Thomas Nagel on Stephen Meyer

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Stephen Meyer is a the leading proponent of intelligent design arguments. I was surprised when a friend directed me toward Thomas Nagel's brief review of Meyer's new book, and Nagel had only positive comments.

Here's his review 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.

It's especially notable that a pretty mainstream philosopher not known for any work in philosophy of religion would give such a positive review of a book on intelligent design. I've long thought the origin of life issue had a lot more going for it than the complexity of life arguments that most people think of when they hear the expression "intelligent design". I've also long thought of this as a clear example of how intelligent design isn't about the evolution issue at all. It's about whether there are good philosophical arguments for accepting intelligence behind the natural world, completely independent of whatever natural processes were involved in bringing about the way things are now. Since evolution (i.e. natural selection, as Nagel puts it) isn't at issue with the first living cell (evolution can only occur after that), this is about another issue entirely. It's about whether we can infer purpose from the unlikelihood of natural causes producing a living cell, not about whether natural causes could happen to produce a cell.



I agree with what you said about Nagel's review. Unfortunately, there are many secularists and materialists who are mounting a heavy-handed reaction against Nagel (especially in the blogosphere). Take, for instance, Brian Leiter's own scathing reactions and his call for others to "go and do likewise"


Grace & peace,
- David

Leiter has an interesting argument here:

1. Meyer is not a biologist.
2. Nagel is not a biologist.
3. Therefore, they have no right to comment on this philosophical argument.

I note that Leiter isn't a biologist either, but he is a philosopher, as are Meyer and Nagel, and thus all three of them have the credentials to comment as philosophers on this philosophical issue. I'm not a big fan of Leiter's primary methodology on this issue, which seems to me to consist of (1) argument-by-insult (note the "sic" after every mention of the Discovery Institute) and (2) argument-by-authority, where he cites some scientists with little or no philosophical training who think they count as authorities on the philosophical question merely because they know the biology. There's actually a peer-reviewed literature on the philosophical questions at this point in philosophy journals in addition to the one Meyer that slipped through in a biology journal and the two Dembski has had accepted in mathematics journals. Philosophia Christi has had discussions on the subject, and there have been occasional articles in other journals. I've encountered the occasional philosopher who gives the time of day that Nagel is willing to give them, even if they ultimately think the arguments aren't successful. That's the kind of response I respect, and one would think philosophers would have it more often if they're really intellectually serious, but I guess not.

Also, Nagel does have a publication in the philosophy of biology, on reductionism in biology. So it's not as if he has no background in the area.

Linked from the second Leiter post (that David commented on above) is a letter from a chemist on a couple of inaccuracies that cut at the philosophical premises of Meyer's arguments (as interpreted from Nagel's glowing review).

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

"...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

There are no fully fleshed out theories to explain abiogenesis, but there are many very good hypotheses that are yet to be disproved.

I am not a philosopher, and I can barely understand even the most dumbed down philosophy of religion argument, but if his case relies on there being no credible naturalistic evidence then a biologist/chemist would have every right to dispute his case on purely scientific terms.

I'm not clear what kind of natural selection for non-living chemicals we're supposed to be talking about. If it's just the claim that structures more prone to having some kind of continued existence are more likely to continue to exist if they ever occur, that makes sense to me. But do we know of a lot of natural occurrences of inorganic compounds that are like that? Once you've got DNA or precursors like RNA, perhaps. But there still might be an argument that it's incredibly unlikely that you'd get the same kind of forces standard evolutionary theory takes to be at work in organic evolution to be at work with non-living matter that doesn't reproduce without far more time than we're working with or at least far more planets with favorable conditions than there are likely to be if we trust contemporary physics on that (rather than Carl Sagan, who I've heard isn't all that much in favor on that question).

I remember reading Lawrence Krauss's discussion of this issue in The Physics of Star Trek, where he argues that Carl Sagan's claims about the likelihood of alien life are completely crazy and that life really is incredibly unlikely, even given the amount of time and the amount of planets where there's a genuine chance for it to occur. In short, he considers us lucky to being the beneficiaries of such an incredibly unlikely occurrence. Design arguments have based themselves on this sort of thing all the time without denying any actual science. The question doesn't seem to me to be whether science can come up with a causal account of it but whether we should find the causal account likely without some being ensuring that the unlikely events actually occurred (whether by miraculous intervention or by setting up initial events to ensure such an outcome; ID proponents have tended to favor the former, but the latter is equally possible given the structure of the argument).

