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Brian Leiter’s rampage against Thomas Nagel

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Thomas Nagel . Brian Leiter

By any accounts, Thomas Nagel has proven himself a more nimble philosopher than the hamfisted Brian Leiter. That’s perhaps why Leiter simply can’t get over that Nagel liked Stephen Meyer’s SIGNATURE IN THE CELL (reported at UD here). For Leiter, when scholars of Nagel’s stature endorse books coming out of the rogue Discovery Institute, that endorsement itself constitutes an attack on liberal democracy, cultured discourse, science, etc. Leiter simply can’t let this go. Here are the posts to date on his blog:

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

leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2009/12/more-comments-from-philosophers-on-thomas-nagels-shameful-stunt.html

leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2009/12/thomas-nagel-jumps-the-shark.html

leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2008/09/nagel-wins-ba-3.html

33 Replies to “Brian Leiter’s rampage against Thomas Nagel

  1. 1
    toc says:

    Leiter’s, et al, prosaic comments might as well have been lifted from the pages of Lewis’ -The Screwtape Letters- although it seems that Screwtape has fallen from grace (so to speak). The “shameful stunt” comment is laughable.

    The unstoppable roiling between these people is their demise. Their passion is hardly about science or the philosophy of science. It is about something else; apparently it is the issue of unbelief. Lewontin’s legendary comment comes to mind.

  2. 2
    ShawnBoy says:

    I always get a chuckle out of Darwinists equating intelligence with supernaturalism. I find that incredibly fitting.

  3. 3

    The High Priests of the Church of Darwinism sure do seem to get their feathers ruffled easily. Such thin skin.

  4. 4
    Mung says:

    I’m just waiting with baited breath for Nagel’s response to his critics. It should be well worth the wait.

  5. 5
    Retroman says:

    I have to tell you, as a religious person, I am disturbed every time someone claims that Darwinism is a religion in order to disparage it. Darwinism is not like my religion at all.

  6. 6
    jerry says:

    Darwinism is an ideological belief system based on faith. Some people equate that to religion since the person who holds Darwinist bel it very often exhibit a lot of similar behavior to a religious person. Just examine . Since it also implies a role for God, essentially none, is similar to religion in that way too. Obviously there are some differences.

    Second point, does anyone doubt that there are attempts to silence those who look favorable on intelligent design. We often get such nonsense here. If one gets this diatribe for a review, what do you expect to be done to the person professionally.

  7. 7
    Seversky says:

    I am bound to say that Leiter’s response is tactically inept. The vehemence of his comments imply that Nagel’s endorsement of Stephen Meyer’s book is of greater significance than is actually the case.

    Like any author, Meyer is no doubt justifiably pleased with such favorable comments on his work but they are far from indicating unqualified support for his thesis. For example, in his reply to the letter from Stephen Fletcher, Nagel writes:

    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.

    I would suggest that is an unexceptionable position. Physics does not yet have a theory of everything any more than biology has a theory of the origins of life. But we are not yet at the point where we have no alternative but to fill those gaps in our understanding by postulating an unidentified Intelligent Designer who is functionally indistinguishable from God.

    Even if we were, it would be answering a different question. When ID proponents challenge evolutionary biologists to explain the origins of life, they are asking them to explain how it happened. What ID offers as an alternative is of no help since it is proposing a ‘who’ not a ‘how’. It is like someone watching magician David Blaine perform a magic trick who is told, on asking “How on Earth did he do that?”, “David Blaine did it.” Well, yes, but that is not what was being asked.

  8. 8
    Mung says:

    Darwinism is an ideological belief system based on faith.

    jerry, this is just another example of what Retroman was talking about. It makes “faith” out to be something which it is not, just as others make out “religion” to be something it is not.

    We need to cease using these terms in the pejorative way that our opponents do, because that’s just ceding to them their false views on faith and religion are correct.

    Faith, and “religion” are rational endeavors, at least the way I understand them. Darwinism is neither faith-based nor religion when those terms are properly understood.

