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, August 09, 2012

The Community of Reason, a self-assessment and a manifesto


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by Massimo Pigliucci

I have been an active member of the self-described Community of Reason since about 1997. By that term I mean the broad set encompassing skeptics, atheists and secular humanists (and all the assorted synonyms thereof: freethinkers, rationalists, and even brights). The date is easily explainable: in 1996 I had moved from Brown University — where I did my postdoc — to the University of Tennessee, were I was appointed assistant professor in the Departments of Botany and of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. A few months after my arrival in Knoxville, the extremely (to this day) unenlightened TN legislature began discussing a bill that would have allowed school boards to fire teachers who presented evolution as a fact rather than a theory (it is both, of course). The bill died in committee (though a more recent one did pass, go Volunteers!), in part because of the efforts of colleagues and graduate students throughout the State.

It was because of my local visibility during that episode (and then shortly thereafter because I began organizing Darwin Day events on campus, which are still going strong) that I was approached by some members of a group called “The Fellowship of Reason” (now the Rationalists of East Tennessee). They told me that we had much in common, and wouldn’t I want to join them in their efforts? My first thought was that an outlet with that name must be run by cuckoos, and at any rate I had a lab to take care of and tenure to think about, thank you very much.

But in fact it took only a couple more polite attempts on their part before I joined the group and, by proxy, the broader Community of Reason (henceforth, CoR). It has been one of the most meaningful and exhilarating decisions of my life, some consequences of which include four books on science and philosophy for the general public (counting the one coming out in September); columns and articles for Skeptic, Skeptical Inquirer, Free Inquiry, The Philosopher’s Magazine and Philosophy Now, among others; and of course this blog and its associated podcast. I made many friends within the CoR, beginning with Carl Ledendecker of Knoxville, TN (the guy who originally approached me about the Fellowship of Reason), and of course including the editor and writers of Rationally Speaking.

But... yes, there is a “but,” and it’s beginning to loom large in my consciousness, so I need to get it out there and discuss it (this blog is just as much a way for me to clarify my own ideas through writing and the feedback of others as it is a channel for outreach as an academic interested in making some difference in the world). The problem is that my experience (anecdotal, yes, but ample and varied) has been that there is quite a bit of un-reason within the CoR. This takes the form of more or less widespread belief in scientific, philosophical and political notions that don’t make much more sense than the sort of notions we — within the community — are happy to harshly criticize in others. Yes, you might object, but that’s just part of being human, pretty much every group of human beings holds to unreasonable beliefs, why are you so surprised or worried? Well, because we think of ourselves — proudly! — as a community of reason, where reason and evidence are held as the ultimate arbiters of any meaningful dispute. To find out that too often this turns out not to be the case is a little bit like discovering that moral philosophers aren’t more ethical than the average guy (true).

What am I talking about? Here is a (surely incomplete, and I’m even more sure, somewhat debatable) list of bizarre beliefs I have encountered among fellow skeptics-atheists-humanists. No, I will not name names because this is about ideas, not individuals (but heck, you know who you are...). The list, incidentally, features topics in no particular order, and it would surely be nice if a sociology student were to conduct a systematic research on this for a thesis...

* Assorted nonsense about alternative medicine. Despite excellent efforts devoted to debunking “alternative” medicine claims, some atheists especially actually endorse all sorts of nonsense about “non-Western” remedies.

* Religion is not a proper area of application for skepticism, according to some skeptics. Why on earth not? It may not be a suitable area of inquiry for science, but skepticism — in the sense of generally applied critical thinking — draws on more than just science (think philosophy, logic and math).

* Philosophy is useless armchair speculation. So is math. And logic. And all theoretical science.

* The notion of anthropogenic global warming has not been scientifically established, something loudly proclaimed by people who — to the best of my knowledge — are not atmospheric physicists and do not understand anything about the complex data analysis and modeling that goes into climate change research.

* Science can answer moral questions. No, science can inform moral questions, but moral reasoning is a form of philosophical reasoning. The is/ought divide may not be absolute, but it is there nonetheless.

* Science has established that there is no consciousness or free will (and therefore no moral responsibility). No, it hasn’t, as serious cognitive scientists freely admit. Notice that I am not talking about the possibility that science has something meaningful to say about these topics (it certainly does when it comes to consciousness, and to some extent concerning free will, if we re-conceptualize the latter as the human ability of making decisions). I am talking about the dismissal-cum-certainty attitude that so many in the CoR have so quickly arrived at, despite what can be charitably characterized as a superficial understanding of the issue.

* Determinism has been established by science. Again, wrong, not only because there are interpretations of quantum mechanics that are not deterministic, but because a good argument can be made that that is simply not the sort of thing science can establish (nor can anything else, which is why I think the most reasonable position in this case is simple agnosticism).

* Evolutionary psychology is on epistemic par with evolutionary biology. No, it isn’t, for very good and well understood reasons pertinent to the specific practical limitations of trying to figure out human selective histories. Of course, evopsych is not a pseudoscience, and it’s probably best understood as a science-informed narrative about the human condition.

* The Singularity is near! I have just devoted a full column for Skeptical Inquirer (in press) to why I think this amounts to little more than a cult for nerds. But it is a disturbingly popular cult within the CoR.

* Objectivism is (the most rational) philosophy according to a significant sub-set of skeptics and atheists (not humanists, since humanism is at complete odds with Randianism). Seriously, people? Notice that I am not talking about libertarianism here, which is a position that I find philosophically problematic and ethically worrisome, but is at least debatable. Ayn Rand’s notions, on the other hand, are an incoherent jumble of contradictions and plagiarism from actual thinkers. Get over it.

* Feminism is a form of unnecessary and oppressive liberal political correctness. Oh please, and yet, rather shockingly, I have heard this “opinion” from several fellow CoRers.

* Feminists are right by default and every attempt to question them is the result of oppressive male chauvinism (even when done by women). These are people who clearly are not up on readings in actual feminism (did you know that there have been several waves of it? With which do you best connect?).

* All religious education is child abuse, period. This is a really bizarre notion, I think. Not only does it turn 90% of the planet into child abusers, but people “thinking” (I use the term loosely) along these lines don’t seem to have considered exactly what religious education might mean (there is a huge variety of it), or — for that matter — why a secular education wouldn’t be open to the same charge, if done as indoctrination (and if it isn’t, are you really positive that there are no religious families out there who teach doubt? You’d be surprised!).

* Insulting people, including our close allies, is an acceptable and widespread form of communication with others. Notice that I am not talking about the occasional insult hurled at your opponent, since there everyone is likely a culprit from time to time (including yours truly). I am talking about engaging in apologia on behalf of a culture of insults.

The point of this list, I hasten to say, is not that the opinions that I have expressed on these topics are necessarily correct, but rather that a good number of people in the CoR, including several leaders of the movement(s), either hold to clearly unreasonable opinions on said topics, or cannot even engage in a discussion about the opinions they do hold, dismissing any dissenting voice as crazy or irrelevant.

As you can see, the above is a heterogeneous list that includes scientific notions, philosophical concepts, and political positions. What do the elements of this list have in common, if anything? A few things, which is where I hope the discussion is going to focus (as opposed to attempting to debunk one’s pet entry, or deny that there is a problem to begin with).

A) Anti-intellectualism. This is an attitude of lack of respect for the life of the mind and those who practice it. It may be strange to claim that members — and even some leaders — of the CoR engage in anti-intellectualism, but the evidence is overwhelming. When noted biologists or physicists in the movement dismiss an entire field of intellectual pursuit (philosophy) out of hand they are behaving in an anti-intellectual manner. When professional “skeptics” tell us that they don’t buy claims of anthropogenic global warming, they are being anti-intellectual because they are dismissing the work of thousands of qualified scientists. To be more precise here, I think there are actually two separate sub-issues at play:
A1) Scientism. This is the pernicious tendency to believe that science is the only paragon of knowledge and the ultimate arbiter of what counts as knowledge. And the best way to determine if you are perniciously inclined toward scientism is to see whether you vigorously deny its existence in the community.
A2) Anti-intellectualism proper. This is the thing on display when “skeptics” reject even scientific findings, as in the above mentioned case of global warming.
B) The “I’m-smarter-than-thou” syndrome. Let’s admit it, skepticism does have a way to make us feel intellectually superior to others. They are the ones believing in absurd notions like UFOs, ghosts, and the like! We are on the side of science and reason. Except when we aren’t, which ought to at least give us pause and enroll in the nearest hubris-reducing ten-step program.

C) Failure of leadership. It is hard to blame the rank and files of the CoR when they are constantly exposed to such blatant and widespread failure of leadership within their own community. Gone are, it seems, the days of the Carl Sagans, Martin Gardners, and Bertrand Russells, and welcome to the days of bloggers and twitterers spouting venom or nonsense just because they can.

Where does this leave us? Well, for one thing — at this very moment — probably with a lot of pissed off people! But once the anger subsides, perhaps we active members of the CoR can engage in some “soul” searching and see if we can improve our own culture, from the inside.

To begin with, are there positive models to look up to in this endeavor? Absolutely, and here I will name names, though the following list is grossly incomplete, both for reasons of space and because some names just happened not to come to mind at the moment I was typing these words. If you are not listed and you should be, forgive me and let’s amend the problem in the discussion thread. So here we go: Sean Carroll, Dan Dennett, Neil deGrasse Tyson, D.J. Grothe, Tim Farley, Ken Frazier (and pretty much anyone else who writes for Skeptical Inquirer, really), Ron Lindsay, Hemant Mehta, Chris Mooney, Phil Plaitt, Steve Novella (as well as the other Novellas), John Rennie, Genie Scott, Michael Shermer, Carl Zimmer, and many, many more.

Do I have any practical suggestions on how to move the CoR forward, other than to pay more attention to what the people just mentioned say, and perhaps a little less attention to what is spouted by some others who shall go unmentioned? At the risk of sounding somewhat immodest, yes, I do. Here are a few to get us started (again, discussion on how to improve the list will be most welcome). Once again, the order is pretty much random:

i) Turn on moderation on all your blogs, this will raise the level of discourse immediately by several orders of magnitude, at the cost of a small inconvenience to you and your readers.

ii) Keep in mind the distinction between humor and sarcasm, leave the latter to comedians, who are supposed to be offending people. (In other words, we are not all Jon Stewarts or Tim Minchins.)

iii) Apply the principle of charity, giving the best possible interpretation of someone else’s argument before you mercilessly dismantle it. (After which, by all means, feel free to go ahead and mercilessly dismantle it.)

iv) Engage your readers and your opponents in as civil a tone as you can muster. Few people deserve to be put straight into insult mode (Hitler and Pat Robertson come to mind).

v) Treat the opinions of experts in a given domain with respect, unless your domain of expertise is reasonably close to the issue at hand. This doesn’t mean not criticizing experts or worshipping their pronouncements, but only to avoid anti-intellectualism while doing it.

vi) Read more philosophy, it will do you a world of good. (I am assuming that if you are a member of the CoR you already do read quite a bit of science. If not, why are you here?)

vii) Pick the right role models for your skeptics pantheon (suggestions above, people to avoid are left to your keen intuition).

viii) Remember what the objectives are: to learn from exposing your ideas to the cross-criticism of others and in turn help others learn to think better. Objectives do not include showing the world how right and cool you are.

ix) Keep in mind that even the very best make mistakes and occasionally endorse notions that turn out to be wrong. How is it possible that you are the only exception to this rule?

206 comments:

  1. > The Singularity is near! I have just devoted a full column for Skeptical Inquirer (in press) to why I think this amounts to little more than a cult for nerds.

    I am looking forward to reading what you wrote. Your stance seems pretty harsh.

    Have you reviewed the relevant literature and talked to the relevant experts, e.g. AI researchers?

    I also wonder what has been your working definition of a "technological singularity".

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    1. It's usually a mis-characterisation but then again the singularity concept is very poorly defined too.

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    2. Alexander, many transhumanists are no better than Jihadists. They live in a fantasy land that is not supported by any reasonable account of technological progress.

      And Kurzweil, well, his forecasting accuracy is not just awful, but likely worse than random chance. His clan believes things that are based only in science fantasy, not even in science fiction, and certainly not in science fact.

      Alexander, do you really, truly believe in that garbage spouted by the Singularity Institute? (BTW, "playground" is more fitting than "Institute.") Let's put the philosophical issues aside (which are by means small issues). The technological isn't close, not at all.

      I grew up on Future Shock, 2001, The Andromeda Strain, and to a certain extent Star Trek. I witnessed Neil Armstrong stepping of the LEM -- the most memorable event of my life. But how much technological progress have we really made? I remember attending IJCAI back in the Stone Ages, when Inference, LMI and Symbolics ruled the roost. I even chaired the Web Agents session during the first International Conference on Intelligent Agents back in 1995.

      Fast forward nearly 20 years. AI is still, for the most part, a total joke. Okay, some expert systems for limited applications (like the Curiosity landing) have worked just fine. But what about the emergence of neural networks, evolutionary computation, fuzzy sets, artificial life? Still academic research areas, not much more. IMO, worthy academic research areas, but hardly something to bet the future on.

      Higher odds that we're living in a matrix ("Matrix"?) than that we'll see transhumanism by the end of this century ... or the next century.

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  2. Dear Massimo,

    Thanks,

    Kylie Sturgess.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Addendum:

    I conducted a short Q&A style interview series with a few experts that seems relevant.

    I am myself pretty skeptical when it comes to the possibility of a technological singularity. Yet I am not able to rule it out as a "cult for nerds".

    I am also curious about your opinion on the following article: What should a reasonable person believe about the Singularity?

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    Replies
    1. Alexander,

      thanks for the link. I actually want to steer away from discussions of specific issues (as I said in the main post), at least in this forum. My forthcoming Skeptical Inquirer article lays out some of the criticisms I have of the Singularity community, and will be available for free download here:

      https://sites.google.com/site/platofootnote/outreach/skeptical-inquirer

      There are also some pertinent RS entries:

      http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2011/04/ray-kurzweil-and-singularity-visionary.html

      http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2009/11/david-chalmers-and-singularity-that.html

      http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/09/eliezer-yudkowsky-on-bayes-and-science.html

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    2. > I actually want to steer away from discussions of specific issues (as I said in the main post)...

      Sorry. I missed that (happens too often as I tend to increasingly skim through articles rather than reading them carefully).

      Thank you for the link where I can download your article for free. I suggest adding it to the relevant part of your post.

      P.S. The issue of a technological singularity demands a thoughtful analysis by outsiders like you. The number of people who believe it to be the most important issue that humanity is facing is steadily rising. So are donations to charities concerned with it. Yet the number of critics stays approximately the same as most people who disagree simply ignore the issue, not realizing how influential and large the movement has become and how strong their beliefs (some of them believe that the fate of an intergalactic civilization depends on their actions).

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    3. At the risk of bragging, I have answered the singularity issue in my free book, which you are welcome to read at http://home.iprimus.com.au/marcus60/1.pdf and pass on the knowledge for further debate.

      Delete
  4. This is an excellent article.

    As the points discussed by you are relevant to activists in India as well, we have uploaded this blogpost (leaving out the first three paragraphs) on to our website www.carvaka4india.com with a link to this blog.

    Hope it is alright. If you have any objections, we will delete it.

    www.carvaka4india.com

    ReplyDelete
  5. QUOTE: "Keep in mind that even the very best make mistakes
    and occasionally endorse notions that turn out to be wrong.
    How is it possible that you are the only exception to this rule?"

    Just lucky, I guess! :-)

    More seriously, one of your recommendations is to read philosophy.

    I am coming to philosophy rather late in life and wonder if
    you could recommend some "must read" books on the subject
    (hopefully, not too advanced -- for someone who can't tell
    his Kant from his Kierkegaard).

    P.S. I hope you carve out some exceptions for alternative
    medicine. Today's quack nostrums can sometimes become
    tomorrow's received wisdom. Drug companies often look
    through folk cures, isolate the active ingredient,
    then patent the item for billions of dollars. Doctors
    can sometimes sneer at the folk remedy, then prescribe
    the patent medicine derived from it.

    True, there is nonsense to be found in alternative medicine,
    but there is also nonsense to be found in some of the
    procedures commonly performed today by traditional
    medicine.

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    Replies
    1. Tom,

      a decent starting point is my Amazon basic philosophy list (which I need to update, note to self...):

      http://www.amazon.com/lm/R26WR7IWT3PLYR/ref=cm_pdp_lm_title_1

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    2. I actually reference your list from time to time Massimo, thank you.

      Delete
  6. Excellent and well written Massimo. You left out of your list of good examples Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne. Say what you might but their only sin is to be clear and precise.

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    Replies
    1. Re: Say what you might but their only sin is to be clear and precise.

      Surely you are not serious? Dawkins & Coyne embody much that is wrong with the Skeptical movement.

      Delete
    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    3. Agree with Eamon: Coyne is particularly obnoxious.

      Massimo wrote: "Engage your readers and your opponents in as civil a tone as you can muster. Few people deserve to be put straight into insult mode (Hitler and Pat Robertson come to mind)."

      Coyne should probably be added to the Hitler/Robertson list, merely because he deserves to get what he commonly dishes out. But rather than wasting time getting into insult contests with these people (who have mastered the art), it is better to just exclude them from polite conversation.

      Delete
  7. A suggestion to add to the list:
    "If you disagree or ask a question on 'position x,' you must be a bigot/have no compassion/cruel person."

    I hear this reasoning quite often - particularly in the case of LGBT issues and political positions. My libertarian friend Steve, for example, opposes federal aid programs and would rather see aid programs -- if they are to exist at all -- exist on the state level. Without even listening to his reasoning (and the reasoning of others who share his position), people jump to the conclusion that he is cruel.

    Another popular meme is "If you oppose same-sex marriage, you are a bigot." I'm not sure how people can know the motives of those whom they disagree with and rightly make such blanket statements. Surely some opposed to same-sex marriage are bigots, but what about people who oppose same-sex marriage on grounds of not wanting government to be involved in marriage or other non-bigoted reasons? What about really ignorant persons who care little about social issues and never really thought about social issues? Is 'Joe the roofer,' a man who spends about 15 hours of his day doing manual labor caring nothing of politics, a bigot because he opposed same-sex marriage for whatever non-bigoted non-smart reason?

    ...and thanks for bringing up feminism in this post. There's a recent pattern of bloggers and commenters on specific blogs who, in response to people asking fair questions or noting what they see to be flaws in arguments or missing important information, call people all sorts of nasty names. Skepticism apparently only goes so far to some and civility doesn't globally apply.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "...but what about people who oppose same-sex marriage on grounds of not wanting government to be involved in marriage"

      That's not opposition to same-sex marriage, that's opposition to marriage. I think there's a significant difference.

      Delete
  8. Great article. Lots of these calls for civil and reasoned discussion are popping up at the moment and I'm really hoping they make a difference.

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  9. I believe we sharply disagree on several things, Massimo, but on the whole, I agree with most of the points raised here and applaud bringing these concerns to light. While yes, it is anecdotal, I have encountered every single one of these notions consistently in my interactions with the atheist/skeptic community to the point that I've begun to question whether they are, on the whole, any more reasonable than the religious communities they condemn.

    There are only two points I'd quibble about:

    1. Your position on the singularity is, I'm inclined to agree with Alexander above about, possibly too harsh. While I remain skeptical of it myself, it's the sort of issue that I'm not sure I know enough about, or am in a position to adequately reason about, to draw conclusions as decisively as you seem to have. I'm not sure you are justified in drawing those conclusions, either.

    In the case of climate change, I tend to rely on experts, and in the case of issues related to the singularity, if I can't claim to be an expert on computer science and other disciplines related to assessing the plausibility of the singularity, it's not clear to me that I know enough as an outsider to rationally assess it. For instance, I don't think you got the best of Eliezer in the bloggingheads debate that you had with him, and I suspect you and I would strongly disagree on strength of arguments in favor of substrate neutrality of consciousness.

    My skepticism persists in spite of my enthusiastic support of transhumanism overall, something I recall you being a harsh critic of overall. I'm an advocate of injecting as much skepticism and criticism of transhumanism into it as possible, but I find most of the arguments leveled against it to be rather weak, especially regarding anything other than cryogenics or the singularity, and I believe you have endorsed many of those rather weak arguments.

    To be honest, I suspect you have something approaching a negative disposition towards transhumanist thought in general that makes you unjustifiably overreach in your criticisms of anything related to it.

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    Replies
    1. For example in relation to his criticism life extension I've heard Massimo make the claim that there might he might accept better health in later life as ethical with life extension not being ethical, but he doesn't realise or follow through to the logical conclusion that health in later life is characterised by retarded aging and longer life. All old people die of ill health, if they were healthy they wouldn't be dying. What am I missing here?

      As for the singularity I fully understand Massimo's frustration.

      Delete
    2. Louis,

      you heard incorrectly. I said that - like most human beings - I wouldn't mind a little life extension, if it maintains quality of life. My objection is to the immortality project, or to massive extension without taking on the huge ethical and environmental problems that would result.

      Delete
    3. Well how much is a little, how much is massive? Is there any consideration for those aging against their will?

      Delete
  10. The problem is that my experience (anecdotal, yes, but ample and varied) has been that there is quite a bit of un-reason within the CoR. This takes the form of more or less widespread belief in scientific, philosophical and political notions that don’t make much more sense than the sort of notions we — within the community — are happy to harshly criticize in others.

    From my anecdotal experience I can second your impression almost completely. Unfortunately I have found that, on balance, so-called "skeptics" are little more than ideologues who parrot base scientism. Add to this an all too frequent incivility, self-assuredness, and general willingness to remain ignorant, and I refuse to self-identify as a "skeptic".

    Re: Objectivism.

    Rand herself despised libertarians (especially Robert Nozick, David Gauthier, and Jan Narveson) -- she called them intellectual plagiarists! Personally, I think Objectivism is silly through and through. Their metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind remind have the hallmarks of undergraduate level theorizing. Of course, Nozick, Gauthier, Narveson (and I would add Vallentyne and Steiner) are infinitely better philosophers than Rand, and of course libertarianism is a much more defensible philosophical position (I hope it is since I am a libertarian!).

    Lastly, thank you for calling out the irresponsible invective many "skeptics" hold toward religious believers. Whilst I myself find religious claims to be baseless and thus incredible, there are too many reflective and rational religious believers to dismiss them out of hand.

