I just read two good, intelligent essays on opposite sides of the Darwin-design debate. I enjoyed them both: the pro-Darwin one stylistically, and the anti-Darwin one substantively. Since this is shaping up to be the intellectual hinge or fulcrum of our time, it's interesting to compare them.
Pro-Darwin is Adam Gopnik's lovely New Yorker essay-review (not online, dammit) of Darwin's four essential works in a new one-volume edition, From So Simple a Beginning, introduced by sociobiologist and "scientific humanist" E.O Wilson. Describing a royal flush of other recent books exploring facets of Darwin's work and the metaphysical revolution it wrought -- an overthrow even more wrenching than the Copernican -- Gopnik both chronicles and takes part in what looks more and more like a religious activity: the proliferation of commentary on the every word of a founding father who's being turned into a progenitor demigod. As in some primitive creation myth, our world sprang forth from Darwin's loins (or broins). Daniel Dennett has frankly described him as the God-slayer, the firebringer of a rival cosmology in which democratic chance and capitalist competition are the two blind knives whetting against each other to carve out our world -- Benihana steak-swords whirling without a wielder.
Gopnik writes in a warmly complacent tone that assumes the revolution is a fait accompli and all that's left is a thousand-year mop-up operation, a materialist millennium. One of the activities proper to this period is finding all the wonder and grandeur in nature's accidental creation that will console us for the toppling of theology (see George Levine's Darwin Loves you: Natural Selection and the Reenchantment of the World). Another is narrating and celebrating how the culture hero brought the light. According to Gopnik, Darwin pretty much knew he was overthrowing God (not without sorrow for people like his own wife, who turned as much to faith after their adored daughter's death as Darwin turned away from it) and cannily found a wide-eyed, modest, "Who, me?" way to do it. Most delightful is Gopnik's account of how closely Darwin's writing strategy resembled that of a Victorian novelist -- George Eliot (who was his friend) or Trollope (from whom Darwin took a motto):
This is Darwin's method: an apparently modest allegiance to mere fact gathering abruptly crystallizes into a whole world view.
To call this novelistic is not to assert a cosmetic likeness; it is to see how closely bound storytelling and truth-seeking can be.
But lest we assume that The Truth is indeed what Darwin found, Thomas Nagel, writing in The New Republic, steps in and says "Not so fast, Louie."
What I love about Nagel's elegant essay is that he is not a creationist, and not even a confident Intelligent Design advocate; he just doesn't think scientific atheists like Richard Dawkins have remotely proven their assertion that life must have arisen and diversified strictly by random chance and blind competition. But neither is Nagel convinced that the traditional concept of an omnipotent, omniscient creator God outside of nature is a greater truth to which we must return. No, he broaches the possibility -- just breathes it -- that if we ever inch a little closer to the true nature of reality, it might completely blow the simple minds of religious people and scientists alike:
Dawkins sets out with care his position on a question of which the importance cannot be exaggerated: the question of what explains the existence and character of the astounding natural order we can observe in the universe we inhabit. On one side is what he calls "the God Hypothesis," namely that "there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us." On the other side is Dawkins's alternative view: "any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it." In Dawkins's view, the ultimate explanation of everything, including evolution, may be found in the laws of physics [ ... ]
This pair of stark alternatives may not exhaust the possibilities, but it poses the fundamental question clearly. [ ... ]
If the God hypothesis makes sense at all, it offers a different kind of explanation from those of physical science [ ... ] The point of the hypothesis is to claim that not all explanation is physical, and that there is a mental, purposive, or intentional explanation more fundamental than the basic laws of physics, because it explains even them. [ ... ]
All explanations come to an end somewhere. The real opposition between Dawkins's physicalist naturalism and the God hypothesis is a disagreement over whether this end point is physical, extensional, and purposeless, or mental, intentional, and purposive. On either view, the ultimate explanation is not itself explained. The God hypothesis does not explain the existence of God, and naturalistic physicalism does not explain the laws of physics. [ ... ]
I agree with Dawkins that the issue of design versus purely physical causation is a scientific question. He is correct to dismiss Stephen Jay Gould's position that science and religion are "non-overlapping magisteria." The conflict is real. But although I am as much of an outsider to religion as he is, I believe it is much more difficult to settle the question than he thinks. I also suspect there are other possibilities besides these two that have not even been thought of yet. The fear of religion leads too many scientifically minded atheists to cling to a defensive, world-flattening reductionism. Dawkins, like many of his contemporaries, is hobbled by the assumption that the only alternative to religion is to insist that the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in particle physics [ ... ]
The concepts of physical science provide a very special, and partial, description of the world that experience reveals to us. It is the world with all subjective consciousness, sensory appearances, thought, value, purpose, and will left out. What remains is the mathematically describable order of things and events in space and time.
That conceptual purification launched the extraordinary development of physics and chemistry that has taken place since the seventeenth century. [ ... ] The reductionist project usually tries to reclaim some of the originally excluded aspects of the world, by analyzing them in physical--that is, behavioral or neurophysiological--terms; but it denies reality to what cannot be so reduced. I believe the project is doomed--that conscious experience, thought, value, and so forth are not illusions, even though they cannot be identified with physical facts.
[ ... ] We have no reason to dismiss moral reasoning, introspection, or conceptual analysis as ways of discovering the truth just because they are not physics.
A religious worldview is only one response to the conviction that the physical description of the world is incomplete. Dawkins says with some justice that the will of God provides a too easy explanation of anything we cannot otherwise understand, and therefore brings inquiry to a stop. Religion need not have this effect, but it can. It would be more reasonable, in my estimation, to admit that we do not now have the understanding or the knowledge on which to base a comprehensive theory of reality.
Now there's a truth for you: We don't know!
(What can we know,
Save that about which
We were born
~ Mr. Gobley)
Read the whole thing for Nagel's respectful but (therefore all the more) devastating demolition of Dawkins' reductionism.