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.
Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Sunday, December 29, 2013
Friday, December 27, 2013
One thing I definitely don’t go for is any kind of “sanctity” argument in opposition to suicide. I do not even consider for a moment, of course, any religious version of it, since I reject religion as a source of either knowledge or wisdom. The secular version, however, owes us an explanation of why, exactly, life is sacred, and no, Kant’s bizarre argument about the source of the moral law just isn’t going to cut it. Again, both the Stoics and Hume, seems to me, got it exactly right: life is valuable to the individual who is alive if it can be pursued according to certain conditions (e.g., it yields sufficient pleasures, the possibility of pursuing one’s own goals, is characterized by meaningful relationships, and so forth). To quote Hume again, “The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.” Meaning and value are human concepts, and it is up to human beings — individually and societally — to make of them what they wish.
Thursday, December 26, 2013
* Birds offer some insight into the evolution of extended families, but much mystery remains.
* The NSA is both fascist and tyrannical, Mussolini and John Locke agree.
* We need Adam Smith's moral philosophy more than his economics. (Ignore the final rant about misguided liberals...)
* Philosophy of novels and philosophy in novels.
* The "Francis effect" and the fundamental quandary of modern religions (except Islam).
* Is the (over) documented life worth living?
* Why human beings need to fail.
* The shameless selling of attention deficit disorder.
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Massimo and Julia are joined by psychologist Judith Schlesinger, author of The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius, who explains why she thinks the "mad genius" archetype is simply the result of folklore, misunderstanding, and bad research.
Judith's advice: Re-enjoy the geniuses that you have always loved, pull down a Beethoven Symphony and listen to it, go to the museum and look at Van Gogh's beautiful paintings, and if you focus more on the beauty and less on the rumor, we will all be better off.
Monday, December 23, 2013
Sunday, December 22, 2013
Saturday, December 21, 2013
At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson. Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to “write a history of the world without leaving home.” The bathroom provides the occasion for a history of hygiene; the bedroom, sex, death, and sleep; the kitchen, nutrition and the spice trade; and so on, as Bryson shows how each has figured in the evolution of private life. Whatever happens in the world, he demonstrates, ends up in our house, in the paint and the pipes and the pillows and every item of furniture. Bill Bryson has one of the liveliest, most inquisitive minds on the planet, and he is a master at turning the seemingly isolated or mundane fact into an occasion for the most diverting exposition imaginable. His wit and sheer prose fluency make At Home one of the most entertaining books ever written about private life.
The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution, by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending. Resistance to malaria. Blue eyes. Lactose tolerance. What do all of these traits have in common? Every one of them has emerged in the last 10,000 years. Scientists have long believed that the “great leap forward” that occurred some 40,000 to 50,000 years ago in Europe marked end of significant biological evolution in humans. In this stunningly original account of our evolutionary history, top scholars Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending reject this conventional wisdom and reveal that the human species has undergone a storm of genetic change much more recently. Human evolution in fact accelerated after civilization arose, they contend, and these ongoing changes have played a pivotal role in human history. They argue that biology explains the expansion of the Indo-Europeans, the European conquest of the Americas, and European Jews' rise to intellectual prominence. In each of these cases, the key was recent genetic change: adult milk tolerance in the early Indo-Europeans that allowed for a new way of life, increased disease resistance among the Europeans settling America, and new versions of neurological genes among European Jews. Ranging across subjects as diverse as human domestication, Neanderthal hybridization, and IQ tests, Cochran and Harpending's analysis demonstrates convincingly that human genetics have changed and can continue to change much more rapidly than scientists have previously believed. A provocative and fascinating new look at human evolution that turns conventional wisdom on its head, The 10,000 Year Explosion reveals the ongoing interplay between culture and biology in the making of the human race.
The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. An unmissable milestone for fans of Sir Terry Pratchett: the first SF novel in over three decades in which the visionary inventor of Discworld has created a new universe of tantalizing possibilities—a series of parallel “Earths” with doorways leading to adventure, intrigue, excitement, and an escape into the furthest reaches of the imagination. The Long Earth, written with award-winning novelist Stephen Baxter, author of Stone Spring, Ark, and Floodwill, captivate science fiction fans of all stripes, readers of Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, and Carl Hiaasen, and anyone who enjoyed the Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman collaboration Good Omens. The Long Earth is an adventure of the highest order—and an unforgettable read.