    I have to tell you, as a religious person, I am disturbed every time someone claims that Darwinism is a religion in order to disparage it. Darwinism is not like my religion at all.

    Agreed. Nor is belief in Darwinism to be compared with my own faith, which is rationally justified.

  9. 9
    jpg564 says:

    Seversky,

    You make a good point that ID does not explain how it happened. However, ID does not purport to explain how it happened, rather the cause was from an intelligent agency, not random chance. We do not need to know how the magician performs his trick to know that it wasn’t random chance, but the result of thought (the idea), planning (how to do it) and intent (executing the trick)

  10. 10
    tragic mishap says:

    ID doesn’t even need a Climategate. These people don’t even have the sense to hide and delete this stuff.

  11. 11
    tragic mishap says:

    Seversky I don’t think anyone was saying Nagel endorsed Meyer’s conclusions. I think it’s fairly clear from Nagel’s endorsement why he thinks the book is important.

  12. 12
    tragic mishap says:

    LOL!

    “Given that [Nagel’s] careless ignorance in these matters may have repercussions for actual schoolchildren (since the Discovery [sic] Institute’s main activity is lobbying school boards consisting of laypeople, not scientists, to undermine the integrity of biology education in the public schools), one wishes he would behave more responsibly.”

    ROFLMAO

  13. 13
    Seversky says:

    Since this is being raised, Darwinism is neither a religion nor an “ideological belief system”.

    There are no Darwinist Popes or Archbishops. There are no Darwinist churches. Darwinists do not gather together every Sunday to sing the praises of evolution and pray to the Great God Darwin to be forgiven for not being as fit as he would have liked.

    There is no Darwinist political party nor any Darwinist Prime Minister or President (certainly not in these here Yoonited States). There is no handy Darwinist political tract like Mao’s Little Red Book and even the Nazis didn’t want his books on their library shelves.

    There are evolutionary biologists who follow the procedures of methodological naturalism in the practice of their discipline, some – although by no means all – of whom also subscribe to the metaphysical beliefs of philosophical naturalism.

    But as for Darwinism, if the word refers to anything at all it is to all those aspects of secular science and culture which believers find objectionable, bundled together as a strawman – whether soaked in oil of ad hominem or not – which can be beaten whenever there is a need to vent frustration. It is a handy scapegoat to blame for all the perceived ills of society.

  14. 14
    Retroman says:

    Jerry, it seems to me that people call Darwinism a religion in defense of the fact that they are criticized as being primarily motivated by their own religions. It’s like they’re saying, “Yeah, ok, we are religiously motivated, but so are they. THey’re just as bad.”

    As a religious person, I am not so eager to try the tu quoque approach, since it ultimately leads to a general disparagement of religion.

  15. 15
    The Anti-Leiter says:

    It is a handy scapegoat to blame for all the perceived ills of society.

    Please use a non-religious metaphor. “Scapegoat” is not yours to use.

    As the Anti-Leiter, I have followed my carbon comrade for several years now. A couple of things you need to know about him: (1) he has no memory, (2) he only picks on those that can not hurt him professionally. So, while he was at UT, he didn’t once call his colleague Rob Koons a “lying liar,” even though Koons was a DI fellow. He recently posted a paper at SSSN in which he says some nice things about John Finnis. But Finnis holds views about homosexuality and religious institutions that Leiter calls “bigotry.” Does Leiter have the cajones to call Finnis a bigot? Why? Finnis has power.

    As for memory, Leiter will say snide things about those publishers that publish the works of those whose religious beliefs he loathes. So, he’ll brag about his own law review publications, but when others publish in the same journals these “journals are not peer-reviewed.” Several years ago he referred to Rowman & Littlefield as a “fifth rate publisher,” but you didn’t hear a peep out Leiter about RL when one of his commentators praised John Corvino’s book on gay rights published by RL.

    He calls Steve Meyer an academic fraud. But have you heard Leiter once chastising his colleague Martha Nussbaum for lying under oath in the Amendment 2 case in Colorado? http://www.firstthings.com/art.....nussbaum-9

    So, when Leiter starts trotting out these “money quotes” to slap down Meyer, Dembski, etc., remember that Nussbaum was another “money quote” as well.

