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, January 03, 2010

Massimo's picks

* A new episode of my "5-minute Philosopher" series is out, on 'David Hume, the jovial skeptic.'

* Check out this hilarious guide to the philosopher's hand signals!

* Just for the ultra-geeks among you, The Big Bang Theory's new version of an old game: Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock...

* Why it is important to teach philosophy to children.

* A semi-serious academic analysis of what it means when the Dude abides...

* Physicists and the quest for meaning.

* Benjamin Radford's picks for the 9 strangest stories of 2009.

* A thoughtful review of Nicholas Wade's "The Faith Instinct," though I'm still pretty sure there ain't no such thing.

* The good news: 29% of Americans say that faith is out of synch with the times. The bad news: 56% still consider it very important in their lives.

* The truth took a beating in the media during 2009, according to PolitiFact.


  1. Good Hume piece. Re not backing up outlandish claims with numbers, agreed, throw that screed away. But that's just my personal preference, because end of the day, numbers are as malleable as people.

  2. Massimo,
    Why are you skeptical of a "faith instinct" - do you have a link to something critical that you or someone else has written on this?

  3. Because an instinct is a biologically ingrained mechanism, and it is very difficult to demonstrate an instinct in human beings, since there is inevitable confusion between nature and nurture.

    What is more likely is that humans beings have a tendency to accept authority, especially when young, and that this tendency is extended into adulthood, and broadened to the concept of god, by religious indoctrination.

  4. Hi Caroline et all, I was about to ask the same question. Discounting the simplistic "God Gene", given the presence of religious behavior in all known human cultures, isn't it reasonable to suppose that there are underlying biological mechanisms, which can simplisticly be described as a "faith instinct"?

    Analogous to "language instinct" (as Pinker). During "faith acquisition" many individual choices are made and particular symbols attached, but there is an innate tendency to find instances of particular objects in the sensate environment ("phonemes"), which are synthesized according to a regular general scheme.

    So "a tendency to accept authority" becomes "find your Mom and your Dad! get their approval!" Identifying Mom at least is pretty typical mammal behavior. Maybe likewise there's a preconceived recognition-structure for "something out there 'Godlike' ".

    I'm reading Stanislas Dehaene's new book Reading in the Brain about a whole cascade of neural structures which chunk away at the written word. It seems to me perfectly reasonable that there would be a cascade of structures that readily organize themselves into religious belief. It seems to me we could probably find out more about that if we thought there was value in it. Granted this is a large research project and there are many facile just-so stories passed around, not from Dehaene.

    Also, Shulevitz' review:
    Church bureaucracies created crucial social institutions but also suppressed the more ecstatic aspects of worship, especially music, dance and trance.

    Has she ever been to church? Religion, hence church, feeds off such things; the point is not to suppress but to define acceptable forms.

    Perhaps that is why he declines to draw one inference that proceeds from his arguments: that individual religions can be compared and ranked and, well, approved or disapproved of, since a religion can be good only insofar as it’s useful.

    Massimo, would you care to comment on this as an ethical matter? Is it legitimate to rank various religions according to social utility?

  5. I don't see a problem ranking placebo effects, I mean religions, according to public utility. Theologians might object...

  6. "Placebo" is a surprising but apt metaphor for an apophatic god; the presumed beneficial agent is in fact not "really" present. Point, the "placebo effect" is not a logical fallacy but a common and effective therapy in ordinary medical settings. It turns out to be a really disruptive effect in drug research : initially promising effects turn out to be due to the 'faith' (counterfactual belief) of the patients rather than pharmacology.

    There is a recognized ethical problem around informed consent. If you have to lie to the patient to reduce his suffering, is that OK? On the one hand, giving aid and comfort to exploitative quackery; on the other, really reducing real suffering. I've seen a comment like "let the idiots be happy; I would rather be right" in any number of forums. ("Here likes the body of Jason J., who died defending the right of way....").

    If you're willing to sort faith structures on the basis of their use as placebos, then I suppose you are acknowledging their real effects in reducing suffering and promoting healing, which seems like a good rational attitude. Placebos make strong empirical evidence for a "faith instinct", a human will to believe (for good or otherwise).

    By not just ranking, but by comparative study of faith structures, perhaps it would be possible to find how to generate the effect without the lie. That would seem to be a vast social good: I hypothecate that people in severe pain tend to make poor decisions.

  7. Blue Ridge,
    Who says that relying on faith is always a lie? Faith 'structures' deal exactly with what they were intended to: mysteries. Sounds like you are on quest for certainty.

    WHAT IF it were possible that one could really know and understand everything that one could imagine? Would that be the best possible state to be in? I don't believe so.

    Tho I still love the quest to understand the world and everyone in it,

    I don't JUST have to know everything.

    Contrary to what some people reason, knowing A LOT will not save your soul or make it unaccountable for what is known. It does tend sometimes ruin one's sense of wonder and thus the loss of ones soul.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.