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.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Podcast teaser: open mic with Julia & Massimo

Believe it or not, we have already taped 14 episodes of the Rationally Speaking podcast, 12 of which have been released on our web site and via iTunes. So for episode 15  (we’ve already taped the two in-between, in case you were wondering about our math) we are going to try an experiment. If successful, we'll do something like it every five episodes, give or take.
The idea is to open our microphones, so to speak, to our listeners. Beginning now and for several days you can ask Julia and me any question that stimulates your skeptical bones, and we'll do our best to answer them in the course of episode 15. Questions can be posed directly in response to this blog post, of course, or — if you like the additional challenge — you can call New York City Skeptics' hot line (212-529-3393) and leave a spoken message.
Now, this is perhaps a bit of an experiment in hubris, as there very well might be questions we have no competence whatsoever answering or commenting upon. We promise we'll stay clear of those, and perhaps use them as suggestions for future shows featuring guests who actually know what they are talking about.
Still, the range of possibilities is pretty wide, from "core" skepticism (you know, ufology, paranormal, etc.), to atheism and secular humanism, to the relationship between science and philosophy — a favorite sparring intellectual territory for Julia and me. We can't wait to hear from you...


  1. My question focuses on something that's been bothering me for some time. We atheists tend to admonish the religious for not admitting anything that would change their mind; i.e. no matter what negative evidence there is, they won't change their mind about anything (and as Sam Harris put it, this means that their belief can't mean anything real about the world). But I need to apply this same standard to myself: what evidence would it take for me to change my mind about god(s)? And when I think about it, I often find it hard to come up with something that would convince me, simply because I think (more or less) there will always be a natural explanation. Like on Stargate SG-1, what may seem to be a supernatural or godly phenomenon will probably be something very much not so. But what does this say about my belief (or lack thereof) about god(s)?

  2. Massimo,

    You ridiculed David Chalmers' thought experiment with zombies, but suppose we have a very good mathematical model of the brain, and we simulate it on a simple but extremely fast computer. It'll behave like a brain, but it won't be conscious, since all it does is perform one arithmetic operation at a time. This explains how human behavior can be replicated without consciousness or qualia. I don't think this proves dualism, but it does suggest that some kind of parallel processing is necessary for consciousness. What do you think?

  3. You need to take on a controversial subject that would divide even skeptics. Like the ontology of the idea of a "nation" or "nationality" or whether humans capacity to think rationally makes them rational beings in any meaningful sense of the word.Maybe something about the moral justification or the efficiency of a democratically elected government vs some other type of government. Find out what is sacred to you and question that. That ll make for an interesting discussion. If of course you want to make it boring you could always debunk astrology or something...

  4. I have got three questions and I don't know if Massimo is willing to answer all of them. The first is did evolutionary biologists get to a co-evolution theory to know the exact way in which evolution happened, gradual or thru jumps - punctuated equilibrium -? My other question is this: Is Massimo a Darwinist - an adaptationist - or a modern pluralist ? and what is the difference?

  5. Max:

    Interesting idea, but I don't think so.

    Suppose we did that simulation. If it *actually* simulates the brain, then it will behave precisely the same as a biological brain.

    Here's the crucial part: that identical behaviour *includes* speaking about consciousness. You simulate the brain, and if it's an accurate simulation it will **talk** about being aware of its own cognition. The perfectly-simulated brain will say things like "I feel that I am aware of my thoughts."

    What is the cause of this behaviour? According to Chalmers, there is
    (1) epiphenomenal (i.e., non-physical) consciousness;
    (2) a SEPARATE reason, in physics, for talking about it (!).

    Yuck. Apply Ockham's razor. I conclude the whole shebang is within physics (or more accurately, mathematics) and is independent of whether it's implemented serially or in parallel.

  6. Here's my question:
    Atheism and skepticism are getting more fashionable these days. While this is good, it also means that we attract a lot of people who aren't really skeptics so much as flag-wavers: they don't believe in astrology (for example) because their friends don't, or it's "weird," or because astrologers are on the other team. In other words, the right opinions for the wrong reasons.

