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.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Massimo's picks

* xkcd on what it means to join the tautology club...

* A touching essay against suicide by my friend Jennifer Michael Hecht. With all due respect, however, I am not convinced.

* Pompous French philosopher caught citing a fictional colleague to support his "scholarship." Oops.

* How the brain gets jokes.

* The kind of news people share online. You'd be surprised, it's not all about sex.

* There's no hatred like faith-based hatred.


  1. That's funny about BHL. However, unlike say John Lott, at least he didn't invent his fictional colleague!

  2. Viewing the John Stewart link, I wonder about Tancredo accusing people who can't spell or read "vote." Is he referring to Hispanics? Because in Spanish, "vote" is the 3rd person imperative tense of the verb "votar," meaning "to vote." So in Spanish, "vote" means "Go vote."

  3. Dr. Pigliucci,

    Regarding Ms. Hecht's essay against suicide, you said you're "not convinced". Would you please elaborate?

  4. I'm not sure the essay is good antidote against suicide either.
    I am wondering if pitying someone more may not drive them deeper into the pit of despair.

    In November and December I was taking care of two little girls 4 months and 3 years whose mother took her life.

    All that I know is that THERE WILL NEVER BE WORDS ADEQUATE to explain to the girls what happened to their mother. Instead of leaving the girls a legacy of beauty and joy, she left them one of hardship and intense sadness. It may be that one persons troubles seem to end, but for those who are innocent bystanders their trouble only begins.

    Suicide, I am sure you have all heard it said, is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. And because feelings change all the time, if you hangout for awhile that feeling will be replaced with another one too. And that is a good thing.

  5. Quinn,

    I did not find Jennifer's essay convincing because I think suicide is an inalienable right of the individual, and did not think that her or, frankly, any considerations could significantly alter that.

  6. The way I read the Hecht essay, she was trying to bring home the effect of suicide on people associated with the suicide, rather than trying to convince the suicide that "life is worth living", which is almost impossible to do if one has already begun to doubt it.

    I took the essay as a sort of exhortation rather than a statement about the "right" to commit suicide. It actually gives the interested party something useful that they might say to the potential suicide.

  7. Jon Stewart/Palin link may no longer be live

  8. "I did not find Jennifer's essay convincing because I think suicide is an inalienable right of the individual, and did not think that her or, frankly, any considerations could significantly alter that."

    That may be whatever it may be, but it is clear that pretty much anyone who commits suicide is facing insurmountable guilt and fear over some aspect of their lives. The last suicide we've known of, about a month ago, our youngest daughters friend's father. Turns out he was injured several years ago and was partially disabled. He thought that because he was having a hard time getting a job that he was not of use to his family anymore. And this kind of thinking (stuck in a pattern of guilt and fear) is to be thought of as an inalienable right?

    The last thing I would want anyone to do is to think that their life is worth so little that its not worth living. Every single life DOES HAVE intrinsic value and potential. To say otherwise is cold and calculating and may push some people who have suffered with this kind of irrational thinking to the point believing those untruths floating around in their head. Beliefs do matter incredibly and we certainly live and die by them, don't we.

  9. Dr. Pigliucci,

    I would, then, like to read more about your views on suicide. Would you please blog about it?

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  11. Dr. Pigliucci,

    I should preface my queries with a note that I very much enjoy reading your blog, am sorry for the off-topic nature of this post, and would comment more often (more appropriately too) if I had anything of substance to say. Maybe once I'm through this philosophy of the life sciences course, ha! (But as it is philosophy there will only be more questions and few concrete answers, I'm sure.) Now, onto the questions!

    For whatever reason, I had assumed you possessed an interest in both evolutionary biology as well as philosophy at once. Considering this, it was rather surprising to learn that you did not begin your career as a biologist who also had a philosophy degree but rather as "only" a biologist.

    I am curious as to what prodded you to get a PhD in philosophy? Was it just the conversations you had with philosopher-, or at least philosophically-inclined, colleagues (such as Genie Scott)... and off you went? Additionally, if I may assume that philosophy was taught to you historically, do you find this to have helped at all in (re)framing attitudes towards science? That is, do you think reading, e.g., Locke or Quine has altered your approach when you engage in science because of this background information you now possess? I suppose this question is obvious at least with respect to the evolution/creation debate -- you did say that it does in the last post! -- but I'm wondering about it more generally.

