Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tom Nagel: Apostate!!

UK's Times Online has posted a portion of the Times Literary Supplement "Book of the Year" selections. The Times asked several people to make their picks, including Tom Nagel, a philosopher of pretty hefty repute. [You know this when several of his pieces are standards in textbooks you have used.]

His The Objective Basis of Morality, is but one example, and contains a very interesting meditation on the difference between the moral emotion of resentment and other non-moral emotions, such as annoyance. The former has, as an essential conceptual element, an implicit universality we do not always consciously recognize, but from which we typically operate in certain circumstances. This perceptive analysis is often a key reading in introductory ethics texts.

Nagel has done work in other areas of philosophy, of course, and enjoys a solid reputation.

He's also an atheist that has come to be impressed by the ID arguments of Stephen C. Meyer. [I'm a bit in that same camp, having just read his book. I would count myself more in the agnostic tent though. More here]

In fact, in Nagel's brief part of the Literary Review's book of the year feature, Meyer's Signature in the Cell is given a short one paragraph positive review, as one of Nagel's two books of the year. I quote it in full:

Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperCollins) 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. The controversy over Intelligent Design has so far focused mainly on whether the evolution of life since its beginnings can be explained entirely by natural selection and other non-purposive causes. 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. He examines the history and present state of research on non-purposive chemical explanations of the origin of life, and argues that the available evidence offers no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause. Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem.

I have read the book, and have to concur. It is a very carefully argued, yet accessible excursis into origin of life studies, focusing on DNA/RNA, and competing naturalistic and non-naturalistic (or agent-based) explanations of the origin of the genetic material.

For the non-specialist, the book serves as a great way to get up to speed on the issues and the competing theories. Meyer also does a good job of dealing with the contention that ID isn't science, showing that the claim is less than convincing. He points out, quite rightly, that philosophy of science is in no way settled on what exactly constitutes science or scientific method. What is more, on behalf of himself and other IDers, he presents several very specific empirical tests for ID, testable claims, that would seem to place the idea squarely in the scientific camp. He makes a good case that ID is at least as intellectually respectable (being testable, and philosophically defensible inference-to-the-best-explanation) as its naturalistic competitors.

Well, so what? you might say. A philosopher finds a carefully crafted set of arguments concerning an ultimate question (how did we get here?) to be interesting. Because it is grounded in empirical data, it might pique the interest of a scientist or two, and and because it suggests that an intelligence is the best available (most likely given the data) explanation for that set of data, it will be attractive to the religious. Big freaking deal. Not earth shattering.

Well, think again. For, those paragons of disinterested reason, the tribe of the philosophers, are miffed (some of them at any rate). Behold the adult behavior exhibited on the platonic playground:

Tom Nagel is a big stupid head!

From whence we see this jewel-of-wisdom post:

..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.

Just to cite one: Meyer claims, over and over again, that information can only come from a mind -- and that claim is an absolutely essential part of his argument. Nagel, the brilliant philosopher, should see why that is false. Consider making a weather forecast. Meteorologists gather information about the environment to do so: wind speed, direction, temperature, cloud cover, etc. It is only on the basis of this information that they can make predictions. What mind does this information come from?

It's sad to see such an eminent philosopher (Nagel) make a fool of himself with this recommendation.

The weather forecasting analogy is not very good. The forecaster, an intelligent agent. He gathers data, from which he generates a prediction. The data is generated by the interaction of natural phenomena with various intelligently designed instruments, that convert the interactions into information. This then is the data used (be it magnetic patches on a hard drive, or squiggly lines on a barometer). This first-level data, together with the methodology used to generate the prediction (statistical modeling, etc..) generates the prediction a second level of data or information.

But, to be clear here; the data fed into the model is the result of the interaction of intelligent agents with the natural phenomena, via tools they have created for such purposes (and their brains of course).

