Nagel


Word is spreading that acclaimed philosopher (and atheist) Thomas Nagel has praised Stephen Meyer’s new book Signature in the Cell. Nagel writes:

Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperCollins) is 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. The controversy over Intelligent Design has so far focused mainly on whether the evolution of life since its beginnings can be explained entirely by natural selection and other non-purposive causes. Meyer takes up the prior question of how the immensely complex and exquisitely functional chemical structure of DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible, could have originated without an intentional cause. He examines the history and present state of research on non-purposive chemical explanations of the origin of life, and argues that the available evidence offers no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause. Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem.

Brian Leiter’s strong reaction is typical:

Nagel has become a disgrace. He was a philosopher who made some significant contributions, but in areas far afield of this one.

{In the original version of this blog post, I critized Leiter’s reaction; while I do disagree with Leiter, I now think that my particular criticism was unwarranted.}

For more by Leiter on this issue, go here. People in Leiter’s shoes should perhaps wonder if it’s not the case that Nagel, an incredibly smart and (at least until recently) well-respected philosopher, has “jumped the shark”, and instead it’s the case that Nagel’s position is more reasonable than they realize.

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I discussed Tom Nagel’s interestingly nuanced piece on intelligent design previously here. In this post, I want to point out a key passage from the paper, the passage where Nagel suggests how intelligent design should be taught in public high school. He writes:

What would a biology course teach if it wanted to remain neutral on the question whether divine intervention in the process of life’s development was a possibility, while acknowledging that people disagree about whether it should be regarded as a possibility at all, or what probability should be assigned to it, and that there is at present no way to settle that disagreement scientifically? So far as I can see, the only way to make no assumptions of a religious nature would be to admit that the empirical evidence may suggest different conclusions depending on what religious belief one starts with, and that the evidence does not by itself settle which of those beliefs is correct, even though there are other religious beliefs, such as the literal truth of Genesis, that are easily refuted by the evidence. I do not see much hope that such an approach could be adopted, but it would combine intellectual responsibility with respect for the Establishment Clause.

In my forthcoming book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, I argue that it could be helpful for many students to have intelligent design discussed in biology classes. I don’t go as far as Nagel does in specifying how it should be taught, but Nagel’s line of thought is compatible with what I do say. Telling the students that the empirical evidence may suggest different conclusions depending on what religious beliefs one starts with seems to me like a perfectly reasonable approach to take. What I emphasize in my book, though, is that it’s important to also explain to the students why most all scientists reject intelligent design.

Thomas Nagel has a paper in the Spring 2008 issue of Philosophy & Public Affairs, entitled “Public Education and Intelligent Design”. In fact, most of the paper isn’t about public education, but is about intelligent design generally. Interestingly, he says at the beginning of the paper:

My aim is to address the constitutional issue, but first I want to discuss the relation between evolutionary theory and the despised alternative.

But in fact he spends most of the time on the latter project; the constitutional issues only come up at the very end.

Nagel is an atheist who is nevertheless expressing some sympathies to the arguments for intelligent design; in that sense we are on the same page. What surprised me most about the paper was the lack of citation to other literature — there’s not much Nagel says in here that’s new, and yet page after page of the journal article has no citations. I’m not in principle opposed to writing like that, but I am surprised that writing like that can get published in a major journal like Philosophy & Public Affairs. For example, Nagel argues against methodological naturalism, but he doesn’t consider the arguments of philosophers like Pennock, who argue for methodological naturalism. Now, I happen to think that Nagel is right and Pennock is wrong, but by not engaging with the published arguments at all, Nagel is setting himself up to look ignorant. And indeed, this is how for example Brian Leiter is portraying it, saying that Nagel has “jumped the shark”.