Thomas Nagel, in his important book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, systematically challenges several important areas of study, claiming that neo-Darwinism cannot adequately explain the development of the biological world around us. The three big areas that he presents as issues are consciousness, cognition, and value.
Nagel argues that consciousness presents a significant problem for Darwinism. Since consciousness exists as a part of life, it must be considered in the explanation of how life came to be. As evolutionary biology is a physical theory, it has a choice of either reducing the mental to the physical or claiming the mental has some active part in life. If the evolutionist chooses the first option, it cannot account for mental things that are not physically reducible. If the second option is chosen, then evolutionary biology is no longer a purely physical theory, and must explain how consciousness evolves into more advanced mental states, bringing in an entirely different area of natural selection than the physical. (p.14-15)
Nagel points out that evolutionary biology typically assumes that the world around us is reasonable and intelligible. If this natural intelligible order exists, then it either exists without an explanation, which destroys the materialist’s demand for a natural explanation for everything, or exists with an explanation, but does so before the mind perceives it. Yet the physical brain is what is supposed to be the root of the emergent property of conscious reason.
As a further explanation, Nagel points out that water = H2O, and H2O = water. “Water is nothing but H2O. . . It’s water even if there’s no one around to see, feel, or taste it. . . Our perceptual experiences aren’t part of the water; they are just effects it has on our senses. The intrinsic properties of water . . . are all fully explained by H2O and its properties.” (p.40-41). However, things like the sweet taste of sugar, the feeling of pain, do not seem to be identical to the physical properties they are associated with. Rather, “experience of taste seems to be something extra, contingently related to the brain state–something produced rather than constituted by the brain state. So it cannot be identical with the brain state in the way that water is identical to H2O.”(p.41) Unless we drive ourselves to the absurd conclusion that things like sweetness and hurting are illusions that do not really exist, we are left with an evolutionary biology that is inadequate.
If evolutionary biology is a purely physical theory, then it might explain complex physical conditions, but is entirely inadequate to explain consciousness, even if the physical structure of the organism is a sufficient explanation for the existence of consciousness. (p.44-45). Nagel gives what seems to be a gaping hole in evolution: “That process would have to be not only the physical history of the appearance and development of physical organisms but also a mental history of the appearance and development of conscious beings. And somehow it would have to be one process, making both aspects of the result intelligible.”(p. 52) Physical science may have things to say about the origin of life, but leaves us necessarily in the dark about consciousness, which shows that natural evolution cannot be an explanation for the basic intelligibility of the world.(p.53)
It gets worse. “To explain consciousness, a physical evolutionary history would have to show why it was likely that organisms of the kind that have consciousness would arise.”(p.60) In other words, the physical capability that produces consciousness would have to develop prior to the natural selection of mental processes. Then the natural selection of mental processes would somehow occur in one process with the physical. Yet, “we have no comparably clear idea of a part-whole relation for mental reality–no idea how mental states at the level of organisms could be composed out of properties of microelements . . .”(p.62)
Nagel goes on to expand on the interwoven issues between physical evolution and the corresponding mental evolution that would have to somehow produce one effect. The primary take away for me is not that these questions exist, but that the naturalist scientists of our day brush these questions aside with a wave of a dogmatic hand, being as stringently tied to their system of physicalism as any young earth creationist would their view.
For the Christian, we can can rest in knowing that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and His works are wonderful. (Psalm 139:14)