Sunday, December 6, 2009

Nagel on ID

In my recent posts on Paley, and elsewhere, I’ve been pretty critical of ID theory. But I’ve always acknowledged that the ID folks have been treated disgracefully by most naturalists and Darwinians. Most, but not all. If you haven’t yet heard, Thomas Nagel has recommended Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design as one of the “best books of the year” in the Times Literary Supplement. Some of Nagel’s fellow naturalists are very very upset about it. Just wait ‘til they read Jerry Fodor’s next book. As I’ve noted before, non-fundamentalist naturalists like Nagel and Fodor are the ones theists need to take the most seriously, precisely because (as I emphasized in the posts on Paley) they realize that a challenge to Darwinism is not a challenge to naturalism per se. Still fun to watch the fundamentalist naturalists squirm, though…

23 comments:

David said...

In some unpublished work, Nagel is very favorable to teleology.

TomH said...

I agree with your post, but I have a minor quibble. I don't like the term "fundamentalist naturalist" as it is too rhetorical and equivocates with the original Christian Fundamentalism. I prefer "naturalist ideologues" since that more precisely conveys their nature, imo.

Anonymous said...

Haha, I just read the product description and several of the endorsements of Fodor's book on Amazon. Needless to say, I will be purchasing it and cannot wait to hear the reactions from the fundie camp. Should prove be a good show.



Dr. Feser, have you read Stephen Meyer's book? Do you consider it good, or just another worthless ID book? Given that a prominent naturalistic philosopher like Nagel has given his endorsement, I'm considering reading it, not just because it's probably one of the better ID books out there, but because I, for one, given that many people I know are biologists, would like to see what is specifically wrong with the prevailing evolutionary model so that I can engage them in dialogue from a perspective that, while not wholly philosophical, is one which they are familiar with and thus more likely to understand, even though I do reject naturalism at every possible level due to the philosophical reasons that you and other thinkers have presented.

I'm not as concerned about people arguing for ID as I am about the current lack of argumentation being directed specifically against naturalism and for the renewal of classical and medieval styles of philosophical thinking. Like you stated in TLS, those are our strongest arguments and we ought to be putting them forward, while greatly minimizing the extent to which we rely on ID theories. But I still don't see why, for the time being, ID'ers like Stephen Meyer and fine philosophers like Richard Swinburne shouldn't have any say in the debate.

Anonymous said...

Hey Dr Feser. I read your book and loved it, and I also generally think we should be sure to ground our theistic arguments in the metaphysical, philosophical tradition rather than the empirical scientific one. Nevertheless, I wanted to know if you read this philosophical argument the scientist Jeffrey Shallit made on his blog about Nagel:

"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?"

Something seems extremely wrong with this argument to me, but I can't exactly put my finger on it. Is it valid or is it a misunderstanding?

Anonymous said...

Anon,

I doubt Prof Feser wants to pick up the slack for ID arguments he's no fan of. The response Meyer gives in his book is distinguishing between specified and unspecified information.

Roughly along the lines of how a computer program is just a bunch of text, but if a program is 500 characters, you can't just give a 500 character file and say "Well, there's the program". You need the right pattern (ordering, commands, spelling, etc).

Anonymous said...

Shannon showed that errors can be information, if the context is right. Context is determined by an intelligent reader. In the wrong reading context, even Shakespeare is no information. The specified context can make all the difference. If intelligence is required on both the reading and writing ends, then we have communication. If the reader can impose a structure on unstructured data, then that would speak against specified complexity in the "writer".

The 27th Comrade said...

But why do people spend time trying to "disprove" evolution by natural selection, as though it has ever been proven?

Do these people know what it means to have been proven?

Just because I have a theory of how the Sagrada Famìlia can have evolved by termite intelligence - however air-tight the theory may be - doesn't mean my claims should be given any respectful attention (unless some unspoken axiom of our philosophy is that "Catholics don't exist", in which case the termites begin to be a legitimate possibility in the Origins of the Sagrada Famìlia). It is a theory that all have a right to ignore and even laugh at.

