The most despised science reviewer of 2012 is…

We’re through the looking glass again, with another weird post from the Guardian’s pet anti-science writer, the philosopher/theologian Mark Vernon. He’s never met a critic of science he didn’t love, and every scientist is a promoter of scientism. He’s a knee-jerk teleologist, which is a fancy way of saying he sees god everywhere.

His latest is apparently an annual thing in which he announces “the most despised book” of the year. What that means is that it’s a book that’s recognized as bullshit by scientists, so by reflex he assumes it must be wonderful. In 2010, he gave it to Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini for a book that was genetically illiterate nonsense. In 2011 it was a book I know nothing about, but claimed that neuroscience could never explain the mind. In 2012, the runner-up was Rupert Sheldrake, who seems to be Vernon’s good buddy (I am not surprised), but the big prize goes to Thomas Nagel, who’s a well-regarded philosopher who dropped a big clinker this year, with a book that claims we ought to consider Intelligent Design more seriously.

I’ve skimmed Nagel’s book, and it’s a lot of ponderous musing with no foundation in evidence at all. Vernon’s article is no better. It’s enough that Nagel is an advocate for teleology, and that’s really all he can say about it: “he wonders whether science needs to entertain the possibility that a teleological trend is immanent in nature.” “Wondering” is cheap, evidence is hard. He basically finds it inconceivable that all of the universe could have natural causes, so therefore science is inadequate, so therefore we ought to be considering supernatural factors.

You know, that’s a really stupid argument. If you want the details on the poverty of Nagel’s book, read Leiter & Weisberg’s review.

But if you want to claim that there is a purpose or a pattern of goal-seeking behavior by the universe as a whole, show your work. Give me good cause to think there is positive evidence of something shaping our history; don’t just cite your incomprehension.

Well, unless that is you want to win an award from Mark Vernon. Unfortunately, that’s worth less than nothing.

Comments

  1. says

    But, hummingbirds, rainbows and unicorns. It’s all too wonderful not to have “poof” as its basis, isn’t that just obvious?

    Nagel even declaims his lay status regarding the subject in writing that dreck, but we’re supposed to take his uninformed incredulity seriously. Likewise Vernon’s.

    In short, some ignorance is just so special that the ignorance proclaiming God (or immanent teleology or whatever BS Nagel blithers) must be true. And anything but scientism would, of course.

    Glen Davidson

  2. thetalkingstove says

    Vernon is indeed awful. The Guardian does good work in some areas but its Belief section is full of appalling waffle, hand wringing and “oo, aren’t New Atheists awful!”.

  3. robro says

    “Ppppfff!” Of course, the universe could come from natural causes and have purpose, meaning, et al, but there’s no apparent rhyme or reason to it other than those we place on it. So, teleology explains nothing and ultimately has no purpose, mere wishful thinking. In any case, I thought we closed this discussion about the supposed grand purpose of life, the universe, and everything back in the 19th century. God is dead, and all that. Now dogs, they create purpose and mine needs to go out and create some now.

  4. steve oberski says

    immanent

    Now there’s a word that’s just begging for inclusion on some sort of religious bullshit bingo card.

  5. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Is teleology a ‘default state’ of the way we think? Do we assume everything has a ‘purpose’ unless we find a good reason not to? As far as I can tell, Nagel himself uses the argument that something as complicated as the universe must be there for a reason rather than ‘We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.’

  6. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Vernon says about Nagel’s book:

    Stephen Pinker dammed it with faint praise when he described it in a tweet as “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker”.

    Does Vernon understand the English language if he thinks that is any kind of praise?

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    Vernon: “Davies argues that the refusal of natural teleology rests on an assumption that nature obeys laws that are written into the fabric of the cosmos. However, quantum physics offers every reason to doubt that this is so.”

    Quantum physics should be able to file a lawsuit for all the times some twerp has pulled this kind of crap out of his arse. How is quantum physics separate from the “fabric of the cosmos”?

    I’m surprised there was no mention of The Anthropic Principle (or did I miss it?).

  8. DLC says

    So, Nagel is argueing from personal incredulity, and we’re supposed to buy it ?
    Why should anyone buy into such an obvious fallacy ?

