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.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Massimo’s Picks

By Massimo Pigliucci

* Prospects for climate change legislation dimmer given the stubborn denial of the newly elected Republicans...
* ... Although climate scientists are organizing to fight back the misinformation.
* Philosophy Talk on various levels of reality...
* An in-depth article on thought experiments.
* My interview with Chris Mooney, apparently a very popular download over at Point of Inquiry.
* The Amazon preview of my review of Harris’ new book. Stay tuned for the whole thing on Skeptic.
* George Carlin’s American Dream. As he put it, it’s called a dream because you’ve got to be asleep to believe it.


  1. The future of this nation will slso be seriously impacted if the teaparties succeed in their quest for prohibition of not just abortion but the more effective forms of birth control.

  2. Well it is a small, unscientific sample size, but I work with a number of blue collar people and I can tell you that unlike the rarefied conversations at the french bistros about the tenets and virtues of objectivism over a glass of fine wine they mostly talk about guns, God, ghosts, celebrities, sports and snowmobiles. There is also this atmosphere of (usually) unspoken anger that things are getting worse and there is someone (else) to blame for it. They may not be tea-partyers themselves but they are the soil in which those kinds of movements grow. These are not unskilled dockworkers. These are people trained to handle Plutonium, so I am thinking it is probably worse elsewhere.

    So while we abide in the ivory tower enjoying civilized discourse and exercising our neurons be mindful that it is getting dark outside. Be mindful also that the idiots breed faster so there will be more of them tomorrow. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

  3. The article on thought experiments was excellent. What do people think of Thomson's pro-choice thought-experiment and the Jackson vs. Dennett qualia one?

  4. You might want to reconsider one comment in the review:

    "We both agree that religion has absolutely nothing to do with morality, though I don't think of it as "the root of all evil" either, to use Richard Dawkins' phrase, which Harris seems to endorse with glee throughout this (and his previous) book."

    Yet in interviews after the release of the documentary by that title, such as one on the Jeremy Vine show on January 5th, 2006, Dawkins explicitly objected to declaring religion "the root of all evil", and explained that he argued against the title given to the documentary. He further explained that, instead, those responsible for the documentary insisted on this title in order to generate controversy. Unless Dawkins has elsewhere taken this term as his own, this isn't his phrase, and attributing it to him is inappropriate.

  5. Lance, I've heard that argument before, and I don't buy it. Dawkins is a big enough fish that if he objects to a title, the producers listen. He could have threaten to withdraw from the project. Besides, the title is perfectly in line with Dawkins' general comments on religion, like the one about religious education of the young amounting to child abuse.

  6. Well, you're certainly within your rights to question Dawkins' honesty, which is what I perceive your response to amount to. Personally, however, I don't tend to base my arguments off the presumption of dishonesty in others (especially when they are someone with a fair degree of integrity, like Dawkins) and I don't think you should, either, unless there's good reason to actually suspect it. I don't know that Dawkins really could have insisted on a different title, and I don't know that I buy the claim that he could have had he wanted to.

    Dawkins claims that he doesn't think that religion is the root of ALL evil. Indeed, he's said that the idea of anything being the root of all evil is ridiculous. I take what he says to be the truth; that he recognizes that more than just religion is at the heart of evil and suffering in this world. To think otherwise, to suppose that Dawkins, a bright guy by any measure, actually thinks that religion is the font of literally all evil, and that when he repeatedly says that he doesn't think this, that he's either somehow deceiving himself, lying, etc. I find far more suspect than the more plausible notion that he really doesn't abide by the notion that religion is the “root of all evil”. I really hope that this isn't what you are claiming – that he's being dishonest.

    There are several points I'd like to make about this:

    First, You suggest he could have withdrawn from the project. That seems like a pretty tall order, and I think a responsible person weighing the consequences of an unfortunate title versus not releasing the film altogether would favor the former over the latter. I don't think the issue is so great that it would be worth abandoning the entire documentary, and I think if Dawkins did consider this, he'd have drawn a similar conclusion. Also, if the title was selected or modified after the making of the film, it would seem especially dubious to seriously consider trying to block the film over the title.

