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.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

On ethics, part I: Moral philosophy’s third way

by Massimo Pigliucci
Ethics, its implications and its justifications keep appearing at Rationally Speaking in a variety of forms, from my critique of Sam Harris’ scientism to my rejection of Objectivism, from Julia’s skepticism about meta-ethics to Michael’s criticism of the non-morality of markets. This is, of course, inevitable because ethics is both a crucial component of our lives and a topic that can — with due caution — be approached rationally, which means it does belong to this blog.
So, I have decided to take the bull by its nasty horns and do a multi-part series on ethics (haven’t decided how many parts just yet) with the following objectives: a) make as clear as possible my “third way” between moral relativism and objective moral truths (this essay); b) systematically explore the differences among the major ethical systems proposed by philosophers: deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics and egalitarianism; and c) apply the method of reflective equilibrium to my own thinking about ethics to see whether I need to revise my positions about moral philosophy (I am starting this quest with a marked preference for virtue ethics, but mixed with the apparently not so easy to reconcile with egalitarianism of John Rawls). We’ll see how far we get, yes?
The starting point for my discussion of what I will refer to as ethics’ “third way” is a recent thoughtful article published in The Stone, the New York Times’ philosophy blog. There, NYU philosopher Paul Boghossian does an excellent job at summarizing the perennial discussion between moral relativists and moral absolutists. Boghossian introduces an interesting contrast to make his readers think about the differences among moral absolutism, moral relativism, and nihilism. Consider first the ancient concept of witches. We (well, most of us) no longer believe that there are witches in the world, so we have dropped talk of witches altogether, engaging in what Boghossian calls “eliminativism” about witches (analogous, of course, to the much more debatable eliminativism in philosophy of mind proposed by Patricia and Paul Churchland).
Now think of Boghossian’s second example: Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity, which teaches us that there is no such thing as absolute space and time. That did not lead us to abandon the concepts of space and time, but rather to substitute relative forms of those concepts in our ways of thinking about the world. We can still all agree about a particular space-time point if we have already agreed to use a given frame of reference. Change the frame of reference and you’ll have to rethink that particular point in space-time.
I think you know where this is going. The question is whether ethics is more like the case of witches or that of Special Relativity. As Boghossian puts it: “When we reject absolute moral facts is moral relativism the correct outcome or is it moral eliminativism (nihilism)?” Think about that one for a second before we proceed.
Okay, we are back. So next consider the quintessential example of culturally relative rules: etiquette (this is also from Boghossian’s article, I told you it’s good!). There is no question that etiquette is not per se a moral absolute: if you are in a certain country and/or a particular type of company, action X (say, belching at the dinner table) will be frowned upon and cause offense, but in a different company or culture the same action X will be welcomed, indeed, even considered a required response to show your appreciation of what the locals have done for you.
Boghossian then proceeds with the punch line, which I will leave entirely to him: “our relativism about etiquette does not actually dispense with all absolute moral facts. Rather, we are relativists about etiquette in the sense that, with respect to a restricted range of issues (such as table manners and greetings), we take the correct absolute norm to be ‘we ought not, other things being equal, offend our hosts.’ This norm is absolute and applies to everyone and at all times. Its relativistic flavor comes from the fact that, with respect to that limited range of behaviors (table manners and greetings, but not, say, the abuse of children for fun), it advocates varying one’s behavior with local convention.”
Did you see that coming? Good for you, but let’s recapitulate what Boghossian is saying: if you take the road to moral relativism you only have two choices, let’s call it Boghossian’s dilemma (in homage to the famous Euthyphro’s dilemma, which allowed Plato to dispense once and for all with the pernicious idea that gods are necessary for morality, regardless of whatever other nonsense you may have heard from religious people). Either you go all the way down to moral nihilism, or you have to assent to some absolute standard with which to ground your (now local) relativism. If you pick nihilism, you will have a hard time justifying or criticizing any kind of societal conduct at all, while if you go for local relativism you will have won a Pyrrhic victory and essentially conceded the case to the moral absolutist.
But there is a third way, and it is indeed illustrated precisely by Boghossian’s example of Special Relativity applied to etiquette. It is also what I have been trying to articulate for some time now, so I’ll give it my best shot yet. For me, moral philosophy is about a type of reasoning, which — like all reasoning, and particularly the logico-mathematical variety — begins with certain assumptions (which can, of course, in turn be scrutinized, empirically or logically) and attempts to unpack the logical consequences of such assumptions. Occasionally, some of those consequences lead to incoherence, or to unfruitful results, in which case one may want to (very cautiously) go back and revise a sub-set of the assumptions themselves before resuming the process. (This is a common procedure in philosophical reasoning, the above mentioned reflective equilibrium.)
In Special Relativistic terms, of course, this means that we first agree to a particular frame of reference — which we may choose because it is convenient for our purposes, it’s easy to calculate, or whatever — and then all our measures of space-time are objective and unquestionable relative to that frame of reference. In terms of the etiquette example, Boghossian is quite right that what appears to be culturally relative is in turn the result of what seems to be a human cultural universal: don’t offend your hosts if you can avoid it. But of course one can imagine situations in which that universal does not apply, for instance and most trivially in the case of a non-social species of primates, where the very concept of “host” (of “social offense”) doesn’t compute.
Where does all of this leave us? With the idea that morality is a human (and other relevantly similar beings’) phenomenon, so that to talk about universal morality makes precisely no sense. But human beings share certain (local to the species) attributes,*** such as preferring a long and healthy life to a nasty and short one, and it is those parameters of humanness that set the axioms of our moral thinking. Ethical reasoning, then, consists of what sort of rules and outcomes logically emerge from that particular set of assumptions. Just like a good mathematician would do, we pick the most promising axioms and work with them, but we acknowledge that sometimes the search gets stuck into unproductive corners of logical space and we go back and — cautiously — tweak the assumptions themselves and get back to work.
Two obvious caveats about ethics’ third way: first, the assumptions from which we start are arrived at empirically (human nature), but this does not mean that science is sufficient to answer moral questions, because most of the work is done by logical analysis unpacking the implications of those assumptions. Second, I am not arguing that what is (human nature) in any straightforward way determines what ought to be (ethics), I am simply taking the eminently sensible position that morality is about human behavior, and so it cannot prescind from considerations of human nature.
So, in a nutshell:
* Moral absolutism: X is universally right / wrong.
Indefensible because one cannot make coherent sense of what “universally” may possibly mean in this context.
* Moral relativism: X is acceptable / non-acceptable practice within a particular culture at a particular historical moment.
Inevitably leads to either sterile nihilism or to some sort of hidden absolutism.
* Moral reasonism (for lack of a better term): If assumptions {W,Z} are accepted, then X is right / wrong.
Where the assumptions are provided by our best (and changing) understanding of human nature, and the rest is done via rational thinking.
Next: the four major systems of moral reasoning, and where they lead us if we adopt them.
*** Yes, I’m aware that some human beings do not seem to care about other people having the same sort of long and healthy lives that they wish for themselves (many Republicans in Congress come to mind); or indeed that some don’t even necessarily wish for long and healthy lives. We call the first ones psychopaths and we try to help the latter out of their depression. And that’s all I’m going to say about those exceptions in this context.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Michael’s Picks

