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, December 13, 2009

Massimo's picks

* David Pogue of the New York Times compares Amazon's Kindle to Barnes & Noble's Nook: the Kindle still seems to be far ahead of its competitor.

* Jon Stewart exposes Glenn Beck's hypocrisy, once again.

* Yours truly guest posts at Gotham Skeptic, on the difference between skepticism and atheism (also read the excellent related posts by Jake Dickerman and Michael De Dora).

* Great little video by comedian Tim Minchin.

* Are environmentalist calls to curb population growth misguided after all? This article argues so, but I ain't convinced.

* Hospital worker fired because of a refusal to get vaccinated, on religious grounds. Good riddance.

* Mom expected god to provide food for her kids. Now she is charged with four counts of second-degree child endangerment.

* Too much positive thinking can kill your career...

* It's a miracle! I can stare into the sun. Oh, wait, I'm going blind.


  1. Massimo,

    Here is my response to your "Gotham skeptic" piece:

    While I share your high estimation of skepticism – It was skepticism that brought me from agnosticism to Christianity – you provocatively stated: “The important point is that there are plenty of notions, such as that of gods, that cannot be rejected in the same way (pace both Coyne and Dawkins), and yet can be rejected on reasonable grounds for the simple fact that they are extraordinary claims without the support of extraordinary evidence (to paraphrase Carl Sagan paraphrasing David Hume).”

    While I agree with you about the “extraordinary claims” and the “extraordinary evidence,” I must point out that we all must grapple with the same two “extraordinary” choices: Either Naturalism or Supernaturalism is the origin/explanation of the universe. Let me now set forth some arguments for Supernaturalism in favor of Naturalism.

    1. Our experience uniformly demonstrates that the cause must be greater than the effect. Intelligent causation is greater than non-intelligent causation. Therefore, Supernaturalism must be the preferred hypothesis.

    2. Supernaturalism (transcendence) is a better explanation than Naturalism (materialism) for the immutability of the physical laws. Something must transcend our expanding universe of molecules-in-motion. (Where do the “natural” laws come from?)

    3. Supernatural Transcendence is also a better explanation than localized materialism for the uniform operation of these laws throughout the universe.

    4. Supernatural Oneness is more parsimonious than the idea of myriads of independently operating natural laws. It better accounts for the stability and regularity of the physical world.

    5. Although we all agree that phenomena occur formulaically and predictably, there is absolutely no evidence that the laws that govern are natural as opposed to their being part of a Super-Intelligence.

    6. Naturalism is utterly inadequate to account for many phenomena – life, DNA, consciousness, freewill, the fine-tuning of the universe, reason and logic – while Supernaturalism is adequate.

  2. For any "account" to qualify as such, it must actually provide details that clarify certain aspects of the phenomenon in question. "Supernaturalism" almost never amounts to any account of anything because the supposed explanation have no detail. Christians cannot actually explain a thing about how God can exist or how he works, and those who try generally get caught up in obscure contradictions.

    Why do the laws of physics hold? God made it so. Why does reason exist? God made it so.


  3. Richie the Bear,

    You responded, “Supernaturalism almost never amounts to any account of anything because the supposed explanation have no detail.”

    On the contrary, it has every scientific fact or “detail” that naturalism alleges to claim for itself. You also stated, “Christians cannot actually explain a thing about how God can exist or how he works, and those who try generally get caught up in obscure contradictions.”

    I grant you that the idea of an eternal God is mind-boggling, but no more so than an eternal universe or a universe that sprung into existence uncaused from nothing, (I think that this is all the choices we have!) so I’d like to acquaint you with the cosmological argument. It argues that something or Someone has to be eternal because the alternative—everything jumped into existence uncaused from nothing—is an affront to both science and our observations. Things just don’t happen; they have causes.

    If we can agree here, this leaves us with just two possibilities:

    1) The universe is eternal and without cause, or
    2) A Supreme Causer (outside of time and space) is eternal and without cause.