    Oh, and thetalkingstove #3 : Yes, we are indeed all Awful. Every Godless New-Atheist one of us. Now pass the roast baby, I’m hungry.

  9. Louis says

    I’ve met Mark, I’ve got a copy of his book After Atheism. He’s a nice enough chap, I had a beer with him. The book is atrocious. It is just a tissue of straw men. It’s one of those things that sits on my shelf looking at me and begging me to do a point by point review/rebuttal. There’s a few books like that. One day I suppose I’ll get around to it.

    Louis

  10. Chuck says

    Anyone who says things like “teleological trend” and “immanent in nature” can be dismissed outright.

  11. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    I’m surprised there was no mention of The Anthropic Principle (or did I miss it?).

    No need to mention it, Rob Grigjanis, The Anthropic Principle is the teleological assumption that the universe exists to produce us.

    So, Nagel is argueing from personal incredulity, and we’re supposed to buy it ?
    Why should anyone buy into such an obvious fallacy ?

    Because it’s the way we think until we set out to overcome our- quite literal- prejudices, DLC. We think- individually and collectively- that we matter much more to the universe than we do. Even if we recognose our cosmic insignificance, we can’t actually practically realise it.

  12. cag says

    I am still amazed that anyone would think that the christian god, the laziest, most uncaring character in all fiction, would create a whole universe just to house humans when a solar system with one planet and no extraneous detritus would do.

    From thesaurus for lazy: apathetic, asleep on the job, careless, comatose, dallying, dilatory, drowsy, dull, flagging, idle, inattentive, indifferent, indolent, inert, lackadaisical, laggard, lagging, languid, languorous, lethargic, lifeless, loafing, neglectful, out of it, passive, procrastinating, remiss, shiftless, slack, sleepy, slothful, slow, slow-moving, snoozy, somnolent, supine, tardy, tired, torpid, trifling, unconcerned, unenergetic, unindustrious, unpersevering, unready, weary

    Yep, that’s the christian god.

  13. Gregory Greenwood says

    The argument from personal incredulity seems to be the go to position for all the ‘intelligent design’ types these days. Then again that isn’t really surprising – it is also very popular with the broader crank community, finding extensive use among climate change denialists, anti-vaxxers and indeed everyone who feels that reality is somehow obligated to conform to their ignorant preconceptions.

    The thing I find odd is how all these diifferent shades of woo-monger all fail to notice how spectacularly stupid it is an argument. All kinds of things that have been observed about reality are counter-intuitive, and saying essentially ‘I don’t get it, therfore it has to be wrong’ in defiance of the evidence does not a credible argument make.

    I also find it endlessly amusing that creationsts and intelligent design proponents find the idea that life developed by purely naturalistic processes to be too incredible to accept, but have no problem with the idea that it was all designed and created by an immensely complex supernatural intelligence, that has either ‘always existed’ or somehow sprang fully formed into being before the existence of the universe, and has conspired to leave no hard evidence of its existence or its involvment in the development of life on Earth. I struggle see how this can be considered a credible option at all, still less more believable than the parsimonious, naturalistic explanations.

    It seems I lack the… err… ‘unique insights’ of the ID crowd….

  14. thebookofdave says

    There’s that word again: inconceivable.

    I do not think it means what he thinks it means.

    Unless its actual definition is: Argument From Ignorance, FTW!

  15. Rob Grigjanis says

    sc @12: I prefer my version:

    Weak Anthropic Principle: The parameters defining this Universe are finely tuned to allow the existence of wankers.

    Strong Anthropic Principle: The purpose of the Universe is to create wankers.

  16. says

    I’ve skimmed Nagel’s book, and it’s a lot of ponderous musing with no foundation in evidence at all.

    Well Nagel is a philosopher, you can’t blame him for doing his job!

  17. kantalope says

    What happens if you claim not to understand someone’s argument from incredulity?

  18. dexitroboper says

    Even if we recognose our cosmic insignificance, we can’t actually practically realise it.

    Except in the Total Perspective Vortex, which proves that the purpose of the universe is to create Fairy Cake.

  19. Cuttlefish says

    I actually own a copy of an older Sheldrake book, “the sense of being stared at”. It is both theoretically and methodologically horrible, and I have found it far more comfortable to bang the book against my forehead than to read it.

