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.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Massimo's picks

* A brief video discussion among a journalist, a philosopher and a scientist about what truth is.

* Thoughtful post about why religious discourse seems to be conducted in a different way from discourse about any other sort of nonsense.

* Paul Krugman on the predictably dire consequences of an uneducated America.

* Find out what happens to your brain just before you die, and why it may explain so-called near-death out-of-body experiences.

* An insightful analysis of the GOP's opposition to hate crime protections. Turns out they are in favor only of protecting that which is an "immutable characteristic," you know, like sex, race... and religion! (But not gender preferences.)

* This just in! My new book, Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk, is now available for pre-ordering at Amazon.

* Interesting interview with Richard Dawkins, who sounds remarkably even tempered, and yet manages to diss philosophers anyway.

* Yet another bizarre story about the Large Hadron Collider: now two physicists think that god (or someone from the future) is trying to stop the experiment, because he doesn't like us making a Higgs boson. Hmm, sounds familiar, though the old version included snakes and apples...


  1. "A pair of otherwise distinguished physicists have suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather."


    That is pretty common I think when people have to spend much of their life thinking through odd (sort of) abstract things. My husband has done some dot dept work as machinist and pilot for a guy with several phds. On one level he knows a lot and seems quite remarkable on another he's pretty much off the chart. ???!!! I worry about him honestly.

    There might be something to be said tho for the idea that there are some things (as the Bible says-quoted the scripture on this recently) that specifically are designed to belong to man and mystery's that belong to God. And possibly these guys actually sort of have sense when they are crossing that boundary?

    Just a thought

  2. Or ...

    Wait and See



  3. Hehe. Brilliant choice of a title.

  4. Thanks for feeding my head today. Well, putting up signposts to the cafeteria, anyway.

    Regarding the Dawkins' "dis" of philosophers:

    What particular expertise would you say philosophers do have to bring to bear on questions about the existence of the supernatural? I ask out of curiosity and genuine interest, not as a challenge. Is it something extracurricular to the tools scientific inquiry brings to bear on them, or is this a case where both disciplines carry the same tools in their kits?

    Actually, I have to admit I may be in pretty murky territory even by asking the question. I have no idea whether "supernatural" in this context is more than a general term intended to cast a net over a locus of ideas of questionable phenomenal verifiability (i.e. astrology, Tarot readings, the efficacy of prayer, et al.), in which case the etymology of the word "supernatural" is unfortunate for what we're actually talking about, but I understand the idea that they can be addressed as scientific questions due to their empirical testability. But I wonder what a philosopher might contribute that a scientist wouldn't.

    In my view, science's relation to philosophy can be seen in roughly the same fashion that engineering relates to science - that is, in each case the former is the targeted application of the latter, or conversely, the latter provides the context and surveys the limits of the former.

  5. Mike, I think I more/less agree with your assessment. This interview seems interesting considering he seems to be redefining himself. The notion of him "charming" philosophers after trampling into metaphysics last book is funny. What is really funny is someone calling him an accommodationist when he started the name-calling with the less-friendly "Neville Chamberlain atheist".

  6. Massimo says that Dawkins "disses" philosophers. This is what Dawkins actually says:

    "I think they’re pretty much related. Questions about the existence of the supernatural are actually scientific questions. I don’t think philosophers have any particular expertise to bring to bear."

    What a diss? Dawkins' statements is accurate as far as I'm concerned, since the whole notion of the supernatural is incoherent rubbish. But even if you take Massimo's word for it that the concept of the supernatural makes sense, this just isn't a "diss". A diss would be a statement that is more talk and less walk, more bent on bringing down a person or group of people than on making a real point. If you want to know what a diss is, read the sorts of things that Pigliucci says about Richard Dawkins in his blog.

  7. Addendum:

    The term "supernatural" can be interpreted in the heavy way, ie "beyond sense, beyond definable behavior, beyond quantification". This is incoherent.

    It can also be interpreted in the sense of "beyond the physical". This is not incoherent.

    The issue at hand here is this: most claims about the supernatural boil down to truth claims that should be assessed like other truth claims: scientifically.