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  11. 2. The second point I take some issue with about a bit is your dismissal of the notion that "All religious education is child abuse, period". Part of the reason for this is that you allow for sufficient flexibility in what we are to consider "religious education" that you broaden it enough that it may exclude the sorts of things the person making that pronouncement might be including when they say that. If you are permitted nuance in rejecting a seemingly absolutist claim, you ought to permit them nuance in meaning something narrow enough that it does catch broadly objectionable ways of raising children.

    What I mean is this: Religious education that specifically entails modes of teaching that, deliberately or otherwise, undermine the development of critical thinking skills, teach faith as an effective and reliable means towards truth, directly or indirectly encourage bigotry or intolerance of others and other points of view, or induce in children a fear of departing from the beliefs of those they are raised around by being brought up in an atmosphere of such overweening condemnation and threat of ostracism for apostasy, all constitute what to my mind are abusive forms of "education".

    There are a lot of negative consequences to religious education that might slip under the radar and not be spotted as abuse, if only because the causal link takes potentially years to unfold, and is less immediately apparent than physical abuse. Some examples would include equipping children with permanent mental blinders that reduce options on where to live, who to have relationships with, and so on that limit the child's prospects of living a quality life as an adult, inducing guilt and prudishness about sex, and exposing them to ignorant views about sex education that leave them vulnerable to STD's and unplanned pregnancies.

    I think this description aptly describes a huge proportion of the households in which children are raised, and that these impositions against developing minds are as, or more harmful than many forms of parental treatment that we'd already consider abusive, such as physical punishment. A person condemning religious education likely has features like these in mind, and would not necessarily consider liberal Christian parents who allow, or even actively encourage their children to ask questions, to be abusive.

    If you’re referring specifically to people who really do seem to include any and all parental exposure to religious ideas, no matter how innocuous, then sure, I'd agree with you. I'm primarily cautioning, however, that someone merely making the assertion that religious education is ipso facto child abuse may not mean quite that, and that if you pried, they may say something along the lines of what I've said here.

    Lastly, whatever we want to call it, religious education for children is never optimal, and I support criticizing parents for imposing faith-based nonsense on children anywhere and everywhere. I am not the least bit partial towards the view that parents hold special rights over the children they raise that entitle them to stuff nonsense into a child's head. Teaching children nonsense and bad ways of thinking is wrong, religious education by its very nature almost always entails this, and the atheist community should not shy away from saying so.

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    1. Lance,

      Suppose you were in an automobile accident and your car
      was overturned and gasoline was leaking out.

      A group of people stand there and discuss whether they
      should save your or not as they might be burned and/or killed if the gasoline explodes.

      Being good rationalists they reason that the danger is
      too great.

      One person who is religious and believes that you help
      people no matter what runs and saves you just before the
      car explodes.

      Now are you so sure that teaching religion to children
      is so wrong ?

      Delete
    2. Mr. Bush,

      Suppose you were in an automobile accident that was caused by your own reckless driving.

      Your car has overturned and you are trapped inside
      and gasoline is leaking and so within a matter of
      time you may be burned and/or killed.

      A group of Rationalists are standing by discussing
      whether they should run the risk of saving your or not
      and, given your reckless driving, whether you should
      be eliminated from the gene pool.

      Suddenly a very religious person, has been so from childhood, runs to your car and pulls you out and saves your life.

      Now are you absolutely sure that teaching religion
      is inherently such a bad act ?

      You may think so in the safety of your office but
      in real life you would be on your knees thanking
      God for that person saving your life.

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    3. Why should we assume that the religious person would be more likely to save you? A rational person may be aware that the risk to his own life is great, and yet accept that danger because he has empathized with the victim, felt compassion for him, and bravely chosen to take that risk on his behalf. The real difference is that the rational rescuer knows that if he dies, there will be no heavenly reward. That's what courage is.

      Delete
  12. I understand you don't want to get into specifics and you do point in the general area in the second "bizarre belief" [BB] which touches on the problem I have in mind.

    However, the two points made in the second BB need to be divided in my mind for the simple reason that the claims such as "science can study the supernatural" seem to be getting nuttier with the rationalizations made for the claim (seemingly to the point of demanding an attitude of acceptance for the possibility of the "provisional belief in god" - whatever that means)

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  13. I have no doubt that you are right in your observations, thought I think most of it reflects new generation of skeptics and new media. As an avid reader for 20 years of SI and Skeptic, I rarely if ever read any of blunt anti-intellectualism or sloppy reasoing that you mentioned. I think that some, not all, of the new generation of skeptics do not know the history of the movement, do not do they homework or just claim to be skeptics without really knowing what it entails. Also, the ability to write a blog and to comment immediately as you mentioned, tend to make some discussions somewhat shallow and uninformed. It is also easily deteriorating and I agree with you that comment moderation and editing is a good solution.

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  14. Sorry, Massimo, but I would remove several people from your "list of people to look up to" in all this: Sean Carroll, Dan Dennett, Neil deGrasse Tyson, D.J. Groethe, Tim Farley, Ken Frazier (and pretty much anyone else who writes for Skeptical Inquirer, really), Ron Lindsey, Hemant Metha, Chris Mooney, Phil Plaitt, Steve Novella (as well as the other Novellas), John Rennie, Genie Scott, Michael Shermer, Carl Zimmer, and many, many more.

    Dennett? Inventor of the word "brights" and a blatant liar, IMO, when he said that didn't imply people with a metaphysical bent were "stupids."

    Hement Metha? Leading pusher of "draw Muhammad day" and otherwise a good antihumanist Gnu Atheist.

    Shermer? Regularly conflates skepticism and libertarianism.

    Lindsay? An antihumanist of some sort who has recently blogged, in essence, that people worried about growing income inequality are ultimately little more than irrationally jealous of the rich.

    Mooney? The Republican Brain is weakly reasoned and weakly defined.

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    1. Gadly,

      The main reason I don't support the term "Brights" is because the atheist community doesn't support it and, more to the point, because it may be the case that others would react by supposing that if you call yourself bright, that you're suggesting others are stupid. A problem with this suggestion, though, is that, while people may feel this way, they're just wrong to suppose that labeling yourself bright automatically entails you think others are stupid.

      Adopting a positive moniker for a group does not by definition entail deliberately casting aspersions on those who don't belong to that group nor does it even automatically imply the suggestion of the outgroup's inferiority.

      If I start up a self-help group for depressed people and call us the "Happies", my intention could be simply to boost morale for a group often perceived by others as negative, to promote confidence in the group's mission, and so on. In other words, my sole focus could readily be on the psychological states of members of the group, and I might not consider at all how those not in the group would compare themselves relative to its name.

      For someone to say that to name ourselves "Happies" necessarily entails that others are miserable wretches is just not true. It could lead to those who aren't part of the group feeling that way, and it could be a bad PR move because of that, but one cannot infer from the social impact of a given term, and the way others receive it, that the intentions of the person who proposed the term must have been.

      I think your accusation of calling him a liar is likely to be indefensible and probably wrong, though if you can make a case for it I'll concede the point. So I'll ask: can you provide any compelling argument, support from Dennett's comments, or any reason at all for me to take seriously the claim that he's a "blatant liar"?

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    2. Lance, my riffing on brights was a comment about Dennett in particular, and how I think Massimo overvalues him. (The fact that he hasn't done much but recycled old thought in his last 3-4 books is another reason.) So too is his refusal to accept that no Cartesian meaner implies no Cartesian free willer.

      But, as to the claim that he's lying when he tried to defend the word "bright"? I can never prove it, but I simply find him incredible, precise use of the word.

      Linguistically, since "atheist" is a clear antonym to "theist," one would assume Dennett was implying an antonym. The antonym to "bright" is either "dark," which I'm sure he didn't mean, or else "stupid" (or "dumb." If he'd been honest about this ... different story.

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    3. "his refusal to accept that no Cartesian meaner means no Cartrsian free willer"

      Umm... Dennett would not endorse a Cartesian free willer, you should read him more carefully.

      Also, regarding Massimo's point about the skeptical tendency to regard free will as an illusion, the problem isn't so much the position itself as the pretense of using science exclusively to arrive at it.

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    4. I'm going to second Ian's comment; you may want to read Dennett a little more carefully or word your comment more clearly, as it stands, it sounds like you're suggesting Dennett endorses something like libertarian free will, which he does not. Did you mean Cartesian theater and not 'meaner'?

      Alright, I'm willing to accept that you read lies into his claims and even regard them as blatant, but can't prove it. I hope you'll understand if others, such as myself, don't see that. I don't get that from Dennett in the faintest, and find it an extremely uncharitable conclusion to draw.

      When a person adopts a name for their group that implies members possess some quality, they don't necessarily imply some sort of antonym whereby nonmembers don't possess that quality. A club for tall people doesn't imply everyone else is pejoratively short, "midgets", etc.; it implies that the members of the group share a particular quality in common: tallness. This quality neither excludes nonmembers who aren't tall, nor does it even exclude nonmembers who are tall. Likewise for a term like "bright"; it just isn't the type of term employing suffixes/prefixes in a way necessarily suggestive of some sort of dichotomous slicing up of the population.

      People have a weird habit of assuming if a person applies a predicate to a particular category that this entails, somehow logically or as an intrinsic linguisic property, that the antonymous predicate be applied to nonmembers. Membership to a club does imply that anyone who isn't a member is a nonmember, but it says nothing other than that, period. If you're not a bright, you're a nonbright only in the sense of not identifying with that group; you can have literally any other property in the universe other than membership to that group as a nonbright.

      I fully grant that it's possible one's intentions in calling themselves brights is to denigrate an outgroup, but it is simply not sufficient to infer from the name alone that this must be the case. Given Dennett's nonconfrontational demeanor, this actually strikes me as pretty implausible. Dennett just doesn't have the disposition of the kind of person who likes to take shots at others.

      Unless you have reasons other than the name itself, the case you're making for his intentions is, I submit, extraordinarily weak, and even if you suspect it is the case, it is one you ought to have little confidence in.

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    5. I disagree. First, perhaps you and I differ on just what a Cartesian free willer would be. Second, I think "Cartesian meaner" is a legitimate shorthand for Cartesian theater. (Dennett himself personifies it with a the image of an **operator** of a movie projector, after all.) Third, back to point one, one doesn't have to have a libertarian idea of free will to have a conscious quasi-unitary-self version of free will, which Dennett does, as I see it. (And which somebody like Daniel Wegner rightfully does NOT.)

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    6. Let me add, since I reference someone like Wegner, that I think Dennett's kind of overrated in general. As wags say, his one great book should be called, "Dennett's Idea of Consciousness Explained." (And, as philosopher of science Stephen Toulmin noted a number of years ago, Dennett was far from the first philosopher to come up with his Cartesian theater ideas.)

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    7. Oh, on Shermer, I STRONGLY beg to differ with Massimo for another reason. Shermer maintains two known racialists, Miele and Sarich, on the masthead of Skeptic. Even if they don't, on its pages, try to trot racialism out under the guise of Pop Ev Psych, the very fact they're listed as contributing editors means I don't consider Shermer a real humanist.

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    8. I enjoy reading Hemant Mehta. He's interesting and a nice guy. I suspect the fact that he is "friendly" is part of the reason he's included. Others, who make greater intellectual contributions but who are less "friendly" are excluded. They are the "bad guys". They need to be nicer.

      Note that Mehta's last name is misspelled above in the article (which was obviously done of free will, and thus entails moral responsibility for the consequences presumably).

      Does this just come down, possibly subconsciously under the surface reasoning, to the same old bashing of New Atheists because they are so mean? If they are "strident" they must be wrong? Somehow it seems to me that anger over the continued dominance of society by supernatural beliefs is a very rational and reasonable response.

      Anyone who would deny the existence of "Scientism" must be guilty of Scientism? I don't think so, but nice try.


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  15. The problem with this list of "bizarre beliefs" is that obviously people who hold those beliefs will simply disagree that they are problems. These aren't problems we can all sit down and solve together, they're problems where different factions have adversarial relationships. (I say this as someone who agrees with you on all counts, except perhaps one.)

    I think there are three classes of solutions (assuming we want to solve the problem):
    1. Getting the method right. If you believe that rationalism applied correctly will lead to fewer of these "bizarre beliefs", then you can just educate people on applying rationalism correctly.
    2. Arguing the substance of the issues and persuading people.
    3. Using power to push out opponents and pull in allies.

    A few example classifications:

    i) Comment moderation, on the one hand, a way of using power to push out people who engage "in apologia on behalf of a culture of insults". On the other hand, it is also a promotion of the "correct method", since you believe that moderated discourse will lead to better-thought-out positions.

    vii) Picking the right role models is a use of power to encourage your allies. But it is also a way of bringing attention to the substantive arguments underlying role models' views.

    I would argue that solutions in the first category ("correct method") are the weakest. Though correct application of rationalism is worth it in itself, it is condescending to take it as a given that your opponents misunderstand the foundations. Imagine if I said you were wrong, and proceeded to quote the wikipedia article on logical fallacies, as if you didn't already know what those were. Condescending, right?

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    1. I don't think that Massimo was claiming that people misunderstand the foundations of rational thought it seems more like he was implying that in many cases people are selective about where they apply it. This isn't a big deal (we're all human) but to put yourself up on a pedestal as an example to theists as to how to conduct yourself rationally you have to be more careful of your own beliefs.

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  16. I truly appreciated this and the sound suggestions. I try to follow these practices on my own blogs and in communication.

    An example made yesterday by Shane Brady on his blog hits on a few of your points. So called "leaders" are being sorry examples of leadership by picking on obscure people/bloggers to pummel and throw to the minions. If you are more interested in grandstanding for your followers and fan base than in making progress, what does that say about their motivation for participating? Are they that insecure that they need a constant ego boost by beating down others?

    If the major skeptic orgs want to improve the image of the critical thinking community, I'd suggest they stop giving these troubling speakers a stage.

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  17. Science has established that there is no consciousness or free will (and therefore no moral responsibility). No, it hasn’t, as serious cognitive scientists freely admit. Notice that I am not talking about the possibility that science has something meaningful to say about these topics (it certainly does when it comes to consciousness, and to some extent concerning free will, if we re-conceptualize the latter as the human ability of making decisions). I am talking about the dismissal-cum-certainty attitude that so many in the CoR have so quickly arrived at, despite what can be charitably characterized as a superficial understanding of the issue.

    Here, I think you're conflating two different things, and failing to define your terms clearly. For one thing, consciousness is not the same thing as free will. It seems to me that you're also conflating a metaphysical question with a separate, and quite different, empirical scientific question.

    The term “free will” has multiple meanings, but I use the term strictly to refer to contra-causal free will (also known as “libertarian free will”). Cognitive science has no bearing on the question of whether we have contra-causal free will, because the question is not an empirical one. It can be answered by logic alone: irrespective of how the human brain works, contra-causal free will logically cannot exist. It is a self-contradictory concept. Galen Strawson explains why. I’ve never seen any argument that casts any serious doubt on this.

    A more difficult issue is whether, having accepted that there is not and cannot be any such thing as libertarian free will, this necessarily means that we do not have moral agency and are not morally responsible for our actions. I am an incompatibilist, so I take the position that, if we do not have libertarian free will (and we do not), we cannot be, in the fullest sense, morally responsible for our actions. (Though there may well be sound consequentialist reasons why it is desirable, and even necessary, to treat people as though they were morally responsible for their actions.) I won't go into detail about my own reasoning here, but this article by Smilansky is good, although I don't entirely agree with his conclusion. However, my position on this is highly debatable, and there is no consensus among philosophers about it - there are plenty who would say that moral agency and moral responsibility don't depend on libertarian free will.

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    1. In the article, Strawson seems to say (and I respond) that (1) Free Will is total (it need not be), (2) Determinism is irrelevant (it is the fixed statistical arena in which we have Free Will), and (3) there is a logical contradiction to saying one has it because one cannot fully know ones' own extent (it is not ones' extent as such, but a basis for extending by choices).

      Free Will would be the basis for choices, which, when made, bind us and make us less free as a consequence. Choices made under Free Will are choices to be less free once made. This is an interesting and irrelevant fact I am raising, as the paths chosen do not constitute Free Will, and Free Will is not absolute, and it is applied to statistically deterministic events (so we can shape nature and ourselves to our purposes).

      Rather, I would avoid the rigid black & white criteria and analysis of Strawson. Apart from being a real basis for extreme choices applied to deterministic physical laws to shape nature, we can apply it to ourselves. We are the sum of our experiences, and analyzing them gives us insight into our behaviour and a capacity to choose other behaviours. The supposed illogicality of one knowing ones' own extents is countered by self-analysis, but knowing we have Free Will remains a supposition or hypothesis behind those extents & choices.

      Our will is so free that we even attempt to know and remove traces of oursleves in purported objective analysis. We might apply it under determinstic biological laws to know our own conditioning and any disabilities that impact it, to allow for them. It is strong enough to freely turn against ones' own vested interests. It may be an indispensible aspect of reasoning, providing breadth and objectivity.

      Unltimately I guess it comes down to a judgment on balance from the individual experience of it, which is the usual problem of 'hard to define and measure' subjective experience in psychology. However, once the black & white criteria of Strawson are removed, we might make some progress reasoning about it as a strong hypothesis from overwhelming variety and range to human 'extents', individually & collectively.

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    2. It would seem odd for Logic to be able to demonstrate that there is no 'Free Will'. If Free Will is self-caused then it is brought about by no logical entailments and produces no logical entailments.

      As for being morally responsible for your actions.
      Find someone who can fully explain all the consequences of his actions and thus made a complete judgement concerning what will result from this one choice.
      We can always argue either that I did not know that would subsequently happen or I would not have made the choice I did if I fully understood the consequences.
      {One of which being that I would caught and punished.}

      If if we were all determined it still makes sense to separate those who do evil/harm from those who do not just on practical grounds. You shoot a rabid animal because it can do no good only great harm - whether the animal sought to get rabies or not does not matter.

      Those people who argue that lack of free will makes us all non-responsible for our actions and thus immune from moral judgements need to simply wake up.

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  18. If we actually look at the evidence for the Singularity, the utopian forecasts are very rational not over-optimistic, but people who thoughtlessly engage in nerd-type smears don't want to look at the evidence. As soon as someone starts using the nerd-smear, or a cult-smear, it is apparent they are unwilling to address the issues rationally, logically, because if they could use rationality to debunk the optimism they would not need cheap ad hominem fallacies to win the argument. Nerd-based rebuttals of the Singularity are fallacious, they are nonsensical, they are nothing to do with logic or rationality. If you have a valid point to make then do so but when you bandy around the word "cult," "nerd," or perhaps "rapture," it seems you want to win your argument not via logic but via associative guilt, a fallacious smear association, perhaps because you cannot win the argument logically.

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    1. Ok, I'll bite, dish out the evidence.

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  19. I don't think singularitarianism is that widespread among skeptics. Sure, you might get more of it because two of your co-bloggers closely associate with a singularitarian crackpot (I don't see why you would associate with such crankery-promoters and give them a space, you might just as well have people from the Discovery Institute as your co-bloggers, but that's just my view). PZ Myers have argued against singularitarians, quite recently in fact. Shermer is skeptical of the idea. Go to the JREF forum and you'll see that the singularity is overwhelmingly viewed with skepticism (human-cause global warming is on the contrary widely accepted). There was a panel discussion on the latest TAM about futurism, I hope they upload the video of it soon!

    There are different views in the skeptical community about science and religion (and philosophy). But that's ok I think. Disagreement is fine when it is based on reasoned foundations, as opposed to if one side are just obvious crackpots. Personally I lean more toward Dawkins' view than yours. I completely agree with Sean Carroll's post on the incompatibility between science and religion: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2009/06/23/science-and-religion-are-not-compatible/

    I also agree with his take on niceness, which I think you will too: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2010/01/04/being-polite-and-being-right/

    I also don't view atheists as a group, as it is just the non-belief in one particular thing. That one is an atheist is not at all a guarantee that the person in question is reasonable. All kinds of crackpots (think Ayn Rand, who in my experience is actually not very popular among skeptics) have been atheists. My allegiance is to science, skepticism and reason, and frankly, that's where I think it makes sense for everyone's allegiance to be, rather than to atheism. My atheism is entirely a result of (my understanding of) science and skepticism and the state of the evidence and I would discard it overnight if a plausible case for theism could be made.

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    1. I should add that looking in the skeptisphere, Sam Harris' moral theory was widely rejected.

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    2. Pyrrhus, not only are you being extremely censorious ("don't associate with people who associate with a crackpot?!"), you are clearly misinformed about my stated views and probably Julia's as well. I am not a singularitarian, despite my scandalous "association" with LessWrong.

      The only thing I am willing to say in defense of the singularity is that most critiques thereof entirely avoid object-level engagement with its claims, preferring to trade on intuitive judgments of "weirdness" or "rapture for geeks." (One excellent exception is Holden Karnofsky.) I find this total lack of epistemic content troubling as it makes me suspect that the "skepticism" thus shown is purely tribal.

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    3. @ianpollock

      I don't think that Holden Karnofsky is a critic of a technological singularity, not even of AI risks, but rather of the Singularity Institute.

      I have written a few posts on the whole issue which are not based on the absurdity heuristic.

      (Note though that I might not agree with those posts anymore, that I might change my mind at any time and that a lot of it are rather critical explorations, written in the style of a devil's advocate.)

      Also see my primer on AI risks.

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    4. ianpollock: Well you do not only associate, you gladly promote a site run by a person who pushes not only singularitarianism, but also cryonics as well as rejecting mainstream science on any issue on which it disagrees with his preferred positions.

      If you read some outside accounts of LessWrong, you might get the idea why the rest of us find it to be a place of crackpottery and downright creepy:

      http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/LessWrong
      http://www.poe-news.com/forums/spshort.php?pi=1002432591&ti=1002430709

      "The only thing I am willing to say in defense of the singularity is that most critiques thereof entirely avoid object-level engagement with its claims, preferring to trade on intuitive judgments of "weirdness" or "rapture for geeks.""

      I reject the singularity because there is not a shred of evidence for it, it is based on simplistic and dubious assumptions, and there indirect is data against it. The onus is on the singularitarians to make the case for it.

      "I find this total lack of epistemic content troubling as it makes me suspect that the "skepticism" thus shown is purely tribal."

      This is typical of LessWrongians. They gladly accuse dissenters of "tribalism", "signalling" (which do happen in the real world), yet appear completely incapable of detecting it in themselves, or even to concieve that it could exist among themselves. Anyone who is familiar with the Roko's basilisk episode (which I'd like to hear your views on) is unlikely to get away with any other opinion that the LessWrongians (at least Yudkowsky's groupies) are positively insane.

