Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Philosophical Malpractice

The Undiscovery Institute has been quick to exploit the fact that the London Times Literary Supplement has well-known philosopher, Thomas Nagel, nominating Stephen Meyer's book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design as a Book of the Year.

Philosopher Brian Leiter has reacted with a post that gives Nagel's background and which has many helpful links to why Nagel is so wrong in this case.

It is sad, but it is also a reason to be angry, since he's not simply making a fool of himself, he's giving ammunition to those who campaign, relentlessly, to undermine biology education in the public schools.

Maybe philosophers should be made to take out malpractice insurance to cover the cost of correcting the damage he or she does to science and to compensate the innocent victims of their actions.

Leiter's (linked) attacks on Nagel's earlier paper about ID in the classroom appear to amount to a sort of panic that any secular philosopher wouldn't take metaphysical naturalism as a given. It seems that Nagel agrees with Dawkins and V. Stenger, that God is a "hypothesis" after all. The strength of such a characterization for the new atheists rests on how obvious it is that the hypothesis fails, and I think Nagel is correct to say that such a conclusion is scientifically premature, though it may not be metaphysically so.

That's point one. Point two is that the blogger Leiter links to, Jeffrey Shallit, has a pretty poor opinion of philosophy, especially philosophy of science (from the comments):

By the way, the chance that philosophers are going to come up with anything definitive or ground-breaking on the origin of information -- semantic or otherwise -- is pretty much zero. We already know that randomness can generate Kolmogorov information, and we already know that evolutionary algorithms can generate novel behaviors. So for the scientific community, the question is already settled.
Those are certainly interesting questions when dealt with in a nuanced and comprehensive manner. That is considerably different than recommending a book to the general public, with no knowledge of, nor interest in, philosophical nuance and especially where the book that is recommended is dedicated to misrepresenting the philosophical arguments and the nature of science.
Maybe, but I don't know how you get all that (no knowledge *or* interest in philsophical nuance?) from a five sentence capsule review.

I admit the choice seems like a poke in the eye, and I have no reason to dispute that the book is every bit as mendacious as you say. But the responses to Nagel's review I've seen have been weak tea, suggesting the reaction is more eaotional or tribalist than truly academic:

(1) Shallit calls Nagel an ignoramus based primarily on his failure to agree with him that Meyer is without merit, a trick that works every time.

(2) Fletcher tries to refute Nagels' assertion that abiogenesis had to occur "before the process of biological evolution could begin” with the contention that "Natural selection is in fact a chemical process as well as a biological process" that preceded biological cells. Well, maybe, but Nagel did specifically refer to biological evolution. Whether or not there were chemical precursors to that process just pushes the question back of when abiogenesis took place, or how life is defined. (The panselectionist claim that DNA is a "product of natural selection" is highly speculative, not at all unanimously agreed upon by naturalistic biologists.)

(3) Leiter bemoans Nagel's lack of expertise in the sciences. OK, but--is fellow review Terry Eagleton a published expert on Jewish anthropology? Is Simon Jenkins an expert on warfare or high finance?

I'm not defending Nagel's choice, but the way he's being treated as a traitor to all Seculardom for it seems a little much to me. I know it's a hotbutton issue, but over-reactions even make it more so.
Maybe, but I don't know how you get all that (no knowledge *or* interest in philsophical nuance?) from a five sentence capsule review.

No, I was talking about the vast majority of people who might well view this endorsement in the TLS as validation of ID who, on the other hand, have little chance of understanding the kind of issues you raise (and zero chance of trying). Nagel might have some good arguments (I remember a piece some years ago that was thought provoking, even though, in the end, I thought he was wrong). But both the forum and the form he chose to promote ID is sure to obscure rather than illuminate those kinds of arguments. His endorsement is PR fodder for the Discovery Institute, nothing more. Why should anyone react academically to that?

Of course it is a hot button issue. It use not to be -- you barely heard anything from scientists even after Behe's Bad Box. But after two decades of constant misrepresentation of scientist's life work and outright lies about them personally, how could it not get hot?

When Nagel publishes a scholarly article laying out a case for Meyer's book that gets unfairly treated, I'll be happy to point it out. While he's acting as a flack for ID, he's on his own.

The fairness of Leiter trashing that old article of Nagel's I can't judge, since I don't have access to it.
I'll take a look at it over the weekend.
I've read most of it now (life keeps intruding) and I can't say I'm impressed. I thought Mohan Matthen's criticisms (from Leiter's link) were largely correct but, if anything, didn't go far enough. I agree that Nagel is repeating many of the same bad arguments as Dawkins, Stenger and, especially, Coyne, from the other side of the coin but they're scientists, not supposedly competent philosophers.

Maybe if I can work up enough ire over it, I'll post a criticism.
I don't know enough about US science education on the ground to evaluate Nagel's claims about the kind of positive and negative factual statements that are made about ID and naturalistic evolution in the classroom. But he seems too good a philosopher to me to get caught up in the kind of metaphysical/methodological naturalism spiderweb you've often described here, and as distasteful as the topic is, I think he identifies some fault lines we might wish weren't there, that the establishment clause may not be able to shield us from indefinitely.

By the way, have you seen Nick Smyth's take?
I think Nagel, in that article, badly mangled philosophy of science in ways that no good philosopher of any sort should have. Given the paucity of education in evolutionary theory below university level, I doubt very much that any of his factual claims are really true and, even if they are, that they amount to any philosophical misrepresentation. It is quite true, as I tried to explain to Nick, that the Establishment clause is of almost no use in forcing good science education.

As for Nick's take ... it is what I'd call typical -- if it doesn't interest him, it's not important.
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