by Michael De Dora
* A new survey has found that 67 percent of Americans believe the First Amendment “requires a clear separation of church and state.”
* Good news: the Texas Board of Education has unanimously approved scientifically accurate high school biology textbook supplements from established mainstream publishers, and rejected creationist-backed supplements. 
* Thirty percent of Americans believe the Bible is the actual and literal word of God, according to a new study from Gallup. Meanwhile, 49 percent said the Bible is the inspired word of God and that it should not be taken literally, while 17 percent said they consider it an ancient book of stories recorded by men.
* A second town clerk in upstate New York has quit her job in order to avoid having to sign marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples, citing religious objections. 
* The Institute of Medicine recently recommended that all health insurance plans should provide free coverage for prescription birth control, breast-pump rentals, counseling for domestic violence, and annual wellness exams and HIV tests. The move immediately drew criticism from the religious right, but as The Economist points out, their objections are weak. 
* In response to Rob Bell, the Southern Baptist Convention has approved a resolution, titled “On the Reality of Hell,” that affirms their belief that Hell is real, and is “eternal, conscious punishment.”
* A House committee has voted to reinstate a ban on U.S. funding to health and aid organizations that offer or even just present women the option of an abortion around the world. The measure’s political future is bleak, but it does illustrate the situation we’re in.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Lena's Picks

by Lena Groeger

* “
In the same way that we decide to watch Fox or MSNBC, we decide to listen to Lady Gaga or The Beatles.” Samuel McNerney on how confirmation bias explains our aesthetic judgments
* Something go wrong? Don't blame the process. Why even optimal processes can lead to bad outcomes.
* “Most scientists will assure you that ethical rules never hinder good research … but they’ll confess that the dark side does have its appeal.” Seven experiments that might advance science — if we threw our morals out the window. 
* Francis Fukuyama — author of the The End of History and the Last Man — turns to Darwin as his new guide in The Origins of Political Order. 
* Two new books, on Scientology and the Catholic Church, explore a central foundation of religion past and present: money.  
* After spending years investigating the science of morality, Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser was found guilty of scientific misconduct. Now he is leaving research altogether. 
* Got stereotypes? Yes. On a map.
* The newest issue of Social Psychology is all about how space affects our cognition — from spatial distance and friendship, to verticality and power, to drawing size and country attitudes. 
* Brad Jones explores how politicians use moral rhetoric, based on data from State of the Union addresses. 
* Justice Breyer, dissenting from a recent decision to overturn a California ban on selling violent video games to minors, invokes “cutting edge neuroscience” to defend his claim that video games cause aggression. Just the latest instance of neuroscience’s (problematic?) march into the courtroom. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011


