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, October 28, 2007

The Dawkins trilogy

Skeptical Inquirer has just published the third and last entry of my unofficial “Dawkins trilogy,” three short pieces where I take Richard to task about his views on science and religion, his idea of memetics, and, of course, the selfish gene stuff.

Briefly, as readers of this blog know, I'm as much an atheist as Dawkins is. Yet, I think he goes over the top when he claims that any religious education amounts to child abuse (some surely does, but what about Unitarians? C'mon!). Most importantly, I think he takes an unwarranted scientistic attitude when he claims that what he calls the “God hypothesis” is scientifically testable. It isn't, although it can be soundly rejected on philosophical grounds. Scientism doesn't do science (or atheism, for that matter) any favor, and betrays a lack of philosophical sophistication.

On memes, I think it's a nice metaphor, but no more than a metaphor. Memetics, as far as I can see, has not added anything of substance to pre-existing ideas on gene-culture co-evolution, not to mention the wealth of work in psychology, sociology and anthropology. It's not just that nobody has any clear idea of what the physical basis of memes are (indeed, according to some memeticists they don't seem to have a specific physical basis, since they can evolve by jumping from brains to hard drives to any other storage device). It's that nobody has proposed a “functional ecology” of memes, a theory that tells us why certain memes (say, some religions) spread more than others. Without such theory, memetics becomes an instance of circular reasoning (the fittest memes spread; the fittest memes are those that spread...).

Finally, the selfish gene. Dawkins was, of course, simply a (very effective) popularizer of that idea, which really emerged from the technical work of Hamilton in the UK and Williams at Stony Brook University (where I am) in New York. But even Hamilton and Williams later adopted more sophisticated and pluralistic views of evolution, and retreated significantly from the “gene's eye view” of the biological universe. Yes, there certainly are selfish genetic elements, and we can study the dynamics of their evolution inside genomes. But natural selection occurs at many levels, and even genes are forced to cooperate with other genes in order to maintain organismal fitness. More controversially, there have been strong suggestions recently that genes may sometime play a rear-guard action in evolution, fixing phenotypic changes triggered by other mechanisms, such as developmental plasticity and “accommodation” (to use Mary Jane West-Eberhard's term). Furthermore, philosophers like Okasha have convincingly argued that even Dawkins' much-vaunted distinction between replicators (genes) and interactors (phenotypes) is far from being either clear-cut or particularly useful in evolutionary theory.

I'm sure much more meaningful discussion can be had on all three topics, but it seems like Dawkins' undeniable charisma and captivating prose have somewhat hidden serious conceptual difficulties with much of his work, difficulties that people genuinely interested in the nature and limits of science ought to squarely confront.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The philosophy of Jon Stewart

I'd like to note the recent publication of a new book in Blackwell's series on “Philosophy and Pop Culture,” edited by Jason Holt. The book focuses on Jon Stewart, the popular host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central.

Holt's book, subtitled “Moments of Zen in the Art of Fake News,” contains chapters grouped in five segments: “Headlines: faux news is good news,” “Correspondent's report: Jon Stewart (not Mill) as philosopher, sort of,” “Regular feature: critical thinking and the war on bullshit,” “Interview: religion, God, and Darwin,” and “Checking in with Stephen Colbert / Your moment of Zen: Beyond The Daily Show.” My own contribution is a chapter focused on a four-part series that Stewart ran in 2005, during the Dover, PA trial on Intelligent Design, and entitled “Evolution, Schmevolution.”

I have actually seen Stewart in action a few times in New York, and I have to admit that I subscribe to his show on iTunes (most of the clips are now available on the show's own web site). The guy is impressive, and it was a lot of fun sitting in my office, repeatedly going over the video of “Evolution, Schmevolution,” all the while explaining to curious colleagues that this was, in fact, work.

