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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Showing posts with label Thomas Nagel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Thomas Nagel. Show all posts

Monday, February 29, 2016

Why Doesn't God Prove He Exists? Because It Wouldn't Help Disbelief

One of the more popular questions that atheists ask is "Why does God make it so difficult to believe in Him? If he would just give us some proof he exists, I'd believe." I've heard such statements many times, but I don't think their claim is true. I think the atheists are misstating their case in what devotion to a real God means. They fail to understand the stubbornness of the human heart and the animosity the natural man holds against God.

One way to better understand how people in the real world react to a righteous and holy God, we can simply look to the past. For argument's sake, let's assume the stories of the Israel's deliverance from Egypt are true. There, God does a series of miracles to free the Israelites from their slavery and set them in a promised land. These are not run of the mill miracles, either, but show-stopping affairs. God dried up the Red Sea and then drowned the Egyptian army in that same sea. He provided both meat in a desert and manna with the dew each morning. He cleansed the bitter waters and also produced water from the rock at Meribah. He led them in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God gave as much evidence as one could possibly want to the Israelites.

Ignoring Evidence is a Very Human Thing to Do

One would think such grandstanding would make believing in Yahweh a slam-dunk, right? Unfortunately, no. Even though the Israelites were direct witnesses to some of the most obvious proofs of God's existence, it did not stifle their desire to abandon God and do what they pleased. The psalmist summarizes the reaction of the people in Psalm 106. Time after time, they disobey God, they don't trust God, or they turn to foreign gods. God's provision of proof didn't make the Israelites more faithful; it simply highlighted how selfish and demanding their hearts were. Nothing other than getting everything they wanted at the time they wanted it would do.

When I read the accounts of the ancient Israelites, I find their reaction to be completely human and believable. Even if you're an atheist who doesn't hold to the historicity of the accounts, you must admit that stubborn rejection of proof is a real possibility. In fact, this scenario is more probable than not. That's why people still start smoking cigarettes regardless of how big the Surgeon General's warnings appear on the package. No one is saying, "Why didn't anyone provide proof that cigarettes cause cancer?" They all know it does, but their desire trumps the evidence. The proof doesn't matter.

The resurrection of Jesus is a really good example of just how this plays out in the question of God's existence. We have as much evidence for the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus as we do any event in ancient history. If Jesus rose from the dead, then it provides evidence that God exists. There is compelling evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. Therefore, there is evidence that God exists. However, atheists will contort, excuse, deny the resurrection as not evidence, or even deny that Jesus ever lived at all (!) because they don't like the conclusion. They won't use the same standard to measure the resurrection as they would other acts of ancient history.

Thomas Nagel is a famous atheist philosopher who admits that modern materialist explanations of the emergence of consciousness fail. In his book The Last Word, he made a very honest statement about his lack of belief in God. Nagel wrote:
In speaking of the fear of religion, I don't mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.1
I think most people would agree. While many people form an idea of God that comports to their view of the world, most don't want to be beholden to a holy, righteous God that tells them the things they want to do are not good and they shouldn't do them. As long as that is fundamental to the human condition, proof of God's existence will never suffice to change their minds. It can always be explained away.


1. Nagel, Thomas. The Last Word. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Print. 130.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Consciousness Undermines Evolution

In his groundbreaking book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, philosopher Thomas Nagel identifies consciousness as a problem for not only the materialist (one who believes only physical/material things exist), but also the evolutionist. He makes the case that consciousness cannot be simply reduced to physical processes like brain synapses firing firstly because there is a difference between a brain state and the concept of pain and secondly because subjective experiences show that physical processes cannot explain all aspects of mental consciousness.

Nagel then focuses on the problem of the origin of consciousness, which he sees as a crucial issue. All evolutionary theories must account for our mental states if they are to be held as the only explanation for our existence. But since mental states cannot be accounted for through purely physical means, it is no surprise that absolutely no kind of Darwinian account exists other than assuming consciousness as a brute fact. This holds huge implications, as Nagel states:
What kind of explanation of the development of these organisms, even one that includes evolutionary theory, could account for the appearance of organisms that are not only physically adapted to the environment but also conscious subjects? In brief, I believe it cannot be a purely physical explanation. What has to be explained is not just the lacing of organic life with a tincture of qualia but the coming into existence of subjective individual points of view—a type of existence logically distinct from anything describable by the physical sciences alone. If evolutionary theory is a purely physical theory, then it might in principle provide the framework for a physical explanation of the appearance of behaviorally complex animal organisms with central nervous systems. But subjective consciousness, if it is not reducible to something physical, would not be part of this story; it would be left completely unexplained by physical evolution—even if the physical evolution of such organisms is in fact a causally necessary and sufficient condition for consciousness.