by Massimo Pigliucci
A few days ago I walked from my apartment down to the Guggenheim museum, to see an exhibit by artist-philosopher Lee Ufan. Frankly, I wasn’t too impressed with the art (a bit too minimalist for my taste), but even less so by the “philosophy.” I wish I had written down some of the irritating quotes that accompanied the exhibit, but here is a taste of what I read: “If a bell is struck, the sound reverberates into the distance. Similarly, if a point filled with mental energy is painted on a canvas, it sends vibrations into the surrounding unpainted space.” I have no idea what, if anything, this means. Charitably, one can think of it as a (very) loose metaphor, but for what? There is no such thing as “mental energy,” it doesn’t “send vibrations” into unpainted space, and most certainly whatever happens to canvas and paint has nothing to do with striking a bell.
Then I went home and resumed editing a forthcoming book on the philosophy of pseudoscience, a work that I’m putting together with Maarten Boudry and which will be published by Chicago Press next year. The idea is to revisit the (in)famous “demarcation problem,” the term used by Karl Popper for the endeavor of figuring out what the differences are between science and non-science, and particularly between science and pseudoscience. (At last count we have 24 contributors to the book, including luminaries such as James Ladyman and Michael Ruse.)
That got me thinking about the parallels (and differences) between pseudo-science and pseudo-philosophy. The paragon of pseudophilosophy, of course, is represented by some strands of postmodernism, and as Alan Sokal (he of the Sokal hoax) famously put it, “When one analyzes [postmodern] writings [on science], one often finds radical-sounding assertions whose meaning is ambiguous and that can be given two alternative readings: one as interesting, radical, and grossly false; the other as boring and trivially true.” (If you have time on your hands and want to have some pseudophilosophical fun, make sure you check the random postmodern generator.)
Indeed, when a postmodernist insists that, for instance, science is a social construction, he can be taken as simply stating the truism that science is a social activity engaged in by human beings (and affected, to a point, by human social foibles); or he can be understood as making the much stronger claim that scientific truth is made up by the people who play the game of science, irrespective of any objective reality. If you are willing to buy into the latter meaning, I suggest you take Sokal’s challenge: “Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)”
Postmodernist pseudophilosophy is embarrassing to philosophers because philosophy — at its best — “is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language,” as Wittgenstein (himself not exactly a shining example of a clear language user) aptly put it.
Of course, pseudoscience can be embarrassing to scientists as well. Just think of the sway that eugenics had for decades at the beginning of the 20th century; or consider the Pitldown man hoax (just as bad for science as the Sokal one was bad for philosophy); or cold fusion; or the phlogiston; or phrenology; or the Lysenko affair, to mention but a few. (A delightful, if a bit old, compendium of scientific blunders can be found here.)
Still, it seems obvious that there is a difference between pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy: it is far easier to find credentialed academics who buy into the latter than into the former. Of course, here too one needs to be careful, as there are plenty of counterexamples of scientists who believe voodoo science: biologists who buy into Intelligent Design; physicists who wax poetic about the anthropic principle and the fine tuning of the universe; PhD holders who deny global warming or that HIV causes AIDS, and even that fossil fuels are of organic origins. And of course let’s not forget that if you count psychology among the sciences, there are still plenty of Freudians walking about free and well paid. Nonetheless, on purely statistical bases it is more likely to walk the halls of the academy and encounter a pseudophilosopher than a pseudoscientist. Why?
I suspect one major reason for it is that doing philosophy is less constrained than doing science. What I mean is that philosophy is about arguing on the basis of logic and coherence, whereas in science those conditions are necessary but not sufficient: the scientist also has to deal with the world as it actually is. (Granted, good philosophy is informed by empirical evidence too — witness Sokal’s invitation above — but a lot of it deals with how else things could be.) This, I hasten to say, doesn’t make science “better” than philosophy, as any such comparison is somewhat sophomoric, considering that the two disciplines work by (partially) distinct methods and are interested in (largely) distinct things.
My point can perhaps be made more clear by looking outside of the philosophy-science pair, to disciplines that are even more and even less constrained than these two. Take logic and math, for instance. You hardly hear of pseudomathematicians, and the reason for that is that one just can’t bluff at math, one is discovered immediately. While a good rhetorician can obfuscate things in philosophy enough to be taken seriously for decades (e.g., Heidegger), and someone can fake data in science and get away with it for years (e.g., the recent Hauser debacle), I doubt that someone faking the solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem could have lasted more than a few minutes in the halls of a mathematical meeting.
Near the opposite end of the constraint spectrum is art criticism. Take, for instance, literary criticism (which, interestingly, was the original house of postmodernism!). It is constrained by the necessity to make an argument of some sort (for instance, about a new interpretation of a Shakespearean play), and by some kind of “data” (say, the text of Hamlet), but those constraints are significantly weaker than in philosophy because the field works by different standards of argumentation, where formal logic, for instance, doesn’t really play a role, and the writing is more akin to an essay (again, the similarity with postmodern — but not analytic — philosophy is uncanny).
Once more, none of the above should be construed as a ranking of disciplines from worst (literary criticism) to best (math and logic). Each endeavor has its own methods and goals, and each works well when it is done well — and the only people really qualified to assess what “well” means are those (academic or not) working seriously within each field. But the nature of these four beasts (and of course the list could be made longer) is such that some fields are more prone to “pseudo-Xology” than others. It is up to said practitioners to clean up their own intellectual playing field, both for the sake of their own efforts and if they wish to be taken seriously by the outside world.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Economics should not be divorced from morality

