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, November 14, 2009

Massimo's picks

* xkcd's take on the vacuousness of some academic specialties...

* One more from xkcd, on the meaning of life, if you will.

* A New York Times article about the possible physiological function of dreams.

* In defense of metaphysics (though not entirely in a convincing way).

* A UK judge ruled that belief in climate change has the same protection as religious belief. Not a good move, in my opinion.

* Why did 30 Republican Senators vote against a bill that gives rape victims the right to sue when the crime happened outside the US? Because they take money from the corporations that would be sued.


  1. I like your XKCD choices, but this one is my very favorite:

  2. Massimo,

    I have one more you may be interested in. Michael Shermer posted this as "Bill Maher addresses my "open letter" to him (on HuffPo) on Letterman last week" on his twitter page.


    I think Maher's comments are very interesting, especially for those of us who have thought long and hard on the "rubber duck" problem of pseudoscience. Shermer is portrayed as "someone" who is condescending and lecturing, which Maher turns around and mocks. Of course he doesn't address Shermer entire point, it is simply dismissed and again we see the idea of lets debate the issue. Ok, well Shermer offered something, Maher mocked it and dismissed it, so far the debate looks like its going well.

    Anyway, thought you might be interested. Keep up the good fight.

  3. I liked Dacey's short essay in Psychology Today. I've seen Austin speak here at our local humanist group (no, we don't stop to force hug - Ha! @ Lindsay at CFI "Humanism & Hugs" - http://tinyurl.com/ydqrx9w - just strange I think), and I don't always agree with his arguments (I think he's misrepresented others a bit at times, including Shermer's "provisional ethics", done on a PoI podcast - and he seems inclined to polarize with limited effect).

    His PT article is nicely succinct and pretty well argued. I may however predict the reaction to this comment: "Ethics comes from below, not above". Even though true in my opinion, the apologist usually turns to say you have nothing "below" to make that claim, that it claims a foundation which is little more than shifting sand.

    If you get the chance, check out the film, Collision, with Christopher Hitchens vs. Douglas Wilson, there is quite a bit of discussion on this point. It's an entertaining and fun film for sure I think (came out at the end of Oct. - they're also offering some kind of updates of the movie site).


    Hitchens appears to recognize the limitations in such discussion and offers ideas such as objective morality found in "solidarity" and reflections on our moral choices is complex and will remain open to discuss, but that is no reason to accept the theistic assumptions.

  4. Quick thought.

    Following my last post and Austin's PT article, perhaps you could create a trilogy of sorts that may further discussion and highlight important areas.

    We have:

    ~ On the scope of skeptical inquiry

    ~ On the difference between science and philosophy

    Reasonably we could work our way into discussion on ethics and morality within the roles of science, philosophy and skepticism.

    I've found many ideas in these areas interesting over the years and never more so the past three or so years. I recall trying to get discussion on Sam Harris broad argument that Hube's "is/ought" problem is simply a myth and speaks of contentment, and of course Jonathan Haidt's work.

    In an interesting exchange on Edge.org Sam Harris bring science full circle into the debate. Here are a few comments he made in his replay to Haidt's essay:

    ~ "Despite the remonstrations of people like Jonathan Haidt and Richard Shweder, science has long been in the values business."

    ~ "But what about meaning and morality? Here we appear to move from questions of truth—which have long been in the domain of science if they are to be found anywhere—to questions of goodness.[snip]It is widely imagined that science cannot even pose, much less answer, questions of this sort.

    Jonathan Haidt appears to exult in this pessimism."

    It appears, to me anyway, Harris often doesn't grasp what it means to be "scientifically informed", and instead see's things as "science answers". I almost get the feeling that in responding to theist, he thinks we must guide against not appearing fully scientific even in moral discussion. That at all cost, we must not only highlight and understand how we are scientifically informed, but to hold scientific authority as the primarily possible means to combat faith, and if that includes discounting obvious problems with this broad approach so be it, we can't appear to not have a completely objective framework because it may appear a weakness in combating religion.

  5. Why should rape be given different consideration from any other crime or grievance that a person has against a person or company?