    What are some good tests for actual applied rationality, to distinguish flag-wavers from "real" skeptics?

    See LessWrong post on this topic: http://lesswrong.com/lw/1ww/undiscriminating_skepticism/

    I personally find the Meredith Kercher murder trial to be an excellent example.
    In fact, that could count as a separate question for the RS podcast: what is your opinion on the guilt of Knox, Sollecito and Guede?

  7. Massimo, Julia,

    My questions concern ethics, therefore this will be more or less an inquiry into your personal views. It would be accurate to state that the philosophy coursework offered by my college is, aside from the core subjects, dominated by post-modernism.

    My ethical dilemma arises from the almost ubiquitous presence of Heidegger. How should a rational person approach the specific claims of venerated philosophers (or scientists), that prima facie seem so morally repugnant? Can anything be gained at all from engaging Nietzsche's views of women, Heidegger's support of Hitler etc.? I realize my questions are presupposing a standard, but it seems so basic, that of human equality. -Concerning Heidegger it seems safe to say that a support of fascism is "a vote against" equality.-

  8. Here's my question about science and philosophy.
    Science progresses because scientists can resolve disagreements by making objective predictions and testing whose is better.
    But how do philosophers resolve their disagreements, and how does philosophy progress?

  9. @Harry: re: Nietzsche's views of women, I recommend Maudemarie Clark's "Nietzsche's Misogyny" which is an excellent exegesis of Nietzsche's (at least prima facia) anti-women passages, and how some of them may be understood not as statements about women but about Nietzsche realizing his prejudiced feelings about women. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a full copy of the article in any libraries to which I have access, and have only read about half the article on Googlebooks.

  10. Hi Massimo and Julia,

    I have a question regarding the criticism Massimo has against evolutionary psychology. As an evolutionary psychologist myself, I actually agree with some of the criticism. There are indeed a few studies that are “just so stories” although, as an emerging field, there is an uneven quality of research and it’s easy to pick the bad ones.

    However, I would like to point out that in social sciences (where evolutionary psychology has one foot) there are almost always competing theories. To me, this is like detective work. We try to find clues or evidence that will support one theory over the other. Just because different theories exist, it doesn’t mean that all have the same likelihood to be right. This is especially true with evolutionary psychology. Yes, we might never know if a certain trait is adaptive, but we can find converging evidence to support this claim, which makes it the most likely explanation for the phenomenon.

    Take for example male mate preferences. Men want to copulate with fertile women and look for honest cues that will indicate that a certain woman is fertile. One obvious clue is her age. We can expect that men will prefer younger women during peak fertility. Indeed, we find that men all over the world prefer mating with young women (they don’t always get what they want, but this is a different issue). Also, men consider lower waist to hip ratios to be attractive because it signals both fertility and health. Symmetric faces (for both sexes) are also more attractive because they are a sign of developmental stability (no pathogens hurt the symmetry) and so on.

    Other examples may not be that clear cut, but still, they might introduce the most plausible explanations. For example, people’s aesthetic preferences for green landscapes (as they were common in the savanna) are found all over the world, even with people that never lived near such a landscape. So we might not always be 100% sure that a certain explanation is correct, but we can come up with a good theory that generates predictions that can be tested.

    So my question is, if a theory generates testable hypotheses, even if they won’t 100% confirm it, but can still support it, why is this not a science? More generally, research in evolutionary psychology produces innovative data that never before existed. Even if the underlying theory is completely wrong or can be interpreted differently, the data is still out there. Good science does not mean that the data has to support the theory in all cases, and it can be valuable as it is. If you produce new data, even if the theory is wrong, is that not science?

  11. I would like you to respond to this skeptical argument:

    If Physicalism is true, then the belief in Physicalism can’t be rationally justified.

    If physicalism is true, then our beliefs and experiences are a result of the universe’s initial conditions and causal laws (which may have a probabilistic aspect).

