Friday, August 10, 2012

The Unreason of Rationalists: Massimo Pigliucci

Yesterday the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, a well-known atheist (he has debated William Lane Craig, for example), did something admirable and useful: he posted a list of unreasonable arguments he often encounters within the "Community of Reason."  Then he offered several suggestions about how skeptics (and one could easily add, the rest of us) ought to conduct discourse, even on the Internet.  Some of these suggestions might be reduced to the form, "Scientists and philosophers need one another."  Amen! 

Perhaps the proper response from a Christian thinker would be introspection, and then a parallel list of common errors committed by Christians, or maybe by myself, if I could see them.  (I was planning a critique of exclusivism, and may post that next week.)  But Pigliucci's list contains quite a bit of good sense, though I disagree on some details.  I also think it lacks historical breadth: he does not mention, for instance, the Liberation Through Perversity cult of Alfred Kinsey, though he does bring up Ayn Rand.  Names like Margaret Sanger, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, or Mao Zedong, and the characteristically harmful and irrational beliefs they and their millions of followers embraced in the name of "reason" and "science," also do not make Pigliucci's list, which perhaps is why philosophers and scientists both need historians, too.

But one must start somewhere, and if one finds a philosopher in one's fellowship, it is often wise to listen to him. 

Pigliucci offers fourteen points.  I cite them in full, adding numbers, then comment as seems appropriate.  (Thankfully, perhaps, I will not go into much detail or offer many links or citations, having a dissertation to patch up right now, among other things.)  :

1. Assorted nonsense about alternative medicine. Despite excellent efforts devoted to debunking “alternative” medicine claims, some atheists especially actually endorse all sorts of nonsense about “non-Western” remedies.

I have no particular knowledge of or interest in this subject.   

2.  Religion is not a proper area of application for skepticism, according to some skeptics. Why on earth not? It may not be a suitable area of inquiry for science, but skepticism — in the sense of generally applied critical thinking — draws on more than just science (think philosophy, logic and math).

I agree entirely.  Few things on earth can be as harmful as a religion -- including, of course, secular humanist religions -- which is why the Bible is usefully skeptical of idolatry, priests, prophets, Pharisees, religious babbling, human sacrifice, and other irrational and harmful religious phenomena.  This is also why I welcome the critiques of the New Atheists, as they ought to welcome our rebuttals.  We need our skeptics and reformers. 

One of the weaknesses of the New Atheism is that it tends to neglect the latter category, which is rather telling.  "Communism abolishes all eternal values," as Marx and Engels put it, because communists are naive about their own motives, and therefore think if they abolish forms in which evil has in the past been embedded, evil will disappear -- ignoring the fact that it is also rooted in their own souls.  Much disillussionment in the Gnu community over the past year, much offended and surprised bitterness, derives I think from abandoning the doctrine of Original Sin, and therefore being surprised and shocked to find in one's own allies what one denies in oneself. 

3. Philosophy is useless armchair speculation. So is math. And logic. And all theoretical science.

As I have said before, over the five years since The Truth Behind the New Atheism came out, practically the only New Atheists I have encountered who could argue their way out of a wet paper bag, have seemed to have had philosophical training.  Yet many times, I have seen skeptics -- some of them scientists -- disparage the whole discipline of philosophy.  (Also of history.)  This always looks to me like chopping the tree down on which one perches, not only in the sense of cutting oneself off from some of the best skeptical (or Christian, when we do this) thinking, but also because arguments on big issues are themselves invariably philosophical.  A scientist scoffing at philosophy is not doing no philosophy, he is invariably found (when one attends carefully) to be doing BAD philosophy. 

4. The notion of anthropogenic global warming has not been scientifically established, something loudly proclaimed by people who — to the best of my knowledge — are not atmospheric physicists and do not understand anything about the complex data analysis and modeling that goes into climate change research.

The Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) school (sect?) tends to make four claims: (1) that the Earth's atmosphere has warmed over the past century; (2) that human activity is largely, or perhaps entirely, responsible; (3) that this warming imperils the planet in some grave sense; (4) that we must therefore do X, Y and Z to head off these grave dangers.  

What has been established, and on which nearly all climate and other relevant scientists agree, is the first postulate.  The second is somewhat more controversial in the scientific community (much of the warming took place before humans burned that much fuel, for one thing), the third I think quite unlikely, and the fourth just silly, in my opinion.  Notice that this latter point is not purely or even primarily scientific. 

As a philosopher, Pigliucci should attend more carefully to such important distinctions.  He runs the risk, otherwise, of conflating distinct arguments. 

5. Science can answer moral questions. No, science can inform moral questions, but moral reasoning is a form of philosophical reasoning. The is/ought divide may not be absolute, but it is there nonetheless.


6. Science has established that there is no consciousness or free will (and therefore no moral responsibility). No, it hasn’t, as serious cognitive scientists freely admit. Notice that I am not talking about the possibility that science has something meaningful to say about these topics (it certainly does when it comes to consciousness, and to some extent concerning free will, if we re-conceptualize the latter as the human ability of making decisions). I am talking about the dismissal-cum-certainty attitude that so many in the CoR have so quickly arrived at, despite what can be charitably characterized as a superficial understanding of the issue.

I have no special knowledge of this subject, but am heartened by Pigliucci's admission. 

7. Determinism has been established by science. Again, wrong, not only because there are interpretations of quantum mechanics that are not deterministic, but because a good argument can be made that that is simply not the sort of thing science can establish (nor can anything else, which is why I think the most reasonable position in this case is simple agnosticism).

Here, too. 

8. Evolutionary psychology is on epistemic par with evolutionary biology. No, it isn’t, for very good and well understood reasons pertinent to the specific practical limitations of trying to figure out human selective histories. Of course, evopsych is not a pseudoscience, and it’s probably best understood as a science-informed narrative about the human condition.

Again, an interesting perspective, to which I have little to add. 

9. The Singularity is near! I have just devoted a full column for Skeptical Inquirer (in press) to why I think this amounts to little more than a cult for nerds. But it is a disturbingly popular cult within the CoR.

10.  Objectivism is (the most rational) philosophy according to a significant sub-set of skeptics and atheists (not humanists, since humanism is at complete odds with Randianism). Seriously, people? Notice that I am not talking about libertarianism here, which is a position that I find philosophically problematic and ethically worrisome, but is at least debatable. Ayn Rand’s notions, on the other hand, are an incoherent jumble of contradictions and plagiarism from actual thinkers. Get over it.

OK, Pigliucci does take on Rand.  Bravo. 

The next two go together:

11. Feminism is a form of unnecessary and oppressive liberal political correctness. Oh please, and yet, rather shockingly, I have heard this “opinion” from several fellow CoRers.

12. Feminists are right by default and every attempt to question them is the result of oppressive male chauvinism (even when done by women). These are people who clearly are not up on readings in actual feminism (did you know that there have been several waves of it? With which do you best connect?).

Feminism certainly CAN be oppressive, liberal, and politically correct.  I have seen people oppressed by it, in very concrete, expensive, immoral, and illiberal ways.  Why should it be shocking that anyone would decry such oppression, when it occurs?  And if feminism is as complex as Pigliucci admits, how can he be so sure these complaints are never valid? 

I'm glad of Pigliucci's attempt to be balanced, though.  He seems to leave the door open for valid criticism, and that is welcome.  I do, of course, argue that the best and most balanced form of "feminism" is the radical reform movement in gender relations launched by one Jesus of Nazareth.  (See my previous posts on "How Jesus has Liberated Women.") 

13. All religious education is child abuse, period. This is a really bizarre notion, I think. Not only does it turn 90% of the planet into child abusers, but people “thinking” (I use the term loosely) along these lines don’t seem to have considered exactly what religious education might mean (there is a huge variety of it), or — for that matter — why a secular education wouldn’t be open to the same charge, if done as indoctrination (and if it isn’t, are you really positive that there are no religious families out there who teach doubt? You’d be surprised!).