  8. Mike, jerm,

    Dawkins insists in considering the supernatural amenable to scientific investigation. He just doesn't seem to understand that science cannot possibly investigate supernatural phenomena. In other words, he doesn't understand (or care to understand) epistemology, a branch of philosophy.

    Philosophers are better equipped at dealing with supernatural claims precisely because they can use epistemology, logic, and metaphysics to show that claims of intelligent design and the like are nonsense. At the Dover trial, the testimonies that the Judge used most heavily in his final opinion were those of two philosophers, Barbara Forrest and Robert Pennock, and for good reasons.


    I don't diss Dawkins, I criticize him and give reasons for my criticisms. It is your prerogative to disagree, of course. He does dismiss philosophers with that comment, as he did in The God Delusion. Indeed, Dawkins is prone to dismiss entire fields of which he knows nothing. In his new book he devotes a whole footnote to the field of epigenetics (a booming area of molecular and developmental biology), dismissing it as "fluff."

  9. Massimo,

    It's hard to forget this line from about three months ago:

    "There is something profoundly intellectually satisfactory in suddenly seeing disparate phenomena like Augustine’s god and Dawkins’ memes as different aspects of an all-too human tendency to project agency where there is none. Not to mention, of course, the admittedly wicked pleasure I’m getting from imagining Dawkins cringing at the comparison."

    Can you understand why the above statement might lead me to think that you're a little weird on Dawkins?


    Saying that philosophers do not have anything to say about the question of the existence of the supernatural is dismissive in the same sense that it is dismissive for me to say that philosophers don't have anything to contribute to the development of database systems. It's a statement that just might be valid.


    And lastly, there's really nothing wrong with dismissing entire subfields. You do it when you dismiss evolutionary psychology, which is taken seriously by most scientifically informed people but not by you.

    You don't have to know all their is to know about a field or subfield to know that most or all of it is fluff. I don't know a ton about queer theory, but I know enough about it to say that it is a comically stupid field.

  10. Sorry for the misspelling in my last post...painful to look at.

  11. Hmm...thanks for the response, Massimo.

    Based on what you said, if I'm not mistaken, it seems you're talking about supernaturalism in the sense of phenomena that are "beyond nature", not just as a term commonly used to describe a class of evidence-challenged beliefs. Yes?

    I guess I'm just not well informed on Dawkins' doings. I'm not familiar with/don't recall any instances of him delving into the supernatural per se. In The God Delusion I think he kind of left the door open on the idea that a personal god could exist (which would seem to allow for the idea that other supernatural phenomena could as well) - but that the likelihood of such a thing was vanishingly small. While valid, wouldn't it be accurate to say that his arguments in that book definitely strayed from the strictly scientific into a broader field of philosophy? In that sense it does seem silly for him to dismiss philosophy as a legitimate investigative tool.

  12. I have a question with regards to the Dawkins interview.

    He says; "Natural selection is non-random survival of genes that work."

    That is said after trying to make clear the problem of people thinking of evolution as random chance (I'm not sure he pulls it off to well).

    Now, the popular definition Richard devised for natural selection is; "The non-random survival of random variants."

    There appears to be difference in the definitions of natural selection - what is it?

    Is he now just avoiding the word random? Will we see the advocacy of dispensing with the word random in defining natural selection in the same way we are to put scare quotes around the word "theory" (to shoo away those that will say: ah ha! he admits it's just a theory)?

    Or am I completely off base here?

  13. Luke,

    well, I wouldn't read too much into what he said in an interview as opposed to when he sits down and carefully thinks about what he wants to say.

    That said, the word "variant" can refer to both genes and individuals (the latter being the original Darwinian view), while clearly genes refer to genes.

    Also, I like the "non-random of random" phrase, because it captures the dual essence of the process: random variation is non-randomly selected.

  14. Massimo,

    Ok, great. I also like the "non-random of random" phrase. The first time I read that was very illuminating, a real eye opener.

    To me it would appear to have more explanatory power than what he said in the interview. However, I got my idea that we may see a switch only because he offered the "gene" after discussing the problem people have with thinking of natural selection as "random chance".

    Anyway, thanks a lot.

  15. A scientist by definition is a "methodological naturalist" i.e. supernatural explanations are ruled out. Therefore, scientists cannot investigate the supernatural the same way a non-scientist can.