Of course, that a satirical show is both a rich source of philosophical discussion and an insightful view on current affairs is a reflection on the state of our society. Is it a sad reflection? Perhaps, but it sure is fun to tune in on Comedy Central every weeknight (Fridays excluded) and see which politician of either party is going to be in the lethal line of Stewart's fire.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Jim Watson, trouble as usual

Dr. Watson (the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, not Sherlock Holmes' assistant) has done it again. A few years ago he got into trouble for making the comment that there probably is a link between one's skin color and sexual drive (read: blacks are more sexually active). A few years before he had said that – if a gene causing homosexuality were to be discovered – women should have a right to have an abortion, so that they could have grandchildren. Now, while promoting his new autobiography, “Avoid Boring People,” Watson has attracted criticism again for suggesting that Africa is in trouble despite the best efforts from the outside world because Africans are not as bright as other races.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, Watson said that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.” Ouch. Of course, Watson's remark is way off in terms of scientific reality: “all our testing” is actually indicating a slight difference in IQ (itself a very controversial measure of the nebulous concept of intelligence) between blacks and Caucasians, but is saying pretty much nothing of interest about the causes of such difference. Indeed, African-American scores have substantially improved in past decades, if anything indicating that at least part of the gap is cultural, not genetic, in nature.

Moreover, we also know from the burgeoning field of phenotypic plasticity (the technical term for gene-environment interactions) that even if there were genetic differences in a given trait between populations, changes in the environment can still erase them, or improve the scores of everyone – which means that social policies based on the assumption that changing the living conditions of people makes a difference are not at all unreasonable.

The reaction to Watson's comments has been predictably rapid, and often equally stupid. The Telegraph reports that Steven Rose, a neurobiologist at the Open University said that Watson's remarks were “racist” and “genetic nonsense.” They are neither, actually. For a comment to be racist it has to be intended as demeaning of the party receiving it. But it is clear from the interview that Watson released to Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe of the Times that he is convinced that he is simply uttering scientifically-based commonsense (he is not, but it is the intention that counts). Indeed, people who know Watson (I don't, even though the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is a few miles from Stony Brook University) constantly remark about his concern with helping women and minorities.

Watson's statement is also not technically “genetic nonsense” because it is perfectly possible, in principle, that different groups of humans may be characterized by different genetic bases for cognitive traits, just like it is obviously true that there are genetically-based differences in intelligence among individuals within a given group. It is an empirical question (and a difficult one at that), not a matter of a priori logic. What Watson can be justly reproached for is making an inflammatory comment based on questionable scientific evidence, taking advantage of his position as a Nobel-winning highly credentialed scientist, and possibly in order to generate buzz about his book. Bad, but hardly a capital offense.

Moreover, according to the Telegraph, Koku Adomdza, director of The 1990 Trust, a black equality pressure group, said that Watson should apologize to “Africa and all people of African origin.” It constantly amazes me that people think they have some sort of constitutional right shielding them from offense. Watson's remark was indeed stupid and offensive. Africans and people of African descent can respond to it, ignore it, or have their fun in turn by insulting Watson himself. But a global apology from a private citizen who simply stated his opinion, however unfounded? C'mon, people, don't we have better things to do?

Indeed, the Equality and Human Rights Commission released a statement saying that it was considering Watson's remarks “in full.” And do what? Do we want a world where people do not have a right to utter stupid comments? Because if that's the case, I've got a long list of candidates, beginning with pretty much everything that George W. has said during the last seven years. But the fact is that freedom of speech, which includes the freedom to utter sheer nonsense and to offend people – willingly or not – is as important as truth. Indeed, it is our best chance to find out the truth.

p.s.: The most recent development is that Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has suspended Watson from his administrative responsibilities. I interpret this action to confirm my fears about the sort of hysteria that can be generated by controversial issues. Again, Watson made a silly unsubstantiated claim, but he has the same right as anybody else to say stupid, even offensive, things. He should be challenged, not suspended. The best way to deal with controversial statements is to take them on, not to suppress them.

