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.

... implicitly admitting that Meyer's book is, charitably, philosophy (less charitably, theology) rather than science. Of course, this is nothing more than an appeal to inappropriate authority, since, as Gordon notes, Nagel doesn't claim knowledge of biology, much less theories of prebiotic chemical evolution. That simply raises the question why Nagel felt competent to pronounce Meyer's book to be a "detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter – something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin." Gordon's response that "Both Leiter and the chemist [Stephen Fletcher, Department of Chemistry, Loughborough University, who wrote a Letter to the Editor of the TLS] ignored the fact, much emphasized by Meyer, that such resorts to natural selection are controversial."

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.

Nagel is probably most famous for his article "What is it like to be a bat?" In brief, he argues that physicalism -- the metaphysical view that the world as described by the elementary laws of physics -- is false. It is false because there are facts about subjective states -- both human and animal -- and those facts cannot (he argues) be reduced to facts about brains.

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?
Carlos wrote

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.
I'm willing to consider that Nagel is a wooly-headed academic incapable of understanding that endorsing a book in the popular press might have consequences in the real world but it's not like he was unaware of the controversy, given that he wrote an article (a rather bad one) on whether ID should be taught in public schools. If his actions weren't irresponsible it could only be because he's stupid.
If I missed the point, I don't think that it's in the way suggested here. In his TLS letter, Stephen Fletcher criticized Nagel for denying that natural selection can be used to explain the origin of DNA. Fletcher said that the RNA World model shows that natural selection exists in the pre-organic world. I am entirely incompetent to evaluate the truth of Fletcher's claim, and I made no attempt to do so. But Meyer has a chapter in his book criticizing the RNA World, to which Fletcher makes no reference. This suggested to me that he hadn't read the book. Had he done so, he would have said, "Meyer wrongly denies that the RNA World establishes the existence of natural selection in the pre-organic world", or the like.

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.
In case you're looking for a response, David, I've moved the discussion to the top of my blog.
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