In Defense of Thomas Nagel

A few days ago I mentioned the recent attacks against philosopher Thomas Nagel by philosopher Brian Leiter of Leiter Reports due to Nagel’s choice of Stephen Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell as one of the best books of 2009.  In a review of one of Nagel’s recent books, philosopher and historian David Gordon defends Nagel’s right to recognize Meyer and comments on Leiter’s gratuitous attacks.

Nagel’s remarks on Intelligent Design are of great philosophical significance. He is an atheist and does not accept the view that a designing mind directed the evolutionary process. But he opposes what he deems a contemporary prejudice in favor of reductionist naturalism. He doubts that Darwinism can adequately explain the existence of objective value and looks instead to an immanent teleology in the world.

Although he does not accept Intelligent Design, Nagel refuses to dismiss the movement as merely religious. Critics claim that design cannot be a legitimate scientific hypothesis; but at the same time, they maintain that the theory can be shown to be false. Nagel pertinently asks, how can both of these assertions be true together? Further, Nagel sees no constitutional obstacle to teaching Intelligent Design.

Nagel’s opinions on this issue have led to a remarkable episode. Brian Leiter runs a blog, Leiter Reports, which is read by philosophers, owing to detailed accounts of promotions, jobs, and other news about philosophy departments. Leiter’s comparative rankings of philosophy departments also attract much attention. Leiter obtrudes his own political and social views on his audience; were he to present these in a separate venue, it is a safe bet that his audience would vastly diminish. Among Leiter’s many aversions, the Intelligent Design movement ranks among the foremost: he often attacks what he calls the “Texas Taliban.”

When Nagel’s article on Intelligent Design appeared, Leiter could not contain his rage (see here and here). We were presented with the unedifying spectacle of Leiter’s speaking in abusive and condescending terms about one of the foremost philosophers of the past half-century. Nagel’s The Possibility of Altruism, The View From Nowhere, and the essays collected in Mortal Questions are classics of contemporary philosophy.

Matters worsened when Nagel recommended in The Times Literary Supplement Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell as one of his “Best Books of the Year.” Meyer is a leading proponent of Intelligent Design, and his book argues that naturalistic accounts of the origin of life on earth confront severe difficulties. Only a designing intelligence, Meyer contends, can account for the intricately specified information contained in DNA. Nagel did not endorse Meyer’s conclusion but praised the book for its account of the “fiendishly difficult” problem of life’s origin.

This recommendation aroused Leiter to new heights of contumely. It seems quite likely that Leiter never bothered to look at Meyer’s book. He quoted from an English professor of chemistry protesting Nagel’s claim that natural selection cannot account for DNA because it presupposes its existence. The chemistry professor, echoed by Leiter, said that natural selection exists in the preorganic world: was not Nagel ignorant to deny this? Both Leiter and the chemist ignored the fact, much emphasized by Meyer, that such resorts to natural selection are controversial. To appeal to the fact of their existence against Nagel is to assume what is much in dispute. Leiter extended his attack to accuse Nagel of ignorance of the relevant fields of study. Nagel has never claimed authority in biology; but had Leiter bothered to read Nagel’s well-known essay, “Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness,” he would discover that Nagel has more than a passing acquaintance with neurobiology.

I have gone on at some length about this, because the attempt by Leiter and others to block inquiry that challenges naturalism seems to me altogether deplorable. To some people, evidently, the first line of the False Priestess in In Memoriam is Holy Writ, not to be questioned: “The stars, she whispers, blindly run.” But even if these avid naturalists are correct in their metaphysics, debate needs to be encouraged rather than suppressed. Perhaps Leiter should reread On Liberty. Pending that happy event, one can only say of his abuse that the barking of Bill Sikes’s dog just tells us that Bill Sikes is in the neighborhood.

(HT: Maverick Philosopher)

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One thought on “In Defense of Thomas Nagel

  1. Pingback: Philosophy Word of the Day — Thomas Nagel « Cloud of Witnesses

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