by Michael De Dora
Last week, our friend Massimo Pigliucci published an essay here in which he argued for an idea I have long thought to be true: that economic considerations cannot be divorced from moral ones. Here is the appropriate passage from Massimo’s article:
“I simply do not buy the fundamentalist (yes, I’m using the term on purpose) libertarian idea that economics is all there is or that should count in pretty much all human transactions and social problems. The hallmark of a just society is precisely that it does consider issues of intrinsic rights — not just to life and property, as the libertarians would have it — but also to health, education, housing and jobs. The whole point of living in a structured society, as opposed to Hobbes’ war of all against all, is so that our lives are not going to be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ Which means that what [Larry] Summers dismisses as ‘social concerns’ really ought to be central to the way we structure our societies. Economic systems ought to be the servants of human flourishing, not its masters.”
As it turns out, I have been thinking about the relationship between morality and economics for a couple of months now. However, my thoughts have remained scattered in a Word document sitting in a folder on my laptop with several other essay ideas that are incomplete. Unfortunately, I have been suffering from an extended case of writer’s block coupled with real-world demands (you know, my full-time work advocating for reason and science at the Center for Inquiry). So, I should thank Massimo for piquing my interest in writing again.
The idea I would like to propose in this brief essay is this: economics cannot be divorced from morality because one’s values determine which economic structure he or she prefers. There are no such things as purely economic ends divorced from all other ends because economic decisions are made based on moral values. They also have a moral impact on other people.
At this point, I should define my terms. Morality is the sphere of one’s foundational beliefs and attitudes about right and wrong. Economics is the matter of how to set up and manage the financial situation of a given society or community. I think it is clear that morality, by its very definition, will play a major role in shaping the economic structure of a given society. Morality simply shapes how we approach most things in life, including economics. I also submit that economics is inextricably tied to the welfare of the citizens for which it functions.
But people in several political camps, namely libertarianism and neoliberalism, disagree that economics is so closely linked with morality. They believe economics is a discussion about business and bottom-lines, not ethics. This divide is also present in political news coverage. Take this quote from Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University: “Economic issues always dwarf social issues. … [The 2012 election] is shaping up to be an economically driven election with a possibility of foreign affairs entering the discussion as well.” This is precisely how most news outlets and polling organizations frame pre-election public sentiments. How many times have you heard that “people are voting on the economy, not social issues, this election cycle"?
Yet, while economic issues are in some way different than social ones — in the same way that, say, economics and philosophy are two different fields — they are also undoubtedly intertwined at many levels. At the interpersonal level, business transactions hinge on a basic sense of morality. When you purchase something, you trust that your source of information (sales person, gas attendant, waiter/waitress, Amazon.com review) is being honest about the quality of the goods offered. You also expect a certain degree of performance from the product you are buying.
Morality is also present in larger economic debates. Consider the question “how can we create jobs?” At face value, there might be little in this question that concerns morality. It is simply about increasing the number of jobs available to human beings. But what if I answered that the way to create jobs is to eliminate the minimum wage? Or to loosen restrictions on workday hours and factory conditions? Or to lower the tax burden on corporations and the wealthy? Or to repeal last year’s health insurance reform package? These questions all contain a moral aspect as well. Would it be right to allow companies to pay their employees however little they can get away with? Would it be right to rescind worker safety laws? Would it be right to increase the tax burdens on the middle and lower classes and allow further disparity? Would it be right to repeal legislation that increases the availability of health care?
Fortunately, we have a recent example of the public valuing morality over a purely economical calculation: the recent budget debates. Over the past couple of weeks, federal Democratic and Republican leaders have been working to finish a budget deal before the August 2 deadline that would cause the US government to default on its financial obligations. If the deadline is not met, there will be an immediate loss in federal funding for social programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Even if a deal is made in time, those programs could still see budget cuts or qualification changes. Meanwhile, at the state level, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s budget cuts to public education were so drastic that they were ruled unconstitutional. The public has been outraged at every aspect of these potential and actual cuts and changes. The argument: such cuts are immoral given that these are necessary programs that benefit children and the worst off -- especially when there are other options, like taxes on corporations and the ultra-rich, or cutting, for example, the defense budget.
No matter where you stand on these issues, you cannot deny there is a moral component to all of them. Take the issue of taxing the wealthy. Many urge for higher taxes on the rich because they think it is immoral for a small band of people to horde most of the nation’s wealth while the majority suffers. Others argue that the rich should not be deprived of the money they’ve earned (though it should be noted much of this money is inherited or made at the expense of the lower classes through practices put in place by the rich class). Someone might desire to settle the debate by asking, “what is best for the economy?" But my point is that, at bottom, the question of “what is best for the economy” is really a question of “what should we want the economy to do or accomplish?” And that is a question not of pure mathematical reasoning, but of ethical contemplation.
In closing, allow me to spell out how I think the relationship between morality and economics might work. The first step is to figure out our necessary assumptions. For instance, what is the nature of human behavior and desires? How do humans act and interact? The second step is to think about our shared moral goals. I think the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights is a good starting place for that. The last step is then to assess which economic ideas and systems to employ so that our assumptions can be taken into account and that our goals can be realized. Economics is not just about studying and applying knowledge of trends, numbers, math, and business practices. It is also about taking into account the reality of human behavior and our moral concerns before making economic decisions — and then considering the moral consequences of those decisions.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

