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.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Podcast teaser: open mic with Julia & Massimo

By Massimo Pigliucci

It’s happening again! Episode 25 of the Rationally Speaking podcast will be taped soon, and as it is becoming tradition for us every five episodes, this will be an open ended Q&A with the hosts. So, if you have any question pertinent to the RS universe of topics, from science to philosophy and everything in between, fire away in the comments section of this post (or leave a voice comment at 212-529-3393), and we’ll try to get to as many as possible during the show.
Oh, and don’t forget that on January 29 New York City Skeptics will host a live taping (not an oxymoron!) of the podcast, your chance to see Julia and I in action and to participate to the show. We will tape the equivalent of two episodes, the first one featuring a general discussion of topics covered by my recent book, Nonsense on Stilts, the second one entirely devoted to the Q&A. The event will take place at the Jefferson Market Library, at 425 Avenue of the Americas (btw 9th & 10th St.) in New York City.


  1. I would like to ask something that we briefly discussed a few posts ago and maybe you can elaborate on this topic. Can we say that quantitative research is more scientific than qualitative one (on average), or does it all depends on the logic and the arguments? Are there any criteria or characteristics of good qualitative research?

  2. How would you justify your moral positions to moral nihilists and moral relativists? For instance, imagine a scenario where you stated that slavery is wrong and another person responds with “how do you know?” or “you probably wouldn’t feel that way if you were born two-hundred years ago as a white American [implying morality is relative to your cultural perspective].”

  3. I was recently told by my philosophy professor that you can't cite a philosopher,lets say Immanuel Kant, as an expert in an argument. If this is true, whats the point of ethics if you can't be an expert on it?

  4. Kevin, on that one I really don't want to wait until the podcast. Please tell your professor of philosophy on my behalf that s/he is an idiot and should resign from the department. I mean it. This is part of a strange syndrome I have noticed in some philosophers who are bent on self flagellation and undermining their own field out of a misguided attempt at hyper-criticism. Bah.

  5. We know to be wary when scientists go outside their area of expertise, like when a chemist talks about biological evolution. What about when philosophers go outside their area of expertise, like when a philosopher of science talks about ethics? Is there more similarity or less similarity between branches of philosophy than between branches of science?

  6. I would like both you and Julia to clearly and concisely give your personal definitions of the words 'good' and 'evil'.

  7. How do you decide whether or not to take a dietary supplement like a multivitamin or vitamin D? Can we estimate the probability that a given medical guideline does more harm than good, or that the scientific consensus on something is totally wrong?

  8. I've thought, for a while now, that "skepticism" is really just a euphemism for intelligence. Consider these beliefs:

    - God does not exist, and all religions are (mostly or totally) false.
    - Science is the best way of approaching anything it can approach well.
    - Alternate medicine is bullshit.

    These beliefs are typically labeled "skeptical" beliefs. But I think this might be too modest. These are, after all, simply rational beliefs. They are the beliefs that you tend to reach if you're good at thinking.

    So is "skepticism" really just a euphemism for intelligence? Are we, as "skeptics," too reluctant to admit that we're just smarter (on average) than religious believers, people who believe in alternate medicine, and so forth? Does the notion of a skeptical movement create the false impression that people like Massimo, Julia, Michael Shermer, and James Randi are doing something other than, well, thinking? I for one DO think that people who hold "skeptical" beliefs tend to be a lot smarter than "non-skeptical" folks (so to speak), and I would bet my ass that empirical studies of IQ and beliefs would confirm this.

  9. Kevin,

    I don't have the greatest philosophy dept. but they have never ever approached a paper, large or small, from that perspective.

    Their biggest concern is about the student's reasoning in how the reference material is used.

    Buena suerte.

  10. I love philosophy. To the point where I almost decided to make it a career but was told i shouldn't by some philosophy professors I had. I was wondering if there is a way to live a philosophically rich life without being an academic philosopher. If there is a way how would you suggest I go about it.

  11. If the phil. professor was an an idiot, why on earth would there be interest in a resignation?

    If I were the idiot, I would want to stay on.

