Sunday, August 31, 2008

Has Tom Nagel Jumped the Shark?

I've received several emails calling attention to Thomas Nagel's article in the new issue of Philosophy & Public Affairs, "Public Education and Intelligent Design." I read the argument as running roughly as follows:

ID is not non-science, but bad science. Bad science is a kind of science. Therefore, the Dover decision is incorrect.

I've read the piece only once and quickly, but it seems to me puzzling on many fronts. I'm struck buy how many times Nagel prefaces crucial moves in his argument with phrases like, "I'm not an expert, but...," and "To a layman, it seems as if...," and so on. Could someone out there who has read this essay with more care tell me: Has Nagel jumped the shark?

17 comments:

English Jerk said...

Maybe he's just trying to figure out what it's like to be a shark.

Spiros said...

English:

Excellent!

729 said...

Maybe he just ran out of luck!

(Although I suspect that the view finally caught up with him.)

729 said...

Okay, so on a more or less serious note, the very basic argument you outline is a part of the overall argument...

ID, like Evolutionary Theory (ET), presents a hypothesis (a Designer) to explain genetic mutation (GM). Although the hypothesis of a Designer presents difficulties, it is, nevertheless, a hypothesis proposed to explain GM. ID qualifies as "science" as it respects the evidence in question (albeit bad science, as Kitcher also argues), and so has a place in the discussion.

But there's more to the argument. It's insufficient for Nagel to show that bad science has some sort of place in the discussion, such that it *should be taught.* Along the way additional premises are added as ammunition regarding the constitutionality of teaching Evolutionary Theory exclusively, and the third section of the paper brings this part of the argument together. Proponents of ET deny that a Designer (God, Deity) can play any role in any explanation of GM. Proponents of ID are relying on a background religious worldview in their Hypothesis of a Designer, but Proponents of ET are *also relying on a religious worldview * in their denial that D can play any role whatsoever in explaining GM. The Religious Belief of proponents of ET = Atheism, and this belief is in keeping with an atheistic worldview. The Establishment Clause prohibits religious belief from entering the classroom and complete neutrality with respect to any religious position. Teaching ID is constitutionally defensible (if ID is properly taught, it can have the secular benefit of improving our understanding of Evolutionary Theory, p. 203--note back-pedaling secular qualification ), and exclusively teaching Evolutionary Theory violates the Establishment Clause (isn't neutral).

There’s a whole lot that can be said about all this, but, in short, it seems to me that the shark that Nagel jumps in this article bears great similarity to the old Qualia shark. In the current article science faces off with religion with respect to a posit (Designer/God) excluded under physicalism. He had made a similar move with respect to subjective experience and objective scientific description. Qualia, “the what it’s likenesses” of subjective experiences, are posits that necessarily stand outside the domain of objective scientific investigation. Even if we are sympathetic to physicalism, we must accept that there are these scientifically inexplicable posits, qualia. Likewise, in this article, Nagel is really complaining that evolutionary theory, operating with physicalist assumptions, has denied a certain sort of theoretical posit (God/Designer). A grand Deisgner is, he holds, a *possible* explanatory hypothesis (which itself is a posit that cannot be scientifically explained, but that's not at issue for him). Reductive Physicalism is once again Nagel’s real target. This comes out strongly at the end of the article on pages 202-203, where he discusses "evolutionary reductionism" and its stranglehold on sophisticated people, which he finds "defies commonsense." Once again, reductive physicalism leaves something out, which obscures commonsense (the same commonsense intuition we have about qualia, one might suppose).

I'm one of those people who've found that there's something religious lurking in qualia. After reading this article, I'm sure of it.

Anonymous said...

What do you expect from someone whose best known paper says, in essence, that x is just too hard to understand, therefore x can't be understood.

Anonymous said...

ID is not bad science, it's bad philosophy. It's metaphysics.

JS said...