    The first possibility is surrounded by insurmountable challenges. First of all, science has largely abandoned the “steady state” theory, which claims that the universe always existed, in favor of the Big Bang theory, that the universe, including time and space, had a beginning. According to Steven Hawking, “Almost everyone now believes that the universe and time itself had a beginning in the Big Bang.”

    Secondly, if the universe always existed, there can be no adequate explanation for anything. Whatever explanation is offered requires its own explanation to account of it. This goes on infinitely, each cause passing the buck to the prior cause (the problem of infinite regress), and therefore becomes absurd. We can never arrive at any ultimate cause. You can argue that God isn’t an explanation either, but it’s more logically coherent to base the ultimate explanation in a transcendent Someone who doesn’t require an explanation, than in a matter-energy universe, which always does require explanations. (Matter-energy events just don’t happen without causes!)

    Lastly, the idea of an eternal universe is logically unsustainable. If we can’t count up to an eternal or infinitely numbered year in the future (and we can’t), we can’t do this going back into the past. If this is so, then it is logically impossible to ever arrive in the present by passing through an infinite number of years in the past.

    We are left with God, however uncomfortable this might make us. OK, we can’t get our mind around the fact that God always existed, but the alternatives are unacceptable, at least if you think about them for a bit.

  4. You're saying that either God created the universe, the universe emerged from nothing, or the universe has always existed? That's not true. You're going along the standard Christian line of acting as though it-just-makes-so-much-sense that there would be a capital-G God at the backbone of reality. It does not fundamentally make more sense to explain the existence of the physical universe through an intelligent being, much less one who just happens to think homosexuality is evil.

    You're trying to escape by saying "God doesn't require an explanation". Can't you see that this is a retreat? You're trying to argue that your explanation is right because your explanation is beyond explanation. Imagine this silly conversation:

    "I believe that the universe just all leads back to Earth. If we launch a rocket out of the solar system it will eventually reach Earth again intact."
    "...how can that be?!?! The rocket isn't just going to turn around. And even if space is curved, the odds are just so low..."
    "Look, some things are just so grand we can't understand them. It's beyond what we can comprehend, but we have to accept it for what it is."

    Your notions of time are also suspect. Time is not something which has to "go back into infinity", so to speak. Your intuition that seconds tick by no matter what is not based on sound reasoning.

    But at least you're a lot more entertaining than caliana.

  5. Richie,

    Sadly, you haven’t engaged any of my argumentation. Granted, they aren’t perfect arguments, but I think they succeed in demonstrating that the Supernaturalistic paradigm makes more logical and scientific sense than the naturalistic one. I really wish you’d reread them with some thought instead of dismissing them as “the standard Christian line.”

  6. As I said, the whole notion that God does not require an explanation is an argument-duck. If you don't have to explain the existence of God, I don't have to explain the existence of DNA. Since you're not willing to explain the existence of God, you are not on the same intellectual table as those who actually try to explain the Big Bang, abiogenesis, or evolution.

    Do I need to be forgiven for calling your argument the "standard Christian line"? While some of your first post was new to me, none of your second one was.

    Am I failing to engage your arguments? No. You stated that there were three possible options for the origin of the universe when there were not (and you did not argue for this point). I pointed this out. You suggest that God can be a solution to the infinite-regress problem because he doesn't require an explanation, and I pointed out that this is a cop-out. These are both relevant points of mine.

    I could reply to each of the six points you raised in your original post, but such a reply would be gargantuan. I don't know if Massimo approves of journal-article-sized replies to his posts.

  7. "The important point is that there are plenty of notions, such as that of gods, that cannot be rejected in the same way (pace both Coyne and Dawkins), and yet can be rejected on reasonable grounds for the simple fact that they are extraordinary claims without the support of extraordinary evidence (to paraphrase Carl Sagan paraphrasing David Hume)."

    Massimo, I think, once again, bashing *the new atheists* gets the best of you (well, that's not right, I agree with the rest of the article more or less, but whenever you say something about Dawkins et al, those words seem to me to glow and distract me from the real issue:) ).

