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.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Massimo's weekend picks!

* The war on reason, by Paul Bloom - a piece that tries to put all the science-based skepticism about humans as reasoning creatures into a, ahem, reasonable perspective.

* Regret is the perfect emotion for our self-absorbed times, writes Judith Shulevitz in the New Republic.

* Newspapers are still the most important medium for understanding the world, says Peter Wilby in New Statesman.

* Perhaps we shouldn't insist on complete consistency for our moral beliefs, suggests Emrys Westacott at 3QuarksDaily.

* We should cultivate the ability to disregard things we can't do anything about, according to Christy Wampole in the New York Times.

Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus, a book review by Rachana Kamtekar in the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

* Joseph Stromberg (in the Smithsonian) arrives at a list of just five vitamins and supplements that are actually worth taking.

String Theory and the Scientific Method, another review in the NDPR, by Nick Huggett.

* Forget about quantifying your self, says Josh Cohen in Prospect Magazine, and live your life instead.

Scientific Pride and Prejudice, by Michael Suk-Young Chwe in the New York Times.


  1. Well, unfortunately, fewer and fewer people are agreeing with Mr. Wilby, as, instead of "news" and "stories," people are encouraged to read "content." What the hell is "content"? With that, Gnu Media gurus (whom I loathe about as much as some other Gnus) continuing to misquote Stewart Brand and claim that paywalls are never right, and other things, is it any wonder I want out of my profession?

    1. My sympathies, Gadfly. Good question, "What the hell is 'content'? Closely related is the mini-brouhaha created by Nicholas Kristof in a piece in the "Times." Here's a rather (for the New Yorker) brief retort along with an assortment of comments: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/02/why-is-academic-writing-so-academic.html

    2. John McArthur, publisher of Harper's, vented on NPR a few weeks ago about the "content" issue. He's right. He also has a fairly "hard" paywall for content.

  2. OK, on the other links:

    1. I kind of like Haidt's take in the Bloom piece. It somewhat fits with Dennett's multiple drafts, Hume's stream, and thoughts of myself and many people greater than me about "subselves." Haidt's "lawyer," then, is one of those subselves, something a bit like a superego. That doesn't mean "determinism rules," but rather that we should be talking about "something like free will," rather than "free will," and, per young Wittgenstein, shut up about what we don't yet know, since neuroscience, etc., is still in the Early Bronze Age at best. Beyond that, Bloom shows that most modern talk about consciousness, volition, etc., is still too black-and-white. Complexity needed, please!

    2. Per the above, on the "regret" piece, aren't the sources and drivers of, and types of, regret, multitudinous? The piece is a good start.

    3. How can anybody write about ancient philosophical ways of life and NOT include Cynics? "Get out of my light, John M. Cooper!"

    1. I'll reply to myself rather than looking greedy with wanting a "third" as well as "first" and "second" on the thread.

      On the consistent morals, this in part fits the "subselves" idea, along with Emerson's "foolish consistency" and Whitman's "I contain multitudes." Per Dennett again, if there's still a "center of narrative gravity," where morals at least orbit one of the two foci in a quasi-Keplerian psychological universe, then some "inconsistency" is fine. But, when morals try to orbit two different stars in a binary system, that's different!

      On the scientific pride and prejudice, my suspicions of NASA went deeper than that. Faced with the tea party wing of the GOP having become ascendant in the House, NASA wanted a big splash to ward off potential deep budget cuts. Related to that, it wanted a deep splash to justify new exobiology-focused missions to Mars.

  3. Re: the Westacott piece, I would think that this is not a "perhaps" but rather, an obvious no-brainer to anyone not held in the grip of a theory.

    1. In the Westacott piece: "But I think it is interesting and reasonable to ask why we do care"

      I suppose the answer would be is that we like to think we have reasons for everything we do, especially for important things such as moral decisions. and that if those reasons are inconsistent with each other then surely we are interested in why.

      Moral decisions affect the well being of others and are surely the most important decisions we have to take. If we are taking different approaches to each decision and we cannot give reasons for this inconsistency then doesn't that suggest our approach to these questions is somewhat arbitrary?