    It's even possible Dawkins felt that the title would help the film become more popular, even if he didn't personally endorse the view, and so he favored it for strategic reasons. I doubt this is actually the case, but the point remains that the mere fact that the title passed through is not an indication that he endorses it. Also, Dawkins claims that he insisted on the “?” at the end of the title, and that this was the only concession the broadcasters were willing to make, a point in makes in this Point of Inquiry broadcast:


    Here, Dawkins says the following:

    “First of all I should say that the Title 'Root of all Evil' was not mine, and I actually fought vigorously against it, against the television company, and they insisted on it. I managed to get them to insert a question mark at the end which was the sole concession to my misgivings about what I regarded and still do regard as an indefensible title. Religion is certainly not the root of all evil; no single thing is the root of all anything. But I do think you can make the case that religion is the root of a great deal of evil...”

    If I'm to take your claim seriously, I'd have to conclude that Dawkins is blatantly lying here – that he could have chosen another title but opted not to, and then in this interview chose to deliberately bring this topic up and object to the title without having been specifically prompted about it, and to say that he was unable to make significant changes to the title. So, apparently, not only did he lie about this, he went out of his way to do so without prompting. This seems to me what you'd have to be suggesting if you continue with this line of argument.

  7. To continue: given that the original title was “Root of all evil?” with a question mark, it seems hard to imagine that this title is, in itself, an obvious affirmative of “Yes, religion IS the root of all evil.” In fact, on consideration, that the title was pitched as a question and not as an affirmative statement really calls your attribution into question. We wouldn't go accusing atheists of being secret theists for titling works “Does God Exist?” The question could always be answered with a “No”.

    Second, it should be noted that when the documentary was rebroadcast, the original title was dropped and it was retitled to share the same name as his book, The God Delusion:


    Third, you say this:

    “Besides, the title is perfectly in line with Dawkins' general comments on religion, like the one about religious education of the young amounting to child abuse.”

    The mere fact that some of Dawkins views would be consistent with the title seems like a weak point to make, and doesn't do much do support the claim that he actually endorses the title. Just because a particular view is consistent with or may be an implication of some other view doesn't entail, or even necessarily suggest, that you hold both views. It doesn't suggest much anything, really. I'm inclined to agree with Dawkins that religious education is child abuse. I even agree that it's potentially more harmful than sexual abuse, something else Dawkins has suggested. Nonetheless, that doesn't mean I think religion is the source of all evil, or even the majority of it. That, too, is the position Dawkins seems most likely to hold – that religion is a pervasive force of evil, but isn't the only root of it.

  8. Lance,

    I don't wish to dismiss your points, but I think you are making too much out of this. First, I have experience in publishing and productions, and I can assure you that if someone the caliber of Dawkins "vigorously fought" against a title, there is an excellent change the title would be changed.

    Second, I don't take the phrase literally, even if Dawkins believes that religion is the root of most evil, my original point stands. It isn't, and of course he - like all of the new atheists - cavalierly dismisses all the social good that religion has done. I'm an atheist, and I wish for a completely secular society, but I don't go for simplistic caricatures.

  9. I'm not seeking to make too much of it; my point is simple: The phrase "root of all evil" isn't Dawkins', and it's wrong to claim that it is. You should retract the attribution, or acknowledge that you think Dawkins is lying when he claims it isn't his in interviews. If you can think of any other alternatives, I'd be happy to hear them, but it seems to me your position requires that you hold Dawkins to be dishonest. While you may not care, I do care when public figures like Dawkins, who face enough unfair and untrue accusations from religious nuts, have to face the same mistreatment from people who are more or less on their side.

    Dawkins certainly does not dismiss the "social good" of religion. I gather from his claims that what is bad for society is the overarching framework from which such actions stem. It would appear Dawkins' position is really more along the lines of that the net effect of religion over all is bad for society, and that its abandonment in favor of reason-based approaches to the world would be a good thing. If this is his (and perhaps Harris's) point, it seems rather obviously true to anyone with a functioning brain – that religion is, all things considered, a bad thing for society that we'd be better off without. A society that promotes faith-based views will have charity workers and good deeds, but it will also be vulnerable to a high proportion of misdeeds, bigotry, and the promotion of ignorance. As Steven Weinberg put it,

    “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion”

    The same isn't necessarily true of secular, reason-based worldviews that would, in contrast, conduce to substantially less harm. Furthermore, insofar as religion impedes the development of superior alternatives, it would serve to harm society not as a direct harm (though it tends to do plenty of that), but as type of harm that prevents superior alternatives from coming to light. Someone doesn't need to deny that there are some goods that come out of religion; but that does not mean that they have to admit religion is in any over all respect good.