    What if the professor was someone you already apologized to in a public space? Is the apology now rescinded in light of what may seem to you to be a view too radical - another person whose belt does not go through all the loops?

  12. Dave, I never said I wouldn't insult anyone ever again. From Kevin said, that person is in fact an idiot, and ought to resign. Good point, however, about the fact that idiots rarely see the wisdom of doing that sort of thing - G.W. Bush being another example (there, I've just insulted someone else, I must be on a roll today...).

  13. Philosophers should be credited for the positions they develop or argue for as a matter of etiquette, but citing a philosopher as an "expert" is odd. Philosophy is about ideas and arguments, not about credentials, which are what establish expertise in a public forum. Saying that something is worth believing or glossing over just because a "great philosopher" like Descartes or Kant argued for it is simply an argument from authority. Of course you may take some philosopher's conclusion as a premise in an argument, but whether the premise is to be accepted is always an open question, no matter who is credited to have argued for it.

    An expert in philosophy is someone who has been widely and deeply educated in philosophy, who has come to understand a great variety of ideas, who knows a lot of arguments for and against a lot of positions, and who will perhaps consider some particularly persuasive and be willing to pursue and advocate them. Such a person is a goldmine of intellectual stimulation, but not an authority on the truth or falsehood of any position. Immanuel Kant may have been an expert on Plato, Hume, Liebniz, and himself, but he was not an authority on what's right or wrong. In philosophy the authority is reason.

    I don't think Kevin told us enough about the situation he referred to for us to decide whether his teacher is an idiot or not. I suppose the term "expert" is a bit fuzzy; I just offered one interpretation after all.

  14. strange, yes, but by your own definition philosophers are expert, both at a particular way of thinking and about a particular body of knowledge. [Incidentally, nobody, in any field, is an authority on truth or falsehood, at least not in any absolute way.] Which means that for a philosopher to claim that there is no such thing as philosophical expertise is, well, idiotic. I suspect the professor in question is a post-modernist, but I could be wrong.

  15. Sorry for the fuzzy/horrible wording of my question, been sleep deprived for a few days studying for finals. The class with the professor in question is an intro to logic class. When learning how to craft our own arguments we discussed the topic of premise acceptability. He told us in class (and in his lecture slides)that it is not an accepted appeal to authority when you use a philosopher for an argument on morality. The example he used of an unacceptable appeal to authority was:

    "The moral value of an action is ultimately determined by the motives of the agent rather than the consequences of the act. According to Immanuel Kant, one of the greatest figures in the history of moral philosophy, the only action that has moral worth is the one done from duty, out of respect for the moral law itself."

    All I remember is that when I asked him why, he informed me that he does not consider anyone a moral authority and that you can't be an authority on morality. Its possible that I just didn't understand what he was getting at, however that was the idea that stuck in my head from his lecture/slides.

  16. Kevin,

    thanks for the clarification. And speaking of clarifications, I should have said that your professor's response was idiotic, not that he was an idiot. I don't know the guy, so I can't judge.

    Sounds like he is a Kantian deontologist, but there are consequentialists in ethics who would disagree with his take. At any rate, a moral philosopher is an expert in moral reasoning, just like a biologist is an expert on biological theories. That's not to say that either should be considered an absolute authority on anything, even on what they are experts.

  17. Massimo, Julia,

    I'd just like to know your overall views on feminist philosophy, and if you have any recommendations for reading material (critical or supportive) concerning the subject.


  18. If you had the opportunity to add one class to general education curriculum with the goal of promoting critical thinking, what type of class would it be and why? Logic? Philosophy? Statistics? etc.

  19. Massimo, Julia:

    A college freshman reads a paperback edition of "Quantum Physics for Dummies", which says that everything in the universe is nothing but information. She thinks this is cool, and takes this proposition to her Philosophy 101 professor - that's one of you - for a considered opinion.

    What's the opinion?

  20. Coming from a third world country, I started my self education in philosophy/science/rationality fairly late and in a DIY kind of way, so I fell that I did a lot of things wrong (tried to read Kierkegaard way too early for example).
    What would be a sequence of reading/watching materials (or topics) that you and Julia would recommend for somebody that is trying to do the same thing? Sadly not all of us can return to college to do this, and some of us really started from zero or very near it.

