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, August 19, 2010

Massimo’s Picks

By Massimo Pigliucci
* In case you haven’t noticed, I now have an “official” Philosophy & Skepticism page on Facebook.
* Jon Stewart shows — once again — how some of our politicians are not just inept, but profoundly stupid.
* The latest Rationally Speaking podcast, one full hour (!!) of Julia and yours truly answering listeners’ questions.
* There is a discussion going on over at It’s Only A Theory on “epistemic egalitarianism.”
* The Stone on the relationship between imagination and knowledge.
* Philosophy Talk: should body parts sales be regulated?
* Christopher Hitchens is “not going gently” according to the New York Times. And why should he?
* An old but always relevant essay on bridging the two cultures, New Age and Skepticism, that is.
* The relevance of William James.


  1. The podcast was excellent! You guys should definitely do another Q&A sometime.

    The answer you gave to my question about tests for skepticism is pretty good - merely asking 'How do you know?' can get a lot of mileage.

    However, in my experience it is very common for smart people to *personally* reach some conclusion in a way that is rationally indefensible, then go out and find the rational arguments to defend their existing position. Since humans are naturally brilliant sophists, your question doesn't help much with those cases.

    For example, what fraction of people who bash creationism using scientifically correct arguments PERSONALLY rejected creationism BECAUSE OF those arguments? If I had to guess, I'd say maybe 50%. The other half rejected creationism because of previous liberal/atheist commitments, then went out and found the arguments. That's dark-side epistemology just as bad as apologetics; it just accidentally led to the right conclusion.

    For this reason it may sometimes be more instructive to just ask someone for their position on an issue that requires skeptical thinking but is not part of the skeptical 'canon.' If somebody can successfully wade through the Meredith Kercher trial and argue the right conclusion, without knowing what All The Right People think about it, I award them ten Epistemic Rationality points.

    Other useful issues: genetic engineering, nuclear (fission) power, IQ tests. Any others that people here can think of?

    In re: Jon Stewart - it's a minor quibble, but we outside the USA can't watch Comedy Central videos directly, so when you post one you might consider a Youtube link instead, if one exists.

  2. Thanks for addressing my question on the progress in philosophy, it wasn't quite what I was getting at which is my fault for not being specific enough.

    The question occurred to me because I read a response from what I think was a philosophy student who said they couldn't understand Richard Dawkins because he seems like a Victorian rationalist (or words to that effect) and no one is a Victorian rationalist any more.

    Since I'm ignorant of philosophy I immediately curious, is there something wrong with "Victorian rationalism" or is it simply out of fashion?

    Also as far as I can see Epicureanism is as valid today as it ever was but is not as popular as it once was.

  3. downquark,

    I think the issue with Dawkins is that he describes himself as "a son of the Enlightenment." There is nothing wrong with the Enlightenment in terms of a historical period with much needed emphasis on rationality, but philosophy of science has since shown that many Enlightenment positions were a bit naive and over-rationalistic, so that today an intellectual really ought to move a bit past a simple Enlightenment approach.

  4. Agreed, great podcast. I'd love to hear discussion of all the topics at greater length.

    Julia, during the question on voting, you said something in passing that was intriguing. To paraphrase: That you don't believe in "duty." Can you elobarate on that?

    Do you mean you don't believe in the concept at all in any way? Or just not a general duty to country or fellow citizens? Or to self? Do you believe in duty when upholding a contract between people? Or do you refer to that with a different word? How does this compare with "responsibility"?

  5. Massimo: It is very possible that Dawkin's idea of Enlightenment is naive and overly simplistic. You can criticize him for using the wrong term to label himself, or for misrepresenting the Enlightenment. However, exactly what he does, as a scientist and as a public intellectual, is so out-dated? It seems to me that all he says is that we should be as rational as possible. You certainly wouldn't object to that, would you?

  6. optical,

    of course I don't object to more reasonability (though look for a forthcoming essay here on hyper-rationality). But I have taken Dawkins to task before for relying on too simplistic a view of science and too expanded a view of rationality. Science and rationality can do less than Dawkins think they can.

  7. To be fair Dawkins is often talking to people who have difficulty understanding what a theory is. A naive understanding of Popperian science would be a blessing.

    And I've heard Dawkins give more credit to philosophy than many other British intellectuals do, although he sometimes scoffs at it. He does say that science can inform morality but can't define it.