    Therefore, assuming physicalism, we don’t present or believe arguments for reasons of logic or rationality. Instead, the arguments that we present and believe are those entailed by the physics that underlies our experiences.

    It is *possible* that we live in a universe whose initial conditions and causal laws are such that our arguments *are* logical. But in a physicalist framework that’s not why we present or believe those arguments. The fact that the arguments may be logical is superfluous to why we make or believe them.

    Obviously there’s nothing that says that our physically generated experiences and beliefs have to be true or logical. In fact, we have dreams, hallucinations, delusions, schizophrenics, and madmen as proof that there is no such requirement.

    So arguing for physicalism is making an argument that states that no one presents or believes arguments for reasons of logic.

    Note that the exact same argument can be applied to mathematical realism, or any other position that posits that consciousness is caused by or results from some underlying process.

  12. Massimo,

    I've listened to your debate with Jerry Fodor twice now. I wonder if you would revisit or revise that debate in any way. His argument is unintelligible to me. Can you diagnose it for me? In particular, he admits that that biologists can correctly discern that the heart was selected for pumping, not noise, yet he maintains this correct conclusion "doesn't follow from any theory we have." I don't know how that can exist with his concurrent argument that "Darwinism" is a truism. At any rate, the crux of his argument seems to be: "We don't have an account of intensional causation." He must mean this only for the case of co-extensive traits, or is this a general claim about causation? (I suspect he thinks he is making the former claim, but, in fact, is retreating, as most deniers do, to a convenient application of Hume in the latter.)

    Can you construct and refute Thomas Nagel's position on Kitzmiller? It seems to me to be a very similar type of argument.

    Both men are making what they want to by hyper rational arguments that are supposedly daring in the way they fly in the face of polite scientific company. Yet both seem to be groping around at the boundary of science and philosophy to make fussy points with very little actual value. This is the "dancing on the head of a pin" that Eugenie Scott complains about.

  13. Do you think older philosophies become untenable or newer philosophies are simply what is fashionable? Or is one simply a progression into another?

  14. Julia & Massimo here is the back story and the questions.

    The Back Story

    Many years ago (too many now) during an undergraduate psychology course, our professor commented Freudian theory/science was both profoundly influential and profoundly wrong/bad. Ironically, our professor continued, because of this Freud's work inspired other theorists and experimental psychologists to disprove him. If nothing else--the argument ran--Freud's bad psychology stimulated good psychology. There are, of course, those who argue the opposite: This same combination of bad science and influence stalled progress in psychology.

    The Questions

    Let us assume Freud was both influential and wrong. Did Freud impede or inspire the science of psychology? Or, did he actually have that great an influence either way?

    Has there been a similar phenomenon in other sciences?
    If so, what was the result: Did a grand theory inspire new research in an attempt to challenge, thereby stalling the or conversely accelerating the science?


  15. Massimo,
    I fomd your position on climate change a bit simplistic and not quite skeptical. Usually you argue by numbers: anthropogenic climate change is supported by the majority of scientists, whilst denial is a fringe position, therefore the former is preferable. I have several times commented that this (besides being an argument based on plurality of votes, not on the solidity of science) is a strawman argument, only acceptable against pure denialists. Within people who could agree that human activity has increased the Earth temperature you may find many diverging opinions on many issues, and some determined critics of some aspect of the theory.

    For instance, Antony Watts has argued that the instrumental record from 1850 onwards reflects a lot of local heat effects not recognized by accepted Urban Heat Island adjustments, and has done an extensive survey of meteorological stations to prove his point (which does not deny anthropogenic warming, but disputes its extent).

    Another example: Steven McIntyre has disputed the assertion that current warming is unprecedented over the latest 1000/2000 years (as reflected in the famous Hockey Stick chart). He does not deny the assertion: he only asked how they know, what are the data and the computer routines used for processing those data.

    Both have entountered little disposition in established climate science to discuss their questions and findings, and (in the case of McIntyre) their polite questions have elicited a whole array of unseemly behaviours documented in Climategate: refusing to share data or computer code, interference with the peer review process, and more.