    I'm sure you'll agree that science can, in principle, disprove *any* theistic religion, given the definition of theism (from Wikipedia: "Theism, in this specific sense, conceives of God as personal and active in the governance and organization of the world and the universe."). If a deity interacts with the world (listens to prayer, changes landscapes, assumes bodies to heaven, appears in toasts etc.), then it is, by definition, in the domain of science and can, in principle, be proven or disproven.

    But that is precisely what the new atheists are attacking, the notion of a theistic god! Coyne and Dawkins are on record, again and again, saying that *deism* can be true but theism cannot. They don't spend much time unraveling the philosophical subtleties of religions that are *other than* theistic, but that's simply because they are a pragmatic lot and aim primarily to alleviate the pain caused in the name of religion (which is almost always done in the name of theism, not some other form of religion). They are not writing a dissertation thesis in philosophy.

    So I sympathize with you when you say that science does not (in fact cannot) conclusively disprove that there are no gods, that there might be gods outside the reach of science, or that Dawkins says things that would irritate philosophers, things that are not strictly true and perhaps get an F in a philosophical essay. But I think that particular criticism *when applied to the NAs* utterly misses the point, for they couldn't care less about the elusive notions of deities. They want to get their hands dirty and attack the religions that are here on Earth, that are *manifestly* at odds with science and rid the world from their irrational acts.

    So when you write an article called "Is Dawkins deluded?" in which you mostly agree with Dawkins and the only substantial criticism you can offer for this alleged delusion is saying things like "[Dawkins'] science would have been sufficient for a devastating attack on the overwhelming majority of gods and, certainly, of those that matter (largely the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition", I would say that, no, he is not deluded, but that you are missing an important point about the motives of the NAs (and also an important point about how your title is music to religious ears).

    If you have a problem with their tone, fine, that's another argument, but please, don't accuse them with philosophical ineptitude (in the case of theism vs. other gods, not in the case of *sophisticated* versions of theism, for there is no such thing). That'd be like accusing the Jews who opposed Hitler, by saying (to the Jews), "well, what is good and bad really anyway? Mill would say this, Kant would say that..." When your point is to stop the suffering perpetuated by such an obvious falsehood, it really doesn't matter if there are irrelevant holes in your line of reasoning. We can get back to discussing the philosophical niceties of Gods once we established that.

  8. Some philosophers (and some theologians who specialize in Philosophy of Religion) like to abstract the notion of religion from how religion actually tends to work in the real-world. So Massimo's apt to say things like "science has nothing to say about God's existence" because this is how he operates.

    To philosophers, religion is not about Hanukkah or going to church or eternal salvation - it's about supreme beings, divine origin, and the idea that the universe was designed to trick our senses. It's all very interesting - to a philosopher - but it seems oddly off-center at times, because religion in the real-world really is gobbled up with truth-claims that are countered by science. If Massimo were to say that science has nothing to say about the truths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, he either has a far-too-narrow conception of science or interacts with too many liberal theologians. I find the latter proposition not all too unlikely, given that New York is a hotbed of abstract quasi-religion ala Unitarian Universalism.

  9. nodrylight,

    I've explained my position about the new atheism and the relationship among science, philosophy and religion in several posts, so I don't want to cover the same territory again here.

    The bottom line is that science can reject specific empirical claims made by theistic religions, but not the religion itself. This is for a variety of reasons, ranging from doctrines that are entirely metaphysical (many Catholic ones) to various versions of "last Thursdayism" (in which god just made it look like the earth is 4 billion years old, but it's a trick to test your faith).

    I never said Dawkins *is* deluded, and yes I get really annoyed by his confrontational and condescending tone, even with fellow atheists.

  10. Massimo,

    Okay, I will stop arguing against your position on this issue in your blog. I ask: is there some sort of lengthy academic publication that argues extensively for this view of yours? It doesn't have to be written by you, although it could be.

