There has been a new development among the pop-academia opposed to religion and the belief in God. In some ways, it resembles honesty.
“With me the horrid doubt always arises,” Charles Darwin once admitted to a friend, “whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”
And so begins the troubles of the naturalist.
The big questions of life often create significant dividing lines in belief, and how we answer some of those questions often has a ripple effect in our thinking. For example, if you read the essay series by the John Templeton foundation on the question, “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” many other issues (like the existence of God and the problem of evil) are brought up in the process. As with the dilemma Darwin faced, if man is the product of chance, so is his reason, and if his reason is the product of chance, it is untrustworthy. Yet, at that point, the argument undermines itself: if we cannot trust the human mind, we also cannot trust Darwin’s mind. Thus, the naturalist (i.e. someone who believes the physical universe is all there is), like all other belief systems, must answer the fundamental questions of existence — including our confidence in our own cognitive abilities.
The aforementioned Templeton series is an interesting collection of opinions from various influential individuals. Christian de Duve mounted the most serious argument against the idea that the universe has a purpose. He opens by pointing out that the entire question of whether the universe has a “purpose” implies a God with a mind to think of a purpose and a means to work that out. Since this “anthropocentric view of creation” is not “readily reconciled” with the theory of evolution, de Duve discards the entire notion of purpose. Immediately proceeding from there, de Duve tells us how he prefers to believe, along with “most biologists,” that “life and mind [are] cosmic imperatives, written into the very fabric of the universe, rather than as extraordinarily improbable products of chance.” Yet this view simply begs the question. It doesn’t explain why or how the universe could create life and mind, it just chucks everything up to “ultimate reality.” Because of this, his arguments are unimpressive to say the least.
Neil Tyson — physicist and the leader of the “not sure” club among the respondents — argues that everyone should be unsure: “Anyone who expresses a more definitive response to the question is claiming access to knowledge not based on empirical foundations.” Yet his presupposition that empirical foundations are superior to non-empirical foundations is itself a claim without an empirical basis.
Sorry Mr. Tyson.
Curiously, it is the several respondents who claimed that the universe did have a purpose that provided the most interesting and compelling arguments. Some argued that the fine-tuning in the universe indicates a God and a purpose; a few others advanced that our ability to comprehend scientific principles and participate in rational mathematics support the idea of purpose; and still others asserted that basic human drives for goodness and truth point directly to a purpose.
A significant example of the philosophical shift away from naturalism begins with the famous atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel and his most recent book Mind and Cosmos; a book with the telling subtitle “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.” The reasons this book bears significance is not because someone has argued that materialism is false, but primarily because the author wasn’t supposed to make such an argument.
Let me explain.
A month after the book was published, a group of prominent atheist scientists and philosophers — including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Alex Rosenberg — held a conference about “Moving Naturalism Forward” in which Nagel’s book was identified as a source for much distress and derangement among naturalists. Indeed, the Guardian gave the book the title of “Most Despised Science Book of 2012” and Prospect Magazine felt compelled to defend Nagel’s sanity.
You see, when a religious person argues that naturalism is false, that’s expected. But when a prominent atheist (who is still an atheist, by the way) claims that naturalism and Neo-Darwinsim is false, it’s time for a serious rebuke along with with a consideration of excommunication by the establishment. Philosophy Magazine‘s description of his work as “irresponsible,” is akin to the public backlash after a pastor creates a scandal. In short, Thomas Nagel is an apostate of the Naturalistic faith.
Many atheists and naturalists would strongly object to describing any of their activities as religious. In fact, I’ve met atheists who define atheism as “no religion” — but that’s not true. Atheism (atheos) literally translates as “without God.” In this sense, even Buddhists are atheists while remaining religious. As the philosopher Eric Voegelin told us in 1952, “When God is invisible behind the world, the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.” Instead of worshiping the supernatural, the naturalist worships the physical and the empirical.
Do you remember when your parents told you that the monsters under your bed are just as scared of you as you are of them? Well, as much as Christians are scared by naturalists because they are portrayed as being rational and having the evidence, it turns out that naturalists are scared of religion too. In Thomas Nagel’s essay “Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion” he says, “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 there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” This is nothing but a more extreme version of Christian de Duve’s statements about what his “opinion” and what he “prefers” to think about the purpose of the universe. There’s nothing empirical about this because fundamental philosophy cannot be emperical; rather, it is the philosophy that the world is rational, observable, and comprehensible that underpins empiricism. As physicist, cosmologist, and astrobiologist Paul Davies asserts, “If the universe is truly pointless, then it is also incomprehensible, and the rational basis of science collapses.”
Mind and Cosmos, however, is seen as an attack on the naturalistic orthodoxy. Indeed, later in Nagel’s essay, he depicts the biological reductionism that many naturalists use to dismiss problems like human consciousness as “ludicrous.” Thomas Nagel wasn’t supposed to argue that naturalism was false because he was a member of Richard Dawkins’ congregation. Nagel wasn’t supposed to write that book because many atheists see naturalism as their only refuge from religion. But the naturalists have not escaped from religion! Indeed, no one can. Whatever we spend our time doing and where ever we look for answers will tell us what we worship. As Jonah Goldberg wryly said in the April 8th issue of National Review, “It’s one of the peculiar ironies of history that the people most eager to hang the priests are those most eager to replace them.”
Thus, it seems apparent that Nagel has denied naturalism due to its rational incoherence as a philosophy of life, and yet he denies religion because the idea of God makes him uncomfortable. Nagel isn’t alone in his feelings either. Recent findings by the Pew Research Center show that the number of Americans with no religious affiliation has been growing at a rapid pace, and today this group represents 20% American adults (most of which aren’t even looking for a religion). In this way, we can see the rise of theophobia. Indeed, Nagel is so afraid of religion that despite his faith in naturalism being turned into lies, he has begun to carve out a “third way” to view the world. However, this third way, based upon his desire for God not to exist, will not be based upon reality or truth; rather, Nagel’s third way will be based upon a fiction, a very dangerous fiction.
As Nagel and many others have found, if man is nothing but a moist robot without free will, then we are like the woman in the Dilbert comic: our world doesn’t make sense. (To which the naturalist can only reply, “Walk it off.”) But by excluding theology, religion, and God in our search for answers, we exclude the truth.
Now I have seen the warnings, screaming from all sides
It’s easy to ignore them and God knows I’ve tried
All of this temptation, it turned my faith to lies
Until I couldn’t see the danger or hear the rising tide
—Take It Back by Pink Floyd