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, October 29, 2010

Massimo’s Picks

By Massimo Pigliucci

* I must admit that I changed my mind: NPR was wrong to fire Juan Williams on those grounds. Kudos to On the Media (an NPR show) for this treatment of the matter.
* The latest Rationally Speaking podcast: a whole hour of fun Q&A with Julia and yours truly.
* So, you think you want to be a college professor? Watch this and see if you won’t change your mind. (If you don’t, welcome aboard!)
* My latest column in Skeptical Inquirer: does humanity have a wired future? (Hint, methinks not.)
* We know we can’t trust “alternative” medicine. But what about science based medicine? Well...
* Neil deGrasse Tyson joins the ranks of scientists who say silly things about philosophy out of either ignorance or of an inflated view of science. Too bad, I otherwise like Neil. (The segment starts at 1:02:47.)
* Is pure altruism possible? What does that even mean?
* Jerry Coyne and his acolytes think I have a “vendetta” against him (since Jerry hasn’t done anything to me personally, they obviously have neglected to look up the meaning of the word “vendetta”). But the fact is that I’m not the only one to think that when he talks philosophy he talks gibberish.
* According to Roberth Reich America is becoming a plutocracy. According to me, it has been that way for at least a century and a half.


  1. I'm an English major at the UW and I was thinking of going to graduate school in English until I found out about how terrible the job market is in that field.

  2. Massimo:

    Could you be more specific about what was "silly" in deGrasse Tyson's statement? It seemed to be a reasonable remark about the limits of philosophy in the physical sciences, especially considering his next statement regarding the LHC.

  3. Massimo: Do you think the firing of Helen Thomas, Rick Sanchez, and Octavia Nasr was wrong?

  4. Ian,

    At least two things: first, the question was about philosophy in general, not philosophy of science, and Neil immediately got into knee jerk mode (I've seen him doing that also in person on other occasions). Second, and more importantly, to ask what philosophy has done to solve scientific questions is as silly as to complain that the Yankees have not won an NBA title. They are simply not playing the same game.

  5. Simon,

    I don't know, I would have to go back and read the various reports on all those cases. Likely each case has its own peculiarities, and judgment would have to take into account what happened and the context in which it happened. Why do you ask?

  6. Massimo,

    What game is philosophy playing? Science offers the advancement of naturalistic knowledge, while philosophy seems to offer nothing but doubt.

  7. Hi Massimo,

    Could you expand on your thoughts about Tysons' comment?

    As you know, many prominent atheists (Dawkin's being the main example) say that philosophy contributes effectively nothing.

    I used to partly agree, but after listening to your podcast I am rapidly changing my mind.


  8. I think you mean evidence-based medicine. Science-based medicine is different.

  9. Massimo:

    They are playing a different game _now_, but wouldn't it be true that the division between scientist and philosopher was fuzzier in the past? Your podcast on gedankenexperiments brought up Galileo's philosophical argument against different rates of acceleration for heavier objects, which deduced a true statement about the world mostly via philosophizing.

    Neil's objection is that the era of determining facts about the world via predominately philosophical deductions is now behind us; this is partially philosophy's success "picking the low-hanging fruit", partially due to better technology, faster computers and the wealth of background insights of math and science available to people today.

    And besides, Neil quickly goes on to mention the other areas of philosophy besides science and their value to society. I think his "knee-jerk mode" is just an attempt to answer the question from his point of view, especially given that the title of the discussion is "The Poetry of Science".

  10. I like to think of philosophy (at least many of its disciplines) as conversations about the role and application of science in the context of its role and meaning in human society. Just like I don't expect scientists plumbing the forefront of human knowledge to also be the experts on developing compelling new technologies, I don't expect them to be the best arbiters of social policy with regards to their findings.

    To say that philosophy fails to add materially to the physical sciences is to miss the point entirely. If we regard scientists as those best suited to obtain knowledge _and_ discuss its consequences and implications in society, then I believe we're committing a grave error. I mean, our scientific experts implemented nuclear power without a solution to the problem of waste disposal, sheesh. I say that we certainly need philosophical conversation to put science into perspective; to understand the ramifications of new technologies and the application of new discoveries within the proper social, moral, or ethical contexts.

