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, November 05, 2010

Apologies to Jerry Coyne (et al.)

By Massimo Pigliucci
I was having dinner with a friend and colleague of mine a few nights ago, and the discussion veered on to the notorious debates amongst accommodationists and new atheists, to which I have been a contributor over the past several months. From there, we quickly moved on to talk about my rivalry with biologist Jerry Coyne, which has objectively taken an increasingly nasty turn of late, on both sides. The conversation then broadened again to a discussion of the difference between substantive disagreement and personal opinions of people's motives and characters. Which led me to admit that — despite my honest best intentions to the contrary — I have occasionally been guilty on this blog of making remarks about motives and character that had no logical connection to the substance of the arguments being discussed. This is not why I write blogs, articles and books, so some self-reflection was in order.
As a result of this reflection, I would like to publicly apologize to Jerry, as well as to anyone else (including some of my readers) about whom I've made — incidentally or not — comments that were not constructive within the realm of intellectual discourse. This apology comes with a pledge, within the possibilities of human frailty, to refrain from committing that blunder again.
Let me be clear about this: Jerry and I disagree on many substantive issues, both in science and in philosophy. Scientifically, for instance, he thinks that the biological species concept is the way to go, that allopatric speciation is the dominant mode of formation of new species, and that the Modern Synthesis of the 1930s and '40s is an adequate framework for evolutionary theory. I think that a more pluralistic species concept is in order, that sympatric speciation happens much more often than some people are willing to acknowledge, and that an Extended Synthesis in evolutionary theory is both necessary and in the process of happening.
Philosophically, Jerry's concept of science is extensive, to the point of application to supernatural phenomena and even extends, in some of its attributes, to plumbing. I think that plumbing is not science, and more importantly that science has nothing to say about the supernatural because the latter is too vague to constitute anything like an explanation of any sort, let alone a scientific one.
But none of the above justifies the sort of sniping we have been engaging in on our respective blogs for months now. Whether Jerry has any formal training in philosophy or not is no reason for me to discount his philosophical opinions, nor are his motivations to expand the limits of science relevant or, indeed, known to me. Similarly, I sincerely hope he doesn't really believe that I am as arrogant and narrow minded as he has occasionally portrayed me to be.
In fact, Jerry (or PZ Myers, or Richard Dawkins, or Sam Harris) and I agree on much more than we disagree. We all feel that there is too little reasonable discourse in our society; that science is taken for granted and not taken seriously enough; that irrationalism wastes a lot of time and resources that humanity could use in far better ways; that ideology of any kind, religious or not, is the enemy of reason and a much better candidate for being the real root of all evil; that people can agree to disagree on substantive issues as long as they respect each other's position, and that therefore the only intolerable thing is intolerance itself.
We will likely continue to disagree on the specifics, and there is no requirement for us to be friends. But there is a necessity for us to be civil, to both our friends and our intellectual antagonists, because once civility goes out the window, intolerance comes through the door, and all hope for reason and progress is soon extinguished.
In this spirit, then, I apologize to Jerry for the form of some of my comments, and I pledge to keep any future commentary focused on the substance of our disagreements, in the true spirit of the motto of the Rationally Speaking blog, David Hume's contention that truth springs from argument amongst friends, or at least from civil argument amongst colleagues.


  1. Dear Massimo, as one among your readers, I do recall that my latest comment on this blog (on the matter of Bjorn Lomborg) was responded with one comment of yours stating that I probably was lying about having read certain materials, and that I had therefore lost 'credibility'. This probably belongs (albeit marginally) with the instances you allude to, since my motives and personal virtues (or lack thereof) were not the issue. In fact since that episode I have refrained from commenting in your posts. Now I feel myself included in your extended apology to unnamed readers. Apologies accepted.

  2. Massimo said: ideology of any kind, religious or not, is the enemy of reason and a much better candidate for being the real root of all evil

    Which definition of "ideology" do you have in mind?

    When I look at, say, Merriam-Webster's list of definitions*, they seem rather neutral (morally speaking) to me.

    Perhaps "dogmatism"** is more what you have in mind?