    My sources tell me that when Alasdaire MacIntyre was interviewing at Duke for position he was eventually offered and accepted in philosophy, Leiter was behind the scenes bad-mouthing MacIntyre to the Duke chair in order to discourage them from hiring MacIntyre. He did something similar at UT when the government department was trying to bring in the Pagels. They eventually were hired, but Pagel was trying to influence the search on purely ideological grounds: they are Straussians!

    Perhaps this stunt with Nagel will show the world of philosophy that the Brian has now gone too far.

    Leiter is an unprincipled bully.

  16. 16
    The Anti-Leiter says:

    Oops. I mean tot say “Leiter” not “Pagel” in the last sentence of the third to last paragraph.

  17. 17
    jerry says:

    Retroman,

    Your are partially correct. But if you remove the requirement of religion and a God, then they get very similar. Blind faith in something with little if any empirical; verification.

    Some want to make the connection because of the government’s interpretation of the constitution. If religion cannot be taught in school or allowed to be expressed, then neither can Darwinian evolution because it too is blind faith without empirical backing. Therefore Darwinian evolution should be eliminated from the curriculum.

    I personally am for eliminating Darwinian macro evolution from the curriculum because it is bad science without any empirical backing.

  18. 18
    Gage says:

    The letter from chemist Stephen Fletcher that Leiter refers to is almost entirely rant. The “evidence” he refers to (pre-cellular evolution and the RNA world) is pure speculation, or nearly so.

    Fletcher says “Natural selection is in fact a chemical process as well as a biological process, and it was operating for about half a billion years before the earliest cellular life forms appear in the fossil record.” Really? What evidence does anyone have for pre-cellular life? And (despite the hopes of many atheists to the contrary) what shred of evidence does anyone have for pre-life chemical evolution? You have to have reproducing systems to even have the possibility of evolution, and the chemistry to date is seriously lacking.

    Fletcher goes on to say “Compounding this error, Nagel adds that “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.” Again, this is woefully incorrect. Natural selection does not require DNA; on the contrary, DNA is itself the product of natural selection. That is the point. Indeed, before DNA there was another hereditary system at work, less biologically fit than DNA, most likely RNA (ribonucleic acid). Readers who wish to know more about this topic are strongly advised to keep their hard-earned cash in their pockets, forgo Meyer’s book, and simply read “RNA world” on Wikipedia.” (emphasis mine) Again, Fletcher is presenting science speculation as though it has some basis in evidence. He is certain there was a heredity system before DNA. Why? Because there is evidence? No! Because it is obvious that DNA-based systems could never form on their own! So instead he presents what is basically a philosophical objection based on the current lack of a plausible materialist explanation. Go to Wikipedia? Every origin-of-life article there reads like it was written by the NCSE, and the senior editors there ruthlessly enforce the Darwin-only perspective.

    By the way, anyone out there who (like Fletcher) think they have any idea how life got started, you apparently know more than an expert in the field (Harvard organic chemistry professor George Whitesides) who stated more than once in the past two years that he has “no idea” how life got started. And you can’t accuse him of a religious bias, since he is a self-proclaimed atheist.

  19. 19
    Borne says:

    Darwinism is as much a religion as Dawkins’ atheism is a religion, and that atheism is fanatically religious.

    Has no popes, no churches, no priests??
    Baloney!

    Pope: from Latin: “papa” or “father” from Greek , pápas, “papa”, Papa in Italian

    I call your attention to “Popes” (fathers in Darwinism) Dawkins, Myers, Lewontin, … and priests Moran, Dennett, Scott, …
    The churches of Darwinism are now biology academia, the ncse and the Secular Humanist religious establishments in general, and a ton of biology journal publishing groups.

    Anyone that can’t see that Darwinism is religious in nature – being based on the metaphysics of materialist ideology and ubiquitously under-girded by religious concepts and statements – is blind, unreasonable and in denial.

