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.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Michael's Picks

* Austin Dacey asks: are Western atheists willing to give up the pure peace of opposition to God for solidarity with religious minorities?

* A U.S. judge in Boston has ruled, in two separate decisions, that a federal gay marriage ban is unconstitutional.

* The Huffington Post has always been known for pushing pseudoscience. But publishing an essay from a creationist linking Darwin to eugenics and Hitler, and editing out criticism of their choice to publish such an essay, seems an even worse offense.
* A long but good feature piece in The New Yorker magazine on Mike Huckabee, with some interesting insight into his religious background and beliefs.
* A short piece I wrote on my Center for Inquiry blog about the appeal to common practice fallacy, specifically in regard to the compatibility of science and religion.
* Fetuses cannot feel pain before 24 weeks, according to a major review of scientific evidence by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
* And yet, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's Republican opponent, Sharron Angle, opposes abortion in cases of rape and incest because "God has a plan." She even argues such pregnancies give women the chance to make lemonade from lemons.

* Speaking of abortion, NPR has an interesting story on how the focus of the debate is shifting from women to the fetus. Unfortunately, this is largely the result of efforts by religious fundamentalists to limit abortion rights, not secularists trying to clear up murky debate.
* President Obama has some harsh words for Republicans on the issue of the economy.
* Was just given the heads up about an interesting new book: "The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse" by Steven D. Smith of the University of San Diego School of Law.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. About Austin Dacey's question:
    On the one hand, many religious minorities (e.g. the Iraq Shia) are probably just waiting their turn to become dictdatorial and bigoted, as other such minorities had done in the past (e.g. the Iran Shia).
    Besides, some religious minorities are not only intolerant but outright criminal: should we show solidarity with Coptic Christians and also Muslims that practice female genital mutilation in Eritrea, Ethiopia and other neighboring countries of Northeastern Africa? After all it is a deeply held cultural pattern ingrained in their religious and historical heritage.
    Not in my watch. They should be told not to do it any more.
    I was told to be culturally relativistic as a methodological injunction when studying other cultures. But on substantive terms, I'm afraid I'm rather becoming a cultural absolutist lately, especially on important cultural matters such as respect for human rights, openness to science, and suchlike. You can believe in supernatural entities if you like (I don't advise you to do so anyway), but I would keep telling you it is all baloney, and please do not engage in any dangerous activity based on those weird beliefs.

  3. That's how Obama should've been talking about Republicans who oppose his agenda from the moment he was elected. Most people aren't sophisticated enough for the rhetorical strategy he used in its place because it requires too much thinking, rationality, and paying attention. An ideal politician needs to be wise and good enough to pursue the right policies, but he also needs to be a realist when it comes to stirring up the masses. Otherwise, he/she won't have the power to carry out his/her vision.

    We've gotten to the point were the future viability of this nation requires wise drastic bold action, not corrupt half-measures without teeth. Things are too far advanced for anything less to give us a sustainable future of prosperity.

  4. If I believed that abortion is murder, then the fact that the victim doesn't feel pain or that the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest would not justify murder. Only saving the mother's life could justify taking an innocent life.

  5. I respect the emphasis that many atheists place on freedom of thought and discussion, and I am therefore dismayed to read Pareene’s vitriolic article against the “Huffington Post,” which carried David Klinghoffer’s article associating Darwin’s thinking with Hitler and eugenics. Instead of demonstrating the fallacies Klinghoffer’s position, Pareene thought it sufficient to hurl insults – hardly a good example of free-thinking!

    Although I understand that many will find Klinghoffer’s thesis offensive, it is another thing to don the robe of the Grand Inquisitor and shut down all mention of it in favor of the party/majority line.

  6. Max,

    Regarding abortion, we are minds and in an essential sense nothing else. As far as science can tell, the functions of the mind are indelibly connected to the brain. Without the brain there is no mind, and without specific regions of the brain the mind lacks specific corresponding functions. Altered brain chemistry, natural or through drugs, alters the mind in specific ways. Highly specific magnetic interference, I believe they have helmets for this, can force certain basic emotions. So as far as we can tell, the mind and the brain are the same thing. Which means before there is a brain there can be no mind and so we cannot yet exist. This sets in stone the first plausible date for personal origin: 4-6 weeks after conception when the brain starts to develop. We are younger than our bodies by at least that margin. I further believe we don't exist until we become conscious (literally, a human being is conscious entity that is human), and when that is is a much ifier question than the origin of the brain, but it is one whose answer we can have clues for, like the lack pain. One may define pain, pleasure, and other feelings as a necessary part of being conscious, since without feelings there is no motivation.

