Patrick White, Guest Columnist
In a series of essays on the existence of God, Pastor Boyne scolded Jamaican atheists for what he believes to be their ignorance of the latest philosophical thinking. However, if it is the pastor's intention to be taken seriously, he must first show that his hand-picked philosophers have something fresh and consequential to say. Regrettably, this has not been the case so far.
The pastor's recommendation that we turn to selected foreign 'experts' seems to be our religious community's preferred response when it is faced with a challenge. Boyne's foreign expert is Thomas Nagel, PhD, an ageing professor whose most recent book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, seems to have captured the pastor's imagination.
This book is embraced by fundamentalists delighted to see an admitted atheist attack Darwin, especially since the attack is based on "directed" evolution, a concept that is similar to their own Intelligent Design. Finally, there is something, anything, to counter the growing weight of scientific and archaeological evidence against the Bible.
The central argument in the book is understanding the brain is insufficient to explain consciousness. From this, Nagel concludes evolution cannot explain consciousness, because its effects are limited to the material brain. He goes on to argue that if evolution cannot explain consciousness, which is an important aspect of nature, it must, therefore, be flawed.
At this point, one should note that, if the slightest hint of scholarship were present in this reasoning, Nagel would most likely be in Stockholm to receive one of this year's Nobel Prizes. Upsetting Evolution would be that important. The theory is supported by more than a century of observations. It is the foundation of modern biology, and it is widely regarded as one of the most important intellectual achievements in the entire history of mankind.
Nagel's 'proof', on the other hand, is little more than a hodgepodge of uninformed intuition. It is soundly rejected by evolutionary biologists.
An important limitation for Nagel, and like-minded philosophers, is when they eschew evidence, they are left to rely exclusively on intuition. But, the uncomfortable reality is that nature seldom agrees with intuition. Contrary to intuition, for example, the sun does not revolve around the Earth, and contrary to intuition, Newton's laws of motion, which govern the motion of everything we ordinarily see, do not apply to subatomic particles. Quantum mechanics, which even Einstein felt counter-intuitive, does.
This means that philosophers and their acolytes face a monstrous dilemma, ridicule, when their intuition fails to explain natural phenomena or marginalisation, when they retreat to the safety of the incorporeal.
In what appears to be an attempt to avoid both outcomes, some intuitively driven philosophers have mastered the art of cherry-picking arguments or evidence that support their intuition. The hope may be that this strategy gives their arguments the appearance of soundness and objectivity that they desperately seek. Nagel's goal, for example, seems to be to construct a 'reality' around his conviction that consciousness is outside the scope of biology. Boyne's, to uncritically embrace the poorly developed views of like-minded philosophers, while rejecting (without serious argument) the more reasoned arguments of scientists with opposing views.
Pastor Boyne seems to believe science works in this way: that most scientists buy into a system of beliefs, 'scientism', as he calls it, that the universe is orderly, intelligible and regular. Science, to him, is about justifying these characteristics, even if they are false.
Obviously, this pastor does not know many scientists. If he did, he would know that most scientists are not conformists, hidebound, contented, where it suits their interests, to accept an Iron Age culture and understanding of the world.
Science is more about nonconformists, risk-takers, challengers of conventional thinking, and blazers of new trails. Scientists with these traits are the ones favoured in the competition for research grants, the competition to publish in the most respected journals, and the competition to present at the most influential conferences. Obviously, with the intensity of this competition, cooperation among scientists, even on important topics, is often difficult; on silly preconceptions (that are known to be wrong), it would be impossible.
The pastor is correct when he hints that continued scientific progress, answering nature's most difficult questions, might ultimately breed arrogance.
On the other hand, is there a plausible alternative? The scope of science is indeed limited to the set of measurable phenomena. Are there phenomena outside this scope that we should care about? On this question, the late Austrian physicist and Nobel laureate Wolfgang Pauli has a thoughtful answer: "One should no more rack one's brain about the problem of whether something one cannot know anything about exists all the same, than about the ancient question of how many angels are able to sit on the point of a needle."
Patrick White holds a doctorate in engineering and led research groups at Bell Laboratories and Bellcore (Telcordia). Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.