Saturday, March 23, 2013
EvolutionBlog needs better Nagel critics
EvolutionBlog’s Jason Rosenhouse tells us in a recent post that he hasn’t read philosopher Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos. And it seems obvious enough from his remarks that he also hasn’t read the commentary of any of the professional philosophers and theologians who have written about Nagel sympathetically -- such as my own series of posts on Nagel and his critics, or Bill Vallicella’s, or Alvin Plantinga’s review of Nagel, or Alva Noë’s, or John Haldane’s, or William Carroll’s, or J. P. Moreland’s. What he has read is a critical review of Nagel’s book written by a non-philosopher, and a couple of sympathetic journalistic pieces about Nagel and some of his defenders. And on that basis he concludes that “Nagel needs better defenders.”
This is like failing to read serious, detailed defenses of Darwinism like Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker, Coyne’s Why Evolution is True, or Kitcher’s Abusing Science -- and then, on the sole basis of what some non-biologist has said in criticism of Darwinism, together with a journalistic article summarizing the views of some Darwinians, concluding that “Darwinism needs better defenders.”
But never mind Nagel’s defenders. Not having read Mind and Cosmos doesn’t stop Rosenhouse from criticizing it too. He writes:
[H]ere is part of a quote from Nagel, as presented by [reviewer H. Allen] Orr:
I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life. It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. We are expected to abandon this naïve response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples.
From what I understand, the level of argument in the book never gets much beyond this. But these sentences are absurd. On what possible basis does Nagel decide that it is “prima facie” highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents?
End quote. Now Rosenhouse says that “from what [he] understand[s], the level of argument in the book never gets much beyond this.” But Nagel isn’t giving any argument in the passage in question in the first place; he’s just telling the reader, in the book’s Introduction, what he will argue for in the book. (That’s what book Introductions are for.) Nor does Nagel simply assert in the book that the materialist neo-Darwinian account of the world is prima facie implausible, full stop. He holds that it is implausible as an explanation of certain specific aspects of the world, such as consciousness, rationality, and moral value; and he gives reasons for thinking it cannot account for these phenomena. Nor does Nagel claim that the materialist neo-Darwinian account of the world is false merely because it seems prima facie implausible as an explanation of these phenomena. He isn’t using the claim about what is prima facie implausible as a premise. He isn’t saying: “It’s prima facie implausible, therefore it is wrong.” Rather, he’s saying: “It’s wrong for these independent reasons that I will spell out in the book; and it turns out that these independent reasons vindicate the judgment of common sense about what is prima facie plausible.” What are these independent reasons? What is the “possible basis” Rosenhouse demands to know? Well, you need to, you know, actually read the book to find out, which is why Nagel wrote it. Awful luck for guys like Rosenhouse, who apparently thinks you should be able to say everything in a single short paragraph in the Introduction to a book, but there it is.
Rosenhouse goes on to cite Andrew Ferguson’s citation of me in Ferguson’s Weekly Standard article on Nagel. Here is how he responds:
Almost all of that is wrong, starting with Feser’s caricature of materialist thinking. What materialists actually say is that if you are going to hypothesize into existence something immaterial, it is on you to provide evidence for your hypothesis. Of course it’s possible that there are immaterial entities that influence matter in ways that are undetectable by science, but can you do anything more that [sic] just assert their possible existence? Given some phenomenon you assert to be incomprehensible under materialism, can you show how it becomes comprehensible under immaterialism? Ferguson tells us that science just ignores “everything else” beyond the material aspects of reality, but the very point at issue is whether there is anything else to ignore.
It seems like all the immaterialists ever do is make assertions!
End quote. Well, yes, I suppose it could well “seem” that way if you don’t bother to read what they actually wrote. For starters, what Rosenhouse dismisses as a “caricature of materialist thinking” was not directed at materialists in general in the first place, but rather at a certain specific line of argument put forward by Nagel critics Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg -- as Rosenhouse would have known had he bothered to read the post of mine that Ferguson was citing.
