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.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Couldn't have said it better myself

It happens very rarely that a secular humanist listens to the radio in the United States and hears a blunt, no-nonsense statement of how ridiculous the prevailing worldview really is. I couldn't help but chuckling at the gym the other day when I had precisely one of these rare occurrences while listening to an interview of novelist Philip Roth conducted by Terry Gross for her National Public Radio program, Fresh Air.

The two were talking about Roth's latest book, Everyman, which follows the life of an average individual through his medical record, i.e., through the slow but steady decay of his body. Inevitably, the book touches on issues of sexuality (what happens when you are seventy and still have a strong libido?), meaning of life (or lack thereof), and, of course, death.

Gross at one point couldn't help herself from asking Roth – who said earlier that he is not religious -- whether he ever wishes that he were a believer. “I have no desire for the irrational,” was Roth's matter of fact (and absolutely not hostile) response. Gross, undaunted, commented that a lot of people would say that rationality goes only so far in this world, a typical nonsensical comeback that is in fact commonly perceived as a “deep” insight and a clear trump card against the poor rationalist fool. But Roth simply replied: “if only it went further in this world,” and, a few seconds later, again referring to religion and beliefs in gods and the afterlife, “I have no taste for delusion.”

Wow, that was a nice dose of fresh air indeed. Thanks Philip.


  1. I recently read a blog talking about fearing our dearest beliefs and truths are wrong. What if I'm wrong about Christianity. what if somehow a naturalistic explaination can account for everything. What if I am waisting my time worshiping a guy who was no more than a Jewish rebel. What if its true, that I have a "taste for delusion"?
    What if your wrong?

  2. "What if I'm wrong about Christianity. what if somehow a naturalistic explaination can account for everything. What if I am waisting my time worshiping a guy who was no more than a Jewish rebel. What if its true, that I have a "taste for delusion"?

    Many others have addressed (more adequately than I am able) the questions you have posed in this paraphrase of Pascal's wager. One possibility is that you are wrong and that another religious belief is right and also condemns those who do not accept it to eternal damnation. In this case you suffer the same fate as the atheist. I also suspect that having a Christian worldview comes with its own set of costs. Perhaps unwarranted guilt or time wasted on useless activities such as prayer or worship that could be put to better use for yourself or others. Possibly increasing the pain and suffering of others by causing them to feel unnecessary and unwarranted guilt. And of course the financial cost of contributing to religious organizations that use a large part of their resources in providing no useful input to the problems of the world, but simply in promoting their own worldview. At the very least, to believe without evidence is to undermine one's intellectual integrity and likely encourage this kind of thinking about problems in life that really do matter.

    "What if your wrong?"

    If I am wrong in not believing in the Christian God without evidence, and he/she is cruel enough to condemn me to hell for such use of my intellect, I will suffer the consequences willingly.

  3. I must agree with Doug. To clutter up my life with religious Hocus Pocus without even an outside chance that it will make any difference in the end, seems counterproductive to me.

    Better to live by the Golden Rule -how can you go wrong. It's the really human thing to do.

    If after trying to live a good life, the God of Christianity (assuming for a moment there is such a thing) decides to punish me so be it. I would have been following a hideous creed anyway and that would have been wrong.

  4. Well said, Doug and Dennis.

    And there's always the problem that god would know you're "believing just in case", which probably wouldn't be a very appreciated attitude and would put you in trouble anyway.

    Better to live by the Golden Rule

    Well, when people say "Do to others as you would have them do to you", I always think to myself: unless you're a masochist... :O)


  5. THE GOLDEN RULE. Can this be used as an ultimate standard for morality? If not, what can? What does the golden rule say about abortion? What if you had an opportunity to steal and noone would ever find out and it didn't really hurt anyone?
    I am not saying morality is impossible to reach without religion. American Indians had some type of morality prior to the 1600's, but I think most of us would not agree with much of what they considered to be moral.
    The Golden rule has holes and breaks down since people have different opinions on how they would like to be treated.
    I am sure you guys can point out how different religions have changed what they consider moral over time, that is because they strayed from what is biblically moral in the first place.