  11. Hmm,

    I'm sorry but I'm getting tired of defending philosophy. That sort of statement is profoundly anti-intellectual, and frankly all I can suggest is that you read a good introductory book on philosophy and see if you might want to reconsider afterwards. I suggest "20 Questions," edited by Bowie et al.

  12. Massimo, in reference to biological evolution, you write in your Wired essay:"There is no 'why' only the endlessly fascinating 'how'."

    Seems to me you're on the same page there as Dawkins and Tyson as to the relevance of philosophy to science.

    Biological evolution is a process that in hindsight seems to have obeyed natures regulatory forces. To that extent, evolution has acquired an objective - not by independent choice, but certainly by compliance. That objective being to adapt.
    Biological adaptation is arguably an intelligent process. To have an intelligent objective is to have a goal.
    Biological evolution would seem more to have a goal than seem not to - that goal being to adapt, or in the alternative, cease to evolve.

  13. I think that people tend to pick on Philosophy for being irrelevant and useless, but when other fields are irrelevant or useless, people don't take notice. Most scientific research is useless, and most of it contributes little even to our understanding of how the world works. Journals are littered with scientific analyses that nobody, even people working in that field, really needs to know about.

    We also have to distinguish between two forms of uselessness: lacking in practical application, and lacking in ability to explain. If something is "useless" because it can't help anyone make hundreds of dollars, then most Computer Science research is useless. Legal research is almost entirely useless by this standard. etc.

    Massimo, do you agree on this last point? Aren't Biology and Chemistry journals littered with research that few professionals would even care to know about? If I go to UW library stacks and just glance through journal articles, I can't help but think, "I bet there are three people in the world who have even read this article."

    There is also a huge difference between thinking that most philosophy is wrong and thinking that the field of Philosophy is pointless. I think that all moral realist philosophers are deluded and aren't being honest with themselves about how the human mind works. But to argue this, I need philosophy. Neuroscience and evolutionary psychology alone will not nearly demonstrate this, though they may help. In order to demonstrate that moral realism is bunk, I need to make careful distinctions about what certain words mean, what sorts of things can exist, and so forth. This is all very philosophical.

    One might say that I am merely showing how philosophers can help protect us from the misconceptions of other philosophers, but I am not actually showing that. Most people seem to believe in an objective morality, and I think that Philosophy is a very useful tool for demonstrating how wrong they are. Philosophy is therefore useful in confronting misconceptions held by the general public.

    I think it's definitely possible to argue that philosophy is much less important than Massimo thinks it is without being anti-intellectual at all. After all, I myself think moral philosophy is mostly pointless, and moral philosophy is something like 40 percent of all philosophy. And lots of the people who say philosophy is useless are not so much anti-intellectual as just ignorant. I wouldn't say N.D. Tyson is anti-intellectual by any stretch of the imagination. But yes, they are very ignorant. Lots of philosophy, like logic and philosophy of mind, is very useful with regards to approaching a better understanding of reality.

  14. Massimo,

    How is what I said anti-intellectual? It's an honest question, and I'm hoping you can show where I'm wrong in my current position—concisely. Also, I think you're guilty of going into "knee jerk mode" yourself, because I do, in fact, appreciate philosophy; however, I appreciate it in a way closer to literature and art rather than science.

  15. Rob,

    see Ritchie's comments above (though notice that I actually am an ethical realist! ;-) More generally, I simply do not see as productive the outright rejection of 24 centuries of Western thought, which have brought us, among other things, pretty much the entirety of secular morality, our ideas of justice, insights into the nature of science, and better conceptual understanding of a large number of fields and ideas, from linguistics to mind.


    yes, science used to be part of philosophy, and apparently some scientists are still resentful of the relationship and behave like teenagers who have to reject their parents. No philosopher today would claim that deduction brings factual understanding, so I'm not sure which philosophy Neil was objecting to. As for his last-second mention that, oh, yes, there are other things at which philosophy is good, yes, that's better than nothing, but the whole exchange came across as bizarre to me.


    one more time: biological evolution is not an intelligent process, and I don't know where you derive the idea that I agree with Dawkins' views on the usefulness of philosophy of science. May I remind you that I actually left science to devote my time to philosophy of science? That would be a rather bizarre move if I held the field in the kind of low esteem that Dawkins seems to have.


