Monday, March 11, 2013

scientists scoff at Plantinga and Nagel

Philosophy, fascinating as it is, can be an embarrassingly irrelevant navel-gazing exercise of the first water. Conservative Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga and not-quite-theistic philosopher Thomas Nagel both seem to agree that something about science's current account of the evolution of life doesn't add up, and they express this agreement through a recent bout of mutual congratulations. Biochemist Neil Greenspan writes an article jeering this lovefest. Here's a meaty excerpt from Greenspan's article:

In the past six months, I have encountered a review, by Thomas Nagel in The New York Review of Books (2012), of Alvin Plantinga’s latest book (Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, 2011 ) and a review, by Alvin Plantinga in The New Republic (2012), [of Thomas] Nagel’s latest book (Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, 2012). Both authors are regarded as distinguished philosophers. In their respective books, they both criticize what may be called the materialist neo-Darwinian approach to explaining life. Plantinga and Nagel both discuss as a putative alternative to evolutionary explanations, the framework known as intelligent design (ID). Whereas Plantinga appears to support ID, Nagel does not endorse ID but criticizes proponents of evolution for being overly disparaging of ID theorists.

My purpose here is not to review these two books, which I have not read in full and which do not focus solely on ID. Instead, I concentrate on issues that are more appropriately regarded as scientific as opposed to the related philosophical issues. Consequently, I propose to re-visit (Greenspan, 2002) the deep problems with the central tenets of ID, which claims both to identify profound flaws in the standard evolutionary account of living systems and to offer a different explanation in the form of an entity, the intelligent designer, that can somehow specify molecular structures, apparently simultaneously in billions of organisms and possibly trillions of cells, all over this planet. The identity of this “intelligent designer” is left completely unspecified, as are any of its attributes or its modes of operation, which must be extraordinary given that they completely escape all detection.

Proponents of ID have no useful thoughts on how these ID-mediated operations could be implemented within the constraints of physics and chemistry or, and this next point is key, subjected to experimental interrogation of any sort. Their need to rely on the supernatural thus obligates ID advocates to object to what they term “scientific naturalism” or “materialism.” This line of thought leads to re-defining science so that it includes what the vast majority of scientists, and likely many non-scientists, regard as non-science: ideas incapable of serious testing or investigation. Furthermore, I am aware of no advances in the understanding of scientific phenomena that have emanated from the individuals who subscribe to ID. The approach offered by ID embraces cognitive capitulation before any standard scientific conundrum and the acceptance of a recurring deus ex machina (“the intelligent designer did it”), the ultimate realization of intellectual cowardice.


A similar problem afflicts the arguments, in connection with ID, of both Plantinga and Nagel, both of whom, however intelligent and philosophically sophisticated, lack familiarity with the numerous domains of relevant primary literature relating to evolutionary phenomena. There is also no evidence that either individual adequately understands basic and relevant concepts in evolutionary biology, genetics, biophysics, biochemistry, microbiology, and immunology. That their arguments are taken seriously reveals more about the appreciative audience than the plausibility of their specific assertions relevant to existing scientific results. The positions of Plantinga and Nagel bring to mind a statement of a prominent philosopher made in the context of a 1998 review in The New Republic, of a book by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont attacking post-modernism: “We may hope that incompetents who pontificate about science as a social phenomenon without understanding the first thing about its content are on the way out...” That philosopher was Thomas Nagel.

Although the claims of Plantinga and Nagel are certainly not identical to those targeted for derision by Sokal and Bricmont, and are more carefully reasoned, they, like the post-modernist theorists, lack sufficient knowledge of the pertinent science, as opposed to philosophical positions related to or about that science, to seriously evaluate the scientific plausibility of ID. Like some ID supporters, Plantinga and Nagel appear to have almost no appreciation for the subtleties of proteins and genes and fail to recognize the pervasiveness of pleiotropy, the range and diversity of mutations other than single nucleotide substitutions, or the surprising resilience, due in part to functions shared by different molecules or pathways, of biological systems in the face of perturbations. I offer the preceding judgments despite having previously appreciated a number of Professor Nagel’s articles in a variety of publications.

Intelligent Design is a goofy position to adopt, but it's no surprise to see it espoused by the likes of Plantinga.


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