    In some circles your disagreements with him would be called academic nitpicking.

  8. downquark,

    yes, I can be accused of nitpicking. Dawkins can be accused of sloppiness and occasional intellectual arrogance. A rose by any other name...

  9. @dwayne:
    Julia appears to be something like a classic utilitarian, certainly a consequentialist. If you look them up you will see they frame ethics in terms of the results of an action, not in terms of duties.

    Some consequentialists like me split the difference with game theoretic arguments, but typical consequentialists don't think that duties are a useful way of deciding moral questions.

  10. @dwayne -- Yes, ianpollock's pretty much right on.

  11. Julia, I'm a bit surprised. Isn't consequentialism a philosophical position? I thought you rejected the very idea of non-arbitrary ethics.

  12. @Massimo and ianpollock:

    Yes, that's why I added the "pretty much." I don't defend utilitarianism, or any other system as the objectively "correct" one, because I don't think there's any coherent way to do that.

    Instead, I pursue whatever ends I personally care about, but those ends frequently include other people's (and animals') well-being. The crucial point here which I think you're missing, Massimo, is that caring about others' well-being is different from claiming that doing so is the objectively "right" thing to do.

  13. OK, I can understand that. It still doesn't quite sit right with me, but maybe I have a different (and probably less technical) definition.

    If you frame ethics in terms of the results of an action, don't you feel it's your responsibility to do just that? Or can you arbitrarily decide not to pursue the best results?

    With regard to the voting discussion, I felt like Massimo touched on the point that voting is a duty precisely for utilitarian reasons -- not necessarily because you are likely to change the outcome of a specific election, but because by voting, you encourage participation in the system itself, and in the long term, that should benefit you and everyone else.

    Or, a simpler example: If you order a meal at a restaurant, do you consider it your duty to pay? Or is paying just an action that happens to produce the best results?

    Thanks to you and Massimo for the podcast, by the way.

  14. @Julia: I think it's crucial in discussions of ethics to never use words like "arbitrary" "objective" and "subjective" without first unpacking them completely.

    There is an infinity of different ethical systems that could exist and could be used by other life forms than humans, many of which would strike us humans as dreadful (e.g., if termites suddenly got big brains, their ethics would likely not concern itself much with individual suffering or give a damn about freedom).

    But to the extent that humans are similar in their evolved ethical intuitions and terminal values, we can abstract away a common *human* morality (excluding psychopaths and outliers). This morality of ours is of course going to be really, really complicated and ad hoc, as befits a product of evolution.

    Our set of terminal values and morals is "objective" in the sense that it is the unique answer for humans (well, at least up to the 2nd decimal place or so), but it is "subjective" or "arbitrary" in the sense that there's nothing besides humanity's preferences that would recommend IT as opposed to the other infinitely many possible ethical systems. It all comes down to human preferences, but those are not arbitrary for healthy people. If you tell me you love suffering, I probably just won't believe you.

    We can see classic ethical theories like consequentialism, deontology etc. as being attempts to condense our thousand terminal values to reasonably simple rules, and like all approximations, they will break down in extreme cases. Consequentialism is great until it starts requiring you to sacrifice people for the higher good and remove their autonomy, deontology is great until the duty to not lie (or whatever) prevents you from saving lives, virtue ethics is great until you get into a real pickle and you just don't know what the phronimos would do.

    You said: "caring about others' well-being is different from claiming that doing so is the objectively 'right' thing to do."

    The critical issue here is: is it possible for humans to be in error about their own morality? If not, then truly, making moral claims *is* just so much hot air.

    However, the fact that someone may morally regret a previous decision tells us that we do not always have access to the details of our own morality (just like we may want to be rational, but not actually know exactly what the rational action is in a particular situation).

    Therefore, moral arguments like "caring for others is the right thing to do" should be seen as an attempt to get people to follow *their own* moral principles to their logical conclusions. But yes, if you meet a superintelligent termite, don't bother arguing morality; just get a big gun.

  15. Curmudgeon at large here.....re Time article...Knowledge is a subset of imagination - those two should not be as divorced as the author makes them to be

    re podcast - Good one. I never hear skeptics asking each other: "How do I know you exist?" To me, all skeptics believe in an objective reality they cannot prove to exist, only sense.

  16. The English translation of Judge Massei's sentencing report can be downloaded from here:



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