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.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Speaking of Faith, the nonsense continues

I have commented before on one of the most annoying broadcasts from National Public Radio: Krista Tippett’s “Speaking of Faith.” Tippett is by far not the most egregious offender to rationality I can think of, and she really tries to be as open minded as possible (though remember Carl Sagan’s warning that being too open minded carries the risk of your brain falling out…). Still, perhaps because the show airs on my local NPR station on Saturday mornings and it is the first thing I hear when waking up during the weekend, I tend to be quite annoyed by it.

For instance, the January 29 show featured author Mary Doria Russell on the topic of “The Novelist as God.” Hmm, the link between being an author and being a god seems pretty tenuous (besides the obvious large ego involved), but proceed, please. According to the introductory notes by Tippett: “Our guest has grappled with large moral and religious questions on and off the page. We discover what she discerned — in the act of creating a new universe — about God and about dilemmas of evil, doubt, and free will. The ultimate moral of any life and any event, she believes, only shows itself across generations. And so the novelist, like God, she says, paints with the brush of time.” Whatever. What really caught my attention is Russell’s invocation of cosmology and her twisting it to generate a superficially attractive but in fact entirely nonsensical metaphor regarding god.

Russell said that cosmologists think that the universe is expanding, but that eventually it will contract again, leading to an infinite cycle of expansion and contraction. This is actually not the case. The idea of the “big bang-big crunch” cycle was briefly entertained by theoretical physicists like Stephen Hawking, but abandoned now that it seems clear that the universe’s expansion is actually accelerating.

But what annoyed me is not that Ms. Russell’s cosmology is out of date. After all, she is a novelist, not a cosmologist (though if you are going to talk about science on a nationally broadcasted radio show you might want to make the effort of getting the basic facts straight). It’s what she made of this alleged alternation of expansions and contractions that made me unfavorably contemplate all those who attempt to exploit the prestige of science to propagate their own metaphysical non sequiturs. You see, for Russell this cosmic cycle is nothing less than “God’s breathing”! What on earth could that possibly mean? Surely she doesn’t want to imply that god is an animal-like entity who actually breaths as part of its daily physiological functions. Besides, what would god breath, cosmic dust? And in and out of what, parallel universes?

Ok, I know, she meant this whole thing poetically and metaphorically. Right, but this is a metaphor for what, exactly? Metaphors are supposed to provide us with insight into complex matters. What sort of insight can one derive from thinking of the (false, as it turns out) expanding and contracting cycles of the universe as “God’s breath”? As for poetry, again, the best poetry isn’t made of the gratuitous juxtaposition of imagery, it is meant to let us appreciate beauty and construct meaning in life. I guess I fail to see the beauty of the idea of god’s breathing, and I certainly am not able to derive any meaning from that thought.

I’m sure Ms. Russell was a good paleoanthropologist before retiring, and is now an excellent novelist (including “The Sparrow” and “Children of God”). However, all I got last Saturday morning from listening to her and Krista chatting in my ear before breakfast was irritating fluff. Fortunately, the sound of my espresso machine soon drowned out the nonsense and I resumed my familiar quest of making sense of life rationally while enjoying what it has to offer, beginning with a nice cup of hot cappuccino.


  1. What is interesting is that the Minnesota Atheists "Atheists Talk" show is on from 9 - 10 central time on Sunday mornings, and when I leave the studio I her show is on Minnesota Public Radio from 10-11. It really can be a jolt to the system.

    I have enjoyed a few of her shows, including when she had Jennifer Michael Hecht on as a rebroadcast from 2005; and Dr. Epstein, the humanist chaplain for Harvard.

    More often, though, the subjects are treated as like you say, fluff that merely reflects the interviewee, and she never ever challenges them.

    She seems to be happy to act merely as a conduit. At least when I interview a guest who is religious, like Stephen Matheson, we try to put him or her on the spot.

  2. Of course you don't see the beauty of the metaphor of god's breathing if you don't believe in god, even as a metaphorical concept. Metaphors need to make connections to something you can already relate to. They should be judged according to the connections they make for those people who relate to both halves, not according to whether connection to their components is universal or not. Metaphors are not universally good or bad, but they need to be relevant to their audience.

    Which, BTW, is a gripe I have about the popularity of using physics in religious metaphors. Given the extent of public understanding of subtle scientific concepts, they just don't seem good choices as explanatory metaphors.

