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 22, 2009

Massimo's picks

* MSNBC, the liberal-leaning news channel, criticizes President Obama's performance so far, for pretty goot reasons.

* Wendy Grossman explains why Karen Armstrong's take on religion and morality is frankly annoying, although hard to criticize too loudly.

* Earl Blumenauer, the author of the (non-existent) "death panels" provision for health care reform, explains why the Republicans went nuts about it.

* One problem with public acceptance of global warming: apocalypse fatigue.

* No compulsory hugging for humanists!, argues CFI president Ronald Lindsay. I agree.

* The problem with so-called "conceptual art." (It may not be art.)

* Why the Italian courts got it right, and the Americans wrong, on the CIA rendition program.

* No such thing as virtuous bankers, argues (convincingly) Maureen Dowd. At least, not at Goldman Sachs.

* The placebo effect explains the apparent effectiveness of many "natural" cures. Duh.

* Americans apparently didn't really want SUV's for all those years: Detroit auto companies simply fudged the data because that's what their CEO's wanted to drive.

* A short essay on justice in the Guardian.


  1. Re: "Detroit auto companies simply fudged the data because that's what their CEO's wanted to drive."

    Fuck them all, durty basterds. And shame on the people who decided to hire McManus as a professor. Professors should come with a modicum of integrity...

  2. Re "A short essay on justice"... a bit of a while back we were having a discussion about "faith" vs. "values", are they different? in which you pointed me to Rawls as an example of non-faith morality. I claimed that the statement "Each person possess an inviolability founded on justice" is isomorphic to "Each person possess a soul uniquely valuable to God," but you disagreed.

    I believe Amartya Sen is making much the same point... I only read the review, not the book... when he calls Rawls' approach "Transcendental". In the same sense that Karen Armstrong says that God should properly be approached as transcendental, rather than empirical.

    I also think that "compassion" is only a shade of meaning different than "justice". I agree the "Charter for Compassion" is a little Old Maid-ish, but there you are...

  3. BTW: One for next week's picks (which many others will point out as well, I am sure) should be XKCD's take on "converting" skeptics

  4. Blue Ridge,

    I still don't think that faith has anything to do with values, since the latter come from a combination of our biological heritage and our rational reflection.

    To me the phrase that "each person possess a soul uniquely valuable to god" is empirically unfounded wishful thinking.

  5. Massimo:
    I still don't think that faith has anything to do with values, since the latter come from a combination of our biological heritage and our rational reflection.
    To me the phrase that "each person possess a soul uniquely valuable to god" is empirically unfounded wishful thinking.

    I would still like to hear how you distinguish between the quoted statement and Rawls' ""Each person possess an inviolability founded on justice". What you say here seems to me equally applicable to both... Why would "inviolability" be more than wishful thinking? How is it other than a more abstract version of "soul"? Or would you say that Rawls is making a statement of faith?

    I hope you are not hung up on ideas of an Omni-Whatnot God and an Immortal Soul-cum-consciousness, which (for example) are arguably extra-biblical, although not extra-Orthodox/Constantinian.

    I would think both "foundational" statements are back-formations from something like Sen's pragmatic method... an effort to supply an easily digestible justification or systemization of our cultural norms. I just came across a short interview with Stanislas Dehaene in SciAm;

    What I am proposing is that the human brain is a much more constrained organ than we think, and that it places strong limits on the range of possible cultural forms. Essentially, the brain did not evolve for culture, but culture evolved to be learnable by the brain.

    My point would be that the "soul" formulation (indubitably historically very popular) is a more easily learnable schema for making the same sorts of ethical/moral decisions, suitable for neolithic-type human brains without advanced Liberal Arts training.

    And thank you for your impressive and generous willingness to engage all comers.

  6. Blue Ridge,

    well, I try to engage as much as it is made possible by having an actual full time job... :-)

    I wouldn't want to defend everything Rawls said, those particular words seem to me a rather strange (perhaps poetic?) choice.

    Still, I don't see what faith and souls can possibly add to the basic idea that we recognize human rights and justice as the result of natural instincts (as social primates) and philosophical reflection.

  7. Re: "conceptual art"

    Isn't that why we distinguish artists from artisans?

    Don't we expect modern artists to have a 'message', rather than just have a skill for aesthetics?

  8. Hi Massimo,

    Wishing you a great Thanksgiving.

    I have a question, I'm sorry, again, but it doesn't pertain to any of the picks.

    I got an "urgent" letter from CSI, Skeptical Inquirer. Mainly the usual stuff for fund raising, but with one added interesting, if not disturbing note - it said the December issue of SI may be the last.

    Is that true? What's the "true" story?

    I'm bothered for three reasons. One, kind of sucks if true. Two, if this is just a fund raising hysterical line, I'm pissed. Three, I wouldn't give money to CFI if someone gave it to me to give to them.

    I have canceled my subscriptions as of a couple years ago, and don't send donations any more. Why? Because CFI became an outlet for idiotic hyperbolic "new atheist" propaganda. Always accused of "group think" because of it's secular humanism and open skepticism, had to me, finally moved in that direction, though arguing less than ever for humanism. I was a subscriber and devoted reader of both Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer (as well as getting books from Prometheus - a *framed* Prometheus catalog cover with Darwin's image hanging beside me and my framed parchment paper humanist values is in the closet) for over 15 years!

    I've kept up with the Kurtz brouhaha, but my reaction to that is it's to little to late and said the wrong way. I respect what Kurtz has said, but coming from someone who has spent a great deal of his life defending himself from the charge of "fundamentalist", his accusation appears hollow indeed, no matter how defined. "Kinder, gentler", what the hell is he talking about, does he not realize that gives more fodder for the idiots.