Science is bad when it proves poor in explaining and/or predicting some phenomenon of experience. Neither philosophy nor theology is in that line of work, but rather that of forming a coherent, plausible 'world-view' or 'framework' within which the business of science receives its import. Since framework construction generally determines the relevance of experience rather than being justified by it, evaluation of that construction can claim little in the way of objectivity. Combining an initial designer with evolutionary theory is not bad science, but (generally good) science nested in a theology. Whether you find the theology bad or not is likely to be no more than a matter of taste.

John Oberdiek said...

Before Nagel is thrown to the lions for providing aid and comfort to ID creationists, its worth bearing in mind both the Frost quote that Nagel has approvingly cited with respect to his own views, that a liberal is someone who cannot take his own side in an argument, as well as the following from The Last Word, p. 130:

"In speaking of the fear of religion, I don't mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper -- namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that."

Non-naturalism -- its not just for religious believers anymore!

Anonymous said...

Isn't the relevant question whether PPA has jumped the shark? Even the best of us can write a bad paper; stopping it from seeing the light of day is what referees and editors are for.

chris cathcart said...

Here's what a propose as an equitable solution to this whole pseudo-debate as well as other, legitimate questions about what to teach kids in science classes: Give creationism coverage in classrooms and textbooks roughly proportional to its coverage in peer-reviewed science journals. Just as neither non-science nor bad science has a place in peer-reviewed journals, ... .

Anonymous said...

Anonymous writes:

"What do you expect from someone whose best known paper says, in essence, that x is just too hard to understand, therefore x can't be understood."

Anonymous, you are thick. That's not what Nagel concludes at all.

Dave2 said...

After a breezy read of the article in question, I think these are the biggest problems:

(1) Nagel seems to slide from "Teaching ID isn't constitutionally prohibited" to "Teaching ID is a good idea". And I would have thought the fact that ID is a fringe view not taken at all seriously by the scientific mainstream to be an absolutely decisive consideration: we shouldn't teach fringe views, we should teach mainstream science. And all Nagel has by way of addressing this consideration is the speculative hypothesis that a non-scientific anti-religious agenda is secretly behind this marginalization of ID. Hey, maybe so, but we could just as well say secret Zionist agendas are behind the exclusion of Holocaust revisionist views from the historical mainstream. Until the fringe views overcome all the obstacles and prejudice, we're not supposed to be teaching them to schoolchildren.

(2) Nagel seems to assume from the start that mainstream evolutionary biology has naturalistic anti-God anti-ID assumptions built into it -- that's how he gets science on the hook for resting on a non-scientific foundation. But I would have thought that mainstream evolutionary biology remains agnostic on such matters, setting them aside because they haven't helped us understand life on earth any better, and resting content with the natural processes that have proven their worth in biology. To be sure, evolution has always 'displaced' design, but that's less by attacking design head-on than by doing a better job at explaining things.

Anonymous said...

It certainly seemed a pretty awful article from my quick reading of it, but I think the 'what do you expect from an qualia-mongering mysterian' people are way out in thinking that being minded to respect what scientists say about the evidence (which Nagel certainly doesn't do in the paper) in general correlates with being a physicalist. Maybe at the momment it does, but I think its more a coincidence than anything else that physicalism, rather than phenomenalism has become seen as 'the scientific view'. After all, most of the early 20th century philosophers who we're most vociferous in defence of science and what they saw as scientific rationality (i.e. Ayer and the Vienna Circle, Russell for example) were traditional empiricists who we're either phenomenalists or at one point 'neutral monists' (Russell) in Russell's case or had sense-datum views of perception that at the very least sit uneasily with reductive physicalism. (Though I think the odd positivist may have been a logical behaviourist-Hempel for example). Then, after Wittgenstein, Ryle, etc, people critiqued this whole framework involivng inner objects known first and best for reasons quite unrelated to respect for science. Twas only after that happened that physicalism cane to be seen as also self-evidently the only view compatible with a scientific world view...(even after this point, Sellars for example, of course, was a scientific realist but he certainly wasn't a traditional physicalist).

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