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.”
This is typical of Feser’s level of pettiness. We’ll see more of it as we go along. My post was mostly about criticizing two specific responses to Nagel’s book that appeared in especially prominent venues: one in The New Republic, the other in a cover story for The Weekly Standard. Since those are both very well read publications, I felt the articles they published merited a reply.
A far better analogy for what I was doing would be to read books on atheism by Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, decide they are not very good but important because of their prominence, and then criticize them under a title such as, “Atheism Needs Better Defenders.” Would anyone consider that title unreasonable? Would anyone see in it an implication that there were no other people out there defending atheism? Of course not.
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?
In a moment we’ll see Feser’s reply. I recommend sitting down before you read it, because it’s stunningly stupid. First, though, we should note that Feser chose a strange place to cut off my quote. It’s standard etiquette to at least provide the whole paragraph in which a statement appears. If he had, his readers would have seen this:
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? What natural causes can do over the course of billions of years is not the sort of thing about which we can reasonably claim to have intuitions. The only way to decide if it is plausible or not is to do the hard scientific work, precisely as biologists have been doing for the past century and a half. Moreover, the theory is supported by a good deal more than a few examples. Rather, it is supported by a mountain of confirmed predictions and retrodictions, along with numerous experimental successes.
Plainly, I had two objections to what Nagel wrote. The first was his use of the term “prima facie.” To say that something is “prima facie highly implausible” is precisely to say that you don’t need a book-length argument to explain why it’s implausible. It says that the burden of proof lies with those who would deny that it is implausible. That’s what I was describing as absurd. There is nothing nontrivial about human evolution that can reasonably be described as obvious prima facie.
My second objection was to Nagel’s caricature of the evidence for evolution. It is, yes, absurd to say that evolution is just a schema for an explanation, coupled with a few examples.
So I think my objections are clear enough. Now let’s savor Feser’s response:
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. (Emphasis Added).
Do you see the problem? To assert that something is true “prima facie” is to assert it full stop. It is to say that the facts speak so clearly in favor of the conclusion in question that it is the skeptics who are immediately on the defensive. And that was precisely what I was challenging. The claim that human beings are the result of a series of physical accidents coupled with natural selection is not prima facie implausible. Nor is it prima facie plausible. It is not prima facie anything, because we have no intuition about or experience with anything related to the grand sprawl of natural history. It is simply not the kind of thing to which you can reasonably apply the notion of common sense.
The rest of Feser’s tantrum has no connection to anything I wrote. I neither said nor implied that the assertion in question was the entirety of Nagel’s argument. I neither said nor implied that he dismisses Neo-Darwinism because it is prima facie implausible, or that he uses it as a premise in his argument, or that he does not go on to give more detailed arguments to support the things he believes. Feser just made up all of that.
And I certainly never suggested that I did not have to read the book to fully understand its argument. In fact I specifically said this:
I have not read Nagel’s book, so I don’t have a strong opinion about it. Based on what I’ve read about it, however, I suspect I wouldn’t like it.
Feser didn’t quote that part, for obvious reasons, since then he would not have been able to pretend that I was simply dismissing the book or judging it based on one paragraph. In responding to the Nagel quote I presented, I said specifically, “[T]hese sentences are absurd.” Indeed they are, and nothing Feser wrote makes the paragraph I quoted seem reasonable. Notice that I did not say, “Since these sentences constitute the entirety of Nagel’s argument, and since there is absolutely nothing in the remainder of the book that needs to be addressed in any way at all, I feel absolutely confident now in placing this book directly into the garbage.”
Then I sealed the deal by writing, “So I’m not optimistic that I will like Nagel’s book once I’ve had the chance to read it, but that is not the subject of this post. Instead, I wish to address the response from some of Nagel’s defenders.” I even concluded my post by saying that I’m not necessarily against Nagel’s suggestion that there are teleological laws of matter, though for now I find such ideas vague and unhelpful.
Gives rather a different impression from Feser’s screeching, doesn’t it? A reasonable paraphrase of what I wrote is, “Many people whose opinion I respect say it’s a bad book, and here’s a specific paragraph from the book that makes clearly dubious assertions, and this makes me suspect that I will not like the book when I read it, but for now I don’t have a strong opinion.” An unreasonable paraphrase is, “He’s arrogantly dismissing a book based on one paragraph!! He doesn’t know what a book’s introduction is for!!! He puts all sorts of crazy words into Nagel’s mouth!!!!”
