But what happens when Maher is forced to deal with someone like Thomas Nagel — someone who is both admired by the cognoscenti and skeptical of evolution.
Nagel, a professor at New York University, is one of the world’s most well-regarded philosophers and a winner of the Balzan Prize, the Nobel of philosophy. He is a thoroughgoing atheist and proud of it. But he is also skeptical of the classical account of evolution as presented by Maher’s gurus, the Four Horsemen — Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. To Maher, this must be unthinkable.
How can a brilliant atheist philosopher with degrees from Cornell, Oxford, and Harvard write an article defending intelligent design? Doesn’t he know that only Republicans believe it? He would probably have a good one-liner to trip Nagel up because Nagel doesn’t write in one-liners. His argument against the dominant conception of evolution is not easy, but it is worth recapitulating.
The argument goes that the materialist interpretation of evolution implies that what gets naturally selected are not “truth” traits, but rather “survival” traits. As Nagel writes in the New York Review of Books, “On that view beliefs are states of the brain, and natural selection favors brain mechanisms solely on the basis of their contribution, via behavior, to survival and reproduction.”
While in certain instances these “truth” traits and “survival” traits overlap, such as when there is a lion charging after you, it is less clear that they overlap when it comes to more abstract beliefs, such as evolution or quantum theory.
Nagel continues, “Still, when our faculties lead us to beliefs vastly removed from those our distant ancestors needed to survive — as in the recent production and assessment of evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson — [Alvin] Plantinga’s skeptical argument remains powerful. Christians, says Plantinga, can ‘take modern science to be a magnificent display of the image of God in us human beings.’ Can naturalists say anything to match this, or must they regard it as an unexplained mystery?”
This is not an easy argument to explain in print and even harder with Maher wielding his audience against you. The point is, however, Nagel is not sure of what theory to believe, but he is skeptical of unguided natural selection for good reasons. Who knows — maybe advances in quantum theory will dispel our belief in the constancy and determinacy of the laws of nature. The only certainty is that Maher’s sycophantic fawning over the established scientific community will only impede man’s search for truth. He is, in a very real sense, the enemy of human progress.
It makes sense that Maher has a popular show — after all, his show is entertaining and he is the voice of the intelligentsia. But don’t let him fool you into thinking that because he’ll tell you he smokes pot a lot, he is some outsider or hip libertarian. He represents the establishment in all its hubris and certitude. Don’t let him fool you into thinking he is above partisan hackery and that he is more scientific than his opponents. While overdone humility leads to unnecessary skepticism, in Maher’s case it seems warranted. He knows a little about a lot and he shouldn’t be so proud of it. Yes, he’s clever, but that’s because he towers like Aristotle next to the stooges and human straw men he has on as opponents. But the thing is, he couldn’t last one round in a ring with Nagel. One-liners are no substitute for considered thinking. A witty saying proves nothing, except that a witty saying proves nothing.
Max Raskin is a journalist and political advisor. He has written for Businessweek and Bloomberg News both in the United States and abroad as well as for a number of national political campaigns. He earned a degree in history from New York University. Follow him on Twitter.