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, September 29, 2010

Podcast teaser: second open mic with Julia & Massimo

Believe it or not, we have already taped 19 episodes of the Rationally Speaking podcast, 18 of which have been released on our web site and via iTunes. So for the upcoming episode 20 we are going to do our Julia & Massimo open mic again!
The idea, as you might recall from the last time, 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 tickles your skeptical bones, and we'll do our best to answer them in the course of the podcast. 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.
This is, needless to say, our continuing 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, the whole shebang), to atheism and secular humanism, to the many-faceted relationship between science and philosophy — a favorite sparring intellectual territory for Julia and me. We can't wait to hear from you...


  1. How would you define philosophical postmodernism? To me, it seems more of a rhetorical strategy than a well defined position: to poorly define/redefine terms to make their positions/relativisms more difficult to critique. In my graduate studies (in Anthropology), several of my more postmodernist professors for instance talk about "validating" the perspectives of others, but seem to apply this criterion only to cultural groups with whom they are trying to curry favor, or to all cultural groups, making the term essentially meaningless. What is the appeal of postmodernism in the social sciences? I'm not seeing it, but it certainly seems prevalent. Thanks, ds

  2. Upon query, a post-modern professor of mine told our class "exactly" what post-modern philosophy is.

    He answered with a description.

    "You know when you're laughing with friends having a good time full of joy at the moment, then you realize you're laughing? That's what post-modernity is, the point right before you realize you're laughing."

    I kid you not, that was damn near verbatim. What the heck does that mean? -He holds some chair at Hopkins, has about as many books out as you do Massimo... was he just messing with us?-

  3. Harry, I hope that professor was joking, hoping for your laugh...

  4. I think it's a simple fact the world would be improved if people generally had a greater appreciation for science and rationality. However, have groups such as skeptics—feel free to use others—taken their appreciation too far and overextended the limits and importance of science and rationality? Basically, should they be less like Spock and more like McCoy?

  5. “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.” - Stephen Hawking

    Now, I'm not going to ask you your thoughts on that quote, or of Hawking in general. But "something from nothing" is something I am very curious to hear your thoughts on. Or just the concept of Nothingness.

    I am not a theist, and have no doubts about the Big Bang, but do wonder about pre-Big Bang. Yes, I realize that may sound silly to many to ask about what happened before there was Time. It sounds silly as I re-read it. But my little brain just can't understand how there could ever have been Nothing. And then suddenly something? (PS- when I say Nothing I do not mean just no matter - I'm talking about no gravity, no forces at all, Nothing).

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on it, even if they are just personal feelings and nothing more. I realize ya'll aren't physics experts. I'd also like to hear what logic does not allow. For instance, would an endless cycle of Big Bang - Big Crunch/Big Rip - Big Bang - Big Crunch/Big Rip be logically sound?

  6. One thing I would like to hear discussed is that of how the skeptical community can get out of the trap of falling into dogma, arrogance, and ingroup-outgroup dynamics. I have found myself often avoiding interacting with groups of self-described skeptics because the ones I have run into have often been quite dogmatic and overbearing. I have seen unabashed scientism, plain hatred and contempt for anyone they don't feel are properly rational (speaking of rationality almost like Christians do about salvation, which does not seem at all appropriate), lack of appreciation for the fact that it is impossible to be a completely rational human (frankly, I think you can only try to be more rational - it is just arrogant to insist that one is fully rational - I'm looking at you, Julia), disdain for philosophy, little actual understanding for how science works, and, finally, a tendency to use the position that "I can't be dogmatic because all of my beliefs are subject to revision according to empirical data" as a way to avoid actually examining a given position or belief. I am not saying that these attitudes pertain to all skeptics groups, and certainly not all skeptics, but I have seen it, and it really disturbs me. Please discuss if you can. Thank you.

  7. This one is simple. I have a BS in psychology, an MS in Experimental Psychology and finally I went on to a career in medicine, double boarded in pediatrics and internal medicine. But other that having philosophy and logic sprinkled within course work here and there, I've never taken a complete class in philosophy. Rationally speaking is one of my favorite podcasts, but I do not feel I know enough basic philosophy that would enable me to competantly debate or argue my points here. I simply present them from time to time and rather meekly when I do.

    So with that introduction, please help a busy physician get a better fund of knowledge when it comes to philosophy. Do you have a favorite book(s), or an online site, or seminar series on CD that I could access in order to attain a greater depth of knowlege on the subject of philosophy, allowing me to better assimilate what I learn on Rationally Speaking?

  8. What are your takes on Okasha's argument on the problem of induction? Successful? How has it been received among philosophers?