    At the risk of invoking Godwin's law, I think the extremity of the following example is apropos. It's worth noting that many Nazis, including Hitler himself, were supposedly strong supporters of animal welfare. Yet Nazism is uncontroversially a horrible blight on mankind. That some Nazis did some good things, and the possibility that they were even inspired by Nazi ideology to do them, does not vindicate Nazism. That religions provide social goods does not vindicate them, either, and it isn't any more an indication that they aren't, on the whole, blights on mankind. It strikes me as just as ridiculous to harp on about the social goods of religion as it is to harp on about the social goods of any other set of views that, taken as a whole, are quite vile. At their foundations, religions seem to necessitate the abdication of reason; stripped of their other vile elements, this alone raises my doubts that a religion could ever be anything other than an impediment to genuine progress in the world. This seems to me what Harris, Dawkins, and others are driving at when they deride religion as a force for evil – that it is, by and large, a bad thing, not that each and every element of it is in itself bad.

    So when you say this:

    “I'm an atheist, and I wish for a completely secular society, but I don't go for simplistic caricatures. “

    The insistence that Dawkins ascribes to an absurd position, which you clarify you “don't take literally” only when pressed, seems to me like an attempt at slipping in a caricature of Dawkins' position.

    So if you don't take the term literally, fine: then don't make simplistic caricatures of Dawkins.

  10. I am not making simplistic caricatures of Dawkins. I simply think that his tone is too often too harsh, and I've said that many times on this blog, including some detailed posts where I quote specific passages in The God Delusion. If you disagree, fine, we have different perceptions of Dawkins. (Mine, I should add, has been reinforced by several meetings in person, and by colleagues who have met him.) At any rate, he is certainly not the root of all evil either, just to make things clear.

  11. I agree with Lance here. Dawkins has made the point clear about the "root of all evil" phrasing and how he did not approve, support or defended such a statement. Your review at Amazon could be read by hundreds/thousands of people and you have a moral obligation to NOT unfairly brand Dawkins with phrases that misrepresent his position! Sorry but there's no excuse for you not going back and changing your review slightly. Even if Dawkins came up with the phrase "root of all evil" (he didn't) even if he supported it (he didn't). It's undeniable fact that he has explained clearly and in different outlets that "root of all evil" is a bad way to phrase things and you should not only accept this but actually have the courteousness to help spread the correct position a fellow public intellectual holds. It would be a much better environment for the exchange of ideas if everyone did this.

  12. Gray, I think you are making way too much of this, and the phrase "moral obligation" is way out of proportion. If you really want to use it, perhaps you should apply it to Dawkins' obligation to withdraw from a project the official title of which he allegedly so strongly objected to, no?

  13. I have written an extended reply regarding our discussion here that seems inappropriately large for posting here, though I'd be happy to post it here if you'd permit me to do so. Unfortunately, I have a penchant for being excessively thorough. I hope you will take the time to consider my response. Here is my reply:


    I summarize that reply here:

    1.Your responses do not so far vindicate you from the charge that your attribution of the phrase "root of all evil" to Richard Dawkins is inaccurate.

    2.Your responses have so far constituted largely dismissive evasions and attempts to downplay the importance of your original attribution.

    3.It is unethical to knowingly misattribute ideas to others, especially in a public forum that thousands of people are likely to read and be misled about.

    You may regard my investing time in this issue as rather silly, but your responses here have motivated me to invest time in this matter because I feel it is important for statements made by prominent persons such as yourself about prominent public figures to be accurate; this isn't something to be dismissed as trivial. Your error was somewhat trivial. Your refusal to correct or inability to recognize that error isn't.

  14. Lance,

    I'm really sorry that you want to make a much bigger issue of this than I ever intended, I really think your reaction, and particularly your charges of unethical behavior on my part, are out of proportion for an off the cuff remark made in a completely different context.

