Nagel is infamous among philosophical atheists and requires, I take it, no introduction. I was reading an article of his recently where he attempts to dismiss, in the space of a few pages, all of the arguments of Natural Theology for the existence of God. I was not very impressed with most of what he had to say, but there was one comment he made in response to the Teleological argument which caught my attention. After having to his satisfaction argued that Darwinian evolution furnished the Atheist with an intellectually satisfying response to the classical Teleological argument, he goes on to say:
A second form of this argument has been recently revived in the speculations of some modern physicists. No one who is familiar with the facts can fail to be impressed by the success with which the use of mathematical methods has enabled us to obtain intellectual mastery of many parts of nature. But some thinkers have therefore concluded that since the book of nature is ostensibly written in mathematical language, nature must be the creation of a divine mathematician. However, the argument is most dubious. For it rests, among other things, on the assumption that mathematical tools can be successfully used only if the events of nature exhibit some special kind of order, and on the further assumption that if the structure of things were different from what they are mathematical language would be inadequate for describing such structure. But it can be shown that no matter what the world were like – even if it impressed us as being utterly chaotic – it would still possess some order, and would in principle be amenable to a mathematical description. In point of fact, it makes no sense to say that there is absolutely no pattern in any conceivable subject matter. To be sure, there are differences in complexities of structure, and if the patterns of events were sufficiently complex we might not be able to unravel them. But however that may be, the success of mathematical physics in giving us some understanding of the world around us does not yield the conclusion that only a mathematician could have devised the patterns of order we have discovered in nature.
~Reality in Focus, p.399
Now, in order not to confuse the argument Nagel has in mind for one popularly advanced in physics today, we should make it clear that the argument Nagel has in mind has nothing to do with the initial physical constants and quantities which are both physically arbitrary, and fall within an infinitesimally narrow range which alone provide the possibility for the evolution and existence of intelligent life. Instead, the Teleological argument he has in mind here is one which looks to the success of the project of the mathematization of physics, and infers from this that there is a designer-mathematician. The argument Nagel makes in response strikes me as odd for a few reasons, the first among which is that it represents an interesting application of the anthropic principle to our epistemic situation.
Nagel seems to be suggesting that it is not surprising that the physical world be expressible in the language of mathematics because we are pattern seeking creatures who would have, in any world, developed some language analogous to the mathematics we now have, which does describe the world, to describe the world. I wonder if this is true. Let us imagine a non-Euclidean world in which notions of proportion would not exist. If one has trouble imagining it, then one should take a look at the following video in which a video game (Portal) is used as the platform for the creation of an interactive non-euclidean space. Now, it seems to me that if we were confronted with that kind of non-euclidean experience of the world around us we would never be able to develop any notion of proportion, and thus we would not be able to develop any language analogous to mathematics in which we could reliably give expression to the world of experience.
Obviously the world need not be amenable to mathematical description in order for living creatures to exist – but Nagel might say that a world not amenable to mathematical description would never give rise to intelligent pattern seeking creatures, and thus the fact that we intelligent pattern seeking mammals exist is good reason to suspect that the universe would be such that it provided the possibility for us to exist. This response would then be an application of the anthropic principle which would say that we ought not be surprised that we find patterns in the world, since if the world did not have the property of being comprehensible to the evolved life forms within it in terms of patterns then it would also be a world in which evolved pattern-seeking life forms would never have existed or developed. I’m not sure if that is beyond question, but I won’t attack this response on that point just yet. Instead I just want to observe how interesting this application of the anthropic principle is in this instance. It attempts to explain our scientific success without appealing to those metaphysical assumptions which informed and indeed gave birth to the whole scientific project the way we have come to understand it. Those assumptions are obviously not only Theistic, but arguably peculiarly Christian (at least it isn’t unreasonable to argue that without Christianity we have absolutely no guarantee that science would ever have developed anywhere else). Christian Theology is what provided science with those essential and commanding presuppositions on which it is classically based: that the world is rationally ordered, and that the human mind is rational, and thus that the human mind has the ability to comprehend the order of the world and see in it the purposes of it’s designer. Subtract the bit about a ‘designer’ and in the previous statement you find in it an almost inalienable assumption under-girding all of natural science. At least that is the commanding supposition of the scientific realist.
We might be able to respond, therefore, that there is so much more order in the physical world than we would have expected because many possible worlds exist which exhibit less order and yet exhibit enough to produce our kind of pattern-seeking animal. Here it isn’t so clear that Nagel’s response is a good one, since to salvage his argument he would either have to give some reason why the physical world should need to have as much order as it does in order to explain our existence within it, or else he would have to argue that given the range of worlds exhibiting order it is not surprising that we find ourselves in a world with as much order as we observe there to be. Neither of these responses will be thought impressive to the physicist, I suspect.
In any case, Nagel is not speaking to the more interesting Teleological argument from Fine Tuning which, to my mind, is much more promising for the Theist.