Only after all that has gone on does the same person, or different people feed this data or information into a machine or brain that has 'installed' within it a higher level predictive method, and/or tool, which then generates some further wider-scope information that can in turn be used by other intelligent agents, because they can read and understand it.

The initial phenomena, while it did not come from a mind, nevertheless can be called 'information' only in an extended metaphorical sense. It is not really information at all (but some physical events like air movement), until experienced and interpreted as such by brains and intelligently designed measuring devices which are related to each other in just the right way.

But, aside from that fallacy, notice the invective:

It's sad to see such an eminent philosopher (Nagel) make a fool of himself with this recommendation.

and in this comment a bit down the page on said blog..

Nagel has become a disgrace. He was a philosopher who made some significant contributions, but in areas far afield of this one. A small irony: the other book he chooses to recommend is by a colleague and friend with whom he co-teaches. High standards of integrity here!

Wow, ad-hominum with a vengeance. He's recommending books by friends. The horror! Academic quasi-nepotism in action.

That last comment comes from a philosopher by the name of Brian Leiter. He has more to say concerning Nagel here:

Tom Nagel is not cool like the Fonz!

and here:

Tom Nagel is a front man for snake oil salesman!

Which posts let it be known that the nefarious Discovery Institute is the snake-oil firm, and that would obviously make Stephen Myer the salesman. If you see him at your door, don't answer. These posts show no clear sign of having read the book. I suppose if it is assured fact that the source is in the employ of a snake oil firm, there is no need to read the book.

Leiter references a letter written by a chemist, protesting the Nagel review, (recipient, the TLS) Text in full:

Sir, – The belief that we share this planet with supernatural beings is an old one. Students of magic and religion have identified innumerable varieties of them – gods, devils, pixies, fairies, you name it. A familiar motif is that they operate at the very fringes of perception. While the scullery maid sleeps, they are busy in the kitchen making the milk go sour. For a society with no concept of bacteria, this is, perhaps, a forgivable conceit. But for a modern university professor to take this idea seriously is, I think, mind-blowing.

In the recent TLS “Books of the Year” (November 27), 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.

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” (my italics again). 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.

Department of Chemistry, Loughborough University, Ashby Road, Loughborough.

To which one could respond that Meyer actually spends quite some time examining the RNA world hypothesis (and from the primary sources, btw, not the always reliable Wikipedia). But, once again, why bother to read the damn book when you know the source is salesman from a well known snake-oil firm. All the handwaving about supernaturalism is utterly beside the point that Meyer argues, and in fact he is careful to not only note that he is *shudder* a Christian who would like to see the arguments work, but that the ID arguments only go so far, making a case that the best explanation for DNA/RNA is the operations of some intelligence or another.

Nagel responded to this letter: Full text here:

Sir, – Stephen Fletcher objects to my recommending Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell in Books of the Year. Fletcher’s statement that “It is hard to imagine a worse book” suggests that he has read it. If he has, he knows that it includes a chapter on “The RNA World” which describes that hypothesis for the origin of DNA at least as fully as the Wikipedia article that Fletcher recommends. Meyer discusses this and other proposals about the chemical precursors of DNA, and argues that they all pose similar problems about how the process could have got started.

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.

29 Washington Square, New York 10011.

Which letters to the editor section, by the way, also included this letter from some scientist guy who apparently didn't get the "beware the snake-oil salesman' memo:

Sir, – The resilience of the “prebiotic soup” myth, in spite of torrents of counter-evidence, is truly astonishing. Even professionals such as Stephen Fletcher (Letters, December 4), criticizing Thomas Nagel’s recommendation of Signature in the Cell by Stephen C. Meyer (Books of the Year, November 27), apparently still believe in it. Fletcher asserts that “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”.

