Paul Raymont (Ryerson) calls to my attention a letter from Thomas Nagel in the TLS purportedly replying to the letter from the chemist Stephen Fletcher (quoted in relevant part in the first "update" here) criticizing Nagel's endorsement of the incompetent book by the "intelligent design" apologist Stephen Meyer. The letter is striking for not responding to any of the substantive points (no surprise, I guess), but this portion is really the most revealing:
The tone of Fletcher’s letter exemplifies the widespread intolerance of any challenge to the dogma that everything in the world must be ultimately explainable by chemistry and physics. There are reasons to doubt this that have nothing to do with theism, beginning with the apparent physical irreducibility of consciousness. Doubts about reductive explanations of the origin of life also do not depend on theism. 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.
As Nagel well knows, there is also widespread "intolerance" for quackery, falsehood, and dissembling, especially, one hopes, among philosophers. That Professor Fletcher (and not only he!) is aggrieved about Nagel's "shameless stunt" really does not support Nagel's explanation for the tone.
Nagel's explanation is, in any case, obviously silly and meant to distract attention from the stupid thing he has done. For who exactly is committed to thinking physics and chemistry explain everything? Maybe Alex Rosenberg (not really!), certainly not Jerry Fodor and the legions of token-identity physicalists, and certainly not biologists, rather obviously! The method of looking for natural explanations of natural phenomena has worked well; it is no "dogma", but an induction over past success, that keeps scientists working in that vein. (We've touched on this topic before.) But this is all a distraction: for the snake oil salesman that Nagel is promoting (Meyer of the Discovery [sic] Insitutte) isn't interested in figuring out whether physics is complete, since he already knows the answer, and it demands supernatural interventions into natural processes. That mode of explanation has an even longer history than the naturalistic kind, and it is one of massive failure (did Nagel really not notice?). Every theory in the natural sciences has gaps, and the question is whether we are to try to fill them with posits whose track record of disappointment is well-established, or not. (As one of Nagel's teachers might have taught him, methodological conservatism is considered a virtue among scientists.) No one objects to challenging the explanatory completeness of physics, or to asking whether physicalists can explain consciousness, or whether naturalism is the correct meta-philosophy (lots of philosophers, as we recently learned, reject it, yet you can count on one hand the 'target' faculty who would pal around with the ID conmen at the Discovery [sic] Institute). 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 Discovery [sic] Institute conmen learned in the 1980s that certain strategies for injecting religious viewpoints into the public school curricula won't pass constitutional muster, so they have shifted their strategy: the goal is not "equal time" for creationism, but rather to inject material into the standard curriculum that would leave high school students--high school students (!) in their first real encounter with biology--with the false impression that there is not a scientific consensus about Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. 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.)
Thus, it is a certainty that the new addition to the ID lobbying arsenal, that will be repeated again and again in the years ahead, will be the fact that "a famous atheist philosopher" endorsed Meyer's book, so earnest school board members really ought to take it seriously, perhaps require that portions of it be assigned, or at least make sure that they only approve textbooks that suggest (falsely) that there is significant skepticism about Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection among biologists. That Meyer is not a biologist; that Nagel is not a biologist; that Nagel is (or was) a good philosopher won't matter. None of that matters for the Discovery [sic] Institute: the only goal is--to quote a different philosopher who wasn't thinking of this mischief--"to put limits on knowledge to make room for faith."
And if Nagel's latest letter is to be believed, the reason he has given ammunition to ignoramuses and know-nothings in their efforts to mislead schoolchildren, is because he thinks Stephen Meyer's book lends support to a paper that Nagel wrote in 1974!
Wouldn't it have been less destructive to just write another paper?
There is a case study in this to be written about the moral responsibilities of intellectuals.
UPDATE: More on the topic here.