I have this theory of which I speak above. And it is by far more-plausible than evolution by natural selection. At least termites have done some really impressive mounds (air-conditioned, even). Naturalistic speciation, on the other hand ... (Is the Chihuahua still a wolf, even as the finch with a beak 4mm wider than the others is an indicator of a new species, and "an amazing proof of Darwin's theory"?)

It's so sad that Feser, otherwise a guy with formidable reason on his side, feels the need to make ID accomplish what it isn't meant to do ("convince non-evolutionist naturalistic atheists that the God of classical Theism exists") and then blames it furiously for failing to accomplish that. Very, very sad.

Jime said...

Hear this recent debate on the Origin of Life between Stephen Meyer/Richard Stenberg and Michael Shermer/Donal Prothero:

http://apologetics315.blogspot.com/2009/12/origins-of-life-debate-mp3-audio-meyer.html

Jime said...

Professor Feser, this is off-topic (or maybe not).

Alex Rosenberg wrote a reply to his critics about his article on naturalism (in the comments section below his main article).

However, the comment you wrote there some days ago have (miraculously?) dissapeared.

Did you delete your own comment, or it was deleted by Rosenberg (or any other person in that website)?

I'm curious about if some "naturalistic censorship" is working there, because I'm not aware of any other comment being deleted.

Just curious.

Edward Feser said...

Yes, Jime, I noticed that too. Very odd, especially since the editor of On the Human is actually the one who had put my comment there in the first place -- he had read my reply to Rosenberg and invited me to provide him with a comment and link which he would post, since the combox was already closed as of a week ago Tuesday.

Anyway, I inquired about this with the editor yesterday, and as of today they have restored the comment.

Bert Power said...

David,

What unpublished work? I don't doubt that it exists, I just want to see it.

Thanks,
Bert

TomH said...

The soap opera continues. See the TLS letter or leiterreports.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Two points:

Your anonymous commenter refers to "specified information" as if the term had an agreed-upon meaning and is used in a meaningful way by scientists and mathematicians. My long critique with Elsberry (a shorter version has appeared electronically in Synthese) explains why this is not the case. So glib dismissals of my argument about weather because it is not "specified information" won't cut it.

Second, re Fodor: it seems that philosophers often seem to think that work by other philosophers will change the way science is done. Yet I cannot think of a single case where this has occurred. For example, Dreyfus critiqued AI and his critique was praised by other philosophers. Yet, as far as I can tell, Dreyfus has had essentially no influence on AI as a field. When I ask professors specializing in AI about Dreyfus, they either don't know the name or dismiss his work as uninformed.

Anonymous said...

"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 obvious how dumb this argument is as a response to the claim that information is a function of minds -- even in this very analogy, there is no "information" in the weather that forecasts anything until the mind of the weather forecaster uses it that way. Until and unless a mind analyzes the facts of the weather, brute physical facts are all that exist -- and no "predictions."

Edward Feser said...

Yet, as far as I can tell, Dreyfus has had essentially no influence on AI as a field.

OK. But what conclusion are we supposed to draw from that? That Dreyfus is wrong, or that the AI researchers are?

And don't assume the answer is "obviously" the former, as if AI researchers simply must have a better understanding of the philosophical preconceptions of their discipline than Dreyfus, Searle, et al. do. Whether they do is precisely what is at issue, so that such a response would be question-begging.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

there is no "information" in the weather that forecasts anything until the mind of the weather forecaster uses it that way.

So your claim is that weather forecasters make their predictions with absolutely no information at all from the environment as input?

I don't think many people will buy that.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Prof. Feser:

I think you miss the point. I am asking if you know a single example where work by philosophers of science have significantly affected the practice of science by actual scientists.

It seems to me that philosophers strongly overrate their own influence.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I should add that if we accept Anonymous@12:41 PM's argument, then intelligent design advocates cannot claim that DNA contains information - since there is clearly no information in DNA until the mind of the biologist sequences it.

Anonymous said...

