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.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Speaking of Faith, the radio show

Most mornings I wake up around seven, and since I usually have my cappuccino while listening to WNYC, the local National Public Radio station, I'm stuck with whatever they are broadcasting around that time. Usually that's not a problem, except on Saturdays, where I have to listen to Krista Tippett's “Speaking of Faith.” Don't get me wrong, I like her voice, she is no nutcase, and her heart is in the right place. But most of the time she has guests who make little sense, which I guess is kind of inevitable when a show's main topic is religion.

This past Saturday, for instance, Tippett had V.V. Raman, a Hindu scholar and theoretical physicist, an intellectually lethal combination as it turns out. Raman was all over the place, telling us about the intricacies of Hindu mythology (which was interesting, in a cultural anthropological kind of way) and about how his religion offers “trans-rational” insights beyond science (which is nonsense).

For instance, Raman has a nice and tidy solution for the problem of evil: karma. You see, all one needs to do in order to make sense of why a universe run by wise and benevolent gods is full of pain and death is to postulate a system of cosmic checks and balances based on the morality of one's actions, add the doctrine of reincarnation, and voila`, the problem of evil disappears!

Well, not really. First of all, there is of course not a shred of evidence that anything like either karma or reincarnation actually occurs (I guess that's why they call it faith). In other words, Raman uses an entirely made up story to counter the harsh realities of life. That's what every religion does, but I call it ir-rational, not trans-rational. Second, even if one were – for argument's sake – to consider the possibility of a cosmic karmic spreadsheet, one would still run into the problematic detail that according to Hindu doctrine, we don't have any recollection of our previous lives. If I don't remember what I did, how can I learn from my experience and work toward improving my karmic balance? More broadly, in what sense am I the same individual that I allegedly was in my previous lives? Memory is a necessary component of personality, as people who know Alzheimer's patients can testify. No memory, and you are a different person, which means that the reincarnation-karma game makes no sense.

Raman then went on to propose his own variation of Shakespeare, of all things. Adapting a famous line from Hamlet, Raman said that “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our sciences.” Seemingly deep, but in fact trivially true, as any scientist would readily agree. Since science is in the business of discovering new things about the universe, and keeps doing so at an accelerated pace, there must be “more things in heaven and earth” than scientists have so far discovered, or scientists would be out of business. The implication, of course, is the non sequitur that religion can therefore provide us with some alternative insight into things that science cannot grasp. If so, I have to still see a single example of such wonderful insights.

As she does every week, Ms. Tippett wonders at the mystery of it all. Nothing wrong with that, science and philosophers also constantly wonder at mysteries. The difference is that Tippett and most of her guests seem to relish mysteriousness for mysteriousness' sake, and appear to be impishly happy at the alleged inability of science to unravel the mysteries. Why? What is the point of asking questions if one then shies away from seeking the answers? Could it be that Tippett, Raman and company fear that the more we find real answers about how the universe works the less space there will be for Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Zeus, Jesus, Quetzalcoatl and all the other make-believe entities that we have invented over the eons to satisfy our ego and soothe our fear of permanent annihilation?

Let me make one suggestion to Ms. Tippett: if she really wants to have a conversation about faith and spirituality, how about including a permanent “skeptic's corner” into her show, to help her listeners counter the dose of nonsense they are exposed to every Saturday morning between seven and eight? I, for one, would enjoy my cappuccino far better.


  1. I like the idea of a sceptics corner in any such programme, but a few thoughts in response to the issues you raise above:

    1. I am guessing that "Karma", not as an example of trans-rationalism, but as a solution for the "paradox" of the existence of evil/suffering. You suffer because you brought it on yourself through acts in a previous life, hence no contradiction with omniscient benevolent god(s). In other words, the idea is offered as a solution for religious sceptics (those who have bought into the idea that religion answers questions in a consistent and informative way, and are then puzzled by contradictions within), not those sceptic of religion.

    2. The influence of Karma is not to modify your current behaviour based on what you learned from previous lives, but to act as a deterrent that shapes your current actions based on the spectre of what you will face in a future life.

    3. Enjoying mysteriousness for its own sake is not necessarily a bad thing (except when used to fuel the sort of dismissal you outline in your post). It is as exciting (to me) to speculate that we may never know the status of say Goldbach's Conjecture, as it would be to hear that someone had settled it!

    None of the above implies that I either buy into religion or karmic theories.

  2. As someone who, among religious practices, most closely aligns himself with a mysticism-free version of Buddhism, I think there's no problem with karma (re)defined as "your thoughts and actions have consequences, many of them unintended". However, you could argue that this is a trivial insight (but see my old comments here on the value of meditation for aspects of a potential counterargument). Maybe my "karma" is more like "instant karma"?

    But yeah, reincarnation is hooey in the extreme and -- if it did somehow occur -- what would it mean if we can't remember anything about who we were in previous lives? In what sense is there a "me" that moves from body to body across generations? This is a major problem for Hinduism and anything but a very loose version of Buddhism. Some use the analogy of a flame passing from one candle to another, which is useless -- if the "flame" isn't consciousness, even if a "flame" exists, what difference does it make?

  3. "is to postulate a system of cosmic checks and balances based on the morality of one's actions, add the doctrine of reincarnation, and voila`, the problem of evil disappears!"

    This itself is a very evil doctrine. It provides a convenient excuse, something like:

    "Children that suffer from war, disease, and famine in places like Africa are paying their cosmic debt for wrongdoings in a past life."

  4. If you want a skeptics corner, you'll have to switch over to WBAI on Sundays at 6:30pm to listen to the show "Equal Time for Freethought".





  5. I have listened to Speaking of Faith by podcast--the archives are available at http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/
    and you can subscribe to the show through iTunes. I agree with Professor Pigliucci's commnents although I still find SOF to be an interesting incite on how religious people think. There has been one (sadly only one) good interview with a skeptic. This was the show with Jennifer Michael Hecht on her book DOUBT. The book is well worth reading and the interview is worth your time to listen to as well.

  6. Karma? VERY evil, immoral idea, as Sheldon already pointed out. Blame the victim in cosmic scale, eh?

    Anyway, I'm not really convinced karma would help with the problem of evil after all. Because there are natural disaster of large proportions, for example. Who's to blame for the 2004 tsunami? All the dead plus everybody who suffered, directly or otherwise? Does not make much sense, does it? Well, if it did it wouldn't qualify as religion, probably. Not mysterious enough. :-)

  7. I postulate a non-spiritual, mechanical version of karma, and oddly enough, I can explain it in brief (as opposed to my usual ramblings):

    Assholes make enemies.

    Of course, this does not account for reincarnation, nor should it, considering the paucity of evidence for it.


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