RS podcast #39: The Science and Philosophy of Free Will

In this episode we tackle the never ending debate about free will, which David Hume famously defined as “a power of acting or of not acting, according to the determination of the will.” We do this with a couple of twists. We begin by examining the concept of free will from the standard philosophical perspective, then ask what — if anything — modern neuroscience can tell us about it, and come back to the interface between philosophy and science to explore how the two approaches may complement each other.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Podcast Teaser: Two episodes on the limits of reason!

by Massimo Pigliucci
Julia and I are about to tape two episodes loosely arranged around the theme of the limits of reason, which for something called the Rationally Speaking podcast seems to be particularly appropriate.
In one episode we will talk with guest Robert Zaretsky, co-author of The Philosophers' Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding. Robert has a joint appointment between the Department of History and the Honors College at the University of Houston. His co-author, John T. Scott, is professor of political science at the University of California, Davis. Zaretsky and Scott are also coauthors of Frail Happiness: An Essay on RousseauRobert's new books are Albert Camus: Elements of a Life, and (with Alice Conklin and Sarah Fishman) France and Its Empire Since 1870.
Here is an extract from the book’s description: The rise and spectacular fall of the friendship between the two great philosophers of the 18th century, barely six months after they first met, reverberated on both sides of the Channel. As the relationship between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume unraveled, a volley of rancorous letters was fired off, then quickly published and devoured by aristocrats, intellectuals, and common readers alike. Everyone took sides in this momentous dispute between the greatest of Enlightenment thinkers. 
Zaretsky and Scott explore the unfolding rift between Rousseau and Hume. The authors are particularly fascinated by the connection between the thinkers’ lives and thought, especially the way that the failure of each to understand the other — and himself — illuminates the limits of human understanding. In addition, they situate the philosophers’ quarrel in the social, political, and intellectual milieu that informed their actions, as well as the actions of the other participants in the dispute, such as James Boswell, Adam Smith, and Voltaire. By examining the conflict through the prism of each philosopher’s contribution to Western thought, Zaretsky and Scott reveal the implications for the two men as individuals and philosophers as well as for the contemporary world.
The second episode will broaden our look at the limits of reason to include a discussion of the failure of “foundational” projects (e.g., the quest for the ultimate bases of scientific reasoning, or of logic and mathematics), a recent paper on the evolutionary psychology of reasoning that has made mainstream news (and which I have discussed to some extend here at RS), as well as — of course — the oft-heard remark that “X goes beyond reason,” where X is a religious doctrine, a mystical “insight,” or one type or another of pseudoscientific claim.
As usual, comments are welcome, and we will select a few to be read and discussed during the two episodes.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Michael’s Picks

by Michael De Dora
* In the first half of 2011, states enacted a record number of restrictions (162) on reproductive health and rights, according to the Guttmacher Institute
* A town clerk in upstate New York has quit her job in order to avoid having to sign marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples, citing religious objections. 
* The ACLU has found Florida lawmakers misled the public in efforts to repeal a ban on taxpayer money going to religious institutions. 
* Americans United updates us on a troubling proposed amendment to the Missouri state constitution that could open the door to government-promoted religion.  
* Guy Kahane writes that even if so-called “morality pills” are science fiction, they still provide a good thought experiment.  
* Austin Dacey and Colin Koproske have an intriguing essay in the latest issue of Dissent Magazine in which they argue for a rethinking of the concept of religious freedom.
* The Chronicle of Higher Education has a great essay on the “neurophilosophical” work being done by Patricia Churchland, professor of philosophy at the University of California at San Diego and author of the recent book “Braintrust.”