  6. Jim,

    >> I am not saying morality is impossible to reach without religion. American Indians had some type of morality prior to the 1600's, but I think most of us would not agree with much of what they considered to be moral. <<

    Gosh, I don't know if you have any idea of how offensive and simply wrong that statement is. "Some kind of morality"? And just the American Indians? What about the millions of atheists worldwide who live perfectly moral lives? And what about the tens of millions of Christians who ain't so moral?

  7. Jim,

    "I am sure you guys can point out how different religions have changed what they consider moral over time, that is because they strayed from what is biblically moral in the first place."

    So we'll stone adulterous women, and erect a statue to Savonarola in the public square, in front of the False Masterpiece Incinerator, and so on, and so forth.

    Man, you really put your foot in your mouth. (I'm hoping after due consideration, you'll agree)

  8. A lot of the comments to this post have expressed a distaste for a religion in which God punishes people even though they tried to be good, and identified this religion as Christianity. I believe in religious freedom, as a state policy, but I draw the non-intervention line at outright doctrinal confusion.

    The whole oint of the Gospel is really clear, and a lot simpler than it is usually portrayed in modern culture.

    1. God is both just and good
    2. Man chose evil rather than the good given by God
    3. No guilt is unwarranted, sin really is an affront to a perfect God.
    4. Sin will be accounted for because of God's justice.
    5. Jesus could accept all punishment, and give all righteousness to those ho would accept it, and give up the claim of serving themsel, annd relying on their own powers.
    6. True belief leaves no room for pride or self-righteousness.

  9. Massimo,
    My point was not to offend American indians. My point is that there can be no "Golden Rule", because different societys without the gosphel will come up with different standards of whats moral. The fact that what the American indians may consider to be moral will be different than todays athiest, is the point I was trying to get across. So to say there is some "Golden Rule" that can lead to a consistant morality is incorrect.
    So again I ask, how does the athiest find a true morality? How does one conclude that abortion is somehow moral (not saying you personally), but many athiest seem to have reached a logic conclusion that killing can be moral by incorperating freedom of choice into the equation.

  10. Morality is a social construct that was invented to make life more pleasant and predictable (especially to the people in power of course). There is no absolute standard. What we consider evil could be considered good by another society. When you are a child you are taught was is supposed to be good and evil and most people don't question those lessons afterwards. If you had been brainwashed in your youth that old people are a burden on society and that they shoud be executed, you would probably believe that. After all, almost everybody says it's right, so it must be right, right? The stuff in the bible just reflects the moral opinion of that time. It has no universal value, even though most people today agree with many moral lessons from the bible, but not all (see examples about stoning etc above).

  11. As far as the Golden Rule is concerned, it is easy to see that even a non-religious person would accept it as a moral guide. It is in one's own self-interest to accept the Golden Rule - the more consistent the practice, the more likely it is that one will benefit from someone else who sees the advantages in practicing it. In essence, beneficial behavior partly stems from one's own (selfish) desire to not be harmed in return.

    As far as abortion is concerned, I can speak for myself in that the killing of a pre-sentient fetus does not equate to murder, any more so than the killing of a fly amounts to murder (and I can actually make the case that killing a fly is MORE heinous a moral act than permanently interrupting the development of a potential being). In your "for instance," killing is not necessarily moral, but it is almost certainly not immoral.

  12. I'd just like to say a few nice words about Terry Gross. I think she is the best interviewer in all of media. I've heard everyone from Ari Fliesher to RZA (from Wu Tang Clan) on her show and she asks inteligent, relevant questions every time. Fresh Air, Diane Rehm and Washington Journal on C-SPAN, are about the only programes I think deserve the title "Fair and Ballanced."

