About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Massimo’s Picks

By Massimo Pigliucci

* Income in medieval England higher than in poor nations today, even just before the Black Death. Think about it, people.
* Philosophy Talk on the power (and different types) of thought.
* Cosmologists found evidence for a time before the Big Bang! Cosmologists did not find evidence for a time before the Big Bang!!
* Philosophy as a form of Kung Fu, no Bruce Lee required.
* Remember to label your axes when arguing with your boyfriend...
* Overcoming nihilism, between Nietzsche and Melville (Melville?).


  1. What is the substance of the meaning of our lives? Sean D. Kelly, chair of the department of philosophy at Harvard University, thinks that we can find it in the “small-scale commitments”:

    • “…to find happiness and meaning, in other words, not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived. The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings. They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events.”

    Kelly feels that life can be lived meaningfully by virtue of our day-to-day experiences without a contextualing, unifying belief system. It’s like living in two-dimensional space – enjoying a sunset apart from seeing its relationship to purpose, truth, and the fullness of our relationships. It’s being left alone with feelings, which sometimes might raise us to lofty places, but more often confront us with fears, failures, and disappointments. From where do we derive a philosophy that can ennoble and meaningfully contextualize life’s downside?

  2. "Cosmologists found evidence for a time before the Big Bang! Cosmologists did not find evidence for a time before the Big Bang!!"

    Did any of the latter find the nothing that our something came from?

  3. "Label your axes"...just shows I'm no statistician - I thought you meant battle axes. Also useful in fights with the boyfriend, of course.

  4. The article speaks of "a life that steers happily between two dangers: the monotheistic aspiration to universal validity, which leads to a culture of fanaticism and self-deceit, and the atheistic descent into nihilism..."

    I'm going to go ahead and say that of all the many things wrong with monotheism, the 'aspiration to universal validity' is not one of them. I would call that a wrong diagnosis.

    Anyway, in my personal experience, one suffers from "nihilism" when one cannot articulate one's own philosophical/ethical/aesthetic vision; in other words, "nihilism" is an intermediate stage between criticism and conviction.

    In the particular context of religion, it seems to occur whenever somebody has (consciously or de facto) lost their faith, but still sees the world in terms of the prejudices of religion: matter is "mere" and unworthy, meaning must be "objective" if it is to count.

    For very good rhetorical reasons, these cliches have long been promoted; hence western religion has coded into our common sense, various metaphysical conceits that prevent us from being happy even in principle - at least until we make a solid effort to question the conceits.

    More concretely, if you won't be happy with anything but "objective" meaning (whatever that is), then you won't ever be happy, period, because you ain't getting it. In the same way as a heterosexual male whose standard of female beauty requires the intervention of photoshop, will never in principle be satisfied with flesh-and-blood women (and had best either work to modify his preferences or pay a lot of money to a Japanese robot manufacturer).

    Hence, 2000 years of indoctrination have given us a hilariously unrealistic (not to say incoherent!) standard for what the good life would actually require. I doubt it requires that much. You just need to be in good company, good health, and doing something you know to be worthwhile.

  5. "A widely held view of economic history suggests that the Industrial Revolution of 1800 suddenly took off, in the wake of centuries without sustained economic growth or appreciable improvements in living standards in England from the days of the hunter-gatherer. By contrast, we find that the Industrial Revolution did not come out of the blue. Rather, it was the culmination of a long period of economic development stretching back as far as the late medieval period."

    I liked seeing the article, and probably should look up the paper, to see what data series etc they use. But I studied economic history in college, and the idea that there were important precursors to the industrial revolution going back at least two centuries has been a standard part of our understanding for decades. This is sort of a typical media thing of making something sound more revolutionary than it actually is. Sort of like people writing things which make it sound as though no economist had ever professionally considered the possibility people aren't perfectly rational.

  6. Massimo, if you're looking for article ideas, there's an infamous YouTube creationists horribly misrepresenting the philosophy of science. I'd know I'd love to see an articulate refutation from someone with your background.



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