    There are also other examples, none "denying" anthropogenic climate change, and all based on prima facie sound scientific arguments and data.

    I long for a serious attempt by Massimo to probe into the actual operation of self-correcting (or self-perpetuating) mechanisms within the climate science discipline, and its relation to the IPCC institutional setting. Up to now, Massimo's position on this matter does not differ much from the position of Charles, Prince of Wales, hardly a skeptical mind in ecological matters, if you allow me this opinion.

  16. Hector,

    > Up to now, Massimo's position on this matter does not differ much from the position of Charles, Prince of Wales, hardly a skeptical mind in ecological matters, if you allow me this opinion. <

    Really? I suggest you do your home work on climate change, my positions, and Charles's. You will see that there is a difference.

  17. Hector,

    This stuff has already been addressed. When scientists analyzed the "best" meteorological stations, and compared the result to an analysis of all the stations, there wasn't much difference.
    Sir Muir Russell's team was able to gather data from original sources, analyze it, and reproduce the graphs relatively easily. Which raises the question why McIntyre barraged climatologists with dozens of frivolous FOI requests, each of which requires at least 18 hours just to turn down.

  18. Massimo, I'd love to hear you talk about your SkeptiKo interview recently with Alex (not even going to try to spell his name).

  19. G'day Massimo,
    Thanks for the opportunity to raise questions.

    Can you please give your thoughts on the ACT principles for happiness? Is there solid scientific research behind the psychology?

    I am currently reading 'The Happiness Trap'.


  20. A gloss on Allen, who said:If Physicalism is true, then the belief in Physicalism can’t be rationally justified.

    If Physicalism (or any sort of complete determinism) is true, then NO belief can be rationally justified. But some beliefs can be rationally justified. Hence Physicalism/complete determinism is false.

  21. Massimo, some self-acclaimed positive atheists reject theism on their lack of supporting evidence, while you seem to reject theism on their being impervious to reason and empirical inquiry -e.g. the young Earth creationists' claim that the earth only *looks* older is unanswerable -in the sense of unfalsifiable.

    If I understand this correctly, then this makes you the most aggressive and anti-accomodationist of all atheists (if theism is irrational then argument is impossible). Correspondingly -and ironically, this makes supposedly hard core atheists look rather soft: they at least accept theistic claims as answerable by science and thus congenial to it in principle.

    Do I understand you correctly?

  22. heuristicist has made I think essentially the same question I submitted, and more succinctly than mine, but I didn't read it. Sorry.

  23. phiwilli,

    Ok, this is getting pretty silly.
    Obviously, I can justify the belief that the Earth is round. All the evidence confirms this.
    But why believe the evidence?
    Because I don't want to be an ignorant moron.
    Why don't I want to be an ignorant moron?
    Because my brain is wired to not want to be a moron.

  24. phiwilli,

    First - in my comment I just said physicalism. You added the extra qualifier of deterministic physicalism. Why?

    The problem isn’t deterministic vs. indeterministic physicalism. The problem is bottom-up causality.

    In physicalism, everything reduces to fundamental laws (electromagnetism, strong and weak forces, and gravity) acting on fundamental entities (electrons, quarks, gluons, etc.).

    So in a physicalist framework, conscious experience is a result of more fundamental processes, and has no causal power itself.

    Second - How do you rationally justify your belief that some beliefs can be rationally justified? This is the Munchhausen Trilemma, right?

    So, a more concise statement of my point:

    If our conscious experiences are caused by some more fundamental underlying process, then no one presents or believes arguments for reasons of logic or rationality.

    Instead, one presents and believes arguments because one is *caused* to do so by the underlying process.

    The underlying process *may* be such that it causes us to present and believe logical and rational arguments, but there is no requirement that this be the case.

    If the underlying process doesn’t cause us to present and believe rational arguments, there would be no way to detect this, since there is no way to step outside of the process’s control of our beliefs to independently verify the “reasonableness” of the beliefs it generates.

