Philosopher Thomas Nagel Replies to New Atheist “widespread intolerance of any challenge to the dogma that everything in the world must be ultimately explainable by chemistry and physics.”

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.

THOMAS NAGEL
29 Washington Square, New York 10011

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?:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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32 Responses to Philosopher Thomas Nagel Replies to New Atheist “widespread intolerance of any challenge to the dogma that everything in the world must be ultimately explainable by chemistry and physics.”

  1. mtemples says:

    Mind may be reducible to matter, but it is not determinism that has relegated free will to oblivion. Rather, it is the lack of a good definition. It is determinism which should go quietly into oblivion. Among other good reasons, two stand out (in my mind, at least). First, because determinism ends with the assessment that the state of the universe is determined by the immediately preceeding state, it constructs the paradox of an absolute frame of reference. Secondly, determinism relies on the supernatural, or at least an unexplained action. It claims that the universe operates according to laws. I’m not denying the reality of physical laws, but rather examining their place. If the laws dictate how the universe will behave, rather than being the abstacted results of that behavior, then there is implicitly posited an unexplained mechanism by which the laws can affect the world. This is exactly the same as the God argument – that He controls the world, but we can’t say how – only now, it is the Laws that control the world but we can’t say how. This is not scientific, to say the least.

    Determinism is too weak an argument to defeat free will. But what it has done is to win temporarily by misdirection. It has reduced the idea of free will to a mere choice. If I have only a mere choice between alternatives, both the freedom and the will have been taken out of the equation. Re-defining free will to mean what its proponents mean, rather than its opponent, will go a long way.

  2. Gunlord says:

    Out of curiosity, sir (please forgive my intrusiveness for posting on your blog), have you see Dr. leiter’s reply to Nagel’s reply?

    http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2009/12/nagels-nonreply.html

    I personally found it to be somewhat unconvincing–Dr. Leiter didn’t even address Nagel’s implication that Dr. Fletcher hadn’t even read the book, and the gist of the response seemed to be more concerned with insulting the Discovery Institute than the actual book in question or Nagel’s estimation of it itself, but I was wondering what you would think of it. Pardon me for wandering in here.

  3. santitafarella says:

    Gunlord:

    I did see Dr. Leiter’s reply. I’ve never (personally) been impressed with Leiter’s writing style or his methods of argumentation. He strikes me as an extraordinarily arrogant person, a master of the chilling harumph (without explaining, exactly, what he’s so dismissive of). And he is willing to engage in the crassest rhetorical moves. In the post you directed me to, which I had already read, he spoke of this being about “the children”—turning the mere discussion of ID into a threat to kids. It’s quite ridiculous the way he poses and puffs out his feathers. His expressions of certainty are so obviously unjustified. It’s a shame, really, because Leiter is obviously a very, very smart person. He just gives out an ethos that puts me off. He’s prickly (which is fine, when warranted, but not so fine when habitual—as if he is playing a game of “king of the hill”). To despise and insult others is almost always a power play, and the person who indulges the impulse tends to give others (unintentionally) a window into his or her own family dynamics (how the person was probably raised, how he or she fought with brothers and sisters, and so on). And to mock and laugh at someone is not in accord with the highest form of rationality—which is understanding (as Spinoza once famously observed).

    —Santi

    • benson bear says:

      A couple of examples of Leiter’s style from the above referred to blog post.

      He refers explicitly to what he takes to be Nagel’s home address in mocking terms: “For once we get outside our comfy Washington Square apartment…”, with a transparently faux first person plural.

      He suggests Nagel wrote one paper about this in 1974, and hasn’t written anything relevant since, and simply sites things just because they support the paper and nothing else (e.g., not that they support an overall long-standing position implicit in the paper) as if it is just a matter of careerism or something like that:

      “He thinks Stephen Meyer’s book lends support to a paper that Nagel wrote in 1974! Wow. Wouldn’t it have been less destructive to just write another paper?”

  4. santitafarella says:

    MTemples:

    You made a very interesting observation about determinism. If you have the energy to reply, might you give a link to what you regard as a good definition of free will, or provide one yourself? You made such an interesting and novel point on determinism, I’m interested in what you might say about free will.

