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Pummeled with Pom Poms: Thomas Nagel and His Critics

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Back in November 2012 I reviewed Thomas Nagel's Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False on this forum (here) and then discussed it further with James Barham (here and here). On balance, I liked the book, regarding Nagel's critique of Darwinian naturalism on target scientifically and philosophically, though regarding his proposed naturalized teleological alternative as implausible and poorly developed.

In the last two weeks, several additional reviews of the book have come out and some older reviews have been again underscored. See Jerry Coyne's "metareview" here -- Coyne has not read the book but reviews the reviews by Allen Orr, Brian Leiter, and Elliott Sober; see also John Horgan's review at Scientific American here.

Having actually read the book myself and reviewed it, I feel more qualified than Coyne to review these reviews. All of the reviews cited here lack the sneering contempt that the same reviewers reserve for design proponents. Nagel's stature as a well-respected philosopher and his continued insistence that he's an atheist probably account for whatever restraint and deference these writers showed his book.

Yet only one of the reviewers thinks Nagel may be on to something. John Horgan concludes his review with:

I recommend Nagel's book, which serves as a much-needed counterweight to the smug, know-it-all stance of many modern scientists. Hawking and Krauss both claim that science has rendered philosophy obsolete. Actually, now more than ever we need philosophers, especially skeptics like Socrates, Descartes, Thomas Kuhn and Nagel, who seek to prevent us from becoming trapped in the cave of our beliefs.
Ever since Horgan's End of Science (1996), he has assumed the role of scientific curmudgeon, so his endorsement of Nagel is probably more a matter of keeping in character than enthusiasm for Nagel's actual project.

The other reviewers, by contrast, think that Nagel is all mixed up. Sober takes him to task for not understanding the nuances of probabilistic reasoning. Allen Orr reasserts that neo-Darwinism has "overwhelming evidence" (yes, he uses that very phrase). And Leiter, along with co-reviewer Michael Weisberg, suggest that Nagel is eminently ignorable because his book "relies only on popular science writing and brings to bear idiosyncratic and often outdated views about a whole host of issues, from the objectivity of moral truth to the nature of explanation." These three reviewers all give the impression that the Darwinian ship of state is in fine shape, steady as she goes.

Now what I find most interesting about these negative reviews, and this is the only real point I want to make here, is that none of them cites any evidence, provides any reason, or offers any insight that would cause Nagel to do a double take. It's simply unimaginable that Nagel could read any of these reviews and say to himself,

Gee, I wish I had done some more thorough reading and knew more of the particulars of the underlying biology and philosophy of science. If I had, I wouldn't have written my ridiculous book and embarrassed myself by giving Mind & Cosmos that crazy subtitle Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. I now see that neo-Darwinian materialism really is a viable theory.
Nagel is not going to say this to himself, and the reason he won't is that the negative reviewers have offered nothing that Nagel hasn't already seen. Indeed, all the biology cited in these reviews is precisely the sort that Leiter and Weisberg dismiss as "relying on popular science writing." Allen Orr, for instance, means to lecture Nagel that a materialistic understanding of the origin of life is actually in pretty good shape because of -- drum roll, please -- work started in the 1990s on ribozymes. That's right, invoke the RNA world, and you can shut down your brain regarding the origin of life. For those who think the resolution of the problem of life's origin is right around the corner, let me suggest a book I wrote with Jonathan Wells on this very issue titled How to Be an Intellectually Fulfilled Atheist, Or Not. Reality check: the origin of life is completely unresolved in materialist terms.

So, when Jerry Coyne titles his metareview of Nagel's book "Tom Nagel's antievolution book gets thrice pummeled," he might well have added "with pom poms." If this is the best Darwnists can do with Nagel, they and their theory are in sad shape. Indeed, it's emblematic of the intellectual bankruptcy of neo-Darwinism that this is the best they can do.

Image: dulcie/Flickr.