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.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Massimo’s Picks

By Massimo Pigliucci

* Primatologist Frans De Waal responds to his critics about the relationship between science and religion. While De Waal is usually sharp, in this case methinks there is a bit of fuzzy thinking going on.
* The new Rationally Speaking podcast is out: guest Joshua Knobe talks to Julia and me about experimental philosophy. Highly enjoyable, though I still think that this is cognitive science informed by philosophy... not philosophy.
* I just reviewed on Amazon the delightful Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, by Kathryn Schulz. Definitely recommended.
* Chris Mooney interviews yours truly over at Point of Inquiry.
* What do you know: there is no evidence that multivitamin supplements do us any good, and in some cases may be harmful. Save your money and your kidneys.
* My recent book, Nonsense on Stilts, has been picked as Christmas suggestion by the London Review of Books (and stay tuned for the just announced Korean translation...).
* Philosophers as the focus of a photographic book? Strangers things have happened, you know.
* Do children have rights? A philosophical investigation.
* My recent talk on teaching philosophy in science classes, using the example of evolutionary hypotheses about the origin of religion.


  1. The pdf link for teaching philosophy in science classes isn't working.

  2. Charles, thanks, it's fixed now.

  3. When we met at MSU you also mentioned Being Wrong, and it peaked my interest, so I bought and read it. Many good discussions (and especially anecdotes) in it, but I do wish she would have gone deeper into the neuroscience of being wrong. Still, highly recommended. Also because pushing it on friends is so suggestive...

  4. Massimo,

    Have you read any of NPR's science blog 13.7? It's a collection of posters, like here, with two biologists, two physicists, and a philosopher. Some of them seem to be against physicalism, or at least offer positions that conflict with your own. I think any criticism you have to offer for their posts would make interesting topics.

    If you're interested, here are a few posts if you haven't heard of it:






  5. I saw a quote in that Der Waal piece from John Gray:

    Christianity struck at the root of pagan tolerance of illusion. In claiming that there is only one true faith, it gave truth a supreme value it had not had before. It also made disbelief in the divine possible for the first time. The long-delayed consequence of the Christian faith was an idolatry of truth that found its most complete expression in atheism. (Straw Dogs, 2002).

    This seems a little ridiculous to me. I'm pretty sure atheism predates Christianity, and seem to remember reading some ancient Greek writing about atheism. Do you know of any ancient world philosophers who were explicit atheists?

  6. MJ, hard to say which ancient philosophers were atheists, though certainly the pre-Socratic atomists came close, and so did Epicurus. Aristotle himself was at best a deist. And yes, that quote is ridiculous, our respect for truth comes from the Greek and then Roman tradition, not from Christianity.

    hmm, didn't even know of the existence of that blog, and I do listen to NPR quite a bit! Thanks for the links.

  7. I had a similar reaction to De Waal's first piece (which I expressed here in a comment to one of Michael's pick lists), and, having read John Gray myself, it now seems clear to me that De Waal has adopted Gray's conservative (albeit atheistic, "post-Christian") view of religion (i.e. regarding its social value and/or tenacity).

    Of course, to buy this argument - with its caveat about "the human tendency to follow leaders and let them do the thinking" and its Communism analogy - one has to be willing to broaden one's notion of "religion" to include all ideologies, even naturalistic ones. IOW, one has to use the term in a heretofore idiosyncratic way.

    I don't necessarily mind that proposal, so as long as we are clear that not all "religions" are created equally - that, even though all religion is ultimately provisional belief and based on uncertain knowledge, some (at any given time) are more rationally defensible than others.

  8. De Waal...oh my. I have objections to almost every sentence. I usually only follow one or two links from this blog per pick post but I don't recall being directed to anything I thought so little of. He seems like a straightforward writer who is good at communicating what he is thinking, which I respect because I sometimes struggle with that. But in this case he just gives me confidence that his conclusions are based on long discredited arguments and assumptions.

    For all that the worst bit was his indicated preference for, "a debate that respects both the beliefs held by many and the triumphs of science. There is no obligation for non-religious people to hate religion..." In other words, we can have critical inquiry so long as we agree at the outset to respect certain arbitrarily chosen ideas. The alternative is apparently an obligation to *disrespect* arbitrarily chosen ideas. I'm pretty sure there's a more neutral third alternative somewhere in there.

    He doesn't even want to have a game in which one side is permitted to cheat, he wants to have one in which the score is officially recorded as a tie before the puck is dropped (insert your chosen sports metaphor here if that does not suit your fancy).

    And despite all of *that* he is actually arguing for the necessity of a "religion" in which a god or indeed any supernatural is apparently not required, which we know since for him communism also possessed the necessary features. So what he *really* wants is universal respect for some (all?) widely held beliefs just...because. Rather than make even a poor argument for his real thesis he trots out the most tired and empty arguments for religion (well, not quite, as he cited atheism as the center of communist ideology and didn't mention the Nazis), and in the midst of arguing for religion's usefulness and practical necessity (rather than its truth) he adds his own spin by threatening us with a human social system identical (!) to theistic religion in all important ways if we don't accept theistic religion.

    On a related note, did you know that suicide is the only way to die? If you don't choose to take your own life, you choose to let the world do it for you. Therefore, we should respect suicide, because anyone doing it isn't making a choice of whether or not to do it since everyone must do it, obviously. Also, indefinite or even significant life extension is simply impossible, no matter how much science progresses. That clearly follows.

    Once someone wrote a fictional book about how life extension might be possible, and then someone else tried to apply it but tragedy unfolded as literally dozens of state and federal laws were violated when spare human parts from the morgue attached to a lightning rod in a thunderstorm became millions of giblets. Therefore, we should not make morally consequential medical decisions without ensuring that voodoo gets a seat at the table.

    After all, they know what they're doing. Some intelligentsia sure don't!

  9. I wouldn't expect nutrition experts to take multivitamins because I'd expect them to eat healthy enough not to need one.

    However, Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, recommends a daily multivitamin, and at least in 2008 was taking a multivitamin and Vitamin D himself.


    "Some scientists believe there is not enough evidence to recommend for or against taking a daily multivitamin, because there isn't yet enough data from randomized controlled trials. That's a short-sighted point of view since it may never be possible to conduct randomized trials that are long enough to test the effects of multiple vitamins on risks of cancers, Alzheimer's disease, and other degenerative conditions. Looking at all the evidence—from epidemiological studies on diet and health, to biochemical studies on the minute mechanisms of disease—the potential health benefits of taking a standard daily multivitamin far outweigh the potential risks."

  10. Massimo,

    I don't agree that your Neptune/Vulcan example refutes falsification. The way I see it, there were a number of accepted theories like Newtonian mechanics, N-planet solar system, and law of refraction, that were used to predict planetary motion. A failed prediction could be due to problems in any of the theories. We deal with these things all the time. If my TV doesn't turn on, it could be due to a power outage, or dead batteries in the remote, or a blown capacitor, so I make other predictions to narrow it down, like testing the batteries.

    SETI is not falsifiable but provable, like any claim that something exists.

  11. Max,

    But that's the point: it is always possible that one of the ancillary hypotheses is wrong, instead of the focal one. Which means that (naive) falsificationism can't possibly work. The question then becomes how do we come up with a non naive, non arbitrary account of falsificationism. Popper tried, but it ain't easy.

  12. Even after listening to the podcast, I still don't understand the concept of experimental philosophy. It appear to be about philosophers who are doing science. Many scientists do science that impacts philosophy, but that does not make them philosophers... and on the flip-side, philosphy that impacts science is not science. So... just because philosophers are doing the science does not make it philosophy.


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