    I realise these questions are kind of out of left-field and somewhat personal, but I've been reading your blog for months now and I'm always rather fascinated by scientists who turn to philosophy because this seems to be such a rarity!

  12. Oscar,

    fair questions, I've actually written a short essays for Philosophy Now on this last year. I always had an interest in philosophy, since high school (good teacher in Italy), then my research in biology became more conceptually oriented, and finally I had the chance to enroll in a PhD program once the University of Tennessee (where I was working as a biologist) hired a young brilliant philosopher of science who became my mentor, Jonathan Kaplan. After that the prospect of a career switch became more alluring, and finally realized with an opportunity offered me by CUNY. I'm really enjoying my second intellectual/academic life.

  13. Roy: "Suicide when life becomes unbearable would seem to be a reasonable choice, but if it will cause suffering n others, and especially guilt, it's probably best that you you make it look like an unavoidable accident."

    Why would life ever have to become unbearable? Isn't the goal of science to get past all that feeling stuff? You guys, being such science buffs and everything, ought to be the LEAST IN FAVOR OF MAKING A (SERIOUS) DECISION just because feelings ebb and change. ??!!! Whats up with that!? Facts are not established this way.

    The concept of "unbearability", Roy, certainly must be a subjective one.

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  15. Our youngest (picture in my prof pic) daughters friend found his father in the barn after he shot himself about a month ago. Picture describes the mood perfectly.

    Roy, I can't imagine finding anything in the world less funny than watching these teens struggling to understand why their lives were not worth enough to their father for him to stick around for them. I watch my daughter, who is really just a kid herself, trying to comfort and love this family and others who have been affected by the whole mess. Sometimes I honestly think it is way too much for all of them to bear...ABSOLUTELY one of the most heart breaking things that I've ever seen!

    The biggest indictment against the gen-x ers, boomers and older is that all we ever do is think about ourselves.

    Time to JUST stop it.

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  17. I didn't find the suicide essay convincing either. But, when thinking about suicide, I think it is useful to consider all the people closest to you who will be devastated. Try to put yourself in their place by imagining one of them committing suicide and how you'd feel.

    But if no one really cares about your life, then no one really care if you're gone.

  18. People definitely come at life with different forms of brokenness that could lead them to doing drastic things.

    First is a person broken and hurt or embittered by life's circumstances but still proud and self-willed on the inside. Those people frequently do things to others without really counting the cost for anyone. That kind of hurt could certainly lead people to consider taking their own lives. It is like there is an intense emotional deficit out there that has to be paid somehow...

    The second type of brokenness is true brokenness. When people seek to understand their personal difficulties or circumstances from a point of humility, it would be difficult if not impossible to engage oneself in acts that would lead to deep discouragement and pain for others.

    Which kind of broken are you?

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  20. "But if no one really cares about your life, then no one really care if you're gone."

    But there are people that if they knew about it (heard the story) they would care. That counts too.

    Most importantly, the Creator of everything that is does care.

  21. Reminding myself to get in the habit of asking people (wherever I am) to pray for them if they even look despondent.

    A year ago my daughter and were at a place she worked at and noticed a woman with tears pouring down her face across the room. We looked at each other and knew we needed to go ask her if we could help her in some way or pray for her. Turns out her husband of 14 years had just been diagnosed with a fast moving prostate cancer. They had no children, were in their mid thirties...very sad situation. In the last few years I have not been able to pray for people in situations like that without just weeping with them and feeling deeply over what is bothering them. I guess I've now gotten waaay past the point of wondering if I'll look foolish even asking if someone needs prayer on to the point of mourning and praying with them NO MATTER WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE to the rest of the world. I mean, whats pretense good for anyway? :)

    And I think in God's heart and because of His love, when you are mourning and sad it really is like there is no one else at that moment. Those thoughts and feelings do matter to the One who created everything.

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  23. Roy

    Heh? :) And we thought I was strange?

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  25. From the book review of The Science of Liberty:

    "...he provides convincing indictments of various illiberal ideologies, from Nazism and Soviet Communism to postmodernist cultural theory."

    Wow. That's quite a list.


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