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    5. Pyrrhus,

      What, in your opinion, would count for a plausible case
      for theism ?

      I have a friend who was an atheist but no accepts that
      there is a God who has a personal interest in all of us
      becoming good. His conversion involved an auto accident
      and the rescue of his child by a very religious person
      who was terribly burned in his rescue of his daughter.

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  20. Lance,

    > Your position on the singularity is, I'm inclined to agree with Alexander above about, possibly too harsh <

    Well, obviously I do not think so, and I have explained at various points why. But there may be enough room for disagreement, and as I said, this post is not about my specific positions on each issue.

    > The second point I take some issue with about a bit is your dismissal of the notion that "All religious education is child abuse, period" <

    But in your own elaboration you agree that as a blanket statement it is absurd. And it is often used as a blanket statement, even by leaders and organizations. This is not to say that I think a secular education isn't - other things being equal - better than a religious one. But the term "child abuse" is far too strong in many cases. It sounds like the sort of rhetoric used by people who tell you that you are "just like Hitler" to demonize their opponents and end all discourse.

    David,

    > I think you're conflating two different things, and failing to define your terms clearly. For one thing, consciousness is not the same thing as free will <

    I assure you that I am not conflating anything, and that I am perfectly aware of the difference between those concepts. I was simply saying that a number of skeptics cavalierly deny both of them in one breath, confusing philosophical and empirical issues while they are at it.

    Singularity Utiopia (ah, nice handle...),

    > If you have a valid point to make then do so but when you bandy around the word "cult," "nerd," or perhaps "rapture," it seems you want to win your argument not via logic but via associative guilt <

    If you bother checking the links listed above you will see that I have already made logical arguments, several times. And it is after looking at the arguments that I remain convinced that Singularitarianism is a bizarre New Age-type belief for people who are technologically inclined. Sorry.

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    1. Sure, I'm willing to accept disagreement here, but that's precisely the point: that disagreement on these issues doesn't necessarily render those you disagree with unreasonable, and thus they don't belong on this list.

      First, disagreements over the singularity don't, to my eyes, make someone obviously unreasonable the way the other examples you highlight do, so I'm merely objecting to its inclusion on those grounds; not insisting on reengaging in that debate. I've got nothing further to add to that here.

      Second, people who say that religious indoctrination is child abuse may be adopting a rhetorical poise, mean something entirely reasonable, and could be charged with inappropriate hyperbole, but if so, they don't necessarily belong in the camp with the rest of those you're (I think rightly) castigating here.

      They might be making a bad strategic move, effectively rendering their position less persuasive, but then again, maybe adopting a hyperbolic position on this particular instance is effective. At the very least, it's not clear to me that it's as easily dismissed as comparisons to Hitler, which have become the paradigm case for trite in debates and induce nothing but eye-rolling dismissal in many instances.

      Part of the reason I'm motivated to make this point is that I share the attitude that it is indeed wrong to raise children with religion - always, and everywhere, (except weird hypothetical cases) because I think teaching children rank falsehoods is unethical.

      That the religious parents are ignorant of the harm isn't much more of an excuse than were a father to teach his child in 1840 that blacks were inferior and subhuman wouldn't make it a disgusting, horrid thing to tell a child. It's just, as you and I would agree, not the case that it always rises to the level of 'abuse', but it's not at all clear to me that going around saying "religous education is child abuse" is an unreasonable thing to do.

      I tend to remain a little cautious when a person makes what seems like an ignorant, oversimplified blanket statement: when I've poked and prodded, I almost always find that blanket statements are rhetorical oversimplifications for more nuanced positions. I think what's actually unreasonable is to assume that blanket statements necessarily entail views as oversimplified and naive as they would seem to be. I actually assume this is not the case. In other words, I think part of the problem here is not people making unreasonable blanket statements, but people interpreting blanket statements unreasonably.

      It's not reasonable to always require discussants to couch every proclamation in mountains of caveats and qualifiers, both because this would handicap communication in many instances and because it may not be the most effective way of making your point.

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    2. Massimo Pigliucci wrote: "If you bother checking the links listed above you will see that I have already made logical arguments, several times. And it is after looking at the arguments that I remain convinced that Singularitarianism is a bizarre New Age-type belief for people who are technologically inclined. Sorry."

      My reply: *If* your logical arguments are so strong I fail to see why the strength of your logic requires what are basically insults. Do you really think personal attacks (name-calling) will bolster your logic? Why not let your logic stand alone without the smears, without the associative guilt regarding religion, cults, or the social ineptitude of being a nerd, which I am most assuredly not.

      I note also one commentator used the word "crackpot" regarding supporters of the Singularity theory. The theory regarding the Singularity may be wrong but it is not helpful to bandy about pejoratives. Instead of smearing via "crackpot" labels it's more intelligent to explain why the logic pertaining to the Singularity is flawed, if it is actually flawed. If I responded to Singularity critics by merely stating they are crackpots, can you see how this is an empty smear, not conducive to intelligent analysis?

      It may seem easier and it may convince some people the theory is flawed if you pin a label of "New Age" or "bizarre" onto Singularity advocates, but labels such as these don't help even if you have made logical criticisms elsewhere. These days more often than not Singularity criticism amounts to nothing more than a name-calling battle because if any logical points of rebuttal are made they are usually prefaced by insults, smears, fallacious associative guilt.

      BTW, I'm glad you like my handle. :-)

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  21. I agree with and regularly promote most of the views expressed in this post (especially regarding civility, libertarianism, expertise, and global warming). But I thought I might comment on one point, as I am one of those who regularly promotes a similar-sounding view:

    "Religion is not a proper area of application for skepticism, according to some skeptics. Why on earth not? It may not be a suitable area of inquiry for science, but skepticism — in the sense of generally applied critical thinking — draws on more than just science…."

    I don't know any skeptics who say "Religion is not a proper area of application for skepticism" except as shorthand. I am one of those closest to this position, and yet it is not quite an accurate description even for me (let alone of the history of skepticism as a movement).

    Scientific skeptics have for several decades tackled religious topics regularly, regardless of the sacred sentiments attached to those topics. What we typically avoid are non-empirical questions of values and metaphysics, the oughts and the Last Tuesday-isms, for the very practical reasons you describe in your post. As the first editorial of the first US skeptical magazine put it in 1976,

    "Finally, a word might be said about our exclusive concern with scientific investigation and empirical claims. The Committee takes no position regarding nonempirical or mystical claims. We accept a scientific viewpoint and will not argue for it in these pages. Those concerned with metaphysics and supernatural claims are directed to those journals of philosophy and religion dedicated to such matters."

    There are two very practical reasons why such an approach is valuable. First, it allows skeptics to perform a valuable and specific public service: discovering and sharing reliable information about apparently paranormal claims instead of mere opinion. Nobody needs skeptics for opinions about how much bullshit this or that may be. People can reach opinions just fine on their own. As you have put it yourself,

    "The idea of skepticism is that you inquire — that you do the work. You cannot just sit down at your computer and somebody calls you up and says, 'A bunch of people have seen a  UFO. What do you think it is?' — 'Oh, it’s a meteor.' Well, no. You can’t just make it up. You have to do your work. Was there in fact a large meteor that night that was tracked by astronomers or by radar and that fits the characteristics of the alleged UFO? … Being a skeptic, it doesn’t mean you can get lazy. You have to get your butt off your chair, and your eyes off of Google and the internet, and do the actual investigation.

    A mandate for the investigation of "testable" (investigable) claims is precisely a mandate to do that work.

    Second: most of the problems of this ragtag fleet of parallel rationalist movements can be attributed to feral critical thinking—hubristic argument untethered from the anchor of empiricism.

    Most of those movements just have to live with that. What are humanists to do if not argue about ethics and values? How are rationalists to proceed except through the hurly burly of "reasoned" argument? But skeptics have a more practical option: just stick as close as we can to the ethos of science.

    Yes, most of "scientific" skepticism is better described as science-informed historical sleuthing, journalism, or miscellaneous scholarship, rather than science proper. (The phrase is usually used for disambiguation purposes, to distinguish the modern CSICOP-style tradition from other movements or causes that employ the word "skeptic.") But the work of skeptics still can, historically has, and often does benefit by adopting concepts from science: respect for expertise; reluctance to express positions that go beyond the available evidence; and a commitment to accurately describe both the limits of the available evidence and the limits of scientific inquiry.

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    1. You might have a couple of small issues with Religion & Metaphysics in your comments. I would say that if someone proposes that God is unknowable, it is no longer a rational enquiry. It is personal faith unable to be tested, and non-scientific. But that does not mean faith is somehow relegated to a catch all of Metaphysics, which is concerned with defining real facts.

      Metaphysics may provide the definitional bases of all scientific facts, much as Epistemology lends itself to testing reliable knowledge from all scientific facts. Metaphysics is always subject to testing by Epistemology, but would be the field at the limits of testing. For example, why things should exist at all, and whether there is a reason they exist in the ways we know from science, given they exist. It should not involve spiritual analyses.

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  22. I object to your description of evopsych as a "science-informed narrative," and so would Daniel Dennett, who is on your list of suggested role models. Evopsych is not concerned with the evolutionary history of psychological mechanisms (which you seem to imply), but rather with the evolutionary function of psychological mechanisms. Historical hypotheses can be tested with archeology and genetic/phylogenetic analyses. Functional hypotheses, on the other hand, can be tested with experimental techniques used by ethologists and behavioral ecologists. Evopsych is much more concerned with the latter kind of hypothesis than with the former. What then, is a fair definition of evopsych? Any of the following definitions will do:

    1) An approach to psychology that employs the conceptual and theoretical tools of evolutionary biology.

    2) Behavioral ecology applied to humans.

    3) A way of testing the predictions entailed by theories from evolutionary biology (i.e. parental investment theory, reciprocal altruism, signaling theory, biological markets theory, etc.) on humans.

    4) A merging of adaptationism (as propounded by George Williams and defended by Dennett, Pinker, etc.) and the computational theory of mind.

    You have consistently mischaracterized the field in post after post, defying your own admonitions to skeptics about being charitable to your opponents. Any list of intellectual role-models would be incomplete without Steven Pinker, and I assume that the only reason you left him out is because you disagree with him about evopsych. Might it be time to practice what you preach about "charity"? Might it be time to change your definition of evopsych to something other than a straw man? Might it be time to include people you disagree with as intellectual role models? I sincerely hope so, for your readers' sake.

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    1. Bravo! I couldn't have said it better myself! It's interesting, although I guess not unsurprising, how much hostility EP still manages to generate (even amoung people who are not religious), even as it's being increasingly absorbed into the mainstream of psychology, where it belongs. I think EP is endlessly fascinating, as well as the best thing to have happened to the social sciences in their entire history. So it annoys me to always see the same criticism, which is often as condescending as it is misinformed.

      There is no such thing as non-evolutionary psychology. There is psychology that is explicitly based on evolutionary reasoning, and there is psychology that rests on unstated assumptions about the underlying evolved mechanisms involved. This point seems to be catching on in the psychological community; even feminist psychologists like Eagly and Woods, who are still trying to explain universal sex differences in human mate preferences (which were successfully predicted in advance by David Buss at a time when almost every social scientist on the planet would have expected him to find no such thing) within a social constructionist framework, are advancing what is in their words an alternative evolutionary explaination. (It seems clear to me that Buss's account is better supported by the evidence.)

      All science "tells stories". Usually that's called explaining observed phenomena, and usually it's considered a good thing.

      EP hypotheses are testable and falsifiable. EP hypotheses are frequently falsified, and replaced with better, more refined hypotheses. EP routinely makes accurate predictions that no one would have thought to look for.

      The brain is an organ in the body, and, like every other organ in the body, it owes its functional organization to the only natural process we know of that is capable of producing functional organization. Unless you are a creationist, all psychology is evolutionary psychology. The worst criticism you could make of evolutionary psychology as a field is that most of its practitioners are doing their jobs poorly. Some critics say exactly that. I don't think it's true at least of the ones who's work I follow (every field has better and worse practitioners), but more to the point, I'm not not aware of a single such critic who has given practical advice about how evolutionary psychologists could do their jobs better. Instead, they simply parrot the same demonstrably false accusations about why EP is supposedly unscientific.

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    2. What I don't understand about the proponents of Evolution and Evolutionary Psychology is not that they look for an
      Evolutionary Explanation for the puzzles they find but that they presume that there must be a solution and then they offer one, which in due time is often proved to be
      incorrect.

      So this trait exists and it must exist because it provided some advantage to the trait holder.

      But why must all traits be advantageous ?
      Could you not argue that some traits just are -
      neither advantageous or disadvantageous ?

      Moreover doesn't the drive to have only advantageous
      traits reduce your adaptability if living environments
      undergo a rapid change ? Maybe you are better off,
      as species, having several neutral or even slightly
      disadvantageous traits in order to survive in the long run - but if that is the case then what is evolution ?

      Finally will someone please stand up and say that the
      phrase: Survival of the Fittest has no meaning.

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  23. Great post, Massimo. I am amused to see how many people are doing the "great list - except for ____" thing. I love skepticism as a tool-set for evaluating whether something is true or not. (And I mean "true" in the layman's sense, not "truth" in the philosophical sense.) And I also love hanging out with people who have similar feelings - but as a community we have some serious issues. There may be no invisible dragon in the garage, but there does seem to be an elephant in the living room.

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  24. "this blog is just as much a way for me to clarify my own ideas through writing and the feedback of others . . ." The comments so far suggest that you're well on the way to achieving those goals!

    And as for your basic philosophy list, one suggested addition: most any of Plato's dialogues. Nearly all philosophers state their views, then give their reasons and try to refute opposing views; but Plato didn't do that; instead, he put various views in the mouths of his characters (especially Socrates) and left it to the readers to assess those views for themselves - and doing that provides a workout in critical thinking that's hard to equal. For one relevant to unreasonable opinions, try the Euthydemus, in which two intellectual charlatans try to corrupt the thinking of a young student (my interpretation, of course). And of course, all of Plato's works are readily available online.

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  25. I arrived at this post having seen several discuss it on Twitter, and was somewhat shocked to find my name in it. I am honored!

    I notice some parallels between your thoughts and those expressed by Jamy Ian Swiss in his plenary at the recent Amazing Meeting. Others have pointed out parallels with other blog posts and thoughts posted elsewhere.

    Perhaps this is as wishful thinking and confirmation bias at work, but I choose to take it as a good sign. It is a sign that our community collectively knows the right path forward.

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  26. My comments will be as welcome as a hole in the head, but anyway. First on Singularity, it makes the assumtion that advances in secure knowledge across all fields, but mainly computing, will lead inevitably deductively to a singularity of greater than human intelligence.

    Human intelligence has not yet been reduced to automatic tabulation, which is all that a computer can do. So, the Singularity people try to propose that a brain is algorithmic to make it sound like it can be done. I doubt the proposals even qualify as worthwhile under Karl Popper, or that they can be tested.

    Other rationality experts too often have a Schoolman mentality. It begins by taking ancient views like "knowledge is justified true belief", which is a mish mash of concepts, and spending hundreds of years endlessly debating it. Better to just say knowledge is a level of satisfaction in reasoning about facts. Belief is 'hypothesis', and knowledge is 'confirmation'.

    Nerds & Schoolmen divert attention and money (some are real money grubs) away from more fundamental progress. I would probably unify philosophy and science under science as 'a body of reliable knowledge'. Philosophy obviates to (1) Epistemology as Methodology, as reliability in reasoning about all proposed facts, and (2) Metaphysics, as the definitional bases for all proposed facts.

    Science, as a body of reliable knowledge, is the body of proposed facts on four levels Physics, Chemistry, Biology & Psychology. Methodology & Metaphysics combine with those four fields as Science in total. Read about it in my free book http://home.iprimus.com.au/marcus60/1.pdf Hopefully your careers will not be too greatly impacted if my work is satisfying.

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  27. Roy,

    > I'm not anonymous and not insulting, although I often disagree. But I've been monitored and comments rejected anyway, so I won't bother you further <

    Apologies (also to Daniel), but guys, please consider that this isn't my full time job, ok? I was out at the movies with my daughter (Total Recall, eh...).

    Daniel,

    > Scientific skeptics have for several decades tackled religious topics regularly, regardless of the sacred sentiments attached to those topics. What we typically avoid are non-empirical questions of values and metaphysics, the oughts and the Last Tuesday-isms, for the very practical reasons you describe in your post <

    I actually agree with you (contra Dawkins and Coyne), but I guess I have encountered more push back than you from some skeptics about religion. More broadly, I disagree that the three groups I mentioned do not constitute a broadly construed Community of Reason. While it is certainly true that some skeptics are not atheists, there seem to me to be a very large degree of overlap. But this is an empirical question, and I could be wrong.

    Incidentally, your name should have been on my initial list of role models. Apologies.

    David,

    > You have consistently mischaracterized the field in post after post, defying your own admonitions to skeptics about being charitable to your opponents <

    I don't think so at all. Indeed, your own response points to what the problem is: which of the various concepts of evopsych do evopsych researchers subscribe to? Some are defensible, some are clear (to my mind) overreach. At any rate, what I was objecting to was the facile tendency, even glee, that some skeptics display at accepting evopsych explanations for modern human behavior that are either untestable or that don't take seriously the complex role of culture. And I think this is because of widespread scientist, according to which the social sciences are "soft" and therefore their explanations inherently less prestigious.

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    1. Thanks for the reply, Massimo. I agree that evopsych has been used to refer to a number of different things, and it is sometimes unclear which definition practitioners subscribe to. But it is also clear that no practicing evolutionary psychologist subscribes to the definition you provided: "science-informed narrative." At best, this definition is an uncharitable interpretation of evopsych methodology. At worst, it is a blatant mischaracterization.

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  28. Excellent post as always. I'm sure that don't read my blog, but I have addressed a few of these things myself and blame most of it on the anti-intellectualism that you mentioned. In fact, I've ranted about it with as much restraint as I could summon.

    The lack of leadership, I think, stems not from a lack of individuals who are capable of leading, but from a lack of people who think that they can learn from leaders.

    However (of course there's a 'but' or two), I have to take issue with (or at least comment on) two items.

    1) "Religion is not a proper area of application for skepticism, according to some skeptics."

    I was quite surprised to read this here and Daniel's comment covers most of what I have to say on the subject. Still, I am left with a feeling that I can only describe as "defensivenss". I am sure that this is because I have spent a great deal of time discussing the organizational limitation of empirically testable claims and defending it (while noting that the argument as stated is a straw man).

    In my experience, the individuals who ignore the limitation of empirical testability tend to shift in focus, purpose, and approach. For example, the claim, "If you are not an atheist, then you are not a good skeptic" is extremely common and pure Belief Bias.

    Furthermore, it ignores the complexity of belief in favor of arrogant superiority. It's the opposite of good skepticism.

    It also seems to me that those who use the terms "skepticism" and "atheism" interchangeably are many of the same people who advocate for insults and ridicule as a means of outreach and ignore the scientific findings which suggest, to the well-educated psychologist, at least, that such approaches are not just ineffective, but harmful.

    2) "Objectivism is (the most rational) philosophy according to a significant sub-set of skeptics and atheists..."

    Again, I have not seen anyone make this claim recently, either, which of course does not mean that it doesn't happen, but because I have written about objectivity (not "objectivism", but nontheless...), I feel a strange need to defend myself.

    I firmly believe that a lack of understanding about the basics of scientific thinking are at the root of much of your list. When I write about topics such as demarcation, empiricism, objectivity, and so forth, I simplify explanations both to fit the format and context of a blog post and because my audience varies a great deal in familiarity with formal reasoning, science, etc. In the process of doing so, it may appear that I am adhering to too-rigid scientistic dogma, especially if readers skim and miss my ever-present caveats of "it's not really this simple". Indeed, I have been accused of just that by several people, including in a >3000-word rant by PZ Myers, but at the risk of sounding immodest myself, those people are wrong.

    Anti-intellectualism, mostly of the narcissistic kind, is a serious, serious problem, in my opinion. But it is not simply a problem in the CoR community. If I had good solutions, I might still be teaching in a classroom rather than attempting to reach people who do not depend on me for grades.

    I deal with it by writing and talking and not backing away from the arguments. I have called for more attention to the problems and less tolerance for unreason in the community. I don't think that a lot of people are listening to me, but in the past month I have seen people with higher profiles speaking out on the same issues (e.g., the talk by Jamy Ian Swiss that Blake referred to in his comment above and this post of yours) and people seem to be listening to them. That's something. And it's something that gives me some hope.

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  29. Great to hear someone in a more visible position in this community start to say this. Only thing is I noticed is that your name isn't on that list of names and a part of me can't help but think it might be a good idea to start naming names.

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  30. As near as I can tell, the belief that the social sciences are "soft" is justified by Popperism, the belief that science can only falsify predictions. Crudely put, science is doing experiments: Ergo, no social science. Popper of course had notorious problems with the historical science of evolution. Popperism of course is philosophy, one of the most non-embalmed philosophies. It seems to be quite a stretch to accuse the Popperazis of being scientistic when one of their main goals is to deny that there is such a thing as an historical science.

    Doesn't this example suggest that the attribution of the hodge podge of positions widely held by skeptics that you dislike are not attributable to scientism? Is it not possible that the nature of the skeptical movement is so mixed because skepticism is undefined?

    "Skepticism" is a visceral felling of anger at unwarranted certainty, a distaste for dogmatism (defined as a pomposity.) Thus a person who feels that people ranting about science showing there is no God is arrogant notes that science cannot address religion. The same thing applies

    But if one objects "skepticism" is also an epistemological position, it is unclear how it is different from philosophical materialism. It must be different, because its proponents set themselves up in opposition to philosophical materialism.

    One thing "skepticism" seems to say, is that "science" is, variously, not knowledge in any philosophically meaningful sense; not the only path to knowledge; that agnosticism about ontological questions is is not only coherent but reasonable; the empirical component of knowledge derived from philosophy, logic and math; a (merely?) pragmatic substitute for true knowledge which is or may be unattainable, and peculiar combinations of all. Of course none of this is scientism in any ordinary sense of the word.