Thursday, July 14, 2011

On being a fulfilled atheist

by Massimo Pigliucci
As readers of this blog know, I am an atheist and yet I have some problems with the so-called “new atheism” (mostly that it isn’t new at all, and that it has a tendency to be unnecessarily obnoxious). Indeed, when asked, I prefer to use the term secular humanist to succinctly describe my philosophical position
But from time to time I have to remind myself of the importance of being an atheist and of actually saying so out loud. For instance, after I read the introduction to a recent episode of the Philosophy Talk podcast, hosted by philosophers John Perry and Ken Taylor (both at Stanford University). Philosophy Talk’s teasers are usually good and thought provoking, this one not so much.
The teaser was written by Perry as an introduction to a chat — during the podcast — with guests Ken and Louise Anthony. The trouble starts right off the bat, when Perry defines atheism: “An atheist is someone who not only doesn't believe in God, but believes, with some confidence, that there isn’t a God.” Oh no, it ain’t! That certainly describes some atheists, but not others. I, for instance, tend to stick to the etymology of the term, a-theism, meaning without a positive belief in god(s), so I consider myself an a-theist in pretty much the same manner in which most people are a-unicornists: they don’t believe in unicorns, not because they know that there aren’t any, but simply because they see neither evidence nor reason to hold that particular belief. As Hume put it, “A wise man ... proportions his belief to the evidence,” and when the evidence approaches zero...
Perry then continues: “At first glance, it seems odd to find inspiration in the non-existence of something.” Normally, I would agree, but considering that human beings have always lived in societies where irrationalism, obscurantism and magical thinking reigned supreme, to become “converted” (Perry’s term) to atheism is, indeed, inspiring. It’s extremely liberating to realize that there is no Big Guy in the sky watching over your every move (particularly, for reasons that are not at all clear, the moves you make in the privacy of your own bedroom).
“When you’re converted to atheism, the world goes from meaningful to meaningless, from caring to uncaring, from hopeful to hopeless.” Bullshit on stilts. Meaning doesn’t come from without, it is constructed by us through our reflections on the world and our interactions with fellow human beings. That, of course, is true also for religious people, except they don’t seem to realize it. As for caring, well, if we are talking about the Christian god, particularly the Old Testament nut job, I’d much rather not be cared for, lest I be forced to slaughter innocents and rape women just to please His Nuttiness and pander to His cosmic narcissism. And hopeless? Says who? I have always been, and continue to be, very hopeful, both in terms of my personal life (the next exciting thing is likely just around the corner, if I keep looking!) and about humanity in general. While it is demonstrably true that we have a penchant for fucking things up royally, there is also no question in my mind that we have done, ahem, miracles in terms of human flourishing since the time of the Tower of Babel — and certainly with no thanks due to imaginary deities.
Perry again: “[to the newly converted atheist] it becomes clear ... that there’s no evidence whatsoever for God, and considerable evidence against anything like the Christian God, or any lesser version of God. That can be depressing, we all must admit.” No, we don’t. I was so ecstatic after reading Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian (I was about 15 or so), that I could hardly contain my exuberance. Depressing my ass. (Though Perry thankfully goes on to acknowledge that even atheists continue to have fun and have friends...)
The podcast teaser then becomes a bit more positive toward atheists. After raising the question of the afterlife, Perry mentions Hume’s famous observation (itself a reminder of Epicurus), that all the years before our birth weren’t so bad after all, so why worry about those after our death? (Or, as Monty Python famously put it: “I mean — what have you got to lose? / You know, you come from nothing — you're going back to nothing. / What have you lost? Nothing!)
The next topic, inevitably, is morality, and the starting point is Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, who famously asked why isn’t everything permitted to an atheist? To which the simple response would be: just read Plato’s Euthyphro, dude. Equally reasonably, Perry notes that the Divine Command theory of morality is shaky on its own grounds, and that there are plenty of secular alternatives, from ethical “facts” thought of as similar to mathematical ones (i.e., immaterial, and yet objective), to one flavor or another of consequentialism or virtue ethics, to a naturalistic view of ethics as the result of evolution within a lineage of social primates.
Still, Perry insists: “Granted all of that, doesn’t it still seem strange to define one’s life by a negative claim, by the non-existence of something. You can become the village atheist, and make it your mission in life to tell religious people what idiots they are. But that doesn’t seem very fulfilling,” all the while admitting that he nonetheless finds atheism “hard to resist.”
Don’t resist it, then, embrace the negative claim that frees your mind from the shackles of superstition; the negative claim that allows you to make choices in life using reason and empathy; the negative claim that opens up all those doors to human flourishing that religion so quickly and persistently shuts tight. And of course, (most) atheists don’t make it their mission to tell religious people that they are idiots (yes, some do, and those are the ones that expel people like me from their non-church). Instead, what we do is try, to the best of our ability, to live the good life by example, and help those who are willing to listen to leave the Dark Ages and come out to enjoy a bit of Enlightenment — Hume style.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why I don’t like Larry Summers

