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.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Massimo’s Picks

by Massimo Pigliucci
* Mind over matter? Doubtful, and there are nasty consequences when people think you are sick because you didn't try hard enough...
* The latest Rationally Speaking podcast: is anthropology a science?
* Once again, Jon Stewart nails Fox and O'Reilly exactly where they should be nailed.
* The problem with scientific quests for immortality, at least in the past.
* The unexamined life is not worth living. But hurry up, you only have a total of 1000 months to examine it.
* I don't like the way you think about math, so I'm going to pee on your office door!
* Glenn Beck targets CUNY professor. If something happens to her, is he going to be responsible?
* Philosophy Talk: do people in different cultures have different conceptions of self?
* A French intellectual writes about happiness, and even appears to be happy!
* Leave it to The Economist to argue that a reason to worry about income inequality is that the rich get stressed...
* Montaigne, empathy, and mirror neurons.
* Let's get this straight: it is a matter of fact that right and left rhetoric are not "just as bad."
* Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. So a new book examines the lives of 12 philosophers, beginning with Socrates.


  1. About the Guardian article: How is a science of happiness different than a science of morality? To me, it seems they face all the same problems.

  2. Lefaw, it depends on what one means. Both happiness and morality *can* be studied by science, but science cannot tell you what you *should* do to be happy or moral.

  3. Massimo, from what I understand, Harris doesn't advocate a science of morality that tells people what they should do. Instead, he wants to show what is right through science, and the science of happiness does this as well by showing us what makes us happy.

    By the way, have you read Harris's response to his critics in the huffington post (specifically Blackford)? It was posted yesterday: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/a-response-to-critics_b_815742.html

  4. Lefaw, yes, I've seen Harris' response. To show "what is right" through science *is* to use facts to determine values, an oxymoron that Harris simply refuses to understand.

    His points can only be either a) science can solve moral questions (that's what the book is allegedly about), in which case he is flat wrong; or b) that science can inform us on the best course of action to achieve what we think is moral, in which case his statement is trivial and uncontroversial.

  5. "To show "what is right" through science *is* to use facts to determine values, an oxymoron that Harris simply refuses to understand."

    How does that differ from a science of happiness? E.g., to show "what makes us happy" through science *is* to use facts to determine values.

    Also, shouldn't you know what his point is by now? From what I understand, his point is mostly B; however, if you agree with B, then you will probably accept A, because then you've already accepted the axioms. For example, if you agree science can show us the best course of action to be healthy, then you can also agree science can solve questions on health.

  6. Yes, I get his point, I read the whole damn book. Again, (b) is trivial, nobody disagrees that science can be used instrumentally. But he wants to use it to determine our ends, not just our means.

    There is a difference with happiness, because the latter is an intrinsically subjective state. Science can study what external factors correlate with that internal sense, it cannot tell you that you *should* be happy if you do so and so. You either are or aren't.

    Morality can be studied scientifically too, see all the literature on the neural bases of moral decision making. But that is emphatically not what Harris is interested in, he says so clearly right at the beginning of the book.

  7. He wants to use science to determine our ends, but he acknowledges you must accept the means first--and he thinks most people would.

    Is wellbeing not an intrinsically subjective state? Science can't say that we should value wellbeing; however, if you do value wellbeing science can say what is moral, and if you accept that, then you must also accept that science can tell *you* what is morally right.

  8. Let's resume this discussion next week, after eSkeptic will publish my review of Harris' book (also due in the next issue of Skeptic).

  9. Lefaw, I'd say that there's subjective wellbeing and there's objective wellbeing. The former is often a focal point of psychology and sociology, and the latter is often a focal point of medicine and epidemiology. (Neuroscience and cognitive psychology seem to bridge this gap if/when they correlate objective and subjective measures of wellbeing.)

    At a higher (or meta) level, I would expect philosophers to analyze the concept of wellbeing itself (e.g. its meaning and coherence with other concepts and beliefs). I might also expect philosophers to compose and/or critique arguments for or against wellbeing as a personal and/or political goal.

    I've not yet read Harris on this topic, but I think I would be as frustrated as Massimo sounds (particularly if I, like he, were a professional philosopher) and someone were to: (a) reduce all of morality & ethics to the pursuit of wellbeing, without providing at least some rational justification for doing so; and/or (b) reduce the entire study of wellbeing to what professional scientists have to say about it. Just sayin.'

  10. jcm, you're not really saying anything that's pertinent. That's something like a brief overview, and you need to read Harris's argument before saying he's not providing a rational justification, ect.

  11. Lefaw, I actually think jcm is on target. And I have read the damn book, the whole boring thing, largely irrelevant to morality (particularly the chapter where Harris goes on and on and on and on about how stupid Francis Collins is.