    In other words: crazy people rarely know that they’re crazy. People who are wrong never believe that they are wrong.

    Note that this is true of every possible position that has conscious experience caused by a more fundamental process.

    1) The universe’s initial conditions and causal laws *may* be such that they cause us to have true beliefs about reality, but there is no requirement that this be so.

    2) “God” *may* be such that he causes us to have true beliefs about him and reality, but there is no requirement that this be so.

    In both cases, we are depending on luck. Luck that we live in a universe with "honest" initial conditions and causal laws, or luck that we have an "honest" God (though, then how to explain schizophrenics and manic-depressives?).

    Because in no case can we step outside of our beliefs and independently verify that they are logical and rational.

  25. The argument about Physicalism above is somewhat related, I believe, to an elaborate argument by Alvin Plantinga about the incompatibility of naturalism and evolution (or some similar thing). Such arguments are based essentially on logic and reason and, from what I can see, are taken very seriously by many philosophers and logicians.

    In this spirit, my question(s) to M&J would be: what should we make of this kind of logical argument and brand of philosophers? Is there any compelling reason (!) to believe that we can find truths about reality by logic and reason alone? And so on.

    This question has been worrying me for some time as I am under the impression that this line of argument is still very much in use. Seems to my skeptical bones that finding truths just by thinking is too good to be true.

  26. Hello Julia and Massimo.
    My first question has to do with the limit between science and philosophy. Is there any "demarcation" theory of philosophy and science?. In the good old times the pre-scientists were called natural philosophers, and used a mixture of philosophy and science-like for their investigations. Then the scientific method was formalized better and the disciplines seem to have separated somewhat more. Obviously there is no impediment for a person to use philosophical and scientific arguments for a particular reasoning pathway,so i am trying to avoid a false dichotomy here, but I am talking more about the disciplines per se. When do the philosophers turn around and say "you know what, this is more like science, let's change the methodology of investigation". This seems even more important when some scientific disciplines seem to have reached the limit of human cognition and are headbutting more with problems of comprehension and interpretation than of application of the scientific method (which by the way is one of my hypothesis of why String theory has not advanced more. It's becoming more a philosophical conundrum than a scientific one, and pure scientists are not good at that).

    My second question has to do with philosophical arguments that seem to be based on current lack of scientific knowledge about a situation, while others are based on para-scientific parameters (and therefore non evaluable by science. For example, the discussion about the issue of consciousness and artificial intelligence continues mainly because we don't have one at the present time. Let's imagine that we can build a computer with the processing power equivalent to our brains, then we could empirically verify if it suddenly becomes conscious or not. Another one has to do with the anthropic principle. Recently there was a study about how some of the values of the constants could actually be different and the formation of the stars/galaxies would be still possible, and that the range was larger than thought when they were computer modeled. Therefore the philosophical reasoning besides this point could be reduced to simple scientific modeling (and this is even without taking into account the theoretical possibility of actually empirically testing the existence of other universes).
    The question is: Is there any way to identify philosophical arguments that are arguments due to current lack of scientific knowledge versus the ones that are not? Or is this one of those "unknown unknowns"?

  27. Allen, is the Earth round? Is the moon made of Swiss cheese?

  28. @JP Good point and question. I second it. But I think, sadly, if there is going to be a time for skeptics to speak up, countering logical flimflammery is it. Unlike with the free pass that mystics try to wrest from quantum mechanics, one doesn't have to be a trained physicist to see the smuggled assumptions hidden in these logic games. It starts by taking as a certainty something that would require absolute knowledge to affirm: everything that comes into being must have a cause, all events are inevitable results of initial conditions, the conceiving of God is impossible without the existence of God, etc. And then the second thing you can try to do is require these masters of logic to apply their logic consistently, because they usually put that tool away as soon as they've thrown enough dust in the air to cover their self-serving tracks. But you need to avoid being sucked into an endless discussion of the argument itself and not the import of the argument. In the end, you're not likely to dissuade the true believer, but you might cause a convert to reconsider, and there's always the consolation that almost no one is every brought to Jesus (or mysticism) through these inherently unsatisfying syllogisms. It takes a Spinoza or a Nietsche to really be moved by arid abstractions.

