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.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Podcast Teaser: On fluffy thinking
What I claim all these - and many others - have in common is a peculiar type of uncritical thinking, which I refer to as “fluffy.” This is distinct from downright irrational positions, like creationism, for instance, or fundamentalist religious beliefs, or the belief that vaccines cause autism, or that homeopathy can possibly work. In all of these cases one can point either to clear empirical evidence (vaccines do not cause autism, homeopathy does not work, the earth is much more than a few thousand years old), or to the sheer incoherence of the belief (if you read the Bible literally, which of the two distinct stories of creation do you believe?).
The problem with fluffy thinking is that it sounds much more sophisticated, and it is next to impossible to criticize frontally both because it barely has anything to do with empirical evidence, and because it is hard to articulate what, exactly, these people are saying. So, for instance, when Freeman Dyson - who is a really smart guy - says things like “Science is full of mysteries. Every time we discover something, we find two more questions to ask, and so that there’s no end of mysteries in science. That’s what it’s all about. And the same’s true of religion,” what are we supposed to do with that? Besides the trivial observation that the one-for-two ratio is entirely made up (sometimes science does settle questions, and that’s the end of the line), in what sense could this possibly be like religion?
Or when Paul Davies, another guy who ain’t exactly an intellectual lightweight, states “Augustine was onto this already in the fifth century because he was addressing the question that all small children like to ask, which is, What was God doing before he created the universe?,” can we ask Prof. Davies on what, exactly, was Augustine “on”? Certainly not on Einstein’s conception of time (which is the context of this quote), and more likely on nothing at all, since god is a human made construct, and therefore it is rather silly to ask what he was doing “before.”
Or consider Tippett herself: “From a religious perspective, there’s something intriguing, though, in how these ideas of physics might seem to echo spiritual notions that you can find in Eastern and Western religious thought.” No there isn’t. This reminds me of one of the most awful “documentaries” in the history of humankind, “What the Bleep Do We Know?” a mushy concoction - not unlike pretty much every episode of Tippett’s National Public Radio show, Speaking of Faith, where scientific notions are distorted and mixed up with barely intelligible mystical “insights” that are put forward as profound truths.
The question we will be tackling in the podcast is not only the obvious one of whether there is anything interesting in what these people are saying (there isn’t), but rather the much more difficult issue of why it is that smart individuals, who make their living thinking and writing about science and philosophy, are attracted by fluffy thinking. And moreover, why is it that this sort of thing appeals to so many listeners and readers on the grounds that it seems to strike a “balance” between obvious bunk and “cold” reason? Your opinion?