Actually the operation of neoDarwinian natural selection depends on the prior existence of entities capable of self-replication. Variants are produced in their genetic material by mutations, the variants are copied by the organism’s biochemical machinery, and then natural selection ensures the most “fit” survive. Before the arrival of organisms capable of reproduction, this process could not operate. In the words of the renowned evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Prebiological natural selection is a contradiction in terms”. It follows that, even in principle, some quite different explanation is required to account for the origin of life. Fletcher is pinning his hopes on a supposed RNA world. He tells us: “Indeed, before DNA there was another hereditary system at work, less biologically fit than DNA, most likely RNA (ribonucleic acid)”.

It is an amusing irony that while castigating students of religion for believing in the supernatural, he offers in its place an entirely imaginary “RNA world” the only support for which is speculation! Intense laboratory research has failed to produce even one nucleotide (RNA component) under geologically plausible conditions. As for the chains of nucleotides required for the RNA world, there are insuperable problems associated with their information content, as well as the chemical selectivity needed for their assembly. Furthermore, the earth’s oldest Precambrian rocks show very good evidence that life was present from the start, so the half-billion years Fletcher counts on were actually not available for chemical evolution.

Rather than just kowtowing to the creaky naturalist “prebiotic soup” scenario, Meyer engages with the whole range of origin of life problems. Anyone interested in discovering where the evidence leads will find this a fascinating book.

School of Chemistry, University of St Andrews, North Haugh, St Andrews.

Damn. This Walton character actually read the book. No cool-kids for you. Get out of line!

Well, actually, there are a fair number of practicing scientists that didn't get that memo, and do think that there may be something worth considering in the ID style explanations. There are several who gave the book positive 'blurbs', (you can find 'em on the jacket and through other sources).

In fact, if you deign to read the book, and take upon yourself the risk of subjection to the Jedi-mind-tricks of the snake-oil salesman, you will see there are a fair number of folks who either (inclusive sense here philosophical-playground tribesmen) see deep troubles for the prospects of naturalistic explanations of DNA/RNA origins or see the rational respectability of ID/agent based explanations.

But, then again, why believe what you read in a snake-oil pitch? Trust the gate keepers of the cool-kid area of the playground, Meyer is not in with the cool kids on the playground. And that goes for you too Tommy Nagel. Nyah na nya na na!

Pinky and the Brain spinning their wheels.. they try to force their school, Hampshire U., to divest from Israel. Of course, this being a "Pinky and the Brain scheme" it is of global ambition, and singular in ineffectual brilliance; sporting a record free from blemish of success.

A great parody from two blogs I read daily (check out the blog roll),



Divest This

Hampshire and the Brain Part the First

Part the Second

Part the Third

The origins of this series of posts? A toss off remark made in this post on DT:

Naturally, I was most curious about how the BDSers managed to spend an entire weekend ginning up the troops while having to work around the little detail that their Pinky and the Brain-type schemes have met with nothing but failure over the last eight years. With zero colleges choosing to divest after all that time (and Hampshire providing an abject lesson to college administrators nationwide on what can happen if you give the BDS crowd the time of day), with churches running from their program, with "right wing" groups like J Street abandoning their squalid little project, how would they apply their innovative imaginations into spinning excrement into gold?

Well, yours truly had his funny bone well and truly tweaked by that bit, and had to write a comment. Exchange below:

Shaun Baker said...

Pinky and the Brain schemes! Brilliance. Too bad someone can't put together a little parody piece. Dress up P and B in appropriate college aged BDS gear, sitting in front of some student union, no one paying them any attention:

Pinky: What are we going to do today Brain?

Brain: Same thing we do every day Pinky, congratulate ourselves to the world (or boycott the world?..divest from the world? go on strike against the world?)

December 5, 2009 6:42 AM

Jon said...

Shaun - Consider your challenge accepted!

To be continued.

December 7, 2009 10:03 AM

and this gave rise to the Hampshire and the Brain posts!

Speaking of Pinky and the Brain, I leave you with this gem. Here is Brain as he begins his World Apology Tour

Stay tuned for more.. (update, part 3 added)