Saturday, February 13, 2010

Evolutionary naturalism

Thomas Nagel is one of the leading philosophers of his generation. He is also an atheist. Here’s his candid evaluation of what evolutionary naturalism entails:

“As it is usually understood, evolutionary naturalism is radically antiteleological. This implies that it is not suited to supply any kind of sense to our existence, if it is taken on as the larger perspective from which life is lived. Instead, the evolutionary perspective probably makes human life, like all life, meaningless, since it makes life a more or less accidental consequence of physics,” T. Nagel, Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament (Oxford 2010), 15.

“The profoundly nonteleological character of this modern form of naturalism is concealed by the functional explanations that fill evolutionary accounts of the characteristics of living organisms. But any reference to the function or survival value of an organ or other feature is shorthand for a long story of purposeless mutations followed, because of environmental contingencies, by differential reproductive fitness–survival of offspring or other relatives with the same genetic material. It is in the most straightforward sense false that we have eyes in order to see and a heart to pump the blood,” ibid. 15.

“That conception, far from offering us a sense of who we are, dissolves any sense of purpose or true nature that we may have begun with. The meaning of organic life vanishes in the meaninglessness of physics, of which it is one peculiar consequence. It is widely thought that, without knowing the details, we now have every reason to believe that life arose from a lifeless universe, in virtue of the basic laws of particle physics or string theory or something of the kind, which did not have life or us ‘in mind,’ ibid. 16.

“A genealogy of this kind gives us nothing to live by. As Daniel Dennett says, it is ‘universal acid: it eats through just about every traditional concept.’ To live, we must fall back on our contingently formed desires, reserving the scientific world picture for intellectual and instrumental purposes. If naturalism means that everything reduces to physics, then there is no naturalistic answer to the cosmic question [i.e. ‘How can one bring into one’s individual life a full recognition of one’s relation to the universe as a whole?],” ibid. 16.


  1. "..we now have every reason to believe that life arose from a lifeless universe"

    The one atheist I discuss the cosmos with never uses the word believe.

    He simply says know, or perhaps think.

    For he still has no answer to: "There had to be an eternal something. Either an eternal gas, or rock, or something? For if there was nothing in the beginning, then there would still be nothing.
    And so where did this eternal thing come from? That is the question that they have no answer for.

    And it matters not, because they honour and esteem Darwin above every man who ever lived seems like to me.

  2. I appreciate the "honesty" of Nagel's assessment of the existential consequences of Naturalistic Evolution.

    I think that most Atheists cringe inwardly to conceive of a society or culture that operates on the premise that their lives are meaningless. Would atheists, for example, vote to disband police, fire, and rescue departments on the basis that the lives purportedly "at stake" were meaningless?

    Through what moral framework or upon what moral principles would would atheists contend that such acts as murder or institutions such as slavery are objectionable?

    If life is meaningless, then the loss of life is also meaningless.