    They can investigate phenomena, but as far as I know all scientists who published on "the supernatural" were victims of clever fraudsters or their own errors.

    Most supernatural "phenomena" are usually so messy and full of contradictions, it makes scientific investigation hopeless.

  16. Toby,

    If I am reading you correctly, I would agree. I don't have time right now to get into it, but I would like to return to this topic (which can often get heated - I was in fact accused of making a racist argument saying something similar to what you have, by an atheist). I am not sure I would go as far as you, which is explained a bit in my last comment in Massimo's "Penn & Teller: more Bullshit!" post (right now it's still the 40th - last - comment).

    For now I want to break it down to what other atheist (leaving aside "believers" at this time) hold to be important and then latter to discuss the points.

    Arguments by atheist.

    1) Science does have something to say about the "supernatural".

    2) Science can study the "supernatural".

    3) "Supernaturalism" is within the realm of science.

    As I've pointed out, I am an "atheist" (though I find the term limiting - but as a label it does work - all labels can be limiting since they can't really describe your thinking on each topic).

  17. I have a few minutes, so I'll expand on the 3 atheist arguments on science and the "supernatural".

    I won't however give a rebuttal to the arguments yet, just further explanation (also, for those atheist which support the arguments, please expand if you wish).

    Of course there are indeed overlaps between each of the three arguments as one may notice, especially when explained in discussion.

    1) Science does have something to say about the supernatural.

    Discussion: What is usually meant here is that we can recognize when a claim is clearly apposed by what we understand of reality through science. Science is therefore saying something about the "supernatural" when we discuss something such as a virgin birth, for example.

    2) Science can study the "supernatural".

    Discussion: Clearly the most common argument by atheist. Examples for this claim usually fall around what are "supernatural claims" that have testable aspects. Therefore science is said to be studying the "supernatural" if a claim is made regarding nature - such as "science is studying the supernatural when we do a prayer study" or "science is studying the supernatural when we dispute an Intelligent Design claim (or old earth creationism)".

    Further, this argument is often used to make another claim regarding the supernatural - that science can falsify the supernatural. Such as - the fact the claim that the "earth was created by God 10,000 years ago" is clearly refuted by science.

    3) "Supernaturalism" is within the realm of science.

    Discussion: This is often used as a "what if" (though without any of the potential of a counter factual argument). Therefore, for example - what if tomorrow all pigs could fly and one gave birth to a baby Jesus and this was verified through scientific methods.

    Further, this argument is commonly reinforced by claims of definitional incongruity of what we mean to say that "supernaturalism" is not within the realm of science. Therefore, it is argued that "naturalism" is not possibly definable with enough precision to claim a limit on science with regards to "supernaturalism".

  18. Science can investigate observable phenomena, and that's it.

    I think Dawkins' view is that so-called "supernatural phenomena", upon investigation, either cannot be verified/reproduced or can be explained more robustly without invoking supernaturalism at all. From that point of view, science is perfectly up to the task of investigating the supernatural, and epistemology and metaphysics are unnecessary. Hence, from a narrowly scientific perspective, one might indeed say that philosophers have no particular expertise to bring to bear on this matter.

    However, to the extent that philosophers are able to apply other rigorously logical methods that don't require investigating individual cases (or even preclude the need to do so), and consistently reach conclusions that are compatible with observed reality, kudos to them and their methods! Who says we can't take multiple bites out of the same apple?

    I admit a predilection for the scientific method, at least in terms of communicating information to society at large, since a "nuts & bolts" approach is more accessible to ordinary people. Anytime you can anchor a viewpoint to physical evidence (or, to a lesser extent, dispel a viewpoint due to lack thereof), it tends to have staying power.

    By contrast, while I personally enjoy the exercise, I suspect most people would get dizzy thinking about thinking, and might suffer apoplexy thinking about what can be known about knowing.

  19. perspicio,

    >> ""supernatural phenomena", upon investigation, either cannot be verified/reproduced or can be explained more robustly without invoking supernaturalism at all. From that point of view, science is perfectly up to the task of investigating the supernatural.." <<

    This appears to be the atheist argument of "science can say something about the supernatural" and by extension "science can study the supernatural"?

