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, January 30, 2006

Even Kurt Vonnegut sometimes gets it wrong

Kurt Vonnegut is one of the very few people who makes it into my personal pantheon of very important human beings (I don't call them heroes). Yet, even he sometimes blunders, and one of these rare instances occurred recently, during an interview on National Public Radio. Vonnegut was commenting on the “tribal” behavior (he has a degree in anthropology) displayed by some modern groups within American culture. According to him, one instance of such tribal behavior is the attitude that scientists have taken concerning the evolution-intelligent design debate. Vonnegut chastises scientists for claiming that evolution surely happened, and for “pretending” to have an answer to the question of how complex life could have appeared on our planet.

Vonnegut went on to say that “our bodies are miracles of design,” and that this “couldn't possibly be explained by natural selection.” Note, of course, that Vonnegut is a self-declared secular humanist (as he pointed out in the same interview), and that he surely doesn't invoke supernatural explanations of any sort, much less of the type advocated by Christian fundamentalists. Then what exactly is he talking about?

It's possible that even Kurt fell for a sort of post-modern critique of science, where because science is a social activity carried out by human beings (true) it follows that scientists are a special interest group (also true) that will be pursue its goals regardless of empirically verifiable truth (absolutely and fundamentally false). Or perhaps at the end of his career he feels like he can talk about anything, despite an obvious lack of understanding of the subject matter. Or maybe he was just in a bad mood, or was playing his role of iconoclast beyond reasonableness.

Whatever the case may be, Kurt, you were wrong on this one, and what you said is not going to help the cause of reason for which you have done so much throughout your long career. I saw you in person a few years ago at the University of Tennessee, and I have read most of your books. You are still in my pantheon, and I will still be quoting your work whenever I'll have the chance. But please stay out of things you don't understand, the unreasonable don't need further ammunitions for their irrationalist campaigns, ok?


  1. He's one of the laureates for the International Academy of Humanism, too.

    I still regret not going to see him speak when he came to my campus to give a lecture. At the time, I hadn't read any of his work and only knew he was the guy in Back to School that Rodney Dangerfield had doing his book report. Since then I've read almost all of his books.

  2. I too heard that same interview and was confused (and disappointed) by his odd combination of replies.
    How the mighty have fallen...

  3. On a Daily Show interview, which you can see if you poke around www.comedycentral.com, Vonnegut seemed to be giving the same sentiment, but concluded by saying "And that's why we have giraffes, hippopotomi, and the clap." At least in that interview, he was being ironic, unless he thinks the designer was a lot like Loki.

  4. Maybe he thinks some other natural process must be needed besides or instead of natural selection (and sexual selection, and drift, etc. when applicable) to account for the apparent complexity of life.

    That's all perfectly valid, of course, as long as he presents good arguments and evidence about why the current explanations don't suffice at least in theory (which I doubt he does elsewhere). And more important, that he presents some scientific alternative to the present explanations.

    But more bothering for me is all the talk about life being "too complex" to have evolved. Does anybody ever ask how this was measured? And does anybody answer?? How simple is simple enough to be evolvable by natural selection (or whatever else), and why? What's the threshold of complexity? The (limited) imagination of the conceited critic?

    Oh well, for some reason I don't expect an answer to these straightforward questions of mine...


  5. Very well said, Massimo. I was disappointed by Vonnegut's statement as well, but he is such a professional curmudgeon that I decided not to get too worked up about it. You expressed the very same sentiment I would've. Thanks.

  6. Don't feel too bad J.

    I've found that silence is the usual creationist response to tough questions such as yours. Either that or a slew of logical fallacies.


  7. " ...What's the threshold of complexity? The (limited) imagination of the conceited critic?

    Oh well, for some reason I don't expect an answer to these straightforward questions of mine...Don't feel too bad J."

    Noah: I've found that silence is the usual creationist response to tough questions such as yours. Either that or a slew of logical fallacies."

    "Argument from no cause" I think that would tend to predetermine the validity of the slew of fallacies that the adherents on "your side" might use.

    And I don't understand your silence towards me and my views as you would explain it regarding creationists. So I think it may be a misunderstanding on your own behalf. I think there comes a point, where participants on both sides of an dispute realize that any dissenting views will be met by more of the (individual) will than the mind. That is plainly why you might get silence sometimes.

    Otherwise "answers" from anyone on either side are truly a dime a dozen, Noah. While movement (change of heart, mind, will) in any direction, is probably worth something.

    A gentleman in his sixties that we’ve known for a while to be an atheist (a skeptic and happened to be a scientist) began to attend our congregation (we are under this org: http://www.calvarychapel.org/) in the beginning of December.

    As a surprise to me, about as much as it was when my husband chose this, he came to faith in Christ several weeks ago.

