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.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Julia’s Picks

By Julia Galef
* This New Yorker article from a few years ago has some very insightful points about why biographies skew our perception of reality.

* In light of some recent debates here, I think a lot of you might appreciate Paul Almond's thorough discussion of all the possible ways “supernatural” could be defined, and whether it's a fundamentally incoherent concept.
* I did an interview for the Skeptical Review, in which I talk about me and Massimo, the podcast, the NYC Skeptics, and some other random tidbits.
* Some thoughts on whether most people actually believe in God, or merely believe that they believe in God: a post from George Rey, and another in a similar vein from Eliezer Yudkowsky.
* If you happen to reside, along with me, in the intersection of the three sets {People who know more about philosophy than they have any excuse to}, {Enthusiasts of nerdy puns}, and {Former Dungeons & Dragons players}, then you will most certainly appreciate this comic by Dresden Codak. (Also, if you do reside there: Hello neighbor! Get in touch, it's lonely in this sliver of the Venn Diagram!)
* A useful breakdown by Richard Wiseman of all the ways parapsychologists nullify null results. The utility of this list goes beyond parapsychology, however; it's really applicable to all the shady corners of bad research.


  1. I found the Paul Almond discussion of the supernatural to be thorough and agree that the word 'supernatural' is misused in enough ways to render it meaningless. Ultimately, things that are out there considered at the pale or beyond science will be co-opted into science, as he says, including an understanding of gods as essentially amoral entities operating a cycle or two higher than we do. This he does not does he believe, other than to say it is outside the scope of the article. Fair enough.

    But he does seem to be open to theories which allow for the existence of any possible entity that you can imagine.

    Good Schtuff

  2. That's a good article on the meaning (or non-meaning) of "supernatural".

    I avoid the natural/supernatural distinction when I'm speaking carefully, unless of course I'm arguing against someone who is relying on that distinction. I don't call myself a naturalist, and though I might say casually that "I don't believe in the supernatural", when speaking more carefully I'll say "I don't believe in the kinds of things that are typically labelled 'supernatural'", being deliberately vague about what it is that such "kinds of things" have in common.

  3. Yes, the Paul Almond article is a nice read. But then, I would say that, wouldn't I? (confirmation bias)

  4. @RichardW -- Yes, that's the kind of careful wording I've been trying to get in the habit of, too.

    In a similar vein, I just changed my answer on Facebook's religion question from "atheist" to "ignostic (or: theological noncognitivist)".

  5. I think you like that comic because you strongly resemble Kimiko Lockeweaver.

  6. @Pure Luck -- now that I think about it, I realize that Kimiko's role of "Bayesian empirimancer" is pretty much exactly what I want to be when I grow up.

    And if the gig comes with a sweet hoodie, well, so much the better.

  7. @Julia Galef - I wish you luck with that Julia. Its a good line of work if you can get it. So have you set a date for the whole 'becoming a grown up' thing? I wanted to make sure to send a card.

  8. Thank you for mentioning my article on the supernatural, Julia.

    I will just reply to something that Dave S said:

    Dave S: "This he does not does he believe, other than to say it is outside the scope of the article. Fair enough."

    Okay, I'll be clear on that: I mentioned various "out there" things in the article, such as spirits, ghosts, telepathy, precognition and God . I can safely say that I find claims for the existence of all of these things to be ridiculous. The only reason I didn't say that outright in the article was because that issue was beyond its scope and I didn't want to confuse it with an argument against such things.

    Dave S: "But he does seem to be open to theories which allow for the existence of any possible entity that you can imagine."

    I cannot imagine taking God's existence seriously - in any cosmological view I can think of.

  9. My favorite understanding of "supernatural" is "non-uniform", as in "special pleading/rules". The naturalist assumption is that in some sense phenomena A is "just like" phenomena B - life is "just like" other chemical reactions, the planet's gravity (to use Paul's example) is "just like" how mechanics works in outer-space, and so on. The epitome of naturalism is the uniformity of the fundamental laws of nature - the same laws, applying everywhere and at every time and to every thing.

    In contrast, "supernatural" things are "special" - ghosts obviously don't rely on chemical interactions for their constitution. Often the supernatural is related to special exceptions for Persons (e.g. "people become ghosts when they die"), but often not (e.g. "werewolves get hurt only by silver bullets"). Clearly, one needs to specify further what makes certain exceptions feel more supernatural than others, but the peculiarity and high-level of the exceptions are the gist of it.

    This, I think, is the mysterious "kind of difference" that Paul Almond is referring to - the supernatural amounts to special pleading. Whether that is "profound" or not depends on what you think is profound, but I for one would concede that finding out that the universe has rules that apply only to humans*, say, would be a rather surprising and profound discovery.

    * E.g. "Humans can heal the sick by devoutly praying to god X", supposedly as a brute laws of nature, with no underlying uniform-laws-of-nature mechanism.

  10. Paul Almond's article was brilliant, and more thoroughly written than I would have ever had the patience for. "Supernatural," when we get down to brass tacks, is just a big epistemic Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card.


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