  12. Massimo, you're not really saying anything either. You agree with jcm's bare assertions, and you think Harris's book is boring. So what?

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. Lefaw, I began with a response to your question: "Is wellbeing not an intrinsically subjective state?" To boil it down to another question: Is physical health not a type of wellbeing?

    But, re: my allusion to Harris, I did not say that he is actually guilty of either (a) or (b). I did, however, suggest that, if he is (as Massimo suggests), then I can understand his frustration.

    But what's more important to me is the ideas here, not the personalities.

  15. I guess now we know what happens when mathematicians get into a pissing contest.

    As for happiness you will find it not over the rainbow, but rather at the end of a chain of IFs
    If you are not burdened by the fear of what is.
    If you are not burdened by the fear of what isn't.
    If you are not burdened by the regrets of what has passed.
    If you are not burdened by the fear of what is to come.
    If the factors that made you what you are - evolution, gestation, genes and environment influence you to desire only that which is possible.
    If your environmental conditions allow you to fulfill your desire.
    If your mindset allows you to be cognizant and appreciative of that fulfillment.
    And if you are either constant in your desire or change only to another desire which meets the above conditions then voila! Happiness, or at least the best chance thereof. But like all chains it is only as strong as its weakest link and since human beings themselves are a process there is no reason to suppose that a state of happiness would not be as well. The Red Queen rules as always.

    To clarify - by 'burdened ' I don't mean that you never feel those things only that they don't dominate your thinking time. Let's say they take up less than 20% of your cognitive hours. YMMV.

  16. Lefaw, I think I've been saying things, you're just not listening.

  17. I hope the people with different concepts of the self realise that they are laying themselves open to being killed and eaten by those from whom they differ: this seems one of the main grounds alleged to justify such behaviour.

  18. That article about violent rhetoric is powerful. I've always heard that there are crazies on both sides. There is never an equal amount of craziness on both sides--not even remotely.

  19. jcm, wellbeing is more encompassing than health. E.g., you can be healthy, but have little wellbeing if you feel you're living a miserable life. Also, your comment still reads as though you're saying Harris is guilty on both points without support; however, if you didn't mean it that way, then fine.

    Massimo, you're saying things, but you're not supporting them, or they're irrelevant. That's is saying nothing for me. Try engaging in the argument, or wait until you can—like you suggested. Incidentally, (since you seem to be fine with that) I do have say you're no Russell Blackford in terms of clear expression of thought. Seriously, though, check out that guy's blog and his comments—you have some catching up to do.

  20. Lefaw, when you have to resort to demeaning the host of a blog by telling him that he is not quite as good as another guy you've really reached bottom. You think you are making arguments? You are just saying things...

    Art, I'll post a link to my in-depth review of Harris' book when it comes out in eSkeptic. Meanwhile, however, the problem with Harris start right at the beginning, with the concept of wellbeing. Yes, there is a trivial sense in which you can say that morality is about wellbeing. But whose wellbeing? Of individuals? Of the self? Of groups and societies? And what about moral obligations to animals or the environment?

    Moreover, Harris in the middle of the book makes the preposterous claim that all we will eventually need to do is to scan a person's brain to see whether they are really happy or not. This confuses subjective happiness with wellbeing (not the same thing), and assumes that morality is about making our neuropeptides flow in a particular way. As a result, one could simply hoop everyone up to a drug pumping machine and claim - on solid neurobiological basis - that the entire planet is now happy. What a load of dingo kidneys.

    (Lefaw, was that explanation clear enough for ya, or should I call Russell Blackford to translate?)

  21. Massimo, I didn't mean to demean you. I was trying to help you better yourself by providing an example for you to aspire to. But, like I said, if you can "just say things," then I might as well, too (and both of us probably won't like them).

    About wellbeing: there doesn't have to be a static conception of wellbeing. The concept of wellbeing can be changed depending on what level you're talking about. E.g., wellbeing at a societal level, of course, includes groups and societies. Also, the environment would necessarily be entangled in concerns of wellbeing, because it affects wellbeing through environmental disasters. Also, I don't see any reason why animals' wellbeing wouldn't be considered.

    With a sci-fi type brain scanner, you wouldn't be constrained to just measuring happiness. So, that point fairly weak. You need to show why a scanner can't inherently determine wellbeing, and why this is such a great flaw that it extirpates everything else.

  22. Lefaw, sorry but that is a strange way to inspire someone to better himself, if that was your goal, you may want to think more carefully about how you express it.

