New Atheism vs. Intelligent Design Watch: Atheist Philosopher, Thomas Nagel, Recommends Stephen Meyer’s “Signature in the Cell” (2009), and Atheist Jerry Coyne Doesn’t Like Nagel’s Favorable Review One Bit

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that atheist Thomas Nagel is one of the most respected academic philosophers in the world. I think it’s also fair to say that atheist Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, is also a highly respected academic. 

But here comes the bus! Not Jerome Bettis, but Stephen Meyer.

Meyer is a Cambridge trained philosopher of science, an Evangelical, and an ID advocate, and in his new book, Signature in the Cell (2009), he appears to have impressed a big time philosopher and distressed a big time biologist, and thus set the two atheist intellectuals on the route to a potential public rhetorical dust-up over the proper response of intellectuals to ID. Here’s what Nagel said this weekend, in the Times Literary Supplement, about Meyer’s book:

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.

And here was Coyne’s blog response to Nagel:

“Detailed account”?? How about “religious speculation”?

Nagel is a respected philosopher who’s made big contributions to several areas of philosophy, and this is inexplicable, at least to me.  I have already called this to the attention of the TLS, just so they know.

Do any of you know of critiques of Meyer’s book written by scientists? I haven’t been able to find any on the internet, and would appreciate links.

So Coyne, who has also written for the Times, has taken it upon himself to whip out his Rolodex and directly contact the editors of the TLS. And for what purpose? To sass them? To express his dismay at their “inexplicable” editorial judgment or editorial oversight? To threaten never to write for the Times again? It’s not clear what it is, exactly, that Coyne said to the TLS, or wants the editors to do about the incident (since Coyne didn’t specify). But one thing is clear: Coyne says he contacted the TLS about Nagel’s review.

It also appears that Coyne has yet to read Meyer’s book, but the very fact that Nagel would list it as one of his two best books of 2009 still clearly has Coyne baffled.

But in terms of Nagel’s response to Meyer’s book, I don’t find it baffling at all. I read Meyer’s book a few months ago, and was also impressed by it. It’s clearly written and historically and philosphically informed. And whether you’re an agnostic (like I am), an atheist, or a theist, the book is a fascinating guide to the complexities behind the question: how did life ever come into existence in the first place? This quote, from page 383 of Meyer’s book, is an example of one of the interesting issues Meyer’s raises and tries to tackle:

If scientific methods can—in principle, at least—detect the presense of an extraterrestrial (and nonhuman) intelligence in a faraway galaxy, why can’t methods of design detection be used to establish the activity of nonhuman intelligence in the remote past as the cause of the specified complexity in the cell?

It will be interesting to see if Nagel responds to Coyne—or ignores him. And it will also be interesting to see if Coyne reads Meyer’s book, and what, after reading it, he might have to say about it.

We’ll soon see who intellectually tackles whom, won’t we?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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15 Responses to New Atheism vs. Intelligent Design Watch: Atheist Philosopher, Thomas Nagel, Recommends Stephen Meyer’s “Signature in the Cell” (2009), and Atheist Jerry Coyne Doesn’t Like Nagel’s Favorable Review One Bit

  1. makarios says:

    Meyer could have just asked Dawkins how it all happened. In “The Ancestor’s Tale” Dawkins tells us that inanimate and inorganic gased evolved into life. And that’s all there is too it.

  2. santitafarella says:


    Well, it’s nice to know that’s all cleared up. On to the next thing.


  3. Pingback: Slipping Off the Atheist Dude Ranch?: Strict Naturalism and Atheist Philosopher Thomas Nagel « Prometheus Unbound

  4. benson bear says:

    Coyne seems to have what Nagel characterized as a “fear of religion”. As soon as he sees anything that he fears might be religion-positive, he seems to have trouble thinking straight.

    Note in the above blurb on Meyer’s book Nagel said it is “a detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter”. Now Coyne took this to be an account of the *solution*. Nagel merely said it was an account of the *problem*!

    • As S. Meyer is an ID proponent he is not only having an “account of the problem”. He have a “solution” as well, and his solution is that, someway, somehow, sometime, a supernatural been had/have intervene, magicaly creating life in it’s complexity.
      Is this a new idea?

  5. santitafarella says:

    Benson Bear:

    Good close reading! I missed that shift in Coyne’s response.


  6. santitafarella says:


    A problem that I have with your use of the word “magic” is that it imagines that any belief in something outside of this natural world is, of necessity, arbitrary in its own nature and lawless. There may be, for example, multiverses (universes next door to our own) for which (I assume) you would not call them magic universes (simply because they are not part of this one). Theists posit a universe next door, as it were, to this one. A universe that is supra-natural—that is, apart from this natural one, and responsible for the existence of this one. It needn’t mean magic. It means that this universe might not be wholly able to account for itself without resort to the positing of another world outside of this one. Of course, a lot of physicists already believe this (in the form of the multiverse hypothesis).

