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, June 18, 2007

Nonsense and non sequitur in Stanley Fish, part deux

As promised last week, New York Times blogger Stanely Fish has delivered the second part of his attack against “the new atheism” of authors such as Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris (I wonder why Dennett's book didn't make the cut – a bias against philosophy?). Believe it or not, Fish's response is so weak that it actually has to invoke a sort of post-modern relativism to salvage his faith while attempting to diminish the otherwise towering pile of arguments against it. Moreover, after having built the most relativist of arguments against atheism, he looks at what he has done, recoils in horror, and blames the atheists for being relativists (which, most assuredly, none of the authors under Fish's microscope actually is!).

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Fish begins the second part of his diatribe against “the three atheists” (maybe that's why Dennett has been left out: the phrase wouldn't be quite as catchy with a fourth character, you know, like in “the three tenors”) by invoking an argument from authority – one of several logical fallacies he manages to be trapped by within the space of a couple of pages. He says that for every scientist like Dawkins who is convinced that there is no supernatural, another one just can't see the universe without a guiding force. The champion of scientific religionism that Fish chooses is none other than Francis Collins, well known for his contribution to the human genome project, and author of “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.” Except, of course, that Collins does no such thing, as both he and Fish simply resort to the old and trite argument from (their personal) ignorance, another logical fallacy. You see, since Fish and Collins just cannot understand how morality and altruism came to be naturally, it must have been through the action of the supernatural. This is precisely the same “logic” at the foundations of intelligent design “theory”: if, say, Michel Behe or Bill Dembski cannot figure out how natural selection produced the bacterial flagellum, it just can't be done, end of discussion.

Back to morality. To begin with, Plato showed 24 centuries ago (in one of his dialogs, the Euthyphro) that gods cannot be logically invoked to justify the existence of moral systems. As Socrates aptly puts it in his exchange with the title character, one has two choices (known as Euthyphro's dilemma in philosophy): either something is moral because the gods say it is, or the gods have no choice but to follow an independent source of morality (as in “God cannot do evil”). In the first case, morality becomes arbitrary and just a matter of might makes right; in the second case, the gods are at best an intermediary between us and the moral law, which means that we can cut off the middle god, so to speak, and still be moral.

Second, as Fish recognizes, science has in fact begun to provide us with an understanding of the origin of morality. Evolutionary biologists have explored, both empirically and mathematically, the foundations of animal (not just human) morality, and have arrived at the conclusion that it depends on two fundamental causes: kin selection and reciprocal altruism. Kin selection is the universal biological phenomenon that leads to caring for one's offspring and close relatives (because they carry our genes), while reciprocal altruism is the idea that, if the animal lives in groups, the best social strategy to adopt is what is often referred to as “conditional tit-for-tat”: I am going to be good to you, assuming you don't club me on the head, and in the long run we all win. I am not suggesting that the complex phenomenon of human morality is exhausted by these two principles, but as Sober & Wilson and de Waal have convincingly shown, these two elements provide the necessary building blocks for a naturalistic understanding of morality. Fish would do well to read both of these books before sputtering any more nonsense on this topic.

Moreover, neuroscience has also made great strides toward understanding how morality works in the human brain, something that Fish also acknowledges but readily dismisses (probably without having read a single paper in that burgeoning field of research). Fish characterizes the cognitive neuroscience of moral cognition as “a real mouthful,” which of course is not an argument at all, but simply an indirect ad hominem attack (yet another logical fallacy). He seems totally unaware of studies showing that moral decision making requires a balance between parts of the brain that are involved in rational thinking and parts that relate to emotions, and that whenever that balance is broken (by accident or disease) we get horribly fascinating glimpses into how we think morally (or fail to do so). Of course, this doesn't prove that morality didn't come from God (just like nobody can conclusively prove that there are no unicorns), but it does show that morality is a biological function like many others, a product of a physical brain working under certain conditions, exactly in line with the predictions of evolutionary biology and cognitive science.

This is where Fish has to take the ultimate, and most damning, step in his “argument.” He has to reduce science to just another faith in order to salvage the “reasonableness” of religious belief. He says “remove the natural selection hypothesis from the structure of thought [that Dawkins et al. endorse] and they will be seen not as reasons, but as absurdities.” Indeed, just like removing Einstein's theory of relativity from the claim that matter and energy are equivalent turns the phrase into an unsubstantiated alchemist or New Age slogan. Fish goes on: “as members of a different faith community [religion and science] – and remember, science requires faith too before it can have reasons – the evidence that seems so conclusive to the rational naturalists will point elsewhere.” But science relies on assumptions, not faith, and these assumptions are of such a broad type that most normal human beings also accept them in order to conduct a productive life. For example, science does assume realism, the philosophical conception that the physical world is not an illusion, it's really out there. This assumption is not testable within the frame of science, but this isn't the big deal that Fish thinks it is: every religious person makes exactly the same assumption every time s/he gets up in the morning and goes through chores, work, play, and family activities. To compare this to the sort of faith that is required to believe in a big guy in the sky is, as Dawkins would put it, an intellectual travesty.