  6. b single,

    because rape isn't a "grievance," it's a high crime, which these bastards happen to be immune from as a matter of contract, sanctioned by the US Government.

  7. Luke,

    Harris loves to speak as though it were obvious that morality is a matter of happiness and suffering. I am familiar with the vast majority of his published speeches and writings, and he has never once offered even a semblance of a defense for his position. At Beyond Belief II, a young man in the audience (whose exact position I do not necessarily agree with) suggested that there might be more to morality than happiness. Harris responded with a second of confusion, followed by saying something like "well, I mean, happiness is conducive to happiness!" (Massimo, is A implies A still a valid logical identity?). He then went on to say that this debate was part of a broader debate between deontology and consequentialism and that, although he isn't prepared to debate it, he thinks the consequentialist can win the argument.

    So he basically admitted that he cannot offer anything in support of his position on morality. Like many intellectuals, he does not even take moral skepticism/relativism/nihilism/etc seriously. Nevermind Mackie, Joyce, whoever - just make fun of relativists and act like they're evil.

    But even if he were somehow right that moral truth exists, he would still have to offer a justification for his belief that happiness and suffering is all there is to it. He has offered not a shred of justification. Yet he constantly states that this is so as if it were just obviously true.

  8. Ritchie,

    Excellent comment, thanks. Harris is fully aware that he can be charged with scientism, but retreats into saying he is not arguing for a Utopian ideal, that science does not have "universal consensus", then usually offers ideas on normative ethics. I of course agree with his kind of common sense approach, and I do recognize religion as a barrier (again, it appears obvious Harris is arguing more against something then actually for and thus confuses how far science takes us). However, all he is doing is using our basic accepted understanding of science revealing provisional truths about nature as an argument that is how we can come to universal moral agreement. In a sense, this is correct, it mirrors ideas such as "provisional ethics", but again, Harris seems not to care that equating the system to science does not make it completely science, that we are faced with a limit and we must use other areas of our intellectual armory.

    There were actually some somewhat surreal moments at BB when it came Harris and ethics and morality. Pat Churchland was bending over backward to create a framework for Harris' moral truth type claims and "is/ought" a complete myth. But, even the most casual observer recognized this as nearly embarrassing since Harris was clearly willing to go further. Pat wasted her time. One of the more humorous was Harris setting Haidt up, without Haidt in the audience, to claim that given the scenario Harris created Haidt would undoubtedly create "masterpiece of political correctness". Just incredibly disingenuous, and of course Haidt sat in the front row the following year.

    Austin Dacey asked Harris if science would be the new mono culture (revealing Austin is either setting up a soft ball or actually doesn't know what Harris is leading to, my guess both), or if something else would be in that "garden" of culture, is there a place for philosophy, literature, *laughter* (no, I'm not making it up, he said laughter - shows how crazy it can get), he was being very oddly poetic. Obviously, what is really being talked about is replacing religion.

    Why I thought this would make a good area for Massimo to step into with a trilogy type posting is a reflection of simply accepting the domains as they are, that this step toward what appears extremely like, if not outright, scientism, is worth correcting for the betterment of everyone involved.

    With Harris, of course we are talking about someone who made the claim that the happiest man alive may have spent the last twenty years living alone in a cave meditating - there's a solid science claim for you (of course quoted by nutters the world over to give the appearance of scientific authority from an "atheist" no less, woohoo, I mean woo).

    Anyway, I have to take a break from commenting on sites for awhile. I'm simply spending to much time lately and there's literally dozens of sites dealing with the same issues, plus my normal reading, working etc.

  9. From the article about GW as a religion: "It's a great decision. Why should it only be religions which are protected?"

    As a dedicated contrarian, this initially has some appeal. Let's get back at religion by granting all sorts of ideas and philosophies the same protections and benifits that religion has.
    But after a few minutes of reflection, I have to agree with Massimo that this is not a good thing. The legal systems of both the U.S. and Great Britian seem to foster a climate of victimhood. As soon as special benefits are awarded to someone who is not a serious victim, everyone (hyperbole?) will want to find a way to get on the benefits bandwagon.


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