    My advice to Lindsay and the others is call Dawkins for more money, link to his organization. Get the squeezable Tom Flynn to write more shallow essay's on Atheism. It's just so astoundingly absurd to see what Paul is saying now (and he is to me as Robert M. Price has said of him, my Apostle Paul - well was(?), just isn't as fun to say anymore), he has written numerous op-eds talking up what he is now worried about. And has left himself and others open to all sorts of ridiculous charges. He's been said to be everything from a senile old man to a disgruntled former employee who lost his absolute hold on power (yes, Thomas Donnelly, you said it - be proud as you are young man).

  9. That idea I had I think works. I know they're hitting up Dawkins big time already and want his Op-ed and name right up front (giving Harris only four essay's was a big mistake - make him regular if you want money you po' peeps, you already have given up humanism for the most part, and that's just a fact, a plain fact).

    Connect more to Richard Dawkins foundation, New Humanist out the UK has made some great moves with Dawkins (and it's payed off) and Dawkins' foundation does a great share for AAI conventions (they were smart enough to create the Richard D. award since '03).

    What CFI needs to do is what Tom Flynn and Lindsay seem ever so willing to do, though they are extremely careful how they say it (and like others these days they want remind us how kind and caring they are, who's gotten sick of that routine that started as a respoonse to the charge of "hostile" etc., even if you have a chapter in a book called, "Why Am I Hostile" and admit that the "virus" metaphor from "memes" was a hostile manuever towards reliigoin - said in his, or so he claims, Sagan type book, Unweaving the Rainbow) and that is, to be *more* vociferous *atheist*.

    That ridiculous pledge that all at CFI signed to maintain some original goals and not become "atheistic" centered is bullshit, pure and simple. Besides that the money's in atheism. Much of the horde of "new atheism" devotees don't give a rats ass about skepticism and humanism, unless it has something to say about religion. Religion is the hottest game in town, not science or even reason - unless again it's we're talking about religion (oh, Ophelia Benson, please deny it for all of us - you've become such a lovable defender of science, right to the point of arguing that "science can study the supernatural" of course).

    So, for CFI, don't pretend not to recognize how many of you glanced past concerns expressed over the past few years. Lets not argue this is about open and free inquiry, it's not. Trust me, when your survival is on the line, you loved the attention that "atheism" brought you and now you want more of it. So, so shallow....

  10. Since I'm ranting and taking swings. Victor, oh, Stenger, it's time to wake up. You're misunderstanding some of the debate. You fell into the trap of arguing that any criticism is the same. Yes, a defense of science is good, but that's not nearly the whole story, which should seem obvious.

  11. Luke,

    well, as you say, this is completely off topic, so my comment will be brief.

    It's news to me that SI will cease publication, I am scheduled to send them columns well into next year. You would think the Editor, Ken Frazier, who is a nice guy, would have let me know.

    As for the Kurtz, skepticism vs. atheism thing, yeah I'm mostly with you there, you probably saw (and possibly even commented on) my recent post on the domain of skepticism and its differences with atheism and political philosophy.

  12. Thanks for the reply, Massimo.

    Here's a good pick for you. Jerry "The Big Jesus" Coyne has titled a blogpost - "Michael Shermer, theologian". He misrepresents Shermer now and suggest Shermer is possibly beholden to the Templeton Foundation (that last one is shameful, he was actually more direct in that accusation of Robert Sapolsky, who he drastically misrepresented in a blogpost - of course he puts himself high on the crate since he declined the science fest invite).

    Shermer is making the same arguments he always has and yet Coyne says: "But lately he’s been assuming the faitheist mantle more and more often (could it be because of Templeton sponsorship?)". What utter B.S.

    It's incredible what's been going on and this "accomodationist" debate has added another level of what was already becoming absolutely absurd. I made the prediction, on Coyne's site as a matter of fact, that being an "accomodationist" is going the direction of simply anyone who may disagree at some level with "supernatural phenomena being within the realm of science".

    Coyne says: "It would be lovely if Shermer would admit that, in the real world, the only kind of religion not at war with science is deism."

    Well, yeah, but science is only going to get you so far. But, the "real world" isn't where believers belief end up going and science unfortunately is limited. It's simply not a bad idea to pull in the believers, the outcome will be a greater neutered religion without the Sam Harris fear mongering about jihadist taking college courses so scientific understanding can't help us anyway (said in the same breath as chants for scientism - its true, yet stifling naive in scope).

    Lately I've been trying to extract myself from these debates. However, I wonder when people will stand up against Coyne like nonsense. To many are staying silent for different reasons. One is fear itself (of being called something nearing an "apologist"). Another is being to unsure of themselves and how they think of the situation. Third is not taking the time to understand the claims being made and proper understanding of basic statistics. One more, confused about speaking out against what could have gotten one to speak out in the first place. For me the last one doesn't matter much, I've been an outspoken "atheist"/Humanist/skeptic for 20 years - though I don't go nearly as far as Michael Ruse, it's plain to see where he's right.

    This garbage I see floating around about needing more than one approach is laughable. It misses a large part of what the criticism mean. All that does is offer an excuse so critics should keep their mouths shut. People like Russell Blackford have made a mockery out of open and free inquiry (even while acting tempered lately) while bemoaning others supposedly telling him to shut up, even while he maintains criticism of "new atheist" should be muffled at best (though his bizarre remark about disagreeing with Dawkins 747 arguments is hysterical in making his point that criticism can be ok, gee thanks you nut).

    Anyways, it's time to go toe to toe with the type of B.S. that occasionally floats out from those self congratulatory, self proclaimed vociferous "atheist". It's simply to hard to believe how long it's taking, and it's coming out to slowly (my guess was because of internet comment campaign shock and the immediate - late '06 - early '07 - cash flow that came in the coffers at places like CFI.


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