by Massimo Pigliucci
I have to admit to a profound dislike for former Harvard President and former Obama (and Clinton) advisor Larry Summers. Besides the fact that, at least going by a number of reports of people who have known him, he can only be characterized as a dick, he represents precisely what is wrong with a particularly popular mode of thinking in this country and, increasingly, in the rest of the world.
Lawrence was famously forced to resign as president of Harvard in 2006 because of a no-confidence vote by the faculty (wait, academics still have any say in how universities are run? Who knew) because of a variety of reasons, including his conflict with academic star Cornel West, financial conflict of interests regarding his dealings with economist Andrei Shleifer, and particularly his remarks to the effect that perhaps the scarcity of women in science and engineering is the result of innate intellectual differences (for a critical analysis of that particular episode see Cornelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender and the corresponding Rationally Speaking podcast).
Now I have acquired yet another reason to dislike Summers, while reading Debra Satz’s Why Some Things Should not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets, which I highly recommend to my libertarian friends, as much as I realize of course that it will be entirely wasted on them. The book is a historical and philosophical analysis of ideas about markets, and makes a very compelling case for why thinking that “the markets will take care of it” where “it” is pretty much anything of interest to human beings is downright idiotic (as well as profoundly unethical).
But I’m not concerned here with Satz’s book per se, as much as with the instance in which she discusses for her purposes, a memo written by Summers when he was chief economist of the World Bank (side note to people who still don’t think we are in a plutocracy: please simply make the effort to track Summers’ career and his influence as an example, or check this short video by one of my favorite philosophers, George Carlin). The memo was intended for internal WB use only, but it caused a public uproar when the, surely not left-wing, magazine The Economist leaked it to the public. Here is an extract from the memo (emphasis mine):
“Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the less developed countries? I can think of three reasons:
1. The measurement of the costs of health-impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.
2. The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost ... Only the lamentable facts that so much pollution is generated by non-tradable industries (transport, electrical generation) and that the unit transport costs of solid waste are so high prevent world-welfare enhancing trade in air pollution and waste.
3. The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income elasticity ... Clearly trade in goods that embody aesthetic pollution concerns could be welfare enhancing.
The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more pollution in least developed countries (intrinsic rights to certain goods, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalization.
Now, pause for a minute, go back to the top of the memo, and read it again. I suggest that if you find nothing disturbing about it, your empathic circuitry needs a major overhaul or at the very least a serious tuneup. But it’s interesting to consider why.
As both The Economist (who called the memo “crass”) and Satz herself note, the economic logic of the memo is indeed impeccable. If one’s only considerations are economic in nature, it does make perfect sense for less developed countries to accept (for a — probably low — price) the waste generated by richer countries, for which in turn it makes perfect sense to pay a price to literally get rid of their shit.
And yet, as I mentioned, the leaking of the memo was accompanied by an outcry similar to the one generated by the equally infamous “Ford Pinto memo” back in 1968. Why? Here I actually have a take that is somewhat different from, though complementary to, that of Satz. For her, there are three ethical objections that can be raised to the memo: first, she maintains that there is unequal vulnerability of the parties involved in the bargain. That is, the poor countries are in a position of marked disadvantage and are easy for the rich ones to exploit. Second, the less developed countries likely suffer from what she calls weak agency, since they tend to be run by corrupt governments whose actions are not in the interest of the population at large (whether the latter isn’t also true of American plutocracy is, of course, a matter worth pondering). Third, the bargain is likely to result in an unacceptable degree of harm to a number of individuals (living in the poor countries) who are not going to simultaneously enjoy any of the profits generated from the “exchange.”
I think all these reasons surely hold, but I would go further and talk of precisely the sorts of things Summers himself mentions in the memo, particularly intrinsic rights to certain goods and social concerns. I simply do not buy the fundamentalist (yes, I’m using the term on purpose) libertarian idea that economics is all there is or that should count in pretty much all human transactions and social problems. The hallmark of a just society is precisely that it does consider issues of intrinsic rights — not just to life and property, as the libertarians would have it — but also to health, education, housing and jobs. The whole point of living in a structured society, as opposed to Hobbes’ war of all against all, is so that our lives are not going to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Which means that what Summers dismisses as “social concerns” really ought to be central to the way we structure our societies. Economic systems ought to be the servants of human flourishing, not its masters.
The only serious question here is what was someone like Summers doing in both the Clinton and Obama administrations? The answer is that this (and plenty of other inconvenient or disturbing facts, depending on your political persuasion) clearly shows that both Clinton and Obama were moderate centrists, certainly not the “socialists” and “radicals” that Republican-generated nonsense would have them be. By the way, did you notice Summers’ point that if one objected to his memo on ethical grounds one may just as well object to pretty much every policy suggested by the World Bank? Ponder the consequences, then start asking for the closing or radical restructuring of the World Bank.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Massimo's Picks

by Massimo Pigliucci
* Bible written by multiple authors, study says. But study authors' still maintain it could have been god...
* Okay people, Nonsense on Stilts has now passed the 9,500 copies sold. Let's make an effort and go over 10,000, yes?
* Why experimental philosophy is the first but most certainly not the latter.
* A philosopher's take on ways to silence free speech in the self-professed best democracy in the world...
* Rationally Speaking's Lena Groeger on how environmentalists can reach a broader public.
* New Rationally Speaking podcast: Holden Karnofsky on evidence-based philanthropy.
* I'll be at DragonCon in Atlanta, September 2-5!

