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.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Massimo's picks

* Bill Maher talks to Keith Obermann about health care and why the Dems should ignore Republican opposition.

* Interview with Bertrand Russell, always a pleasure.

* Massimo's interview on Minnesota Atheists Radio, on atheism and politics (not quite the level of Russell, alas).

* What neuroscience can tell us about teaching.

* Could demographic trends put the GOP in the minority for a long time? Let's hope so.

* From brain scanning to mind reading?

* How is it that psychics can't tell when their are being swindled?

* Yet another important step toward understanding the origin of life. I wonder what creationists will say...

* Gay behavior is common among animal species. Will conservatives keep extolling the family values of penguins?

* Why zoning out may be good for your examined life.

* A delightful essay by philosopher Simon Blackburn on why David Hume is so much better than Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

* And speaking of Hitchens, as much as I don't particularly care for either some of his political views or his writing style, I must admit he's right on the mark at Slate on the so-called "elections" in Iran.


  1. Massimo, I read Simon Blackburn's article a while back. I agree with the sentiment. Unfortunately, we don't have Hume about now, and the religious keep repeating and repackaging the argument to design, cosmological arguments and the philosophers God as evidence that their belief, and attempts to proscribe the lifestyles of believers and non-believers alike, are rational and the best explanation for reality.

    Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist. The theory of evolution filled the void that Hume created. For once it was not only philosophically apparent that we had no idea of the designer, we also had a natural explanation removing space for a designer. Why shouldn't he use what he knows and attack the relgious who try to ruin science and tell people how to live? I don't get why people seem to dislike Dawkins et. al. They're doing what they can with what they have. Is it because they're not being ironic in a Humean tone?

    That article on quantum entanglement was cool!

  2. The title of that article is irksome. When I saw the needless (and inaccurate) swipe at Darwin in the title, I actually went searching through the article to see if Joan Roughgarden or Bruce Bagemihl or someone else from the "Sexual selection is meanie-poo so that makes it wrong" crowd were involved. Luckily, the article turned out not to be as bad as the title made me expect.

  3. Oops! Sorry! I forget to indicate which article I was talking about. It was this one, about the gay animals:


    My bad.

  4. For more on Hume, see this excellent 8 part series by Julian Baggini.

    In part 3, Baggini makes a point that I made in a previous comment about Hume being able to smash the design argument without the benefit of evolutionary theory (although I'm reminded by reading Nigel Warburton's Philosophy: The Classics that Hume does posit that apparent design could be the result of creatures not adapted to their environment dying off.)

  5. Massimo, what do you think of Bertrand Russel's opinion on the first world war, that it would have been better of Germany was allowed to win it, because then there would be no Nazis or communists?

    As much as I respect him and most of his other opinions, this one seems rather foolish.

  6. Brian,

    well, as I've said before on this forum -- and apparently Blackburn feels the same way -- I have no problems (other than a few technicalities) with Dawkins' arguments, but I think his aggressive and nasty stand is not only not cool, but positively counterproductive.

  7. valera,

    I don't know whether Russell was right or wrong on WWI of course, but his argument was that without Britain's intervention the war would have been much shorter, with a lot fewer casualties, and would have resulted in a political stalmate that would not have prepared the ground for the Nazis (I don't know about the Russian revolution, that seems to me a whole separate issue). It's an intriguing possibility...

  8. Fair enough Massimo. I personally don't mind Dawkins attacking religion with gusto as he's creating, or at least trying to create, a space for non believers to be loud and proud. Sort of atheist identity politics.

    It seems to me to be an interesting asymmetry. If a religious person states that all who don't follow his particular creed are less than human and will fry for eternity, or that women are less than men, then that's to be overlooked as not all religious are like that. But if Dawkins spouts off a bit, understandably, then he's not showing respect and being counter productive. Dawkins isn't threatening anybody with punishment, or telling them what to do in their private life, but he's worse?

    Anyway, I say let Dawkins speak. As John Stuart Mill might've said, one is only justified in holding his/her position if it stands the test of all opposing positions and arguments. To tell others to be silent and not test one's arguments against all opposed to it, is to claim infallibility. Which the religious often do I believe. :)

  9. Brian,

    I'm most certainly not arguing that Dawkins doesn't have a right to use whatever tone he wishes to use. But I do have a right to distant myself from him.

    That said, you are absolutely right that the most mouth-foaming atheist is nothing compared to many even so-called moderate religionists...

  10. Bill Maher nails it on the nature of the Democrats and Republicans.

    I am going to have to go back and listen to the Bertrand interview.

    I am constantly going over alternative courses of history scenarios in my head. They are quite interesting thought experiments.

  11. I truly enjoyed the interview on Atheist Talk. I would have called in, but was not available during the broadcast and had to listen to the podcast (viva l'internet!).

    I was most interested in the discussion addressing "atheism as the founding philosophy behind every "evil" dictatorship known to humans" meme.

  12. Great interview (I mean the MN atheist one)! The only things I would like to add that, Marx had very little to say about communism per se; 99% of his work is a critique of capitalism. Also you could have pointed out that early Marx (i.e. young Marx) held a very definite view of human nature (free creation etc.) very much like the anarchists of later years.

  13. Massimo
    But I do have a right to distant myself from him.
    Agreed totally, each to his own. I always find that the snide Dawkins I hear about from people religious types who disagree him isn't the same Dawkins that appears in his books or interviews. He's unfailingly polite and civil, much more so than this Aussie yobbo. I've often thought that religious types all try to paint him as nasty and rude because the ad-hom is all they have. Anyway, enough of Dawkins.....

    Look! A subject changing distraction!

  14. Hello

    first of all i' d like to congratulate you for your work on this blog.

    I'm also glad to see a post about fundamentalist ideas after one about Russell. I do because I think Bertrand Russell can be considered one the philosophers that more strongly criticized extremism. he said literally: "If you think your ideas are based on reason you will defend them by talking and you will give up when you find that arguments go against you and so you will change your mind about them. But when your ideas are based on what we call faith, you will find that dialogue doesn't work and so you will try to force them by prosecution or distorting the children minds in what we call education".

    This simple explanation given by Russell is the most convincing argument against fundamentalism that I've ever read perhaps. As a personal conclusion I' d like to say that for me it also means that at the end for making a decision we have to discover what experience says about. That's why we should and in general we become more rational when grow older. What we cannot deny are the facts, the evidences. We can give arguments based on faith to prohibit condoms for example as they were given to explain why the earth was flat but again Russell says: "There was a time in which thinking the earth was flat didn't have the bad consequences that has nowadays. Because those who today believe that the earth is flat have to close their eyes to reason and open them to absurdity". This means that maybe if we make a decision using our faith (not our intuition which is different) we can be right, but we can also be wrong and cause an unnecessary damage but if we base our decisions on experience we have more probabilities to succeed.

  15. I cringed when the article about the philosophy of quantum physics called the Templeton Prize "prestigious".


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