  20. unclefrogy says

    what I find so amazing is the great lengths of rationalization people go to prop up the insight they had when they were 6 years old of what the world was and where it came from. Some can keep it up, this rationalizing well into old age with out it seems ever once actually looking very close at the actual world we are living in.

    uncle frogy

  21. Nemo says

    In 2011 it was a book I know nothing about, but claimed that neuroscience could never explain the mind.

    Something by Penrose, perhaps?

  22. Sastra says

    Cuttlefish #20 wrote:

    I actually own a copy of an older Sheldrake book, “the sense of being stared at”. It is both theoretically and methodologically horrible, and I have found it far more comfortable to bang the book against my forehead than to read it.

    You’re not supposed to bang Sheldrake’s The Sense of Being Stared At against your forehead, Silly — you’re supposed to bang it against the back of your neck. Do that often enough and you start to have a funny feeling there must be something to that morphic resonance idea because it’s … looking at you.

    The essence of the supernatural is the existence of essences. Specifically, mental essences. Mind or emotion or personhood or qualities or values or something else mental is an irreducible foundation of reality, separate and above the lowly world of dreaded materialism. If it’s irreducible, then of course you can’t conceive of what its history of development might be. It has no history, no way it got to be the way it is and no way else. It just IS.

    The conviction that reality is basically like a mind and mind itself is basic is egocentrism. Egocentrists like to pull a fast one and insist that you have to “let go of ego” — which includes scientistic materialist reductionism — in order to open yourself to this truth. This is not deep. It’s not even particularly shallow. It’s intuitive.

    And wrong.

  23. David Marjanović says

    As far as I can tell, Nagel himself uses the argument that something as complicated as the universe must be there for a reason rather than ‘We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.’

    “Everything is the way it is because it got that way.”
    – J. B. S. Haldane (thanks to PZ for posting this long ago)

    The Anthropic Principle is the teleological assumption that the universe exists to produce us.

    As correctly explained in comment 16, that’s the Strong Anthropic Principle. The Weak one is just the tautology “if we couldn’t exist, we wouldn’t, so we can”.

    “the sense of being stared at”

    What is this even? I’ve never felt stared at, except when I already thought for other reasons that 1) there was someone else in the room who 2) actually wanted to know what I was doing right at that moment. Am I weird?

  24. Matt Penfold says

    Has anyone ever seen a decent answer to the problem of infinite regression when positing deities as the cause of the Universe being in existence ?

  25. leonpeyre says

    I’ve skimmed Nagel’s book

    Cue fans of Vernon or Nagel demanding you read the whole thing before commenting on it! Or is that just the MRAs’ schtick?

    You know though, they might have a point. I mean, when I look around me at the beauty of nature: botflies, guinea worms, ebola virus, the reproductive behavior of parasitic wasps, the fratricidal natures of bluefooted boobies and Iberian lynxes, well, maybe that does have a designer after all! And judging by the nature of God in the Old Testament, I’d say he’s probably best qualified to have created this kind of world. But then I think about puppies, and hummingbirds, and baby animals, and it just doesn’t make sense any more.

  26. mnb0 says

    “Give me good cause to think …”
    Wrong request. Teleology is about goals, not about causes. So you should request to give you a good goal to think there is positive evidence etcetera. I guess you already know which answer you will get.

  27. Christopher Morrow says

    His latest is apparently an annual thing in which he announces “the most despised book” of the year.

    I can’t stand it when people do the cheesy bullshit thing of “Everyone hates this, it must have something going for it!” just to grab attention and hope for some street cred. Don’t they see the resmblence to the Interweb ads that say “Dentists/dermatologists/accountanta hate him/her”? (Yes, those ads have a different intention, but I find the surface similarity funny.) Greta Christina called this the gadfly collorary of the Galileo gambit.

    Anyway, I’m pretty sure the actual long-running winner for that “most despised” prize is Mein Kampf or something. Hey, if nearly everyone hates X, then odds are decent that you and I would hate it too – so why in the world should “everyone hates it” be an endorsement? In the battle of ideas, unlike in sports movies, the underdog sometimes deserves being the underdog. Especially if that underdog is evil (or at least obnoxious), or flat-out incorrect. Damn the neocons, the standup comics, and others with that “Ooh la la, I’m not being politically correct!” schtick. Rant over.