    As used here, "scientism" appears to shrink down to the belief that the idea of free will is absurd; that the universe is deterministic; that science cannot address morals because of the is/ought distinction. The post above is careful to define free will as the power to make decisions which is not what anybody else I know of means by free will. Nor does it make a positive affirmation that the universe is undetermined. Also it concedes that science may inform moral reasoning. My best judgment is that the power to make decisions is completely irrelevant; that the prima facie case is that the notion of an undetermined universe is incoherent even in philosophy; that saying science can "inform" moral discussion is a literally meaningless concession, leaving us with the assertion that the is/ought divide is an unbridgeable chasm, a position I'm sorry to say I think is embarrassingly wrong, no matter how popular it is.

    Whether you accept the counterobjections to your skeptical propositions about scientism is kind of irrelevant. Because frankly, it seems to me that skepticism, being an, ah, eclectic opposition to materialism can still admit such positions. By the definition of skepticism as taking offense at someone's arrogance of course these positions are plainly scientistic.

    I suppose that explains the insistence that better skepticism boils down to better manners will lead to a better skeptical movement. Is it not possible that clarifying the metaphysical presuppositions would be more useful?

    In fact, is it possible that emphasizing niceness above all else can lead to gross error? Consider your insistence that it is unreasonable to label religious education as child abuse. You asked "why a secular education wouldn’t be open to the same charge, if done as indoctrination (and if it isn’t, are you really positive that there are no religious families out there who teach doubt?" The first question equates secularism with religion, which is dubious. The answer is simple, that secular education doesn't teach superstition.

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  31. As for the second, "doubt" can be and often is simply anti-intellectualism. Plenty of skeptics have that, which in other contexts offends you, as you made clear in your post, and plenty of religious too. As for the hypothetical example of a family which teaches their children the scientific arguments against religous superstitions, I can only point out that is a secular education, not a religious education.

    The real problem with your complaint is that you refuse to draw a conclusion because it is unpalatable. You feel it would be rude to imply so many parents are harming their children with a religious education. And this supposed rudeness is unacceptable. As I understand it, that is a gross fallacy. What you need to show is why we should accept that a religious education might be beneficial to children. Good luck with that one.

    Since so much of this boils down to not liking people's bad manners for holding positions you disagree with, such as scientism, the final question is, why are your feelings privileged?

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  32. badrescher,

    > In my experience, the individuals who ignore the limitation of empirical testability tend to shift in focus, purpose, and approach. For example, the claim, "If you are not an atheist, then you are not a good skeptic" is extremely common <

    True, but my beef was with people who think that only empirically testable claims are subject to skepticism. Since skepticism includes philosophy, and hence epistemology and logic, I do maintain that faith of any kind is incompatible with a skeptical attitude.

    > because I have written about objectivity (not "objectivism", but nontheless...) <

    Well, no, the two are radically distinct. My comments referred to the Ayn Rand doctrine of Objectivism, not to the concept of epistemic objectivity.

    David,

    > it is also clear that no practicing evolutionary psychologist subscribes to the definition you provided: "science-informed narrative." At best, this definition is an uncharitable interpretation of evopsych methodology <

    Ah, sorry for having being unclear. I did not mean that practitioners of evopsych charactherize it that way, I meant to say that it is the most charitable characterization of the field that *I* can subscribe to.

    Singularity Utopia,

    > It may seem easier and it may convince some people the theory is flawed if you pin a label of "New Age" or "bizarre" onto Singularity advocates, but labels such as these don't help even if you have made logical criticisms elsewhere. <

    Well, now you know how creationists feel... I'm sorry, but with all my best efforts I simply cannot see Singuliaritarianism as much different from, say, Scientology, and I will keep treating it as such until I have good reasons to change my mind.

    S Johnson,

    > Since so much of this boils down to not liking people's bad manners for holding positions you disagree with, such as scientism, the final question is, why are your feelings privileged? <

    If you think that what I have written, including links to previous posts, amount to just feelings about people I disagree with, I can only say you have missed much of the point, and I don't have the energy or time to restart from scratch.

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    1. Massimo, would you mind taking a look at the latest of Evolution & Human Behavior and letting me know where the narratives are? All I seem to find in that journal are descriptions of experiments. Thanks.

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  33. Fascinating article. As I'm sure you realize, perfect cognitive hygiene is no more possible inside of scientific advocacy than it is inside of science itself. In attempting to enforce an ethos, 'proper commitment' to 'proper claims,' you run the risk of running out the believer with the belief. This actually strikes me as a kind of paradox in your paper. Outreach is the whole point, yet you want to monitor and exclude various kinds 'outreachers.' Though I appreciate the defend-the-faith impulse, for me this is precisely the wrong approach to take. The presence of those you regard as 'cranks' in your movement is actually a sign of strength. ANY successful science advocacy movement should put you in continuous contact with fringe and dissenting views - otherwise, you run the risk of simply preaching to the choir.

    This brings me to what I regard as your most problematic suggestion, and the one I'm guessing you find the least problematic: moderating posts on blogs to 'raise the level of discourse.' With my own blog, Three Pound Brain, I take the notion of engaging the cultural commons very seriously, primarily because I fear the way the web allows people to find confirmation of their views, no matter how extreme. So, for instance, I have spent quite some time 'arguing' with quasi-fascists on the right, and radical feminists on the left, and I can tell you with some confidence that there is simply no way to engage these kinds of views without exposing yourself to utter absence of civil discourse. Ad hominem attacks seem to be part of human nature. As do numerous other less than pleasant tactics. If you refuse to expose yourself to this, then you are quite simply turning your back on the bulk of human race.

    In other words, my fear is that the kinds of epistemic and attitudinal house-cleaning you espouse is actually a call for DISENGAGEMENT, for the like-minded and skeptical to brick themselves in against everyone else - to succumb to the ingroup impulse. 'Raise the level of discourse,' given our penchant for mistaking agreement for intelligence, all too easily lapses into 'keep this amongst ourselves.'

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    1. I'm not sure where you got the idea that I am proposing "cognitive hygiene" measures. Much of the post is a call for self-reflection, not policing.

      However, I do think that blog owners owe it to their readers and to the community to raise the level of discourse through comment moderation. But I am not suggesting to moderate *content*, only tone. I allow all sorts of whacko comments on my blog, but gratuitous insults don't help anyone, and likely turn off serious readers.

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    2. Your rhetoric, whether intentional or not, is dismissive. The implication, 'You are not one of us,' is precisely what individuals who identify with those views you list will take away. Language and epistemic commitments identify us more profoundly than team jerseys: ingroup hygiene is the effect, whether you intend it or no.

      I say this as a veteran of many, many online debates, and the slow, reluctant realization that all the people I was offending, even though I took myself to only be criticizing their 'beliefs,' were simply doing what comes natural to them.

      I view comment moderation as a tool of last resort. Death threats are pretty much the only thing I censor. At the same time I regularly receive complaints from my serious readers asking why I engage the interlocutors I do. The point I always come back to is that almost NO ONE from our community actually engages these people.

      I don't think people realize just how deleterious the web might prove for humanity. Take the polarization in political views in the USA, for instance. When I was a young man, you actually had to engage your neighbours and friends if an odd thought occurred to you. Now, you need only Google, and you have a likeminded community to mine for endless confirmation. The pro-anorexia sites are a dramatic example of this. But as I never cease to remind those who complain about my debates with facists, these guys are pulling down MILLIONS of views, compared to my thousands.

      Perhaps I'm being paranoid, but I can adduce enough of a circumstantial case to warrant worrying about these issues - as well as to be more forgiving of the kinds of views and attitudes you find troubling on the fringes of our ingroup. Any commitment to skepticism and naturalism is golden, when you consider the kinds obstacles and perils confronting us.

      None of our institutions are adapted to handle this kind of dramatic social change!

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    3. rsbakker I like your policy of open engagement with cranks. I will have a look at Three Pond Brain and see if I can angage you from the fringes of known science, which is my territory. I don;t like rudeness for its own sake, but otherwise I hope to have some exchanges with you. To prepare you, have a quick look at my free book at http://home.iprimus.com.au/marcus60/1.pdf (1.2 mb) as it summarizes my approach to all issues in science.

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  34. "Religion is not a proper area of application for skepticism..."

    "Philosophy is..."

    "All religious education is child abuse, period."

    "The Singularity..."

    "Feminism is..."

    "Science can answer moral questions. No, science can inform moral questions, but moral reasoning is a form of philosophical reasoning."


    Many of the mistakes seem to have insufficient thought behind the nature and scope of definitions. Dissimilarly, many cases of perceived wrong arguments I and others have witnessed were probably merely errors of communication regarding how others define things.

    For example, some large subset of people who say "science can answer moral questions" has people who are thinking true things about how the world works and false things about how others interpret "science" and other words. This is probably even more so for any discussion of "free will."

    Few people want to engage in horrible definition games like "she claims to be just an agnostic, but really she's an agnostic atheist," "I'm also actually an accommodationist, so to be consistent you would have to be just as opposed to what I say as what he says," and "that's not real feminism."

    I suggest trying to avoid using the charged words, applying the principle of charity when others use them, and asking others descriptively restate arguments using less confusing and fewer confusing terms.

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  35. Massimo: I am author of one of the first Christian critiques of Dawkins & Co (The Truth Behind the New Atheism), and have engaged with skeptics on-line for many years. While I disagree with some of your points, generally I find this post extremely helpful, even wise, and plan to point Christians who are interested in apologetics to it. I have run across many skeptics who disparaged philosophy (and history) in favor of science, yet in my own experience, most of the skeptics who argue best (or really, can even argue their way out of a wet paper bag) seem to have philosophical (and / or historical, sometimes theological) training.

    I've also just posted a response to your manifesto. Pardon if I do respond to particular examples you give, but that is largely because I agree with your recommendations about how even an on-line conversation is most usefully conducted.

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  36. "…my beef was with people who think that only empirically testable claims are subject to skepticism. Since skepticism includes philosophy, and hence epistemology and logic, I do maintain that faith of any kind is incompatible with a skeptical attitude."

    Massimo,

    I'm afraid I'm somewhat confused about your position. What is the difference between untestable claims like god, souls, or (unfalsifiable formulations of) psi on the one hand, versus untestable claims like Last Tuesdayism or determinism? If it is the case that determinism is "simply not the sort of thing science can establish (nor can anything else, which is why I think the most reasonable position in this case is simple agnosticism)" should that not also be the approach skeptics take to other untestable faith-type assertions—as scientific skeptics have traditionally done? Or should skeptics be in the free will debunking business? Or do you perceive a difference between those types of claims? I'd be grateful if you could walk us through your thinking.

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    1. The interesting thing is what is testable. I read in S Johnson's post too some comments on Popper and the program of science. Popper of course wants any hypothesis to be as widely applicable to reality as possible, thus many points at which it can be confirmed or reshaped at least. That is not the same as taking current (supposedly confirmed) hypotheses and extending their rubric of confirmation by 'deduction' to something more, which is secure but merely an extension of a status quo and not as open to creativity.

      This is a crucial difference, as Popper in my view allows paradigm shifts rather than incremental changes. Taking Popper half a step further, I take an approach of hypothesizing about what applies universally to the facts of existence considered by the main sciences, and arrive at Metaphysical hypotheses. One might reach a level of satisfaction in reasoning about those facts in new ways that order them rationally, economically, applicably and so on.

      However, does that make Metaphysical hypotheses testable?. Metaphysics might (and probably does) involve something other than scientific experimentation. I define 'levels of satisfaction in reasoning' as 'levels of knowledge'. Tests can be physical, and they can be mental in providing a framework for 'understanding' that enlightens the facts as facts (tells us about them without imposing any external structure such as God).

      Popper is crucial to paradigm shifting, and also to Metaphysics in my analysis. The 'rules' to determining the applicability and testability of hypotheses can be easily broadened beyond experimentation, to satisfaction in reasoning generally (Epistemology as Methodology) and in particular to Metaphysics. Spitirtuality imposes an arbitrary rubric rather than one that follows naturally and rationally from scientific facts, and has no satisfaction to it at all. We all have to make judgments about these things.

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  37. Daniel,

    > What is the difference between untestable claims like god, souls, or (unfalsifiable formulations of) psi on the one hand, versus untestable claims like Last Tuesdayism or determinism? <

    Not much, but I wasn't talking about testability, I was arguing that skepticism includes philosophical arguments, as well as empirical ones. So something that cannot be refuted by empirical evidence (i.e., science) can be attacked on logical grounds, for instance because it leads to self-contradictions, or to consequences that are unpalatable to the person supporting the notion under consideration.

    All of this, remember, in the context that I don't think it is *ever* reasonable to hold to supernatural beliefs, sometimes on the ground of empirical evidence (the earth really is billions of years old), sometimes on the ground of philosophical ones (no, god can't be all powerful, all knowing and all good without incurring in the problem of evil).

    David,

    > would you mind taking a look at the latest of Evolution & Human Behavior and letting me know where the narratives are? All I seem to find in that journal are descriptions of experiments. <

    Funny. As I said, this is not the place for a specific discussion like that one. I have already written plenty on evopsych, including an in-depth chapter of Making Sense of Evolution with Jonathan Kaplan.

    Besides, my beef here is with the uncritical acceptance of pop evopsych claims by "skeptics," not with the field itself (about the latter my reservations are epistemological in nature, but that's a debate for professional philosophers of science).

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    1. "I wasn't talking about testability, I was arguing that skepticism includes philosophical arguments…"

      I think that we agree, then, that untestable claims are outside the scope of science. And certainly you'll get no quarrel from me that god and similar untestable claims can be critically examined through a philosophical lens. So we're in agreement that a wider philosophical skepticism or general rationalism can tackle empirical and non-empirical claims (though often, I think, at the cost of the problems you identify in the post. Are any of those positions not the result of people arguing on that such-and-such an position is reasonable or unreasonable, or has consequences they find congenial or unpalatable?)

      But I'm not an activist or professional practitioner for wider rationalism or general philosophical skepticism, but only for the much more specific project of scientific skepticism. So then my question is whether we agree or disagree that there are good practical reasons for scientific skepticism to elect (as it traditionally has) to specialize in empirical claims? (I tried to give a brief account of some of the value of that science-based approach above, in my first comment.)

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  38. Hi Massimo,
    at the most general level I agree, almost entirely, with the sentiments expressed in this post. Several things, however, which continually astounds me in the all important topic of 'community'.
    Firstly, why speak of community at all, it is so poorly defined as to be misleading in discussions of relational dynamics within networks.
    Secondly, it always seems to me that efforts to develop a veneer of unity often serve to mask very real ideological difference. By way of example, while it is unlikely that libertarians and 'communitarians' (semantics aside) can work together on social policy, on broader separation issues no such conflict arises.
    Finally, the 'community' seems to have prioritised politicking(?) above communicating, inadvertently this has seen the development of a 'political class' within the 'community' engaged in the 'machinations' of 'power' and 'influence' yet void any semblance of political due process. Epitomised by Leslie Cannold's (I'm lost for words) inference(?) at atheistcon 2012 (Melbourne) that the atheist community 'should be prepared to jump through hoops' when instructed.
    Alienating...this is political maneuvering reminiscent of the cold war: secret cabals, rhetoric, propaganda and influence. Hardly becoming of what is, or at least should be, the intellectual foundation of an emerging political economy. This is more than a numbers game.
    Colin

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    1. Of interest, I thought:

      “Top-down politics faces special problems in practicing cooperation, revealed in the forming and maintenance of coalitions; these often prove socially fragile. Solidarity built from the ground up strives for cohesion among people who differ…..[By contrast], the social bonds forged from the ground up can be strong, but their political force is often weak or fragmented.” (in http://bollier.org/richard-sennett-rituals-pleasures-and-politics-cooperation)

      It would seem the democratic nature of co-operatives, as organisational umbrellas, provides a framework for pursuing common interests.

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  39. The prospect of an international community of communities (http://www.communityofcommunities.info/) framework/platform emerging within the secular alliance is heartening.

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  40. Massimo, nice post. Subscribing.

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  41. "True, but my beef was with people who think that only empirically testable claims are subject to skepticism. Since skepticism includes philosophy, and hence epistemology and logic, I do maintain that faith of any kind is incompatible with a skeptical attitude."

    Fair enough, and I am hardly qualified to argue with you about what is and is not epistemologically sound. However, such an unmitigated stance by a thought leader in this community, imo, encourages the kind of shallow, conclusions-based thinking that you have claimed to be addressing in this post.

    I cannot speak to the goals of secular and atheist organizations, but the focus of organized skepticism is not, to my knowledge, the eradication of personal beliefs which are incompatible with a skeptical attitude. We challenge unsupported claims, reveal fraud, provide alternative explanations for phenomena, and promote critical thinking about testable claims. If challenging faith-based beliefs without empirical evidence were within the purview of organized skepticism, those doing the bulk of the work would need much more education in philosophy and epistemology than is practical or that the current culture promotes (for reasons already discussed).

    The vast majority of skeptical activists are not scientists or philosophers. I cannot begin to estimate the number of people who have argued with me over the difference between your claim that faith is incompatible with a skeptical stance and their claim that anyone who is not an atheist is a poor skeptic. The former a specific statement about the validity of a specific reason to draw a conclusion. The latter is a conclusion-based judgement about a set of individual arguments which have not been evaluated and it is filled with assumptions about the content of those arguments, one's own knowledge, and the reasoning processes of others. Yet when I challenge statements like that, the response is often in the form of sound bites like Sagan's "Dragon in My Garage", demonstrating that the author failed to read the whole chapter in which that story appears.

    One reason for limiting the scope of organized skeptical activism to scientific skepticism is that the strongest refutations of claims are those in which alternative explanations for phenomena can be provided in the form of empirical evidence and inferences made from empirical evidence. These are much more easily accessed and understood by lay-skeptics, and much more easily defended.

    There are also ways to explain the distinctions which are directly in line with activism; I discuss them in terms of personal conclusions verses shared knowledge. Our job as activists is to provide education about what we know through scientific inquiry, not to chastise the audience for their belief in something that science has ignored.

    I remain of the opinion that "the business of Skepticism" should exclude discussions of a purely philosophical nature as a matter of best practices. There are exceptions, of course, but someone with enough expertise to be an exception surely has a handle on best practices already; one must know the rules to break them, no?

    I don't think that it is too much to ask that activists take personal responsibility for knowing their audience (i.e., when they are and are not 'speaking for Skepticism') and frame discussions appropriately.

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  42. Massimo how does one escape severe cognitive biases or general motivated reasoning? If sincere well educated philosophers aren't more moral than the average guy; is it even a surprise the above happens? After all in most cases the easiest person to convince in any argument will always be ourselves.

    But on the bright side if we are sincere but still wrong at least one philosopher has argued we aren't truly responsible for our mistakes.

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  43. Daniel,

    > So then my question is whether we agree or disagree that there are good practical reasons for scientific skepticism to elect (as it traditionally has) to specialize in empirical claims? <

    Yes, to a point. My concern is that empirical investigations simply cannot be decoupled from understanding of a number of background fields (most obviously, for instance, experimental design, statistical analyses, etc.), and that such background has to include epistemology and philosophy of science.

    Obviously I am not suggesting that every person who identifies with CoR become an expert in all of that, but I am concerned by the fact that so many seem to think that all they need is a brush up with basic science and their job is done. It isn't, it has barely began. So, as leaders (oh my) in these communities I think we need to encourage both scientific and philosophical literacy as much as possible.

    Simon,

    > Massimo how does one escape severe cognitive biases or general motivated reasoning? If sincere well educated philosophers aren't more moral than the average guy; is it even a surprise the above happens? <

    To begin with, it's not that those moral philosophers didn't realize that what they were doing (paying lower fees to their professional society) is unethical, so it isn't really an example of cognitive biases. Second, the answer to your question is: education. That's what we have a community for, and that's why awareness of both cognitive biases and logical fallacies ought to be a priority for us.

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    1. " I am concerned by the fact that so many seem to think that all they need is a brush up with basic science and their job is done. It isn't, it has barely began. … I think we need to encourage both scientific and philosophical literacy as much as possible."

      You'll get no argument from me on that score. The challenges in scientific skepticism that I'm most concerned with meeting (hubris, quality control, coherent scope, etc) are to a large extent philosophical literacy issues: inability to distinguish between science-y language and scientific practice; failure to distinguish between testable and untestable claims; and so on. Not much point in trying to restrict skeptical practice to empirical scope if skeptics aren't clear what that is.

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    2. Yes Massimo I shouldn't have mixed knowing something is wrong and making rationalizations about doing it anyway and doing something one thinks is right because of socialization but is 'wrong' when one has enough moral concepts to arguably figure out it was wrong.

      It just seems to me education isn't enough for if you looked back through moral progress votes for women, end of slavery, rights for blacks it wasn't moral philosophy departments or masses of philosophers leading the charge on social activism. Just look at Aristotle and Socrates on women and slavery.

      A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
      ― Max Plank

      I'd have thought you would know of the research that for many people just giving them the facts or education isn't enough; and even for scientists -and philosophers- one could argue they still operate largely within motivated reasoning even if they're objective in some areas.

      If it wasn't for the case indeed of some individuals not being so biased or that fact the biased ones die, we probably wouldn't have anyway near the progress we see in philosophy or the sciences.

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  44. Off topic, but it would be good to see more progress reports in the news on the Russian protest girls trial in Moscow, its bent apparently.

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    1. Are you referring to Pussy Riot?

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  45. Free will defined thusly: You could have willfully decided and acted differently if the clock was rewound and started again with everything else being identical is admittedly difficult to prove or disprove, But we do have empirical evidence at least with regard to the willfulness of our decisions. The evidence shows that we first reach a decision and then subsequently become aware of our decision and then subsequently rationalize our decision. Needless to say, this sequence of events is the exact opposite of the sequence of events that is required for us to willfully be controlling our decisions with free will. So It appears to me that the people who say we probably do not have free will are well justified in reaching that conclusion, both empirically and logically.

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    1. I weigh up my options first, rationally and openly to myself, then decide. So, clearly we have different approaches, or at least we are different in our assessments of what we are actually doing, whether our approaches are or are not in fact different. The more I make enquiries, the more choices I find, and the more to balance and decide upon by rational evaluation.

      Clearly, if one has limited enquiries and choices, one would just go with the flow of the status quo or main road, which might be common, but is merely the non-use of a valuable resource. Without a neurological basis, we can only rely on the subjective view, as it is all we have, but that does not make it reliable in every case, or well self-analyzed.

