Science & Faith
4/20/13 at 09:40 PM 146 Comments

Nagel and Flew: The Ripple Effects of Two Atheists who Abandoned Darwin

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It is remarkable that an atheist philosopher as prominent as Thomas Nagel announced in September 2012 in his book Mind and Cosmos that “the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.” While not an intelligent design (ID) advocate, Nagel argues that ID theorists “do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met.” He even grants the respectability of Michael Behe’s and Stephen Meyer’s “empirical arguments … against the likelihood that the origin of life and its evolutionary history can be fully explained by physics and chemistry.” The “problems that these iconoclasts pose for the orthodox scientific consensus should be taken seriously,” he concludes on page 10 his book.

When famous atheist philosopher Antony Flew defected from Darwinism in 2003, he went much further than Nagel has recently. Flew became a theist (of the deistic variety). This is espcially remarkable because Flew had been the most notable intellectual atheist in the English-speaking world until Richard Dawkins took up this role. In January 2004 Flew informed the prominent Christian philosopher-historian Gary Habermas that he had become a theist. While he still could not accept special revelation (the Bible, for Christians), he accepted the notion of an enormously intelligent cause of the cosmos and life. In Flew’s words, he simply “had to go where the evidence leads.” He cited the work of the intelligent design community as being instrumental in his change of mind.

On the evening of May 11, 2006 when Flew accepted the Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth (pictured left), I had dinner with Dr. and Mrs. Flew with a few others at the table of honor at Biola University. He was quite coherent in his thinking and cognitive abilities, not hopelessly senile as many internet atheists wanted to believe (an attempted materialistic dismissive explanation of their fallen hero). The Johnson award is attached to the Biola University Masters of Arts in Science and Religion Program (I teach in this interdisciplinary program, which is available as a distant education program).

What is the ripple effect of high profile intellectuals like Nagel and Flew deserting Darwinian naturalism? William Dembski writes about how it helps "create conceptual space for intelligent design." Dembski observes:

Thomas Nagel, with his just published Mind & Cosmos, has now become another such defector from Darwinian naturalism. Appearing from Oxford University Press and subtitled Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, this slender volume (it's only 130 pages) represents the most disconcerting defection (disconcerting to Darwinists) from Darwinian naturalism to date. We're still not talking the Berlin Wall coming down, but it's not hard to see it as a realistic possibility, off in the distance, after reading this book.

Because intelligent design is still a minority position that is widely marginalized by the media and mainstream science, it's easy for defenders of intelligent design to wax apocalyptic. Indeed, it's a very natural impulse to want to throw off the shackles of an oppressive and powerful majority, especially when one views their authority as unwarranted and unjust. So I have to keep my own impulses in check when I make comments about the Berlin Wall coming down.... But Thomas Nagel is a very major intellectual on the American scene and his no-holds-barred deconstruction of Darwinian naturalism is just the sort of critique, coupled with others to be sure, that will, if anything, unravel Darwin's legacy.

Nagel is a philosopher at New York University. Now in his 70s, he has been a towering figure in the field, and his essays were mandatory reading, certainly when I was a graduate student in philosophy in the early 1990s. His wildly popular essay "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" takes on reductionist accounts of mind, and his books Mortal Questions (Cambridge, 1979) and The View from Nowhere (Oxford, 1986) seemed to be in many of my fellow graduate students' backpacks.

... Now Nagel in Mind & Cosmos ... is measured and calm, but he is no less adamant that the bullying by Darwinists needs to stop. Perhaps with Richard Dawkins in mind, who has remarked that dissenters from Darwin are either ignorant, stupid, wicked, insane, or brainwashed, Nagel writes,

I realize that such doubts [about Darwinian naturalism] will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.

Nagel has nailed it here. The threat of being branded unscientific in the name of a patently ill-supported Darwinian evolutionary story is the thing that most keeps Darwinism alive (certainly not the evidence for it). We saw a similar phenomenon in the old communist Eastern bloc. Lots of people doubted Marxism-Leninism. But to express such doubt would get one branded as a reactionary. And so people kept silent.

When I was working on my Ph.D. dissertation on a Fulbright scholarship in East Germany (before the Berlin Wall came down), I got to meet privately with communist party members who quietly dissented from some components of communism. Having organized one major research conference for ID about six years ago, I am well aware of the growing number of talented graduate students in the natural sciences who are careful to fly under the radar as they do research that challenges specific components of neo-Darwinism (they have to keep quiet about their global doubts concerning Darwinism in order to avoid marginalization). Such students are fired up with more courage to challenge authoritarian Darwinism each time another major atheist like Nagel or Flew becomes a heretic relative to Darwinism. That is one of the ripple effects of defections from Darwinism. Read more of Dembski's November 2012 analysis of Nagel's important new book to learn about other ripple effects.

In February 2013 Dembski wrote another piece on Nagel: Pummeled with Pom Poms: Thomas Nagel and His Critics.

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