    I agree with most of your comments (except on moral realism!). I am sure I come across as over-emphasizing the importance of philosophy, but that is not my intention. I simply think it is quickly dismissed out of ignorance and arrogance, and I'd like to do my part to help redress that situation.

  16. Norwegian,

    I am aware of the distinction between evidence based and science based medicine, but I equivocated on purpose, since the Atlantic article criticizes what by all standards is science-based medicine. I am reading Gorski's response now, and I'm sure this will make for a great discussion with Steven on the podcast.

  17. hmm,

    apologies if my remarks came across as dismissive, it was not my intention. But I do consider an outright rejection of philosophy, or a generic skepticism of its "usefulness" an instance of anti-intellectualism, for the reasons I have just explained above. Cheers.

  18. Massimo, I'm not an "acolyte" and the fact that you're not the only person who disagrees with Coyne does not rule out your having a vendetta.

    (For the uninitiated: I take "acolyte" to refer to me because I replied to a post of Massimo's on Facebook on this subject by saying how odd that he disputes accusations of a vendetta against Coyne when he [MP] keeps posting about him.)

    Yes, it looks like a vendetta. You've posted about Coyne repeatedly. You single him out, and you do it at frequent intervals. Yes, that looks exactly like a vendetta.

  19. "one more time: biological evolution is not an intelligent process, and I don't know where you derive the idea that I agree with Dawkins' views on the usefulness of philosophy of science."
    Massimo, I know you think more of philosophy than Dawkins, that was the irony I had intended to be the point. Your disinterest in the why of evolution is equivalent to his. Yet in my view it's philosophy's role to conceive of and explain the "whys" of things that science is better at the "hows" of.
    And you are simply wrong in arguing that biological evolution is not an intelligent process. The term I used was "biological adaptation" and to infer that the organism's intelligence plays no crucial role here is, in light of a growing scientific consensus to the contrary, rather silly.
    You are in effect, arguing that organisms either have no intelligence, or those that do, have not made use of it for adaptive purposes. The burden, however, has shifted - it's for those who deny those purposes exist to tell us what other uses any such intelligence has been limited to.

  20. Oh dear, my comments don't seem to be going through...

  21. I'm not critiquing philosophy for not being useful, and I'm not rejecting philosophy. I'm asking you what its purpose is (what game it's playing). I still don't know, and I'm humbly and genuinely interested. From my understanding, literature's purpose is for artistic expression and enjoyment; science is for expanding naturalistic knowledge; but modern philosophy? My best guess is still to find doubt. The reason being, philosophy isn't conclusory so every idea proposed within it seemingly remains forever. For instance, philosophers are still debating Zeno's paradox after the invention of calculus. So, to me, it seems philosophy offers many unfalsifiable hypothese which consequently create doubt. How can a philosopher conclusively say, for instance, solipsism or postmodernism or idealism is wrong? Instead, when any philosophical idea is shown to be wrong it seems it's science that provides the conclusion. For example, cartesian dualism is wrong because the body has been shown to have a causal link with the mind.

    However, please don't take any of this as a rebuke of philosophy. Instead, I think doubt is important because it shows the flaws in our thinking; like moving from a belief in absolute objectivity to intersubjecitivity, consequently allowing us to account for that gap in perception. Also, I'm well aware of how wrong I might be here, but I'm willing to be and interested in being wrong.

  22. Re: Tyson. I think Tyson's problem (and Dawkins') is that they are conflating philosophy with one of its aspects: a priori knowledge. Philosophy certainly deals in the latter sometimes, but is not *limited* to the a priori in any wise.