    Manns Word,

    Darwin's thinking helped spawn the pseudoscience of racial eugenics. That doesn't mean Darwin was the sort of person to endorse what was done in the name of racial eugenics, and that doesn't mean that it wasn't a pseudoscience. Racial eugenics is mostly dead. However, one gets the feeling that excusing evolution in this way is like excusing Christianity for the wrongs committed by people in its name by saying they weren't true Christians. Harmless world views can have destructive children.

    That having been said, pseudoscience is effectively secular religion, so the broader answer remains to be rational, scientific, and humanitarian.

  7. Being a pro-life leaning atheist is a lonely business to be sure.

    I find the minority of abortion proponents to be philosophically grounded and thoughtful. The rest just come off like cliched preachers.

    The very fact that Michael feels the need to post another article that supposedly supports his position only brings to mind white supremacist zealots who point to african americans being disposed to sickle cell anemia as "proof" for their belief.

    "Look I told y'all they wasn't human."

    The fetus doesn't feel pain before 24 weeks!

    "Look I told y'all they wasn't human."

    Get a life, seriously.

    Abortion proponents need to stop fooling themselves about what kind of 'being' a fetus is, and just face up to the extremely difficult choice of killing that it presents.

  8. Jared,

    I believe that killing something that was never conscious or sentient is not murder.
    But I'm perplexed by those who say that abortion is murder, yet the mother shouldn't be punished for it, and it's acceptable in cases of rape and incest. That tells me they don't really believe it's murder.

    On the second topic, it's not unusual for pseudoscience to co-opt a legitimate science. Lately, every other pseudoscience appeals to Quantum Mechanics.

  9. I have had many of my comments deleted on HuffPo, specifically for trying to set Chopra or Lanza straight about quantum mechanics. It's really frustrating. I am toying with the idea of getting together an open letter from renowned physicists explaining to people what can and can't be inferred from the "observer effect."

    Let's just assume that the Nazis did use "Darwinism" to undergird their genocidal project, that doesn't make evolution any less real. The Nazis also used chemistry and physics to kill people, yet no one feel morally obligated to deny those sciences.

  10. Max,

    I agree that seems inconsistent. If you have a firm opinion on when the embryo becomes conscious, then past that point how could you justify killing it merely to protect the mother's well-being short of her of death? That so many take that illogical position manifests that many people don't think this through and instead rely almost solely on their gut feelings to determine their opinion.

    Though, if you considered the question in terms of risks, like the risk of the embryo being conscious at this earlier point is small whereas at some later point it is large, you might be able to justify sacrificing the embryo for lesser moral ends despite acknowledging a risk on the basis that more often than not the greater moral good would be served the greater good be served by permitting termination.

    But in trying to determine whether or not the embryo is conscious, it's ability to feel things like pain is relevant (you claimed it wasn't important). I've become sure of that now actually. That was the specific part of your comment I was addressing.

    Harry C Pharisee,

    It wasn't a question of what kind of a being it was, it was a question of whether it was a being. A vegetable is inherently worthless, likewise so is an embryo without consciousness. It isn't the mere fact that something looks like a person or could become a person that makes it valuable, it is whether or not it is a person.

    Discerning value solely on potential is in a broader sense completely unpractical because it leads to the every sperm is sacred conundrum. Without the hardware of consciousness, there isn't inherent value because you and I don't exist without it. I'm not my arm or my heart or something. They belong to me, but they aren't me. My brain is me. You can exist without an arm, but not without your brain.

  11. Jared said,

    "It wasn't a question of what kind of a being it was, it was a question of whether it was a being."

    It very much is a question of what type of being it is. The arguments are simple. In fact how I will have to word number one is proof of how absurd your position is.

    1. Is a human a human at conception?

    The answer unequivocally is 'yes.' To say otherwise is simply stupid.

    2. Does this single-celled human have a right to life?

    That is a question which doesn't have a correct answer.


  12. @Harry,

    "1. Is a human a human at conception?

    The answer unequivocally is 'yes.' To say otherwise is simply stupid."

    Surely it is human life. But do you consider it a human being? There is an enormous difference.

  13. Massimo: apropos of your talk at TAM8... whatever happened to Julia Galef's piece "Should non-experts shut up? The skeptic's Catch-22", in which she discussed her thoughts about your talk? It was in my RSS feed, but not here on the Rationally Speaking site....

  14. Geoff,

    it will appear again in a minute, our editor inadvertently pushed "publish" instead of "save draft" while he was editing it.