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    2. You are confusing your intuition regarding what you are doing with what is actually physically happening in our brains. Yes, we all self-perceive that we weigh our options before we decide, but this is an illusion, like the illusion that solid objects are made mostly of solid matter (solid objects are mostly empty space). This is a major weakness of non-empirical philosophy, it relies heavily on intuition and human intuition is often wrong. Rationally, we must follow the empirical evidence first and go wherever the empirical evidence takes us. The currently available empirical evidence indicates that we decide well before we become self-aware of our decision. If you think about it, this makes sense, because historically self- awareness evolved later and thus self-awareness of our decisions is an add-on capability that follows the decision, it doesn't precede the decision.

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    3. No, its not an illusion, you are confusing evidence with opinion. You have said there is empirical evidence to remove the need to rely on the subjective personal experience, but you haven't stated it. All you have said is that there is "currently available empirical evidence that we decide well before we become self-aware of our decisions". What is it?. How secure is your interpretation of the facts?

      Are you are referring to Ben Libet in 1983 and his further collaborations with Haggard, for example? I could explain the error you might be making in interpreting the factual data from those experiments, which may be an error shared by Libet in some ways, but I'm not sure if that's your evidence. What has happened there is that pop culture has got hold of poorly constructed interpretations, and confused lots of people via media, no more.

      What would be the basis for my choice to pursue different lines of enquiry to make a balanced well considered decision? When would I have already made those choices if they are made before I am aware of them? If they depend on analysis of new material with no prior planning, integrated into a balanced analysis, how could it be said that my reaoning and deciding about them occurs before the event.

      These are brute realities that push any ideas about 'neurological evidence of pre-decision' into an, at best, split second frame prior to neuronal sufficiency in the brain for each step in my sequential rational thinking. That's no issue at all, merely building neuronal sufficiency for awarenesss within adaptive sequences I control. If Libet is your 'evidence', I am happy to discuss him further, to dispell his error.

      I am glad to say even Libet accepts we can veto attaining sufficiency right up until the last moment before decision. I would say we are habitual and subtle and not always fully aware, and we can divert building without building for the diversion because no extensive building is needed if we want to stop drifting. Minimal building is fine. That's where control comes in, although Libet didn't really understand what his data meant.

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    4. I stand by what I said, that free-will requires that decisions be made only after we are self-aware of the decision we have made because otherwise we are not willfully and freely controlling our decisions. The currently available evidence favors the conclusion that we decide first, and only later do we come up with a rationale for the decision we already made. Time only moves forward, we cannot freely will our decisions retro-actively. So on an empirical evidence first approach to justifying our belief about how the world works, which I again assert is the only proper approach to justifying beliefs about how the world works, which includes the question of the existence of free-will, the belief that we don't have free- will is currently the best supported belief. The evidence may not be complete enough yet to generate an overwhelming scientific consensus among neuroscientists, but my understanding is that many neuroscientists consider the evidence to favor the conclusion that we reach our decisions before we rationalize the decisions and that our self-perception that we arrived at our decision via the rationalization is actually false. Of course, the decision itself is a computation, and our experiences and attitudes, etc., impact the decision, but we are not willfully and freely controlling our decisions in the sense of exercising free will. People get very upset with this, but it appears to be likely to be true.

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    5. You can read on the internet a July 13 NY TImes book review of a book "Free Will" written by a neuroscientist that discusses the empirical evidence that brains rationalize the decisions already made post-hoc. If you are really interested in this topic you can read the book.

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    6. Also, I recommend the Wikipedia article "neuroscience of free will". Wikipedia isn't always reliable for controversial topics, but this topic is not well publicized on television and radio and the Wikipedia article appears to be factual and not infected by popular prejudices.

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    7. No problem, I have read the various papers themselves, and many others critical of them. You can stand on what you said in the face of what I said without directly refuting any of it and yet coming to a different conclusion, its your choice. That could be a case of predetermined decision in the real sense if it based on a narrow status quo retention rather than enquiry and analysis.

      I'm not at all upset, I'm direct in analysing what you say, and the evidence. Obviously a split second before sufficiency for the event of 'thought' or 'vision' is required. Eg. the TV reports right now that the top school on my well considered list has just closed, it takes 200 ms to process that information and my likely realization that it changes my plans. 200 ms plus a bit for the realization. That's not a interruption to free will, it's a necessary delay in an ongoing process where I thereby respond with further thought, observation, etc in ongoing cycles.

      I think where you might have a problem is with (1) the definition of free will (have a look at my earlier post here responding to Strawson, it's not some kind of 'absolute') and (2) the fact that we are behind the game by being aware of our own actions and the world only after those events (save for anticipation in thought before PMC sugfficiency for a wrist flex for example, which is anticipation but obviously cannot be awareness of the flex itself until it happens).

      Being behind the game fractionally (200 ms on average) is an inevitability from the process, and nothing to do with free will in my consideration of choices and immediate evaluation of changes. It is so brief we do not recognize it generally in experiences, which is why the folk idea of freedom is prevalent, and why folks panic into drawing conclusions and making connections to undefined 'free will' when it is badly explained on TV.

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    8. Concluding on Libet (hopefully), it is interesting to speculate what makes decisions if "I" (my gross anatomy in a complex world using my brain as an automatic facility) do not. The brain might need to be an intact Homunculus deciding what the body does in the world (like a tiny Dr Loveless in a 60's TV show inside a big robot). You mention the brain as a 'computation' and it would need to be a very special one to have such powers. Nevertheless, you have general confidence and certainty to your comments.

      Searle (extreme), Dennett (obtuse) and others may be the prevailing view on computational brains (being philosophers accustomed to examining concepts like computation in addition to computer and human facts). The brain does not compute, in their view, and I agree (broadly). I would say the key relation is the well equipped organism negotiating the complex environment, with the brain as an automatic facilitator. (btw Neuroscientists are about 50/50 about Libet and Philosophers, more familiar with Free Will, are well against him, by my quick reckoning from papers, but don't quote me).

      Neurons might be somewhat like delicately balanced dominoes tipping variably but precisely from variable clips, building to sufficiency in a flow of inputs to outputs to serve the gross anatomy. It builds because of a flow of inputs in from the gross, representing the gross in facilitating observations and thoughts attending them, then it sends outputs in response, as we must inevitably repond in ongoing adaptive cycles of our functions within the world. A flow, but not a computation as such. You are welcome to read my free book at http://home.iprimus.com.au/marcus60/1.pdf

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    9. Whenever many people consider a factual assertion to be central to their own concept of who they are, their purpose, their meaning, morality, and the like, and scientists challenge that factual assertion, there are philosophers and authors who come to the rescue with books explaining how we can reconcile the factual assertion with the science. These authors claim there is no conflict, just adjust and re-conceptualize the factual assertion. The factual assertion isn't wrong, it's just misdefined, and by reading my book you will learn the correct definition. So it is with free-will compatabilists such as Daniel Dennett.

      What Daniel Dennett and other compatabilists are doing is explaining that free-will doesn't exist while retaining the label free-will anyway, applying it to the unconscious processes that are the anti-thesis of free- will and justifying this sleight of hand by arguing that the genuine free-will isn't really meaningful or important after all.

      The problems with the free-will concept go beyond our making decisions prior to our rationalizing the decisions. Not only is there no known biological mechanism that supports free- will, there is no such conceivable biological mechanism. Another problem with the concept is its fictional origins. The free will concept is found in Persian and Hebrew religions. It is a mistake to take factual assertions that originated thousands of years ago out of human intuition seriously because human intuition regarding such scientific questions are going to be fictional approximately 100% of the time. Our empirically based knowledge of how the world works is non-intuitive and counter-intuitive, we didn't acquire our knowledge through intuition. On the contrary, one of the biggest obstacles throughout history to acceptance of empirically acquired knowledge is human intuition.

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    10. In reponse to your Para 1, I read that all the time but I'm not convinced. Philosophy provides a context and definitional underpinning to science, and it's better to use them togther. Ultimately one will or will not be rationally satisfied with any argument. I don't know what you mean by 'free-will' or 'compatabilism', you might have either or both concepts wrong.

      I think Para 2 might be your own sleight of hand. Best have a look at what I said about Strawson for my definition of free will. I only refer to Dennett on computation. Unconscious processes might be inconsistent with any absolute idea of free will as materializing like a spirit, but in neuronal processing, as explained clearly above, it is essential to have delay. If pre conscious neuronal processing is inconsistent with 'genuine' free will, I suggest you adjust your absolute, impractical, or spiritual view of free will.

      Para 3 is getting more presumptuous again. It would need to get beyond making decisions prior (as I have debunked that, above, without any ideas from you about who is making the decisions). Proposing no such conceivable bilogical mechanism may be because you have a theoretical spiritual view. We have a free choice to pursue pure objectivity, and the neuronal mechanism has been explained by me above, so there is subjective evidence and connection to a reasonble process, so far, by me.

      Currently, the aim of pure objectivity of analysis (not its attainment, as that would be something spiritual) remains a subjective experience, but don't give up hope it is beyond understanding from pre-conscious automatic processing to serve the gross anatomy in its environment. Be patient, or read my book for some clues, as I explain the missing pieces, but shedding some baggage may help. My contribution in this post is done as you have not been able to come to grips with -anything- I have written, while I have debunked -all- of your concerns.

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  46. On ev psych, we would carry broad neuronal architecture from our ancestors suited to imperatives of gender and ageing, for example, but we might not require gross mutational evolutionary changes to to shape our behaviour by reasoning and refinement away from basic brutality in their manifestation. I would not separate psychology from biology, but say instead that biologically selected anatomical imperatives may set broad limits within which we can eventually approach 'sexual equality', for example, in principle and practice. This would extend through to our inherited, broad, neuronal architecture serving our anatomy, for developments in that usage too. Not the same, but equal; rather than not the same, but brutal.

    Confusions may arise in this area because of the assumption that natural selection is predictive. Some doubt, for example, the predictability of cultural developments towards morality (an ought from an is - the 'is' would be the evolved stoneage man and the 'ought' the modern man with minimal further evolution). If one rigidly retains the brutalities of ancestors or other species, biologists could make that mistake, but refinement in use of the well-mutated base is what may be happening.

    In fact, evolution is no more predictive than ev psych, and the above doubt is a red herring. Selection of behavior for survival of stoneage man or any species may apply also to our cultural strategies. Clearly, as an intact environment, modern human culture does fall within the general umbrella that 'what behaves environmentally appropriately for survival will survive', and the principle does apply. The process of refinement, as opposed to gross basal evolution, is not so mutational, but it falls within the same umbrella principle of selection.

    Imre Lakatos (like Popper, much underestimated on a few core principles) said that Darwinism in not predictive because one must wait to see what has survived from what environmental connections. Then we lay out the plan of nature with 20 - 20 hindsight and use that to hopefully statistically predict how it 'might' develop. But that is reliance on post-analysis and we must wait to see in fact what new successful monster is discovered, as it could well change our assumptions (likewise in cultural evolution). To say ev psych and evolution share that weakness in not intended to be complimentary, but a correction to any doubts about evolution and ev psych are different in their predictability.

    On predetermination, I would say to Massimo that 'nothing can be known about it' (agnosticism) is simply countered by Determinism and Metaphysics. Nature's physical laws are fixed as best we know, and arrange in regular and strange ways from their variety. They extend from a contracted state at the Big Bang to become our current situation here on earth (by unknown means). Being fixed, they would have degrees of statistical determinism in how they arrange themselves (unknown), which makes some events predetermined, inevitably (but it is unknown to what extent). Too many unknowns to have confidence it is unknowable until deeper Metaphysical enquiry and theory. I hope you get a chance to read my free book.

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    1. To conclude on ev psych, psychology and biology are not separate (ideas are from genes in environment), but the relation is more of refinement in usage of a base relation of genes and environment that remains largely intact. Psychology would be a subset of biology, sharing the difficulties of prediction for any sucesses. However, ideas may not mutate to be selected like the base of genes in environment mutates to be selected.

      This may be the point from which many valid objections arise about comparisons of psychological development and evolutionary development. We do not randomly come upon ideas and then see if they are workable, although that can be an express strategy or one that is within trial and error testing. Leaving aside whether evolutionary mutation is entirely random, changes in usage of the potential of a mutated base relation of genes and environment might indeed be more predictable than evolution if we have confidence in reasoning to a better society.

      Whether the ideas catch on in practice introduces some randomness, but rationalizing a better society can be freely undertaken, with novelty. So, ideas as refinements of the biological relation fall under the same umbrella for selection, but might be boosted somewhat compared to random mutation, to develop by free use of rationality. In other words, rather than being less predictive, they may be more predictive, as a subset within biology with the advantages of psychology (a pyramid tip on a base, with a water line at which our psychology arises).

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    2. The first of the above two posts was chopped for word limit, and the end of the second last para should read ..."predictability under the Darwinian principle because in either case we must wait to see what works." (The second post shows the Darwinian analysis is preceded by mutation in general evolution and rationality in cutural evolution, giving ev psych a chance to be more predictive IF rationality rules society AND society survives because it does).

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  47. No accusation here, honestly, but I wonder if you noticed that among the 15 people that you listed individually (more with the Other Novellas), there is only one woman. Given the current climate in parts of the community, I find that, and the fact that nobody has commented on it, a little odd since it seems to be on most of our minds (wherever one stands on the controversies, both real and manufactured).

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    1. Good point. While I don't blame Massimo for only listing one woman, especially the lack of mention until now shows that there is serious work to do in the CoR on this issue. In fact, I would say that it is more important than any of Massimo's suggestions (which are all good, btw).

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  48. Since you posted this I have been contemplating a response, and in many instances felt that it was not right to respond at all. You are creating a manifesto for your group, which is perfectly wonderful, and just because my ideals would perhaps prevent my participation that should not be an issue. Still, I feel a need to be defined as a skeptic, because it informs all of these other definitions. I don’t mean to be too long winded, so here are my few points where I feel left out, which I know is not a concern of yours for good reason, but does make me said, as a want-to-be Skeptic.

    I agree with most of your points, but these are the ones I have a personal problem with.



    * The notion of anthropogenic global warming-

    (response)While I agree with your point, skeptism about the rate of change and impact of that change is valuable. There may be consensus on anthropenic global warming, but to merely stop skeptical inquiry is to ignore how young this science is, and how wrong many predictions have been. Fine to accept it, but not unconditionally. Better that all disciplines in science work on the issue.

    * Science can answer moral questions. -

    (response)I used to agree with this, but it is called into question with recent work on altruism, and the controversy surrounding group selection that E.O. Wilson has brought to the forefront along with his colleagues at Harvard. My take on that here.http://mcputman.blogspot.fr/2012/08/to-love-in-wilsons-world.html

    * Science has established that there is no consciousness or free will (and therefore no moral responsibility). -

    (Response) This and your next point would preclude a lot of people that I think many skeptics, and most physicists and neuroscientist disagree with. In this group I include Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Janna Levin, Michael Gazzaniga and the list could continue. If this group are not considered skeptics, then I would not consider myself a skeptic either. The basic assumption is that we are all a natural parts of the universe, no different in any significant way. The Point of Inquiry Podcast had Tom Clark on with DJ Grothe, who you claim as an example of a good skeptic. I know DJ, and wonder whether he discounts Tom’s accounts. Have you spoken to DJ about FreeWill?

    * Determinism has been established by science. -.

    (Response) My last point addresses most of this, but I must say Quantum Mechanics has nothing to do with human free will. I challenge you to find a physicist who thinks it does.

    * The Singularity is near! I-

    (response) Some of the smartest people I know are in this movement, and are completely skeptical. Striving for technological goals and statistically predicting achievements is not unskeptical. It may be right or wrong, but while some in the movement may be cultish, the ideas are scientifically arguable, valid, and may push society forward. I have no idea why this is included here.

    * Objectivism -

    (Response)I think that to leave out libertarians is a mistake, even if you disagree. As far as Rand, I think that David Brooks points out in his recent op-ed a wonderful point that young people should exalt Rand, even if some of the ideas are naïve. It is optimistic, and a counter to other youthful philosophies. I also think that it is valuable as a skeptical adult to consider extremes posed by various political ideals. Our friend Christopher Hitchens is the perfect example of this. A socialist in his youth, he changed his views constantly. He was a forceful debater, but skeptical of everything, even himself. Also in the statement of your Michael Shermer would no longer qualify as a skeptic, nor most of the group Reason.

    I really respect you greatly, and understand the point you make that these views to not incorporate those of all skeptics. This is why I probably should sty silent, but it is just too hard for me. I enjoy discussing with you, and hopefully I am not too much of an outsider to be a part of further discussions.

    Matthew Putman

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    1. On Singularity, I'm not sure the idea of the brain as an algorithm qualifies as scientific without reference to the neurological means by which it is provided. The brain would need to be an automatic tabulator adaptive to the environment. Not only is there no evidence that the brain amounts to an automatic tabulator in its processes (which are largely unknown, but that's no excuse for a theory without reference to real mechanisms), the connection between those processes and our gross anatomical functions in the world are also unknown (we do not know how oneself within the world is represented in thought by brain processes).

      I would start with something less extreme than a strict algorithm, which looks like bolstering anyway to make the necessary jump to invest computers with human intelligence and extend it somehow further. Computers are not as intelligent as humans, and it is probably inappropriate definitionally to call an automatic tabulator of the computer kind 'intelligent' anyway. No doubt Singularity folks will approach their problem (their fiction) from computing as well, to try to make them intelligent (with the hope that humans are algorithmic, to make it easier by simply copying our processes). It would be great to see brief pointed analyses, rather than blank support or rejection of theories in folks' general comments, so we can deal with fundamental specifics.

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  49. badrescher,

    > No accusation here, honestly, but I wonder if you noticed that among the 15 people that you listed individually (more with the Other Novellas), there is only one woman. <

    Yup, I know. I know of a number of good women bloggers, but I honestly couldn't come up with names that had the same visibility as those I listed. I am counting on the community to amend the list...

    Matthew Putman,

    > There may be consensus on anthropenic global warming, but to merely stop skeptical inquiry is to ignore how young this science is <

    Yes, but let the scientists do it. When some "skeptics" question that science without understanding it they don't do anyone a favor.

    > the controversy surrounding group selection that E.O. Wilson has brought to the forefront along with his colleagues at Harvard. <

    Wilson's work addresses the origins of morality, which are clearly naturalistic. This has nothing at all to do with science answering moral questions, they are distinct issues.

    > In this group I include Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Janna Levin, Michael Gazzaniga and the list could continue. If this group are not considered skeptics, then I would not consider myself a skeptic either. <

    I don't know about Levin, but you can take Gazzaniga off that list, since he actually agrees that the issue of free will is much more complicated than the like of Harris/Dawkins/Krauss would make it to be. Besides, I am not making lists of bad guys on purpose, you may have noticed that nobody I disagree with was actually mentioned in the post.

    My point is that too many in the skeptic community gleefully jump on notions they do not understand, ignoring the subtleties of many of these issues. Which is the opposite of practicing critical thinking, in my opinion.

    > Quantum Mechanics has nothing to do with human free will. I challenge you to find a physicist who thinks it does. <

    Roger Penrose.

    > Some of the smartest people I know are in this [the Singularity] movement <

    Yes, and some very smart people have said very dumb things in the past. Intelligence is no guarantee of immunity from pseudoscientific notions.

    > As far as Rand, I think that David Brooks points out in his recent op-ed a wonderful point that young people should exalt Rand, even if some of the ideas are naïve. <

    I have as little regard for David Brooks as I can possibly have for a NYT editorialist. My point is that some people think Rand was a serious philosopher, while her "philosophy" is a hopeless jumble of contradictory and nonsensical notions, mixed with others that are truly morally repugnant.

    > I really respect you greatly, and understand the point you make that these views to not incorporate those of all skeptics. This is why I probably should sty silent <

    No, you shouldn't, this is an open forum, and I knew some of my points were going to be controversial. Thanks for writing this.

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    1. "Yup, I know. I know of a number of good women bloggers, but I honestly couldn't come up with names that had the same visibility as those I listed. I am counting on the community to amend the list..."

      Did you mean that you were looking to the community to raise the quality of the work done by women in particular so that there are more "models to look up to" to choose from?

      Or did you mean that you're looking to the community to amend that list by raising the visibility of women within the community who are "models to look up to"?

      If the latter, didn't you have that opportunity yourself when you made the list? After all, you didn't qualify the list with a level of visibility when you described it.

      I abhor the idea of quotas and I am sickened by the way that those who want to legislate behaviors have made it impossible to even discuss issue. However, I also believe that the one's quality of work speaks for itself, but only if attention is paid to it and if that attention is paid to the work and not the gender or appearance of the worker; promoting bad work just because the worker is likeable does more harm than good.

      Mostly, I find it curious that such huge disparities in the amount of attention paid to good work across genders is so often dismissed as a cultural artifact that is someone else's problem to fix.

      Communities are made up of individuals and individuals are biased in favor of people like themselves - all of us. If the most visible in the community tend to be men, then those men will need to make a small, but deliberate effort to compensate for that bias if they want to reduce the disparity.

      Just my $.02

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  50. Pre-Script: It's Mehta and Lindsay.

    Good work Massimo. I first started reading you when I was in a Coyne phase. I tend to still side with him on most "don't be a dick" and accomodationism stuff, but I've come to appreciate your blogging more than his. (I'm long past out of that phase, which might have had something to do with being banned from comments there. I had the audacity to suggest he a had a large ego.)

    On "failure of leadership": not sure how this even applies to the CoR. Leadership applies to institutions, not broad and horizontal communities of interest. You seem to be saying that we don't have a few very well known commentators and educators any more. I suggest that has to do with the diversification of media than any leadership qualities then or now. Formerly, there was a huge divide between those that got the platform (Sagan and Gardners) and those who didn't. Now we have a long list of less known figures. Nothing wrong with that. Now, if you want to discuss leadership of institutions, O'Hair vs. Lindsay etc., that's great.

    Particular praise for the principle of charity. It's hard, but well worth doing.

    I want to know if you really meant that some people say math is useless armchair speculation. Your conflation of philosophy with math and logic is a particular bugaboo with me, so I'm wondering if that is the case here.

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    1. Mark,

      good point about leadership being more diffused, largely because of the relevance of social media and blogging. Still, communities have leaders too, not just institutions, and it is the responsibility of those leaders to, well, lead, which in this case means both do their best to promote reasonable skepticism and to keep a civil tone of discourse.

      About math/logic/philosophy: my point was that one cannot accuse philosophers of doing "just armchair speculation" because that just means theoretical work, which is very valuable, as math and logic clearly show. (Incidentally, logic is a branch of philosophy, so philosophers get direct credit there.)