  13. Bob,
    by using words like "pre-sentient", you are trying to differentiate a fetus from human life. Perhaps if science redifined conception (by definition, beginning of life) as moment of giving birth, killing a fetus might not be immoral. But the current definition of conception precedes the fetus. I am not sure how you can make an arguement that killing a fly is more heinous an act. Even in a naturalistic world view, I would think that killing ones potential food source (if you didn't mind eating flys) could never be more heinous than killing ones own offspring.

  14. Jim,

    I think you should take a look at your definitions. Sentience has nothing to do with a supposed claim that a human fetus is not a human life. It rather refers to sense preception or consciousness. Neither present in a human zygote.

    In addition, conception is not defined as the beginning of life, but rather the formation of a zygote (the union of two gametes both of which are unquestionably alive before this union).

    I suspect that Bob's argument would be that a fly may have more sentience (as defined above) than a very early human embryo and therefore deserve greater moral consideration. This does not necessarily mean that it is morally wrong to kill a fly, only that the reasons for doing so need to be stronger than the reasons for destroying a very early human embryo.

    It also follows from this type of argument that a normal adult human being demands greater moral consideration than a late term human fetus. All life (human or otherwise) is not equally valuable.


    I hope I am not misstating your views, but these are mine.

  15. Doug,
    Fair enough, So are you defining life as when a fetus becomes post sentient? If so, at what point does a fetus become post sentient? It is obviously prior to birth.

  16. I am missing something, why does a adult human get greater moral consideration than a late term fetus? Because a fly may have more sentience than a early fetus? If that is not what your saying, correct me.

  17. Jim,

    >> why does a adult human get greater moral consideration than a late term fetus? Because a fly may have more sentience than a early fetus? <<

    I doubt anybody is seriously arguing that flies have more moral status than fetuses. The point about sentience is that a fetus is only a potential human being (just as sperms and eggs, even before fertilization, are in fact potential contributors to human life), and that its moral status increases with increased personhood.

    To your earlier question, sentience, and more to the point, personhood, increase continuously through development, so there is no simple cutting point. However, modern neurobiology does provide information about the neural development of fetuses, and it turns out that while the neural system forms early on, it does not become functional until the last trimester (for example fetuses have pain nerve endings early on, but they don't cone "online" until very late).

    Finally, just in case you are going to use the argument that a human life is always sacred no matter what, just think of the number of adults with send frying on the electric chair, or to die in combat for dubious causes (such as inexhistent weapons of mass destruction), or we starve to death and kill by disease out of sheer political inaction on our part.

  18. For the ancients, e.g., the Church fathers, this discussion used to take the form "when does the soul become conjoined with the body". Their answer was usually based on either sentience, or on the mother's awareness of the foetus. Hence between 3 to 6 months, but not at conception.

    Of course to ask when the soul is conjoined today would be a dangerous tack, because we could probably never identify such a time. But the criterion of sentience is the rule of thumb that human beings can still use, and probably always will.

    Also, I saw a Muslim woman on TV not so long ago. When asked about the Muslim stance on abortion, she replied that Roe VS. Wade represented the Muslim stance fairly well. (not sure why ahe was considered an authority on the subject).

  19. Doug:

    You nailed my position perfectly, and Massimo's reasoning is in line with my thinking on the matter. The most compelling argument I have heard regarding the ethics of abortion was made by Michael Shermer, where "human-ness" can be placed on a continuum, beginning from fertilization (say, .1 of a human being) to just before birth (say, .9 of a human being).

    I think that the question goes to the heart of what it is we find "valuable" in life forms. For instance, if cows, pigs, and chickens could speak and form societies in a manner that was more recognizable to humans, I suspect that vegetarianism would be FAR more popular (or would we just move on to dogs and cats?).

    Put another way, it really isn't a genetic make-up that we value, it's the thinking mind that the genetics allow for that we value. Who can argue that a thinking alien species would be any less worthy of legal and ethical status simply because it isn't human? To get geeky here, "human rights" is not, in my opinion, as logical as the Star Trek version on the theme, which is "the rights of sentients - something that makes infinitely more sense to me.