  11. Richie,

    I’m sorry if I wasn’t very clear (or if I wrongly charged you). I certainly wasn’t suggesting that God doesn’t need an explanation or that we must just accept God as a premise. Instead, acknowledging that we can’t get our minds around how things came to be – either things sprang into existence without cause or something or Someone had to be eternal and not requiring a cause – I tried to argue that the Supernaturalistic explanation was more tenable than the naturalistic one.

    Regarding the solution for the problem of “infinite regress,” the Someone or something has to be:

    1. ETERNAL AND UNCAUSED: This would relieve us of the problem of explaining the Someone’s or something’s (the universe in this case) existence.

    2. A SUFFICIENT FIRST CAUSE: This cause would have to be sufficient enough to explain everything else (the effects) that follows. If it is insufficient, then the effects would, to some extent, be uncaused – an unacceptable conclusion. Furthermore, intelligent causes are more sufficient than causes that are restricted to working according to one particular formula.

    3. SINGULAR: It’s much easier to accept a single Person or thing that is uncaused and eternal than a collection of things.

    4. UNIFIED: The best scientific theory is the one most parsimonious.

    5. TRANSCENDENT: All of the things that we have experience with aren’t eternal. All material things seem to require causes. Therefore, it makes more sense that this Person is Other and transcendent. This Person must also transcend time, because it’s logically impossible to cross an infinite number of years – and this is what the notion of eternity would require -- to arrive at the present. Even when we try to formulate a naturalistic explanation, we have a tendency to conceive of these natural laws as always existing, outside of time – transcendent. We invest them with God-like qualities. Might as well just go for the real God!

    All that I’m trying to demonstrate here is that believing in God doesn’t require that we shut down our minds. Instead, it seems that the most reasonable thing that we can do is to either believe in God or to explore this question with renewed gusto.

  12. Okay, Daniel, I will take seriously your statements and formulate a response that will probably span several pages. However, if blogspot enforces any sort of limit on the length of comments, it probably will not fit here. In that case I will either post it in segments or simply email it to you. It will be a few days.


  13. Richie,

    check out: Forrest, B. 2000. Methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism: clarifying the connection. Philo 3(2):7-29.

    From the abstract: "the relationship between methodological and philosophical naturalism, while not one of logical entailment, is the only reasonable metaphysical conclusion."

    Which is my point exactly: philosophical naturalism is the most rational position, but it is not logically entailed by methodological naturalism.

  14. Web site pick of possible interest:
    "Churches ad hoc: a divine comedy"

  15. Hi Massimo,

    Nice pics, thanks. I'm going to break my long standing habit of not responding to a pic ["LOL"].

    I would like to discuss: "One more on the relationship between atheism and skepticism" from Gotham Skeptic.

    However, I am going to read it again, then go back over all the replies from both blog sites before my babble.

    I was planning on taking a longer break from posting anywhere (do to stress turned anger over particular issues between my fellow "atheist/skeptics/humanist"), but even for those who murmur "old debate" or "don't touch my atheism" this *is* an important conversation.

    For those interested (and I apologize if mentioned somewhere), John Shook has done it again (vague to the point of utter frustration on an important issue) has a related post:


    In what I have come to recognize as Shook shtick here's how he makes a point (I'm not judging the point, just the...well, see if you can spot it):

    ~ "Skepticism SHOULD equal atheism."

    ~ "Skepticism MUST equal atheism."

    You know, the past few years has really given me worry about the future of the power of positive skepticism within my own brethren who apparently have decided to deny the obvious for a "cause", frightening indeed. Knee-jerk accusations of "anti-new atheist" has become a problem in it's own right - a new sacred cow has emerged more omnipresent than any God I've believed to exist.

  16. Oh, Massimo,

    Have you returned from Binghamton (are you there now)?

    How did (is) it go? How is David? If I were to join you two for coffee, do you think David would say Superorganisms are impossible and then call Richard D. and apologize for being such a Selfish Meme?

