Francis Crick begins his book The Astonishing Hypothesis (1994) with this declaration of materialistic faith:
The Astonishing Hypothesis is that "You," your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: "You’re nothing but a pack of neurons." This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can truly be called astonishing.
The vast majority of all people throughout human history have found the equivalent materialistic hypothesis of their age (if any were available) against common sense. Ancient Greek atomists encouraged their readers to imagine a world of just atoms moving eternally through a void. Although the ancient terminology was different than that of Crick in 1994, it amounts to the same basic philosophy. Crick, as one of the co-discovers of the structure of DNA in the 1950s, has made a habit of uttering such materialistic statements of faith now and then.
Have any prominent non-theistic intellectuals in recent times challenged materialistic reductionism (especially in its neo-Darwinian form)? Yes, and the most recent towering example is that of philosopher Thomas Nagel in his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012). Here is how the publisher describes the book:
The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history, either. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such. Nagel's skepticism is not based on religious belief or on a belief in any definite alternative. In Mind and Cosmos, he does suggest that if the materialist account is wrong, then principles of a different kind may also be at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic. In spite of the great achievements of the physical sciences, reductive materialism is a world view ripe for displacement. Nagel shows that to recognize its limits is the first step in looking for alternatives, or at least in being open to their possibility.
The "teleological" alternative to materialism mentioned here refers to a goal-directed, purposeful account of the world. Such an explanation is superior to an undirected material process, because it allows us to make sense of something we know very well: the life of our own minds. We are creatures that have minds capable of conceiving plans and carrying them out sequentially in time in order to reach a predetermined goal. Materialistic Darwinism denies all of this purposeful action as mere illusion. But, note that goal-directed action also includes the work of materialistic scientists in their own laboratories (despite their materialistic faith). Such scientists make observations with the goal of confirming or disconfirming certain hypotheses. Science itself is a goal-directed process that materialism fails to account for. Nagel and many other thoughtful people are aware of this. Unsurprisingly, Nagel has been branded a heretic for calling materialistic Darwinism into question.
In the last few days at ENV a number of postings have cast futher light on the controversy over Nagel's daring criticism of materialist evolutionary biology. Here are a few snips of the buzz. Let's begin with comments about a review of Nagel's book in the journal Science, the leading journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS):
What to do? Call the book "worth pondering," then dismiss it as "flawed." But why ponder a flawed book?
In her review, "A Flawed Challenge Worth Pondering," Musholt characterizes science in veiled god-of-the-gaps lingo: science is something that is "laying ever-increasing claims on questions once regarded as unanswerable by empirical means." This places Nagel as the next in a long line of hurdle-builders, challenging naturalism's inexorable progress, erecting a seemingly insurmountable hurdle: in this case, consciousness. It's not that this is a real hurdle, Musholt writes; it just seems to be: "Consciousness simply does not seem to be reducible to the functional role played by states or processes in the brain."
Having thus positioned Nagel, Musholt admires his hurdle-construction, but sees naturalistic science as too big to fail. She briefly summarizes why Nagel discounts natural selection as capable of evolving consciousness, and why consciousness cannot be a mere "spandrel" (unintended by-product) of evolution. The hurdle looks impressive, she admits, but science cannot go back to Aristotelian final causes. Read more.
In another ENV piece on Nagel's provocative book we find this:
Thomas Nagel's Mind & Cosmos is important for a variety of reasons.
One is the way it is functioning as an invitation to come in from the cold to thoughtful people who privately doubted the Darwinian-materialist picture of reality but weren't ready to come out as Darwin skeptics. That was partly because, till now, doing so would typecast you, in some people's eyes, in an unattractive way.
It would invite catcalls or worse from the Darwin enforcers, not least the bands of stunted, underemployed frequently pseudonymous guys who populate the Darwin blogs and seem to have an amazing amount of time on their hands. (To go along with it, you only wish they had the courage to use their real names.) Anybody "who starts to wander off from the herd," as Andy Ferguson writes in a wonderful cover story in The Weekly Standard, would invite torrents of personal abuse from this mob.
Read more about the heretical Nagel and the punishment to which he has been subjected. Many materialistic Darwinists are quite upset about Nagel's book. Learn why.