  29. My observations are consistent with a round Earth and a non-cheese moon - but to say that these things have exist independently of my observations would require a leap of faith from methodological naturalism to metaphysical naturalism.

    And for some reason, I balk at taking that leap. If physicalism is true, my balkiness is due to the univere's initial conditions and causal laws.

    But even if initial conditions and causal laws explain my balkiness, what explains those particular initial conditions and causal laws?


  30. @OneDayMore: It looks to me as though you have taken science as your religion, and are now engaged in an ideological struggle with the more traditional sects for converts...

    You don't think that everything that comes into being has a cause? Not even a quantum mechanical cause? Wouldn't that make the universe a pretty strange, effectively lawless, place? With uncaused things popping into existence periodically? Though one would wonder what "causes" this to be so infrequent, as I've never seen it happen.

    Events aren't the inevitable result of initial conditions and causal laws (which of course may have a probabilistic aspect)? But wouldn't this means that everything is actually random, and just appears orderly? Of course, in an infinite amount of time any possible sequence of events, no matter how improbable, will eventually occur an infinite number of times. So, maybe we're just having a good run of the dice.

    So I have no problem with accepting this, but they seem to run counter to your position of Scientific Realism.

    In this vein, I recommend Quentin Meillassoux's paper Time Without Becoming.

    Also, It's interesting that you mention Nietzsche, as I recently came across this quote from Lee Braver on Nietzsche:

    "Although God is the oldest and most obvious example of an independent reality issuing commands, it is by no means the only one. Nietzsche holds that science 'is not the opposite of the ascetic ideal but rather the latest and noblest form of it' (Nietsche, GM 3.23). It succeeded Christianity because the religion undermined itself when its demand for honesty revealed its own reliance on lies. Science, on the other hand, maintains the essential structure of submission to external, independent reality - 'science and the ascetic ideal both rest on the same foundation' (3.25) - without the same vulnerability. Although the atheistic scientists of his day considered themselves daring and free - one thinks of the nihilist scientist in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons - Nietsche considers them 'far from being free spirits: for they still have faith in truth' (3.24). The legitimation and passivity of reflecting an independent world are irresistable to the weak, whether the commands come from God or reality."

    By "truth" he's referring to a correspondence theory of truth, BTW.

    Again, I recommend Kant. Regarding his first antinomy, a Roger Scruton quote:

    "Suppose we were to accept the big bang hypothesis concerning the origin of the universe. Only a short-sighted person would think that we have then answered the question of how the world began. For what caused the bang? Any answer will suppose that something already existed. So the hypothesis cannot explain the origin of things. The quest for an origin leads us forever backwards into the past. But either it is unsatisfiable- in which case, how does cosmology explain the existence of the world? - or it comes to rest in the postulation of a causa sui - in which case, we have left the scientific question unanswered and taking refuge in theology. Science itself pushes us towards the antinomy, by forcing us always to the limits of nature."

    Though, returning to the topic of the original post, I'd be very interested to hear Massimo and Julia discuss these issues.

    If you're going to be skeptical, why not go all the way?

  31. @JP:

    "Seems to my skeptical bones that finding truths just by thinking is too good to be true."

    But do we ever really get outside our thoughts?

    Do you think you have direct access to the world as it really is?

    A quote from "Blood Meridian", by Cormac McCarthy (who also wrote "No Country For Old Men"):

    "The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

    The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man's mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others."

  32. Hi Allen,

    I am simply saying that we can obtain information (or knowledge) about reality by interacting with it in various ways: we observe, make experiments, and so on. My point relates to the question of whether there is a shortcut to this knowledge. It would indeed be very handy if we could do without all this fussy and difficult experimental work. But - as I said - that seems to good to be true.