So, contrary to Fish's statement, God and natural selection are not at all on the same level: there is not a shred of empirical evidence in favor of the existence of the first one (and quite a few philosophical reasons to reject the idea), while natural selection can be measured in the field by every graduate student in biology (one of mine is doing it right now). There are thousands of peer reviewed papers on measurements of natural selection, it is most assuredly not a metaphysical concept!

The fact that a columnist for the New York Times – certainly one of the most intellectually sophisticated papers in the US – can get away with two articles of the nature that Fish has managed to produce is, unfortunately, a reflection of the incredibly poor state of intellectual discourse about religion in our society. The “three atheists,” no, the four atheists (Dennett, Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens, and in fact several more in recent times) are to be commended for at least attempting to boost such level a notch or two above medieval Scholasticism. Unfortunately, it looks like we have a long way to go to achieve even that modest goal.


  1. As I hinted in my comment about Fish part one, his background is precisely the sort of post-modernist, relativist anti-intellectual that you talk about so well in Denying Evolution. His column today was therefore no surprise - it really is all he has to fall back on.

    Why Fish is taken seriously and given a voice in the Times is indeed a good question. He seems to be one of the few postmodernist lit crit types who has survived in public discourse, but only (one assumes) because he changed professions, more or less.

  2. I really liked the distinction made between assumption and faith. I'm wondering how well known this distinction is? It seems like there is massive flexibility in the use of these terms and genuine overlap in them as well (it may be easy to point out the extreme examples in which something is clearly assumption [eg realism] versus faith [eg god]; but the two blend together in the middle, no? - like, is it faith or assumption that makes me think we'll get out of Iraq soon?

  3. ...“the three atheists” (maybe that's why Dennett has been left out: the phrase wouldn't be quite as catchy with a fourth character, you know, like in “the three tenors”)...
    Like the Three Musketeers? But then they gained a new companion... That's it! Dennett is really D'Artagnian...

  4. Hey all, Massimo mentioned the work of Sober and Wilson on the evolution of morality etc.. If any of that interests you, then you should check out the following web site of Herber Gintis:


    On the left is a link to papers (pdf files) by Herbert Gintis and collegues on the evolution of cooperative behaviour, game theory, etc.. Interesting stuff.

  5. orbiting teacupJune 19, 2007 2:05 PM

    It's interesting that Fish didn't have the cojones to take on another atheist, namely Victor Stenger, and his book "God The Failed Hypothesis". If he did, he would have been confronted by the converse of his argument - that god beliefs are just another way of understanding nature and that they fail miserably compared to science.

  6. "is it faith or assumption that makes me think we'll get out of Iraq soon?"

    I'd say it's more like desperate hope, man...

    I liked the assumption/faith too, although I can also see how they can blend at some point -- after all, you gotta "believe" the assumptions... Of course the religionistas will ignore the simple fact that assumptions are *reasonable* beliefs to hold until contrary evidence shows up, while faith...

    I also liked the Einstein example, I have to make sure to keep that sloshing around in the brains for those interesting moments.

    Well, good thing Fish did not take on Stenger. Shows Fish at least has a bit of sense of reality after all. I mean, he's a lit crit, you guys say? For crying out loud, him taking on a physicist would make him look like a five year old debating a seasoned lawyer or something like that. Like Dembsky when he thinks he's in any position to say something challenging to biologists, for example.


  7. Pardon the intrusion but I think I found an analogy in your posting.

    I feel the idea of 'kin selection' is based on 'assumption' or reasonable belief that your kin carry your genes. Which although biologically is a fact but could statistically be true or untrue [an assumption] because I seem to have biological kin who are close and not so close to me in appearance or manner.

    The idea of 'reciprocal altruism' on the other hand I feel is based on faith.

    Could be a personal bias but just wanted to share how the two phenomenon came across to me.

  8. "The idea of 'reciprocal altruism' on the other hand I feel is based on faith."

    Randomly yours,
    If I understand you correctly, you are suggesting that many or all scientific theories are based on faith. And I disagree.

    Take the example at hand, recipocal altruism. This can be seen as a theory from which we can derive hypothesis from, hopefully testable ones! Biologists, sociologists and anthropologists can observe phenomeona and see if there is behaviour that supports the idea of recipocal altruism. If not, the idea can be discarded.

