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.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Why bother?

A recent comment on this blog asked the question of why bother having a discourse with people who disagree with you ideologically. This question often comes up as a result of frustration at interacting with people who apparently aren't interested in a dialog, but simply in shouting their opinions past others. Of course, to some extent we are all guilty of this, but the extent does matter, and the intentions with which one enters a public forum (be that a blog, a radio show, or simply a conversation at dinner) matters too.

I have actually written about this before (for example, here), arguing that there are different time-horizons and goals that need to be considered. In the short-term, it is simply not true that our opinions do not influence others, and sometimes even change minds. We rarely get to know this, because the process doesn't have an instantaneous feedback, and the most vocal people in any particular forum tend to be those who are most set in their ideas (which isn't to say that they are necessarily wrong, of course!). But since I began doing my part as what in Europe would be considered a "public intellectual" (i.e., not somebody who stays way up there in the ivory tower, engaging in continuous mental masturbation), about ten years ago, I have gotten plenty of letters and emails from people thanking me for having pointed out things they hadn't thought before, in the process adding to their daily dose of food for thought. That was precisely the point.

On the long run, things do change too, and often dramatically. It may be disheartening to see the rise of the intolerant religious right in the United States during the past few years, but take the really long historical view and you'll immediately appreciate the enormous advances made during the last century (think of the right of women to vote, civil rights legislation, etc.), and beyond (not long ago I would have been burned as an heretic for what I'm writing on this blog).

Where, then does the frustration come from? I suggested in the past that this is the result of what I called the "rationalistic fallacy." This isn't a formal logical fallacy, but rather an assumption -- particularly common among, but not limited to, academics, that all one needs to do to convince other people is to present a cogent argument backed up by evidence. Alas, it isn't that simple, partly because the human brain seems to be hard-wired to jump to conclusions based on little evidence, not to mention of course because of the emotional component attached to much of what is being discussed here (religion, rights, philosophical positions, etc.).

Nonetheless, there is equally good evidence from the cognitive sciences that people do change their minds (I highly recommend a little booklet entitled "Teaching with the Brain in Mind"). How this happens is interesting, and worth learning. For example, people tend to be more responsive to repeated exposure to new ideas, preferably in a variety of settings (lectures, readings) and sources (i.e., various authors, colleagues, friends). Few of us change our minds on the spot or in response to a single well-crafted argument presented by one person. We need to see things from different angles, hear or read them repeated with different flavors, and to give time to our left brain (what neuroscientists call the "interpreter" of our worldview) to digest whatever dissonant information is being presented.

There is one more reason to engage in open discussion: one exposes one's own arguments to the sometime penetrating "peer review" of other people, who may start with different assumptions, reason in a different fashion, and hold onto different sets of priorities. That can do miracles to sharpen our own thinking and make us grow as individuals.

The bottom line is that discussions aren't a waste of time, as frustrating as they sometimes may be. They are an essential component of an open, democratic society, and they beat the crap out of watching mindless tv all night...


  1. Today's neo-conservatives (as opposed to the Republicans I grew up among) really have mastered the art of continuous repetition of their message, and they have reaped good results from their efforts.
    They have a good number of people who think the war is just peachy, and there are more than a few people who feel, at the insistance of our government, that torture is legitimate and the Geneva Conventions are only for sissies not real men.
    They have a large following that abhor the thought of some poor person receiving even a pittance of public money, yet have no qualms about corporate welfare and creating more and more tax breaks for those who can't spend the money they have already. They have sold the American people on an economy in which top management is paid 5-6oo times what and average worker is paid. (In apan that ratiois about 25 times) Then the average worker is made to take a wage cut while the dead wood in the ivory towers give themselves enormous pay increases and "incentive" bonuses.
    They are in favor of condoning religious charlatans, who prey on the weak, the insecure, and the elderly all in the name of some nebulous god.
    They have no problem sending thousands of young men and women to their possible deaths because the ignorant president couldn't figure out any other way to stimulate the economy, and without a viable economy he had no chance of being relected. As a result we have 2000 plus Americans who have been slaughtered on the alter of Bush's second term. He and his minions care not a whit for these people or their families.
    They say he has brought democracy to Iraq. A democracy in which dozens of people die each day in terrorist attacks. A democracy in which the entire country had to be locked down in order to hold a simple referendum: that referendum nearly ensuring that Iraq will be a theocracy with fewer civil liberties than existed when Saddam Hussein ruled.
    The right wing has slam-banged Mr. & Mrs. Average American to the point where they are numb with fear. Will we hold them accountable or will we let them run roughshod until the United States is a feudal society consisting of a few lairds and a multitude of cowering serfs!
    This is what the right has done with repetitive messaging - progressives must become attack dogs and throw the lies back in their faces, and start pounding away with an alternative plan for the country.

  2. You're absolutely right that people do change their minds. I'm proof. I was a very conservative Catholic who gradually became a liberal atheist and humanist, so I know it can be done.

  3. "I was a very conservative Catholic who gradually became a liberal atheist and humanist, so I know it can be done."

    That is not a long ways to fall tho.

    Most Catholic churches and priests do not encourage in-depth study of God's word. So the day any of us cracks a BOOK to the contrary open and it reveals to us what the writer presumed that the Bible may have said, that is equal in power, if not more powerful, over one's perception of what the Bible means and says.

    Former Catholics are always in greater danger here. That meaning, "I may never miss something I've never had," in terms of a working biblical knowledge. Therefore, so many other not ligit. things can come and take the place of this void. I was born Catholic, (not raised much that way tho) and I have seen that Catholics can really be "haters" or dogmatists. And in my mind, that's quite a senseless position if one really has the truth.


  4. That is not a long ways to fall tho.

    Who said anything about a fall? I consider it a step up. ;-)

  5. "Who said anything about a fall? I consider it a step up. ;-)"

    Okay. I might have thought so too at one point in my life.

    We work with a lot of former Catholics. (our church is possibly 40% former Catholics) I note that many have a tendency, for awhile at least, to take militant anti-catholic positions.

    Our congregation encourages a lot of self study and self application tho. So eventually even the hatred of the RCC wears off. :) When you know about these matters and have confidence about your grasp of them, the things that use to bug and threaten seem so small.


  6. Read your own entry Cal. If you say "fall" and you did, the rest of us must assume that's what you meant! Maybe it was just a bad choice of words.
    I'm with Charlie - from Catholicism to atheism is a giant step UP for mankind, to paraphrase Neil Armstrong.

  7. Actually, we atheists and freethinkers owe Protestantism a debt. If Martin Luther et. al. hadn't started the whole ball rolling with the idea of one being able to trust one's own perception of biblical dogma, etc., then freethought and atheism may have had a tougher time developing in European thought. Not that Luther intended this effect, but it happened nonetheless.


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