  3. I agree with Mike's assessment on her never ever challenging guests. Worse, this seems to lifted up as a gold standard of the program: only the most open-minded of guests ever seem to be invited. Tippett has occasionally revealed herself to divide nontheists and the like into good and bad categories base solely on whether or not they'll challenge someone else's beliefs.

    I can't for the life of of me understand how anyone can find benefit in the program. Occasionally I learn something about someone else's point of view, but rarely will that point of view be representative of anything more than one person's "spiritual quest" (whatever that's even supposed to mean).

  4. Actually, the expansionist universe can be much more elegantly explained by other physiological function of god:


  5. I caught part of this interview on my why to the plumbing supply store Sunday morning. Ordinarily I relish most everything NPR does, but this notion of the cyclical cosmological model being analogous to the breath of God. I seriously almost vomited all over my steering wheel!

    Seriously, I'll take a committed young-earth creationist to this ooey-gooey touchey-feeley post-modernist non-sense ANY day!

  6. SR:
    Liked your comments on Sully. Thought that was pretty cool myself. My husband is a good pilot, but all pilots aspire to be just exactly that level headed.

    There was another similar miracle landing in Darwin's Harbor in Australia earlier this week.

    Gods way of saying, I think, "You can call this place Darwin's Harbor, or anything else you like for that matter, BUT I AM THE ONE who creates things and tears them down. Allows people to live and tho every last one will eventually die, that'll happen only when "I" will it".

    Amazingly, for all that evolution is purported to be able to solve and select out of the genome, the death rate is still aprox. one per person.

    Nothing ooey-gooey touchy-feely about that, is there.

  7. I appreciate your comment!

    You said:

    BUT I AM THE ONE who creates things and tears them down. Allows people to live and tho every last one will eventually die, that'll happen only when "I" will it"

    Allows people to live? How perfectly good of Him. Even more gracious that He GAVE us vaccinations after untold millions died from
    infectious disease! Why is it He gets the credit for everything good and none of the blame for things that go wrong?

    for all that evolution is purported to be able to solve and select out of the genome, the death rate is still aprox. one per person.

    I have no idea whatever that simple truism has to do with Evolutionary theory.


  8. The truism means that evolution is no solution to anything. It is the "unsolution".

    BTW Vaccinations are questionable at best. Law of diminishing returns.. you wait and see. God may allow us some reprieve for our bad behavior to save some innocent people, but ultimately, because of freewill, God is only a certain % responsible for whatever the outcome happens to be.

    Chevrolet builds an SUV, but does that make Chevrolet ultimately responsible for every potential death that has ever occurred in one of their units? No way. They create the car or SUV(and sometimes even step in and make em better and prevent deaths) but they do not truly cause the accidents just because they created a vehicle one could have an accident in. People cause the accidents.

    Whereever do you get that God gets the credit for everything "good"? Seems most often that just the opposite is true.

    My sense is that, more often than not, people want someone to be responsible...and it ain't gonna be them!

  9. BTW Vaccinations are questionable at best. Law of diminishing returns.. you wait and see.

    Could you provide a sound reason-based explanation for that statement? Given the FACT that polio, small pox among others have almost been wiped out by vaccination AND the new resurgence of once all but extinct diseases like measles, which has been shown to be a result of the decrease in herd immunity because of anti-vaccination propaganda.

    The freewill defense is hollow because it doesn't really exist. In the magisterial realm you believe exists God knows all, sees all. He KNEW what would happen in the Garden so it could be argued that Adam & Eve were setup to fail. So there really isn't freewill in a situation that is tailor made to induce the subjects to fail. In which case what's the point? Divine amusement or divine inferiority complex?

    Chevrolet builds an SUV, but does that make Chevrolet ultimately responsible for every potential death that has ever occurred in one of their units? No way.

    Not a really analogous situation in that human manufacturers are admittedly fallible and can make designs that fail.

    You claim your God is perfect and here WE are the positive paragons of imperfection if the Bible is to be believed. So either God knowingly created Adam & Eve imperfect and then imposed an impossible standard knowing full well they couldn't live up to it OR God didn't know what would happen and now is supplying an after the fact bandaid (redemption by Jesus Christ) to make up for His failure to foresee our imperfection. Which of these two scenarios is more palatable to you? The omniscient, omnipotent but far from benevolent perfectionist or the benevolent incompetent fly-by-the seat of his holy pants under achiever?

    more often than not, people want someone to be responsible...and it ain't gonna be them!