  9. A little bit of context before my question.
    I was listening to several of your podcasts in a row (yes, I was late, bad boy!), and I was listening to the one with Jennifer Michael Hecht. While listening to some of her arguments, I found myself getting angry. When I tried to analyze this, I realized that it was both because I viscerally disagreed with her (even before thinking completely through the arguments), but also because I felt that you were giving her much larger margin for fluffy thinking that you normally do when you are doing the podcast by yourselves.(although I felt that Julia wanted to say more but she was being nice with the guest). The emotional reaction was so large that I almost skipped the rest of the podcast. Thankfully I stopped and tried to think through why I had the reaction, and more importantly, if my disagreement was only emotional or it really had a more rational basis. I thought again about this when listening to a later podcast(the one about Transhumanism) when I had the impression than both of you (Julia and Massimo) had a larger-than-usual emotional reaction against the intellectual argument of each other. This may have been a subjective impression, but both of your speech patterns changed in tone and speed, and you interrupted each other much more frequently than you normally do...an observation that you can only have when you listen to various podcasts in a row!(see, my lateness had a good point).
    Now coming back to the question...What (if any) innate or learned mechanisms you have to try to analyze if your disagreement with an argument is mostly emotional? And also, if you notice this involvement, how do you try to make sure that you give a good chance to the argument to stand by itself, when your emotions probably will push you to cherry pick evidence against it, and magnify any possible confirmation bias?

  10. I'm not sure if this is the right kind of question, but it's been bothering me for a while now.

    Regarding politics, should you, and if so, how do you get scientifically and humanistically minded people into the congress? Usually such people don't feel a calling to go into politics. But if they don't, we get what we have right now - people making decisions about our world, without having an understanding about this world.

  11. Rather than a question, I have a comment: I think you should extend the length of your podcast to at least 45 minute or 1 hour. In several of the previous podcasts, it seems that Massimo and Julia are rushing through a conversation in order to get to the next topic before time runs out, and I feel this devalues the discussion as a whole.

    I really enjoy the podcast, but when the discussion is rushed, it feels unfinished.

  12. Do either of you believe that social science can ever approach something similar to natural sciences, as far as thing like making testable predictions and discovering scientific "laws." If so, how close do you think they can get, and if not, what do you see as the value of social science?

  13. 1)

    a) Exactly how much time (as an order of magnitude) does using jargon save as opposed to using language an intelligent middle schooler could understand? Please estimate how much faster an officially initiated audience of philosophers can understand the same concept as the standard internet audience here, on average.

    b) Since decreasing jargon could sacrifice clarity and precision instead of just conciseness, please also answer if both brevity and some small amount of understanding are traded for accessibility.

    The most extreme plausible answer is that answering in longhand would be equivalent to pursuing a graduate degree, but jargon is obviously not *necessary*.


    Feel free to also comment on the difficulty of understanding when others use words you use differently than they. Examples might include me saying "tooth fairy", Julia Ganef saying "morality", or Deepak Chopra saying "quantum" or "god". How much effort does it take to understand the others' meaning? Is doing so ever (practically) impossible (so long as their definition is not internally inconsistent)?

    From an analogy between the brain and single processor computers, I do not believe so, but I am asking you.

    If the relationship between my two questions is not evident, consider that evidence that you don't understand at least one and your time is probably better spent answering random other questions.

  14. What is the relation of politics to rationality? How do values fit in?
    What counts as a rational policy?
    How can one avoid bias when discussing politics?

    Cards on the table: I personally find that politics is to rational discussion as chum is to vegan sharks. The effect seems to be even worse than religion.

    For that reason I'm always surprised when skeptics sound off on politics, because they usually seem to
    (1) blatantly caricature the opposition when they should be *modelling* them;
    (2) neglect their own biases but find them in droves in the opposition;
    (3) present policy matters as one sided - our proposal has no costs, only benefits;
    (4) naively treat political positions as if they were objectively true or false, neglecting the question of values;
    (5) try even more than usual to *win arguments,* as opposed to *become right.*

    Naive political allegiance is the biggest blind spot of the skeptical movement, in my opinion. What do you two think?

  15. For both of you -

    Do you think that in the end (whenever that comes) human intelligence will prove to be a survival characteristic or will it prove self-destructive?

    What do you believe the primary purpose of our species should be? For example is it to create the best model of reality by meticulous study? Is it to change the configuration of living and unliving things on the planet to some optimal configuration? Is it to spread life into the lifeless places in the universe as the generators of Panspermia? As an intelligent species what should the goal be?

  16. Does it make sense to think of your future self as a different person? By the time your future self comes around, your present self will be gone, so why make sacrifices now for your future self?
    Is this the flip-side of accepting your copied/teleported/uploaded brain as a continuation of yourself?

  17. Massimo,

    Do you agree with Feynman that "philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds"? There's a discussion on this question here: http://www.reddit.com/r/PhilosophyofScience/comments/dlul6/richard_feynman_thought_philosophising_about/

  18. I would like to hear an example from each of you of...

    1) an interaction with someone that resulted in you changing their mind. Also a time when someone convinced you to change your mind (massimo and Eugenie Scott was an interesting example

    2) an argument or debate that you wish you could revisit, take a different tack or otherwise do differently.