    I have been quite familiar with his views and thinking on things in in the past, and this was not an easy, poorly thought out decision for him.

    As time unfolds, one begans to realize that sometimes amazing things can happen.


  8. I for one (I can't speak for others, but I think it's a common enough line of reasoning) do not answer to you, Cal, or other people behaving like you, after it becomes clear that the person is wilfully ignorant of the subject being discussed. Notice that, although it does apply to you, it's nothing really personal.

    What I mean, in more detail: when I "meet" someone who's publicly exposing ignorance of the basics of biology (in this case, evolutionary biology), I assume he just did not happen to learn that properly, it's just an honest mistake. Nobody is obliged to know everything. So I try my best to answer at that point, trying to show that things are not that simple, or at the very least to point out that he is far out of his depth when it comes to the theories involved, and more studying is advisable. And mind you, evolution is not that complicated to begin with, compared to many other scientific concepts.

    Now we're way past this phase, Cal, since I clearly showed in at least one previous thread (after you angrily demanded "technical" reasons for this or that), but surely some more, that you don't grasp even the most basic and fundamental things of modern evolutionary biology. I'd say it's pretty uncontroversial that to criticize something and claim it's all wrong, one needs to begin by knowing that something very well.

    Then comes the next phase, when the lay guy insists in ignoring everything that was told him. Now, the honest mistake defense does not apply anymore. Therefore, the only conclusion is that the person wants to display ignorance, for some reason. In that case, I'm not the one to bang my head on the wall correcting him anymore. So silence is what he gets for his wilful display of ignorance.

    And that's all I need to talk to you on the subject of evolution until you display more qualification on that, and the will to really learn.

    Now, if you want to discuss something else, I'd be more than glad to answer and ask.


  9. I will simply state that this so called "Argument From No Cause" does not exist and has not existed at least since Big Bang became accepted science. Whether you mean those who accept evolution or atheists by the "your side" comment, almost all that I know or have read believe in a cause (in the broad sense) they just don't believe ancient tribal gods make up that cause nor do they believe any ultimate cause necessarily needs to be an intelligent agent.

    It's pretty simple and anyone seriously following this issue would understand that.

    "Argument From No Cause" is a Strawman fallacy. (See my first post on this thread.)

    Tales of conversion are also fallicious. For every former atheist there is a former christian, check out Exchristian.net or Dan Barker's story at ffrf.org for further clarification.


  10. Its understandable that a self proclaimed philosopher has levels of confidence beyond the average. But it might serve you well, MP to let the dew behind your ears dry a little and gain a tenth of the international acclaim of KV before you proclaim him wrong on a subject of the nature spoken of here.

    That he's so fortunate as to be included amongst that pantheon of individuals that's permitted in your not too well known selection of noted philosophers might be impressive were you more noteworthy yourself.

    Give it time, Massimo, just have patience. Look at it this way, at least one more person on this Earth chose to address you, that's a sign of progress.

  11. P.J.,

    just for the record, I am not a "self proclaimed" philosopher. I actually hold a PhD in philosophy from the University of Tennessee, and I have published in professional philosophy journals.

  12. I don't mean to quibble with any of the responses above - they all seem accurate enough. But, having read the referenced article, I think the premise they are working from is flawed.

    I very much doubt Kurt was in any way endorsing a notion of evolution as the ugly red-haired stepchild of intelligent design. (Note for example his appearance on Jon Stewart's Daily Show, where he scornfully commented that he believed intelligent design *must* be correct, because of the existence of such useful and designed things as hippopotomi and the clap) The comments in fact seem to be a more prosaic expression of some of the themes that he has expressed in his novels, themes that often comment on the impossibility of rational meaning.

    He has frequently talked about animals like giraffes and rhinos as being impossible to manufacture through evolution because they are so completely impractical, which has fuelled the literary conceit of time actually being lived 'backwards'. Its the sort of motif which he deals with tangentially in Slaughterhouse-5 and more directly with a dream in Slapstick, where he sees all of humanity evolve 'backwards' to form a perfect Adam and Eve.

    The idea is not to actually challenge science, but to defeat the notion of a purposive narrative in the world - the idea that things must 'grow' to where they are today as reflective of some modernist idea of progress.

    The same thematic conceit is present in Galapagos where humanity 'evolves' into seal-like creatures and finally jetisons the 'big brains' which have caused so much pain and destruction throughout the ages.

    I really doubt that he states "" to mean that evolutionary theory is wrong. Rather his quibble is with the gloss that is often applied to such theory to excuse human behaviour of the 'social-darwinist' mold which he sees as an attempt by the powerful in society to justify their own position and allowed for continued abuse of the less fortunate.

    Or at least, thats the way that I read him.

    Disclaimer: Vonnegut is a hero of mine, and the brief comments above are a synopsis of a masters dissertation I wrote on him a few years ago.


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