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    2. The parenthetical is exactly the conflation I'm talking about. People using the armchair speculation charge are not objecting to the use of logic per se in the argument. It's with the premises and thus conclusions and/or with the practical applications. And the charge is not against all philosophy either (although I'm sure there are those types too, which I reject as well).

      But just that sentence illustrates my point. Logic is a branch of philosophy, so philosophy has other branches that can be criticized independent of its application of logic.

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    3. As for the first point, I think a very good analogy would be to the black community. Certainly everyone could name prominent black leaders from the Civil Rights era. Your point is like asking where are the black leaders today. Well, they are out there, even if most white people would struggle to name more than a couple. There isn't a Martin Luther King, Jr. or even a Jesse Jackson. But that doesn't mean the black community needs more or better leadership.

      To answer an immediately obvious objection, I wouldn't say Barack Obama's career is based in the black community, so he's more of a leader who is black (or half-black). I realize that entire comment might be opening a can of whoop ass, so please, take my argument charitably.

      Delete
  51. I also noticed there were very few women on the list. Natalie Angier is as well-known as Carl Zimmer. She seems exemplary in every way and has written on atheism and of course science.

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    1. And Barbara Drescher, Kylie Sturgess, Kiki Sandford, Robin "Swoopy" McCarthy, Jennifer Oullette, Mary Roach, Dr. Rachel Dunlap, Dr. Harriett Hall, etc.

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    2. And what about Massimo's podcast partner, Julia Galef?

      Delete
  52. Can the OP be distilled into the complaint that many within The Movement aren't yet fully up-to-date with expert opinion across academia?

    I suspect that internal niggle is dwarfed by their overriding respect for academia as the most credible of institutions.

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  53. While I agree with most of Massimo's original post, this paragraph should not be allowed to pass without comment:

    "Objectivism is (the most rational) philosophy according to a significant sub-set of skeptics and atheists (not humanists, since humanism is at complete odds with Randianism). Seriously, people? Notice that I am not talking about libertarianism here, which is a position that I find philosophically problematic and ethically worrisome, but is at least debatable. Ayn Rand’s notions, on the other hand, are an incoherent jumble of contradictions and plagiarism from actual thinkers. Get over it."

    Leaving aside whether Rand's ideas are an "incoherent jumble of contradictions" (are they?), how can the serious claim that she plagiarised others' ideas come from? Are you saying that she lifted whole concepts and works without full and transparent attribution? I have seen Ayn Rand accused of a lot of things - not always without justice - but this is a new one. She acknowledged a big debt to Aristole; she learned a lot about economics from the likes of Henry Hazlitt and Ludwig von Mises; she had an early enthusiasm for Nietzsche (later modified). But "plagiarism"?

    As for what is "problematic" and "worrisome" about libertarianism (another word for classical liberalism), Massimo does not elaborate. I am new to this site, so it may be that he has written before about it to explain why he holds such views. Personally, I happen to think that a political/economic/legal creed based on liberty, limited government, open markets and the like is not "worrisome" in the slightest.

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    1. My worry is that the Shangri-La of Libertarians is a government comprised only of adjudication and enforcement of law to protect their freedom, which is all they would need if they wanted to be free and also free from other's attempts to make them unfree. Then you wait to see how the civilized animals behave, which is to say that El Supremo's will emerge and it will disntegrate to a shooting party.

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  54. blamer,

    > Can the OP be distilled into the complaint that many within The Movement aren't yet fully up-to-date with expert opinion across academia? <

    No, not really. It goes deeper than that. In the post I suggest that there actually is (ironically) a streak of anti-intellectualism within the Community of Reason, as well as a strong scientistic leaning that makes people eagerly accept certain kinds of scientific findings but deny or minimize others.

    tombr,

    > Leaving aside whether Rand's ideas are an "incoherent jumble of contradictions" (are they?), how can the serious claim that she plagiarised others' ideas come from? <

    Yes, they are an incoherent jumble, see:

    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/10/about-objectivism-part-i-metaphysics.html
    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/11/about-objectivism-part-ii-epistemology.html
    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/11/about-objectivism-part-iii-ethics.html
    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/12/about-objectivism-part-iv-politics.html

    As for my plagiarism comment, I did not mean that Rand necessarily consciously lifted ideas from others, as I don't know her mind. But plagiarism can be inadvertent, and perusing commentaries about her work it sounds like she did not attribute some of her ideas when they were actually coming from Aristotle or Nietzsche, among others.

    > As for what is "problematic" and "worrisome" about libertarianism (another word for classical liberalism), Massimo does not elaborate. <

    That's because I have done so several times on this blog:

    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2012/07/fundamental-contradiction-of.html
    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2009/09/problems-with-libertarianism.html
    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/05/why-do-libertarians-deny-climate-change.html

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    1. Reading Massimo's first critique of Rand's metaphysics, he seems to agree with quite a lot of what she said, but the charge seems to be that she was not all that original in some respects. That does not strike me as much of an attack. She talked about the "primacy of existence" and rejected idealism. So does Massimo. And so on.

      You say that Rand did not consciously plagiarise other people's works. That is a bit slippery. Plagiariam involves deliberately passing off the work of others as one's own. We are all influenced to a greater or lesser degree by what has been written by others, and Rand was no different in this regard. To use the word "plagiarism" in this sense is wrong and an abuse of language. Precision in language is, I am sure Massimo agrees, an important thing to adopt in debating ideas, particularly if you are criticising a thinker in some way.

      I am not an "official" Objectivist (whatever that is) although I am probably far more sympathetic to her core ideas than Massimo or some others on this board.

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  55. badrescher,

    > Or did you mean that you're looking to the community to amend that list by raising the visibility of women within the community who are "models to look up to"? If the latter, didn't you have that opportunity yourself when you made the list? After all, you didn't qualify the list with a level of visibility when you described it. <

    That is what I mean. I thought that the visibility criterion was obvious from the context and the list. I'm glad people are adding names, though I am not convinced that several of those are actually quite as high visibility as some seem to think. But, yes, that is a problem for CoR, and I have written about it in the recent past.

    Simon,

    > It just seems to me education isn't enough for if you looked back through moral progress votes for women, end of slavery, rights for blacks it wasn't moral philosophy departments or masses of philosophers leading the charge on social activism. Just look at Aristotle and Socrates on women and slavery. <

    Education may not be enough, but it is part of the solution. What else would you do? As for Aristotle and Socrates, those are cheap shots, considering the time, and don't forget that Plato was an egalitarian as far as women are concerned. Mill's ideas on liberty underlie much of what we think today as liberal democracy, and the entire American Constitution was basically a philosophical document based on the Enlightenment's principles. And the list could go on and on and on...

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    1. "I thought that the visibility criterion was obvious from the context and the list. I'm glad people are adding names, though I am not convinced that several of those are actually quite as high visibility as some seem to think."

      I don't think that people are adding names based on visibility. I think they are adding the names of people they believe should be considered good role models, which is how you described the list.

      Visibility as a criterion is not obvious; I understood the context of this post to be a description of some of the things that are going wrong with the shared goals of the greater community and how to fix them. As such, a list of "who is doing it right" is valuable. Why would it matter if their profile is high? Good work is good work, visible or not.

      And I realize that you've written about the climate regarding gender issues recently, which is one of the reasons that I am surprised and disappointed by your responses.

      Delete
    2. Massimo, agreed education, plus an awareness of biases can help, but don't expect anyone including ourselves to always know when we are philosophically or scientifically barking up the wrong tree. That's the thing about severe biases you just wont know you are under one.

      Cheap shot??? The point I was focusing on that two of the greatest philosophers of all time couldn't see through their cultural conditioning and when we know how much Socrates made of point of questioning the attitudes of the day it is even more obvious even if some rare individuals were before their time. Musonius Rufus is a great example.

      Nor am i saying philosophers don't make progress, but not withstanding the Enlightenment, Jefferson -another cheap shot?-and many others still couldn't see past their own cultural blinkers. One the wonders why if egalitarian Enlightenment values underpinned the development of the US it did such a poor job at following them.

      Back to my point, I just don't see as a broad profession you can say that the majority of philosophers were moral activists fighting against biased moral norms of the day.

      Or maybe its just philosophy departments as a broad profession don't join rallies so that's why we don't see them hand in hand with the Quakers, Suffragettes and civil rights marches?

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    3. Simon,

      > Cheap shot??? The point I was focusing on that two of the greatest philosophers of all time couldn't see through their cultural conditioning <

      But others did (Plato). And at any rate, how many activists on behalf of women liberation and the abolition of slavery can you cite from that time?

      > Jefferson -another cheap shot?-and many others still couldn't see past their own cultural blinkers. <

      Yes, but you keep looking at it as a all or nothing issue, which is too simple a view of human thought. There is no contradiction in saying that philosophers - as a class - have contributed some of the best ideas to humanity while individual philosophers have failed in one respect or another.

      > I just don't see as a broad profession you can say that the majority of philosophers were moral activists fighting against biased moral norms of the day <

      I never said that. The job of a philosopher is to produce and analyze ideas, not to be an activist. My point was that a lot of the ideas that activists eventually rally around have been simmered and hammered away for a long time, often (but certainly not exclusively) by philosophers.

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    4. Massimo All I'm saying is no one individual can ever know with high certainty that their reasoning isn't biased by motivated reasoning and that even the most intelligent and well educated fall victim to this.

      I would contend that historically people who were able to look beyond their cultural conditioning were by far a small minority and even then often still had some baggage. Even if for Philosophy as a discipline individuals have produced progress within it.

      Even if we just look at abortion it pretty well follows party lines and if there is indeed a position that can be said to have gained historical philosophical progress, you still have one side that for all there intelligence and education cannot escape their motivated reasoning. (OfC being a contrarian to both sides I think both follow motivated reasoning)

      So being better educated just doesn't help in itself. I don't know if there is a cure one might interpret the fact that people who see beyond their culture are such a tiny minority that it might be genetic but even then not a guarantee of being 1000% correct on everything :)

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    5. > All I'm saying is no one individual can ever know with high certainty that their reasoning isn't biased by motivated reasoning <

      You get no argument from me there. But I still maintain that education on cognitive biases (psychology) and logical fallacies (philosophy) is the best antidote, regardless of the fact that some psychologists still fall for cognitive biases and some philosophers commit logical fallacies.

      > So being better educated just doesn't help in itself. <

      I think you are wrong there. Besides, if education fails here, should we try ignorance?

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    6. Massimo so from your POV did education help all the Pro-Life philosophers?

      & if they can be highly educated yet still under motivated reasoning can you be certain that you yourself aren't under similar biases connected to your identity?

      That seems to imply to me you think you are immune and will always know when you are; when we know logically if not empirically that those under strong/severe motivated reasoning will never see it in themselves.


      >I think you are wrong there. Besides, if education fails here, should we try ignorance?

      Ok what I mean is education by itself won't make anyone immune to motivated reasoning; while granted it will probably improve sometimes immunity in certain instances. But again if history is any guide intelligence and education is no guarantee for anyone overcoming motivated reasoning.

      Does that mean we should just give up but similar to Descartes Demon and a perfect immersed Matrix we may never ever know if we are captured by motivated reasoning on any one subject.

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    7. Simon,

      you keep asking for absolute guarantees, nobody can give you that, and I certainly never claimed it. Did education help *all* pro-life philosophers? No. Am I *immune* to bias? Of course not. Does education makes anyone *immune* to motivated reasoning? No, obviously. But, again, what's the alternative, exactly?

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    8. Massimo I just wonder given the purpose of the thread that any such group will always have a consensus about what it is 'reasonable' to be skeptical about. As an aside have you noticed all the Singularitarians at overcomingbias.com; educated intelligent and well aware of biases and yet many still have an almost religious faith in the techno rapture.

      >But, again, what's the alternative, exactly?

      Not sure just as with Descartes demon and the matrix we just do the best we can get educated, learn about biases and just maybe throw in some epistemological humility that if other people can have severe cognitive or cultural biases it is more than likely we all will have either minor or major ones but still not know it.

      Delete
  56. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  57. This is a trivial point, but I thought I'd just mention you misspelled Hemant Mehta.

    Since you did that of your own free will, you must be morally responsible for the consequences...

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    1. Of course, if you make an intentional or negligent misrepresentation upon which another person is entitled to rely, and they suffer loss, you would have responsibility.

      Delete
  58. Disregard my reference to Machiavelli, Rand's methods are more retentive than oppressive.

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  59. Bravo, Massimo. You are not dropping the mantle of public intellectual here, as you try to be responsible for your progeny. I agree with you that Singulitarianism is a disturbing wormhole of delusion. We see the strong attraction of religious type thinking. I find the idea of uploading myself revolting. It is, in my opinion, the most heinous form of parenting. Cloning yourself would be less perverse, because your clone would individuate as it grew, but to create a life identical to yourself is not self preservation, it is a cruel burden to place on another being. JS Mill is the perfect tonic for that sort of tyranny. Let's not be digital Papa Mill and Bentham, let's live as long as we can, but not inflict ourselves on any other being. If I knew I were the copy of someone else, the first thing I would do is scramble my digital brain.

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  60. Talk of 'community' brings to mind the question:
    What do libertarian-randian Brights, new-atheist-scientist Brights, freethinking-humanist-philosophical Brights and hegelian-marxist-singularity Brights have in common?

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  61. Jeffrey Johnson,

    > Does this just come down, possibly subconsciously under the surface reasoning, to the same old bashing of New Atheists because they are so mean? If they are "strident" they must be wrong? <

    No, there is a distinction between being wrong and being uncivil. However, both are bad, I think.

    badrescher,

    > I realize that you've written about the climate regarding gender issues recently, which is one of the reasons that I am surprised and disappointed by your responses. <

    Well, I am sorry about that, though I fail to see exactly what disappointed you. By definition, "leaders" are people who are particularly visible in a community, and it is a sad fact that few women are highly visible in CoR. This is a simple observation, not something I endorse, and we do need to ameliorate the situation.

    tombr,

    > She talked about the "primacy of existence" and rejected idealism. So does Massimo. And so on. <

    Keep reading the other posts, it should become clear why her "philosophy" is a jumble of incoherence.

    > Plagiariam involves deliberately passing off the work of others as one's own. <

    Not necessarily. Journalists, for instance - even very recently - can get in trouble for quoting bits of text they had jotted down, and neglecting (not necessarily on purpose) to properly cite the source. Still counts as plagiarism.

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  62. I think you hit the nail on the head with the "I'm smarter than you" complex, but it's so hard to avoid. There is pressure - both within and outside the scientific community - to present what we know and to posture as experts. In reality we may not really "know" anything, but have assembled an impressive collection of data. The more helpful thing would be to describe what we don't know and engage in a meaningful dialog to generate ideas. Although this happens in the scientific community, it rarely (in my experience) seems to happen in the general public, who are just looking for headlines and don't do well with "possiblys" and "maybes" and "high probability ofs."

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  63. I wish I could read more books on philosophy, science, skepticism, etc, but blogs are a welcome appetizer to missing the main course. Thanks to Michael Shermer for posting Massimo's blog entry on FB.

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  64. I have to add that many social scientist tend to accept socialist political theories without much questioning, and in the other hand found every capitalist claim rejectable almost "by default". I particularly think that both political and economical systems have their own flues and pros.

    I'm also scared about the great number of self-proclaimed rationalist who believe in most things said in the movie "what the Bl@$#d did you know?" and similar.

    Not to mention those scientist that disapprove any philosophy of science. Once I watched an interview in youtube in witch a respectable scientist claimed that Bacon's ideas where irrelevant because at the time Galileo was doing real science.

    I used to be one of those persons who think "I'm smarter than you because I'm an skeptic" but, thankfully, studying history has taught me to be more tolerant and modest.

    I would like tho thank you for writing this entrance, a lot of slef-criticism inside the community of skeptics it's needed to honor, with congruence, the spirit of the community.

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  65. Gee thanks for putting all those self proclaimed know it alls in the their place - you know what fee-thinking means, people come up with their own answers to questions and often if they are not smart or thoughtful enough they are wrong (most of us are wrong about one topic or another), so what? so what if a few free thinkers believe in alternative medicine? and some others deny global warming - you article reads like there is some large group which believe both (along with all your other claims simultaneously), I doubt that is true, that is not the problem here, did you notice that along with 1% of free thinkers who deny global warming there is 50% of the population that denys it too, that is the problem, not a few skeptics who fell for the propaganda, or the individual foibles of a few intellectuals, you need to get out more

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    1. Joseph,

      I can assure you that I "get out" plenty, which is why I wrote this essay. You seem to have missed a couple of crucial points, perhaps you want to read it again?

      Delete
    2. I only know a 2009 survey that shows what you are saying about American opinion, but in Australia it is 76% who believe our current climate change is caused by humans not nature. It is interesting also that Australia was the only country in the world (I think the single, only country) that did not touch sub-prime. Australians looked at it and walked around it like a time bomb. These sorts of differences may be consistent with the fact that Australia is one of a handful of countries that have compulsory voting at all 3 levels of government. I am not saying that makes people more intelligent by standard I.Q. tests, or more wealthy, just more aware, perhaps more aware than you are Joseph.

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    3. OK - I re-read you piece, the suggestions at the end are like apple pie everyone should love them - but a couple parts of your piece are worse than I thought on first reading.
      - The whole concept of community of reason is suspect, what community of reason? do you mean the academic community? or the atheist club that gets together for drinks twice a month, or the readers of Krugman's blog? Or is it anyone who tries to form their own opinions - saying community of reason seems akin to saying community of atheists, the only thing they have in common in non-belief in God(s) - the only thing the community of reason might have in common is an epistemic framework and for the academic community that surely isn't true (see second point)
      - Anti-Intellectualism: here is where we get into the epistemic framework, you protest "scientism", I see this as a rejection of the data + model based framework as the only way for obtaining objective knowledge - if that is true I plead guilty of scientism (I am a physicist), I will never agree with you if you argue outside the realm of models that are in principle observable and testable to others, I might not even bother listening to you, but if you say I know doing x is good and moral, I would say how do you know? if your response is based on some special internal knowledge that only you have, or the opinion of some authority than we are not intellectually on the same planet - large sections of the academy work not based on models and data, but authority on special revealed knowledge, there is no "community" between them and the scientists
      finally Marcus: I have no idea what you are talking about, Australians believe in climate change, good for them! I do too!

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    4. Joseph,

      I defined pretty clearly what I mean by a CoR: the people who consider themselves skeptics, atheists and secular humanists, who go to their respective conferences, and who read their respective magazines and blogs. It certainly is a heterogeneous group, but not an incoherently defined one.

      I also thought I was clear what I meant by scientism: the application of science where it doesn't belong. For instance, answering moral questions (a la Harris). Yes, moral decisions need to be informed by empirical evidence, but they are ultimately determined by values. Moral reasoning is about using values as axioms and deriving the logical consequences of those axioms, proceeding then to reconcile as much as possible situations in which different values conflict. It is not science. For an excellent example of how it works simply pick up one of Michael Sandel's books.

      Delete
    5. Thanks for the reply, but I take issue with your statement "applying science where it doesn't belong", this is an assertion that needs support, if you can't apply empirical arguments all you have left is politics or force - there is nothing to reason with. For example a group may declare the inherent superiority of one particular sex or race or class and develop a set of rules and laws to support this status - what exactly is there to rationally argue about with these people? should we be civil with them? Do you think they would be receptive to scientific data which demonstrates the equivalence of the discriminated groups? Historically the answer is no, this is not some argument between reasonable people - there is nothing to reason about, they do not accept your epistemic foundations. What is the point of discussing "values" with these people? You value equality, they don't they know they are superior, got a problem with that? send in the army. However, evolutionary biology and game theory might provide much more insight in explaining why group x wants to enslave, kill or whatever to group y perhaps in terms of some viable strategy to propagate their genes, maybe these fields could suggest a pill for these people to take to suppress certain receptors in their brains...

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    6. Joseph,

      what you just wrote is a perfect example of scientism. I sincerely hope you'll check out Sandel's books, particularly Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? as an example of just how much there is to rational discourse even outside of science.

      And as far as science itself is concerned, as Daniel Dennett famously put it, there is no such thing as philosophy-free science, only science whose philosophical baggage (including values, btw) is taken onboard unexamined. For an intro to that, I recommend pretty much any book on philosophy of science, especially Ladyman's Understanding Philosophy of Science.

      Delete
    7. Joseph, I could have sworn from your post you were a human climate change denier, well how about that? The point is not whether you belive in climate change, but whether you believe in human created climate change, and your brief reply could not even get that clear, but I assume you belive in human climate change. Good for you!

      The point is that, who cares what the public opinion poll in America says? You cite it as something significant. How significant? About as significant as a massive difference from an opinion poll in a comparable society! If you have no idea what I am talking about, you haven't been able to apply logic, or bother with finding a solution, such as educating the public by participation in the political process.

      Your initial post is an obfuscation, your second totally unclear (good for you that you believe in climate change, but what about human climate change?), and you missed the obvious logical and creative points. What can I say?

      Delete
  66. I never understand why "Rationalist" insist that God dance to
    the tunes they like to play and if He does not, then He must
    not exist.

    Nor do I understand why "Rationalists" don't admit that most of what they claim to know they only believe and hope it to be true.

    I have no idea if China actually has 1 Billion citizens or whether India has more or less. I have always been suspect
    if as many people live in Nigeria as is claimed, maybe the population claim is put forth by Nigerians seeking more economic aid.

    As for Evolutionary Psychology - well Psychologists hardly seem to be all that rational or intelligent so I don't know what adding "Evolutionary" does for them except make them seem
    more 'wise' than they actually are or any human could ever
    hope to be.

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  67. Nice post but throwing the baby out with the bath water somewhat.
    'Anti-intellectualism. This is an attitude of lack of respect for the life of the mind and those who practice it.'
    Hyper mentalism of the schizophrenic type is clearly a danger. Not to differentiate an intellectualism which is hyper mentalist in inspiration from a hypo mentalist, 'expert cognition', type of intellectualism is to fail in one's duty as a public intellectual.
    We might consider Hempel's dilemma & Beenakker's boundary in the context of the Singularity shwarmerei. This gets us back to useful things like discussing P=NP rather than pi jaw about being polite to each other.

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  68. There is no place on the political spectrum to rationally discuss the energy we use and the fuel we need to produce it. Whether it is drilling in the deep ocean or above the Arctic Circle, nuclear power or fracking (rabid defense on the right and vociferous opposition on the left)no opinion traces a straight line to skeptical inquiry. The left ignores James Hansen on the nuclear option because we all know that all nuclear reactors melt down at least four times during 30 years of operation. Fracking is bad and there is nothing in the imagination of science and engineering that can fix this. All pharmaceuticals are high priced poison. The Left's list is getting longer every day.