  19. Mel said: "it is just arrogant to insist that one is fully rational - I'm looking at you, Julia"

    Heeeeyyy, where did that come from? :-) When did I insist I was fully rational?

  20. On the issue of testability and the (supposedly) boundaries of science. Massimo has used the example of emotions as something that exist but can not be tested. But aren't emotions just a configuration of mind/brain. Aren't emotions more akin to constellations or waves - i.e., phenomena that can be understood scientifically regardless of its particular configuration?

    A related question. Doesn't being a materialist implies that everything is testable and therefore amenable to science?

    Thanks for a great podcast.

  21. Julia,

    I went back and re-listened to the bit I was thinking about when I wrote that about you, and I mis-remembered. It was in the last "call-in" podcast, during the portion where you were answering a question about sacred cows. You did not say that you were fully rational. I was incorrect, and I apologize for the mix-up there. You did come across, though, as bragging about your rationality, and that was what caused the annoyance that lodged in my mind (it seemed hubristic to me - I tend to think that those who are most proud and assured of their rationality are those least likely to recognize when they are being irrational). I should have checked before I mentioned you by name. Might you see your way through to forgiving me?

  22. No hard feelings, Mel! If you're thinking of the part where I referred to my best friend as being "If possible, even more rational than me," that was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, not boastful.

  23. Hey Alric, quick question -- when did Massimo say that emotions are untestable? I'm trying to find that reference and coming up short. Thanks.

  24. Epistemology and naturalism. Do we build in science a system of symbols which is useful information or discover "truths"?
    Is knowledge a "justified belief"?

    Pretty big and probably poorly formulated question, I still insist tho :)

  25. Even the purest rationality is still just a method (one might argue the best method) of achieving a goal, but absent desire (an emotion) it would simply sit there like a vehicle without fuel. Even the desire to know is still an emotion. So the purely rational will also likely be indistinguishable from the catatonic.

  26. I couldn't tell you exactly where Massimo has referred to emotions as an example of what is untestable. I may be misremembering and Massimo could clarify. The question still applies to other things Massimo has used as an example of what is untestable except scientific theories that are untestable in practice but are in principle.

  27. I never said that emotions are untestable (I'm not sure what that even means, frankly). I did say, and perhaps this is what you are referring to, that there are several things that cannot be investigated scientifically, one of which is the veracity of private thoughts. If I say that I am thinking of dark chocolate right now, you have to take my word for it (or not), but you can't ask science to investigate the claim.

  28. That will do. Even though at this point it is practically not possible to verify private thoughts, the biology of thinking can be, at least in principle, understood. In general; even if you can not identify or catalog all possible states you can characterize and describe a system. My point is that although there are many untestable things in practice there are probably none that are untestable in principle. Hence no boundary for science. I'm sure I am being simplistic and likely wrong but if you could discuss this I would appreciate it.

  29. It's actually easy to come up even with scientific questions that are in principle not answerable by science: we will never have access to what was there (if anything) before the Big Bang, because all the information has been destroyed. And there are questions where science is simply irrelevant: I prefer dark over milk chocolate, and while a scientist can tell me that this is correlated with certain neurological pathways, or childhood experiences, or taste buds, that information is precisely useless to me, I'm still going to buy dark chocolate.

  30. Massimo: I totally agree with you, but I do find it so thrilling when one of these "in principle unanswerable" questions turns out to be answerable.

    Auguste Comte: composition of stars will be forever unknowable.
    Some philosopher I can't locate: we will never know the colour of dinosaurs.
    Lord Kelvin: "The influence of animal or vegetable life on matter is infinitely beyond the range of any scientific inquiry hitherto entered on."

    I'm not sure there are very many safe bets, with respect to the in-principle unknowable.

  31. Another possible Q&A topic, related to the one I already proposed:

    I invite Massimo and Julia to Solve That Whole Middle East Thing.

  32. My question is regarding your opinions on the future of atheism.

    It is slightly evident that there is an evolution in human history from a sort of superstition-based / agenticity concept of pantheism, to polytheism, then to monotheism (with all sorts of flavors in between). This is by no means a limiting factor, but it does seem that the dominant religious doctrines follow this trend. Even within abrahamic monotheism we see a trend in which god was first a being who intervened in human life quite often. He then shifted roles, becoming the one who actively keeps the universe running, with the occasional intervention. Later, we see the concept of god being the one who established the laws of the physical world, but does not need to actively maintain the functions of the universe. There are those who see this natural evolution in religious concepts leading us into an age in which atheism will be the dominant worldview, especially as we gain greater knowledge of the world through science (leaving fewer gaps for "the god of the gaps" to fill). A lot of people I have heard seem to think that this will happen rather quickly (in less than a few generations). I am a bit more skeptical when it comes to the idea that the logical evolution of religious concepts will necessarily lead us to atheism being the dominant worldview (at least anytime soon).

    How do you see the future of atheism, in the context of a larger evolution of religious concepts?


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