    * ideology

    1 : visionary theorizing
    2 a : a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture b : a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture c : the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program

    ** dogmatism

    1 : positiveness in assertion of opinion especially when unwarranted or arrogant
    2 : a viewpoint or system of ideas based on insufficiently examined premises

  3. A great post, Massimo!

    I have been happy to follow both your blog and Jerry's blog, and have refused to be drawn into "on whose side are you?" - thinking because I always hope to be on the side of Enlightenment - and there is a lot of room and need for both of you in that! By saying this I want to support your point that Enlightenment began as a debate, sometimes quite heated, and it can survive and make progress as debate "among friends".

    OK, after your rather sordid exchanges, you may not become the best of friends (but who knows, it is a sign of small minds not let bygones be bygones!), but who cares. What is important that intellectually and morally vital questions can be studied, discussed and debated without "poisoning of wells" environment. Bravo!

    And to give more substance to these "cheers for Massimo", I express now my opinion on the philosophy vs. empirical studies. And it is this: empirical research does not directly refute philosophical viewpoints, including sufficiently well-articulated religious views. But they can challenge us to revise, sometimes quite radically, the conceptual frameworks we use to describe what is possible and what is not. Quantum mechanics is a case of point: nobody could have introduced its core concepts in the armchair!

    But the point is more general. Naturalism is both "metaphysics" and epistemology, and both respond to our empirical and experimental results, its totality as articulated by our best contemporary theories. Given the overall coherence of modern science (although it is not perfect and shall never be), there is little room for well-defined and well-articulated religious views that would not have already been thrown out as flawed and erroneous. Of course, one can then try to make these religious viewpoints compatible with the "total science", but only at the expense of turning them to "piety without content" or similar.

    It follows that I would surely be put into a defensive, as far as my naturalist metaphysics and epistemology are concerned, if presumably dead persons started resurrecting from their graves to the heavens, while armies of hovering angels would declare the glory of the God...:) Alas, my first reaction would be to suspect that some hoaxer had mixed interesting substances to my beer, but yes they would be challenging observations. Alas, as Hume pointed out a long time age, such things just do not seem to happen, so I need not try my hand with "Doctor Frankenstein and My Brains in the Vat" or "Our gods were extraterrestial aliens and now they are back" stories...:)

  4. Excellent post, Massimo. It seems that for many of us, including myself, it is easier to stay civil with people who are objectively a long way from your position, than with people who mostly agree.

    Any ideology basically reduces to a set of fact claims and moral claims, and if that's where it ends, ideology is not a problem. In theory.

    There are two destructive aspects of ideology in practice, as far as I can tell.

    (1) It encourages the formation of normative, political commitments to ideas. Once an ideological position worms its way into your self-definition ("I am an X-ist"), it's protected from scrutiny by huge emotional barriers.

    For this reason I think it's wise never to identify oneself ideologically with a proposition that could go either way. Hence I often call myself a rationalist (a meta-ideology, if you will), but not usually an atheist or a functionalist or a consequentialist or an AGM-proponent or a liberal, though those all descriptively apply.

    (2) Because an ideology is a set of claims, one seemingly cannot reject any one claim (at least not an important one) without rejecting the whole ideology, which has a huge social and emotional cost. This acts as a brake on our already horribly inadequate ability to change our minds.

  5. Very nice, Massimo. I in turn apologize for from-the-sidelines heckling I have done.

    On the substance - what you say about supernaturalism at least partly answers a question I've had about your view throughout this erm discussion.

    "science has nothing to say about the supernatural because the latter is too vague to constitute anything like an explanation of any sort, let alone a scientific one."

    My question has been along the lines of: "You say science has nothing to say about the supernatural, but does anything else have anything to say about it?" The quoted passage seems to imply that you would answer "no." Is that right?

    In any case - what you say is saying the relevant thing about the supernatural, isn't it? Isn't the fact that it's too vague to constitute anything like an explanation of any sort precisely why Jerry and others think there is an epistemic conflict between religion (of the supernatural variety - not religion-as-social and the like) and science?

    That's my view of it anyway, for what that's worth.

  6. Here is Jerry's response to my post:


    Hector, yes, my post is addressed also to my readers, in the spirit of the Rationally Speaking motto about truth springing from argument amongst friends.

    jcm, I take a similar view of ideology to that of ian. Yes, dogmatism is even worse, but I see ideologies as quickly leading to dogmatic stands.

    Ophelia, much appreciated, thanks. I would argue a major business of philosophy is precisely to examine the epistemic and logical content - if any - of statements, which is why I find (science-informed) philosophical objections to religion more convincing.

