Sunday, December 20, 2009
Posing for Ads
Once again, the Undiscovery Institute is trumpeting Thomas Nagel's irresponsible recommendation of Stephen Meyer's same-ol', same ol' book, Signature in the Cell, in the popular press, which guarantees the opposite of considered academic discussion of Nagel's objections to reductionism. This time, Robert Crowther is pointing to an article at Lew Rockwell's libertarian site by David Gordon, who has a PhD in intellectual history.
Amusingly, Crowther introduces the article with this:
Today, [Brian] Leiter was taken to task for challenging someone obviously his superior when it comes to philosophical arguments.
But it is Gordon who misses the point. As Nagel was competent enough to recognize, Meyer's "argument" is a conceptual one, that "argues that the available evidence offers no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause." In short, Meyer is making a "just not so" argument, much like Behe's "irreducible complexity." Behe and Meyer are both claiming that, because they (supposedly) can't think of any way for some organ or structure to arise naturally, we should stop looking. A fully adequate response is "we can think of a way." And it doesn't matter if Meyer thinks prebiotic chemical evolution is "controversial." Neither Nagel nor, as far as I can tell, Gordon have the expertise to tell how accurate or honest Meyer's account is ... something of great importance, given the DI's penchant for quote mining and other dishonesty.
Nor is there any scientific reason to assume we won't find some other, presently unknown, route to the origin of DNA. Meyer is pushing an argument from ignorance that pales in comparison to the spectacular success science has racked up with the assumption -- methodological naturalism -- that natural phenomena, such as the chemistry of DNA, have natural explanations.
Which brings us to what Gordon calls "the attempt by Leiter and others to block inquiry that challenges naturalism." Really? Criticism is an attempt to block inquiry? That's a strange position for a libertarian to take. Not to mention that, since Gordon is criticizing Leiter and others who defend the scientific process, he must be attempting to block scientific inquiry.
Nagel has made himself a poster child for ID. You have to wonder if that was what he intended.
My sentiment -- and this is just my impression, I have no good evidence for this -- is that Nagel is the kind of philosopher who is so keenly concerned with the arguments themselves, that he simply doesn't care as much as we think he should about the political or cultural orientations of the people making the arguments.
Does that make him "irresponsible", as Leiter suggests? Or does that simply mean that Nagel is doing what intellectuals ought to be doing, by not taking sides in the culture war and by examining the cogency of reasons?
Or does that simply mean that Nagel is doing what intellectuals ought to be doing, by not taking sides in the culture war and by examining the cogency of reasons?
That, of course, leaves the actual taking of sides to the non-intellectuals who have not thought about the issues and are for the most part ignorant of both science and philosophy. Nice! I'm sure the science teachers in my local public schools really appreciate advice and criticism from those ignorant non-intellectuals in deciding what they must teach in science classes.
In similar fashion, Meyer discusses the claim made here that he is arguing from ignorance. But Mr. Pieret makes no reference to this. Once more, I am not concerned to defend Meyer, but rather to raise a question about the extent to which a critic is familiar with the book he purports to examine.
I certainly do not believe that criticism blocks inquiry; quite the contrary, criticism is essential. But it seems to me that the verbal assault on Nagel, a philosopher of great distinction, was excessive. Professor Leiter was certainly within his rights in assailing Nagel, from a libertarian standpoint, and I recognize that he feels strongly about the Discovery Institute. But I wish that he had expressed his views without disparaging Nagel.