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  69. Massimo, I am not aware of ANYONE who asserts that evo psych is on a par with evolutionary biology of non-human species that leave a fossil record. You are committing a logical fallacy there, namely, the "straw man" fallacy (I read about it in the book you recommended to me about critical thinking).

    Asserting that is as ridiculous as asserting that evolutionary biology is on a par with Newtonian physics when dealing with objects weighing about a kilogram moving at less that 1 km/hour.

    And as I made clear in my blog http://tinyurl.com/co2rycr it is the wrong standard of comparison -- the important question is, "Is evo psych on a par with mainstream psychology?".

    I think that 99% of the so-called "scientific objections" to evo psych are not really motivated by problems with the science, but rather by objections to conclusions that evo psychs draw, which are at odds with cherished liberal dogmas.

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  70. Bill,

    turn down the rhetoric a couple of notches my friend. I didn't commit any logical fallacy, nor are my assertions "ridiculous."

    Evopsych wants to be a full fledged science. It ain't. It's a science-informed narrative about the human condition. That's the extend of my claim.

    As for your claim that "99% of the so-called "scientific objections" to evo psych are not really motivated by problems with the science, but rather by objections to conclusions that evo psychs draw, which are at odds with cherished liberal dogmas" I think you are simply projecting your own biases. Do you have empirical evidence to back that claim up?

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    1. Indeed it is a science informed narrative about the human condition, but that can probably be narrowed to whether Rationality rules Society and Society survives because it does. We apply Rationality to understand our behaviour, by definition, and it is therefore how we assess the narrative, notwithstanding currently unknown shadow worlds of Freud I referred to in the other post.

      I am optimistic about the future Ev Psych, as I am about the usefulness of tracking Biology from Psycholoogy in patient's accounts by analysts, but only when the reductive basal tracking of Psychology from Biology is completed (and we use psych delving as a way to help confirm it). We are nowehere near that basal tracking, or at least you guys aren't.

      On Ev Psych specifically, even though its is tied into Freud as above, it leans to the Biology (evolutionary) rather than the Psychology side compared to Freud. Some good objections have been made about different rules perhaps applying to the Psychology as a narrative.

      So take that the next step to Rationality, and accepting the umbrella principle of "survival if it fits its circumstances" (circumstances rather than merely hot, cold, wet, dry, high, low environments), and we have the reasonable possibility that we might take our "evolution" into our own hands, wilfully by rationality, on the psychological level refining the biological.

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    2. Psychology is a realm of "reasonable possibility", given we have rationality but not a reductive basis to establish the probability of it all from biology. Biology would be "reasonable probability" as we have a reductive basis for it in regular chemical capacities even if we don't know them all or their context within physics as the truly secure level of "reasonable probability". To make progress, we must accept our limitations but advance nevertheless based on what is "reasonable". We can advance without considering it a potentially wasted effort, as "rationality" is about as benign as you can yet, and maybe as constructive as you can get.

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  71. Massimo,

    I think you may be right about evo psych not being a "full-fledged science", but for that matter, mainstream psychology is no more scientific than evo psych. So name a branch of human psychology that you consider to be "full-fledged science". What's more, I've known a few physicists who were extremely chauvinistic about other fields who would have no hesitation to say that all biology is not "full-fledged science".

    Regarding my claim about the motivations of people who have gone out of their way to attack evo psych, where would I go to collect data to confirm or refute such a notion?

    The Wikipedia article on evo psych notes that pro evo-psychs often complain that anti evo-psychs are leftists, while anti evo-psychs often complain that evo-psychs are right wingers.

    Evo psych is based upon the assumption that human behavior is strongly influenced by normal variation in genes. From what I've seen, that is not an idea you or Steven Jay Gould are fond of, to say the least. Generally, anyone (like David Shenk or Jesse Prinz) who argues for nurture over nature you are willing to give a very generous benefit of the doubt.

    Evo psych concludes that men and women will have substantially different psychologies and possibly substantially different aptitudes at various types of tasks. I know you hate that idea, I remember your participating in your blog in the public lynching of Larry Summers over his speech on sex differences (a speech that didn't offend me at all).

    I've never met an anti evo-psych who wasn't a liberal. I think right-wing Creationists would object to it, but I'm not currently in touch with such people. Evo-psych, from what I can tell, doesn't even show up on their radar.

    I feel I have seen evidence that evo psych offends the crap out of you on a very deep, emotional level. When Alex Nussbaum had a book club meetup on Robert Wright's "The Moral Animal", you were vehemently opposed to the whole proceedings, and even insulted Alex personally. I was the only person in the room who had read both your chapter on evo psych and "The Moral Animal", and you obstructed the event so severely that A: the book was hardly discussed, and B: you never really communicated any of the objections you made in your book.

    If I claim that "Most Creationists are mostly motivated by a desire to support scriptural literalism." where would I go to support or refute such a claim? It is certainly my perception, I have noticed that every Creationist I have encountered was a Fundamentalist in the Abrahamic religions. How much data do I have to provide to support such a claim?

    -- Bill

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    1. Bill,

      do we really have to have yet another discussion on evopsych?

      > for that matter, mainstream psychology is no more scientific than evo psych <

      I beg to differ. Experimental psychological results are highly replicable, what psychology lacks is an overarching theory explaining them. Evopsych tried, but I don't think evolution exhausts things because it doesn't take seriously enough the role of culture.

      > I've known a few physicists who were extremely chauvinistic about other fields who would have no hesitation to say that all biology is not "full-fledged science". <

      Too bad, physicists often make for terrible philosophers of science.

      > Regarding my claim about the motivations of people who have gone out of their way to attack evo psych, where would I go to collect data to confirm or refute such a notion? <

      If you don't have the data, don't make the claim. It's, ahem, unscientific.

      > The Wikipedia article on evo psych notes... <

      Shall we try to raise the level of discourse slightly above Wikipedia?

      > Evo psych is based upon the assumption that human behavior is strongly influenced by normal variation in genes. <

      Nobody doubts that. Evopsych is based on many more strong assumptions, including a high modularity of the human mind (which is only very partially supported by data) and a low plasticity of behavior (which is contradicted by data, especially in other species where it is easier to do experiments). Incidentally, this was my field of research as a biologist, so I do know what I'm talking about:

      http://www.amazon.com/Phenotypic-Plasticity-Nurture-Syntheses-Evolution/dp/0801867886/ref=la_B001IU0D3K_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1345207077&sr=1-7

      > I remember your participating in your blog in the public lynching of Larry Summers over his speech on sex differences <

      He seems to have survived his "lynching" quite well, unfortunately.

      > I've never met an anti evo-psych who wasn't a liberal. I think right-wing Creationists would object to it, but I'm not currently in touch with such people. <

      That sentence contains a contradiction.

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  72. Massimo
    My compliments. You well apply the foundation to Western Civilizatino and the Rule of Law:
    "Love your neighbor as yourself."

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  73. I just discovered this excellent post and this excellent blog. I have a very small niggle.

    You write:

    To find out that too often this turns out not to be the case is a little bit like discovering that moral philosophers aren’t more ethical than the average guy

    Moral philosophers study morality. They don't necessarily practice or even promote it. A moral philsopher is no more likely to be more moral than the average guy than a criminologist is more likely to be a criminal than the average guy. On the other hand rationalists don't study rationality - they promote and purport to practice it.

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  74. Massimo> "do we really have to have yet another discussion on evopsych?"

    Sorry, I had the impression you wanted to discuss it. If you don't want to discuss it, why do you keep attacking it?

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    1. Bill,

      you may have noticed that this post wasn't about evopsych, it just used evopsych as an example of the sort of thing that many skeptics give higher credence than it is due. You, of course, being a good example. But if you wish to continue the discussion, by all means.

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  75. On "anti-intellectualism", I'm not sure where one draws the line. Sometimes one situations where an entire field is full of hogwash, and skeptics specialize in saying this.

    For example, I dismiss what clergy have to say in general -- I think the whole discipline is just defective, and I have little regard for what they have to say. The same for many branches of alternative medicine. Many very bright people have dedicated their whole lives to those two fields, and I can cite no professional or academic credentials to establish myself as a "domain expert" in either field. So am I being "anti-intellectual", or am I just being a normal skeptic here?

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    1. Bill,

      darn good question, and I don't have a simple answer. The academy itself, of course, is far from perfect, and I don't think departments of theology (as opposed to, say, philosophy of religion) belong there. So yes, in those cases your skepticism is well grounded. But note that you have a pretty good chunk of the academy on your side there too. And that still doesn't come any way close to justifying rejection of notions like climate change or evolution.

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  76. Prof. Pigliucci,

    Thank you for the much needed, very important post here.

    I just linked to it from my "baby" blog in an article that dovetails from my own creationist perspective.

    http://un-apologetical.blogspot.jp/2012/08/the-unperceiving-fruit-of-pseudo.html

    As a creationist, however, the one thing that really stood out to me was in A)anti-intellectualism, and then in A1) and A2) which seem blatantly contradictory/hypocritical.

    A1) deplores, rightly, scientism, but then A2) immediately seems to affirm scientism.

    But, again, thanks for your important post.

    Regards,
    Creationist Friend

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  77. I think many of the atheists that make these statements--assuming these are not just the random stupid statements we all make from time to time, but actually reflect their beliefs--are looking for a secular certainty that their religious counterparts derive from their respective faiths. In fact, the notion of atheism seems to based on certainty that has no evidence to support it.

    I am not religious--never have been--and I find both religion and much of philosophy to be wanting. As compelling as many philosophical ideas are at conception, they always seem to end up still-born in my mind, as there are no means to validate them.

    Certainty is a state of mind that many in our species crave, and often can't live without. However, since all scientific conclusions are tentative--limited by the impracticability of observing and probing all that exists at all time points--it seems the only logical conclusion we can come to is that doubt always prevails. I rather enjoy this, as it means the story never ends.

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    1. Why not doubt your doubt? If it's the only logical thing, why does it stop at the original doubt?

      My suggestion is that, since there are things that you presumably don't really doubt, then there are a great number of other truths, even those that cannot be verified by your five senses, that can be pretty confidently inferred.

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    2. Well, I do doubt my doubt. It is quite possible that I am absolutely right on a matter or two. I am just not certain of this...

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    3. ...and I imagine there are a great number of truths, but I am not talking about the existence of truths; I am talking about our ability to determine whether or not we have found them.

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  78. I think of intellectualism as a discipline and methodolgy to observe and analyze the world. As a scientist (physicist-turned-medical-researcher) I try to stay disciplined as much as possible, though I am not always successful. However, when I hear claims from groups who do not try so hard to keep within this discipline--alternative medicine, religion, philosophy at times, Creationists, politics--I often do dismiss them out of hand. I am not passing judgement on their claims--this would require some inquiry on my part--but rather on their methods. Given the enormous number of claims people make all the time, one needs a filter. I don't think it's anti-intellectual to dismiss certain groups who may be right on certain issues, but for the wrong reasons. Hell, there are many academics whose claims I dismiss out of hand because they have a history of sloppy methodology and false claims.

    I guess it is like branding: I always buy Toyotas because, historically, they have employed solid design and manufacturing methods. There is nothing anti-intellectual about choosing reliable sources.

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    1. I like your last paragraph there. I don't think I would have understood you rightly otherwise.

      I'm guessing we're quite different (but who knows) in how we approach reality and truth. It seems to me there are plenty of general principles that are fairly easily and readily recognizable and acceptable, like Toyota design and manufacturing, and that within that truth, and without that truth but relative to it, we can gain a lot of genuine knowledge. Perhaps you look at details first? If I did, I guess I'd adopt your position rather quickly.

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  79. Dear Massimo,

    I used to be “skeptic,” back when the likes of Carl Sagan and, especially, Martin Gardner were the leaders of the movement. What you call the “Community of Reason” has nothing to do with the old skeptics movement. The skeptical movement has betrayed its original aims and has become a litigious and incoherent group of disagreeable individuals. Even worst, it has been responsible for propagating some of the worst pseudoscience the world has ever seen. And the pushers of pseudoscience are not just marginal figures, but mainstream figures like Dennett and Carroll.

    In “Consciousness Explained” (CE,) Dennet embraced the memetics pseudoscience and added to it the idea that consciousness is a recently-developed cultural phenomenon, not present in animals, a notion he borrowed from the excellent crackpot Julian Jaynes, author of “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” The result was one of the most spectacular concentrates of pseudoscience ever.

    Dennett (in CE) explains his ideas thusly: 'Here is the hypothesis I will defend: Human consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes (or more exactly, meme-effects in brains) that can be best understood as the operation of a “von Neumannesque” virtual machine implemented in the parallel architecture of a brain that was not designed for any such activities...'

    I quoted Dennett's actual words verbatim, because these words are worth reading again and again, just to grasp the enormity of Dennett's crack-pottery. First of all, memes are culturally transmitted, so consciousness (according to Dennett) is not present in individuals without language, like the autistic and newborn babies. Second, instead of plainly stating the reasonable (if wrong) thesis that consciousness is a virtual serial machine implemented by “software” on the parallel hardware of the brain, Dennett uses the words “von Neumannesque” virtual machine. Now, a Von Neumann machine is a well-defined concept. “von Neumannesque machine” is a meaningless expression. Dennett's thesis is “not even wrong.”

    This discussion of consciousness is to point-out how, with memetics, the “skeptics” have been responsible of spreading pseudoscience. Another form of pseudoscience that is fashionable among “skeptics” is the multiverse. I will not discuss the multiverse in general, but I will point-out how it is used to spread anti-Quantum nonsense.

    Quantum Mechanics (QM) as described in textbooks and used in practice, is a non-deterministic theory that makes (in general) only probabilistic predictions. I assure you that the interpretation of QM that is used to compute the standard model predictions at LHC is not deterministic. Many anti-QM crackpots unfortunately have arisen lately. However, all sane (and even most insane) interpretations of QM are not deterministic. All deterministic interpretations are based on the multiverse. It works like this. Using the many-worlds idea, the (probabilistic) statement that event A has a 70% probability of happening is turned into the (non-probabilistic) statement that A happens in 70% of the worlds. Simple, no? Also, totally unfalsifiable. In any particular world, it is not possible to predict if A happens or not. In any particular world, the probability of A is still 70%. So what has been gained? Nothing at all: the many-world interpretation of QM is yet another form of pseudoscience.

    Skeptics (Carroll comes to mind) are among the pushers of the multiverse pseudoscience. Like memetics, the multiverse seems to be on the way out, fortunately. However, this failed idea still affects the discussions of determinism. For instance people (like you) still say that “some interpretations of QM are not deterministic.” A correct statement would be that “all interpretations of QM are not deterministic, except for the ones that involve multiple worlds.”

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    1. Much of theoretical physics is pseudoscience (and I say this as someone who did his graduate work in this area). True science requires experimental validation, whereas much of theoretical physics cannot be verified because of practical and/or fundamental limitations. I remember having long arguments about the physical meaning of a wave function, without any satisfying conclusion. All that said, quantum mechanics is as predictive a theory as anything else in the physics world.

      Also, quantum mechanics is deterministic in the sense that, given adequate description of a given system, it can determine which states are possible and what the likelihood is for each state for all time points in the future. Of course, it cannot take initial conditions and forces and predict with 100% certainly what the system will look like at all future times. However, this appears not to be a limitation of quantum mechanics, but rather a fundamental property of nature. That said, we routinely use QM principles to make technologies--such the the technologies that are currently enabling this discussion--that work is very predictable and deterministic ways.

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    2. It is true that consumer equipment based on QM works reliably. This is because it is designed to do so, not because QM is deterministic. Semiconductor devices can work reliably, despite being based on quantum principles: the law of large numbers and redundancy can beat indeterminacy. That said, I have seen a very large and expensive piece of equipment (during my career as an applied-physicist/machine-designer at Los Alamos) that did not work because of quantum indeterminacy.

      On the other side of the coin, there are QM-based devices that only work because QM is indeterministic. These are the quantum cryptography systems that will come on line in the near future – even in consumer applications. As for military applications, you only have to observe that much of the theoretical, experimental and even philosophical research on the foundations of QM is funded by the NSA .

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  80. Another view of the aetheist, in line with your idea about progression to hopeful improvement without ever getting to an absolute (which would be spiritual) is that they do not see the world as spiritualists do, and they ask spiritualists to prove their case (put the burden on them). Aetheists might have a status quo they are willing to change if the spiritualist can give reasoning. If the spiritualist fails to meet the aetheist's satisfaction, the aetheist might say "I do not believe you, therefore I do not belive in God". On that basis, it is justified, but that does not mean God has been proven not to exist. Rather God has not been proven to exist sufficiently to change the aetheist's the status quo in that discussion.

    My view is that the person who questions a spiritualist should immedietely get to the point and ask them if God is "knowable" (knowledge is our highest level of rational satisfaction). If yes, then analyze their reasons and see if they constitute knoiwledge and decide whether you believe them. If no, and the spiritualist is also agnostic (believes in something that cannot be known) and all you can do is move on (fast). You cannot attack it with reasoning and must decide whether to reject God because there is no explanation given, rather than because of an implausible one. In either case, rejecting an argument that God exists is only based on the failings of each spiritualist arguer, so we should say "your idea is of a God that does not exist to my satisfaction" rather than close one's mind to whether another arguer has better ideas about other Gods. Personally I wouldn't bother, but the above may be the logical way to go about it, to keep an open.

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  81. Massimo, I'm surprised you didn't include in your list CoRers who believe that parapsychology is a legit science and has produced some scientific evidence for ESP (which would apply to Richard Wiseman, Ray Hyman, Christopher French, and Carl Sagan among others). I thought you would have since you regard parapsychology as pseudoscience. Has your opinion on that changed recently?

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  82. Maaneli,

    Sagan isn't on the list because it's a list of current leaders, and it wasn't meant to be exhaustive anyway. As for parapsychology, no, I haven't changed my mind. Have you? You should, you know...

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  83. Massimo,

    << As for parapsychology, no, I haven't changed my mind. Have you? You should, you know... >>

    Like Richard Wiseman, I'm still convinced that the empirical evidence accumulated by parapsychology best supports the ESP hypothesis, using the standards of evidence commonly accepted in most areas of science (actually, my position is weaker than Wiseman's, as Wiseman thinks this is the case according to the standards of ANY other area of science). And like Carl Sagan and Chris French, I think that further confirmatory research (using more stringent standards) by the broader scientific community is justified.

    Certainly life would be easier for me if I could be persuaded that there's nothing to parapsychology. Unfortunately, I just can't ignore the statistical evidence I've been exposed to, and no one so far has been able to identify serious enough flaws to invalidate that evidence. But like a good scientist and skeptic, I remain open to the possibility that a decisive non-ESP explanation for the evidence will be found someday.

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    1. We have had this discussion before, so you know where I stand. I also think you are exaggerating the support of people like Sagan and Wiseman, but I haven't talked to the later in a while, and of course the first one is dead.

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    2. If I am exaggerating, then, in the case of Wiseman, what do you make of these comments by him (from an interview a couple years ago)?

      Alex Tsakiris: "Okay. I think that’s going to roll right into the next question I have. I have one question for each of you and then I want to give each of you a chance to respond like we just did. So, Dr. Wiseman, let’s start with you again. Here’s a quote that I think has generated quite a bit of stir and let’s drill into it a little bit. This is you being quoted in the UK’s Daily Mail: “I agree that by the standards of ANY OTHER AREA OF SCIENCE [my emphasis] that remote viewing is proven. That begs the question do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal?”

      Then you went on in a subsequent interview and further refined that by saying: “That’s a slight misquote because I was using the term in more of a general sense of ESP. That is, I was not talking about remote viewing per se, but rather Ganzfeld, etc. as well. I think that they do meet the usual standards for a normal claim but are not convincing enough for an extraordinary claim.”"

      Dr. Richard Wiseman: "First of all, I do actually commend parapsychologists. I count myself as a parapsychologist and carry out that research. That is, I was very much part of that community, not so much now. I do commend them for doing the research and doing it in a systematic way and attempting to be as scientific as possible. That has led us to a basic place which is messy in many ways.

      But if you take the general ESP claim, which might include Ganzfeld and some of the other ESP paradigms as well, I think it’s true – I don’t know there’s any kind of objective way that could be measuring this, but my feeling is if that were a claim about the effect of alcohol on memory, then we’d go, yeah, there’s probably something to it. But the claim here is far more radical than that. It would lead to a massive shift within science. It would overturn most of what we know within psychology. I don’t know about other areas, but certainly within psychology. So for me the evidential bar, as it were, needs to be much higher than that."
      http://www.skeptiko.com/rupert-sheldrake-and-richard-wiseman-clash/


      As for Sagan, yes, the fact that he's dead makes it impossible for us to privately ask him what he believed, so all we have is what he wrote in The Demon Haunted World:

      "At the time of writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, DESERVE SERIOUS STUDY [my emphasis]: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images 'projected' at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation. I pick these claims not because I think they're likely to be valid (I don't), but as examples of contentions that might be true. The last three have at least some, although still dubious, experimental support. Of course, I could be wrong."

      If you feel I'm exaggerating Sagan's position by saying "I think that further confirmatory research (using more stringent standards) by the broader scientific community is justified", please point out where you find the exaggeration.

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    3. Maaneli,

      I really don't think it is productive to rehash this discussion. You have given me your reasons, I have given you mine. Clearly, we ain't moving...

      As for the comments by Sagan and Wiseman, boy are they weak or what? Wiseman is - rightly - saying that even if the current evidence for some paranormal phenomena were comparable to evidence published in standard psychological studies (which I don't think it is), it wouldn't be enough because the claim is extraordinary, and it therefore requires extraordinary evidence for us to accept it and overthrow a lot of science. (Besides, as I already pointed out in my post responding to yours, this may simply mean that some studies published by mainstream psychologists are deficient, which wouldn't really surprise anyone.)

      Regarding Sagan, maybe there were some claims that when he was alive deserved more attention (though, again, I would have disagreed with him even then). They don't now, in my opinion.

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    4. << I really don't think it is productive to rehash this discussion. You have given me your reasons, I have given you mine. Clearly, we ain't moving... >>

      I agree, I just want to be clear about my representation of Sagan and Wiseman.