"So your claim is that weather forecasters make their predictions with absolutely no information at all from the environment as input?"

Can you not see the point here? Look at the examples you used, for instance "wind speed" and "temperature." These are both measurements, neither of which would exist unless a mind existed to make them, and the mind that does so is obviously ours. In DNA, on the other hand, we have a chemical "code" that produces a definite, specific result as if it were itself conscious, but clearly DNA is not conscious. And yet our very minds themselves presuppose its existence. "Speed" and "temperature" clearly rely on an observer for their own existence. DNA does not, yet they both contain this thing, "information." DNA contains a specific "meaning" in its physical/chemical structure, specifically something like "grow into a rose" rather than "grow into a dog." "Temperature" does not.

Additionally what seems to be your solution to the problem, that information is actually somehow "out there" and being taken in by the meteorologist will not help you at all. Obviously we don't see "information" just blowing around in the wind or lying on the ground, so where is this "information" that we're gathering in? It appears to be something downright nonphysical, some sort of nonphysical property that according to you can be connected with matter- certainly not something Naturalists are particularly fond of. But say it exists "only in the mind," and you're affirming my previous point as well as setting yourself up for the sort of mind-body dualism of Descartes, which Naturalists are also not fond of.


"I think you miss the point. I am asking if you know a single example where work by philosophers of science have significantly affected the practice of science by actual scientists.It seems to me that philosophers strongly overrate their own influence."

I think I see the point, and it still appears just as irrelevant to me as ever. The fact that scientists are unconcerned with the philosophical implications of their work or methodology indicates their general inability or unwillingness to step out of their own methodological basis, nothing more. And your rude remark about philosophers "overrating their own influence" is ill informed at best; philosophers (ideally) care about knowing the truth, nothing more, nothing less. Your scientific method, while it is undoubtedly a premier tool for doing so, sometimes impedes this quest because of your own mechanistic presuppositions, all of the ways in which are detailed throughout Professor Feser's blog. It is indeed the scientists, sir, who believe that their PhD in one specific area allows them to speak with perfect knowledge in all areas who are the more presumptuous here. Philosophy, by allowing one to understand the basic epistemological principles underlying the scientific method, can give the philosopher a decent insight into scientific inquiry. This process does not work in reverse.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

These are both measurements, neither of which would exist unless a mind existed to make them, and the mind that does so is obviously ours.

Well, I dispute this. The wind has a speed whether or not anyone is measuring it. Precipitation occurs whether or not someone is experiencing it. These events carry information, in exactly the same way that DNA carries information. Information, no matter what theists like to say, must have a physical expression. We know of no information in the universe that find its expression in something other than matter or energy.

"Speed" and "temperature" clearly rely on an observer for their own existence. DNA does not, yet they both contain this thing, "information."

Temperature of a gas is just a restatement of the kinetic energy of the molecules that make it up. This has a physical basis in exactly the same way that DNA does. We can't know the temperature without measuring it, but neither can we know the bases in DNA without sequencing them. And temperature certainly has a meaning, as anyone listening to the weather forecast will tell you.

As for your other comment, I was addressing Prof. Feser's statement that Some of Nagel’s fellow naturalists are very very upset about it. Just wait ‘til they read Jerry Fodor’s next book. I interpreted this as saying that Fodor's next book would have an impact on the practice of science. But perhaps I read too much into it.

Your scientific method, while it is undoubtedly a premier tool for doing so, sometimes impedes this quest because of your own mechanistic presuppositions.

I can't think of a single example where this is the case. On the contrary, it seems nonmaterialistic suppositions have suppressed the truth for centuries. Care to enlighten me?

Anonymous said...

"Well, I dispute this. The wind has a speed whether or not anyone is measuring it. Precipitation occurs whether or not someone is experiencing it."

The latter point is true, but the former is not. "Speed" is "the distance traveled in a given amount of time." Both of these are measurements (distance in meters/miles etc, time in minutes/hours etc) and none of these units would exist without minds to have made them up. Without any observer wind is really just like you described precipitation; the wind blows whether or not there are any observers around, but without observers it has no speed. The rain falls without anyone experiencing it, but there is no "amount of rainfall per year" (for example) without any observers.

