Theism and Materialism

In Chapter 2 of Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel, the author explores the typical positions held by proponents of theism and by proponents of evolution.  His focus is sharpened by analysis of the different ways that each point of view attempts to make sense of human beings who are part of the world that ought to be intelligible to us.

According to Nagel, theists appeal to a deity who is outside the natural order, but who nevertheless provides intention and directionality to the natural order and who assures us of the basic reliability of our observational capacity and our reasoning ability.  It is a reassuring position at the expense of requiring a power outside of the natural order.  It suffers from a lack of any serious attempt to make human beings intelligible from within the natural order.

Evolutionary naturalists, on the other hand, claim that humanity is intelligible from within the natural order based on science and reason.  But, again according to Nagel, the problem is that both science and reason are the products of evolution and we have no authority outside of ourselves to substantiate the reliability of our understanding of science.  In Nagel’s terminology, evolutionary naturalism undermines its own claim of reliability.  Ultimately, the evolutionary explanations fail because the science that we possess has failed to explain consciousness and therefore failed to explain why we should trust the judgments arising from our consciousness.

I think Nagel is stretching too far for a criticism of the evolutionary point of view.  Its main problem is the inability for science to explain consciousness.  To find fault for the inability of evolution to provide reassurance that our reasoning is sound is the same criticism that can be applied to the theist position.   Both positions are based on faith!  Theists have faith in God based on a religious community and Darwinian evolutionists have faith in science based on the scientific community.  If anything, the evolutionary point of view has the advantage in that the scientific community is generally more unified and disciplined than the religious community.

The primary distinction between the two points of view, then, is the position and importance that each assigns to humanity.  Theism relies on a power outside the normal purview of science to explain and give meaning to human life and consciousness while evolution relies solely on current science at the expense of diminishing any essential or transcendent importance for human life and consciousness.

Nagel is searching for middle ground.  He wants an explanation for consciousness that does not rely on a power outside the natural order.  At this point in his book, I think he fails to see that any such explanation will be relying on faith in something.  Whether that something is science or philosophy or some combination, it will still be the object of faith.  Given the constraints on his search that there can be no power outside the natural order, his explanation would not be able to claim any more authority than evolutionary materialism.

From my point of view, a form of theism that provides a way for God to work through the natural order provides the best alternative.  The importance and discipline of science is maintained and modified so that human life and consciousness have access to transcendent power for guidance and assurance.

Scientific reductionism ends at the quantum boundary, so the assumption of transcendent consciousness working at the quantum level provides for the needed adjustment to science while maintaining the entire scientific edifice based on empirical evidence and reductionist explanation.  And there is scientific evidence for an order producing power working at the quantum level.  This evidence is being developed by the nascent scientific discipline of quantum biology.

The strongest evidence to date comes from quantum action during photosynthesis, but I expect much more evidence as quantum biology matures.  After all, isn’t all of physics based on quantum action?  The only alternative besides dualism would be a view that posits new scientific principles acting at the biological level.  But, it seems to me that there is too much continuity between chemistry and biology.  That continuity leaves little room for wholly new principles to be plausible.


One thought on “Theism and Materialism

  1. couldn’t the continuity in chemistry and biology merely be caused by our evolutionary perception, which is quite consistent on the macro level? I don’t think science necessitates faith, although too many scientists do practice faith and it leads them to believe silly things like that there is an invisible hand named gravity pulling objects together instead of thinking of “gravity” as a term used to refer to an observable and empirically justifiable trend in experience. There is no actual invisible force called gravity that can be proved to exist, just as there is no reason to believe in anything supernatural.

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