The United Front is breaking and it’s on!
Stephen Meyer’s ID book has started to divide atheists who are also professional philosophers. First the (once) highly esteemed Thomas Nagel dared to break ranks from the New Atheists, calling, in the Times Literary Supplement, Meyer’s Signature in the Cell (2009) one of the best books of the year. Here’s what Nagel said:
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.
That’s all it took. A modest blurb was followed by a flurry of New Atheist blog booms!—kapows!—and—swaks!
Among the professional philosophers who jumped in early was Russell Blackford. In one of biologist Jerry Coyne’s blog threads, Blackford wrote:
Sad to see Thomas Nagel bringing himself and his academic discipline into disrepute. However, he’s long had an anti-naturalist streak.
And Brian Leiter, of the University of Chicago, said that what Nagel had done was not just a “stupid thing”, but a dangerous thing, for it might well lead to the pollution of children’s minds (you see, it’s about the children!):
What people are objecting to is lending credibility to individuals and groups whose goal it is to undermine the integrity of biology education for children. For once we get outside our comfy Washington Square apartment, and look at the real world, here’s what is going on: the Discovery [sic] Institute and its conmen, with hefty financial support from religious extremists, travel the country badgering school boards made up of laypeople to tinker with public school biology curricula. . . . The laypeople on school boards can as little assess the biology as Thomas Nagel; but unlike Nagel, they do rely on epistemic authorities, but even here they are at a disadvantage in figuring out who those are. The specialty of the Discovery [sic] Institute is to try to create the impression with laypersons on school boards that there is significant dissent among those with the requisite epistemic authority to evaluate the theory of evolution. (Fortunately, they are sometimes inept at this, a bit of ‘moral luck’ that may save Nagel from long-lasting notoriety.)
So, according to Leiter, Nagel has broken a hole in the wall between expert opinion and the unwashed and undegreed masses. Leiter just hopes that no fundamentalist school board member does a Google search and finds Nagel’s quote!
Another professional philosopher, who also happens to be an atheist—Bradley Monton of the University of Colorado—and a person with a good deal of what Leiter calls “the requisite epistemic authority”—said this in defense of Nagel:
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.
Nagel’s position might be reasonable?! Let’s all hope that no school board member ever finds this alarming and incomprehensible quote from a (once) respected professional colleague.
Oh, shoot! It turns out that Monton has already written a whole book on the subject of ID and philosophy (which I got a copy of last month; it’s very good). Now we have to hope that no school board member or school board attorney ever, ever, ever finds it in a book search at Amazon! What ever shall we do with these rogue atheist philosophers?!