Brian Leiter’s attacks on Thomas Nagel for giving a nice blurb to Stephen Meyer’s ID book, Signature in the Cell (2009), are getting a bit of pushback from some of his philosophy colleagues, most notably Chris Bertram, who wrote this to Brian Leiter:
My initial sympathies were entirely with you, but I’ve come to entertain doubts and I’ve picked up that they are shared by some other philosophers. The doubts don’t concern the validity of ID, whether ID ought to be considered “science”, whether the book Nagel recommended is any good (I’m assuming not and I’m never going [to] read it to find out), or whether your characterization of Nagel’s letter is accurate (it is). Rather, they are about the disciplinary stance of your remarks and the suggestion that we should be careful what we say “in front of the children.”
We live in a highly politicized world and a highly mediatized one, and one where almost any remark is liable to be reproduced and circulated for bad purposes on the internet. Philosophers often discuss topics in terms, and using examples, that could sound really bad if turned into a sound bite. Should we therefore cease debating cannibalism, the morality of torture, the fundamental equality (or not) of human beings, whether old people should be left to suffer and die because younger and fitter people would use the resources better, euthanasia and abortion? The latter two examples are expecially pertinent because there is a well-known philosopher, of similar rank to Nagel, whose remarks have been seized upon by “culture wars”” lobbyists. . . . Considerations of how things play in that murky zone just ought not to count as any kind of a reason in philosophy. But maybe your thoughts about what Nagel should and shouldn’t do only concern his conduct as a “public intellectual” and not as a philosopher – though that’s not the clear sense I get from your latest [post].
In other words, Chris Bertram is ever so politely suggesting to Brian Leiter that, if he makes Nagel’s book review about the damage that might be done to children by it (which Leiter ludicrously does), it seems that he is, well, advocating the constraint of adult public discussion in a manner that eerily echoes the complaint cast upon Socrates by his opponents: it’s about protecting the children from corruption.
Surely Brian Leiter does not want to play Meletus to Thomas Nagel’s Socrates, does he?
I honed in on the same thing yesterday, writing this:
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!
Nevertheless, Brian Leiter, absorbing Chris Bertram’s concern, now appears to be doing a bit of backtracking, saying that:
In general, considerations pertaining to the values of academic and intellectual freedom should counsel in favor of a wide latitude for subjects and methods of scholarly investigation.
Ah, but what Brian Leiter giveth with one hand, he taketh with the other, for that still does not, in Leiter’s estimation, include ID. For Leiter you can, as a public philosopher, talk about (to use Chris Bertram’s list) “cannibalism, the morality of torture, the fundamental equality (or not) of human beings, whether old people should be left to suffer and die because younger and fitter people would use the resources better, euthanasia and abortion”—and you can stake out public positions on these things, and take them seriously—but ID is something that no intellectual should ever take seriously (except to oppose it). Leiter’s example is telling:
A cleaner case for Professor Bertram’s question would be the recent work by Jerry Fodor arguing that the notion of “selection for” in Darwin’s theory of natural selection doesn’t make sense (more here). There’s obviously a chance that Fodor’s work will be put to bad use by bad people, but that is not a reason for him not to think about these issues. Fodor (and his co-author) have developed an actual argument and raised philosophical questions about causation in the theory of natural selection that warrant (and have received, and will receive) answers. If Fodor turns around and starts endorsing work riddled with scientific and technical mistakes by Discovery [sic] Institute shills, he will deserve (and no doubt receive) the same kinds of criticism directed at Nagel.
In other words, Jerry Fodor can expect to be given the Thomas Nagel treatment should he ever dare to say a kind public word for any book coming from the Discovery Institute.
Jerry Fodor, as they say, has been warned.
And at his blog, Leiter adds in his defense this note of comfort (to himself):
I’ve heard from only one philosopher, a lifelong friend of Nagel’s, willing to even suggest his position was defensible on the merits. Friendship is a virtue, of course.
Did you catch that? Not just the cloying retreat to comfort in numbers, but the rationalization? A colleague defended Nagel to Leiter, and on the merits, and Leiter accounted for his colleague’s response as being the product of “friendship”. Isn’t that icky? Anyone who seriously disagrees with Leiter apparently has to be prepared for dismissal from the House of Reason as evil, stupid, or alternately motivated. It can’t possibly be on the merits of a case alone, or that maybe some people just see the world through radically different—but equivalently rational—lenses from Brian Leiter, can it?
I now think I know exactly what Thomas Nagel meant when he wrote recently, in the Times Literary Supplement, of “the widespread intolerance of any challenge to the dogma that everything in the world must be ultimately explainable by chemistry and physics.”
As a little footnote to this post, I simply can’t resist quoting a bit from Plato’s Apology. Socrates, of course, is speaking:
I shall now try to defend myself against Meletus . . . and after that against the rest. Let us consider their deposition again, as though it represented a fresh prosecution. It runs something like this: ‘Socrates is guilty of corrupting the minds of the young, and of believing in deities of his own invention instead of the gods recognized by the State.’
Thomas Nagel, you are in very good company.