    Genomic instructions are a form of what Abel (Abel, 2002, Abel and Trevors, 2005) call prescriptive information. Such a clarifying descriptor of information is necessary to distinguish mere Shannon combinatorial uncertainty and Kolmogorov complexity from functional algorithmic strings. Algorithms steer events and behaviors towards predictable usefulness. Prescriptive information utilizes a sign system to either instruct or direct compute utility.

    Artificial life investigators and most applied biologists accepted this reality early on. Steering is required to achieve sophisticated function of any kind. Much of the life-origin research community, however, continues to “live in denial” of this fact.

    -Biosemiotic Research Trends

  20. 20
    IrynaB says:

    jerry,

    Some want to make the connection because of the government’s interpretation of the constitution. If religion cannot be taught in school or allowed to be expressed, then neither can Darwinian evolution because it too is blind faith without empirical backing. Therefore Darwinian evolution should be eliminated from the curriculum.

    Religion is taught in schools. It just has no place in science education. Your claim that Darwinian evolution has no empirical backing is false. It has plenty of empirical backing, as the vast majority of professional biologists think. Your amateur opinion doesn’t count for much.

  21. 21
    Retroman says:

    Borne, you said: “Anyone that can’t see that Darwinism is religious in nature – being based on the metaphysics of materialist ideology and ubiquitously under-girded by religious concepts and statements – is blind, unreasonable and in denial.”

    Way to poison the well. I just told you I don’t think it’s a religion, and I gave you a good reason why. You therefore call me blind, unreasonable, and in denial. Has it ever occurred to you that people can disagree with what you think without being any of those things?

  22. 22
    Seversky says:

    Borne @ 16

    Anyone that can’t see that Darwinism is religious in nature – being based on the metaphysics of materialist ideology and ubiquitously under-girded by religious concepts and statements – is blind, unreasonable and in denial.

    Yes, you can follow the Cornelius Hunter route and allow the definition of religion to become so elastic that it can be stretched to encompass almost any human activity. (Come to think of it, didn’t Michael Behe already try that with the meaning of ‘science’?)

    Of course, if you do that, what is left that is not a religion? Certainly not ID, so you might want to discuss that approach with some of the leading ID proponents here.

  23. 23
    thogan says:

    Seversky: Indeed, “science” can be stretched as far as anyone likes. Larry Laudan showed that attempts to demarcate non-science have failed, leaving any formal definition for “science” necessarily vague since there are no criteria to prevent it from encompassing anything, from art to philosophy to woodworking. Hence it is reasonable to ask anyone using the word “science” to define it.

    Mary Midgley: “Evolution is the creation myth of our age.” http://www.aaas.org/spp/dser/0.....1987.shtml

  24. 24
    Seversky says:

    thogan @ 23
    For Larry Laudan and Mary Midgley, I will trade you a John Wilkins

    Larry Laudan, a well-respected philosopher of science, rejects Popper’s view of science, unlike Ruse, who is a staunch Popperian. According to Laudan, and it’s a view I share, there is no demarcation criterion between science and other human activities, but that doesn’t mean there is no way to tell if something is good or bad science. We don’t have a sharp line between them, but good science is well marked by its explanatory successes, predictive value, and contribution to further research. A “theory” that offered no avenues of further investigation is useless in science, unless it offered the final explanation of all the phenomena it purported to explain. And no theory has reached that state of blessedness.

    Bad science is obvious to scientists. Most scientists at any rate. It has no techniques, no methods or no models. ID is such a beast, lacking, in fact all three. Dembski’s so-called explanatory filter, which has been eviscerated many times, including by myself and Wesley Elsberry, is not an explanation or a method – it is in fact an argument from ignorance – what we don’t know can be put down to the “Designer” (by which they of course mean God, despite the disingenuous protestations). And there are no other methods – no way to identify the action of the Designer, no way to find out if the Designer did a particular thing or it is natural, and so on. Just the bland and, as John Jones III put it in the Dover judgement, breathtakingly inane, claim that intelligence must be the cause of anythign we don’t presently have an explanation for and which looks like it might be designed (despite the complete lack of criteria for design identification).

    and an Edmund Burke:

    …though no man can draw a stroke between the confines of day and night, yet light and darkness are upon the whole tolerably distinguishable.

