, “The fool says IN HIS HEART, “There is no God.”"

    I find the same thing when I waste my time trying to logically argue abortion with pro-choicers on just scientific/technological/philosophical grounds without bringing the Bible into it. After you remove all the superfluous and contradictory arguments they present, you’re left with the conclusion that if they wanted the baby in the womb, then it’s a living human being. If they didn’t want it, then it is not.

  • Michael B.

    “It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

    It is true that one has to subject any beliefs that he “wants” to be true to extra scrutiny. He is not the only atheist who says he wants to there to be no God. One of the most well known atheists, Christopher Hitchens, said the same:

    “[Belief in God] is the desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime while you are asleep, who can subject you – who must, indeed, subject you – to total surveillance around the clock every waking and sleeping minute of your life – I say, of your life – before you’re born and, even worse and where the real fun begins, after you’re dead. A celestial North Korea. Who wants this to be true? Who but a slave desires such a ghastly fate? I’ve been to North Korea. It has a dead man as its president, Kim Jong-Il is only head of the party and head of the army. He’s not head of the state. That office belongs to his deceased father, Kim Il-Sung. It’s a necrocracy, a thanatocracy. It’s one short of a trinity I might add. The son is the reincarnation of the father. It is the most revolting and utter and absolute and heartless tyranny the human species has ever evolved. But at least you can die and leave North Korea.”

  • Michael B.

    “It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

    It is true that one has to subject any beliefs that he “wants” to be true to extra scrutiny. He is not the only atheist who says he wants to there to be no God. One of the most well known atheists, Christopher Hitchens, said the same:

    “[Belief in God] is the desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime while you are asleep, who can subject you – who must, indeed, subject you – to total surveillance around the clock every waking and sleeping minute of your life – I say, of your life – before you’re born and, even worse and where the real fun begins, after you’re dead. A celestial North Korea. Who wants this to be true? Who but a slave desires such a ghastly fate? I’ve been to North Korea. It has a dead man as its president, Kim Jong-Il is only head of the party and head of the army. He’s not head of the state. That office belongs to his deceased father, Kim Il-Sung. It’s a necrocracy, a thanatocracy. It’s one short of a trinity I might add. The son is the reincarnation of the father. It is the most revolting and utter and absolute and heartless tyranny the human species has ever evolved. But at least you can die and leave North Korea.”

  • dust

    Michael B….yes, not so original, as usual, observations from kitchens, re: n. korea….life is sh!t and then you die :(

    cheers!

  • dust

    Michael B….yes, not so original, as usual, observations from kitchens, re: n. korea….life is sh!t and then you die :(

    cheers!

  • William

    For Mr Kitchens I expect he described his life pretty accurately.

  • William

    For Mr Kitchens I expect he described his life pretty accurately.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X