For another thing, the suggestion that the difference between materialists and their critics is that the former give arguments and the latter merely make assertions is, well, simply too preposterous for words, and cannot possibly have been made by someone who both (a) has a shred of intellectual honesty, and (b) knows what the hell he is talking about. Say what you will about books like John Foster’s The Immaterial Self, W. D. Hart’s The Engines of the Soul, David Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind, William Hasker’s The Emergent Self, Robert Koons’ and George Bealer’s The Waning of Materialism, or Richard Swinburne’s The Evolution of the Soul, to name only the first few things that happen to pop into my mind -- not to mention my own books, articles, and blog posts -- they are absolutely brimming with arguments. You may or may not agree with those arguments, but they are there.
Some of Nagel’s critics have criticized him without reading him charitably. Rosenhouse goes them one better: He’s happy to criticize Nagel and his defenders without reading them. And he has the brass to go on to accuse others of “intellectual silliness”!
But Rosenhouse is a paragon of scholarship compared to Prof. Jeffrey Shallit, who makes the following remark in Rosenhouse’s combox:
The funniest part [of Ferguson’s article] was the bit about Feser’s “dazzling six-part tour de force”. I almost spit out my coffee when I read that part.
And what, exactly, is the reason for Shallit’s nearly self-soiling merriment? We are not told, but we can be morally certain that it had nothing to do with his having actually read the six-part series of posts in question, at least if history is any guide. Consider some previous remarks Shallit made about me not too long ago at his blog Recursivity. Commenting on a colloquium to which he was calling his readers’ attention, Shallit says:
One thing I can guarantee you won't hear [at the colloquium] is nonsense like this, from Ed Feser:
"Thoughts and the like possess inherent meaning or intentionality; brain processes, like ink marks, sound waves, and the like, are utterly devoid of any inherent meaning or intentionality; so thoughts and the like cannot possibly be identified with brain processes."
Only a creationist could be so utterly moronic. While Feser and his friends are declaring it impossible, real neuroscientists and neurophilosophers are busy figuring it out.
End quote. Now I know what my longtime readers are thinking: “Creationist? What the hell is Shallit talking about?” But you haven’t plumbed the subtleties of Shallit’s reasoning. For you see, Shallit was quoting from a website devoted to Intelligent Design, which had in turn quoted something I had written in a blog post. “Hence,” Shallit seems to have inferred, “since Feser was quoted favorably by an ID website, therefore he is an ID proponent, and therefore he is a Creationist!”
Never mind that I am in fact not only not a Creationist, but have been (rather famously, for anyone who’s read this blog for ten minutes) extremely critical of ID. And never mind that Shallit has provided a textbook example of the fallacy of guilt by association.
And what exactly was “moronic” or “nonsensical” about what I had written, anyway? It was, after all, part of an argument -- to which Shallit offers no response at all. But here again we see Prof. Shallit’s unique intellect in action. His implicit counter-argument seems to be:
1. Here is a sentence quoted, without any context whatsoever, from a blog post, which quoted it from a blog post written by someone else, which blog post summarized an actual line of argument, which line of argument was in turn defended at greater length elsewhere -- almost none of which I have bothered to read.
2. I disagree with that sentence and I know all three of my readers can be relied upon to disagree with it too.
3. Therefore it is moronic. Q.E.D.
Shallit, as you’ll see from his post, is the sort of guy who likes to accuse others of ignorance. Well, there’s ignorance -- you know, the sort of thing you exhibit when you don’t know what someone has actually written. Then there’s meta-ignorance -- ignorance of your ignorance. And then there’s what we might call, in Prof. Shallit’s honor, recursive meta-ignorance -- the sort of thing on regular display in the posts and comboxes at sites like Coyne’s blog, EvolutionBlog, Recursivity, Dawkins Foundation discussion boards, etc. The argumentational thrust of every “criticism” of non-materialist writers that you’ll find at these intellectual slums goes something like this:
I know it’s not worth reading because its conclusions are so moronic; and I know it’s moronic because the arguments for it are too silly to be worth reading; and I know the arguments for it are too silly to be worth reading because the conclusion itself is so moronic; and I know it’s moronic because the arguments for it are, of course, too silly to be worth reading…
Repeat as desired, click “Publish,” and begin a round of combox mutual self-congratulation!