    ~ Bob

  20. Jim,

    Thank you for pointing out my lack of clarity in my argument regarding sentience. Using a fly in the discussion only muddies the waters and did not provide any insight to my actual views. Massimo has basically stated my case correctly, but for the record and for my own clarity let me restated this in my words.

    An individual human life has no clear starting point as both the sperm and the egg are living human cells even before fertilization (with some degree of potential). After conception the development of the human fetus is a continuum beginning with a non-sentient (non-person) zygote (fertilized egg) and eventually ending with a clearly sentient(fully a person) adult human being.

    Morally relavent characteristics include sentience, personhood, consciousness, etc. But not simply the fact that some collection of cells are alive or that they are indeed human cells.

    Based on this view moral consideration of a developing human person is also on a continuum staring with little to none and ending with all the moral consideration of an adult human. The fact that there are no clear dividing lines along this continuum does not mean we cannot see that some stages are clearly less deserving of moral consideration than others.

    Thinking about the complex real world (especially biology) is often not very intuitive as we are more comfortable with clearly established boundries. In addition, setting public policy decisions usually invloves drawing lines even if somewhat arbitrary. Understanding the underlying biology such as neuronal development, as pointed out by Massimo, can help inform us as to the best place to draw such lines.

    I hope this helps.


  21. Massimo, Doug, Bob,
    You are all making good points. Let me share something personal and why this subject is dear to me. Masssimo spoke of nerve endings not being developed until 3rd trimester. I think his point is that sentience doesn't happen until the same time. My wife was pregnant with triplets about 2 years ago. We lost one at 19 weeks (stillborn) and we lost the other two at 21 weeks, both were alive for about 1 1/2 hours each, so we got to spend a small time with them until they passed on. I assure you Massimo that there nerve endings were developed enough to feel our touch because the moved at my touch, and they are still in their 2nd trimester. Even my 19 week son, although stillborn, was a complete human being. I held him for hours, studying him on an emotional level and even a somewhat scientific level (as sick as that may sound). One thing it seems you all agree on is that sentience is somehow the dictator for moral consideration. I am not sure why that is. My guess is that it kind of goes back to the Golden rule, because sentience means that the fetus may actually have a clue what is happening to it. If sentience is not present than the fetus is clueless that we are trying to kill it. My personal moral view is deeper than that. I held a 19 week baby that had every single body part you and I have. If he had sentience or not (I suspect he had some degree since I know my 21 week old had a good degree) does not have anything to do with it. Using sentience as a guide line is like saying it is ok to steal if no one finds out or is really hurt by it. Your saying its ok to kill a human because he doesn't know or feel it. Well guess what, if you have sex with someones wife and they never found out, you were still wrong and immoral. This is why there has to be some absolute moral standard. And even if you were to use sentience, you have no idea where that sentience really begins. So in that case, isn't it better to err on the side of caution? Just don't kill a fetus and you won't kill one with sentience.
    As far as saying the beginning fetus is .1 of a human and right before birth is .9 of a human. That is nuts. Babys are now surviving at 23 weeks. So when they are born are they just .6 of a human? Science will keep pushing that limit back, in our lifetimes we will see my 19 week baby survive. Will he only be .4 of a human?

  22. Jim:

    Your analogies speak to one of the major points, if not THE major point, of the abortion controversy in the U.S.: should we regard human life, at ANY stage along its continuum of existence, as morally equal? In your opinion, a fetus is a "someone" already. But I hold the view that certainly until very late in fetal development, we cannot truly call an unborn human a "someone." It's the nasty argument over what it is that defines a person. Unless I can be convinced that a fetus is AT LEAST as equal a person as the woman who, by necessity, must serve as that fetus' incubator, there is no chance of my coming to the conclusion that a woman should be legally forced to carry a pregnancy through to term - which is really, in the end, what the debate is about. You cannot "err on the side of caution," as you put it, without a huge imposition upon the freedom of women. Besides, as Shermer and Sagan, among others, have pointed out, we already DO limit the freedom of women during that period of a pregnancy when a fetus is most nearly developed into a human being - the third trimester.

