Thomas Nagel is a brilliant atheist. I have only had the pleasure of reading two of his books (The View from Nowhere and The Last Word). In addition, I recall reading only one of his essays (“Reductionism and Antireductionism” from The Limits of Reductionism in Biology), but it was a top-notch look at the philosophy of biology. While I disagree with much of what he says, he possesses a keen intellect as well as the ability to express that intellect in an enjoyable way.
Not only is Nagel brilliant, he is accomplished in his field. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Like me, he has also received support from the National Science Foundation. Probably his greatest award is the International Balzan Prize, which is given to those who do outstanding work in the humanities, natural sciences, culture, and the peace process. He was given that prize for:
…his fundamental and innovative contributions to contemporary ethical theory, relating to both individual, personal choices and collective, social decisions. For the depth and coherence of his original philosophical perspective, which is centered on the essential tension between objective and subjective points of view. For the originality and fecundity of his philosophical approach to some of the most important questions in contemporary life.
Clearly Nagel is a leader in his field. However, he has gone and done the unthinkable, and it has really annoyed a lot of people – especially people who don’t like science.
What was the unthinkable act Nagel did? He said that an intelligent design book (Signature in the Cell) was really good. In fact, he thought it was good enough to be considered a 2009 book of the year. For this, he was raked over the coals.
For example, Dr. Brian Leiter (University of Chicago Law School) said:
Scientists are already taking note of this embarrassing display…which just invites ridicule of the profession
Dr. Jerry Coyne (University of Chicago Department of Ecology and Evolution) said:
Nagel is a respected philosopher who’s made big contributions to several areas of philosophy, and this is inexplicable, at least to me.
Dr. Jeffrey Shallit (computer scientist and Vice-President of Electronic Frontier Canada) said:
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.
So these people (and others) are upset that Nagel thought Signature in the Cell was a great book. Why? Essentially it is because they don’t really like science very much. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that they dislike everything about science. They probably like many aspects of science. What they dislike, however, is the process by which science progresses. Scientific progress generally occurs when the accepted dogma in science is challenged with clear, coherent, and scientifically accurate material. That’s what Signature in the Cell does, and the “high priests” of science don’t like it at all!
Don’t worry, though. For those of us who love science, there is great news. Signature in the Cell made the list of top ten science books sold by Amazon.com in 2009. Of course, Dr. Coynes book, Why Evolution is True, also made that list, as did Dawkins’s book, The Greatest Show On Earth. This tells me that the process of science is alive and well, despite the best wishes of people like those I quote above. The scientific dogma of the day is being communicated to the masses, but so is a strong challenge to that dogma.
If the dogma is correct, those who hold to it have no reason to worry – the data will speak for themselves, and people will continue to believe the dogma. However, if the dogma is not correct, the budding young scientists who read books like Signature in the Cell will eventually become the scientists who will topple that dogma. Given the responses I quoted above, it seems to me that some people who believe in the dogma are terribly worried.
Before I end this post, I want to highlight one more person who was angered over Nagel’s recommendation. Dr. Stephen Fletcher, a chemist at Loughborough University, said:
Thomas Nagel recommends Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design. “Intelligent Design” is of course a code phrase to obscure a malicious and absurd thesis; namely, that a supernatural being has interfered in the evolution of life on this planet. If Nagel wishes to take this notion seriously, very well, let him do so. But he should not promote the book to the rest of us using statements that are factually incorrect.
He then goes on to discuss the “factually incorrect” statements Nagel supposedly makes. Of course, Nagel didn’t make “factually incorrect” statements, but Dr. Fletcher’s attack was revealing. At one point, he said:
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.
Never mind that Dr. Fletcher doesn’t seem to understand that “biological evolution” clearly can’t occur before life, since the word “biological” refers to “life.” The key here is that Dr. Fletcher says what every evolutionist knows but many evolutionary sources take great pains to deny: the origin of life is intimately connected with evolution. A commenter on this blog (Norwegian Shooter) actually tried to make the argument that the origin of life and evolution are not connected using several dishonest evolutionary sources, but he eventually gave up because he couldn’t defend it. Another commenter (Amanda) linked a silly video she had received from some evolutionists. That video also tries to make the same argument. It is clear why dishonest evolutionists try to make such an argument – all the data indicate that the origin of life by natural causes is impossible.
At least Dr. Fletcher makes it clear in his attack on Nagel that such an argument is absurd. Of course evolution and the origin of life are intimately connected, as they both use the same absurd formula:
mistakes + natural selection + eons of time = what we see today
Because of excellent books like Signature in the Cell, science will eventually progress beyond such foolish notions. That’s probably what makes the people I quote above so angry!