Atheist "Raked Over the Coals"
- The critics have focused much of their ire on what Nagel calls "natural teleology," the hypothesis that the universe has an internal logic that inevitably drives matter from nonliving to living, from simple to complex, from chemistry to consciousness, from instinctual to intellectual.
This internal logic isn't God, Nagel is careful to say. It is not to be found in religion. Still, the critics haven't been mollified. According to orthodox Darwinism, nature has no goals, no direction, no inevitable outcomes. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, is among those who took umbrage. When I asked him to comment for this article, he wrote, "Nagel is a teleologist, and although not an explicit creationist, his views are pretty much anti-science and not worth highlighting. However, that's The Chronicle's decision: If they want an article on astrology (which is the equivalent of what Nagel is saying), well, fine and good."
The odd thing is, however, that for all of this academic high dudgeon, there actually are scientists—respected ones, Nobel Prize-winning ones—who are saying exactly what Nagel said, and have been saying it for decades. Strangely enough, Nagel doesn't mention them. Neither have his critics. This whole imbroglio about the philosophy of science has left out the science.
- Nagel really got their noses out of joint by sympathizing with theorists of intelligent design. "They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met," he wrote. "It is manifestly unfair." To be sure, he was not agreeing with them. He notes several times that he is an atheist and has no truck with supernatural gods. He views the ID crowd the way a broad-minded capitalist would sum up Marx: right in his critique, wrong in his solutions. But ID, he says, does contain criticisms of evolutionary theory that should be taken seriously.
Whatever the validity of this stance, its timing was certainly bad. The war between New Atheists and believers has become savage, with Richard Dawkins writing sentences like, "I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sadomasochistic, and repellent. We should also dismiss it as barking mad. ..." In that climate, saying anything nice at all about religion is a tactical error.
And Nagel is diffident about his ideas. Take this sentence, which packs four negatives into 25 words: "I am not confident that this Aristotelian idea of teleology without intention makes sense, but I do not at the moment see why it doesn't." Mind and Cosmos is full of such negatively phrased assertions. If you're going to make a controversial claim, it helps to do so positively. It also helps to enlist distinguished allies. Nagel has done nothing of the sort. Which is strange, because he has plenty of allies to choose from.