What else can one say when a prominent, and formerly reputable, philosopher lends the fame of his name to endorse the latest misleading hatchet job on biological science by Stephen Meyer, one of the key figures in the Discovery [sic] Institute? Scientists are already taking note of this embarrassing display (and see here), which just invites ridicule of the profession:
In a previous post, I said, "Whenever scientific subjects are discussed, you can count on some philosopher to chime in with something really stupid."
Here's another example. Thomas Nagel, a philosopher of some repute, nominates Stephen Meyer's Signature in the Cell as his pick for book of the year in the Times Literary Supplement.
Does Nagel have any biological training? None that I could see. Does he know anything about evolution or abiogenesis? Not if he thinks Meyer has any valid contribution to make. Did he bother to check if biologists think Meyer's book is a good contribution to the literature? I doubt it. Did Nagel spot all the phony claims Meyer makes about information? I doubt it again....
It's sad to see such an eminent philosopher (Nagel) make a fool of himself with this recommendation.
It is sad, but it is also a reason to be angry, since he's not simply making a fool of himself, he's giving ammunition to those who campaign, relentlessly, to undermine biology education in the public schools. (The pathological liars at the Discovery [sic] Institute are already all over this and other creationists also realize the public relations value of this endorsement.) Regarding what actual experts think of Mr. Meyer's work, do see this and this and this. There is also a patient dissection of the book from a religious biochemist here. (And for even more on Meyer and the Discovery [sic] Institute, these two items are illuminating.)
This latest embarrassment comes on the heels, of course, of last year's comically bad--and obviously not peer-reviewed--article about teaching Intelligent Design in the public schools and the Dover decision (here), in which Nagel largely made up what the Dover court said and made a mash of the science as well (that article was almost entirely footnote-free for very good reason). But for Philosophy & Public Affairs's wholly corrupt practice of letting the 'inside circle' of cronies publish without actual editorial oversight, this article could never have appeared in a reputable scholarly journal.
For those outside philosophy or new to it, Nagel's best work--primarily (though not entirely) in moral philosophy--is well-represented by his 1978 collection Mortal Questions and his 1970 book The Possibility of Altruism. (He also has a very fine, short introduction to philosophy: What Does It All Mean?) Much of his philosophical work reflects an interest in the tension between "objective" and "subjective" points of view, for example, in his best-known contribution outside ethics, a paper (reprinted in Mortal Questions) on "What is it like to be a bat?" (challenging the ability of materialist accounts of the mind to capture the subjective character of experience). He has never made any contributions, or manifested any expertise, in the philosophical fields most relevant to assessing the issues raised by Meyer's work, such as philosophy of biology; that lack of expertise needn't have been fatal to a philosopher's judgment on these matters, of course, though in Nagel's case it may have been. Given that his 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.
UPDATE: The TLS has just published a letter from a chemist about Nagel's little "recommendation"; the whole thing is worth reading (scroll down for it), but here's a key bit:
[Nagel] should not promote the book to the rest of us using statements that are factually incorrect.
In describing Meyer’s book, Nagel tells us that it “. . . is a detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter – something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin” (my italics). Well, no. 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.
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.
ANOTHER: David Wallace, a philosopher of physics at Oxford University, writes:
The worst consequence of his actions is doubtless the damage done to the anti-creationist fight – but it’s bad news for philosophy of science too. It’s infuriating for those of us who work in technical bits of philosophy of science when this kind of thing happens – it contributes to the very widespread view amongst scientists that philosophy is a waste of time and that philosophers don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s uphill work trying to get (e.g.) physicists to take philosophy of physics seriously, and this kind of thing only makes it worse.
Indeed, that attitude is on display in the initial blast from Professor Shallitt quoted above. It thus bears emphasizing that Nagel is not a philosopher of science and is ignorant of the relevant science, as is now abundantly clear. It has been the hallmark of the best philosophers of science in recent decades that their knowledge of the particular sciences is exemplary, and that they often publish in scientific as well as philosophical journals. And, needless to say, these actual experts are not falling for the nonsense put out by the Discovery [sic] Institute!