    (My reading into fetal development points to a general, but by no means universal, consensus that a fetus cannot feel pain at least until 25-26 weeks into gestation. Your personal tragedy, while it must have been most horrible to experience [and my sympathy, Mr. Fisher], cannot convincingly be used as a contradictory example of medical research. For instance, I once "saw" a ghost. But it doesn't mean that I believe that ghosts exist. Even for myself, eyewitness accounts are the LEAST convincing forms of evidence!)

    Sentience is not necessarily a dividing line for me in all instances of guiding my own behavior (heck, I even feel guilty squashing a bug). However, in those cases where it does serve to dictate what I believe is moral and what is not, the reason is not entirely that I fear the consequences of my actions being understood by the recipient; it is because as a thinking, rational being, I reserve the highest respect for my fellow thinking, rational beings. It IS the golden rule, just not the way you perceive it: I wish to be treated with respect, so I will treat other thinking beings with respect.

    At the risk of going off on an unrelated tangent, has there ever been an "absolute moral standard?" Which of our behaviors has been universally out of moral bounds, throughout human history? Should there be an absolute standard, and upon what should it be based?

    Too early on a Sunday for this. Coffee and donuts, everyone?

    ~ Bob

  23. Bob,
    I don't believe my personal experiences are contradictary to the medical evidence


    I know you will find studys saying the fetus does not feel pain until 25 weeks. My guess is that you (all three of you) don't have children. Ask anyone that has gone through a pregnancy if loud noises startled their unborn fetus prior to 25 weeks. I understand you not believing my story, I am ok with that. My guess is if you had seen it with your own eyes, it wouldn't change your opinion on the subject any.

    Wheather you call it "sentience" or "other thinking being" as you said in your last post. I still don't see how that can be used for moral consideration. Would it be moral to have sex with someone in a coma? Or could you seperate a coma patient from a fetus because the coma patient was once a "thinking rational being" and has the potiental to be one again. It can't be the potential part, because the fetus has that.
    I still don't see how a fetus does not deserve the same consideration as the woman who "must serve as the incubator" as you put it, which is another false statement. Woman are not forced to serve as the incubator. they choose to be incubators though behavior.

  24. By the logic of your argument, a mental retard does not deserve the same moral consideration as you or I.
    I find it almost comical that you state you "even feel guilty squishing a bug", but feel no guilt in allowing people to abort a human fetus. But then really thinking about it, you are probably not exagerating at all, and many think just like you. There is really no comedy in that.

  25. Jim:

    The site you provided calls a 20-week point for development of fetal pain pretty "solid" - which is not far off from the general consensus (such as there is) on the question.

    Jim: "My guess is that you (all three of you) don't have children."

    I have a 3-year old daughter, whom I adopted. So you are right in that I have never personally gone through the experience of witnessing a pregnancy in such a personal way as you describe. However, you are also right in that I wouldn't believe "my own eyes" regarding my experience of that pregnancy, where that experience stands in contradiction to medical research - for example, I would allow myself to believe that a blastocyst could in any way benefit from my listening to Mozart instead of Eminem. (Not that there's much choice there. Rap? Blecch.)

    Jim: "Would it be moral to have sex with someone in a coma?"

    No, because someone in a coma is still a human being with most of its rights intact, certainly those regarding bodily integrity. A person in a coma is a PERSON in a coma, whereas a zygote (for example) hasn't yet reached the level of personhood necessary for the conferring of rights.

    Jim: "I still don't see how a fetus does not deserve the same consideration as the woman who "must serve as the incubator" as you put it, which is another false statement. Woman are not forced to serve as the incubator. they choose to be incubators though behavior."