Here Pigliucci, admirably, takes on some silly and pernicious words thrown out by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion.  I think many or most  of his readers will recognize the reference. 

14. Insulting people, including our close allies, is an acceptable and widespread form of communication with others. Notice that I am not talking about the occasional insult hurled at your opponent, since there everyone is likely a culprit from time to time (including yours truly). I am talking about engaging in apologia on behalf of a culture of insults.

Here Pigliucci's target may be PZ Myers, not the only person in the Gnu community to argue for a "culture of insults," but probably the most prominent and influential.

The funny thing is how many Gnus only seemed to recognize the evils of this "culture of insults" after their movement began to eat its own, especially after Elevatorgate.  A Christian who dipped his toe into Pharyngula could be cursed, told to do unnatural things to himself, had his honesty and intellect slammed in the most jejune manner, and be subject to a unanimous chorus of hate speech for simply defending his views, led by PZ Myers, and few denizons seemed to see any problem.  This reminded me of Solzhenitsyn's observation that the only wave of communist persecution communists seemed to notice was the wave of 1937, which was directed at themselves. 

What do the elements of this list have in common, if anything? A few things, which is where I hope the discussion is going to focus (as opposed to attempting to debunk one’s pet entry, or deny that there is a problem to begin with).

A) Anti-intellectualism. This is an attitude of lack of respect for the life of the mind and those who practice it. It may be strange to claim that members — and even some leaders — of the CoR engage in anti-intellectualism, but the evidence is overwhelming. When noted biologists or physicists in the movement dismiss an entire field of intellectual pursuit (philosophy) out of hand they are behaving in an anti-intellectual manner. When professional “skeptics” tell us that they don’t buy claims of anthropogenic global warming, they are being anti-intellectual because they are dismissing the work of thousands of qualified scientists. To be more precise here . . .

As noted above, I think Pigliucci DOES need to be more precise on AGW.  On anti-intellectualism, yes, of course, but first of all what CS Lewis called "The Great Sin" of pride, or arrogance, if you prefer.

 I think there are actually two separate sub-issues at play:

A1) Scientism. This is the pernicious tendency to believe that science is the only paragon of knowledge and the ultimate arbiter of what counts as knowledge. And the best way to determine if you are perniciously inclined toward scientism is to see whether you vigorously deny its existence in the community. 
A2) Anti-intellectualism proper. This is the thing on display when “skeptics” reject even scientific findings, as in the above mentioned case of global warming.
B) The “I’m-smarter-than-thou” syndrome. Let’s admit it, skepticism does have a way to make us feel intellectually superior to others. They are the ones believing in absurd notions like UFOs, ghosts, and the like! We are on the side of science and reason. Except when we aren’t, which ought to at least give us pause and enroll in the nearest hubris-reducing ten-step program.

Yes . . . which hopefully meets in a church, and is called a "prayer group." :- )

C) Failure of leadership. It is hard to blame the rank and files of the CoR when they are constantly exposed to such blatant and widespread failure of leadership within their own community. Gone are, it seems, the days of the Carl Sagans, Martin Gardners, and Bertrand Russells, and welcome to the days of bloggers and twitterers spouting venom or nonsense just because they can.

I don't know Gardner, but Sagan and Russell were responsible for spouting their share of venom and nonsense. 

Where does this leave us? Well, for one thing — at this very moment — probably with a lot of pissed off people! But once the anger subsides, perhaps we active members of the CoR can engage in some “soul” searching and see if we can improve our own culture, from the inside.

An admirable goal, for any community.  We Christians can also ask, "Which of these criticisms strike home with us?  With me?" 

To begin with, are there positive models to look up to in this endeavor? Absolutely, and here I will name names . . .

