Getting the Thomas Nagel Treatment: Brian Leiter and the Policing of Intellectual Discourse

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.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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15 Responses to Getting the Thomas Nagel Treatment: Brian Leiter and the Policing of Intellectual Discourse

  1. TomH says:

    Love your blog. I’m going to have to subscribe.

    “I think that Nagel’s just totally unscientific. No one with even half a brain would ever consider Intelligent [sic] Design.”

    Did I get the darwinist-internet-fascist-speak down pat? 😉

    Leiter needs to read John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”, Feyerabend’s “Defending Society from Science”, Laudan’s “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem”, and bone up on his history of science enough to find out that theories sometimes make comebacks, so we shouldn’t rule any out a priori.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. santitafarella says:

    Thanks Tom H, and you’ve made some good author recommendations.


  3. santitafarella says:


    Ruled out? Telos? It’s settled? What happened to Socratic openness—the “I don’t know”?


    • 1)EVOLUTION (that’s what Meyer’s book, praised by Nagel is about doesn’t it?) of life on Earth is settled. Overwhelmingly. No intelligent design.

      2)Origin of life on Earth is not. Work in progress towards naturalistic explanations.

      3)Origin of Universe is not settled also. Same as 2).

      So in 1) yes ID was rulled out, in 2 and 3 ID relays on the unknown (gaps) not in positive evidence (in fact there isn’t even a definition of ID, it’s not even a hypothesis, just a wishfull thinking hope), so ID have a very, very weak case, to be taken seriously.
      Talking about gaps, unknowns, ontological mystery, and this kind of crap, doesn’t make a positive case for anything.

  4. santitafarella says:


    No, actually, Meyer’s book is about origin of life studies, not the evolution of the diversity of life after natural selection has kicked in.

    ID, in so far as I understand it, does not dispute that the Earth is old or that plants and animals on Earth have changed over time (at least Behe does not dispute these things). Instead, ID people tend to question whether undirected mutations acted upon by natural selection provide a sufficient accounting for the diversity and complexity that we actually do see.

    In terms of science, it’s the critique of a mechanism (but without offering a testable alternative mechanism). In terms of philosophy, ID is inferential, and a critique of naturalism.


    • “ID people tend to question whether undirected mutations acted upon by natural selection provide a sufficient accounting for the diversity and complexity that we actually do see”

      This is settled beyond any reasonable doubt, and ID is ruled out.

      “In terms of science, it’s the critique of a mechanism (but without offering a testable alternative mechanism)”

      In terms of science ID’s critique have been refuted ad nauseaum. In terms of philosophy ID is a religious driven political movement disguised as science. As someone who dislike people as Gleen Beck is surprising to see you flirting with these IDiots.

  5. santitafarella says:


    “Undirected mutation” critiques refuted beyond reasonable doubt? Are you sure about this? See here:


    • TomH says:

      It seems that ID attempts to persuade people to believe that, in certain scenarios of specified complexity (SC), undirected mechanisms lack sufficient support by means of probabilistic arguments. However, even if this project fails, there is an even stronger issue raised by ID, which is that evolutionist explanations for SC lack scientific mechanisms, not to mention empirical support for those mechanisms, so they are unsatisfying.

      Even if some empirical support for hypothetical mechanisms should be produced at some future date, evolutionists might be embarassed by too much of a good thing if too many mechanisms should be supported. In that case, which one or ones actually produced the SC? Or is the analogical evidence anomalous–perhaps the actual historical event that caused the SC to arise is yet a different explanation.

      So, evolutionistists have two problems–sufficiency and necessity–for which they need to provide answers. How did SC arise and why do we suppose that the evolutionist answer has any connection to history?

      • TomH

        “Specified complexity”, or “complex specified information” is a concept introduced by the ID advocate William Dembski. His former teacher Jeffrey Shallit co-write a paper that debunks Dembski’s claims. The paper concludes:

        …that Dembski’s justification for “intelligent design” is flawed in many respects. His concepts of complexity and information are either orthogonal or opposite to the use of these terms in the literature. His concept of specication is ill-defined. Dembski’s use of the term “complex specified information” is inconsistent, and his proof of the “Law of Conservation of Information” is flawed. Finally, his claims about the limitations of evolutionary algorithms are incorrect. We conclude that there is no reason to accept his claims.

        The paper is from 2003 and so far Dembski has never responded to it.
        So as “SC” is a bogus concept it’s a no problem for evolutionary theory.

    • Stealthy

      I’ve been patient with you, but it’s geting harder.

      First, I’m talking about one hundred and fifty years of biological reasearch, in the field and in the lab. ONE FRANKIN HUNDRED AND A DAMN FIFTY Y-E-A-R-S. Backed up for the equivalent amount of data, in fact an overwhelming amount of it. Thousands and thousands and thousands of peer-reviewed works published. And then you give me a book! One f$#@@%g book by a f$#@@%g phylosopher who probably can’t tell the difference between an E. Coli and the frankin HIV! Tell me, do you use this same criteria in any other areas of your life? If you have a heart condition do you look for the advice of a lawyer? Do you show your x-rays to the guy who fixes your car? Would you trust Joe The Plumber to do a brain surgery on your son?

  6. TomH says:


    “…Dembski has never responded to it”

    I found the following in my search regarding your question.

    You will find a number of links to papers where Dembski has advanced the discussion since Shallit’s paper, where Shallit had some valid points and Dembski replied to them in various papers.

  7. JJC says:

    Gato, how do you know that there is no intelligent design? It has probably been a long time since you seriously asked yourself this question, and while philosophers cannot claim to be as exacting as Socrates in their questioning of ideas, you might want to reconsider your position.

    By “intelligent design” I probably mean something somewhat different than many other ID advocates. I mean that the laws of physics, which have created life here on Earth, point to a designer (though do not necessarily prove).

    If we are strict determinists like Einstein and Newton, and not followers of quantum mechanics (which is an entirely separate debate), then the laws of physics already determined, however many billion years ago, that life would exist. But the probability that we would have laws that would do such, as Fred Hoyle has indicated, is the same probability that a storm going through some junkyard would create a fully operational Boeing 747. Thomas Nagel has said that the chances of unguided processes creating life are somewhat in the neighborhood of a billion billion, and that he sees no real evidence for anything like a billion billion.

    Even if we accept the multiverse hypothesis (which seems to me like a philosophical “deus ex machina”), that still does not answer the question of why there would be a multiverse, as opposed to nothing at all, or even a single universe in which the conditions necessary for life are not met.

    Here is a quote by the great Alvin Plantinga:

    “Like any Christian (and indeed any theist), I believe that the world has been created by God, and hence “intelligently designed.” The hallmark of intelligent design, however, is the claim that this can be shown scientifically; I’m dubious about that. …As far as I can see, God certainly could have used Darwinian processes to create the living world and direct it as he wanted to go; hence evolution as such does not imply that there is no direction in the history of life. What does have that implication is not evolutionary theory itself, but unguided evolution [original emphasis], the idea that neither God nor any other person has taken a hand in guiding, directing or orchestrating the course of evolution. But the scientific theory of evolution, sensibly enough, says nothing one way or the other about divine guidance. It doesn’t say that evolution is divinely guided; it also doesn’t say that it isn’t. Like almost any theist, I reject unguided evolution; but the contemporary scientific theory of evolution just as such—apart from philosophical or theological add-ons—doesn’t say that evolution is unguided. Like science in general, it makes no pronouncements on the existence or activity of God.”

    I still do not believe in teaching ID in schools in science classes, because I think ID is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. But it still should reach the ears of schoolchildren, as should the arguments for unguided evolution.

    • proximity1 says:

      ” …As far as I can see, God certainly could have used Darwinian processes to create the living world and direct it as he wanted to go; ”

      RE ” …As far as I can see, God certainly could have used Darwinian processes to create the living world and direct it as he wanted to go; ”

      Amazing. You mean God, the all-powerful, the Creator of “It All”, the first and the last word on meaning and purpose–the “I (ntelligence)” in “ID,” that God sub-contracts His work(s)–past, present or future? You pray to and stake your soul’s fate upon such a so-called Omnipotent sub-contractor?

      Look—besides appearing utterly preposterous, you’re mistaken to enroll Charles Darwin (the genius of “Origin of Species” and “The Descent of Man,” and many other works), in God’s subcontracting—whatever the Darwinian ‘processes,’ you’re suggesting God may have used, may be using, etc., they couldn’t and they can’t be rightly called “Darwinian.” In Darwin’s work, in his science, in his mind and in his evolution by natural selection, there isn’t and there cannot be a divine sub-contractor at work in any way, shape or form. This is the essence of Darwinian processes: they are blind, random, without direction, design; meaning, purpose, or intent. Not even by anthropomorphizing “Nature” can you or God or anyone else “get where you’re trying to go” in suggesting that God is using “Darwinian processes” since Darwinian processes are, by definition, Godless. If you import God or any similar agency, however modest or exalted that agent may be, then in that moment you’ve departed from Darwin and what he wrote, believed and defended in his work concerning evolution and biology.

      I don’t know about God, but I daresay you haven’t read much of any of Darwin’s writing.

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