It is very fair to say that any given theory of abiogenesis is unlikely. Chemists and biologists (and physicists, I guess) familiar with the topic justifiably criticise the evidence for its incompleteness. It is a significant step between incomplete evidence and "no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative."

I know that I didn't directly answer your question about DNA, RNA, and 'molecular evolution.' I didn't attempt an answer because it's not really possible to respond to that properly in a sentence, or even a paragraph. The conclusion many people are coming to is that the location matters at least as much as the molecules being formed.

I can lay out summaries of a couple of the theories with references and direct quotes from the primary literature (esp. Science, Nature, and PNAS; indisputably the three journals with the largest scientific impact) if that's of interest to anyone. It won't be as good as the wikipedia articles, but tailor-made answers are sometimes more persuasive.

Again, I'm not saying that a creator is impossible, or even necessarily unlikely, I'm saying that the science is currently incomplete, but it is getting stronger by the year. I know it sounds empty coming from someone who is so obviously a naturalist (is that the term for me?), but I will be very interested in the philosophical question as soon as the science looks hopeless.

Bel Riose,

But as Jeremy said, the ID claim isn't one that insists no scientific explanation is possible - so the science "getting stronger by the year" isn't much of a counter to the ID perspective. In fact, it's entirely possible that science can not only get stronger, but strengthen the core claims of ID in the process (indeed, that seems to be the argument ID proponents offer at times.)

What's more, I'd like to know how science could possibly 'get weaker'. If we made discoveries that overturned many expectations we previously had based on inference from science, wouldn't that be an example of science getting stronger? It seems that the only way science could ever "get weaker" is in a way that would be totally invisible to us (say, we continually come up with explanations that seem right to us but are actually wrong.)

I took Bel's statement to mean that the explanation science has on offer for how life first arose is getting to be more complete. In other words, the details of how it could have occurred are getting more fleshed-out. There is one way such an account can undermine the design argument, but it depends on exactly what is getting fleshed out.

One thing that could be getting fleshed out is the entire path of what would need to happen for life to come about. Different steps along the way could be identified, and a causal pathway can be traced out. Another thing that could be getting fleshed out is some explanation of why all the various steps along that pathway are likely to have occurred given the kinds of initial conditions that would have been likely to have occurred previously, and then this can go all the way back to occurrences that we know occur all the time without any intelligence guiding them and without anything like natural selection occurring.

What's not clear to me is how much of the "science getting stronger" is of the latter kind, but it better be exactly of that kind for it to undermine the design argument, since that's what natural selection does for complexity-of-life design arguments. Otherwise you don't have an analogy with natural selection for organisms. If Meyer is getting the science wrong because he's unaware of or just ignores the second kind of story, then maybe that's a legitimate criticism, provided that the second kind of story is relatively complete or has good chances of being complete enough pretty soon.

But if the entirety or majority of this "science getting stronger" is of the first sort, then these complaints about Meyer not knowing his science are simply missing the point and attacking a straw man. My experience with ID critics has shown me that such a thing is not only possible but extremely likely, since misrepresentation and straw men have seemed to me to be more common than accurate presentation of ID proponents' actual views and arguments, at least when it comes to the philosophical issues (which are the ones I'm familiar with; I'm not qualified to comment on the biological ones).

I'm always of two minds on these issues. I'd be surprised if there turned out not to be a good naturalistic explanation for the origin of life. It would be odd if the created world were not naturalistically intelligible in this way. I wouldn't see it as evidence against theism that there is such an explanation. Perhaps its my Molinism that makes this all seem harmless. If it is true that God knows what (even chancy) events would occur, were initial conditions c to obtain, then there is little theistic worry whether life was the foreseen result of naturalistic processes or not. The only genuine worry is whether there is a compelling argument that the universe could not have had a cause (arguments along the lines of Hawking and Smith)

My phrasing got a tad loose at the end of my spiel and you both quite rightly jumped on my use of ‘the science… is getting stronger by the year.’ In my head the idea of ‘the science’ was conflated with the science that I was familiar with and arguing for; it seems unlikely that I would have stated that the opposition’s argument was increasing in evidence, but it would have been a fair interpretation of my words.

Firstly, I’d like to assert (again) that I’m not trying to refute ID, or even to directly engage with the content of Meyer’s book. My entire knowledge of Meyer’s book is via Nagel’s review in the The Times Literary Supplement. I understand that Nagel is a very smart guy, and so I am taking his summary of the book (brief as it may be) as accurate. My first post basically said that Meyer can be criticised purely on the basis of his science as his argument relies on there being “no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause” (Nagel). In my second post I took up the baton to claim that there is a naturalistic alternative, which is a position I will maintain, but what I say won’t be a complete argument against ID, it will be the basics of a credible naturalistic alternative to an intentional cause.