    I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that many of the most important questions are matters for philosophy (informed by science).
    -Is reality computation, at bottom? (Relates to the question "where did the universe come from?")
    -Is consciousness computation, at bottom? (The answer decides whether sufficiently advanced AI should have moral standing.)
    -Is anthropic reasoning valid? (Matters for various considerations of existential risk.)

    If you want to dismiss these as impractical - fine. No, they won't help you build a better refrigerator. Philosophy isn't supposed to. But they DO help us to advance our knowledge.

    Science without philosophy is "the study of correlations between pointer readings." If you want to talk about what the pointer readings mean in terms of reality, you're doing philosophy.

    (Of course I do think the two are basically one & the same enterprise, but the division makes sense in terms of academic specialization).

    Also: "...philosophy seems to offer nothing but doubt."

    Well, even if this were true, philosophy would still be worth it. If doubt is worth having, then verily brothers, let us doubt.

  23. The Q&A podcast was excellent! You guys both made excellent points in re: my question on politics. I am still making up my mind about that issue...

    Massimo, you mentioned the importance of a friendly approach in both changing people's minds and in allowing one's own mind to be changed. I've sort of come round to seeing "truth springs from argument amongst friends" as one of the most wonderful quotes on the topic of rational discourse. It's so hard to think when your hackles are raised! And Julia, your technique for calming yourself down in an argument sounds like a good idea, I'll try it next time.

  24. I tend to agree with Massimo that philosophy is not playing the same game as science, although it is curious that philosophy hasn't actually contribute much to science as a by-products, at least once in a while. Philosophers, apparently, think *really hard* about *things*, and those *things* overlap with science. You'd think once in a while, in the process of solving a problem in philosophy, philosophers also help to clarify some fundamental confusions in science, or propose new research direction for science, or come up with new interpretation of data, or find flaws in scientists' analysis of data, or design a crucial experiment. After all, logical thinking is a very generic skill. But oddly none of that happens. In contrast, mathematicians are typically not interested in solving scientific problems (ie. not playing the same game as science) but they regularly contribute to natural sciences as by-products. Makes you wonder maybe it's because philosophers really aren't as good at thinking and analyzing as they'd like to think?

  25. Ophelia,

    sorry for the delay in letting the comments through, but the blog is moderated because of death threats. I am at a conference (see the latest post), with limited access to the internet.

    That said, back to the vendetta thing. It seems to me that you only evidence for this is that I - from time to time - criticize Jerry publicly. But I criticize lots of people when the occasion arises, and so does he. He is a prominent intellectual, so he attracts scrutiny. I fail to see why this constitutes a vendetta, which is an enormously emotionally loaded term.


    no philosopher is still pondering Zeno's paradox. Indeed modern logic is a complicated and fascinating affair, and the study of paradoxes has advanced much past Zeno.

    The point of philosophy is to logically analyze concepts, propositions and theoretical constructs from a variety of fields. The point is not necessarily to achieve final conclusions (science itself rarely does that), but rather to help us clarify what we think and why.


    philosophy is a different endeavor from math, though the two are more similar than either is to science. It is not correct, however, to say that philosophers are not contributing to scientific advancement. Besides the study of science itself, philosophers of mind work closely with cognitive scientists, philosophers of quantum mechanics with physicists, philosophers of math with theoretical mathematicians, and ethical philosophers with neuroscientists, to mention just a few example. Again, however, philosophy is not a science and should not be judged by how well it solves scientific questions.

  26. @BaronP

    Could you cite some of the evidence you refer to?

    I have a feeling you are confusing the word 'adaptation' in two different contexts.

    Adaptation in natural selection has nothing to do with the intelligence of the organism. An organism has no control over how random mutations in its genes has led to an organism more adapted to its environment. Hence the process has 'no intelligence'

    Talking about how a single organism is able to adapt from day to day due to localised pressures is completely separate, and does display intelligence.