    You raise an important issue of life in the western world today. Personal responsibility. it is very true that we indeed reap what we would sow. But sometimes BAD things happen to decent people through no doing of their own. Plagues, famines, natural disasters. Surely, God could ease these trials couldn't He?


    PS I don't want to monopolize Massimo's blog with our little back and forth here. If you want you can respond to me directly:

    robertmark68 at comcast.net

  10. Thanks and I wouldn't mind, but Gmail is trying to post my entire name on the front of my email address for some reason. Its like a new thing and I can't get rid of it. When I figure it out, I'll tell you why we can't vaccinate everything within a 4000 million mile radius for every living biological potential threat.

    For instance, this one small thing: Did you know that children that are NOT vaccinated for chickenpox confer immunity against Shingles for older people? Children who are vaccinated do not. Doesn't that make you wonder how that conference of immunity to diseases works it's way into other areas of our lives?

  11. Caliana

    You said:

    Did you know that children that are NOT vaccinated for chickenpox confer immunity against Shingles for older people?

    Actually I have read something about that recently AND there MIGHT be something to it. I DO believe that certain pharmaceutical companies may indeed be trying to profit by creating vaccines for problems that may not be that serious. That said to make a blanket statement that ALL vaccines are dangerous is irresponsible. My wife and i had a long discussion last year about whether or not we should have my eldest daughter vaccinated with the HPV virus vaccination known as Gardisil. Having known some one who did die from a cervical cancer we decided that we would offer it to our daughter and see how she felt (she's 14). We researched it and decided the risk vs. reward was such that it was a good thing. so Libby decided to under go the three shots over 6 months.

    Vaccinating against chicken pox DOES see somewhat suspect to me. My two brothers got the disease when we were younger. My mother tried to ensure that I would get it too but I never manifested any symptoms. So either i am naturally immune or my case was so slight it didn't register. Given what i have read i am unconvinced chicken pox is worth vaccinating over. Small pox and polio on the other hand... come on! Those two diseases are HORRIBLE and anything that could be done to beat them back to extinction is worth it!


  12. I honestly do wonder about this as we are in Mexico often and around a lot of people who have been vaccinated for absolutely nothing. The gov is doing more to see that more people are vaccinated, but, it remains that many in the back country are not. Are we harming them in some respect..are they compromising us in a different way? I'd say, probably, yes.

    I agree that vaccinations need to be done advisedly, but we had one child, Savannah, who did very poorly with the MMR vaccination done right before entering school. And the fam dr we had then just blew me off when I tried to contact him over how sick she was the night after the vaccination. Her arm was hot and swollen, and she has been far more immune compromised after that point than the our other kids - catches things easier is slower to get rid of it..etc.

    I especially don't like the combo vaccinations. Sometimes I feel like the med establishment does not know what its doing really, but shoves junk like this off on children anyway.

    The HPV vaccine? I know the place and people who worked on this,(plus the unsuccessful HIV vac) and still really cautious of this. It covers approx. 4 out of 140-160 strains. I just hope it does not give women false confidence.

  13. "Those two diseases are HORRIBLE and anything that could be done to beat them back to extinction is worth it!"

    For some reason I doubt we can make them extinct. And if we do, why were they here in the first place? Like chicken pox, do they serve a greater biological purpose that we do not yet understand?

    My father-in-law had Shingles last year that he COULD NOT get rid of and was terribly painful for him. He was better in three days after having had them two to three months when I started treating him with three particular things.

    For some reason his docs couldn't come up up with this method of treatment. Aren't these people paid to know things?

  14. Do atheists/humanists and any other organization that is not supposedly religious wish that religion(especially Christianity) would be thrown off the face of the earth? Do they believe the world would be better without religion?

  15. Humanism is not a religion, nor does it seek to deter people from religions or diminish their value. Humanism is simply an additional set of life ideals by which all people can go beyond discussion toward acting and nurturing our collective recognition of common interests and welfare ... recognizing the world around us and nature as the most important guide that all dieties are drawn from. At this point in mankind's evolution it is critical that our course better emphasize and encourage our coming together around truthful and real ideals and objectives, as opposed to our historic bias to our differences ... and differring choices in beliefs. SOF has on ocassion engaged in discussing commonalities and our possible road to a more peaceful future but not even to a point that anyone could uphold as equal-time. As a vital public service, that is dangerous and really should be corrected.


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