Plantinga Reviews Mind and Cosmos

The New Republic has published an excellent review of atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, by Alvin Plantinga.

Here are excerpts from the review listing the four areas where Nagel objects to materialist naturalism as being reasonable:

1. Mind and Cosmos rejects, first, the claim that life has come to be just by the workings of the laws of physics and chemistry…. As Nagel remarks, “It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis."

2. The second plank of materialist naturalism that Nagel rejects is the idea that, once life was established on our planet, all the enormous variety of contemporary life came to be by way of the [unguided] processes evolutionary science tells us about: natural selection operating on genetic mutation, but also genetic drift, and perhaps other processes as well…. [Nagel:] “[T]he more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes.”

3. [Nagel] thinks it is especially improbable that consciousness and reason should come to be if materialist naturalism is true. “Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science.”

4. According to Nagel, materialist naturalism has great difficulty with consciousness, but it has even greater difficulty with cognition. He thinks it monumentally unlikely that unguided natural selection should have “generated creatures with the capacity to discover by reason the truth about a reality that extends vastly beyond the initial appearances.” He is thinking in particular of science itself.

      Plantinga explains each of these areas in more detail, and his review is fascinating. I’ve resisted the temptation to quote more extensively because 1) there’s too much good stuff in there, and I wouldn’t know where to stop, and 2) you really should read the whole thing.

      But I will close with an illustration given by Plantinga in response to an objection we’re likely to hear to the arguments above: “But the improbable happens all the time. It is not at all improbable that something improbable should happen.”

      Consider an example. You play a rubber of bridge involving, say, five deals. The probability that the cards should fall just as they do for those five deals is tiny—something like one out of ten to the 140th power. Still, they did. Right. It happened. The improbable does indeed happen. In any fair lottery, each ticket is unlikely to win; but it is certain that one of them will win, and so it is certain that something improbable will happen. But how is this relevant in the present context? In a fit of unbridled optimism, I claim that I will win the Nobel Prize in chemistry. You quite sensibly point out that this is extremely unlikely, given that I have never studied chemistry and know nothing about the subject. Could I defend my belief by pointing out that the improbable regularly happens? Of course not: you cannot sensibly hold a belief that is improbable with respect to all of your evidence.

      Amy K. Hall

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