  25. 25
    thogan says:

    seversky,

    As Wilkins doesn’t define “science,” the text you posted is meaningless, as he uses words like “science” and “scientist” as though they had formal meanings.

    The rest of Wilkins’ criticisms are weak. At the very least, ID is an appeal for a testable mechanism, which is always a valid point and is never “bad”. Wilkins has always seemed muddled and a bit dogmatic to me.

    Just as people today talk about “science”, so people used to talk about “phlogiston” and “ether” as if they were real entities.

    I am an anti-reductionist, like Cartwright, so I won’t accept the alleged reality of “science” without some sort of an argument. Oh, if anyone is interested, I should have a paper coming out in the winter or spring 2010 issue of the Creation Science Quarterly entitled, Some Implications of the Demise of Demarcation.

  26. 26
    Seversky says:

    Recently, there was a very neat illustration of what science does provided unintentionally by a tragedy that befell a very devout Christian family.

    The daughter suffered from untreated diabetes. She died slowly and painfully from it on the living-room floor in her home while her family stood around praying for her recovery. Because of their beliefs they did nothing else until it was way too late.

    It need not have happened.

    Diabetes was recognized as a disorder by science, not religion. Its causes and mechanisms were revealed and explained by science, not religion, and science, not religion, has provided the treatments that could have kept that girl alive. As it is, you could say that she died from religion, not science.

  27. 27
    Mung says:

    Diabetes was recognized as a disorder by science, not religion.

    I have no idea what it means for “science” to recognize a disorder, or for “religion” to recognize a disorder.

    Are you claiming that it wasn’t until Darwin’s theory enlightened the world that people came to understand that diabetes was an abnormal condition?

    I have no idea how reliable this source is, but I’m willing to wage it’s at least as reliable as you on this.

    Diabetes mellitus is known to the human beings many years ago mainly from prehistoric times. In earlier day, a clinical diagnosis of diabetes was an invariable death sentence, more or less quickly. Even non-progressing type 2 diabetes was left undiagnosed. But with the discovery of insulin, its treatment is made possible. Diabetes was first identified by Egyptians about 3500 years ago. It has been explained in the medical books of the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, Indian, Rome and China. In the ancient books it has been mentioned that the disease is associated with polyuria, ploydipsia, etc. A Roman citizen has described diabetes as a melting down of the flesh and limbs into urine. Moreover, the Charaka and Sushruta, well known Ayurvedic physicians, described that the diabetic patients passes sweet urine in large amount that is rain of honey.

    So they have named Diabetes mellitus as Madhumeha. Thereafter, we can say-diabetes has been recognized since antiquity, and its treatments were known since the middle ages. But the etiopathogensis of diabetes occurred mainly in the 20 th century. The ancient Chinese have tested for diabetes by observing whether ants were attracted to a person’s urine or not. Medieval European doctors have tested for diabetes, by testing the urine of diabetic patients themselves, a scene occasionally depicted in Gothic relief, and they named it “sweet urine disease”.

    http://www.diabetesmellitus-in.....istory.htm

  28. 28
    Clive Hayden says:

    Mung,

    I have no idea what it means for “science” to recognize a disorder, or for “religion” to recognize a disorder.

    What do you mean by this? Do you mean that science and religion are not persons, so they cannot “recognize” anything?

  29. 29
    thogan says:

    Seversky,

    Recently, there was a neat illustration of an “advantage” provided by “science”–15,000 cancer deaths caused by science from C-T scans. The same argument could be applied to weapons and accidents resulting from physics, chemistry, and engineering.

    “Science” also has recommended removing tonsils, adenoids, and appendices because of a belief that they were vestigial. Good going there, “science.”