Monday, October 15, 2007

What's heaven gonna look like?

I have been reading Mark Twain's “Letters from the Earth” for some time now, a strange and compelling book, a collection of writings about religion, politics and the human condition, published 50 years after Twain's death (he died in 1910). As the New York Times put it: “The attitude [in the book] is that of a Swift, the intellectual contempt is that of Voltaire, and the imagination is that of one of the great masters of American writing.” Sounds just like my cup of tea.

A juicy bit comes right at the beginning of the book, when Twain has Satan visit the Earth and write a series of letters with his impressions to his two archangel friends, Michael and Gabriel (this must have been before “the fall”). The second letter makes the very good point that human beings seem to imagine heaven as a place where, really, they don't want to be, because it simply goes contrary to everything they normally like to do.

For instance, “the human being naturally places sexual intercourse far and away above all other joys – yet, he has left it out of Heaven!” Secondly, “in man's heaven everybody sings! The man who did not sing on earth sings there; the man who could not sing on earth is able to do it there.” Third, “every person is playing the harp – those millions and millions! – whereas not more than twenty in the thousand of them could play an instrument on earth, or ever wanted to.” Moreover, “all the nations on the earth ... are on an equality absolute ... they have to be 'brothers'; they have to mix together, pray together, harp together, hosannah together ... [while] here on earth all nations hate each other, and every one hates the Jew.” Lastly, “every man in the earth possesses some share of intellect, large or small; and be it large or be it small he takes a pride in it ... and then contrives a heaven that hasn't a rag of intellectuality in it anywhere!”

To summarize, the Christian heaven has no sex, everyone is supposed to be singing and playing the harp regardless of his musical abilities, one is forced to associate with people one doesn't like, and there isn't a book or newspaper in sight, not even CNN. You know, those 72 virgins offered by that other group begin to sound quite appealing...

Thursday, October 11, 2007

What's the matter with Christopher Hitchens?

I can't decide what to think of Christopher Hitchens. I never met the guy, but I saw him interacting with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and he was funny and intelligent, I would probably enjoy having a beer with him. His “God is Not Great” book is one of several volumes that have created the overnight sensation of the “new atheism,” and while it doesn't say anything new (nor, for that matter, do most of the others, authored by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Vick Stenger – though I think the one by Daniel Dennett is of a different caliber), it is a refreshing reminder that one can still write as irreverently as Voltaire in this post-9/11 world.

Which brings me to Hitchens' blunder: his continued support for the Iraq war. I just can't wrap my mind around it. I've read several of his articles in Slate, and the guy seems to be living in a parallel universe. In a piece published on 10 April 2006, for instance, he kept arguing about the Niger connection to the alleged attempt of Sadam Hussein's regime to start a nuclear weapons program. Although Hitchens admits that at least some of the documents used by the White House to make its case were forgeries, he still thinks there was something there, because it is inconceivable that a high-level emissary from Iraq went to Niger just to get help in breaking the flight embargo against Iraq. Perhaps, and that justifies an invasion and occupation how?

Hitchens engages in almost comical exercises of mental gymnastics to maintain his position in spite of all available evidence, as in the following gem from the April 10 article: “the Bush administration only ever asserted that the Iraqi regime had apparently tried to open a yellowcake trade in Africa. It has never been claimed that an agreement was actually reached.” Right, so we went to war with a nation that hadn't even managed to establish trade involving one of many components that go into making a nuclear weapons program, while we keep talking to one that does have and openly threatens to use nuclear weapons (North Korea), and are staunch allies of another that is using the nuclear threat against its close neighbor to resolve border disputes (Pakistan). Some logic, Mr. Hitchens.