All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals, by Darren Naish and others. All Yesterdays is a book about the way we see dinosaurs and other
prehistoric animals. Lavishly illustrated with over sixty original artworks, All Yesterdays aims to challenge our notions of how prehistoric animals looked and behaved. As an critical exploration of palaeontological art, All Yesterdays asks questions about what is probable, what is possible, and what is commonly ignored. Written by palaeozoologist Darren Naish, and palaeontological artists John Conway and C.M. Kosemen, All Yesterdays is scientifically rigorous and artistically imaginative in its approach to fossils of the past - and those of the future.
The Animal Man Omnibus, by Grant Morrison and others. From Grant Morrison, Eisner Award winning writer of ALL-STAR SUPERMAN and bestselling author of Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, this new hardcover collects Morrison's entire groundbreaking run on ANIMAL MAN altogether for the first time. Buddy Baker is more than just a second-rate super hero--He's also a devoted family man and animal rights activist. Now, as he tries to jump-start his crimefighting career, he experiences visions of aliens, people transforming into strange pencil-like drawings, and hints of a terrible crisis lurking around the edges of reality. And as his odyssey of self-discovery gives way to spiritual enlightenment as well as the depths of despair, Buddy meets his maker: a writer named Grant Morrison.
The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution, by Henry Gee. The idea of a missing link between humanity and our animal ancestors predates evolution and popular science and actually has religious roots in the deist concept of the Great Chain of Being. Yet, the metaphor has lodged itself in the contemporary imagination, and new fossil discoveries are often hailed in headlines as revealing the elusive transitional step, the moment when we stopped being “animal” and started being “human.” In The Accidental Species, Henry Gee, longtime paleontology editor at Nature, takes aim at this misleading notion, arguing that it reflects a profound misunderstanding of how evolution works and, when applied to the evolution of our own species, supports mistaken ideas about our own place in the universe. Gee presents a robust and stark challenge to our tendency to see ourselves as the acme of creation. Far from being a quirk of religious fundamentalism, human exceptionalism, Gee argues, is an error that also infects scientific thought. Touring the many features of human beings that have recurrently been used to distinguish us from the rest of the animal world, Gee shows that our evolutionary outcome is one possibility among many, one that owes more to chance than to an organized progression to supremacy. He starts with bipedality, which he shows could have arisen entirely by accident, as a by-product of sexual selection, moves on to technology, large brain size, intelligence, language, and, finally, sentience. He reveals each of these attributes to be alive and well throughout the animal world—they are not, indeed, unique to our species. The Accidental Species combines Gee’s firsthand experience on the editorial side of many incredible paleontological findings with healthy skepticism and humor to create a book that aims to overturn popular thinking on human evolution—the key is not what’s missing, but how we’re linked.
Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth, by Jim Baggott. In this stunning new volume, Jim Baggott argues that there is no observational or experimental evidence for many of the ideas of modern theoretical physics: super-symmetric particles, super strings, the multiverse, the holographic principle, or the anthropic cosmological principle. These theories are not only untrue; they are not even science. They are fairy-tale physics: fantastical, bizarre and often outrageous, perhaps even confidence-trickery. This book provides a much-needed antidote. Informed, comprehensive, and balanced, it offers lay readers the latest ideas about the nature of physical reality while clearly distinguishing between fact and fantasy. With its engaging portraits of many central figures of modern physics, including Paul Davies, John Barrow, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, and Leonard Susskind, it promises to be essential reading for all readers interested in what we know and don’t know about the nature of the universe and reality itself.
Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld. In recent years, the advent of MRI technology seems to have unlocked the secrets of the human mind, revealing the sources of our deepest desires, intentions, and fears. As renowned psychiatrist and scholar Sally Satel and psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld demonstrate in Brainwashed, however, the explanatory power of brain scans in particular and neuroscience more generally has been vastly overestimated. Although acknowledging its tremendous potential, the authors argue that the overzealous application of the burgeoning field of brain science has put innocent people in jail, prevented addicts from healing themselves, and undermined notions of free will and responsibility. A provocative challenge to the use and abuse of a seductive science, Brainwashed offers an essential corrective to determinist explanations of human behavior.