  27. Massimo: I agree with you that the value of philosophy shouldn't be judged by how well it solves scientific questions. But since you mentioned, can you give a few examples of major results in cognitive science, physics, math, and neuroscience that originated from collaboration with philosophers? I must say you are bluffing a little here. We all know that the collaborations you mentioned exist, but they are certainly not significant. Let's take neuroscience for example. The society of neuroscience's annual meeting is coming up. It is among the largest scientific conferences and features presentations of anything that is remotely related to the brain. I did a quick search. This years abstract lists exactly 9 presentations/posters with an author associated with a department of philosophy. Half of those are not about science. If you try "engineering", 543 entries. "physics", 134 entries, "mathematics", 60 entries. "anthropology", 20 entries, "Psychology", 1504 entries. Philosophy is only barely better represented than literature (1 entry), sociology (1 entry), history (1 entry) and geology (1 entry). I wouldn't call the collaboration relationship "close". You can do this kind of search in any of those fields you mentioned and you will get the same results.

  28. Optical,

    Try the same search at a meeting on consciousness or philosophy of mind, and you will see a more balanced ratio. At any rate, again, philosophy needs no justification as a helper of science. If and when it turns out to be useful in that respect, great, but would you dismiss literature or history because they had an even lower count?

  29. If philosophy needs no justification as a helper of science, why did you claim philosophy's contribution to mathematics, physics, cognitive science and neuroscience when such contribution cannot be demonstrated by any quantitative measure? Really, Massimo, it is ok. There is no shame in that. Just don't make things up.

  30. optical,

    I'm sorry, but I'm not "making things up," and my two statements are far from contradictory. On the one hand, philosophy is largely an independent discipline from science, with different methods and different goals. On the other hand, there are points of contact, where philosophers do make contributions to science.

    If you skim the table of contents of journals like Philosophy of Science or Biology and Philosophy (or the journal I edit, Philosophy & Theory in Biology), you will find a surprising number of scientists co-authoring papers with philosophers, I don't see why those contributions should be discounted.

  31. ianpollock,

    Of course philosophy has some of the most important questions. But, please show me how they advanced knowledge. Also, it seems you're saying philosophy is playing the same game as science, but in a meta-like way.



    "While mathematics can be used to calculate where and when the moving Achilles will overtake the Tortoise of Zeno's paradox, philosophers such as Brown and Moorcroft[4][5] claim that mathematics does not address the central point in Zeno's argument, and that solving the mathematical issues does not solve every issue the paradoxes raise."

    Science is a set of methodological tools like analytical philosophy. But, the point of science isn't just to use this set of tools; the point is to understand nature. So, if you're saying philosophy's point is to "logically analyze concepts, propositions and theoretical constructs from a variety of fields", then I think you're saying its point is to be a set of tools.

  32. Rob writes: "Adaptation in natural selection has nothing to do with the intelligence of the organism. An organism has no control over how random mutations in its genes has led to an organism more adapted to its environment. Hence the process has 'no intelligence.'"

    Sounds like Massimo's echo there.
    To cite evidence requested to the contrary, check this out:
    Bacteria are small but not stupid: Cognition, natural genetic engineering, and sociobacteriology
    James A. Shapiro Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology University of Chicago

    Note that Massimo, as far as I've been able to tell, has never discussed Shapiro's work, but instead goes for weaker targets like Fodor to defend his outdated stance on the primacy of random mutations as life's adaptive mechanism.

  33. hmm,

    Science is a set of tools too, if you wish to see it that way. I am not familiar with the works of the philosophers cited in the Wiki entry (though it doesn't sound like they are rejecting the mathematical solution of the paradox, but rather that they are raising additional issues to the original). At any rate, I can guarantee you that when I took my graduate course in logics (plural) Zeno's paradox wasn't even mentioned as a live issue. Also, I have recently attended a talk by a colleague of mine at the Graduate Center, Graham Priest, who is a top logician, and also mentioned that Zeno's paradox is not the sort of thing logicians talk about these days, except in introductory classes.

    Generally, I suggest you look at entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy if you are seriously in these topics.

  34. Baron,

    I am somewhat familiar with Shapiro's work. He is an excellent microbiologist, but has always had a rebellious streak with a penchant for making unnecessarily provocative statements. Bacteria have nothing like cognition in any meaningful sense of the term, and to use that word in that context is a willful misunderstanding of its meaning.