    My female friends would respond by saying that "consent to sex is not consent to pregnancy." Sex in human beings (and some other species) is not only for procreation; it has private and social functions as well that have nothing to do (on a superficial level, surely) with procreation. Also, remember that in my view, where an adult human female is 1.0 of a human being, a fertilized egg is only .1 of a human being - one actual and realized, one potential and unrealized. Rights to bodily integrity naturally go to the actual over the potential when there is a conflict between the two.

    Jim: "By the logic of your argument, a mental retard does not deserve the same moral consideration as you or I."

    I would ask that you no use the term "mental retard,", as it sounds crude and insulting. And speaking as a person who has spent more than half his life working with people with various disabilities and who has a cousin who is "mentally retarded," I assure you that I afford the same respect to them as I would to any so-called normal person. A person with a mental disability is able to reason and think, it's just usually in a more limited fashion than you or I - but even so, that person is vastly more capable of rational thought than a fetus.

    Jim: "I find it almost comical that you state you "even feel guilty squishing a bug", but feel no guilt in allowing people to abort a human fetus."

    My rationale, such as it is for such a hyperbolic statement, is that a bug can be considered more of a "being" than a zygote. It is an autonomous creature, using its limited brain power to interact with its environment, wholly independent of others. If you prefer, however, you can think of it as my respect (again) for the ACTUAL over the POTENTIAL. Again, it's hyperbole mostly, but the central point is that.

    ~ Bob

  26. Bob,
    First let me apologize for my choice in words in describing the mentally retarded. By doing that I am contradicting myself in the point I'm trying to make. But still, using a capacity to reason or think as a requirement for moral equality is still contadicting yourself if your affording a mentally retarded person the same moral consideration as a normal person. It sounds like you guys are against the abortion of a 3rd trimester fetus, but are ok with 1rst and 2nd trimester. Is that right? I am curious, where does the line get drawn? 20 weeks is a 2nd trimester fetus. 20 week fetuses are aborted all the time. Is this Ok, knowing they could feel pain during the abortion. Is it ok to allow a human to feel pain of murder since they are only .5 of a human. What makes a 20 week fetus .5 human, but someone that is mentally retarded 1.0 human. They both rely on others to survive. There are adult humans without much more sentience than a fetus, should we be allowed to murder them. I think you understand why this logic breaks down.

    If your 3 year old was born at 23 weeks and survived would you say she was .6 a person at birth? If it is ok to abort that fetus why is not ok to kill it after its birth at 24 weeks?

    "consent to sex is not consent to pregnancy."
    Not talking about the rare case when birth control does not work. But consent to sex is really consent to pregnancy. Unless that person never went to sex education class. Thats kinda like saying "consent to jumping off the roof is not consent to injury", or just because we consent to do something doesn't mean we consent to the consiquences. But we live in a society where acts shouldn't have consiquences, so I guess I should expect a statement like that. I am not gonna preach that we should be a premarital sexless society. Most abortions stem from a breakdown in responsible action somewhere else.

  27. The capacity to feel pain doesn't seem like a good criterion for or against abortion to me. One can always make sure the fetus (or a baby or a grown person) won't feel any pain. Personhood is what counts for me. And you can place a value on that. Do the thought experiment (you probably heard it before): if you have to choose between saving N zygotes from a burning building or a single child (but obviously you can't save em all), how large should N be before you decide against saving the child?

  28. Jack,
    I agree on the pain front. As far as the thought experiement, I would be lying if I said I wouldn't choose the child. But on the subject of abortion is not similar at all, because we have the time to save everyone before the building burns down. we're just deliberatly not grabbing the zygotes becasue it is inconvenient. That's what abortion is really all about isn't it, convenients? We abort to protect a lifestyle that we are owed. I'm sure I am opening a whole new can of worms with that statement.
    Anywho, your point is taken, that even I would value child over a fetus if the cercumstances were right. I guess the difference is I say a child is 1.0 human and a fetus is .99999999999
    Sorry my spelling sucks so bad.

  29. "... rationality goes only so far in this world..."

    For some reason, this reminds me of another quote.

    “Rational thought imposes a limit on a person’s relationship to the cosmos”. -John Forbes Nash


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