The book is fascinating on many levels. Probably the most obvious is the fact that while he is an atheist, he speaks very highly of the Intelligent Design movement. In fact, he credits the Intelligent Design movement for stimulating his thinking on the subject of origins. He disagrees with their belief in a Designer, but he has given them a fair hearing, and he says this:
Even if one is not drawn to the alternative of an explanation by the actions of a designer, the problems that these iconoclasts pose for the orthodox scientific consensus should be taken seriously. They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair. (p.10)
But wait a minute. Aren’t the Intelligent Design arguments fatally flawed? Don’t they rest on an incredibly poor understanding of the nature of science? Not according to this philosopher. He has read both the Intelligent Design advocates and their critics, and he says:
Those who have seriously criticized these arguments have certainly shown there are ways to resist the design conclusion; but the general force of the negative part of the intelligent design position – skepticism about the likelihood of the orthodox reductive view, given the available evidence – does not appear to me to have been destroyed in these exchanges. (p. 11)
But wait a minute, isn’t the only motivation behind Intelligent Design the desire to “prove” the existence of God? Nagel says that’s certainly part of the motivation, but not all of it. After all, he mentions David Berlinski as someone who is sympathetic to the negative claims of the Intelligent Design movement but has no desire to believe in a Designer. He also says:
Nevertheless, I believe the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific world view that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents precisely to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion. (p. 12)
In the end, then, religious motivations exist on both sides. Some Intelligent Design advocates are motivated by their desire to lend evidence to their belief in a Designer, but some evolutionists are motivated by their desire to be liberated from religion. This even-handed observation is obviously true, but it is rarely made by those who do not believe in God.
Nagel’s views on intelligent design are not the only fascinating parts of this book. His views on life and its origin are equally fascinating. He is highly skeptical of the idea that life could have formed according to current schemes of abiogenesis. Here is how he puts it:
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 naive 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. (p. 6)
He is even skeptical of the Neo-Darwinian account of how life might have evolved once it was formed. Why? Because to him, one of the most important things that any theory of origins must explain is the existence of the mind. To him, the fact that humans can think in abstract terms is such a basic fact of life that any theory of origins has to be able to explain it in detail. In his mind, materialist Neo-Darwinism simply cannot do that. As a result, there must be some other explanation.
What explanation does Nagel offer? None. However, he does offer a framework in which any acceptable explanation must operate. In his mind, an acceptable theory of origins must account for consciousness, reason, and knowledge. These are such fundamental aspects of what it means to be human that they cannot be explained as some accidental “side effect” of some random physical process operated on by natural selection. To him, there is simply no way such things could have come into being unless they were “targeted” by whatever process produced what we see today.
Although this sounds a lot like he is arguing for design, he most certainly is not. Instead, he argues for a teleological view of nature. In his mind, there must be some goal-directed forces in nature. Without them, there is simply no way to produce consciousness, reason, and knowledge. He makes it clear that such goal-directed forces don’t need to come from a designer. Instead, the goals can simply be consequences of the way the laws that govern the forces work.
He honestly believes that pursuing such an explanation would be of benefit to the atheistic worldview. In his “Conclusions” section, he says:
It would be an advance if the secular theoretical establishment, and the contemporary enlightened culture which it dominates, could wean itself of the materialism and Darwinism of the gaps – to adapt one of its own pejorative tags. I have tried to show that this approach is incapable of providing an adequate account, either constitutive or historical, of our universe. (p. 127)
I think what this book represents is a truly rational atheistic view. Nagel is an atheist and has no desire to consider the existence of any kind of a designer. At the same time, however, he is rational enough to see that science doesn’t support the view that most atheists hold when it comes to origins. As a result, he recognizes that if atheism is to survive, it must abandon the failing paradigm of materialist Neo-Darwinism to seek something that is more consistent with the facts.
In some ways, this book reminded me of Dr. Bradley Monton’s book Seeking God in Science, which I reviewed here and here. While the conclusions are different, both authors are truly rational atheists, and they are both willing to write seriously about subjects that most atheists scorn or ignore.