We now move on to other things. In my original post I presented a long quotation from Ferguson, the beginning of which said this:
In a dazzling six-part tour de force rebutting Nagel’s critics, the philosopher Edward Feser provided a good analogy to describe the basic materialist error—the attempt to stretch materialism from a working assumption into a comprehensive explanation of the world. Feser suggests a parody of materialist reasoning: “1. Metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins and other metallic objects in more places than any other method has. 2. Therefore we have good reason to think that metal detectors can reveal to us everything that can be revealed” about metallic objects.
It is clear from this that, in Ferguson’s telling, Feser was addressing materialists generally. I objected to this, describing it as a caricature of materialist argumentation. Here’s Feser’s reply:
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.
Well, if I made a mistake here it was in assuming that Ferguson presented Feser accurately. I’m glad to hear that Feser wants no part of Ferguson’s version of his argument, and I look forward to reading the indignant letter to the editor he will no doubt fire off to The Weekly Standard.
As it happens, though, it hardly matters. Feser’s little metal detector analogy fares no better against Leiter and Weisberg than it does against materialists in general. Leiter and Weisberg’s review is available here. The excerpt that triggered Feser’s analogy is this:
Naturalists… defend their view by appealing to the extraordinary fruitfulness of past scientific work, including work growing out of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. So what should we make of the actual work in biology that supports the “materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature” that Nagel thinks “is almost certainly false”? Defending such a sweeping claim might seem to require a detailed engagement with the relevant science, yet in a striking admission early on, Nagel reveals that his book “is just the opinion of a layman who reads widely in the literature that explains contemporary science to the nonspecialist.” And a recurring objection to what he learned from his layman’s reading of popular science writing is that much science “flies in the face of common sense,” that it is inconsistent with “evident facts about ourselves,” that it “require[s] us to deny the obvious,” and so on…
[S]urely we have some reason for thinking, some four centuries after the start of the scientific revolution, that Aristotle was on the wrong track and that we are not, or at least not yet. Our reasons for thinking this are obvious and uncontroversial: mechanistic explanations and an abandonment of supernatural causality proved enormously fruitful in expanding our ability to predict and control the world around us. The fruits of the scientific revolution, though at odds with common sense, allow us to send probes to Mars and to understand why washing our hands prevents the spread of disease. We may, of course, be wrong in having abandoned teleology and the supernatural as our primary tools for understanding and explaining the natural world, but the fact that “common sense” conflicts with a layman’s reading of popular science writing is not a good reason for thinking so…
That sounds pretty measured and reasonable to me. Not so to Feser:
Third, it also merely begs the question to suggest that the “fruitfulness” of “mechanistic” explanations in other domains — where fruitfulness involves the ability to “predict and control” natural phenomena — gives us reason to think that such explanations might be given of the phenomena at issue in Nagel’s book (consciousness, intentionality, etc.). For one thing, Nagel has, as I have said, given reason elsewhere to think that such explanations cannot succeed. For another, Leiter and Weisberg are here committing a fallacy similar to the one which, as we saw in an earlier post, Alex Rosenberg commits in his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. In particular, they are essentially arguing as follows:
1. The predictive power and technological applications of [post-Galilean, post-Cartesian, mechanistic] science are unparalleled by those of any other purported source of knowledge.
2. Therefore we have good reason to think that [post-Galilean, post-Cartesian, mechanistic] science can explain everything that there is to explain.
And that sort of argument is no better than this one:
1. Metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins and other metallic objects in more places than any other method has.
2. Therefore we have good reason to think that metal detectors can reveal to us everything that there is to be revealed.
In fact, of course, metal detectors are as successful as they are in finding coins, lost keys, etc. precisely because they focus only on those specific aspects of coins, keys, and the like which might be detected via their methods (i.e. the metallic nature of these objects) and ignore everything else (the shape, color, etc. of the objects). And the methods of post-Galilean, post-Cartesian, mechanistic science are as successful as they are in predicting and controlling natural phenomena precisely because they focus only on those aspects of nature susceptible of strict prediction and control (especially those aspects which might be modeled mathematically) and ignore everything else (e.g. any irreducibly qualitative or non-quantifiable features that might exist in nature, such as teleological features, the phenomenal feel of heat and cold, the phenomenal look of colors, and so forth). But just as metal detectors are inevitably going to fail to capture non-metallic phenomena, so too are the methods of post-Galilean, post-Cartesian, mechanistic science inevitably going to fail to capture any aspects of nature not susceptible of prediction and control, nor capable of being captured via the mathematical techniques that make prediction and control possible.