    Still, I am not misattributing anything to anyone. It is a fact that Dawkins authored a documentary with that title; yes, it is also a fact that he later backed away from said inflammatory title; it is also a fact that Dawkins has a very negative and inflammatory view of religion, as evident from his writings, including his characterization of religious education as child abuse; it is also a fact that I have experience with publishers and producers, and that experience leads me to believe that if Dawkins really had strong objections to the title of the documentary, he would have likely been accommodated.

    Given all of the above, I have simply drawn what I consider the inference to the best explanation: Dawkins probably did object to the title, but weakly; faced with the controversy afterwards, he retreated. There is nothing particularly unethical in his behavior (i.e., I'm not suggesting that he is lying), these things happen. There is also nothing unethical in my behavior for suggesting this possible explanation of the facts. I may be wrong, of course, but I wonder why you take what Dawkins says at face value, without considering the broader context and a bit of a more nuanced explanation.

  15. Hi Massimo. This will be my last post on this topic; my apologies for exhausting the topic and I will do so no further.

    "it is also a fact that he later backed away from said inflammatory title"

    No, as I've repeated ad nauseum, it's a fact that he never supported the title to begin with. Saying he "later backed away" mischaracterizes the situation to paint a picture closer to the one you're still supporting.

    "it is also a fact that I have experience with publishers and producers"

    It is also a fact that your experience doesn't trump the considerable evidence that Dawkins objected to the title all along. When you begin to use your "experience" as a reason to override contravening facts, you're making such a weak appeal to your personal authority that it really makes me question whether reasoned arguments take a back seat to your sense of authority.

    "and that experience leads me to believe that if Dawkins really had strong objections to the title of the documentary, he would have likely been accommodated."

    I'll say it one last time:

    Richard Dawkins did have the title of the documentary changed to include a '?'. Later, the title was changed entirely. Regardless, the conclusion that Dawkins supported the title is unjustified. It doesn't follow that participation in a film necessitates endorsement of that film's title.

    It is dawning on me that you very likely simply have an ax to grind against Dawkins, and are suffering from some sort of confirmation bias that impairs your ability to perceive Dawkins' claims accurately.

    For instance, you said here:

    “It isn't, and of course he - like all of the new atheists - cavalierly dismisses all the social good that religion has done.”

    This is demonstrably false. Listen to what Dawkins says at 2:03 and onward:


    “[...] I don't want to say it's been a wholly [sic] force for negativity […] many individuals have been motivated powerfully to do good by their religion [...]”

    What conclusion can any reasonable person draw from this other than that Dawkins does in fact recognize religion motivates people to do good, and that, consequently, the claim that he “cavalierly dismisses” it having done good is simply wrong? If you've drawn a different inference from this, then you have no business calling the basis for that inference rational. Likewise, if you've drawn an inference that Dawkins adheres to the views you attribute to him about religion, you have no business describing that as “rationally” speaking. Whatever you're doing, it's not rational.

    “Dawkins probably did object to the title, but weakly; faced with the controversy afterwards, he retreated.”

    If this is what you believe, then you shouldn't be calling the phrase “his”. It's not his position now, and this would suggest that it never really was.

    “There is nothing particularly unethical in his behavior (i.e., I'm not suggesting that he is lying), these things happen. There is also nothing unethical in my behavior for suggesting this possible explanation of the facts.”

    Now you're equivocating. You didn't “suggest” it, you pinned the term to Dawkins as one of ownership. You could have made a simple concession, but instead you're now presenting this as if it were your position all along.

    I'm done with this discussion. It's quite obvious that you are not rational about this, that you employ fallacies when it suits you, and that you think your personal experiences qualify you to render judgments of the sort you have here, despite any competent assessment suggesting otherwise.

  16. Lance, to accuse me of having an "axe to grind" is the ultimate refuge of people who wish to make idols of prominent thinkers like Dawkins or Coyne (I have been accused of having another axe with him too). I simply disagree with your interpretation of the evidence, and you are free to disagree with mine. To bring in high-minded accusations of unethical behavior and imaginary axes really doesn't help the discussion.


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