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, September 26, 2013

Massimo's Picks

by Massimo Pigliucci

* Commenting threads online: the good, the bad, the ugly, and how to manage them.

* Arguing about arguments: the sophistic vs the philosophical approach to how and why to argue.

* Kansas University suspends faculty without due process because he has offended the NRA. My exercise in freedom of speech: fuck the NRA.

* Philosopher joins the ACLU in lawsuit against the NSA surveillance program.

* The importance of the afterlife (not what you might think).

* Jonathan Franzen's rant against modernity is pompous, annoying, and pretty close to the target.

* Michael Shermer hands in his Libertarian card.

* This review of Dawkins' "Appetite for Wonder" didn't stimulate my appetite for reading it. But that's just me.

* Gary Gutting provides yet another good response to Steven Pinker's annoying and patronizing essay.

* Why philosophy is far from being a ridiculous pursuit.

* The banality of systemic evil and why we should be very worried about the surveillance state.

* University of Oregon to faculty: you belong to me!


  1. Some good reads Massimo, thanks.

    As for Shermer's choice of science over beliefs, I prefer truth, it's absolute. =

  2. Replies
    1. They're back! I'll try to do them more regularly...

  3. @ Massimo

    So, what view of argumentation do you think you employ - the rhetorical view or the epistemic view?

    1. You've got to be kidding me. Unfortunately, I know you ain't.

    2. @ Massimo

      I'm not. What form of argumentation do you believe you employ? Is it the rhetorical form? the epistemic form? Or, maybe it's some other form like playing devil's advocate (a common form employed by skeptics)?

    3. @ Massimo

      > Epistemic. <

      I see. So, you really believe that you have no other agenda here other than a pure and unadulterated quest for the truth?

  4. I missed the Shermer piece. He's still, overall, an economic libertarian, to be sure, but at least he's moderated. Now, will Penn & Teller, among others, follow? I doubt it.

    I had also missed the Franzen piece. And the book sounds very good.

    Bora's piece on comments online gets new light as framed by PopSci's announcement that it is now making its website comment free.

    I had seen the afterlife column. Very good. Gutting's on Pinker was also good.

  5. Professor Pigliucci,

    Here is another good one:

    "With astonishing prescience, he diagnosed the sickness of our time: a dangerous intoxication with the knowledge and power given by science, mixed with an inability to accept the humanly meaningless world that science has revealed.

    Faced with emptiness, modern humanity has taken refuge in schemes of world improvement, which all too often – as in the savage revolutions of the 20th century and the no less savage humanitarian warfare of the 21st – involve mass slaughter. The irrationalities of earlier times have been replaced by what Leopardi calls “the barbarism of reason”.

    Read here:


  6. Thanks for the links. I'm curious what you like about Franzen's essay. Despite a lot of pre-emptive apologies and evasive moves, it seems to me to be an extremely self-conscious complaint (and if those aren't hallmarks of modernity, I don't know what is) that writers don't get paid enough, that he's going to die, and that people aren't likely to remember him that long. Add to it his silly objection, not to the Mac, but its commercials, and I'd say it's no surprise that he values modernity exactly as much as it values him. No, our culture isn't perfect, but culture evolves, like organisms, in a way that is neither worse nor better, but eminently appropriate for its own epoch. I think it's cool that Rushdie's on Twitter, and I bet he's remembered longer for it.

    1. I think people who point out that we've always been complaining about innovation grossly underestimate the import of the currently ongoing changes. The likely destruction of the publishing and newspaper industries is not going to be good, so Franzen is right to worry about it. And the sight of people going out to dinner together but paying little attention to each other is indeed disheartening.

    2. Well, I know we just have different reactions here. And I don't want to belabor the point, but, yes, I see nothing novel here. I know Louis CK is getting a lot of positive response to his recent joke about this. Like all good comedians, he knows how to turn a popular sentiment to his advantage. But I'm just not concerned. As a father, I think it's my job to be at least as interesting as the tech. I think I can do it. I also think it's good that my kids can get an outside opinion easily. When we look down at our devices, we are connecting to other people, after all. Technology is a human thing for humans. Unlike CK, I think we CAN learn empathy online. Thanks to tech, we can also find like minded people and learn new things. These devices allows almost anyone, not just the rich, to be cosmopolitan. No, it's not all good, and certainly a problem for those who have compulsive issues, but the devices are not distorting our nature. They are just doing a darn good job of satisfying it. You, CK, and Franzen benefit from this technology so much. I can't imagine why you would want to bite the hand that feeds you and allows you to reach so many.

    3. You seem to be looking at this a bit black and withish. Even Franzen is very clear that he is no Luddite. But there is a good possibility that you - like many others - are overestimating the good and underestimating the bad. I seriously doubt the whole concept of tech-mediated empathy, and it seems to me somehow contradictory to praise a device that allows you to "connect" with a stranger on the other side of the world while at the same time ignoring the person sitting right in front of you, with whom you are allegedly sharing a meal.

      And the problem is much more serious when it comes to the destruction of the publishing and newspaper industries. Not only popular rating systems by users are no substitute for thoughtful reviews by professionals, they are easily highjacked by companies who flood the system with fake ratings, rendering it worse than useless.

    4. Massimo ... totally agree with you. I even have a tag/label on my blog, "the dark side of the Internet." I was very disappointed earlier this year in noticing that Jaron Lanier appears to have gone over to that dark side.

  7. The post on "commenting threads" reminds me: Before blogs, Facebook, etc. there was Usenet. Google Groups acquired Usenet in 2001 with posts going back to May, 1981 [ google.com/googlegroups/archive_announce_20.html ]. These were (and are) basically nothing but commenting threads, and I don't know how much has changed since 1981 (except the percentage of people involved).

    On Michael Shermer, I find it odd that someone can self-identify as both a "skeptic" and an "econ-libertarian" (called a religious cult by Paul Krugman).

  8. I thought Gutting was doing pretty well until he said
    "Here Pinker ignores the numerous religious thinkers, from Augustine to John Paul II, who have accepted an evolutionary account of human origins, maintaining that the process itself is the work of a creative God."

    Augustine had an evolutionary account of human origins?
    Which part of evolutionary theory includes a god's creativity? I think I must have missed that lecture.

    1. I think there is Catholic apologetics that appear in every Gary Gutting article in The Stone.

      But there is one place scientists and humanists are meeting: at the computer (in the adoption of computational models).

    2. "Which part of evolutionary theory includes a god's creativity? I think I must have missed that lecture."

      Evolution theory is a creation theory of intelligent design. And if God is One, and One is All, then Darwin is One too. So then, out of One's own creativity, call it God, the Universe, One or All, evolution or creation was born. =

    3. Oh, Philip is totally right about Gutting's apologetics.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.