The bare assertion of such a connection is not an acceptable stopping point. It is not an explanation to say just that the physical process of evolution has resulted in creatures with eyes, ears, central nervous systems, and so forth, and that it is simply a brute fact of nature that such creatures are conscious in the familiar ways. Merely to identify a cause is not to provide a significant explanation, without some understanding of why the cause produces the effect. The claim I want to defend is that, since the conscious character of these organisms is one of their most important features, the explanation of the coming into existence of such creatures must include an explanation of the appearance of consciousness. That cannot be a separate question. An account of their biological evolution must explain the appearance of conscious organisms as such.

Since a purely materialist explanation cannot do this, the materialist version of evolutionary theory cannot be the whole truth. Organisms such as ourselves do not just happen to be conscious; therefore no explanation even of the physical character of those organisms can be adequate which is not also an explanation of their mental character. In other words, materialism is incomplete even as a theory of the physical world, since the physical world includes conscious organisms among its most striking occupants.1
Consciousness is a significant problem for the evolutionist. It fails to account for that thing that makes us human. Without consciousness we cannot even reason towards an evolutionary theory, yet all evolutionary theories have no plausible explanations for that very consciousness. It is much more reasonable to believe that materialistic accounts of life are false.


1. Nagel, Thomas. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. 44-45. Print.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Thomas Nagel on Why Materialism Fails to Explain Reason

Is reasoning ability based in only biology? We have sense perceptions, such as sight or taste, and those could be explained by the need for survival. But reason isn't like the senses.  Reason is a very peculiar thing and something that doesn't come about by use of the senses. It is different than that. For example, I may have a sense perception that I see water in the distance. I can see rippling waves on the horizon and I may assume that rippling waves mean water is present. However, once I reach that place where I thought the water to be, I see that all that lies before me is dry, barren desert.

If all I have is my sense perception, I would be caught in quite a pickle. Should I believe my senses when they tell me water is in a place or should I believe them when they tell me there is no water here? It is here I use something different than my senses to break the tie: I use reason. I can reason that while I've associated wavy ripples with water, there may be other things that cause the effect of wavy ripples that I saw. I can also reason that my senses have misled me in the past; I've seen optical illusions that are not real, though they appeared to be. I can therefore draw a conclusion that there is no water and the wavy ripples may have in fact been an optical illusion just like others I've experienced.

In all of this, reasoning has an objective quality that stands above sense experience. To reason is to shoot at an objective criterion: the truth. The truth lies outside the individual and can stand in contrast to things like sense experience. Your sense experience may tell you that the sun circles the earth, but by reason and knowledge you are able to understand that it is the earth that is circling the sun.1 This fact is as true in ancient times, when it wasn't believed, as it is today when nearly everyone believes it. The truth is, then, something that stands apart from the organism while sense experience is something subject to the organism.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel draws this distinction as well. He states:
"Thought and reasoning are correct or incorrect in virtue of something independent of the thinker's beliefs, and even independent of the community of thinkers to which he belongs. We take ourselves to form true beliefs about the world around us, about timeless domains of logic and mathematics, and about the right thing to do. We don't take these capacities to be infallible, but we think they are often reliable in an objective sense, and that they can give us knowledge. The natural internal stance of human life assumes that there is a real world, that many questions, both factual and practical, have correct answers, and that there are norms of thought which, if we follow them, will tend to lead us toward the correct answers to those questions. It assumes that to follow those norms is to respond correctly to values or reasons that we apprehend. Mathematics, science, and ethics are built on such norms."2
In in his recent book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong, he looks at the problem of deriving reason from a materialist position. He first dismisses the attempts to reduce reason to some property held within the elementary particles that make up the organism. He writes that rationality "cannot be conceived of, even speculatively, as composed of countless atoms of miniature rationality."3 He then underscores the point that reasoning is something different than just cause and effect relations. Cause and effect relations are what computers do. If you feed the computer an input, it will, by the nature of its programming, produce an output. There is no understanding that happens.

In rejecting these options, Nagel says any explanation of reason that reduces it to merely matter, chemistry, and physics is increasingly unlikely. He writes, "This would mean that reason is an irreducible faculty of the kind of fully formed conscious mind that exists in higher animals, and that it cannot be analyzed into the mind's protomental parts, in the way that sensation perhaps can be."4 Thus Nagel, an atheist himself, rejects the materialistic explanations for reason and says that some new explanation is needed.


1. Copernicus used reason and geometry to show the earth rotated around the sun. It wasn't until Galileo that there was new observational data to confirm Copernicus' model. See J. L. E. Dreyer History of the planetary systems from Thales to Kepler. 312-316. Available online at
2. Nagel, Thomas. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.71.
3. Nagel. 87.
4. Nagel. 87-88.
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