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.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Michael’s Picks

by Michael De Dora
* If you live in or near New York City, there is a film festival about morality and social justice sponsored by the Human Rights Watch ongoing until June 30.
* A United Nations resolution marks the first time the international body has officially endorsed the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people.
* A New York Times editorial argues that: “Many judges wrongly view mandatory disqualification rules involving election money as a personal insult and a threat to judicial independence. The real threat to independence lies in doing nothing to protect judicial integrity in the face of obvious conflicts.”
* A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that Freakonomics author Steven Levitt had outlined on his blog his case for “The Daughter Test” of morality and law. Weeks later, Levitt’s post is still being discussed. The latest addition to this conversation is on The Economist blog, in which the author proposes a corollary called “The Parent Test.”
* Noted neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has written a new book, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, and has done a couple of interviews about it. Here are two I’ve found worth the read: The Los Angeles Times and Wired.
* Should public schools rent their space to religious organizations? Here is a news story (from The Tennesseean) and an op-ed (in the Times).
* A post arguing that humans are the only animals with morality.


  1. No doubt one will learn a lot from Damasio. But what will the good neuroscientist say about his colleague Mary, blind from birth, but knows every physical fact about the color red? She knows how color is transmitted, what happens in the retina, etc. Then she is operated on and given the ability to see, she then gets to experience the color red.

    With access to no new physical facts about red post-op, exactly what did she gain? There are those who say the mystery of qualia can only be explained by non-physical facts outside the neuroscientific domain. Maybe so, but to me that depends on whether physicalism is defined to include information. Most definitions exclude information, so I guess Chalmers' non-physical facts stand.

    Physicalism aside, I like Damasio's strong stand on emotion and how it informs all other brain activity.

  2. "Should public schools rent their space to religious organizations?"

    Short answer: Yes.

    Long answer: If they are renting out facilities for any reason, then they have no business as a government entity engaging in viewpoint discrimination, period. If they want to prohibit a religious organization, or any other (e.g. secular, LGBT, etc.) for that matter, then they either have to shut off the option of rental altogether to all groups (which has been done to shut down secular and LGBT groups many times) or show explicitly that inappropriate/illegal activities have been or will with good confidence be conducted at the event (which should have a high burden of proof).

  3. A post arguing that humans are the only animals with morality.

    Hoo boy. There is a world of a difference between her post title "Only humans have morality, not animals" and what she can actually successfully argue for, "something new - something quite exceptional - emerged in the course of the evolution of humans". Of course there is something special about us humans, and of course we can think higher-order thoughts in a way (apparently) no other life form can. But to say that no other animal has morals? Come on.

    But it is quite revealing to see the list of her other recent posts as listed in the side bar:

    "- Only humans make moral judgements and moral choices
    - Jon Cohen’s new book shows there's an unfathomable gap between apes and humans
    - The differences between apes and humans are vast
    - Humans are unique, yet some think we are worth no more than apes.
    - Great apes cannot remotely communicate like human beings."

    Obviously somebody has gotten very hung up on the fear that those evil biologistic biologists will bring on the end of western civilization and apple pie by pointing out the friggin obvious fact that we are separated from animals only by degrees of difference, and not by a gulf. Moral panic, nothing else.

  4. DaveS: I happen to like Ned Block's response to the hard problem of consciousness.

  5. @Alex ... agreed ... there's certainly a difference in the level and type of morality we and our primate kin possess ... but claims such as only humans can do this or that don't mean that primates, for example, can't have some degree of group interactionism on issues and morality.

  6. @mufi: Block does not seem to be contesting the purely phenomenological. By proposing thoughts about an experience - practically an exercise in the 2nd-person, he allows my 'red' to be completely different than your 'red', while retaining the globally accessible nature of the experience. Sounds plausible, if a bit of a stretch.

    @NS: it's nice to be on the same level as Searle - I don't understand any concept of self either!


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