    —Santi

    • mtemples says:

      Santi,

      Thanks. I don’t have any site in mind that redefines free will. I was just suggesting that it needs to be done. It seems to me that free will can be active in the absence of choices, and that it can create choices where there are none. This is different from the traditional determinist limitations placed on free will. I don’t yet have what I would consider a good definition of free will – that might take several chapters, but I think it must involve this creative aspect.

      I read an interesting post here on wordpress the other day, but didn’t keep track of it; it might even have been on this blog. It was about block universe theories and how they are lacking because the future does not yet exist, thereby creating the arrow of time. My question to determinists is that if it does not exist, how could it be subject to physical law? It seems to me only the past would be subject to physical laws, concretizing them, while the present would actually define them by its operations. There’s a lot more that could be said, but I don’t want to ramble on and on. Thanks again for your comments.

  5. santitafarella says:

    Gunlord:

    Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere: Not to laugh, not to lament, not to curse, but to understand. (Spinoza)

    —Santi

  6. santitafarella says:

    MTemples:

    The creator of choices. That’s interesting, and a bit Nietzschean—which I like. As for the block universe post, I wrote that. You saw it here.

    Also, you said: “It seems to me only the past would be subject to physical laws, concretizing them, while the present would actually define them by its operations.”

    With that comment, you seem to have hit the nail on the head. What if our consciousness, and our free will, “exists” apart from the deteminate past? It’s an intriguing question.

    Keep on rambling. You’ve got very interesting things to say.

    —Santi

  7. ogatoprecambriano says:

    Interesting reply, and a strange one also.
    From start Nagel lies, as nowhere Fletcher says that “It is hard to imagine a worse book”, although he should’ve legitimaly said so IMHO.
    His “not so subtlle” suggestion that Fletcher haven’t read the book, is disingenuous as it seems that only pro reviewers had previous access to the book for review. Possible critical reviewers never recceived their promissed review copies.
    Nagel shamelessly whine about Fletcher’s “tone” taking legitimate disagreement as an expression of “… widespread intolerance of any challenge to the dogma that everything in the world must be ultimately explainable by chemistry and physics”, whatever the f… this “dogma” means. What such a sophistry.
    Finally Nagel clarifies that he is not “tempted to believ in God”, and he “do not draw Meyer’s conclusions”, what should be intented to have us to take deep breath in relief I supose. Maybe Nagel would have helped us more if he explained WHY the hell he doesn’t draw Meyer’s conclusions nor are tempted to believe in God, even after the reading of such a ‘marvelous’ book. Unfortunately we’re kept without a clue.

    Santi

    The world IS what it IS, no matter a shit what you, Tomas Nagel, the Pope or Richard Dawkins THINK about it.
    Deal with it, and stop whinning about the loss of contra-causal free will.

  8. santitafarella says:

    Ogato:

    You take my most cherished infantile toys away, like contra-causal free will, I’m gonna whine! : )

    As for access to the book, it’s been on sale for months. I got a copy a couple of months back and read it. I’d ask you, since you call it a bad book: Have you read it?

    Also, Nagel has been an atheist for other reasons for a long time. He famously said, back several years ago (concerning theism), that he “didn’t want the world to be like that.”

    He apparently wants there to be more than one nonredicible ontological mystery (besides just matter). You don’t necessarily have to be a theist to have a soft spot for some sort of mind-body dualism.

    —Santi

    • ogatoprecambriano says:

      First, ID have no scientific merit. Period.
      Secound, ID propagantists, as Meyer, Behe, et al, don’t have a “soft spot for some sort of mind-body dualism”, they are religious bigots who have a religiously driven political agenda.
      I don’t care if Nagel is the atheistest of the atheists, that’s not the point. He have the right, obviously, to endorse whatever he wants, for the reasons he finds fit. But then he should take the flak and respond to it with compeling reasoning and not whinning about “tone”, and attacking strawmen.
      Mind-body dualism is true or it isn’t (I think it isn’t), NO MATTER what Nagel, or you FTM, WANTS. Sorry!