I could go on and on with in-depth analyses of the Hitchensian position, but the point is that Hitchens has fallen prey to the same sort of reaction that got hold of the late Oriana Fallaci and turned the former radical liberal, who risked her life to fight oppression in Mexico, into a vicious racist obsessively preoccupied with the fall of western civilization at the hand of the Muslim infidel. In both cases we have intelligent and clearly well-intentioned people who are jolted into an irrationally dangerous position by a dramatic event. 9/11 certainly did change the world as we (especially Americans) know it. But much of that change amounts to a realization of things that were there before, such as the disastrous consequences of decades of American foreign policy, including the support of dictators like Saddam Hussein and former allies like Osama bin Laden.

What we should have learned from all this was that exporting democracy is not accomplished by bombing people and occupying their country, but rather through the steadfast refusal to support oppressive regimes around the world just because they happen to be helpful either politically or economically (the list is long: Pakistan, Iraq, China, El Salvador, Chile, Panama, South Vietnam, Egypt, and so on and so forth). I sympathize with Hitchen's and Fallaci's rage. And rage is a good thing, because it gets people to do something about horrible situations. But the problem with rage unaided by understanding is that it often makes us react against the wrong enemies, or by adopting the wrong means. A mistake that one expects from simpletons like Bush and devious beings like Cheney, but not from sophisticated intellectuals like Hithens and Fallaci. Oh well, two down against intellectual sophistication.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

I agree with Dobson, sort of

I would have never thought that I could possibly have any point of agreement with James Dobson, the founder and chairman of the “Focus on the Family” evangelical organization. Today Dobson published an awkward op-ed piece in the New York Times, the main point of which seemed to be to reassure people that the Christian Right is not in complete disarray just yet.

Let me start with my agreement with Dobson, and then we'll get to the meat of the piece. Dobson says that “[political] polls don't measure right and wrong,” and that “voting according to the possibility of winning or losing can lead directly to the compromise of one's principles.” That, of course, is correct, and I certainly concur with the sentiment that it is corrupt to run political campaigns based on what one thinks people want to hear, as opposed to what one's principles dictate. The best current example is perhaps Senator John McCain, who went from harshly criticizing the likes of Dobson to appearing at their so-called universities to pander for a few extra votes.

Then again, there is a positive side to compromise: unless one wishes to run a fascist state (something that George W. has come pretty darn close to, especially during his first term), then one simply has to compromise in order to build consensus. I've never particularly liked Bill Clinton (too much to the right for my taste), but he surely was a phenomenal consensus builder, until he got a blow job that almost cost him the White House (and yes, Bill, it was sex).

Back to Dobson, who recently authored a book entitled “Bringing Up Boys: Practical Advice and Encouragement for Those Shaping the Next Generation of Men” -- I guess girls don't matter for people who espouse family values. His op-ed explains what happened at a very secret meeting held last Saturday in Salt Lake City, which was attended by Dobson, Cheney, and other high-level exponents of the neocon/evangelism axis of evil. According to Dobson, the goal of the meeting was to decide what to do “if neither of the two major political parties nominates an individual who pledges himself or herself” to what this lunatic keeps referring to as “family values,” i.e. the “sanctity” of human life and, of course, the institution of marriage.

A shameless use of rhetoric has always characterized politicians, and particularly so those who position themselves on the right end of the spectrum. To define one's opinions as “pro-family,” of course implies that anyone who disagrees is “against” the family, even though I haven't heard anyone, from any political party, running on a platform that includes doing away with the family structure in our society. It is the same trick, of course, that has allowed Republicans to define as unpatriotic anyone who disagrees with their war mongering, or as anti-life anyone who dares questioning the idea that human embryos are “sacred” (funny, in a dark kind of way, how the same people who vow to defend the sanctity of life are usually the first in line clamoring for the death penalty and for starting the next war, on false premises, if necessary).

Dobson states that the outcome of the meeting was almost unanimous: to paraphrase, if neither party will nominate a nutcase, then they'll vote for a third party. Wonderful, be my guest, commit suicide in the way we did in 2000. It's about time.