    Here’s an anology, which the physicist Kauffmann, in a recent book, proposes: a chessboard has all the properties to function for the game of chess, but the laws or rules upon which the games are played, and the players who play it, are not, strictly speaking, part of the board or the pieces itself. The board and pieces cannot account for their existence or the rules of play, but they are the platform for something epiphenomenal, outside of them, to make lawful moves and to play.

    Maybe the universe does not reduce to atoms and the void (in the same way that chess does not reduce to the platform upon which the game is played).


    • Santi

      Lets get this straight.
      If this universe where we live in is one in many, so this Multiverse is in no way super or supra-natural. If we live in a spacetime (4D)continuum that is just part of a multi-dimensional(5D, 6D,… nD) reality, as if, for instance, we were bi-dimensional beens living in a square that in reality is just the face of a cube we can’t see, then this multi-dimensional reality is in no way super-natural. It’s just, as in the Multiverse case, a part of Nature we don’t know. Yet, maybe, or even unknowable.
      I use “magic” here on purpose, not for mockery (ok, a little bit), but to point out that we must be careful with the words we use. I think to use here terms like “supra-natural”, “super-natural”, etc, to speculate about things unknown are misleading. The fact is that to claim that something unknown or unexplained, have a “supernatural” cause, IS NOT something NEW. We have been done this since the dawn of humankind. And we have also, so far very successfuly, discovered “natural” explanations (causes) for once “supernatural” ones. We really start to make some progress the moment we start to abandon The “supernatural” as an explanation. So to bring the “supernatural” back in the game, is a huge step backward IMHO. Unless, and this is what means to be open-minded, unless there is sound evidence that something exists that deserve to be called “Supernatural”. Or, refrasing it, that “magic” is really possible. So far so good I don’t think that’s the case.
      And you may excuse me but, to claim (if I understand you right)that the Multiverse Hypothesis is the same thing as Theism, is frankly preposterous.
      Back to Nagel’s case, I find it odd that you call for the witness of “..a lot of physicists..” in favor of your position, but have nothing but disdain for the opinions of other scientists who disagree with you, and Nagel. It’s ok for “..a lot of physicists..” (unnamed BTW) to believe in The “supernatural”, but the ones who don’t fall prey of “scientism”?
      BTW, you may haven’t noticed but atheists of “new atheistland”, are not the only ones criticizing Meyer’s book. At least one christian did it too.
      And yes, “Maybe the universe does not reduce to atoms and the void”, but maybe, just maybe, it does. So what?
      The Universe is what it is, not what you, or everybody else, would like it to be. Sorry!

  7. santitafarella says:


    Be nice. I’m not anti-science. For example, I love Lawrence Krauss, and have said so on this blog more than a few times, and Krauss is a physicist who would think I’m totally full of shit.

    As for the multiverse hypothesis, I do think that scientists are engaging in the theist move, yes. They may be right, but it is an act of total frustration with trying to explain what we actually have in front of us within the terms of that system itself.

    In other words, we might have, upon entering the 20th century, found that our universe, from start to finish, could be made wholly present and accounted for by four dimensional time and by an eternal static universe. Unfortunately, when we looked we found that we needed to posit extra-dimensions and a beginning to the universe, and this made things trickier. Now we’re positing multiverses to account for the strange values of the physics constants. I’m just saying that physicists have had to think out of the box for a while now, toward things that are not accessible to our senses, but to which we appeal to account for what we actually see. In a sense, natural is a trope for sense experience, and when we appeal to something supernatural or extrasensory, we are appealing to something outside of our experience to account for our experience.


    • Come on! I’ve been nice, girl!
      I just still don’t think the multiverse hypothesis (for now it’s just this: a hypothesis) point towards theism.
      Look, our senses are very, very, very limited. And they are limited because they’re a product of Evolution, not purposeful design. As such they can deal with a very, very, very limited scope of what actually exists in Reality. To deal with those things our senses can’t we create machines and devices that actually extend them someway. So we can have a glimpse of what is out there. The fact that there are an imense number of things that lie outside of our senses capabilities, so, in this sense are extra-sensorial, doesn’t qualify those things as “supernatural”. Atoms, protons, and electrons are not “supernatural”, neither are eltromagnetic waves. I may insist on this because the word “supernatural” have a considerable weight.
      When we talk about the origin of the Universe, we’re engaging in a still wild speculative area, because we are not only in the limits of our knowledge, but problably in the limits of what we CAN know, of what we CAN even understand. So, even if in the end we find out that “the universe does not reduce to atoms and the void”, and there is “something outside of our experience to account for our experience” we problably wouldn’t recognize It because we can’t, as It should be something so alien to us that we cannot even have a concept for it. To call It “god” or “supernatural” fall way off the mark. Let alone the Abrahamic God and His obsession with what people do when they’re naked behind walls!

  8. Pingback: The New Atheists’ “Thomas Nagel Pile-On” Continues « Prometheus Unbound

  9. santitafarella says:


    That was funny.


  10. billwalker says:

    Isn’t it strande,Creationists can’t accept that we & apes have a common ancester, but have no problem believing that we came from dirt 7,000 years ago, give or take a few centuries..

  11. santitafarella says:


    You are a master of irony—the irony master.


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