  9. Brian says:

    Professor Tafarella: Let’s bracket questions about tone and style, which almost mask substantive disagreements, and focus on the substance. My post quite explicitly engaged the only bit of substance of Nagel’s reply, which you have even gone so far as to include in the title of your post: namely, his false claim that this dispute concerns whether physics or chemistry explains everything. You have, oddly, let my response on this central point pass in silence. You are also apparently ignorant of how the Discovery [sic] Institute operates in real life; I am not. Do you have evidence that they do not travel the country lobbying laypeople on school boards to undermine the biology curricula in the public schools?

    Do you have any substantive point to make in rejoinder or not?

    I have my own armchair psychological speculations about what motivates people like you to adopt a putatively high-minded posture while failing to address any substantive point, but I shall spare you. Perhaps you’ll return the favor.

    Best wishes,
    Brian Leiter

  10. santitafarella says:

    No, Brian, let’s not bracket obnoxious rhetorical tones and styles from this discussion—which you admit can “mask substantive disagreements.” If this is the case, why, exactly, are you so habitual a user of such rhetorical tones and styles? Do you imagine they assist your ethos, or do you, like some Republicans, not care about your own ethos so long as you can drive down the ethos of your opponents?

    And before you launched into your attacks on Nagel, did you read Meyer’s book? I don’t like to see a good man like Thomas Nagel treated so shabbily. I have no quarrel at all with substantive disagreement—and think you obviously raise important issues at your blog—but as a liberal (and to echo Rorty) I hate cruelty above all things, and I think that you have been cruel to Nagel as a human being. One needn’t, to win an argument, also humiliate, and it’s hard to absorb the good observations that you frequently make through the static of your various postures of contempt and dismissiveness.

    As to your “argument” against Nagel’s central claim, you did not actually address it, but generated a straw man. You suggested (as constituting your “response”) that Nagel is boxing with a phantom. Actually, you claim, a lot of philosophers don’t subscribe to strict naturalism, so you don’t know what Nagel is talking about. Case closed. Of course, this is to miss Nagel’s complaint: that a very vocal New Atheist movement, driven by Internet blog sites, means to humiliate people like Nagel into silence. Do you think that Nagel doesn’t notice the obnoxiousness being directed at him—including Fletcher’s contemptuous response? And don’t you think this might have a chilling effect on observers inclined to agree with Nagel, but not inclined to have themselves publicly abused for simply saying so?

    As to the Discovery Institute badgering school boards, I say this: send a donation to the ACLU or the Center for Science Education, and engage the public with reason (not contempt). Intellectuals staying mum about their doubts concerning the origin of matter, life, or mind is not (in my view) the right answer to the question, “How do we counter the Discovery Institute’s political lobbying of public school boards?”

    —Santi

  11. Brian says:

    I approached this in the spirit that we might have a substantive discussion, but I see I was mistaken, and your latest silly post on this blog makes that clear.

    I adopt the tone appropriate to my substantive judgment on the merits. Nagel’s view is without merit and what he has done is disgraceful; he warrants the response he is receiving. If you disagree with my substantive judgment, then you will of course disagree with the tone. That was my point. But I still don’t know why you disagree with the subtantive point. In a series of posts, I’ve made clear why I believe what I believe on the merits. Your unintelligible third paragraph, above, does not indicate that you understood the point I was making regarding the explanatory completeness of physics and chemistry.

    I have no idea what this “New Atheist movement” is to which you’re referring, but I assume this is some other hobby horse of yours.

    I apologize for trying to enter into a discussion with you about this.

  12. Santi

    Frankly now this is getting…well…silly:

    Of course, this is to miss Nagel’s complaint: that a very vocal New Atheist movement, driven by Internet blog sites, means to humiliate people like Nagel into silence.

    Man, w-h-a-t t-h-e F-.-.-. it does suposed to mean? Have you actually read yourself? What a ridicule bullshit!
    Oh poor dear little Nagel. He’s So humiliated he’ll never show his face outdoors again. These nasty stinky new atheists bloguers with all their mockery! Why didn’t they shut their mouths down? M$@%#¨&*

    • santitafarella says:

      Gato,

      Play the macho card, but I think that Nagel could be engaged with civility, and still have your say.

      —Santi

      • I don’t think you have much to say about civility. All this nonsensical “new atheist movement” strawmen rhetoric are not civil or respectfull in my book Sir. As well fallacy and sophistry never are either.
        However our difference here is that I don’t care about this, as I think this is part of the “game” as so to speak.
        You and Nagel,…well…you whine.

