(The reason for the title of this post will become clear, below.)
Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education called my attention last week to this putative review by Steve Fuller of Nagel's Mind and Cosmos; the review was aptly described by another correspondent as "a largely content-free mix of self-promotion and derogation of his Enemies, in which you held the place of honour." (Michael Weisberg, co-author of the review in The Nation, is not on Fuller's "Enemies list" so was erased from Fuller's score-settling.) Just to give the flavor of Fuller's "review," a short excerpt:
An interesting book could be written on the collective psychology of this generation of American philosophers that would start with Hilary Putnam (and possibly include Noam Chomsky and Saul Kripke) as purveyors of that secularised form of dualism that analytic philosophers of mind call "functionalism," which places great store on the fact that mind talk is relatively autonomous from body talk, which ultimately reflects a sublimated theological desire to suppose that we are more - if not other - than our bodies. In contrast, truly materialist philosophers have quite consistently treated mind talk as mere "folk psychology," no more explanatory or predictive of our behaviour than talk of "vital spirits." But interestingly, these philosophers - most notably the husband and wife team of Paul and Patricia Churchland - remain an extreme voice even within naturalism.
Of the two secular anti-naturalists who have stood up to Darwinism, Fodor's casually clever style can leave an aftertaste of sophistry. However, Nagel's more measured and earnest manner makes him harder to dismiss. This is clear from the naturalistic response to Nagel's recent book Mind and Cosmos, which in terms that are neither religious nor outlandish argues (to quote the subtitle) "Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False." A month after the book's publication, the venerable American liberal weekly magazine The Nation published a naturalistic rejoinder.
The review's lead author, Brian Leiter, is worthy of comment. A lawyer by training, Leiter's success in his adopted field of philosophy (he currently teaches at the University of Chicago) is a testimony to his promotion of the judgements he has been codifying since 1989 in the "Philosophical Gourmet Report," which ranks philosophy doctoral programmes across the English-speaking world based on a self-selecting pool of academic peers, starting from the historically leading departments. On this basis, Leiter routinely argues in his widely read blog that there are no schools in philosophy, only good and bad practitioners - the latter deserving of opprobrium in terms that would do A.J. Ayer's "hooray/boo" theory of moral discourse proud.
I thanked Glenn for sending me the link, and was planning to ignore it, since Fuller is irrelevant. But then a commenter alerted me to a very amusing exchange in the comments, which actually makes the whole show worthwhile! I quote again from a commenter posting as "Mines a Newt" (I've added a few hyper-links):
Fuller offers vague ad hominems addressed at "the collective psychology" of people like Hillary Putnam, Noam Chomsky, and Saul Kripke. But he forgets to criticise any specific claim they make. Actually, those people have little in common, other than not thinking Fuller important or taking him seriously.
Then Fuller attacks the philosopher Brian Leiter. Why? Well, Leiter has been unkind about Fuller's shilling for ID creationism in the US.
Worse, Leiter's philosophy blog offers gleeful links to academic reviews of Fuller's books. So I can see why Fuller doesn't like him.
But Fuller would be more effective if he hadn't, for example, typed, "a lawyer by training, Leiter..." in a sentence attempting to debunk Leiter's expertise in philosophy.
Given Fuller's and Leiter's mutual dislike, it would be odd if Fuller doesn't know that Professor Leiter is indeed a philosopher by training, having got his Ph D in Philosophy at the University of Michigan in 1995.
Fuller's attack backfires because an academic's "training" is easily checked. Leiter's CV is on-line.
For more useful comment on Nagel's book, there's Leiter and Weisberg's review in The Nation, or Elliott Sober's in The Boston Review. Personally, I don't think Nagel's atheist teleology makes sense, but that's just me.
An apt reply, but not worth noting except that Steve Fuller then weighs in with this remarkable response:
Wow, this is pretty bad. Try a little harder next time.
Leiter is a lawyer by training (JD). The philosophy PhD came later.
Also, learn what the word 'shill' means. It might save you a law suit in the future -- though you might be able to hire Leiter
It was such a "lame" reply that Fuller had to weigh in with a meritless threat of legal action! Hence the title of this post. "Mines a Newt" then replies further:
My thanks to "Mines a Newt" for calling this amusing exchange to my attention.
Professor Brian Leiter, PhD (Philosophy), University of Michigan, Director of the Chicago Centre for Law, Philosophy and Human Values, etc, is a considerable figure. He is a legal scholar as well as a philosopher, but to describe him as "a lawyer by training" when discussing his philosophical work is misleading in the extreme.
Fuller now indicates that he is aware of Leiter's credentials, which indicates that he was not accidentally misleading.
With regard to "shill", I used the word in the sense of promoting ID and urging others to support ID.
I intended no financial inference and I fully accept Fuller's statement in "American Scientist", on 23 December 2008, that he didn't receive his fee from the Dover trial because the school board for which he testified went bankrupt, and that "my subsequent ID-related activities have not appreciably increased my income".