Do I have any practical suggestions on how to move the CoR forward . . .

i) Turn on moderation on all your blogs, this will raise the level of discourse immediately by several orders of magnitude, at the cost of a small inconvenience to you and your readers.

Absolutely.  I do not publish comments here that are grossly uncivil or irrational, and I do think that makes things more interesting.   

ii) Keep in mind the distinction between humor and sarcasm, leave the latter to comedians, who are supposed to be offending people. (In other words, we are not all Jon Stewarts or Tim Minchins.)

This is not exactly a distinction, sarcasm being a form of humor.  But for sure, too much of that particular form can ruin a conversation -- a sin I have fallen guilty of, sometimes. 

The rest of Pigliucci's list is quite good, and I will reproduce it without any more comments:

iii) Apply the principle of charity, giving the best possible interpretation of someone else’s argument before you mercilessly dismantle it. (After which, by all means, feel free to go ahead and mercilessly dismantle it.)

iv) Engage your readers and your opponents in as civil a tone as you can muster. Few people deserve to be put straight into insult mode (Hitler and Pat Robertson come to mind).

v) Treat the opinions of experts in a given domain with respect, unless your domain of expertise is reasonably close to the issue at hand. This doesn’t mean not criticizing experts or worshipping their pronouncements, but only to avoid anti-intellectualism while doing it.

vi) Read more philosophy, it will do you a world of good. (I am assuming that if you are a member of the CoR you already do read quite a bit of science. If not, why are you here?)

vii) Pick the right role models for your skeptics pantheon (suggestions above, people to avoid are left to your keen intuition).

viii) Remember what the objectives are: to learn from exposing your ideas to the cross-criticism of others and in turn help others learn to think better. Objectives do not include showing the world how right and cool you are.

ix) Keep in mind that even the very best make mistakes and occasionally endorse notions that turn out to be wrong. How is it possible that you are the only exception to this rule?


Crude said...

iv) Engage your readers and your opponents in as civil a tone as you can muster. Few people deserve to be put straight into insult mode (Hitler and Pat Robertson come to mind).

Oh please. And I say this as someone who regards a lot of what Robertson says with cynicism.

But I admit, mostly a great list from Pigliucci.

David B Marshall said...

Yeah, that is absurd company to put Robertson in, I'll grant you that. Though I can't deny some of his comments earn the mockery they receive.

Rudy said...


Really enjoyed this post; I'll come back later with more substantial comments, but I just have time for a drive-by I'm afraid:

1. It is established with certainty that CO2 levels have been increasing in the atmosphere ever since the industrial revolution started. It is possible, of course, that this has had no effect on the climate; but that seems close to wishful thinking.

2. Made the mistake of posting at P*la a few times. Never again.

3. Martin Gardner did not suffer superstition and hoaxers gladly. He wrote a debunking of Scientology really, really early (maybe around 1965? I'd have to look it up). Personally he was a theist, though not a follower of a creed. He wrote a very interesting book about his religious beliefs, and an autbiographical novel about the evolution of his beliefs. You might be intereted in tracking them down. William James was his intellectual hero.


I am going to avoid commenting on your most recently post (the political one) except to say that you seem to be poor judge of (public) character, and I was disappointed by it.

David B Marshall said...

Rudy: Thanks. I'm sure CO2 does have some effect; the question is how much. The vast majority of increase in CO2 has come since WWII: but a very large proportion of the increase in temperature came before.

Gartner does sound interesting. I like James.

We don't need to agree on everything. Feel free to support Brian, if you can do so in a cheerful frame of mind: I think he's inclined to blame Christianity for my perverse conservative politics, so maybe some support by a left-wing Christian will cheer him up.

Anonymous said...

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joy said...

Everyone of us commit mistakes and pay for the charges but through that we learn to know what is right from wrong. We need to be careful of our actions and we should stay humble, seek assistance from God. If you have God in you, you will forget the bad things that are happening in you life, you became strong and never affected of it. So, let God stay in your heart and mind. Have a good day! I hope I inspire everyone here.