After taking quite a pummeling among the New Atheist blogs, philosopher Thomas Nagel has responded, in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement, to one critic in particular—chemist Stephen Fletcher—who himself wrote a letter to the Times. Here’s Nagel’s reply to Fletcher (in full):
Sir, – Stephen Fletcher objects to my recommending Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell in Books of the Year. Fletcher’s statement that “It is hard to imagine a worse book” suggests that he has read it. If he has, he knows that it includes a chapter on “The RNA World” which describes that hypothesis for the origin of DNA at least as fully as the Wikipedia article that Fletcher recommends. Meyer discusses this and other proposals about the chemical precursors of DNA, and argues that they all pose similar problems about how the process could have got started.
The tone of Fletcher’s letter exemplifies the widespread intolerance of any challenge to the dogma that everything in the world must be ultimately explainable by chemistry and physics. There are reasons to doubt this that have nothing to do with theism, beginning with the apparent physical irreducibility of consciousness. Doubts about reductive explanations of the origin of life also do not depend on theism. Since I am not tempted to believe in God, I do not draw Meyer’s conclusions, but the problems he poses lend support to the view that physics is not the theory of everything, and that more attention should be given to the possibility of an expanded conception of the natural order.
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I like the way Nagel, not too subtley, suggests that Fletcher probably hasn’t read the book he is alarmed about. In following the New Atheist blog response, I too get the distinct impression that people are criticizing a book that they have not read. I myself have read it, and I am not at all surprised that a philosopher of Nagel’s stature would recommend it. The book reads exceedingly clearly, and it raises important questions. I also think it is interesting that Nagel has an open mind about the possibility of consciousness not being reducible to matter (something that, at this blog, and as an agnostic, I’ve also entertained).
But Nagel, not having a blog or blog following, is vastly outgunned by the aggressive hive mentality at the New Atheist sites. I’m sure his very response will yield an additional truckload of invective upon him. I think that Nagel is being unjustly maligned. The atheist revolution eats its own.
Still, maybe Nagel is right to speculate—with Meyer—that, not just the information in the first cell, but mind itself might not be reducible to matter. If mind, afterall, is not reducible to matter, that could retrieve free will from oblivion, right?
Free will is in the house?: