Evolution v. Intelligent Design Watch: Historian David Gordon Calls Brian Leiter’s Treatment of Thomas Nagel “Deplorable”

In a review of philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new collection of essays (which was just released by Oxford University Press today), historian David Gordon weighs in on Thomas Nagel’s sympathy for Intelligent Design and the attacks that he has received from Brian Leiter:

[Thomas Nagel] opposes what he deems a contemporary prejudice in favor of reductionist naturalism. He doubts that Darwinism can adequately explain the existence of objective value and looks instead to an immanent teleology in the world.

Although he does not accept Intelligent Design, Nagel refuses to dismiss the movement as merely religious. Critics claim that design cannot be a legitimate scientific hypothesis; but at the same time, they maintain that the theory can be shown to be false. Nagel pertinently asks, how can both of these assertions be true together? Further, Nagel sees no constitutional obstacle to teaching Intelligent Design.

Nagel’s opinions on this issue have led to a remarkable episode. Brian Leiter runs a blog, Leiter Reports, which is read by philosophers, owing to detailed accounts of promotions, jobs, and other news about philosophy departments. Leiter’s comparative rankings of philosophy departments also attract much attention. Leiter obtrudes his own political and social views on his audience; were he to present these in a separate venue, it is a safe bet that his audience would vastly diminish. Among Leiter’s many aversions, the Intelligent Design movement ranks among the foremost: he often attacks what he calls the “Texas Taliban.”

When Nagel’s article on Intelligent Design appeared, Leiter could not contain his rage. We were presented with the unedifying spectacle of Leiter’s speaking in abusive and condescending terms about one of the foremost philosophers of the past half-century. Nagel’s The Possibility of Altruism, The View From Nowhere, and the essays collected in Mortal Questions are classics of contemporary philosophy.

Matters worsened when Nagel recommended in The Times Literary Supplement Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell as one of his “Best Books of the Year.” Meyer is a leading proponent of Intelligent Design, and his book argues that naturalistic accounts of the origin of life on earth confront severe difficulties. Only a designing intelligence, Meyer contends, can account for the intricately specified information contained in DNA. Nagel did not endorse Meyer’s conclusion but praised the book for its account of the “fiendishly difficult” problem of life’s origin.

This recommendation aroused Leiter to new heights of contumely. It seems quite likely that Leiter never bothered to look at Meyer’s book. He quoted from an English professor of chemistry protesting Nagel’s claim that natural selection cannot account for DNA because it presupposes its existence. The chemistry professor, echoed by Leiter, said that natural selection exists in the preorganic world: was not Nagel ignorant to deny this? Both Leiter and the chemist ignored the fact, much emphasized by Meyer, that such resorts to natural selection are controversial. To appeal to the fact of their existence against Nagel is to assume what is much in dispute. Leiter extended his attack to accuse Nagel of ignorance of the relevant fields of study. Nagel has never claimed authority in biology; but had Leiter bothered to read Nagel’s well-known essay, “Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness,” he would discover that Nagel has more than a passing acquaintance with neurobiology.

I have gone on at some length about this, because the attempt by Leiter and others to block inquiry that challenges naturalism seems to me altogether deplorable. To some people, evidently, the first line of the False Priestess in In Memoriam is Holy Writ, not to be questioned: “The stars, she whispers, blindly run.” But even if these avid naturalists are correct in their metaphysics, debate needs to be encouraged rather than suppressed. Perhaps Leiter should reread On Liberty. Pending that happy event, one can only say of his abuse that the barking of Bill Sikes’s dog just tells us that Bill Sikes is in the neighborhood.

This seems to me an admirable summing up of the Nagel controversy. More on the subject here.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Evolution v. Intelligent Design Watch: Historian David Gordon Calls Brian Leiter’s Treatment of Thomas Nagel “Deplorable”

  1. TomH says:

    Nagel’s expertise in neurobiology is irrelevant as regards OOL research–maybe the point is that Nagel has some serious awareness of scientific things.

    Brian “Alinsky” Leiter–it would be so much more pleasant to avoid him, rather like a child who refuses to acknowledge that he has messed his pants, but just as the pants must be changed and the child must be corrected, Leiter’s notorious malfeasance requires a reply. Kudos.

  2. Well, well, more passive-agressive whinnig.
    It’s so much bullshit that it’s hard to figure out where to begin with. Lets try.

    …He doubts that Darwinism can adequately explain the existence of objective value …

    Bullshit one, there is no such thing as ‘Darwinism’, as ‘marxism’ or ‘catholicism’. What is there is a theory of evolution of life on Earth, that explain how life evolved and diversified. It’s not a theory to explain “the existence of objective value”. This makes no sense at all. He’s atacking a strawman.

    Although he does not accept Intelligent Design,

    Really? It’s sad he don’t tell us WHY…

    Critics claim that design cannot be a legitimate scientific hypothesis; but at the same time, they maintain that the theory can be shown to be false.

    Misses the point. There is NO definition of ID as a scientific hypothesis, thats why it’s dismissed as unscientific. Nobody mantain that the theory can be shown false because there is none. What is false are the claims and objections of IDists against evolution by random mutation and natural selection, all the latter have been extensively refuted ad nauseaum.

    Leiter’s speaking in abusive and condescending terms about one of the foremost philosophers of the past half-century. Nagel’s The Possibility of Altruism, The View From Nowhere, and the essays collected in Mortal Questions are classics of contemporary philosophy.

    So his past work on phylosophy gives him a free pass to say whatever he wants without any critique. And what the hell was that “abusive” in Leiter’s remarks after all, can anybody draw it to me?

    Matters worsened when Nagel recommended in The Times Literary Supplement Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell as one of his “Best Books of the Year.”

    Why is he saying this as if it were two different episodes?

    Meyer is a leading proponent of Intelligent Design, and his book argues that naturalistic accounts of the origin of life on earth confront severe difficulties.

    So what? There was any problem in science that before been solved didn’t “confront severe difficulties”? The cure for cancer or HIV is confronting severe difficulties but anybody are proposing to try magic spells.

    Nagel did not endorse Meyer’s conclusion

    Again, why not?

    This recommendation aroused Leiter to new heights of contumely.

    Like what?

    It seems quite likely that Leiter never bothered to look at Meyer’s book.

    Maybe because there is nothing new in it, perhaps?

    Both Leiter and the chemist ignored the fact, much emphasized by Meyer, that such resorts to natural selection are controversial.

    controversial indeed, so why all this complain? Where there is controversy will be people arguing, so what?

    Nagel has never claimed authority in biology; but had Leiter bothered to read Nagel’s well-known essay, “Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness,” he would discover that Nagel has more than a passing acquaintance with neurobiology.

    But you have claimed Nagel’s expertize in phylosophy to excuse him of critiques, and now gives this absolutely irrelevant one “essay” to testify for his “competence on the field, don’t you?

    I have gone on at some length about this, because the attempt by Leiter and others to block inquiry that challenges naturalism seems to me altogether deplorable.

    Holy shit. Now to express a negative opinion about someone’s opinion in a blog is an atempt to “block inquiry”? It’s an attack on freedom? Do this Gordon knows that the freedom he claims are not only his?
    I’m sorry I have gone on at some length about this, but…man…what a bunch of bullshit!

  3. santitafarella says:

    Gato,

    Yeah, but what do you really think?

    —Santi

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