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Making common cause with non-materialist atheists

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Also: Excerpt “What is intelligent design?”

William A. Dembski

William DembskiBeing as Communion: a Metaphysics of Information will be published later this year by Ashgate Publishing (UK):

In his book Mind & Cosmos, Nagel recognizes the bankruptcy of materialism in its mechanistic understanding of nature, but at the same time he wants to find a naturalistic basis for the teleology that animates nature. I desire to make common cause with such naturalistic nonmaterialists not because it is politically expedient in the controversy with Darwinian materialism but because theistic and naturalistic nonmaterialists are both attempting, without the blinders of materialism, to understand how teleology operates in nature. Thus, it seems to me, both sides should be able to come to some basic, even if limited, agreement on how teleology operates in nature and, at those points of agreement, advance a common teleological understanding of nature.

One problem, he notes, is that theists (like himself) may regard non-materialist atheist approaches as a “poor metaphysical substitute for divine action,” but they in turn may view divine action as an unnecessary addition to and  distraction from “teleology as it actually operates in nature.”

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Both sides should be able to come to some basic, even if limited, agreement on how teleology operates in nature and, at those points of agreement, advance a common teleological understanding of nature.

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Dembski notes that Nagel’s own approach makes such a collaboration possible when he writes,

Even though the theistic outlook, in some versions, is consistent with the available scientific evidence, I don’t believe it, and am drawn instead to a naturalistic, though non-materialist, alternative. Mind, I suspect, is not an inexplicable accident or a divine and anomalous gift but a basic aspect of nature that we will not understand until we transcend the built-in limits of contemporary scientific orthodoxy. I would add that even some theists might find this acceptable; since they could maintain that God is ultimately responsible for such an expanded natural order, as they believe he is for the laws of physics.

He argues that both parties can agree that “certain items of information in nature are beyond the reach of purely material processes and should properly be traced to a nonmaterial source of information.” Nagel himself seems to hold that view of the origin of life:

[N]o viable account, even a purely speculative one, seems to be available of how a system as staggeringly functionally complex and information-rich as a self-reproducing cell, controlled by DNA, RNA, or some predecessor, could have arisen by chemical evolution alone from a dead environment. Recognition of the problem is not limited to the defenders of intelligent design. Although scientists continue to seek a purely chemical explanation of the origin of life, there are also card-carrying scientific naturalists like Francis Crick who say that it seems almost like a miracle… Some form of natural teleology … would be an alternative to a miracle.

When people realize the significance of the fact that they are looking for an alternative to a miracle, they are not likely to accept a Darwinian just-so story.  Nagel, Dembski notes,

desires a third way, that is, a natural teleology. Although the natural teleology that Nagel wants as an alternative to Darwinian materialism remains, for now, largely speculative, he does nonetheless sketch a way to understand teleology in nature that teleologists, both naturalistic and theistic, can, it seems to me, get behind.

Specifically, Nagel proposes to understand teleology in terms of natural teleological laws. These laws would be radically different from the laws of physics and chemistry that currently are paradigmatic of the laws of nature. And yet, as we shall see, such teleological laws fit quite naturally within an information-theoretic framework. The idea that teleology in nature, especially with regard to the origin of life, requires radically new laws or principles has been circulation for several decades, and not just within the intelligent design community.

In Mind & Cosmos, Nagel’s teleological laws are essentially the directed searches (or alternative searches) that form the basis of Conservation of Information, which Dembski addresses in chapters 17 through 19 of his book. This is Nagel’s proposal:

Natural teleology would require two things. First, that the nonteleological and timeless laws of physics—those governing the ultimate elements of the physical universe, whatever they are—are not fully deterministic. Given the physical state of the universe at any moment, the laws of physics would have to leave open a range of alternative successor states, presumably with a probability distribution over them.

Second, among those possible futures there will be some that are more eligible than others as possible steps on the way to the formation of more complex systems, and ultimately of the kinds of replicating systems characteristic of life. The existence of teleology requires that successor states in this subset have a significantly higher probability than is entailed by the laws of physics alone—simply because they are on the path toward a certain outcome. Teleological laws would assign higher probability to steps on paths in state space that have a higher “velocity” toward certain outcomes [here Nagel cites an article by Hawthorne and Nolan titled “What Would Teleological Causation Be?”]. They would be laws of the self-organization of matter, essentially—or of whatever is more basic than matter.

In the book, Dembski admits that at first he dismissed Nagel’s reference to teleological laws as

more of the same handwaving on which I had surfeited over the years reading, and continually being disappointed in, the evolutionary and self-organizational literature.” After years and years of reading about laws of nature that are supposed to generate biological information, but always finding that such laws, because modeled on the laws of physics and chemistry, were too informationally poor to explain the vast amounts of information required by biology, I was psychologically primed to dismiss Nagel’s reference to teleological laws.

Finally, at Nagel’s urging, Dembski followed up on Hawthorne and Nolan (more below) and realized that they aren’t just more synchro handwavers; they have something to offer.

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The idea that teleology in nature, especially with regard to the origin of life, requires radically new laws or principles has been circulation for several decades, and not just within the intelligent design community.

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Nagel is a naturalist but he is not a materialist. He does not consider the physical constraints to which nature is subject to be deterministic. Rather, they allow nature freedom for a teleology which includes exceedingly improbable events.

Perhaps what is most significant about Nagel’s approach is his willingness to grapple with the sheer improbability of the events without resorting to some typical dodge like ascribing near miraculous powers to undersea vents, clay crystals, or formaldehyde or claiming that the explanation for whatever happened in our universe is the infinity of universes where it didn’t happen. If we were teenagers, that might be fun.

Any such informal accommodation between the two groups would be pretty controversial, but anything that isn’t nonsense is likely to be controversial in this area today.

Note: John Hawthorne and Daniel Nolan, “What Would Teleological Causation Be?” in John Hawthorne, ed., Metaphysical Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 265–283. Quoted in Thomas NagelMind & Cosmos, 92–93.

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Note: This post is reworked from one published two days ago.

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