    2. Well being is one conception of intrinsic value. It is not the only one.

      I don't see why it would be arbitrary. According to Aristotle, the ethical thing to do is that which represents moderation, between extremes of excess and deficiency. Since what *counts* as moderate will depend on the circumstances, the same action might be the ethical thing to do on Tuesday and unethical on Wednesday.

    3. Hi Daniel,

      I am not sure you understood what I said.

      I said that if you accepted an inconsistent approach to morality (as the article suggested) then that would be arbitrary.

      I am not sure how you could say that accepting an inconsistent approach would not be to accept an arbitrary approach, unless you could account for those inconsistencies.

    4. Saying that X is wrong on Monday and right on Tuesday *is* inconsistent. It is not, however, arbitrary.

  4. The comment stream under Bloom's article is depressing. Half the people appear to argue that he is wrong because determinism is true, the other half that he is right to reject determinism because if it were true there would be no reason (shades of Plantinga). Way to miss his whole point.

    It is doubly depressing because I am sure that all sane people are compatibilists like Bloom in practice anyway who merely have failed to reconcile their armchair reasoning with their actual behaviour.

    1. It seems to me the entire new free will debate consists of a competition to see how many words can be used to say nothing at all.

  5. Always enjoy your picks for reading material, Massimo. My favorite of the group was Westacott's. I thought his piece was well-written and, more importantly for me, as a result was accessible to a broad audience. He framed the issues in plain language and seldom resorted to inflated rhetoric to draw his distinctions concerning consistency, and he clearly stated what his own viewpoint on the matter is in the final paragraph. My only real concern with his overall treatment were in reading these sentences: "The alternative to thinking this way is to declare that consistency is simply good in itself and for its own sake. But then there is no satisfactory answer to the critic who asks why we would want to fetishize an abstract virtue–consistency–possibly even at the expense of concrete human well-being." This might have raised a red flag or two, as well as his choice of the word "fetishize." The commentary on the article was generally good, and I liked his participation in it. And, gee, nobody really flamed out!

    On the opposite side was my reaction to Bloom's piece about which I felt I was mired down in a swamp land of poorly drawn out terminology that seemed to shapeshift as the article proceeded. Perhaps, Bloom is simply too ambitious for a piece of this length and does seem to burden what in my opinion is an already overly burdened concept in his discussion of rationality. Am I wrong in thinking that rationality, according to Bloom, is sometimes facilely made the equivalent of reason and reason the equivalent of reasonableness? Given my background, I love metaphor, but the statement "We are soft machines—amazing machines, but machines nonetheless" makes me want to quote Wittgenstein out of context and say it is a "dream of language." This sort of rumination is much more entertaining and satisfying in the hands of Jorge Luis Borges.

    Roughly 1/3 of the way through his piece, Bloom writes, "Knowing that we are physical beings doesn’t tell us much. The interesting question is what sort of physical beings we are." Well, yes. But do you really add anything much in attempting to answer the question in the remainder of your piece? And then there is this: "But this is where philosophy ends and psychology begins." Yes, time to draw the lines. I suspect Steven Pinker awaits off-stage. Just in case.

    I suspect that Bloom is a soft determinist, a compatibilist, and perhaps I am being unkind if I suggest that Dennett sings this song in key more often than does Bloom. So, this is more a critique of Bloom's essay as a piece of writing. It doesn't enhance my understanding of the issues and seems dictated more by the need to engage in controversy than it does in advancing insight. I should add that the free will - determinism debate is not of much importance to me anymore: Not my monkeys, not my circus.

    Someone mentioned being depressed by the commentary on Bloom's piece. Why? Bloom, along with the Atlantic's editors, made decisions/choices regarding the framework and tone of the discussion. It remains a controversial subject and not surprisingly received some push-back. Why is this more depressing than writing that "I am sure that all sane people are compatibilists like Bloom in practice anyway who merely have failed to reconcile their armchair reasoning with their actual behaviour"? Such wording is depressing in my opinion. To take up another metaphor, let us brand foreheads. "SPC" will identify the sane, practicing compatibilists.

    1. I am still trying to work out the difference between compatilism and incompatibilism, or what either claim is individually.