    Yes, I’ve created a reductio ad absurdum. It’s consistent with your ridiculous attribution of one death to religion as being a valid complaint against all religion. People also committed suicide based on a belief in a comet and a lack of acceptance of one’s theory by the physics community, which hardly justifies rejecting beliefs about comets or doing physics. You have committed a fallacy of composition (so typical of internet atheists).

    Furthermore, as mung pointed out, there are ontological problems as well with your reasoning. You still have failed to define what you mean by “science” or “religion.” Demarcation of these things is not trivial.

  30. 30
    Mung says:

    What do you mean by this? Do you mean that science and religion are not persons, so they cannot “recognize” anything?

    Something along those lines. Science and religion are not concepts or categories which can be applied to the recognition of disorders. Of course, the real objection is to the false dichotomy he tries to set up between science and religion and the basis it is then used to reason from.

    One has to wonder if “before there was science” there was only religion. If that’s the case, it looks like religion did discover diabetes.

    He writes:

    As it is, you could say that she died from religion, not science.

    Most people would say neither. Most people would say she died of diabetes. Unless they have some axe to grind.

    Now apparently her parents were praying for her. That seems to be a religious activity. So unless the argument is that it was her prayers that killed her, it hardly makes sense to say that religion caused her death. At the same time, science did not save her from dying. So I guess one could argue that yes, science did cause her death.

  31. 31
    Seversky says:

    Mung @ 27

    I have no idea what it means for “science” to recognize a disorder, or for “religion” to recognize a disorder.

    Allow me to explain. In English, the word “science” can refer not only to the discipline or enterprise itself, which is obviously not an intelligent agent, but also to the body of people who practice it, who are. We can see the same usage in phrases such as ‘the law takes a dim view of…’. Obviously, the law in the abstract is not an intelligence that can hold opinions, but the people who practice or enforce it can.

    Are you claiming that it wasn’t until Darwin’s theory enlightened the world that people came to understand that diabetes was an abnormal condition?

    Not at all. As the passages you quote make clear, it had been recognized as a disorder for thousands of years, although it was only in the twentieth century that it came to be understood in sufficient detail for effective treatments to be developed. My argument is that those people who studied it over the centuries were practicing science, even if they would not have known it by that name, not religion.

  32. 32
    Seversky says:

    thogan @ 29

    Recently, there was a neat illustration of an “advantage” provided by “science”–15,000 cancer deaths caused by science from C-T scans. The same argument could be applied to weapons and accidents resulting from physics, chemistry, and engineering.

    “Science” also has recommended removing tonsils, adenoids, and appendices because of a belief that they were vestigial. Good going there, “science.”

    Nobody is claiming science is perfect but its track record is better than any of the alternatives when it comes to gathering reliable data about the world and building robust theories to explain it.

    Yes, I’ve created a reductio ad absurdum. It’s consistent with your ridiculous attribution of one death to religion as being a valid complaint against all religion.

    The original issue was with the difficulties of distinguishing science from religion. The story of the girl who died needlessly from diabetes was intended as an illustration of the difference between the two. One would have offered the girl a much better chance of survival than the other.

    It was not intended as an attack on all religion.

  33. 33
    Seversky says:

    Mung @ 30

    One has to wonder if “before there was science” there was only religion. If that’s the case, it looks like religion did discover diabetes.

    Before there was science in the modern sense, there were well-educated religious people who practiced what we would now call science, occasionally as some risk to themselves.

    He writes:

    As it is, you could say that she died from religion, not science.

    Most people would say neither. Most people would say she died of diabetes. Unless they have some axe to grind.

    Diabetes was the immediate cause of death but the reluctance of her family to seek known, effective treatments was clearly a major contributory factor at the very least.

    Now apparently her parents were praying for her. That seems to be a religious activity. So unless the argument is that it was her prayers that killed her, it hardly makes sense to say that religion caused her death. At the same time, science did not save her from dying. So I guess one could argue that yes, science did cause her death.

    Science could have saved her if it had been allowed. She died because she was denied effective treatments by the religious beliefs of her parents. That is not the fault of science.

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