  35. Massimo:
    In the paper I cited, Shapiro wrote: 'The take-home lesson of more than half a century of molecular microbiology is to recognize that bacterial information processing is far more powerful than human technology. The selected examples of bacterial “smarts” I have given show convincingly that these small cells are incredibly sophisticated at coordinating processes involving millions of individual events and at making them precise and reliable. In addition, the astonishing versatility and mastery bacteria display in managing the biosphere’s geochemical and thermodynamic transformations indicates that we have a great deal to learn about chemistry, physics and evolution from our small, but very intelligent, prokaryotic relatives.'

    Willful misunderstanding of the meaning of cognition? Are they processing information intelligently? Is Shapiro the only evolutionary biologist who is working under the assumption that they do? I could name several others, but then so could you, if you wanted to take them on.

  36. Understood about the delay, Massimo - as a matter of fact I saw a threatening comment on your FB page yesterday and flagged & reported it. It was by that guy who lavishes threats on so many non-theist bloggers (I won't mention the name in case it draws him).

    But as for the vendetta - all right, if vendetta is too loaded, I'll call it a King Charles's head. You mention Coyne quite often, and certainly more often than you mention many other comparable intellectuals. You do single him out. The FB post was pretty bizarro - just to say "Oh look, another blogger thinks Coyne is wrong." Big woop.

  37. Ophelia,

    yes, that's the one. He "visits" my Facebook page 4-5 times *a day* leaving behind his garbage. Oh well.

    Okay, I actually checked using our search engine, and Coyne is mentioned on Rationally Speaking exactly in the same number of posts that Dawkins is (32, out of 646 entries). PZ is mentioned slightly less, 26 times.

    As for my bizarre Fb page, it was simply a response to Jerry touting that some "prominent philosopher" agrees with him.

    At any rate, this has gone far enough, and is not helping anyone. Stay tuned for a post addressing this intellectually unhelpful and emotionally taxing diatribe in the near future.

  38. Baron,

    we have been over this before. First off, Shapiro is not an evolutionary biologist. Second, I do not doubt for a moment that we have much to learb from the way in which natural selection shaped bacteria, but to talk about cognition, intelligence and so forth is unhelpful and misleading.

  39. Massimo,
    James A Shapiro is not an evolutionary biologist? Here's just a part of his Curriculum Vitae:
    Professor of Microbiology, 1984-1985
    Department of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology
    University of Chicago.

    Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology takes up as large a part of the structure of Evolutionary Biology as any other discipline.

    And we've not been "over this before" because all you've ever done is present the certainty of your conviction that biological intelligence plays no part in evolution.
    You've just avoided recognizing, for example, that an "excellent microbiologist" such as you've labeled Shapiro is not qualified to talk about the nature and extent of microbial intelligence.
    Worse, you've inferred that anything he has to say that differs from your fixed position will be misleading. As if that's his intent, perhaps?

    To distrust his motives is to discount his ideas? Which of course are not only his, so who can we trust these days.
    I challenge you as a philosopher of biology, to take on these self designated 21st century biologists, and give them their comeuppance as to these unhelpful explorations into the possibility of self-engineering little critters out there insisting on giving some intelligent direction to the adaptive process.
    Write a post about them and forget the easy targets such as Coyne and Dawkins. You went after Fodor, so step up your game a notch and go after these more seriously unhelpful scientists who have stuck their noses a bit too far into the heart of your philosophy.

  40. Massimo could, of course, be singling Coyne out for criticism because Coyne actually deserves to be singled out. Maybe his intellectual failures are fairly unique. Maybe he's comparatively famous for someone who makes the intellectual mistakes that he does. Maybe Massimo just focuses on Coyne because he find's Coyne's remarks pertinent and/or interesting.

    I don't see why it's such a big deal to spend lots of time criticizing a single person. I myself have a lot more criticism to levy against Sam Harris than I do against any other atheist. I've spent more time thinking about Sam Harris' views than I have spent thinking about other atheists' views. I have written a lot about Harris' flawed moral realism, his views on Eastern mysticism, and so forth.