    It is certainly true that people can become emotionally committed to scientific ideas, and cling to them beyond the life of their usefulness. This does not happen to the same extent that religious people are so committed to their beliefs past the point to which they are justifiable.

  9. Sheldon,

    I am afraid you do not understand me correctly. I do not suggest scientific theories are based on faith.

    When I say that "reciprocal altruism" is based on faith. I mean two entities display interactions based on reciprocal atruism when they have faith in each other. I am being good to you because I have faith in you and that you would be good to me in return.

    I wanted to contrast "Kin Selection" as being based on a reasonable belief/assumption of kin carrying your genes and not being based on faith.

    KinSelection : ReciprocalAltruism
    :: Assumption : Faith

    Hope I could make my stance a little more clear. Like you, I am a staunch believer in cold hard numbers, facts and the scientfic process of observation, hypothesis,experimentation and conclusion [maybe somewhat loosely described].

  10. Kin Selection : Assumption
    :: Reciprocal Altruism : Faith

    would probably be a better way of putting the analogy across.

  11. randomly yours,

    Reciprocal altruism is not based on faith in the sense you mean. Biologists use models to show that, under certain conditions, reciprocal altruism can evolve and be hard-wired. Thus, animals that exhibit such behavior may not even 'think' about it in the way we do. Of course, models have to make testable predictions which can be verified. If memory serves me correct, reciprocal altruism has been verified, but I'm sure you could find more information about it a text book or by searching the literature, e.g. Google Scholar.

  12. "There are thousands of peer reviewed papers on measurements of natural selection, it is most assuredly not a metaphysical concept!"

    It becomes something like a metaphysical belief when some make claims that NS has the ability to entirely change species.

    Peer reviewed or not, fruit flies remain fruit flies, finches remain finches...and so on. I have yet to see anything peer-reviewed, that actually proves otherwise conclusively.

    & genetic manipulation of genomes does not count, btw. that is, the transplantation or the "crossing" of pig or monkey organs in humans, or what have you. nature would not archive this level of foolery on it's own.

    know a guy retired from a bio-warfare division who had been vaccinated for diseases that "we have never heard of". Let's just say that those came from a time when people actually did not fear diseases jumping species, because they thought that evolution would be the great arbitrator of what fitness ought to be. And, after all, jumping species certainly must be a "good" thing....

    so what is the eventual(and calculable) goal of natural selection, Massimo?


  13. Chris Muir,

    As you suggested I read a bit of the literature and still feel that reciprocal altruism is based on faith between the two entities that display reciprocative altruistic tendencies.

    In the example with bats sharing blood the bats which cheat or do not share are punished. The bats seem to have stored the history of each other and decide to share with the bats which share. Much like us humans.

    I also came across a passage which claims the examples of reciprocal altruism are few in the animal world. The passage also claimed that there was a corellation between the size of the neocortex and the typical group size of a species.The same correlation seems to exist between manifestation of reciprocal altruism in a species and their neocortex sizes. The species which seem to consult history of previous interactions before sharing or being altrustic have a faith like structure built into their society. The passage could be found on the following link.

    Although examples of hard wired 'cooperation' are plenty in the animal kingdom. I feel the phenomenon of reciprocal altruism stands apart from the hard wired cooperation due to the history checking and punishment mechanisms built into it.

    I also found the wiki to be useful.

  14. cal,

    First of all (hard to know where to start with this). Natural Selection has no "goal" it is a goaless process that just happens. It is death of genes and their bodies, leaving other genes & gene combinations alive long enough to get into new bodies. Some genes & gene combinations are more likely to survive based on the conditions of the environment etc than others - but these conditions can never be predicted by the genes. A gene that was once very well suited for longevity could suddenly become unsuited if the conditions changed.

    Second: There are two ways to see that NS changes one species into another: experiment, done many times, in which reproductive isolation is acheived (and thus if no breeding is possible between two 'strains' these are then different species according to the Biological Species Concept). It is also obvious that when we look at closely related species and ask "how did they get this way?" the different hypotheses all make different predictions and can be tested to see if they match, as yet unmade observations. NS is so far the best explanation in this form of testing.

    No other hypothesis, such as 'intelligent design', fits the data, makes predictions that can be tested, etc.

    Peer reviewed or not, fruit flies remain fruit flies, finches remain finches...and so on.

    Nope. That's just when time is removed from the equation - in fact, not only can all species be traced back to ancestors but all objects (and events) have no genuine break point that isn't human-chosen. Think about fertilization - when does that actually happen? Slow down the process of a sperm joining with an egg into 10,000 different sequential frames and then tell me which of those frames is before fertilization and which is after fertilization.