You need to affix some kind probability to both a natural cause and an intentional cause to come to any kind of firm conclusion about abiogenesis. We can have a stab at any specific intentional cause, but there are an uncountable number of possible initiators that we don’t know, and we will never really know the odds of a natural cause. I assume that these unknowables are accounted for in the philosophical argument, but my lack of expertise in the area is the principle reason that I am not attempting a full debate here (I haven’t moved past the default Occam’s Razor position of removing the initiators, as they appear to be superfluous entities).

Here are a few of the fundamental ideas of nature-only abiogenesis: based on the limits of what we are able to know about primordial conditions we will never be able to prove any origin of life hypothesis (i.e. we will never be able to thoroughly distinguish between a series of events so unlikely as to defy nature-based arguments, and a an unlikely but possible set of initial conditions that rationally could have led eventually to life); there are currently a couple of compatible but highly competitive approaches to abiogenesis hypotheses; all hypotheses rely on there being a specific location in which otherwise unlikely reactions can happen spontaneously.

The two competing approaches are called the ‘entity first hypothesis’ and the ‘metabolism first hypothesis.’ The entity first hypothesis being the more popular of the two and is commonly called the ‘RNA World hypothesis’ as RNA is seen as the most likely information carrying polymer to have formed, because as soon as you form RNA in the right environment you have life (or rather, you have formal Darwinian natural selection).

Nobody showed any interest in a fuller explanation, so I’ll just throw a couple of interesting references in the bottom and leave it at that for now.

Nature 459, 239-242 (14 May 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature08013 (Synthesis of activated pyrimidine ribonucleotides in prebiotically plausible conditions) ['entity first']
Nature Reviews Microbiology 6, 805-814 (November 2008) | doi:10.1038/nrmicro1991 (Hydrothermal vents and the origin of life) ['metabolism first']

OK, I've watched Stephen Meyer's videos on the Discovery Institute website (and YouTube), and I can't see any particularly subtle philosophical point that he's making. As far as I can see he's saying that: species are 'programmed' by DNA, DNA can't be the result of a natural process because the only way we know for a program to exist is for there to be a programmer.

Am I wrong? Can somebody succinctly state the argument?

Henry T. (I'll sign with my real name; it makes me look more sincere)

So this seems to be the key phrase for you:

no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause

I also have not read Meyer's book, so I only have Nagel's review to go by, but this seems to me to be ambiguous. Is he talking about credibility as a causal process or credibility as a likely causal process if there's no intelligence guiding it? Given what I know about both sides of this debate, most ID opponents will read it as the former, and most ID proponents would read it as the latter.

I think you've got Ockham's Razor wrong, by the way. The principle tells us that we ought to remove entities from our theory if they aren't necessary for explaining the evidence. When we've got a proposed entity that isn't needed to explain a causal process (a "how" question), and it's offered to explain the causal process, then the principle applies. But when we've got an entity that's being proposed to explain why that unlikely process might have taken place when it's an incredibly low likelihood otherwise, then the principle doesn't apply, because the proposed entity is actually serving as an explanation of something, even if it's not necessary to explain how the process could take place when unguided by intelligence. Most ID arguments are of this sort, so Ockham's Razor doesn't really apply unless we can provide an explanation that does remove the unlikelihood. With natural selection and existing organisms, the standard view is that we do have an explanation that removes the unlikelihood, because given enough time and the proposed process of the "how" it doesn't seem as unlikely that evolution could have occurred. But I think that kind of conclusion is exactly what's being resisted by Meyer. Maybe he's also saying something stronger and claiming that it couldn't happen causally without being guided by an intelligence, but I suspect not. I suspect it's just his critics who are taking him to be saying that.

On the issue of "there being a specific location in which otherwise unlikely reactions can happen spontaneously", doesn't that just set the question back a step? Doesn't it just raise the question of whether such specific locations are too unlikely to expect? Or is part of the theory an explanation of why we should expect such specific locations frequently enough that we should expect life to come about somewhere given the amount of planets where such locations could exist?

What is 'too unlikely?' If you don't know any of the likelihoods how can you state that it's too unlikely? What is the probability of an intentional cause?