    And yes, there is a deep conflict between science and religion - which is why I do not consider myself an accommodationist. However, the major source of that conflict, I think, was aptly summarized by Richard Feynman (in "The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist") when he said that science is based on open inquiry and questioning, while faith takes precisely the opposite stand.

  7. Ian, you raise good points about the consequences of ideology...but:

    a) I was partly objecting to Massimo's strong moral language. For example, nothing in those definitions implies to me that all ideologies are necessarily "evil", even though some examples (e.g. Nazism) certainly strike me that way.

    b) I doubt that any one is truly ideology-free, given the broad connotations of those definitions. In fact, I might characterize your view as an ideology whose content (or "set of claims") is dynamic (or, in more loaded terms, self-correcting), based on some logical/rational/empirical criteria. You may prefer to label that view a "meta-ideology", but I think it fits the definitions given above just fine.

    c) Less formally, I tend to think of an ideology as a body of ideals, and I can hardly imagine (let alone envy) a human life that lacks these. Sure, one should reject an ideal that can't withstand evidence or other kinds of negative feedback. But that in itself is an ideal, based on our real-world experience with dogmatic groups and individuals.

    In summary, I know it's just semantics, but I hate to see the reputation of a good English word ruined.

  8. Respect!

    As for disagreements, I largely agree with you about biology, but tentatively with Coyne about philosophy. Isn't that ironic...

  9. Thanks Massimo. I would add (from the point of view of the general reader) that the two are connected...that because science, and reason more broadly, are based on open inquiry and questioning, they tend not to stop with claims or concepts that are so vague they can't explain anything, while faith is untroubled by vagueness.

  10. Wow. Kudos to a spontaneous and sincere apology. This is very unusual in any context and is refreshing.

  11. Massimo:
    Have you nevertheless reserved the right to gently ridicule? In other words, to satirize?

  12. Baron,

    ah, yes, that's a good point. I don't want to turn the blog into an overly serious matter. Irony and satire are good things in life, if used judiciously. It is sarcasm that crosses the line, eventually leading straight down to insult. Unfortunately, that line isn't always crystal clear when one writes, so it will up to you guys to keep me on this side of it...

  13. Kudos to you for your self-reflection. I must admit I was a little disappointed when you criticized Coyne's philosophy as "primitive" instead of arguing with the substance.

    But you have won me back as reader, good sir, with your honesty sincerity. That and you have behaved like a grown-up, behavior which can be sorely lacking from all of us from time to time.

  14. Massimo, you previously said that scientific theories are structured in a particular way. Because theistic claims are too slippery to be formulated in this structure, it does not constitute a scientific theory and therefore falls outside the domain of science. If we accept that, why do you find "philosophical objections to religious claims more convincing?" Are philosophical arguments not structured in a particular way? Are you saying that religiously claims are always expressed in formal logic so that philosophers can apply their expertise in logic to dissect them? Why do you think religious claims can be expressed as philosophical propositions? Many religious folks outright reject logic. If they are too slippery for science, surely they are too slippery for philosophy too?

    You might say this is because philosophy can investigate propositions that are not philosophical. But why can't science investigate claims that are not scientific?

  15. I'd like to join in the spirit of reconciliation, and apologise for some of the intemperate language that I've used in discussions here and elsewhere. I'll try to keep my cool better in the future.

    I think a lot of the disagreement on this subject arises from talking at crossed purposes. All concerned could do with paying more attention to semantic issues, i.e. the meanings of words. But I think the greater onus here is on those who are trying to establish a demarcation criterion between "science" and "philosophy", or who are trying to claim that science in principle cannot evaluate any "supernatural" hypothesis. As they're the ones making specific claims, they need to be much clearer about what they're claiming, and especially what they mean by "science" and "supernatural". Those of us on the other side are mostly (though not always) taking a negative position, rejecting such claims or arguing that they're too simplistic, so we don't have the same onus.

  16. optical,

    well, to begin with, theological statements are inherently philosophical in nature (theology used to be a branch of philosophy). Second, what philosophers do well is to dissect and analyze the nature and intrinsic logic of claims, which makes them good at spotting where exactly someone's argument falls off the rational train.


    thanks for your comment. I don't think I am trying to draw a simplistic distinction, since I don't think there is a sharp demarcation between science and philosophy. But I also don't think it's so easy to shift the burden of argument: philosophy and science have been historically distinct (even when science was part of philosophy, it was a special branch of it), and they are currently pursued by different academics, working in different departments, going to different meetings, and writing papers very differently. All of this requires an explanation that goes beyond "oh, well, those are just arbitrary distinctions." They are no more arbitrary than those that separate, say medicine from law.

