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, May 11, 2011

Lena's Picks

by Lena Groeger
* “The distinction between organisms and their environments remains deeply embedded in our consciousness.” Evelyn Fox Keller tries to dispel the nature/nurture dichotomy.
* Rationally Speaking’s Julia Galef on life’s big questions (and what The Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about ‘em).
* The (impossible?) endeavor to simulate the human brain…
* One of my favorite philosophers turned 300 this past weekend. A quote and a story remembering David Hume.
* On his life, his book, and the Large Hadron Collider: an interview with Stephen Hawking.
* If you’re going to vote, vote well. Otherwise, you’re doing it wrong. So says Jason Brennan in his new book, The Ethics of Voting. 
* It’s pretty relaxing in the armchair. This survey of careers with the lowest levels of stress puts philosophers in 7th place. And that means… what exactly?
* Accuracy is not what it used to be (at least, it shouldn’t). On improving accuracy in the news.
* “Technology can be, but is not always, the answer. Ideas about nature matter.” Alexis Madrigal on his new book about green technology and the ideas that drive policy and products.
* And this one just for fun: the 2011 guide to making people feel old. Toy Story was really that long ago?!


  1. Regarding "Life Big Questions":

    The atheist dismissing the question of “meaning,” is like the color-blind dismissing the question of color. Starting with the wrong presupposition upsets every conclusion that follows, as when we start buttoning our shirt with the wrong button.

    Dismissing God not only dismisses the idea of objective meaning, it also dismisses the idea of moral absolutes. This decision necessarily condemns the atheist to a schizoid existence – While their heart tells them that there is a purpose to life and moral absolutes, their mind nixes what their heart tells them.

    With such a conflicted state of being, the only consistent pursuit becomes pleasure and distraction.

  2. And of course the obstreperous idea of a supernatural ghost does not upset anything.

  3. I'm uncomfortable with the ambiguous meaning of "meaning". What the former commenter has probably in mind is that dismissing gods dismisses the idea of an objective PURPOSE in the world. It does not of course dismisses meaning in the sense of something to be understood about it: we are very busy trying to understand how the world is, how it works, how does it evolves, and so on. This is, after all, not only the goal of scientists, but also the goal of ordinary mortals trying to find their way in the amazing maze of things surrounding them.
    As for moral absolutes, let us also clarify. Belief in God (or gods) has historically been used to justify the most varied moral beliefs and behaviors. Killing your enemies is done in the name of your god, while the enemy does the same in the name of their god, which is often the very same, worshiped through the same liturgies. You may have a god allowing males to have several wives, or only one; allowing divorce or abortion, or banning them; the death penalty is OK for some (after all, it is written all over the Old Testament) and horrendous for others, often belonging to the same Christian denomination.
    Thus belief in God does NOT provide moral absolutes at all: it only provides a handy excuse for making your own moral beliefs or behaviors look as absolute. Moreover, you or your ancestors and descendants may modify your moral absolutes over time (I doubt today's Calvinists believe the burning of heretics is morally right, as their beloved Reformer did in Geneva, just as today's Catholics do not support the idea that the Inquisition, the Crusades or the deadly exploitation and decimation of Latin American Indians was something mandated by God; righteous WASPS no longer believe in slavery as a morally right thing to practice; and of course you have Jihadist Muslims side by side with more peaceful varieties, with these doctrines also changing over time).

  4. Hector,

    There are two different issues here. There's the question of an adequate basis for moral absolutes - something necessary for meaning - and then how people make use of their belief in moral absolutes.

    While you are correct that the appeal to absolutes has produced some very bad fruit, I'm afraid that the lack of appeal will produce even worse. Please see: http://mannsword.blogspot.com/2011/05/moral-relativity-college-style.html

