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Atheists Against Darwinism - Page 13

Against Reticence: Why Thomas Nagel Should Embrace ID

In Nagel's view: "A theory that defies common sense can be true, but doubts about its truth should be suppressed only in the face of exceptionally strong evidence."[118] Nagel is "skeptical of the claims of traditional evolutionary theory. . ."[119] The conjunction of these propositions surely leaves Nagel endorsing "common sense", by which I take him to mean the universally acknowledged impression of design in nature. After all: "The evidence for [evolution] is supposed to be evidence for the absence of purpose in the causation of the development of life-forms on this planet . . . It displaces design by proposing an alterative"[120] Failure to establish an alternative is failure to displace design.

Moreover, Nagel views Behe's critique of the extrapolation from "micro" to "macro" evolution as a methodologically correct argument that, if sound, supports his own skepticism about Darwinism. Yet, despite the fact that he thinks no empirical refutation of ID "has ever been . . . established"[121], Nagel is reticent about ID. Why? He confesses his reticence has a metaphysical source:

I do not regard divine intervention as a possibility, even though I have no other  candidates.[122]

That is, since a) he has no candidate for the role of designer besides divinity, and b) he regards divine design as impossible, he concludes that he can't embrace ID (Nagel's argument is explicitly person relative).

Regarding a) it's unclear if Nagel thinks there's something relevant to his agnosticism about ID in the fact that (i) he lacks a prior belief in any actual candidate designer, or (ii) in the fact he can't think of a hypothetical designer candidate, besides God. Of course, (ii) can only feature as a factor in Nagel's argument on the condition that he regards divine design as impossible. Moreover, Nagel most plausibly means (i), both because this interpretation follows naturally from his focus on possibility in the preceding clause about divinity, and because it seems unlikely that he can't conceive any designer candidates besides God.

Given that Nagel means (i), the implied assumption - that rationally accepting a design inference requires prior belief in a plausible designer candidate - is false. Suppose the SETI program discovered a signal telling us how to build a working warp drive engine. It would be irrational not to attribute such a signal to design, even if we had a prior belief in the non-existence of extra-terrestrials! Design inferences don't depend upon a prior belief in the existence of actual designer candidates. They depend upon the belief that it's possible that a designer might exist: "ID . . . requires only that design be admitted as a possibility . . ."[123] Moreover, this assumption is bound up in Nagel's recognition that the common sense design alternative to Darwinism carries the presumption of truth (since real design entails a real designer, and real designers must of course be possible).

Regarding (b), Nagel admits: "I recognize that this is because of an aspect of my overall worldview that does not rest on empirical grounds or any other kind of rational grounds."[124] This unwarranted presupposition adversely affects Nagel's assessment of ID:

I do not think the existence of God can be disproved. So someone who can offer serious scientific reasons to doubt the adequacy of the theory of evolution, and who believes in God, in the same immediate way that I believe there is no god, can quite reasonably conclude that the hypothesis of design should be taken seriously.[125]

Nagel doesn't embrace ID because he doesn't believe in God. That's like rejecting a design inference from crop-circles because one doesn't believe in aliens! To take a design inference seriously, one need only regard the existence of a designer per se as a possibility. And recognition that the design hypothesis enjoys the presumption of truth (something Nagel appears to acknowledge) includes the recognition that the existence of a designer per se is a possibility! Nagel's reticence about ID rests upon a failure to recognize that the design hypothesis provides the embarkation point, rather than the terminus, to debate over the nature of the designer.

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