  17. Massimo, I tend to agree about the no sharp demarcation line along with Paul Draper, who e-mailed me that Eugenie C. Scott was wrong to note that scientists should never note that no teleonomy lies behind natural causes as that's a philosophical point, whereas we three find otherwise. Therefore, the Lamberth atelic or teleonomic argument that the weight of evidence [ Ernst Mayr ( ( his term teleonomy) - " What Evolution Is ; G.G. Simpson- " The Life of the Past"] finds no intent-teleology of any kind- no divine intent- behind natural causes and besides violating the Ockham, also contradicts science rather than complementing it! Not only no intent for design but any argument proffering intent- no intent for the Big Bang, no intent for miracles, no intent to save Jewry [ underscored by the Shoa] and so forth. Without intent, then God can have no referents as that Primary Cause,Grand Miracle Monger and so forth, and thus cannot exist! And He has contradictory, incoherent attributes as you imply, that again, He cannot exist! A triple whammy! This is my form of ignosticism.
    Should the supernaturalists find evidence for His referents and evidence coherent, no contradictory attributes, then as a proponent of provisional methodological naturalism, yes, then He might exist1 Unlike, IMC, the minority view of the accommodationists and even PZ, it does not a priori deny the supernatural and the paranormal. Yes, of course, with the ignostic proviso - no referents and no attributes, that would indeed be a tall order, but not an a priori matter!
    Maarten Boudry's comments on these two methodological naturalisms find themselves @ Jerry's blog.

  18. Massimo, I'm not denying that a distinction can be made between science and philosophy, though I probably see the distinction as much more fuzzy than you do. My objection is to the way you attempt to make that distinction, and the significance you assign to it. But I don't want to get into a full discussion of this subject now, so I'll say no more.

  19. Most people that regularly engage in public debate occasionally need to publicly apologise. Most people that occasionally need to publicly apologise never do.

    Good work.

  20. massimo,
    very nice to hear that you and jerry have reconciled -:)
    i would like to hear more details on the differences between you and jerry have about biology. future blog posts perhaps.
    also what is your opion on Arlin Stoltzfus 8 part series on mutationalism @ http://www.molevol.org/cdblog

  21. I might expand on some of our differences about biological issues, though I written quite a bit about in this book:


    Have not read anything by Stoltzfus, so I cannot comment on it at the moment.

  22. Moss, you've just received a shipment of respect from me. I respected you before, but it takes a lot of humility and effort to admit this about yourself and you have therefore gained more. If only more people would follow your guidelines when debating others instead of defaulting to personal attacks - which stalls the discussion for both sides.
    Real men, but few men take this kind of responsibility.
    Thank you.

  23. Massimo: You stated many times that religious claims are more convincingly dealt with using philosophical methods. When you get a chance I'd appreciate a demonstration. It seems to me that philosophy can do no better than science in this regard. All that philosophy can say is "this claim is illogical or too vague", but a religious person can say that is no a problem for god. God does not have to be logical or be precise. So you end up the same place as scientific refutations - nowhere.

  24. optical,

    a splendid example is the classic essay by Mackey on the problem of evil. It is absolutely, positively devastating, and it doesn't require any science at all. Yes, the religious can say that god is not constrained by logic, but in so doing he abandons apologetics (which, after all, is the attempt to defend his faith by reason, a la Thomas Aquinas) and entirely left the building.

  25. Massimo: The problem is that religious people can claim that god is not perfectly good. Many eastern religions do not claim that god is all good (or all powerful for the matter). So the problem of slippery remains. Also, note that the idea of apologetics can be also slippery. Many eastern religions do not have a tradition of apologetics (ie. there is no equivalence of Thomas Aquinas in Buddhism). So it is perfectly ok that apologetics is abandoned. That does no harm to religion either.

    The best you can say is that philosophy can refute a certain kind of god. That is no different from what science can do.

  26. optical,

    if there is no apologetics then there is no attempt at rational discourse, in which case there is nothing to do for either science or religion.

    Science never refutes gods, it refutes specific empirical claims attributed to gods (like the earth being 6,000 years old). Not the same thing, as I've argued before.


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