    Fact is, there is no true separation between any of these so called 'objects' (including species) and 'events' - people have such a cartoon like view of reality it causes them serious confusion.

  15. Me:Fact is, there is no true separation between any of these so called 'objects' (including species) and 'events' - people have such a cartoon like view of reality it causes them serious confusion."

    I'll say.

    Retrovirii disprove that in just a few short generations - that reproduction and passing on ones genes are all that really matters in "evolution". After all, primates did not even "pass on" their resistance to HIV. If it was a beneficial gene and if they are in fact our ancestors, that would have seemed the logical (evolutionarily predicted) course for NS to take.

    So much for predictions over natural selection and relatedness to primates.


  16. ThumpalumpacusJune 21, 2007 6:46 PM

    1) Another input on morality's evolution may well be the emergent complexity of the brain. In evolving a brain sophisticated enough to manage social interactions, we have apparently evolved empathy -- well, most of us, hmph. And I'd argue that the "ouch, that HAD to've hurt" response could have a major input on morality.

    2)"Peer reviewed or not, fruit flies remain fruit flies, finches remain finches...and so on. I have yet to see anything peer-reviewed, that actually proves otherwise conclusively." -- Cal

    Coupla objections: a) What mechanism do you propose that would limit micro-evolution from becoming macro-evolution? (Aside from your deity, of course). What part of the genome knows when it has strayed too far? and b)here's a couple of transitionals from the world of dinosaurs: Archeopteryx; Caudipteryx; Sinosaurus. From Mammalia: Ambulocetus, amongst others. Look 'em up, por favor.

    3) "so what is the eventual(and calculable) goal of natural selection, Massimo? "

    Though I'm not Mass, I'd venture to remind you, Cal, that no scientist working today to my knowledge argues that evolution is teleological.

    Peace, y'all.

  17. ThumpalumpacusJune 21, 2007 6:50 PM

    And PS, Cal --

    No scientist of repute argues that we are descended from ANY extant primate; our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, are separated from us by at least six million years of evolution, from a common ancestor.

  18. cal said:

    "After all, primates did not even "pass on" their resistance to HIV. If it was a beneficial gene and if they are in fact our ancestors, that would have seemed the logical (evolutionarily predicted) course for NS to take.

    So much for predictions over natural selection and relatedness to primates."

    Yep, you're pretty much right. With such an airtight argument you have thoroughly dispatched 150 years of evolutionary research on the origins of man. I mean, the 99% similarity between human and chimp genomes is simply meaningless if we haven't inherited resistance to one relatively minor (in an historical sense) disease. Unfortunately, I feel that your erudition isn't being fully appreciated on this message board, so I suggest you should flesh out your thoughts a little more and submit them to a peer-reviewed journal. I'm sure all those evolutionary anthropologists would like to know they are just wasting their time and should move on to something else. I mean, there are all those creationist and ID predictions just waiting to be tested! Once again, thanks for the insightful correction - I finally have good cause to quit biology, which as we know, poisons the minds of young children.

  19. randomly yours,

    Maybe this is more of a semantic issue than anything else, but to me it seems that taking it on faith that altruistic individuals will be altruistic in the future, and cheaters will cheat in the future, puts it wrongly. Rather, in animals with reciprocal altruism, reasoning abilities are great enough that animals can make calculated guesses about future behavior of their conspecifics. So while reciprocal altruism may occur in the face of uncertainty about future events, it's not arbitrary like pure faith.

    Nonetheless, sounds like it may a rather rare phenomenon, possibly because of the advanced reasoning involved. It's difficult for me to really say because, though I am (almost) a grad student in evolutionary biology, I have never studied animal behavior in any depth.

  20. Chris Muir,

    Faith can be interpreted as trust or blind belief. I am using former the connotation.

    The point that I am trying to drive home is that the animals which do exhibit reciprocal altruism have faith or trust between each other.

    Trust can be built or broken and the 'calculated guesses' which animals make are based on such trust.

  21. Randomly Yours,
    My apologies for mis-understanding you. I thought you were offering the standard argument that scientific ideas rest on faith like religion does.

  22. Chris,

    in ref to all your comments.. :)

    Predictions for ID are just a basic matter of "patterns" in nature that have reproducibility. Just like any other scientifically plausible explanation. Natural selection, otoh, has a far greater problem with recreating 'hopeful monsters', than IDers do at recreating hopeful "non-monsters". Get it?