  5. I have yet to see whether secular societies (where some may believe in gods but the State ignores religion) produce more "bad fruit" than religions have produced over many centuries.
    However, the argument advanced by Manns Word in the response above does not address my argument that religious belief does not provide moral absolutes, but only an imaginary reason to believe that some particular moral beliefs are absolute (or that some particular events show some "purpose" and then have a "meaning").
    Of course events and things have "meaning": an oasis in the desert "means" that you may quench your thirst soon; cloudy means possibly rain; a clear "No" means, well, "No", and so on.
    Does life have a "purpose" for an atheist? Well, atheists are normally fussy about concepts and, well, meaning. It all depends on what one means by "meaning" or "purpose". Does MY life have a purpose? Probably yes for most of us: most of us have projects and purposes we expect to work towards and possibly fulfill (stay alive for a little longer, raise children, care for your beloved ones, write another book, or whatever). Does "Life" with a capital L have "purpose"? Well, one should have to define Life with a capital L. Does one mean all life on Earth from the first bacteria (or perhaps the first divisible bunch of aminoacid molecules, who knows)? The life of all ants, antelopes and aardvarks? Or one means "human life" only? Only human-human life, meaning "people like us", or also ourNeanderthal cousins, or our more distant ancestors like Homo Habilis or the Australopithecines, or farther back our last common ancestor with chimps or other apes?
    Well, depending on the question the answer may vary. However, as far as we have figured it out up to now, all living things show certain common tendencies, conscious or not, towards attaining certain results: plants grow towards sunlight, animals hunt, all living things reproduce, many strive to defend their territory or their offspring (others do not), and most of these tendencies might be summarized by a trend to preserve and reproduce your genes (even at the cost, sometimes, of sacrificing yourself as an individual plant or animal, including human animals). So this universal tendency of Life (with a capital L, embracing all forms of life) towards perpetual reproduction is like a "purpose" if one wants to forget, for the moment, the anthropomorphic idea that "purposes" should be conscious and deliberate. What does it all "mean"? It will again depend on what do you mean by "mean": it may "signify nothing" as the Bard put it, or it may signify that life is actually DEFINED by such perpetual reproduction process, so its "being" IS its meaning and purpose ("We are who we are", to paraphrase that ancient voice some Bronze-Age shepherd thought he've heard coming from a burning bush). This being that way makes us also capable of many things that we regard as admirable (like powerful works of art) and others that we regard as vile (like chemical war), though we are not unanimous in these feelings (some of us have destroyed the great Budha statues in Bamyan, not impressed by their beauty, and some have actually conducted chemical war in the firm belief that it was justified, including not only the Iraqi "Chemical Ali" but also the powers figting the First World War and other respectable nations. That is probably the "meaning" of us, and the meaning of "Life". As the apostle wrote once, we strive to be good, but we repeatedly step into the bad. We keep striving.

  6. On the other hand, it is a defensible proposition that believing in some religion may be psychologically beneficial (it is, however, a debatable proposition in view of abundant evidence to the contrary). This has been summarized by some philosophers such as Daniel Dennet by saying that they "do not believe, but believe in belief". In fact, comforting thoughts about an all-loving invisible Father, or of an afterlife, may be psychologically useful for some people (not for others), but this is the same reasoning doctors use about administering placebos. If you are happier and suffer less by using Bach Flowers or homeopathy, go on: attenuating suffering is OK by doctors, as long as it does not interfere with the real business of curing you, and especially when nothing else is left to be done. Placebos, like religion, might strengthen your immune system and make you more pain-tolerant, and this may be good for terminal patients, for instance, especially if other more modern painkillers or sedatives are not available or are not wanted. But this is all scientific knowledge about how our mind and body respond to certain stimuli, and has nothing to do with the actual reality of medicinal effects of the Bach flowers or homeopathic near-water concoctions, and of course nothing to do with the real existence of a supernatural world populated by ghostly entities of our own imagining.

  7. Hector,

    Have you regarded the communist experiment in militant atheism?

  8. By the way, I just weish it to be true that not believing in God leaves only "pleasure and distraction". In fact, not having the pleasure of believing in fairy tales, and not enjoying the distraction of daily or weekly rites, I have worked hard all my life, and can hardly afford much distraction except the occasional try at courtyard basketball or listening to classical music (Mozart's Requiem is a great favorite).

  9. Manns,
    of course the militant atheism of Stalinist societies is no less bad than the Holy Inquisition or the Crusades, and so was the pagan enterprise of the Nazis. Humans are capable of doing bad things for all sorts of reasons, and many good things have been done by religious people as well. State religions and political-religious militancy have done a lot of damage; individual or private religion is less harmful socially speaking, and make do some actual good in the form of charity (or church music). But that is not the point here: you can do equally well in terms of charity or music without the weird beliefs involved.

  10. On second thought, private religion can also be extremely harmful, especially to the psychology of children induced to believe in fantastical stories at a credulous age, terrorized with devils and the ghostly presence of supernatural beings around him, and brainwashed in some cases to reject modern science. Some distinguished atheists, like Richard Dawkins, thinks that religious indoctrination of children is a form of child abuse, just as instilling in them any other idea (say, communism or Nazism) before they are able to discern by themselves and sort out the grain from the chaff (to keep on with biblical allusions). This is especially heinous when recanting your childhood religion is regarded as a crime (apostasy), punishable by death in some of today's Muslim countries and in most of Western societies until quite recently (17th or 18th centuries). Charging sex with guilt, also, may spring from commonplace privately practiced religion. So the blessings of faith are, well, mixed blessings, methinks.

  11. The quote from Hume was an excellent example of his vision. But in stating that Hume was "trying to explain the origins of order in the absence of teleology," the author of the article missed his point completely. The absence of teleology was not the void that Hume then felt some need to fill.
    He saw that there was cause for order in the universe, and thus the existence of some reason for it, not just order in the absence of having anything to gain from preserving it.


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