      << Wiseman is - rightly - saying that even if the current evidence for some paranormal phenomena were comparable to evidence published in standard psychological studies (which I don't think it is), >>

      Wiseman is clearly saying something stronger than that - he's saying that the evidence IS comparable to evidence published, not just in standard psychological studies, but **any other area of science** (which, you may notice, is stronger than *my* claim).

      << it wouldn't be enough because the claim is extraordinary, and it therefore requires extraordinary evidence for us to accept it and overthrow a lot of science. >>

      Provided one can precisely define what would constitute extraordinary evidence, I agree, which is why I said we need more confirmatory research with more stringent standards. So if you agree with Wiseman's position, then by logical extension, you seem to also agree with my position.

      <<< Regarding Sagan, maybe there were some claims that when he was alive deserved more attention (though, again, I would have disagreed with him even then). They don't now, in my opinion. >>

      I of course disagree that they don't now, but fair enough. I wonder though why you think Sagan thought what he did about the evidence in parapsychology. Do you think he was just being sloppy with his critical thinking, or that he may have had well thought out reasons?

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    5. Maaneli,

      where does Wiseman make such a broad statement? The quote your cited only talks about studies such as "the effect of alcohol on memory," which is standard psychology.

      As for Sagan, he liked to be controversial. He once sponsored a AAAS symposium on UFOs. That doesn't mean he believed in UFOs.

      At any rate, I am certainly not bound to believe whatever either Wiseman or Sagan believe.

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    6. In the UK’s Daily Mail (which I quoted above), Wiseman said: “I agree that by the standards of *any other area of science* that remote viewing is proven."

      He later clarified by saying: “That’s a slight misquote because I was using the term in more of a general sense of ESP. That is, I was not talking about remote viewing per se, but rather Ganzfeld, etc. as well. I think that they do meet the usual standards for a normal claim but are not convincing enough for an extraordinary claim.”"

      Note that in his clarification he doesn't deny he was talking about "any other area of science" nor does he say that he was actually just talking about mainstream psychology. If he had intended that, I'm sure he would have said so explicitly.

      Also, when Wiseman says

      "my feeling is if that were a claim about the effect of alcohol on memory, then we’d go, yeah, there’s probably something to it. But the claim here is far more radical than that. It would lead to a massive shift within science. It would overturn most of what we know within psychology. I don’t know about other areas, but certainly within psychology."

      I don't see how that contradicts his comment that ESP is proven by the standards of any other area of science for normal claims. Rather, it seems to me he's just emphasizing that, in his field for example (psychology), while the current body of evidence would be sufficient for a normal claim (an example of which he gives is effects of alcohol on memory), in order for ESP to be accepted in psychology, the standard of evidence needs to be much higher because, if true, he thinks it would overturn most of what we know about psychology. When he says "I don't know about other areas", that logically seems like an implication that he's not sure if other areas (e.g. physics) would necessarily require as much of a higher standard of evidence as psychology. But this implication does not seem to me logically inconsistent with saying that (to paraphrase him) 'ESP is proven by the standards used in any other area of science for normal claims.'

      << As for Sagan, he liked to be controversial. He once sponsored a AAAS symposium on UFOs. That doesn't mean he believed in UFOs. >>

      Indeed, but note I wasn't claiming Sagan believed in ESP, just that he thought (if we take his words seriously) it was worthy of serious scientific study based on the current empirical evidence for it (which is also my position). Maybe Sagan was just messing with people as you imply, but absent evidence of that, it seems reasonable to me to take him at his word. It would be interesting though to ask his wife or someone else he was close to about this.

      << At any rate, I am certainly not bound to believe whatever either Wiseman or Sagan believe. >>

      Oh, certainly. I was just thinking that, since you've said before that you believe in the authority of expertise, then, by pointing out how similar my position is to a prominent CoRer who's a psychologist and self-described parapsychologist (Wiseman), and to none other than Carl Sagan (who of course had lots of expertise as a general critical thinker), that *might* make my position seem slightly more reasonable to you and skeptical others.

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    7. Maaneli,

      if that's what Wiseman said (and I have no reason to doubt your quote is correct) then he is simply wrong, in my opinion and in the opinion of a majority of scientists who have looked into ESP (same goes for Sagan). That's what trusting expertise means: the trust is conditional, and it should be strong only for a broad consensus. You can always find individuals who think otherwise. Of course, sometimes those individuals are correct, but that happens a pretty tiny minority of the times...

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    8. Fair enough re your stance about Wiseman and Sagan.

      << and in the opinion of a majority of scientists who have looked into ESP (same goes for Sagan) >>

      Hmm, is that true? I'm not sure. I'm unaware of any scientific poll about what the majority of scientists who have looked into ESP (and I mean have really looked into it, e.g. reading up on the best empirical evidence put forth by parapsychologists in the published literature) think about it. And we don't really know how many of such scientists there are out there (we know though that it's certainly not many). However, I can list particular scientists I know of who have actually looked into it seriously and have publicly stated positions similar to Wiseman's and Sagan's or stronger: Chris French (CSI Fellow), Ray Hyman (CSI Fellow), Marcello Truzzi (CSICOP co-founder), Dennis Rawlins (CSICOP co-founder), Sam Harris, Robert Rosenthal, Monica Harris, Jessica Utts (who was once a skeptic), Wesley Johnson, Michelle Norris, Eric Suess, David Saunders, Daryl Bem (who was once a skeptic), Robert Sternberg, Donald Hebb, George Price, Harris Friedman, Bernard Carr, Brian Josephson, David Saunders, and Satish Iyengar. And there are more, less prominent scientists I know of.

      In the case of CSI Fellows Wiseman, French, and Hyman, note that they are all professional psychologists who have engaged with parapsychology directly. For example, Wiseman did his PhD at the Koestler Parapsychological Unit under Robert Morris (who was a leading parapsychologist), French is a leading researcher in the growing field called anomalistic psychology (a field which looks for non-psi psychological explanations of claimed psychic experiences), and Hyman is one of the founders of CSICOP and has been the leading critic of parapsychology research since the 1950's. All three of these have also conducted controlled parapsych experiments and witnessed such experiments. Consequently, it seems to me there is reason to think that their opinions should carry greater weight than the opinions of other skeptics who are less informed about the literature.

      Because of the above, it seems to me there is no clear consensus about what the majority of scientists who have looked into the empirical evidence for ESP think about it.

      Delete
    9. Maaneli,

      as I predicted, this conversation is hopeless. Would you care to provide quotes for each of the individuals you list? Otherwise I may start to think you are making stuff up. And the reason I think a majority of practicing scientists doesn't buy into parapsychology is because it's widely considered a pseudoscience (no grants from NSF, no university departments, etc.). Yes, I know it's more complicated than that, but not much.

      Delete
    10. << as I predicted, this conversation is hopeless. Would you care to provide quotes for each of the individuals you list? >>

      I think it would be hopeless only if I couldn't back up any of my claims. Luckily I can. :)

      Here are some quotes:


      1. Chris French (from Reflections of a (Relatively) Moderate Skeptic, p. 54):

      "Since that time, my attitudes have mellowed somewhat and I now prefer
      to think of myself as a moderate skeptic (although I am pretty certain that many
      parapsychologists would not agree!). I am still a conventional theorist, but I am
      very much in favor of the continuation of mainstream parapsychological research.
      Some areas of parapsychology have produced positive results that are a real challenge to critics and such evidence merits (although it rarely receives) serious consideration by the wider scientific community."

      2. Ray Hyman, in his 1995 evaluation of the CIA's remote viewing program:

      "I tend to agree with Professor Utts that real effects are occurring in these experiments ... I want to state that I believe the SAIC experiments as well as the contemporary ganzfeld experiments display methodological and statistical sophistication well above previous parapsychological research. Despite better controls and careful use of statistical inference, the investigators seem to be getting significant results that do not appear to derive from the more obvious flaws of previous research [...This] does suggest that it might be worthwhile to allocate some resources toward seeing whether these findings can be independently replicated."
      http://www.mceagle.com/remote-viewing/refs/science/air/hyman.html

      3. Marcello Truzzi: "He was an Associate Member of the Parapsychological Association."
      http://archived.parapsych.org/marcello_truzzi.html

      "Marcello Truzzi and I met at a Parapsychological Association (PA) convention and hit it off immediately. He was surprised to see that I was so skeptical, and I was surprised that he was so open-minded."
      http://tricksterbook.com/truzzi/Tributes/KrippnerStanley.html

      A skeptical look at Paul Kurtz's analysis of the scientific status of parapsychology.
      Truzzi, Marcello
      Journal of Parapsychology, Vol 44(1), Mar 1980, 35-55.
      http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/1981-20019-001

      4. Dennis Rawlins: I retract my comment about Rawlins supporting parapsych in a way similar to Wiseman and co., as I could not find quotes of him saying such as I misremembered that I had. However, I will note that he did defend positive evidence found for the so-called Mars Effect (a supposedly astrological phenomenon) from its treatment by CSICOP (and resigned from CSICOP because of it):

      sTARBABY by Dennis Rawlins
      http://www.psicounsel.com/starbaby.html

      Delete
    11. 5. Sam Harris: In his book, The End of Faith (p. 41), Harris writes:

      "There also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science [18].
      The dictum that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" remains a reasonable guide in these areas, but this does not mean that the universe isn't far stranger than many of us suppose. It is important to realize that a healthy, scientific skepticism is compatible with a fundamental openness of mind."

      In his footnote 18, he also writes:

      "See, e.g., D. Radin, The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), R. Sheldrake, The
      Sense of Being Stared At: And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind (New
      York: Crown, 2003), and R. S. Bobrow, "Paranormal Phenomena in the
      Medical Literature Sufficient Smoke to Warrant a Search for Fire," Medical Hypotheses 60 (2003): 864-68. THERE MAY EVEN BE SOME CREDIBLE EVIDENCE FOR REINCARNATION [my emphasis]. See I. Stevenson, Twenty Cases Suggestive of
      Reincarnation (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1974), Unlearned
      Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of
      Virginia, 1984), and Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997)."


      6. For Robert Rosenthal and Monica Harris (two prominent Harvard University psychologists and meta-analysis experts): In their1988 report for the National Research Council on the quality of research in five controversial areas of behavioral science, they wrote that, of the five areas “only the Ganzfeld ESP studies meet the basic requirements of sound experimental design”, and “Our analysis of the effects of flaws on study outcome lends no support to the hypothesis that ganzfeld research results are a significant function of the set of flaw variables", and "The situation for the ganzfeld domain seems reasonably clear. We feel it would be implausible to entertain the null [hypothesis] given the combined [probability] from these 28 studies.... When the accuracy rate expected under the null [hypothesis] is 1/4, we estimate the obtained accuracy rate to be about 1/3."
      http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=778&page=2

      Rosenthal has also said himself in a personal communication to psi proponent Chris Carter that “ganzfeld research would do very well in head-to-head comparisons with mainstream research. The experimenter-derived artifacts described in my 1966 (enlarged edition 1976) book Experimenter Effects in Behavioral Research were better dealt with by ganzfeld researchers than by many researchers in more traditional domains.”

      7. Jessica Utts (director of the statistics and applied math department of UC Irvine):

      "It may be that the nonzero effects observed in the
      meta-analyses can be explained by something other
      than ESP, such as shortcomings in our understand-
      ing of randomness and independence. Nonetheless,
      there is an anomaly that needs an explanation. As
      I have argued elsewhere (Utts, 1987), research in
      parapsychology should receive more support from
      the scientific community. If ESP does not exist,
      there is little to be lost by erring in the direction of
      further research, which may in fact uncover other
      anomalies."
      http://www.ics.uci.edu/~jutts/UttsStatPsi.pdf
      http://www.niss.org/content/jessica-utts-0

      Delete
    12. 8. Utts and her colleagues, Norris, Suess, and Johnson, have also authored the following two papers together showing results that support parapsychological evidence:

      THE STRENGTH OF EVIDENCE VERSUS THE POWER OF BELIEF:
      ARE WE ALL BAYESIANS?
      http://www.stat.auckland.ac.nz/~iase/publications/icots8/ICOTS8_PL2_UTTS.pdf

      Must Psychologists Change the Way They Analyze Their Data?
      A Response to Wagenmakers, Wetzels, Borsboom, & Van der Maas (2011)
      http://dbem.ws/ResponsetoWagenmakers.pdf

      Note also that Wesley Johnson is a prominent Bayesian statistician, and in fact Wagenmakers et al. base their conclusions about Bem's data based on one of Johnson's own Bayesian models.

      9. David Saunders:

      "Honorton asked psychometrician David Saunders to write an Ap-
      pendix to his article, evaluating Hyman's analysis.
      Saunders first criticized Hyman's use of a factor
      analysis with 17 variables (many of which were
      dichotomous) and only 36 cases and concluded that
      "the entire analysis is meaningless" (Saunders,
      1985, page 87)"
      http://www.ics.uci.edu/~jutts/UttsStatPsi.pdf

      "Since 1979, many individuals have contributed to the development of DAT. We would first like to thank **David Saunders**, without whose remark this work would not have been. Beverly Humphrey kept the philosophical integrity intact at times under extreme duress"
      http://www.lfr.org/lfr/csl/library/DATjp.pdf

      SAUNDERS, D. R. (1985). On Hyman’s factor analyses. Journal of Parapsychology, 49, 86-88.

      "There were Rider College student Laura Csogi, and support staff Lucy Levitcher and Linda Moore, as well as colleagues who worked elsewhere but formally collaborated in or consulted on PRL research: Daryl Bem, Robert Edelberg, Ed May, Diana Robinson, and **David Saunders**."
      http://www.biomedsearch.com/article/Psychological-Research-Laboratories/14527227.html

      10. Daryl Bem - Mentions in this panel discussion at Harvard how he was initially a skeptic about ESP and was approached by Honorton to evaluate the PRL ganzfeld research in the 1980's, which led him to change his mind once he saw the quality of the methodology and the results produced:

      Psi and Psychology: The Recent Debate
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Tdiu5kwjKs

      I'll finish the rest later tonight.

      Delete
    13. 11(?). Robert Sternberg: In regards to the publication of the Bem-Honorton 1994 paper, Bem writes:

      "Chuck died on November 4, 1992. Nine days later our article was accepted for publication, with all four external referees--including Hyman--recommending publication. One of the referees added, "I think this paper may well become a Psych. Bull. classic." In his covering letter, **Sternberg** wrote: "This is a blockbuster article, and one that should generate great interest from the field.... You should look at this rapid acceptance as an indication of how important I think the article is!"
      http://www.biomedsearch.com/article/Ganzfeld-experiment/14890627.html

      12. Donald Hebb: In 1951 psychologist Donald Hebb wrote

      “Why do we not accept ESP [extrasensory perception] as a psychological fact? [The Rhine Research Center] has offered enough evidence to have convinced us on almost any other issue … Personally, I do not accept ESP for a moment, because it does not make sense. My external criteria, both of physics and of physiology, say that ESP is not a fact despite the behavioral evidence that has been reported. I cannot see what other basis my colleagues have for rejecting it … Rhine may still turn out to be right, improbable as I think that is, and my own rejection of his view is—in the literal sense—prejudice.”
      http://books.google.com/books?id=E3EzxyOufbgC&pg=PA251&lpg=PA251&dq=donald+hebb+parapsychology&source=bl&ots=OcnQjNz4Vw&sig=yBmdBSwPshCfkHG0XeLJcx3mqsk&hl=en#v=onepage&q=donald%20hebb%20parapsychology&f=false

      13. George Price: As a research associate at the Department of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, he published an article in Science in 1995 that began:

      “Believers in psychic phenomena … appear to have won a decisive victory and virtually silenced opposition. … This victory is the result of careful experimentation and intelligent argumentation. Dozens of experimenters have obtained positive results in ESP experiments, and the mathematical procedures have been approved by leading statisticians. … Against all this evidence, almost the only defense remaining to the skeptical scientist is ignorance.”

      But Price then argued, “ESP is incompatible with current scientific theory,” and asked:

      “If, then, parapsychology and modern science are incompatible, why not reject parapsychology? … The choice is between believing in something ‘truly revolutionary’ and ‘radically contradictory to contemporary thought’ and believing in the occurrence of fraud and self-delusion. Which is more reasonable?”

      http://www.echonyc.com/~horn/unbelievable/?p=2243

      Delete
    14. 14. Harris Friedman (in his contribution to Debating Psychic Experience):

      "In contrast to the wealth of experience in parapsychology shared by SK in his comments, I see myself as staunchly agnostic toward psi and have only participated in a few studies in the area, none of which have been published....In this regard, I will share one limited experience in parapsychological
      research in which I found strong evidence for telepathy in a study of U.S. preteens
      (Friedman, 2010). If I had found a similarly strong result within a mainstream
      research area, I would have unhesitatingly published it. However, because of various factors (e.g., my then mentor warning me that publishing this investigation
      could be a career ender for me as a budding academic), this study was relegated
      to the file drawer."
      http://www.atlanticuniv.edu/harris-friedman.html

      15. Bernard Carr (theoretical astrophysicist, former PhD student of Stephen Hawking, one of the pioneering developers of black hole physics):
      http://www.maths.qmul.ac.uk/~bjc/esalen2010.pdf
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Carr

      16. Brian Josephson (Nobel Laureate in condensed matter physics):

      "We know from the laser that it is possible under certain circumstances, even at room temperature, for quantum entanglement and coherence to override decoherence effects. We propose that biosystems have learnt to 'manage' some form of quantum entanglement, i.e. to acquire some control over what entangled states will emerge, and how such emergent states will behave. Under sufficient control, such states could act as non-local 'message boards' with which particular biological agents could connect, and then manipulate as appropriate. This scenario captures at least some aspects of the claimed ESP phenomenon, and suggests that paranormal phenomena deserve more serious consideration by science than is the case presently."
      http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~sai/cultbias_jos.html

      17. I mentioned Satish Iyengar, but I got him mixed up with his colleague, Joel Greenhouse (Iyengar/Greenhouse are famous in statistics and meta-analysis circles for developing a more accurate method of estimating the number of unreported studies for a given meta-analysis):

      "Professor Utts should be congratulated for her
      courage in contributing her time and statistical
      expertise to a field struggling on the margins of
      science, and for her skill in synthesizing a large
      body of experimental literature. I have found her
      paper to be quite stimulating, raising many inter-
      esting issues about how science progresses or does
      not progress." (p. 389)
      http://www.ics.uci.edu/~jutts/UttsStatPsi.pdf

      18. Forgot to mention Morris Freedman (a neuroscientist at University of Toronto), who did a micro-PK RNG study with skeptic Stanley Jeffers (who's also a CSI Fellow). Then not only got a positive and significant result in the first experiment, but they did a follow up experiment and replicated their significant finding (Freedman told me via email that he's planning to do more research on this, because he's intrigued by his own findings, which he was not expecting):

      http://www.scribd.com/doc/78204318/Morris-Freedman-et-al-Effects-of-Frontal-Lobe-Lesions-on-Intentionality-and-Random-Physical-Phenomena

      Delete
    15. 19/20/21/22/23. I also forgot to include the prominent cognitive psychologist, Jonathan Schooler, who gave a talk on parapsychology and openly expressed his support of the field in that video above of the panel discussion at Harvard (Psi and Psychology: The Recent Debate). Also, I forgot to include the Harvard psychologist, Richard Hackman, who made his support of the field clear in that same panel discussion. Also, I know three very prominent theoretical quantum physicists (two of them are widely respected in the physics community) who have a secret interest in this area, one of which admitted it to me privately at a conference, and the other two of whom I was told about their involvement by a couple parapsychologists.

      Finally, notice that in the above examples, the extent to which a scientists supports further research and more serious attention from the broader scientific community is a direct function of how much literature and research they have been involved in. To me, that's not a coincidence, and notice how many concessions of these types there are from either skeptical or agnostic but open-minded scientists who looked at the literature.

      << And the reason I think a majority of practicing scientists doesn't buy into parapsychology is because it's widely considered a pseudoscience (no grants from NSF, no university departments, etc.). >>

      But the fact that it's widely considered a pseudoscience doesn't tell us whether or not that judgment is based on a careful reading of the literature, or based on mere prejudice and misunderstanding from most mainstream behavioral scientists in those grant agencies and university departments. In fact, in my field of physics, it is also true that the NSF and university departments in the U.S. and most other countries don't support or even consider grants for research on the foundations/interpretations of quantum mechanics. That's been true for the past 80 years or so, and only recently (i.e. the past 10 years) has the situation slightly improved. By your logic, that means we can safely conclude that quantum foundations research is pseudoscience and that there's nothing worth investigating. But that's just not true. In fact, the main reason (in my experience, and in the experience of many of my colleagues) for why such grants are rejected is simply because most physicists on grant agencies are not foundations experts and as a result have basic misunderstandings about alternative interpretations and what Bell's theorem implies (e.g. they think all possible hidden-variable theories have been disproven by Bell's theorem). Also, many of them assume (wrongly) that none of the interpretations yield any new predictions, nor do they help advance calculational techniques. Likewise, my experience is that parapsychology is dismissed (in spite of the evidence) for very similar non-rational reasons.

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    16. Maaneli,

      I commend you for your thoroughness, though not for your sense of humor: my request was in jest.

      You can cobble together all the quotes you want (some from the '50s?? Some from wackos, like Bem; some from less and less credible sources, like Harris), it will do the same job as a collection of quotes from the Discovery Institute.

      The fact remains that whenever I had the time to seriously look into the literature I have been thoroughly unconvinced as a scientist, that skeptics sometimes say things to appear more ecumenical (as I said, Sagan had a habit of that), that much standard research in psychology is really below par, and that the scientific community at large still doesn't find anything compelling in ESP after more than a century.

      This will be my last comment on the topic, which is already way far from what this post was about.

      Delete
  84. It's stunning to see how well this comment thread proves Massimo's original point. As a response to his original idea, I'd like to just suggest that perhaps some of those who are drawn to skepticism are not so much interested in rationality as characterized by being emotionally or politically attracted to positions such as atheism, libertarianism, and so on, which have some common ground with skepticism but aren't quite the same thing. These seem for some reason to be largely men.

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  85. Massimo,
    Thanks for this post, sir.
    A skeptic with values like yours can be engaged in the realm of ideas, rather than the cesspool such interactions usually devolve to.
    I shall use you as a counter-example to the uninformed polemics that some of my skeptical counterparts rely on to 'score points' during conversations for/against God.
    You seem to be a most reasonable man, who can disagree agreeably. May your tribe increase.
    -Wes Walker

    ReplyDelete