    As other singularities regarding the universe go, a creation event is no more a miraculous one than the Big Bang would be. Both require the miraculous formation of a whole array of physics and chemistry principles which are as much miracle for the theist as the non-theist.

    I'll be traveling for awhile. have a nice june/july...


  23. "Natural selection, otoh, has a far greater problem with recreating 'hopeful monsters'"

    Thanks Goldschmidt (1940)! Get up to date please.

  24. "Thanks Goldschmidt (1940)!"


    If various evolutionist's deny the array of ideas that have been put forth as parts of "evolution", does the whole remain intact?

    I think it does not.

    The central tenet of evolution, at one time, revolved specifically around the changes (improvements) to each species.

    Hopeful monsters may sound unlikely and, well, basically stupid. But we all understand very well what happens in the real world when biology does not go as planned. Calves or snakes with two heads, joined twins of whatever species, and so on. It does not take a lot of compounding (in terms of mutations) to cause what we readily understand as genetic "mistakes".

    Since Darwin actually proposed that the sum of evolution was built on a n accumulation of 'mistakes', who could blame the guy from the 1940s for thinking that a series of ruined not-so-good working prototypes of different species were the explanation for the theory that Darwin and the rest of the evolutionists in the world would eventually abandon one day?

    and what of mistakes, REALLY

    To me, SO MUCH could be done if more time were spent on non-evolutionary sciences.
    (cancer research for instance, is not helped at in the least by evo)
    Evidence notwithstanding, far too many scientists spend a lot of time and money on research to somehow link whatever it is they are doing to evolution, erroneously, I might add. I have known some scientists who have not attempted to do this,(i.e. studies on vit D & cancer from years ago) and I think that their research is very up and coming

    think outside of the scared flock around you...

    got to pack.

  25. Watch out.

    Cal's packing.

  26. Cal,

    You are so ignorant, I wonder if it's even worth responding, but I'll give it a shot. The remark about Goldschmidt was meant to point out that his proposed hypothesis for how evolution may act has already been considered and abandoned because it did not stand up to scrutiny. This is how science works. People propose ideas, they are tested, and not surprisingly many of them are proven wrong. The ideas that have yet to be proven wrong, and in fact are consistently confirmed by the evidence, are common descent, evolution by natural selection (and other means), gradualism, etc. Anyone who can produce evidence to refute these ideas is welcome, but no one has, despite claims to the contrary.

    Also, you'll be happy to know that MUCH more money is spent researching cancer than on evolution, and to compare the two budgets is almost laughable. That said, evolution is the only theory of ultimate causation and thus can provide complimentary explanations of biological phenomena, perhaps leading to useful discoveries, perhaps not. If evolution turns out to be completely useless in, say, cancer research, it is nonetheless true and therefore worth teaching.

    As I said before, try to learn something before writing down your thoughts.

  27. I was at the zoo several weeks ago and happened to see a group of meerkats. On of them was standing upright, fully exposed, in a very prominent place. It was acting as a lookout for the rest of the group, at the risk of its own life. This would seem to be an act of altruism. However, since the all of the meerkats were in a glass case, there was no danger of attack. Thus it would appear that the action of this courageous and altruistic meerkat was at least in part instinctive.

    Fish argues that there is no real difference between faith and science because science relies in certain unprovable assumptions, i. e. that the world is real and knowable. Regardless of their philosophic inclinations, everyone acts on these assumptions. How many people worry that the sun won't rise tomorrow or that they will suddenly fall to the center of the earth.

    Furthemore, the claims of science are provable and, having been proved, are agreed upon by the scientific community. All astronomers, regardless of their faith or lack of it, agree that the earth revolves around the sun at a distance of 93,000,000 miles. However, they would not agree on the existance of god, or gods, whether Mohammed is his prophet, Devi is his consort, or the emperor of Japan is her descendent (at least until 1945). These things are not provable. You believe them because you believe them.

  28. Chris: "Also, you'll be happy to know that MUCH more money is spent researching cancer than on evolution, and to compare the two budgets is almost laughable."

    Not positive about that. So you have actual numbers?

    My nephew, who is an Environmental biologist, sees quite a large sum spent on ecology. Which, I think, is no longer separated from studies considered as "evolution".

    He 'use to be' an evolutionist, btw. Ruined his life and converted him, I suppose.

    you are about the age he was when he and I began to discuss it. So whatever you do, do not let me ruin yours.. ;) You have so much before you that is terribly important.

    best regards..


  29. Craig,

    "As I hinted in my comment about Fish part one, his background is precisely the sort of post-modernist, relativist anti-intellectual that you talk about so well in Denying Evolution."

    100% agree! Loved the section on anti-intellectualism.


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