    If you want to question whether an external world exists or not, or related matters, I will follow with interest what you and others might say. But I would probably not contribute to the discussion.

    Thanks for the quote, by the way, it's an interesting one.

  33. Allen,

    I make no claims to ultimate knowledge. To quote Newton, "hypothesis non fingo." Everything that comes into existence may or may not require a cause. Other than quantum events (which I don't pretend to understand) or the universe (which we can't know) there is absolutely no known instance of something coming into existence ex nihilo. In fact I don't think there is even an example of something having a single cause. I'm not talking about Hume, I'm talking about empiricism. There are scientific explanations for all sorts of physical events. None of them that I know of (again outside the sub atomic realm) is an example of things having but one cause. And quantum fluctuations are, in fact, examples of things having NO cause. Clearly, then, any cosmology that is founded on the claim that everything must have a single cause, is placed on very shaky ground.

    We certainly don't know, as you claim that:

    "In physicalism, everything reduces to fundamental laws (electromagnetism, strong and weak forces, and gravity) acting on fundamental entities (electrons, quarks, gluons, etc.)."

    This would be a theory of everything, which we do not have.

    What then DO we know about the universe? We know everything that science knows. We know all about the pedestrian causality of science, but not about ultimate causality. This is a cautious scientific (and to many mystics) unsatisfying position. But that's just the way it is. We are small parts of a vast universe. The best tool we have to know more is science, not armchair logic games.

    Furthermore, I don't think I've taken science as my religion. I think I have, as everybody must, made a presupposition. Namely, that the future will mostly resemble the past. Or that there are other minds, or that my data corresponds in some way to reality, or that I am the same person I was a moment ago. Any one of those assumptions will get you to a scientific world view. Not much of a religion, but if that's what you want to call it, go ahead. It would then be incumbent on you to show how your assumptions are more or less parsimonious and internally consistent and PRODUCTIVE than mine.

  34. By declaring yourself a Scientific Realist, you are making a claim about the ultimate nature of what exists. That what fundamentally exists is physical, and that scientific theories are not just true of our observations but also substantially true of the world that causes the observations.

    As to Newton, he was referring specifically to how gravity seemed to act at a distance without a intermediate mechanism to transmit the force. BUT, he didn't abstain from inferring causes more generally.

    In that same work, the Scholium Generale, Newton stressed that God was the Lord, Ruler, and Pantocrator of the universe. God ruled the universe not as one rules one's own body, but as a Sovereign Prince.

    So, Newton had his ultimate explanation, and his first cause.

    Continuing: It doesn't matter whether there were multiple first causes or just one. Or indeed whether there are uncaused events occuring now. The key thing is that things which have no cause have no explanation.

    Science may describe these "uncaused" events, but it can't explain them - since to explain them would be to ascribe a cause.

    On a related note, I think you're mistaken in your view that quantum fluctuations have no cause.

    Assuming physicalism, quantum mechanical laws would still enforce the necessity of the particular probability distributions that are observed.

    The probabilistic aspect takes place within the fixed and unchanging context of quantum mechanics. Like the randomness of the shuffle takes places within the deterministic rules of poker.

    Do the rules of poker change from one day to the next? The suits? The number of cards in the deck? Are those aspects random? No.

    Quantum mechanics has similarly fixed aspects. The randomness that is observed occurs within a fixed and apparently reliable deterministic framework.

    As for the PRODUCTIVITY of your beliefs: First, productive doesn't mean true.

    Second, if you are right about scientific realism then what is the significance of productivity in a universe without free will? I say this not because free will is important to me, but because I find it curious that productivity is so important to you. Why is that your standard for choosing beliefs? Is it a kind of crypto-hedonism?

    As for parsimoniousness and internal consistency, I think I have you beat on both by a wide margin. Which is why I abandoned scientific realism in the first place.

  35. Allen,

    If by "ultimate claim of what exists" you mean, the simple assumptions I listed, then yes, you are right. Until given a good reason to change my position (and I don't find your logic and un-admitted assumptions to be good reason) I will assume that because I can tell the difference between a dream and reality, because I am pretty sure there are other people in the universe with me, because we can compare notes, then we can do the science thing. I don't expect to have an answer about free will and causality until later (probably never). So odd that you feel you have that now.