    2. Robin, I have hard a hard time understanding the true difference between compatibilist and incompatibilist as well. It seems to me that compatibilists like to hold onto the language of morality and incompatibilists don't but are still willing to hold onto "pragmatic" distinctions on social behavior. I personally don't see much of a difference but I think what concerns me is how we are responding to people in society. I think our modern sci-phi understanding of ourselves leads to a purely restorative justice system and away from retributive systems. Whether that is considered compatibilism or incompatibilism is less important to me. I just can't see the justification for retribution.

    3. Imad, I can't see the justification for retribution either. I can't speak for other countries but here in Australia the justice system is focussed more on pragmatic goals such as prevention and to some extent rehabilitation.

      Even those who favour the "tough approach" do so because they believe it will cause people to think twice about committing a crime in the first place.

      There is a lot of research going on as to what works and doesn't in terms of preventing people starting on crime and decreasing recidivism.

      There are those who kick against it of course terming it the "pity the poor criminal" approach but in general the prevention and rehabilitation approach is used.

      I don't think that comes from a modern sci-phi understanding of ourselves, I think that comes from a long tradition of science and philosophy.

      In many ways I think that the new sci-fi boys are solemnly instructing their grandmothers as to the correct method of sucking eggs.

      I see very little understanding among people like Harris and Coyne about the history of thinking on this subject. For instance Coyne suggested on his blog recently that philosphers all believe in free will. That would come as a surprise to some such as Hume, Broad etc.

      Philosophy is a little like history in this respect - those who ignore it are destined to repeat it.

    4. TJ / Robin / Imad,

      In practice, an incompatibilist is a compatibilist who does not like to use the term "free will" to describe the difference somebody doing it because they want to and somebody doing the same thing because they are forced to or accidentally.

      If incompatiblists were any different from compatibilists beyond mere semantics, if, in other words, they would take their pronouncements on the lines of "choice is an illusion" seriously, then they would have to treat a murderer killing somebody in cold blood and a landslide killing somebody exactly the same way. Making a distinction between these two events (e.g. not jailing the landslide) even in the face of both of them being equally predetermined is compatibilism, and so every sane human being is a compatibilist in practice regardless of how they use the relevant terminology.

    5. I guess the incompatibilist would say that they are treating the events consistently, but that landslides and murderers being different natural events you treat them differently because an effective action against a murderer is not an effective action against a landslide..

      I suppose then that an incompatibilist would say that the process of catching, trying and jailing criminals is simply a method of engineering the kind of society we all want and is not different, in category, to putting in buttresses against landslides.

      In that sense I suppose that a group, say the Mafia, who use certain other methods to engineer the society that they want, for example bribery, threats and murder, are not morally bad but just bad in the sense that they lead to a lowering of the well being of society in general.

      From the Mafia's point of view I suppose then that society in general is bad for wanting to lower their well-being.

    6. I think you are oversimplifying the subject, Alex. I get a headache when I read and think about about it, and this result I take as proof of my sanity :).

      Recently, I encountered someone who called Sam Harris an "illusionist," not a compatibilist. Maybe he is, but I won't loose sleep over it. At the same time, I don't think the various arguments, which cover many topics and have some profound implications, are merely due to semantics.

    7. You can look compatibilism up on Wikipedia, for example, or perhaps on more specialized sites that the host of this blog may be able to suggest: The point of compatibilism is that even given complete determinism, it still makes a difference whether a human has done something deliberately, or accidentally, or under coercion, or because they were insane.

      That is its substance, it its totality; everything else is choice of words. Most compatibilists would choose to call the difference "free will" or something like that but if it were instead called "jigglum" the substance or content of compatibilism would still be the same.

      Now there are two stances that one can call incompatibilism:

      (1) Even given complete determinism, it still makes a difference whether a human has done something deliberately, or accidentally, or under coercion, or because they were insane. We need to treat these cases differently. But we may not use words like "free will", "choice" or "agency" to describe the differences because those terms are hopelessly contaminated with supernatural meaning.

      (2) Given complete determinism, there is no difference whether a human has done something deliberately, or accidentally, or under coercion, or because they were insane. All of these are really the same because they are all equally predetermined, and thus the punishment in all cases needs to be the same.

      You will notice that the first really only differs in the use of terms to describe the various situations, and that the second would be considered wrong by most people, including Harris and Coyne. If you can come up with a third alternative I am all eyes.

    8. No profound implications until some actual definete claim has been made.

    9. And what does "complete Determinism" mean? Exactly one next state for any physical system? Or some combination of actual determinism and randomness?