Hitler's Philosophers, by Yvonne Sherratt. Hitler had a dream to rule the world, not only with the gun but also with his mind. He saw himself as a "philosopher-leader" and astonishingly gained the support of many intellectuals of his time. In this compelling book, Yvonne Sherratt explores Hitler's relationship with philosophers and uncovers cruelty, ambition, violence, and betrayal where least expected—at the heart of Germany's ivory tower. Sherratt investigates international archives, discovering evidence back to the 1920s of Hitler's vulgarization of noble thinkers of the past, including Kant, Nietzsche, and Darwin. She reveals how philosophers of the 1930s eagerly collaborated to lend the Nazi regime a cloak of respectability: Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, and a host of others. And while these eminent men sanctioned slaughter, Semitic thinkers like Walter Benjamin and opponents like Kurt Huber were hunted down or murdered. Many others, such as Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt, were forced to flee as refugees. The book portrays their fates, to be dispersed across the world as the historic edifice of Jewish-German culture was destroyed by Hitler. Sherratt not only confronts the past; she also tracks down chilling evidence of continuing Nazi sympathy in Western Universities today.
Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction in Life and Markets, by John Brockman. From the bestselling authors of Thinking, Fast and Slow; The Black Swan; and Stumbling on Happiness comes a cutting-edge exploration of the mysteries of rational thought, decision-making, intuition, morality, willpower, problem-solving, prediction, forecasting, unconscious behavior, and beyond. Edited by John Brockman, publisher of Edge.org ("The world's smartest website"—The Guardian), Thinking presents original ideas by today's leading psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers who are radically expanding our understanding of human thought. Daniel Kahneman on the power (and pitfalls) of human intuition and "unconscious" thinking • Daniel Gilbert on desire, prediction, and why getting what we want doesn't always make us happy • Nassim Nicholas Taleb on the limitations of statistics in guiding decision-making • Vilayanur Ramachandran on the scientific underpinnings of human nature • Simon Baron-Cohen on the startling effects of testosterone on the brain • Daniel C. Dennett on decoding the architecture of the "normal" human mind • Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on mental disorders and the crucial developmental phase of adolescence • Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, and Roy Baumeister on the science of morality, ethics, and the emerging synthesis of evolutionary and biological thinking • Gerd Gigerenzer on rationality and what informs our choices.
The Ego Trick, by Julian Baggini. Are you still the person who lived fifteen, ten or five years ago? Fifteen, ten or five minutes ago? Can you plan for your retirement if the you of thirty years hence is in some sense a different person? What and who is the real you? Does it remain constant over time and place, or is it something much more fragmented and fluid? Is it known to you, or are you as much a mystery to yourself as others are to you?With his usual wit, infectious curiosity and bracing scepticism, Julian Baggini sets out to answer these fundamental and unsettling questions. His fascinating quest draws on the history of philosophy, but also anthropology, sociology, psychology and neurology; he talks to theologians, priests, allegedly reincarnated Lamas, and delves into real-life cases of lost memory, personality disorders and personal transformation; and, candidly and engagingly, he describes his own experiences. After reading The Ego Trick, you will never see yourself in the same way again.
Zen and the Art of Consciousness, by Susan Blackmore. Who are you? When are you? What were you conscious of a moment ago? This groundbreaking book sees acclaimed psychologist Susan Blackmore combining the latest scientific theories about mind, self, and consciousness with a lifetime’s practice of Zen. Framed by ten critical questions derived from Zen teachings and designed to expand your understanding and experience of consciousness, Ten Zen Questions doesn’t offer final - or easy - answers, but instead provides an inspiring exploration of how intellectual enquiry and meditation can tackle some of today’s greatest scientific mysteries.
Bonus suggestion (c'mon, surely we can get away with suggesting one of our own books, yes?)
Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life, by Yours Truly. How should we live? According to philosopher and biologist Massimo Pigliucci, the greatest guidance to this essential question lies in combining the wisdom of 24 centuries of philosophy with the latest research from 21st century science. In Answers for Aristotle, Pigliucci argues that the combination of science and philosophy first pioneered by Aristotle offers us the best possible tool for understanding the world and ourselves. As Aristotle knew, each mode of thought has the power to clarify the other: science provides facts, and philosophy helps us reflect on the values with which to assess them. But over the centuries, the two have become uncoupled, leaving us with questions—about morality, love, friendship, justice, and politics—that neither field could fully answer on its own. Pigliucci argues that only by rejoining each other can modern science and philosophy reach their full potential, while we harness them to help us reach ours. Pigliucci discusses such essential issues as how to tell right from wrong, the nature of love and friendship, and whether we can really ever know ourselves—all in service of helping us find our path to the best possible life. Combining the two most powerful intellectual traditions in history, Answers for Aristotle is a remarkable guide to discovering what really matters and why.
Thursday, December 19, 2013
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
* (Old but good one) How not to Feyerabend.
* Who needs a gun? Good question.
* A feminist Kant? Seriously?? And yet...
* Jerry Coyne builds a straw man to defend the metaphor of selfish genes. (Check out the original criticism here.)
* Historical redress: who must pay for the past, and how?
* Listening to your inner voice, unless you are crazy.
* Former RS podcast guest Cordelia Fine has a problem or two with the latest neuro-gender study.
* The importance of philosophy of medicine.
* The ways of lust.
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
One obvious problem is posed by what it would mean for the world to be “made of” mathematical structures. The notion of mathematical structure is well developed, so that’s not the issue. A structure, strictly speaking, is a property or a group of mathematical objects that attach themselves to a given set. For instance, the set of real numbers has a number of structures, including an order (with any given number being either less or more than another number), a metric (measuring the distance between points in the set), an algebraic structure (the operations of addition and multiplication), and so on.
In Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes, critic Alex Vilenkin says that “the number of mathematical structures [in the multiverse] increases with increasing complexity, suggesting that ‘typical’ structures should be horrendously large and cumbersome. This seems to be in conflict with the beauty and simplicity of the theories describing our world.” In order to get around that problem, Tegmark assigns lower weights to more complex structures, but since this is done without a priori justification, it is an ad hoc move, which of course violates Occam’s razor. So, as much as I enjoyed our conversation with Max, for the time being I remain skeptical of the MUH and related hypotheses. Maybe we just need to wait for the appearance of an infinitely intelligent mathematician.
[This just in from Max Tegmark himself!]
Thanks Massimo for the fun conversation during the interview and for raising these important questions! They are excellent ones, and a key reason why I spent three years writing this book is because I wanted to make sure to finally answer them all properly. Needless to say, I couldn't do justice to them in our short interview, so I'm very much look forward to hear what you think about my detailed answers in chapters 6, 10, 11 and 12. I think you'll find that our viewpoints are closer than your post suggest - for example, your statement "Tegmark assigns lower weights to more complex structures" is not something you'll find in the book. Rather, I describe how the measure problem is a terrible embarrassment for modern cosmology (regardless of whether the MUH is true or not) that we need to solve, and that our untested assumption that truly infinite things exist in nature are my prime suspect: we've never measured anything to better than 17 decimal places, have only 10^89 particles in our universe, and manage to do all our publishable physics simulations with computers that have finite resources, so even though my physics courses at MIT use infinity as a convenient tool, I respectfully object to your "OPS" argument that we somehow have experimental evidence for infinity in physics. Without infinity, there are, as you say, no Gödel issues in our physics.
I look forward to continuing this interesting conversation! ;-)
Monday, December 09, 2013
This episode of Rationally Speaking features Dr. Jerome Wakefield, psychiatrist, PhD in philosophy, and author of "The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder." Julia, Massimo and Jerome talk about the arbitrariness of the DSM and the controversies around the boundaries of various mental disorders, including depression and sexual fetishes.
Jerome's pick: Bertrand Russells's Autobiography
Saturday, December 07, 2013
So I’m happy to think of the work of social psychologists as Moral Science. Moral Science is description and diagnosis. Moral Philosophy is prescription and prognosis.