    We are not talking sci-fi, we are talking neurobiology, so please let's stick to what Harris actually says. And the problem is that he has no discussion of the different kinds of wellbeing I mentioned or how they should be balanced. Because he thinks that philosophy discussions are a waste of time. His loss, and that of his readers.

  23. Massimo--

    Of all philosophy bloggers I know of, Blackford has presented the most comprehensive and lucid arguments against moral realism. I find his responses to Harris particularly comprehensive.

    So maybe it would be instructive if you wrote a post in which you place your own take on morality vis-a-vis Blackford's anti-realist arguments.

  24. Lefaw said: wellbeing is more encompassing than health

    Of course it is, which is why I mentioned psychology and sociology above, as fields relevant to the more "subjective" forms of wellbeing. I cited physical health as a counter example in response to your question "Is wellbeing not an intrinsically subjective state?" In other words, I fail to see how physical health is an "instrinsically subjective state", except insofar as an individual perceives that physical health and feels good about it.

    That much actually *supports* the idea (be it one actually proposed by Harris or a strawman of Massimo's invention, which is more of a journalistic question) that science can inform us about morality - but only insofar as we buy the *philosophical* arguments that wellbeing is the target of morality and that scientific method(s) can reliably measure it.

    BTW, I think I'm saying as much of pertinence as you are. But, if it doesn't interest you, then I would prefer that you ignore it.

  25. Ritchie, I'm aware of Blackford's positions. I may address the issue again in the future, but I think I made pretty clear in several posts why I don't buy into moral anti-realism. On that I'm actually closer to Harris than Blackford.

  26. Massimo--

    Would it bother if I asked which post or posts you think state your position re: moral realism in the best way?

  27. Massimo, here's what Harris says: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBUWmXZv6Xg#t=17m35s

    He doesn't pretend neurobiology can answer questions of wellbeing at this moment, but his point is that in the future they can--that there's no reason they can't(i.e., scifi). And even that is nearly beside the point, because it's such a weak point. It's like arguing against genocide, because it will inconvenience the grave diggers. You miss the point.

  28. jcm, how is physical health objective? How can you say someone with a broken bone, and likes having a broken bone, is not healthy? It seems to me, that calling someone healthy requires a value judgement in propping up what it means to be healthy. Now, that doesn't after agreeing with what it means to be healthy, we can't objectively say whether someone with a broken bone is healthy. However, they don't have to accept that axiomatic concept of health, and leaves epidemiology, for example, as an objective study of health founded on an intrinsically subjective concept.

  29. Ritchie, there are several posts that are pertinent to this discussion, including:


  30. Lefaw, I've already responded to Harris' YouTube video on this blog (see a couple of the links just posted above). With all due respect, I think you are the one missing the point.

  31. Massimo, you are demonstrably missing the point. Let me demonstrate:

    A) I linked to a specific time in that video to refute a specific think you said, and you respond with a non-sequitur by saying you've responded to the entire video previously. Responding to the entire video does not mean you've responded to my point.

    B) You harp on a point made by Harris that is largely incidental, and doesn't show a real flaw in his argument (see my previous comment).

    C) I point out how you fail to support your assertions, and again, you fail to point out how I'm missing the point where you say I am.

    Given all that, I think you wouldn't notice a point if it was stabbing you in the eye. And I don't say all that to be demeaning, but to hopefully show you how much work you need to do in understanding other people, and making yourself clear. Honestly, I think you may be dragging me on for a laugh, or you're so oblivious that nothing I say will be understood.

  32. Lefaw, no, I'm not dragging you for a laugh, I thought you were doing that.

    A) Neurobiology has nothing to do with morality, no matter how far fetched the technology is going to be. THAT is the point that both you and Harris are missing. Values are not facts of the type that science addresses. (According to Blackford, they aren't facts at all, but that's a different story.)

    B) Harris' point is not incidental, it is crucial to his whole argument, which is why he keeps going on and on (in the book) about how neurobiology will be the ultimate arbiter of morality, in the future (he even conjures up nightmarish - to me - scenarios where neuroscientists will make it impossible for us to lie because our brains will be scanned in real time. Yuck, the guy's never heard of civil liberties, apparently).

    C) I point out how you fail to support your assertions, and again, you fail to point out how I'm missing the point where you say I am. (This is exactly what you wrote, I'm just mirroring it.)

  33. Lefaw, I think Massimo's link above to the "mind over matter" essay speaks to this question. You and I might quibble over the meanings of "subjective" and "objective" as they apply to, say, cancer. But there's a difference between: (1) feeling sick; and (2) being diagnosed as sick by another (e.g. an MD), based on the results of some standard test (e.g. one that's been demonstrated to be a reliable detector of that condition). I use the "subjective/objective" convention here to make that distinction, but I realize that both rely judgments upon fallible human subjects.

