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?