It is tautological to say that if there are aspects of reality that are not amenable to scientific investigation, then scientific investigation will not reveal them. That, however, is nonresponsive to Leiter and Weisberg’s point. As I see it, Leiter and Weisberg were making an argument about the burden of proof. When a particular point of view has been proven wrong in case after case; the centrality of teleology and the supernatural in our understanding of the natural world, for example; the burden shifts to the people defending that point of view. A better analogy than Feser’s metal detector would be to the boy who cried wolf. Every time previously that the boy had cried wolf there was no wolf. So the people concluded that when he cried wolf this time there also was no wolf. Does anyone think the people’s reasoning was utterly fallacious? Were they wrong to think that the boy’s consistent track record of lying gave them a good reason for thinking he was lying this time?
Of course, in the story, there really was a wolf at the end. That’s why Leiter and Weisberg are very measured in their conclusions. They say only that the extraordinary, consistent success of mechanistic explanations give us some reason for thinking that they will continue to be successful, and then go on to state clearly that this conclusion could well be wrong. By contrast, it is Nagel and his defenders who make the most audacious, confident pronouncements about what they have shown, and then never back them up with anything more than dubious armchair argument. Nagel was the one who subtitled his book, “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.” Leiter and Weisberg are simply saying that in light of the enormous past success of Nagel’s foil, he will need a mighty good argument to meet his burden. Casual invocations of common sense and popularizations of science do not cut it.
Nor does it help to argue that Nagel was doing philosophy, and therefore does not need anything more than a rudimentary (indeed, if he even needs that much) understanding of science. Surely it is obvious that philosophical argument alone cannot possibly get you to dramatic conclusions about what matter can and cannot do. Arguments for the nonphysicality of the brain typically take the general form: The brain can do X; Physical processes cannot account for X; Therefore there is a nonphysical component to the brain. Can you spot the premise about which science has rather a lot to say?
At most, philosophy can explore the consequences of certain assumptions about what matter can and cannot do. The trouble is that science is constantly changing our view of what matter is. The “material” out of which the world is made looks very different today than it did a century ago. It wasn’t that long ago that atoms were thought to be solid balls. Today they are vastly more complicated, to the point where even physicists have trouble wrapping their heads around what they do. Nowadays it is common to speak of the universe as having emerged from a quantum foam. Is quantum foam material? I don’t know.
It is not materialists who are being arrogant and dogmatic in this discussion. We’re just saying we should stick with what works until someone comes up with something better, or at least comes up with a very good reason for abandoning what we’ve been doing. If you want arrogance and dogmatism you have to look to the Feser’s and Nagel’s of the world. They’re the ones claiming, on the basis of some asinine armchair cogitation, that they have refuted an enormously successful scientific paradigm.
Actually, Feser makes one more claim. In response to Ferguson, I wrote in part:
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 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! Ferguson concedes that his feelings are intimately bound up with his bouncing neurons. Then he just asserts that reductive materialism cannot account for his feelings. But why not? And if it’s not just bouncing neurons, then what else is it? After all, saying that emotions and senses of obligation are ultimately produced by complexly organized matter in no way suggests they aren’t real.
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.
With this we come full circle, since Feser is just being petty again. More precisely, he is pretending not to understand the use of exaggeration to make a point. Absolutely no reasonable person could have read my exasperated statement that, “It seems that all the immaterialists do is make assertions!” and thought that I intended it as a measured and considered summary of the state of the academic literature. Obviously I was just expressing my frustration with Ferguson’s relentless, unsupported assertions; frustrations I have often had with writing in this area. I think that’s perfectly clear from what follows my statement, though Feser strangely declined to quote that part.
For the record, I am perfectly aware that people like Feser make arguments for what they profess, and I’m sure I speak for everyone in saying that I am terribly impressed by all the books he has read.
But even if you take my statement literally, how on earth do you get anything like the view that Feser attributes to me? How does saying that immaterialists just make assertions imply anything at all about what materialists are doing? Where on earth did he come up with the idea that I was holding forth on the difference between materialists and immaterialists, and locating that difference in their relative fondness for arguments over assertions? Feser simply invented all of that; such views are not even remotely suggested by anything that I wrote, no matter how much you twist them.
Well, that’s it. The stupidity continues in the comments to Feser’s post, but this has definitely gone on long enough.