    It can't be that Sam Harris is a very popular intellectual that people take seriously. It can't be that I personally am interested in the moral realist/relativist debate and think Harris has a ridiculous stance on this issue. It can't be that I just happen to know more about Harris than other atheists and, therefore, see it fit that I should analyze his views quite a bit.

    It must be that he has a really hot wife and I'm single. Single and bitter.

  41. Baron,

    I didn't realize that being a professor of molecular genetics makes you an evolutionary biologist. At any rate, I don't dismiss Shapiro's work, only his unhelpful use of terms like "cognition" and "intelligence" where they clearly don't belong. These terms are normally used in a certain way, which even an undergraduate in biology can tell you is not appropriate for bacteria.


    I'm finishing Harris' book, and I promised Michael Shermer an in-depth review of it for Skeptic. I guarantee you that it's not going to be positive.

  42. One thing I'd be curious to know is whether or not you think Harris is personally able to defeat the moral skeptic, aside from your views on moral skepticism. I don't, of course, think your posts on the issue have established the validity of moral realism, but I'd be interested to know whether you think Harris establishes it.

    While I think you swerve around the central issues in meta-ethics that must be discussed, what I find so unbelievable about Harris' approach is that he actually writes, in a footnote of the book (read the footnotes!) that he shouldn't have to talk about meta-ethical issues because he's writing a popular book and, besides, he didn't develop his moral realist stance through reading philosophy. That's like an AIDS denier saying, "Although I know much about the science of HIV, I did not develop my views on HIV through readings on science, and so I don't think I should have to confront the scholarly literature on HIV. This is a popular book anyhow, and I'm more interested in talking about the views of HIV I developed while dicking around as a mystic."

  43. Massimo, I'll alert Shapiro that he's not an evolutionary biologist, and he had no right to write the following:

    "The recognition of the fundamentally biological nature of genetic change and of cellular potentials for information processing frees our thinking about evolution. In particular, our conceptual formulations are no longer dependent on the operation of stochastic processes. Thus, we can now envision a role for computational inputs and adaptive feedbacks into the evolution of life as a complex system. Indeed, it is possible that we will eventually see such information-processing capabilities as essential to life itself."
    A 21st Century View of evolution
    James A. Shapiro

    In the meantime, oh great stochastic systemizer, just keep picking on those low hanging fruitcakes.

  44. Joey,

    moral skepticism is undefeatable, just like any kind of radical skepticism. That sort of position is simply best ignored. However, your point about Harris' footnote is well taken. He does that throughout the book. In one of the early footnotes he redefines science so that it includes any kind of rational understanding of the world, which means also philosophy. In that sense, I would agree that "science" can answer moral questions. But of course that is not at all what he means. He gives precedence to a fundamentally descriptive science, neurobiology. (Wonder why. Could it be because that's his field of investigation?)


    feel free to communicate to Shapiro whatever you took from this exchange. Of course he has a right to write whatever he wants, I was simply pointing out that his field of expertise is not the one you attribute to him. Besides, I completely agree with the bit you transcribed in your last comment, I simply reject the usefulness of talking about intelligence and cognition in those cases.

  45. So, to be clear, you view moral skepticism as akin to radical skepticism? I view Moral Realism as a failure of conceptualization, like describing a process as "competitive" when it is not, describing a mind as "free" without knowing what that really means, or describing emotions as a form of thinking.

    I view the realist-relativist debate as a debate over whether certain ways of construing real-world facts are valid.

  46. I can see the rhetorical reason Harris wants to bring morality under the umbrella of science, even though I disagree with his doing it. If morality is said to be wholly or partly philosophical, then people will understand that to mean "anything goes." The notion that facts of the matter exist in philosophy, has not been digested.

  47. Joey,

    yes, I see moral skepticism as a type of radical skepticism. I don't agree on your take on moral realism, I really don't think it's a simple matter of a large number of philosophers failing to conceptualize. As I mentioned before, by the way, I see moral facts akin to logical or mathematical propositions (given the corollary conditions of human nature).


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