    At the same time the rebuttal is right in your own words. You're not actually arguing that science is investigating the "supernatural".

    The answer then is what you're actually talking about are claims of "supernatural" causation.

    For example: I claim that god created the earth 10,000 years ago.

    Scientifically we can dispute this claim because we can show the earth is not 10,000 years old.

    Scientifically the "theory" behind the claim is useless (science has absolutely no use for "god did it" - show me how I'm wrong without a "what if") because it is not a scientific theory at all.

    Science needs not "say anything about the supernatural" nor needs to claim it is "studying the supernatural" (the idea there is "supernatural" causation comes from the claimant - if a phenomena is found, this does not tell us it is "supernatural" at all).

    By your account, in saying that science is able to investigate the "supernatural", you also imply that science can falsify the "supernatural".

    We can withhold belief in the "supernatural"/god in this case, or any other - what we are actually doing is withholding belief in other people's belief in the "supernatural"/god.

    The belief then is a natural phenomena that holds premises which have no basis in reality as understood through science.

    What science can say about the "supernatural" is that people believe in the "supernatural". We can investigate how and why. But when it comes to the claims of "supernatural" causation, science is still only studying natural phenomena.

    Now, my guess is from here you will jump to atheist argument 3 (which including definition)?

  20. Since I do think this will lead to atheist argument 3, I want to present my beliefs, sort of.

    I don't believe the "supernatural" exist, I have no reason to think it does.

    I don't believe a god exist. The only way around that is simply not my cup of tea, which is to define a god in purely naturalistic terms.

    I don't believe science and the "supernatural" (or religion in this sense) are compatible or reconcilable. I don't believe you can reconcile the supernatural with science, nor do I believe you should, because it's B.S. when it's attempted.

    When it comes to science and religion, I believe science can and should study religion as a natural phenomena, which includes the beliefs (that means there's lots of room for scientific skepticism). What is recognized then, mainly, is that people can hold contradictory beliefs.

    I'll close with a note from Dennett that I read recently (from June, 2009 PNAS vol. 106), which I like.

    "We have excellent internal evidence for believing that science in general is both reliable and a product of naturalistic forces only—natural
    selection of genes and natural selection of memes. An allegiance to naturalism and to current evolutionary theory not only doesn’t undermine the conviction that our scientific beliefs are reliable; it explains them."

  21. Maybe I should add, since I quoted Dennett - I'm also a skeptic of "meme" theory. Not entirely dismissive, just very skeptical.

  22. Luke,

    I've got no argument with anything you've said. We're on the same boat, rowing in the same direction. You put a fine point on it with the observation that the idea of science investigating the supernatural really boils down to science investigating beliefs in the supernatural. Surely this is sufficient if, in fact, the notion of the supernatural is fallacious.

    At the same time, if philosophers can help people understand the self-contradictory ramifications of supernatural propositions, so much the better.

    The picture I have in my mind is of herds of non-critically-thinking people reared in a slot canyon, knowing nothing else. Meanwhile, over the generations philosophers and scientists have gradually built a tower of stones tall enough to begin to see beyond the canyon's rim, but in addition to this endeavor they also have to protect that tower from the stampeding masses who might topple it out of fear of its shadow.

    But that's pretty much just Plato's Cave, recast.


    I think the idea that scientists and philosophers are different from each other in some meaningful way is a mistake. I'm not saying you made that assertion, but it does seem implied from a few of your comments.

    Those who have formally studied the scientific method are almost certainly conversant in its strengths, its limits, why uncertainty is inherently built into it, and so forth. Surely this amounts to an epistemological understanding of the method. Thus scientists are, in some capacity, philosophers - specialist philosophers, to be sure, but philosophers nevertheless.

    Probably there are those who are well-versed in the scientific theories of their sub-disciplines but that apply the scientific method by rote without ever really thinking about any of this. We might still call those people scientists although it would be difficult to call them philosophers. They'd be more like technicians, understanding the "how" but not the "why".

    But similarly, there are those who have studied philosophy and are intimately familiar with the terrain, but who do not apply it in principle so as much as simply retrace it. We might reasonably assign the label "philosopher" to these people, but who may nevertheless be more accurately described as, to borrow from Robert Pirsig, philosophologists.