I chose Nagel's sentence because I felt that it unambiguously sums up the argument, and that it's short enough to quote and refute. But even that is enough to debate it on purely scientific grounds (I'm not sure whether you've granted me that yet), as Meyer declares it too unlikely to be credible when. There are others, like, '...DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible,' but they are less interesting to argue.

Watch a couple of Meyer's videos, because I can't see a deeper argument that the one I wrote about above.

We will never have the 'science getting stronger' for a purposive origin of life simply (except insofar as negative results in one hypothesis strengthen opposing hypotheses) because there aren't any experiments we can do. There's no historical analysis that will show how life originated here. The very best we could do would be to produce a replicator in conditions that closely match what we think may have been around on earth ~3 billion years ago.

There are undersea hydrothermal vents that are still extant that may be similar to an initial site. Both approaches like some of the aspects of hydrothermal vents, e.g. it has a source of key chemicals (carbon, oxygen and sulfur containing); there is a temperature, pH, and redox gradient at the surface; and it is microporous and microcavernous. Microcaverns (my word) with an internal temperature change have been shown to spontaneously concentrate nucleotides and nucleic acids up to a billion times higher than they would outside.[Baaske, 2007, PNAS] Different locations have different problems that they solve. Hydrothermal vents simplify the question from, where does the first cell come from, to can we build some of the basic machinery for the cell inside this mineral.

Evolution by natural selection is necessary to explain the complexity and diversity of life. Natural selection explains both. The origin of life is a different question; at the start we aren't building complex structures for complex tasks, we're merely building something that can build itself, the replicator doesn't need to be able to do anything else, natural selection can take it the rest of the way.

"But even that is enough to debate it on purely scientific grounds (I'm not sure whether you've granted me that yet), as Meyer declares it too unlikely to be credible when."

Sorry, my thoughts were very jumbled and I missed this. It should read:
But even this sentence, read as you interpret it, is enough to challenge Nagel/Meyer on purely scientific grounds (I'm not sure whether you've granted me that yet), as Meyer declares scientific theories too unlikely to be credible; a scientist could dispute it as factually incorrect (or even begging the question), and dispute Nagel's and Meyer's credentials if their science is wrong, because they're making scientific claims, not just philosophical ones.

The [sic] after Discovery was probably a bit much though.

This is fun, huh?

Sorry for the back-to-back postings. I just found your 2004 post on ID, I'll go see if this will force me to revise my opinions/blatherings.

Oh, and do you have links to the ID journal articles that you mentioned? The lab is about to close for Christmas, so I'll have some time to read stuff.

Is this review really all that positive? It doesn't seem to me as if he is offering any sort of endorsement of intelligent design methodology or anything like that; rather, all he is saying, I think, is that the book brings up interesting issues that are worth considering carefully.

Or is it just assumed that if a nontheist reviews an intelligent design work, it is going to be heavily polemical, rife with allegations of "pseudoscience," and so on?

I haven't read Meyer in any detail, so I don't know how he arrives at the probabilities he uses in his calculations. As far as I know, there might be a fruitful critique of his methodology there. I've simply been commenting on the form of the argument, i.e. where he goes from there. I think people have been misrepresenting what that argument is.

You don't need to calculate the probability of an intentional cause, though. All you need is some value for the probability of certain things occurring without any guidance from an intelligent mind, and if it's so low that we shouldn't expect it to happen it then increases our credence for the thesis that it was guided. There's no sharp line for low enough or high enough. How likely we should think it is depends on how unlikely what seems to have happened should be without guidance.

Steven, did you see Brian Leiter's posts linked to above? His response is actually pretty typical for how philosophers respond to these kinds of arguments, in my experience.

It reminds me of when Harry Potter sees his cousin Dudley for the last time in the final book of the series, and Dudley says that he doesn't think Harry is a waste of space in response to (I believe) his father saying he was. The wizards who were present thought this wasn't much of a compliment, but readers of the series knew what Harry knew, which is that this was high praise indeed coming from someone who not only was extremely mean to Harry all his life but considered him exactly a waste of space most of his life, at least until Harry saved his life (or until he realized the significance of Harry saving his life).

What Nagel has to say is a lot more positive than ID proponents could usually hope for from a philosopher of his caliber. Even indicating that the arguments involve questions worth asking is quite a bit more than a lot of philosophers who criticize ID are willing to grant, and I know of only one or two exceptions even among theists. Most of them are even embarrassed by people like Meyer, Behe, Dembski, and Johnson.

OK, I think this has fizzled.

Good talk.

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