Friday, January 3, 2014

Deistic Evolution

I have an enthusiastic book recommendation for any deist.  Although written by an atheist, I believe it has the best solution for those of us who assert both that God exists and that evolution is a fact, which describes every deist that I know.

Materialist Naturalism (MN) has become the default position in the sciences.  According to MN, there is nothing supernatural in the world (MN is therefore necessarily atheistic), and everything is fundamentally matter or a function of matter.  For MN, evolution by natural selection is the explanation for all that we see in the biological realm including life itself, consciousness, and the ability to reason.

Thomas Nagel is one of the most famous and important living American philosophers.  Surprisingly, as an atheist, Nagel argues in this book that MN faces insurmountable difficulties so severe that it simply cannot be a plausible candidate as an intellectually sufficient worldview.  For him, no materialist philosophy has ever succeeded in explaining the reliability of our rational faculties without engaging in circular reasoning, our subjective experience of consciousness, or the objective nature of morality.

In addition to the physical and chemical laws that MN recognizes, Nagel suggests that there is another kind of law operative in the universe—a “teleological” law.  In a nod to the ancient metaphysics of Aristotle, Nagel offers an atheistic, naturalistic worldview that incorporates a teleological law that “guides” or “inclines” things to move in the direction of life, consciousness, reasoning, and value. 

However, by affirming a “teleological” approach and rejecting MN’s “efficient causal” approach, Nagel also rejects theism’s “intentional” approach, as well.  In doing so, he retains the naturalism of MN and rejects the materialism.  Perhaps his view could be called “Neutral Monistic Naturalism,” in which something underlying both matter and mind guides them (in a non-intentional way) to develop together in biological evolution.

As a deist, I affirm the existence of God just as much as a theist does.  I am not convinced that Nagel’s atheistic teleology makes any sense, because there is no explanation in his system of why the universe inclines in one way rather than another.  This, to my mind, forces Nagel to rely on precisely the “brute facts” that he is trying to avoid in the MN worldview.  Affirming the existence of a Supreme Being, with whatever its philosophical problems are, strikes me as the best way to avoid these dreaded "brute facts."

In the context of this debate, both deists and theists are considered to be in the “theistic” camp inasmuch as both affirm that God is behind the process.  However, the theist, unlike the deist, has the option of arguing that God has intervened miraculously at certain critical points (life, consciousness, reason).  The deist, denying intervention, cannot take this option.

But Nagel’s teleological approach is, I think, the best inspiration for a deistic evolution that I have found, once it is combined with God’s intentions.  For the deist, the ultimate explanation is certainly “intentional,” insofar as it is God’s will that it occur; however, the deist can argue that God infused the creation with “teleology”—a distinct tendency to move in a certain direction.  With Nagel’s teleological approach, the deist now has a way of conceptualizing how evolution by natural selection can tend toward the goal of producing self-reflective, rational beings without any special intervention.  God "baked it in the cake," as it were.

Nagel writes:  “My preference for an immanent, natural explanation is congruent with my atheism.  But even a theist who believes God is ultimately responsible for the appearance of conscious life could maintain that this happens as part of a natural order that is created by God, but that it does not require further divine intervention.  A theist not committed to dualism in the philosophy of mind could suppose that the natural possibility of mind resides already in the character of the elements out of which those organisms are composed, perhaps supplemented by laws of psychophysical emergence.  To make the possibility of conscious life a consequence of the natural order created by God while ascribing its actuality to subsequent divine intervention would then seem an arbitrary complication.  Some form of teleological naturalism should for these reasons seem no less credible than an interventionist explanation, even to those who believe that God is ultimately responsible for everything” (103).

Something to think about!

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