  15. Cute Michael.

    It is a human, living biological individual, not simply an aggregate (if more than a single cell), nor simply a part of the mother. It has a genetic impetus for growth, development, thriving, and the potential to continue thriving. Brain dead humans do not have 'thriving'/ 'potential to thrive,' so I can't rationally call them a human being.

    Also, applying Occam's razor, the type of 'being' could only be human.

    The biological qualities are sufficient for saying it is a human being. Occam's razor alone is sufficient for saying it is a human being.

    But obviously, neither the biological qualities nor Occam's razor are sufficient for saying this human being, or any, has a right to life.

    There is a liberal sanctioned, unjustifiable moratorium on acknowledging that a human is a 'human being' from conception. Proponents have looked to science like some kind of deus ex machina for their conscience.

    Abortion is a question of ethics that cannot be ameliorated by science. It is a sub-category of 'Under what circumstances should a human being be killed?'.

  16. @Harry,

    Cute Michael.

    It is a human, living biological individual, not simply an aggregate (if more than a single cell), nor simply a part of the mother. It has a genetic impetus for growth, development, thriving, and the potential to continue thriving. Brain dead humans do not have 'thriving'/ 'potential to thrive,' so I can't rationally call them a human being.

    Also, applying Occam's razor, the type of 'being' could only be human."

    So, then, to be clear: you afford a pre-24 weeks fetus all the rights and considerations of a fully living human being?

    Also, I'm not sure that's how Occam's razor works. The type of thing being discussed would have to be a "being" or "person" to begin with anyway ...

  17. Harry C Pharisee,

    "1. Is a human a human at conception?"

    I don't care if it is human. So are my skin cells. They even have unique genomes. Human cells on average have a DNA replication error rate of roughly 1 mistake per every 2 rounds of mitosis, and the stratum basalis layer of human skin replicates constantly for your entire life in order to continuously replace the dead skin cells that are constantly flaking off of your skin's surface.

    There is no human being at conception. I am not DNA. I am a mind. Minds are valuable. Mindless tissue has no intrinsic worth.

    "2. Does this single-celled human have a right to life?

    That is a question which doesn't have a correct answer."

    Morality is subjective, not empirical. But that doesn't mean it lacks intuitive answers that most could agree on, and that doesn't mean these intuitive answers don't change when you learn and think more about whatever the moral question is. I would argue that from an informed secular and practical perspective, there isn't much to say for considering brainless or inconcious protohumans more valuable than the liberties and needs of sentient beings. The Earth is overcrowded and strained, and many women just aren't ready to have children yet.

    "It has a genetic impetus for growth, development, thriving, and the potential to
    continue thriving."

    So does cancer, which is also human. So does every living thing in the world. And if you want to argue from potential, sperms and eggs have a genetic impetus to combine and form thriving beings. There isn't an intuitive stopping point if all you care about is potential.

  18. If one is going to bet his whole life's worth (and someone elses life) on studies of when babies feel pain, might as well include all studies that have to do with the problem of pain and when we even start forming judgments about it.

    If at 70 weeks (following articles evidence) we were able to judge good from evil, what happened to many of you all between then and now? Better that someone else (fill in the blank) bear pain and suffering then that we do? A pre six month old mentality I presume? And how did one know that such a judgment was based on good information without knowing good from evil?

    Its "get real" time, people.

    "Six months old and he can tell good from evil"
    Mothers and fathers might think they have few higher duties than teaching a sense of right and wrong to their children. But research suggests that their offspring may already be a step ahead of them.

    Scientists have discovered that babies can start to make moral judgments by the age of six months and may be born with the ability to tell good from bad hard-wired into their brains.

    Infants can even act as judge and jury in the nursery. Researchers who asked one-year-old babies to take away treats from a “naughty” puppet found they were sometimes also leaning over and smacking the figure on the head. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/biology_evolution/article7120735.ece

  19. Morality most definitively correlates to values. Whether these be purely selfish or else partially or entirely selfless or justicial in nature is irrelevant to whether or not they qualify as values. It would seem to me that motivation is an essential aspect of functioning self-awareness, but it isn't required that this motivation be driven by positive rather than negative values for it to exist and carry its essential role in consciousness.

  20. Jared:

    "There is no human being at conception. I am not DNA. I am a mind. Minds are valuable. Mindless tissue has no intrinsic worth."

    Ah Cartesian bullshit at work, the kind that allows for utilitarians to stand in judgment over what makes a life worthwhile. Nice Enlightenment epistemics, care to think for yourself?


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