Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion

posted by Dr. James G. Hood
Friday, May 28, 2010

 In The Last Word, Nagel discusses a common problem plaguing contemporary culture: the fear of religion. Nagel argues that Darwinian naturalism has encouraged this misguided conclusion, but the Darwinian perspective is incomplete. Therefore, religion can be a reasonable system of belief for the critical and philosophically inclined mind insofar as reason is employed throughout the religious exploration.

            The fact that Nagel comes to this conclusion after he himself tried his hardest to assert atheism as the only viable alternative attests to the compelling case against Darwinian evolutionary theory as the sole explanatory theory about the human condition and our relationship to the world. Nagel observes that Darwin allowed the world to take comfort in a world of meaninglessness, but he notes that believing in God is no more threatening than believing in the basic laws of physics. Along this line of thought, Nagel comes to the conclusion that the existence of the mind is a datum that must be explained. As a result, Nagel hypothesizes that the laws governing the universe (including those leading to the formation of consciousness) are intelligible (and this claim is not necessarily inconsistent with certain religious perspectives involving God).

            Having established a hypothesis, Nagel actively attacks the evolutionary perspective in order to demonstrate the superiority of his hypothesis. The discussion by Nozick demonstrates that if reasoning is a result of adaptive functioning then the trustworthiness of results from reasoning are seriously put into question because the results are biological products not necessarily biological products that are true reflections of reality. Additionally, Nagel points out another argument that appears throughout the book: the conclusion from the evolutionary perspective is only acceptable if it is supported by reason. Requiring reason runs contrary to an argument that tries to do without it. Nagel then goes on to point out the uncertainties in evolutionary theory and the necessary points of consideration to make it a sound theory (even though he has already illustrated problems). The thorough discussion so far leads Nagel to step back and look at the two key hypotheses being debated: evolutionary and rationalist conceptions of humanity. Ultimately, Nagel concludes that even though biological processes play a role in the human brain, there is a mind that exists with universally applicable reasoning skills. A completely subjective, meaningless existence therefore is unthinkable.

            To me, Nagel’s argument is sound and compelling although I fear my perspective has been stilted by my own desire for a world filled with objectivity and some semblance of meaning.

Works Cited

Nagel, Thomas. The Last Word. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.

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