You also did not address the other issue at stake here. Where, exactly, is the information "wind speed?" You seem to be saying that it's "out there," and the meteorologist somehow discovers it and tells it to the rest of us. But where is it? Is it blowing around in the wind, because I sure can't see it or touch it. Is it in the mind? But then doesn't this simply confirm what I was just saying? And moreover, what does this say about the mind?

"Information, no matter what theists like to say, must have a physical expression."

Just going out on a limb here, but it doesn't seem to me that the Pythagorean Theorem or the Law of Sines or most other mathematical truths have a physical expression. Unless of course you'd say that mathematics are based entirely on our brain-dependent minds, but in that case all of the measurements you use in your argument (wind speed, temperature etc.) are based entirely on mathematics, so it's hard to see how they wouldn't be mind-dependent either, which is what I've been arguing all along.

"I interpreted this as saying that Fodor's next book would have an impact on the practice of science. But perhaps I read too much into it."

I think Professor Feser's comment was meant to express the fact that most Naturalists don't seem to enjoy it when anyone criticizes Darwinism so they're sure to go crazy when this next book comes out, despite the fact that it's written by an avowed Atheist (much the same way you were so displeased when Nagel, who is also an avowed Atheist, nevertheless praised Meyer's book).

As for philosophy impacting the practice of science, it unquestionably does, it simply takes a long time. The modern understanding of science was the result of a philosophical revolution and rejection of a previous worldview, which Ed details extensively in his book. You seem very appreciative of this revolution, but understand it was philosophers such as David Hume and John Locke that brought it about. And also bear in mind that it is far from impossible that such a revolution could take place again.

"I can't think of a single example where this is the case. On the contrary, it seems nonmaterialistic suppositions have suppressed the truth for centuries. Care to enlighten me?"

To really be 'enlightened' over this you should read Professor Feser's book "The Last Superstition," or "The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science" by E.A. Burtt. The oversimplified short story is that modern mechanistic Naturalism has led only to the most bizarre philosophical absurdities such as the "Problem of Induction," the "Problem of Consciousness," the "Problem of Free Will," and many others, but it's a far too complicated subject to introduce here.

Anonymous said...

My main reaction was against your rather rude tone, found also in your original horror at Nagel's approval of Meyer's book and your subsequent implication that "philosophers are morons" and that somehow philosophers (and everyone else for that matter) ought to bow to the awesome authority of science. In fact it is philosophy and philosophical principles underlying the scientific method, not the other way around.

Personally, I also find it odd how you tear apart Nagel as a fool, when he is himself a Naturalist, and (as you are clearly not aware) his work in philosophy of mind actually does bear some relation to the discussion of "information" that is apparently contained in Meyer's book. Nagel is widely regarded as (and is) one of the greatest philosophers in contemporary American academia, and is obviously a very intelligent man. It seems to me that such a person probably would not endorse something, particularly something implying an overall worldview he does not himself believe in, without a good reason for doing so. Perhaps you ought to question what this reason might be.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Both of these are measurements (distance in meters/miles etc, time in minutes/hours etc) and none of these units would exist without minds to have made them up.

I think you're confusing the units with which we measure velocity, with the velocity itself. There's no question that in wind, the molecules in air are in coordinated motion with respect to the surface of the earth. The units with which we might measure are more or less arbitrary, but the fact that there is a velocity is not.

Where, exactly, is the information "wind speed?"

It is a shorthand that we use to refer to the first derivative of the positions of the molecules with respect to time. Ultimately, it has a purely physical basis.

Just going out on a limb here, but it doesn't seem to me that the Pythagorean Theorem or the Law of Sines or most other mathematical truths have a physical expression.

I'm not sure what you mean when you say the "Pythagorean theorem". Where do you think it exists, if not on pieces of paper or in the disruption of air molecules when I say it to you?

Thanks for the book recommendations - I'll add them to my list.