About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

A skeptic with the heart of a believer

Nice book review in the New York Times recently (by Kate Zernike), of "Spook" by Mary Roach. The book is an idiosyncratic search for evidence of the afterlife, from the point of view of a benign skeptic. Roach is apparently well aware of the silliness of much of what she hears from the people she interviews, but manages to maintain a sympathetic tone, usually missing from more seasoned (or hard-edged) skeptics (such as myself). That's why Zernike concludes her review by saying that Roach “may have a skeptic's mind, but she writes with a believer's heart.”

Roach's skepticism is of the common-sense type, as when she points out that alleged contacts with the other world never get to the obvious questions: “Dead people never seem to address the obvious - the things you'd think they'd be bursting to talk about, and the things all of us not-yet-dead are madly curious about, such as: Hey, where are you now? What do you do all day? What's it feel like being dead? Can you see me? Even when I'm on the toilet? Would you cut that out?” Indeed!

But Roach gets to the real root of the problem, one that most skeptics studiously avoid, when she recalls the case of a father whose boy died, and who is convinced that his son has reincarnated in the dog he holds on his lap. There is absolutely no rational reason to believe that, but there is of course a very powerful emotional reason (and no, the latter ain't no contradiction!).

This strikes at the core of the struggle between "skeptics and true believers," to use the catch phrase coined by Chet Raymo. What do we hold in highest regard, the truth (as best as we can determine it, of course), or compassion? What if one comes at the expense of the other? Does one have to come at the expense of the other, or are there as yet little explored alternatives? Remember the choice given by Morpheus to Neo in "The Matrix": would you rather take the blue pill and go back to your imaginary, but safe world; or go with the red pill and face reality as it is, true, but harsh? I've decided long ago to go ahead and take the red pill, but it sure is a hard one to swallow without chocking!


  1. In the similar theme of your paper on "just war theor(ies)" there are justifiable reasons to hold on to a more literal view of realism on one level - the larger picture, possibly - but turn it back on to ourselves (i.e. personal introspection) as it comes to negotiations that have to do with our humanity and the rights of others.

    That is a way of creating “peace” within the individual first. It would seem that wars would be less frequent and likely when our understanding of realism can actually makes “us” humble.


  2. Reading this entry made the following quote come back to me from an ethics course I took years ago

    "Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness --- that the superior being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior --- confounds the two very different ideas, of happiness, and content. It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides." JS Mill, Utilitarianism

  3. Oh, and to add to the discussion, I'd say that in some instances compassion does indeed outweigh the truth.

    For example,
    Someone is on their death bed, moments away from the end, asks if their lifelong favorite team, who has never won a championship who happens to be playing in the World series, has won game 7 and the championship. The team has in actuality lost. I'd lie and say they won.

    Sort of a trivial example, but you get the point.

  4. HG: "Oh, and to add to the discussion, I'd say that in some instances compassion does indeed outweigh the truth."

    Truth and compassion should part and parcel of the same package, I would think.

    In the end, your ethics course ought to have taught you that it would be far better to say nothing than to lie. Or to politely and tactfully tell the truth.

    When we practise the idea that lying is okay if it saves ("ME"?) the discomfort of having to tell an ill person some unfavorable news, one day we might wish to save ourselves other discomforts, like having to endure the process of their terminal illness, and lie again about what is WE want and who it is we are really “saving”. (and lying again, of course, by claiming we are saving the other person)

    don't you ever ask yourself who it is we are really saving when we lie? I do.


  5. Argh. Slippery slope and Kantian absolutism. Not where I butter my ethical bread. Provisional ethics, for me.

    Is it ok for the police to not be truthful by going undercover to, say, rescue a kidnapped child?

  6. In that case, you have an issue of properly placed (and governed by other factors) authority.

    And HEY - try no tot get into that "baby-splitting" sort of argumentation with thing me! :) It'll be more painful for you in the long run when I give you the seventeen page version of why it isn't so!! ;)

    Seriously, tho - I do not believe that 'situation ethics' will offer any real value to the thinking person. Instead, such methods actually offer soft solutions cloaked as a sophisticated idea wrapped around a basically self-interested desire. (remember the "info theory" thing I posted somewhere about how it generally and usually takes more words to construct a lie than it does the truth?)

    If we really "cared" about others, we could do a lot better.

    Most people, in spite of stated philosophies, want to be ethical. But to merely "think" of oneself as ethical, is not enough.


  7. All or nothing?
    Only truth or else only lies and deceit?
    Only truth or else total loss of capcaity to weigh and balance the relative value of hurting another with the truth (the dying fan) vs. the compassion of lying?

    I (you)can still be a good person without always telling the exact truth.

  8. I know what humanism might say about our inclinations but the bible says that 'the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked'...

    This might come as a complete surprise to a majority of progressives, but it is where real human enlightenment actually needs to begin. Without this, we fool ourselves even about our own motivations. Or, at least, I would.



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