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The fallacy of difference, in science and art

by Julia Galef

It’s not often that you find something that’s a fallacy both logically and creatively — that is, a fallacy to which both researchers and artists are susceptible. Perhaps you’re tempted to tell me I’m committing a category mistake, that artistic fields like fiction and architecture aren’t the sort of thing to which the word “fallacy” could even meaningfully be applied. An understandable objection! But let me explain myself.
I first encountered the term “fallacy of difference” in David Hackett Fischer’s excellent book, Historians’ Fallacies, in which he defines it as “a tendency to conceptualize a group in terms of its special characteristics to the exclusion of its generic characteristics.” So for instance, India’s caste system is a special characteristic of its society, and therefore scholars have been tempted to explain aspects of Indian civilization in terms of its caste system rather than in terms of its other, more generic features. The Puritans provide another case in point: “Only a small part of Puritan theology was Puritan in a special sense,” Fischer comments. “Much of it was Anglican, and more was Protestant, and most was Christian. And yet Puritanism is often identified and understood in terms of what was specially or uniquely Puritan.”
Here’s a less scholarly example from my own experience. I’ve heard several non-monogamous people complain that when they confide to a friend that they’re having relationship troubles, or that they broke up with their partner, their friends instantly blame their non-monogamy. But while non-monogamy certainly does make a relationship unusual, it’s hardly the only characteristic relevant to understanding how a relationship works, or why it doesn’t. Non-monogamous relationships are subject to the same misunderstandings, personality clashes, insecurities, careless injuries, and other common tensions that tend to plague intimate relationships. But the non-monogamy stands out, so people tend to focus on that one special characteristic, and ignore the many generic characteristics that can cause any kind of relationship to founder.
So the fallacy of difference is a fallacy of science (broadly understood as the process of investigating the world empirically) but how is it also a fallacy of art? Because artists, like scientists, are concerned with understanding the world, though their respective goals are different. While scientists want to model the world accurately in order to answer empirical questions, artists want to make us believe in the story they’re telling us or the scene they’re showing us, or to highlight some feature of the world that they find particularly beautiful or interesting, or to successfully provoke a desired reaction. That tends to require a pretty sophisticated understanding of how the world looks and acts and feels.
When they fail, it’s often the fallacy of difference at work. In novels, TV shows and movies, a flat, “one-dimensional” character is a telltale sign of a clumsy writer who focused on his character’s one or two special traits at the expense of all the generic traits common to most human beings. It’s an easy trap to fall into, because it’s such a straightforward template for creating a character: you start with one or two unique traits — “She’s the rebel!” or “He’s the funny one!” — and then whenever your character has to react to some situation you can just ask yourself, “Okay, how would a rebel react here?” or “What would a funny guy say to that?” But no one is a rebel or a clown full-time. Most of the time, they’re just a person.
Same goes for building a fictional setting, which in many comic books or movies functions a lot like a character in its own right. It’s certainly true that real cities have distinct flavors to them, just like people have distinctive personalities, so if you’re walking in Brooklyn, it feels unmistakably different from walking in Manhattan, or Baltimore, or San Francisco. There are characteristic building styles and features that define a city’s aesthetic, like Baltimore’s row houses, or Brooklyn’s brownstones. So it’s tempting to design your fictional city around some special aesthetic theme, like “futurism” or “noir.” But even the most futuristic of cities wouldn’t really only consist of sleek skyscrapers and helipads, and even the most sordid and noirish city wouldn’t really be all dark alleyways and disreputable bars. Like all cities, their special features should be offset against all the generic ones: the nondescript office buildings, bus stops, grocery stores, laundromats, and so on. (Or whatever their equivalents are, in your fictional universe.)
If you’re building a real city instead of imagining one, the fallacy of difference comes into play in a different way. Architecture is really more design than art, in that each building is supposed to provide a solution to a particular problem — e.g., “We need a place to educate our children,” or “We want an office building that encourages interdepartmental interactions.” So the temptation for architects is to focus on the special characteristics their building should have to solve that problem, at the expense of the generic characteristics that all buildings need in order to be comfortable and pleasant. Bryan Lawson’s The Language of Space contains a thoughtful discussion of this trap, though he doesn’t explicitly call it the fallacy of difference: “When architects come to design specialized buildings, such as a psychiatric unit, they tend to focus on the special factors rather than the ordinary ones,” he says. “We design lecture theaters with no windows as perfectly ergonomic machines for teaching, and then forget how unpleasant such a place might be for the student who is there for many hours, day after day.”
The fact that this fallacy pops up in creative pursuits as well as empirical ones is interesting in its own right, I think, but it’s particularly worth noting as a reminder to fight our tendency to compartmentalize what we learn. You’ve seen this before, no doubt, on a smaller scale. For example, most people who ace the logic problems on the LSAT, after leaving the classroom will blithely make the same kinds of arguments that they easily identified as fallacious when they were in “spot the fallacy” mode. But concordances spanning endeavors as seemingly dissimilar as art and science suggest the existence of even broader compartments — and the benefit of noticing them, and breaking them down.