    10. I still think both compatibilism and incompatibilism are wrong. That's because:

      A. While I believe that we'll eventually show that "something like free will" exists, we're not advanced enough in our knowledge of the mind and science of the mind to know yet exactly what we're talking about, while

      B. We already can know that determinism is indeed wrong. Therefore, compatibilist versions of free will are wrong for trying to make free will compatible with determinism. For my latest thoughts on determinism: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-simplemindedness-of-determinism.html

  6. Alex, I'm just trying to be personally realistic about my capacity to understand all the ramifications of the free will vs determinism discussion. Of course, I've gone over various references and sources during my adult life--SEP, a number of dictionaries of philosophies, etc. You can even find taxonomies at cites such as this: http://www.informationphilosopher.com/freedom/history/

    I lack the background and expertise to evaluate whether this cited, long historical discussion is even accurate. But one won't come away thinking this debate is simply rooted in semantic distinctions, which is itself a rather complex subject. First thing that's gonna happen, if you get into a serious discussion about it, is someone is gonna seriously question you about the phrase "in practice." So, like I said: Not my monkeys, not my circus. But in saying this I don't mean to sound like I'm trying to minimize the seriousness of the debate.

    1. Just out of interest - what are your monkeys and circus?

  7. As I recall, it's a Polish proverb. I suppose it means that you're talking to the wrong person; find the guy who's running the circus and brought in the monkeys.

  8. Oh, I'm sorry. I may have misunderstood your question. I'm inclined to a fabulist POV which is really of no general help in this regard.

    1. I'm a Popeyeist - I yam what I yam.

    2. Robin, that's bizzare. When I was an undergraduate, I would work as a roustabout in the oil fields near the Gulf of Mexico during the summers. The crew chiefs used to call me Popeye, and the guy I used to commute with was called Brutus. Ha! Hadn't thought of that in years.

  9. What I mean when I say "complete determinism" is that given perfect knowledge of the position of all particles and of all physical laws, one could have predicted any of my actions ten billion years ago. Whether or not this determinism is an accurate model of reality is ultimately irrelevant for a philosophical discussion of free will in which it can simply be assumed for the sake of argument, not least because determinism and randomness appear to exhaust the options and the latter is not dualist free will either. (It has never been satisfactorily explained how even a supernatural/dualist soul could be anything but either determinist or random or a mixture of both.)

    What I mean when I say "in practice" is that people's armchair reasoning may be at variance with their actual beliefs as demonstrated through their actions, especially because they have failed to reconcile internal contradictions in their belief system. My usual example is a postmodernist or religious fundamentalist arguing that empirical science is just another ideology or opinion while still trusting physics enough to board an airplane. The latter action demonstrates that they do in fact believe in the possibility of arriving at reliable knowledge about the world, that they do not in fact consider everything to be ideology or opinion, and that they only adopt hyper-skepticism to provide themselves with cover in a discussion that they would lose if they listened to appeals to evidence.

  10. Dawid’s book discussed a very important issue, “how to confirm a theory which describes the laws which are beyond the reach by human’s technology for a long foreseeable future?” This is another version of the falsifiability issue.

    In fact, there are two types of ‘physics’: the physics of nature and the ‘human’ physics. There are four steps for the growth of ‘human’ physics.
    Step one, collecting data --- knowing the phenomena.
    Step two, finding the pattern (with equations to best fit the data) --- these equations have *variables* and *parameters*.
    Step three, finding the underlying causes (dynamics) for the equations (especially for the variables).
    Step four, finding the underlying framework for the *parameters*, deriving parameters from an axiomatic system.

    Today, the human physics does discover many ‘parameters’, such as
    cosmological constant (Λ), 0 and/or 0+
    (dark/visible) mass ratio, 5.3526
    1/Alpha = 137.0359;
    With these, we can have a beauty-contest. The theory which can make contact with these known parameters is the beauty-queen. Then, of course, we can have a next level beauty-contest after this.

  11. The definition of determinism is important because a discussion about free will and naturalism should be done in the context of a realistic accounr of what our universe is like and not as though it were still the 18th century. And I still don't know what the claims of compatibilism or incompatibilism are. What is it about my normal experience of free will that is contradicted by my being a physical entity?


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