    Off point: Are there special glasses for "Word Verification"?

  17. Luke, I'm back from Binghamton, but I'll ask David the question next time I see him... ;-)

    Blogger doesn't provide special glasses for word verification, I'm afraid.

  18. That woman who wants God to feed her children ... isn't that what Sarah Palin expects for the USA? If Palin is ever President, she can appoint his woman her Secretary for Agriculture.

  19. As a practical matter I thought a brief reference type page may help. As I was thinking over my post on Gotham City and wondering WWBMD (What Would Batman Do), suddenly I saw the problem of quoting emerge like the Penguin's Gang. Doing it upfront helps because others can read the entire piece. I'm only going to offer available internet pieces, should suffice. With each reference a tease quote - not wearing a Miner's cap (I'm obviously also going to reference other material - but this is a preemptive strike against Penguin's supervillianist "attack!"). I hold no expectation anything I say matters to anyone.

    *Kurtz, Paul: "Why I Am a Skeptic about Religious Claims"

    ~ "The expression "a skeptic about religious claims" is more appropriate in my opinion than the term atheist, for it emphasizes inquiry. The concept of inquiry contains an important constructive component, for inquiry leads to scientific wisdom - human understanding..."

    *Shook, John: "Skeptics getting skeptical towards Atheism"

    ~ "There is a robust philosophy that keeps skepticism, naturalism, and humanism coherent and cooperative."

    *Shermer, Michael: "What Skepticism Reveals about Science"

    ~ "If there is one thing that the history of science has taught us, it is that it is arrogant to think we now know enough to know that we cannot know."

    *Shermer, Micheal: "Skeptical of Skeptics"

    ~ "Science is skepticism and skepticism is science. It’s the same thing. Scientists refer to the "null hypothesis." We assume that your idea, your theory, your hypothesis is not true and your task in collecting data is to overturn the null hypothesis."

    *Coyne, Jerry: "Is Atheism Scientific"

    ~ "So let’s take weak-sense atheism (WSA) as the default stance. In its very weakest, “no-evidence-for-God” sense, WSA is absolutely scientific."

    *Pigliucci, Massimo: "One More Take on the Relationship...

    ~ "The problem is, I think, that Jake seems to be equating skepticism with science."

    *Dickerman, Jack: "Why Skeptics Don’t Have to be Atheists"

    ~ "I’m an idiot. I should have just found a way to turn some skeptical story into a dick joke."

    *Loxton, Daniel et al. [Conversation on Advocacy]: "What Do I Do Next"

    ~ "Skepticism is an approach to testable physical claims. Atheism is a conclusion regarding an untestable metaphysical claim. These are not the same thing."

    *Carroll, Robert T.: "The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter" [Vol. 8 No. 5]

    ~ "One suggestion is to separate atheism from skepticism. I agree insofar as this simply means don't assume every skeptic is an atheist. In fact, I don't think you should assume that every atheist is a skeptic, either. Religious claims, including the claim that some sort of god or gods exist, should be considered fair game for critical analysis, however."

    *Russell, Betrand as Himself. Not quite the "Value of"

    ~ "It should be observed that Scepticism as a philosophy is not merely doubt, but what may be called dogmatic doubt. The sceptic says "Nobody knows, and nobody can ever know" It is this element of dogmatism that makes the system vulnerable. Sceptics of course, deny that they assert the impossibility of knowledge dogmatically, but their denials are not very convincing."

  20. A quick add on, it concerns two replies to Massimo's piece: "The Scope of Skeptical Inquiry" that appeared on Jerry "The 900 Foot Jesus" Coyne's blogpost "Is Atheism Scientific".

    These most definitely illustrate the importance of this conversation and an astounding ignorance going unquestioned, and unquestionably relate to the issue at hand.

    *articulett: " Pigliucci’s apologetic approach implies that there are other ways of knowing… as if some holy book or guru could have the answer that isn’t available to scientist and others who use empirical means for measuring phenomenon or understanding reality. Or at least, that is the message a believer is invited to “hear”.