    Maybe we need a mathematician well-schooled in set theory to straighten this out for us.

  23. perspicio,

    oh, I disagree, having been both a scientist and a philosopher, and having frequented both groups rather intimately, I can tell you that there is a big difference between the two.

    Most scientists are neither trained nor interested in reflecting on what they do and why it works. Conversely, of course, most philosophers have little or no direct experience of science as it is actually done.

    And of course there is no such thing as "the" scientific method...

  24. Massimo,

    Really? Most scientists are "neither trained nor interested in reflecting on what they do and why it works"? Sad, if true. Not that they'd need to reflect on it throughout the course of doing it, but one would hope that by and large they have a somewhat broader perspective on the matter than mere bean counting. Well, you certainly have more expertise in these matters than I do. Although it's a bit disappointing to hear, on reflection I suppose it's not really too surprising. In the final analysis there seem to be far fewer thinkers than doers, no matter the field.

    It still seems strange to me, though, because even in my schooling as a "lowly" mechanical engineer I feel I got a substantial grounding in the philosophy of science. It seems odd that people studying straight-up science would receive less. But I guess I should beware the bias of assuming others' experiences were similar to my own. Also, thinking back, I don't think this was necessarily a core part of any of the classes either. Rather, it was just constantly presented in different ways, sometimes subtly or peripherally, alongside the course materials during lectures, teaching the habits of skeptical inquiry and critical thought. Maybe I just soaked that part up along the way because it's closer to my deepest interests than engineering or even science itself. Ultimately I went with engineering out of a misplaced idea that it would be a more practical thing to do. Ha ha, the joke's on me.

    I guess the point I was trying to make may have simply been a gross overgeneralization based on my own predispositions. I do see the philosophical and scientific schools as being very deeply and fundamentally interrelated, with science in many ways (but not all) existing as a subset of philosophy. But I suppose it isn't necessary to see them that way - or for that matter to even look at both of them, if occupationally focused on only one.

    As for "the" scientific method, excuse the imprecise use of language. I didn't mean to imply an algorithm. I was referring to the particular principles and methodologies native to science.

    Hmm. You completely and starkly disagreed with what I had to say. And yet, I haven't argued with your response. Since this is the internet, isn't it important that I disagree, nay, oppose you somehow?

    I feel so empty inside.

  25. perspicio,

    yeah, I actually wish that more exchanges on this blog and elsewhere were like this one: someone raises a reasonable point, someone else brings up reasonable objections, the two either agree on the outcome or maintain their disagreement while feeling that they have learned something... Oh well.

  26. Well, you've probably seen this, but it's worth repeating! I stand by it :)


  27. Luke,

    One of my favorites. The hovertext with the original comic is fun too:

    "What do you want me to do? LEAVE? Then they'll keep being wrong!"


    Your blog is far better than many in terms of both having substantive things to say and not having an overly combative/heckling/snarky atmosphere.

    Recognizing that I'm a bit more snarky at times toward certain viewpoints/behaviors than is probably appreciated or, more importantly, altogether helpful, I've decided it's best as a general rule, with occasional exceptions, to adopt a more temperate tone. After all, I don't want to be part of the problem (or part of a different one).

    On another topic, I find articles like the one on what happens to the brain at death pretty interesting, although it would be a leap to explain mechanistically how the discharge of all those neurons at once translates to the type of seemingly coherent experiences many near-deathers report.

    As for out of body experiences, suppression of parietal lobe function seems to be implicated.

    Having had more than a few extremely coherent, seemingly reality-warping experiences of this and similar types in the past, I can say that I have very strong firsthand experience about how hard it can be to overcome our built-in bias of believing in the objective reality of our own subjective experiences. I had one at 4:00 this morning, in fact - at least, I think I did.

    Dealing with these experiences has taught me, among other things, to recognize and respect the limits of rationality. In particular, I've had to accept the raw experiences without drawing conclusions about their objectivity one way or the other. Wholesale belief either way, particularly at or immediately after such an event, results in extreme and unpleasant (sanity-questioning) cognitive dissonance.

    Using the mind to investigate the mind is one of the most intrinsically interesting endeavors I can undertake. It can take a great deal of subtlety to do effectively. Talk about an observer effect!


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