    • santitafarella says:

      Ogato:

      “New Atheism” is a descriptive term. It simply means that there is a group of people—Dawkins, Harris, PZ Myers etc.—that, after 9/11, gained a large audience and following characterized by a certain energized “out of the closet” anti-religious rhetorical style. There are good and bad things about the movement. I’ve always said that. And it’s a term that distinguishes itself from, say, the post WWII atheism of Camus and Sartre, or the “kinder & gentler” 1980s humanism of someone like Paul Kurtz. Why do you take the term to be derogatory?

      —Santi

      • Santi

        “Descriptive term” my ass. It’s a rhetoric label aimed at political struggle, and as such yes it means to be derrogatory. It gives you a convenient target: the evil “new atheists” who are against “free-will”, because a world without god is a world without “free-will”, blah-blah-blah…
        That’s misleading as people do not act for what they don’t believe, rather they act for what they do believe. So makes no sense to talk about a “new atheist movement”, as well as would be silly to say “new non-believer-in-god movement”. Silly and deceiptful.

      • benson bear says:

        It’s not really a “movement”. That is the problem with the term. It is kind of “descriptive” but only allusively and extensionally. In particular, the main group of public figures that were at least originally referred to with this term were not organized into any kind of formal movement. Although that is probably changing more and more all the time, perhaps even partly because of the reaction they have produced, including the reaction that was coining this name “New Atheist”. The long-suffering en-soi is becoming a pour-soi!

  13. benson bear says:

    Hmm, that is interesting. Nagel does quote Fletcher as saying “it is hard to imagine a worse book”, but the published portion of the letter from Fletcher does not include that statement. Is it possible that they did not publish the entire letter? If so, is it perhaps premature to say “Nagel lies from the start” as a commentator said above?

    • Perhaps it isn’t, however, as, and if new evidence apears, the commentator surely may change his mind as he is comited to the facts no matter how unpleasant (if that was the case) they could be.

      • benson bear says:

        Why do you talk about yourself in the third person? That’s pretty silly.

        What is not silly is your presumption that Nagel was “lying from the start”, citing only one thing he said, that a normal charitable person would not believe to be a lie.

        It has, as I suggested, subsequently turned out that in his original letter Fletcher does say “it is hard to imagine a worse book”, but that sentence was edited out.

  14. santitafarella says:

    Gato:

    You lost me. You think that the New Atheist movement is not a movement at all? I was going to ask you to give me an alternative word or phrase—since you don’t like New Atheist—but you deny its very existence? And you deny that atheism has positive content? Really?

    Isn’t this just a way not to talk about the movement? It sets you free of responsibility. You can’t talk about something that you refuse to see or name.

    —Santi

  15. ogatoprecambriano says:

    Santi

    You think that the New Atheist movement is not a movement at all?

    No, I don’t. There is no such thing as a “new atheist movement”. I think you are been fool or disingenuous.

    I was going to ask you to give me an alternative word or phrase

    Just forget about labeling and do adress the specific issues you have and the specific people who makes them.

    you deny its very existence?

    Which part have you missed?

    And you deny that atheism has positive content? Really?

    Me and some other people. Am I wrong? Show me. With sources please.

    It sets you free of responsibility.

    Boy, I am responsible for what I-ME-MYSELF think, say, and do, nobody else. As well as I have no responsability for anybody’s elses actions, thoughts and speeches.
    Even if such a “movement” (assuming we mean the same when we say “movement”) exists the fact that I’m an atheist obviously doesn’t make me automatically a member of it. To think otherwise it’s a spectacular mistake.

    • benson bear says:

      The phrase “New Atheist” is a perfectly fine phrase. It is not derogatory in its meaning, but perhaps only in its connotation due to its origins, which in any case is moot since the term has been apparently embraced by those it was intended to apply to, just like “queer” and similar terms were. The original complainer should complain instead about the egregious suggestion that non-theists should unite under the term “Brights”.

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  18. metaeironeia says:

    Do you honestly have nothing better to do?

  19. santitafarella says:

    Meta:

    Just waiting for Godot.

    —Santi

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