  21. Hello Massimo and Julia,

    I first would like to say that I am an enormous fan of this blog and that I really admire what the both of you do: make your readers think and learn.

    I was a philosophy undergraduate, but my graduate studies have led me to the world of business (human resources, specifically). I would like to know your thoughts on the interaction between economic/business considerations and ethics. Let's use a standard and unfortunately common example: layoffs. Managers and/or HR personnel, at least in some cases, believe that such actions are necessary for the preservation of the whole as they understand it: the business entity itself (e.g., a corporation and its stockholders). They are thus acting under a type of consequentialism. Perhaps the goods being manufactured by said firm become cheaper as a result, thereby allowing many consumers to save money. Nonetheless, many people are also hurt as a result.

    When it comes to business and economics, where do you think the horizon of consequential analysis ends? That is, how far should/could a decision maker see before s/he carries out this kind of action?

    (A brief postscript: There is substantial evidence that layoffs are not beneficial in the long term, but the belief that they are certainly remains.)

  22. There is a severe drought in the isolated country of Examplestan; people are on the brink of dying of thirst.
    A and B live in a wealthy, distant country.
    A travels to Examplestan and sells water for $100 the bottle.
    B stays at home.

    Compare A and B from an ethical perspective. In particular, why do we want to condemn A when B has done much less to help the Examplestanis?

  23. Another question, this has more to do with your opinion on the subject.
    There are a number of websites (lesswrong.com, overcomingbias.com) where there is a predominance in the use of Bayesian "reasoning". While reading them I have the feeling that while in some aspects it is a truly useful thing, sometimes they overextend and try to "bayesianize" the whole structure of reality. What is your take into this particular type of philosophy?(actually calling it a philosophy may make some bayesians quiver in horror, as they see themselves as updating the old school non useful "philosophy" with "real" useful bayesianism.)

  24. I'm not sure if this question will be appropriate for an answer on a podcast, but here it goes.

    While browsing TED talks, I came across David Deutsch talking on why science works (link here). When I watched it, I thought "that makes sense", but I couldn't find anything else about it on the web. Since its premise is similar to the content of Nonsense On Stilts, I was wondering how successful his idea in capturing why science works is.

  25. @Ritchie:
    Your idea is probably true up to a point, but it's also abundantly clear that intelligence is not sufficient for skepticism (aka systematically true belief).

    This is largely because intelligent people are particularly good at finding clever reasons not to change their minds - they're very good rationalizers.

    Witness the literary & academic apologists for fascism & communism. An average person, on learning of the gulags, no longer admires Stalin, if they ever did. Your intelligent person, meanwhile, immediately thinks of 5 reasons why the USSR's problems are extraordinary enough to justify mass murder and sits down to write a letter to the editor.

    Go and read Ted Kaczynski's manifesto for a poignant example of this phenomenon.

  26. @ianpollock
    Excellent point and example of intelligence being a necessary but not sufficient condition for skepticism. It seems that intelligent people are more likely to fall into a principle-of-charity trap that they feel is an example of their being rational when, in truth, they are rationalizing in its stead.

    Karl Popper discusses similar issues in his The Open Society and Its Enemies. Very smart people can be behind very terrible things for precisely the reason you illustrate.

  27. There is also a sense in which a little bit of thinking can dissolve defence mechanisms against craziness, because those defence mechanisms are not themselves rational.

    Your average religious person supposedly believes in the perfect truth of their holy book, but avoids the implications of most of the nastier passages by studiously NOT THINKING about them.

    Take that person, then add the ideal of seeking logical consistency between one's beliefs, and you've got a fundamentalist. Thus it is said, a little learning is a dangerous thing.

  28. Oh, here are two other questions for you guys:

    Massimo, you said recently that "Aumann was wrong." It'd be great if you could elaborate on that.

    Also, and this is the question I'd really like answered: do either of you have any useful anti-akrasia strategies/stories/insights?

  29. Massimo,

    Post podcast, we eagerly await your admission that you're wrong and we're right on every issue. Let go your cognitive dissonance, and let the force flow within you.


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