  34. A) You contradict yourself: "science can inform us on the best course of action to achieve what we think is moral". Also, you don't support your assertions here (again).

    B) There you go, I honestly expected you to finish your point at "Harris' point is not incidental," and leaving it at that--like you've done a dozen times before. *But, still, you haven't shown why it's crucial to his argument (some improvement needed).*

    C) There might be a confusion here. When I say you fail to support your assertions, I mean to say you don't support them--not just that the support doesn't work. You may think my support failed, but unlike you I did support my assertions. Basically, you've *said* why you think my points have failed, but you haven't *shown* why they've failed. And that is why this is going nowhere.

    Honestly, go find a philosophy forum and anonymously post there. You'll be torn apart for making these kinds of mistakes. Out of the thousands of conversations I've had with strangers on forums like this one, you are one of the least clear and understanding people I've met. Also, I don't even have a preference toward Harris or you being right. I'm just interesting in what is right, and out of all the people involved in this argument you are the worst at making your case that I've seen.

  35. Lefaw, I'm really getting tired of your abuses, they do not further any meaningful discussion. If this forum is such a waste of time for you, I'm wondering why you are indeed wasting your time.

  36. Massimo, they aren't abuses. They're honest and constructive criticisms. They necessarily further meaningful discussion, because you're seemingly incapable of having a meaningful discussion without me giving them. I don't this is a waste of time.

  37. "A) Neurobiology has nothing to do with morality, no matter how far fetched the technology is going to be. THAT is the point that both you and Harris are missing. Values are not facts of the type that science addresses. (According to Blackford, they aren't facts at all, but that's a different story.)"

    Surely you mean simply that neurobiology has nothing to do with meta-ethics? Neurobiology has everything to do with the phenomenon of morality, at a descriptive level, and it could conceivably guide practical moral decisions, if we conclude such decisions can be made.

  38. Ritchie, correct, that is what I meant.

  39. Lefaw--

    One problem with Harris is that he tends to throw a bunch of somewhat-but-not-really related points on the table, and then, if you object to one of them, say "you're missing the big picture." He did this in his recent response to Blackford et al, and he did it when addressing Scott Atran a few years ago.

    It's intellectually immature to make a point of something and then respond to criticism of it by insisting the opponent must be missing the big picture. Whatever the big picture is, it is always built from the ground with the raw materials of individual arguments and pieces of evidence. Minor points are always relevant to the big picture, even the sort of vague picture Harris paints with his equivocatory, obscurantist rhetoric.

  40. Concerning the Times article denouncing Glenn Beck for his treatment of an 80 something academician whose radical (my term) ideas about social justice and wealth re-distribution have been repeatedly attacked on his show, it seems to me that violence is EXACTLY what Pivens is calling for. The article quotes her as saying, “an effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece,” and that “protesters need targets, preferably local and accessible ones,” led Mr. Beck to ask on Fox this week, “Is that not inciting violence? Is that not asking for violence?” Videos of fires in Greece played behind him.

    “That is not a call for violence,” Ms. Piven said Friday of the references to riots. “There is a kind of rhetorical trick that is always used to denounce movements of ordinary people, and that is to imply that the massing of people itself is violent.”
    When she says the protests "will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece,”, what does she expect? The riots in Greece HAVE been violent. If that's not a call for it, what is?

  41. James, I disagree. Piven is calling for mass protests, not for riots. Mass protests sometimes are accompanied by - usually small - acts of violence. But if you read what she wrote in context, it's clear that she is not calling for violence.

  42. Ritchie, the bigger picture just involves criticisms that, if true, mean the entire idea is flawed. Criticisms about the brain scanner, for instance, could be perfectly true, but when used in the context of broader criticism it is effectively a red herring unless it attempts to flaw the entire idea. And, if that's the case, then it's the duty of the person making the criticism to show how a seemingly unimportant point is so crucial. Massimo fails to do this.

    For example, imagine you want to argue that evolution is true. Someone else can criticize the modern synthesis of evolution for missing some transitional fossils--and this is entirely true. But, this fact doesn't mean evolutionary theory doesn't work; it's a minor point. Now imagine this other person presumes to use this flaw in the context of showing evolutionary theory to be wrong. They can attempt this, but it's a meaningless point (in the context) unless they attempt to show why this one fact extirpates evolutionary theory.

    Also, I think Blackford's criticisms were extraordinarily substantive and foundational when compared with Massimo's ostensible nitpicking, and honestly, Blackford deserved a serious response where Massimo doesn't.


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