    Why is productivity important to me? That's the whole point of science. The theories that don't produce go away. Wouldn't you say that the theory that lays around and does nothing but assert that only consciousness is real is the more hedonistic? Get up, theory, pay your way! "Nah, I don't believe in free will, so I'm just gonna sit in a syllogism."

    As to internal consistency, I don't know how you justify using the scientific method without admitting to scientific realism. How can it work if it doesn't correspond in some way?

    Oddly, all your arguments about quantum mechanics are similar to ones I would normally use to defend scientific realism against woo. For someone who claims not to believe in scientific realism, you do a lot of "assuming physicalism."

  36. And...coming back to the questions to Massimo and Julia. I am reading a statistic books, and i am currently in the area of confidence intervals. They have a very interesting discussion on the origin of p<0.05 as a "limit" for significance, and the lack of mathematical or scientific basis for this limit.
    My question is related to this: Are scientific "myths"(supported by the general scientific group) harder to change than non scientific "myths"? Is this a "not one of us" kind of thing? I have noticed a clear resistance in my colleagues at work when I tell them that you shouldn't just discard the hypothesis when the p is 0.058, while I have no such problems when talking about fake statements in politics.

  37. @Allen
    "But do we ever really get outside our thoughts?
    Do you think you have direct access to the world as it really is?"

    Maybe not. Maybe the world as we perceive it is a mere ghostly shadow of what is Truly Real(TM). But seeing as how we live in the ghostly shadow, *I'd sort of like to know how the ghostly shadow works.*

    It seems to me that you are using our epistemic limits as humans to Trojan-horse in crazy new ontologies. No pasaran.

  38. Yannis,

    The p-value is simply the probability of a false alarm, given that the Null hypothesis is true. The acceptable limit depends on the application.

    There's also the Likelihood-ratio test, which directly compares the a-posteriori probabilities of the competing hypotheses. The more probable one wins, so there's no need to set arbitrary thresholds. However, the calculation requires the prior probabilities of the competing hypotheses, which are usually unknown and can only be guessed.

    I can give a nice coin-flipping example if anyone is interested.

  39. A couple of practical questions for Julia and Massimo.
    1. Does voting involve some self-deception that your one vote makes a difference? Do you ever feel like voting is not worth the hassle, especially when it's not a close race?
    2. Is it irrational to drive some distance to save $20 on a $40 item, but not drive the same distance to save $20 on a $400 item?

  40. @OneDayMore:

    "As to internal consistency, I don't know how you justify using the scientific method without admitting to scientific realism. How can it work if it doesn't correspond in some way?"

    So this is reminiscent of Hilary Putnam's observation:

    "The positive argument for realism is that it is the only philosophy that doesn't make the success of science a miracle."

    However, it accomplishes this by slight of hand, smoke and mirrors. It moves the "miracle" to the very special initial conditions and causal laws that are required to make scientific truth possible.

    But surely you agree that the miracle is still there - it's just easier to ignore. Right?

    Again, the methodology of science doesn't require a metaphysical leap of faith. The methodology seems to work. That's enough.

    Further, taking the leap of faith doesn't help because you still have all the same questions when you land, plus a few new ones.


    I think assuming that our experiences are a ghostly shadow of what is truly real is still too speculative.

    Why not: "Our experiences are what is truly real. End of Story."

    Your use of "works" implies an underlying mechanism. What could explain the existence of such a mechanism?

    I don't have a problem with methodological naturalism. I have a problem with metaphysical naturalism.

    I'm not trying to introduce crazy new ontologies. I'm trying to point out that you believe in a crazy old ontology.

    But if you are going to abandon skepticism and embrace metaphysics, then it seems to me that the most justifiable and least problematic position would be to just hypostatize skepticism by asserting that only conscious experience exists.


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