    As mentioned by others, it privileges one type of superstitious claim..."

    *Jerry Coyne [Reply to Massimo: http://tinyurl.com/y9v7ent:

    ~ "Sorry Massimo, but that’s an incredibly pompous and condescending reply, and one that’s not informative, especially given that other philosophers have criticized your post on similar grounds."

    A reminder by Coyne: "I’m not a philosopher, so maybe Massimo’s argument is more subtle than I perceive. But I see my own non-acceptance of a deity as a purely scientific stance."

    Yes, indeed, a "very weak atheism". Use caution when ascribing Coyne's atheist to weak atheism. And when Coyne is ready to offer the references for the "other" philosophers, we can continue dialogue, which he has repeatedly shown resistance. Why? You know!

  21. Ok, just about there. I've had a bit of a personal battle going on thinking whether I wanted to move forward and post. (reminder: I'm not quote mining here, it is as stated above with quotes - thanks). Again, I do not expect to even be read here, I hold no expectations, as in other times the past few years this is simply an exercise in idiocy on my part.

    I want to add a couple more references for anyone interested:

    *Sagan, Carl: "The God Hypothesis"
    [Skeptic Vol. 13 No. 1 2007, or The Varieties..."]

    ~ "So, I would like now to turn to the issue of alleged evidence or, as they're called, proofs of the existence of God"

    *Dawkins, Richard: "The God Delusion" [pg. 47]

    ~ "Carl Sagan was *proud* to be agnostic when asked whether there was life elswhere in the universe" [snip] "Agnosticism about the causes of both these mass (add:Permian, Dinosaurs). How about the question of God?" [Emphasis added by me]

    *Gardner, Martin: "The Annotated Gardner" [Skeptic Vol. 5 No. 2 - "The God Question" issue]

    ~ "Well, they (add: atheistic arguments) are better in the sense that the theist has a tremen dous problem of explaining the existence of evil, and to that is the strongest argument against God." [Note: Martin was/is a Fideist].

    *Huxley, Thomas

    ~ *Agnosticism* is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle. Positivity, the principle may be expressed a, in matters of the intellect, follow your reason..."

    *Harris, Sam: "The Problem with Atheism" [The Washington Post]

    ~ "Because to be consistent as atheists we must oppose, or seem to oppose, all faith claims equally. This is a waste of precious time and energy, and it squanders the trust of people who would otherwise agree with us on specific issues."

    *De Dora, Michael: "Why Skeptics Should be Atheist" [linked in line with others at The Gotham Skeptic]

    ~ "Atheism (a philosophical position) means one lacks belief in gods."

    Correction to previous reference: Jake Dickerman, not Jack.

    I also don't know how to move forward with posting.

    Massimo, assuming you read this, does it make sense to post a rather longish post here, am I wasting time, I honestly don't know?

  22. On a personal note I would like to make a few things perfectly clear, for those that do recognize me from here and elsewhere may understand why I do this.

    My sympathies fall in line with:

    ~ I *am* an atheist.
    ~ I am an agnostic.
    ~ I am a Secular Humanist.
    ~ I am a skeptic.
    ~ I am a "Pantheist".

    Also, ideals I struggle with, however accept (out of favor as they seem to be at times).

    ~ "I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." - Baruch Spinoza

    ~ "Truth springs from argument amongst friends" - via Massimo Pigliucci

    ~ "For me, I remain in sublime awe of the great Unknown." - Michael Shermer

    ~ "Science needs to be released from the lab into the culture." - Richard Dawkins

    Correct: Dawkins' quote above: Should read: "Agnosticism about the causes of both these mass extinctions is reasonable".

  23. Luke,

    Even as a Christian, I can certainly share your sentiments. You just leave me wondering how you are able to coherently put together all of your “sympathies.” Do you feel that it is important to do so? Are you experiencing cognitive dissonance for not doing so?

  24. Mann'sWord,

    My sympathies are fine just the way they are.



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