Pigliucci to all New Atheists: we’re doing it wrong

I haven’t paid a lot of attention to Massimo Pigluicci lately, and for several reasons. I’ve been busy writing, and haven’t had time to read many websites. And when I have read Massimo’s site, Rationally Speaking, I’ve been put off by his arrogance, attack-dogishness (if you want a strident atheist, look no further than Massimo), and his repeated criticisms of New Atheists because We Don’t Know Enough Philosophy. (If you substituted “Theology” for “Philosophy” there, you’d pretty much have Terry Eagleton). But I haven’t gone after Pigliucci, either, for he’s left me pretty much alone.

That has changed, for he has just published a strong attack on New Atheists (mentioning me, albeit briefly) in a paper in Midwest Studies in Philosophy (free access and download at link; reference below): “New atheism and the scientistic turn in the atheism movement.” It’s a nasty piece of work: mean-spirited and misguided. It’s also, I suspect, motivated by Pigliucci’s jealousy of how the New Atheists get more attention and sell more books than he does—and that’s just unfair because people like Sam Harris and Dawkins don’t know any philosophy and ergo shouldn’t have any credibility. In fact, Pigliucci argues, their ignorance of philosophy is deeply injurious to the cause of both science and New Atheism.

I’ll leave the psychological factors aside for the nonce, but I have to say that the paper just drips and seethes with jealousy and the feeling that Pigliucci considers himself neglected because philosophy is marginalized by New Atheists.  And he has no good words for any of the new atheists, with the slight exception of Dennett (a fellow philosopher who nevertheless comes in for some drubbing), and Alain De Botton and A. C. Grayling, whom he sees as Not New Atheists (Grayling certainly is one of us, though!).

Pigluicci’s piece starts out all right, accurately identifying the distinguishing trait of New Atheism as its connection with science and its taking the idea of God as a hypothesis to be tested. The other characteristic is that it’s immensely popular—even more so than the works of “old” atheists like Ingersoll and Russell (but not Mencken).

But then Pigliucci begins to beef. He argues that “this isn’t a simple issue of turf wars between science and philosophy, but rather an attempt to clarify the differences—as well as overlap and mutual reinforcement—between the two fields, broadly construed.” It is no such thing. As I’ll show with some quotes, it clearly is a turf war for Pigliucci, and anyone who’s has followed him knows that this is the case. It’s bloody obvious, no matter how loudly he insists the contrary.

First, Pigliucci disposes of Hitchens as being largely irrelevant to his argument about science. Notice, though, the examples he gives of Hitchens’s work: a clue that there is something more here than just dispassionate academic analysis:

Beginning with Hitchens, there is actually relatively little to say. His God is Not Great is a straightforward anti-religious polemic, something at which the author notoriously excelled throughout his career, whether in defense of Trotskyism or of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq.The book is simply not about science per se. . .

True, but why did he mention Trotsky and Iraq rather than, say, Mother Teresa or the Elgin Marbles? And of course the phrase “notoriously excelled” is simply a gratuitous slur.

Pigliucci then moves on to Dawkins, Stenger, and Harris, whose big mistake, he says, is to take god as a scientific hypothesis:

Nonetheless, in the end [Dawkins] has to resort to philosophical aid, what he refers to as his “argument from improbability,” which is essentially an invocation of Occam’s razor. That is not a problem in and of itself, since after all Occam’s razor—as much as it is clearly an extra-empirical criterion—is routinely invoked within scientific practice. The real issue is that Dawkins (and most if not all of the New Atheists) does not seem to appreciate the fact that there is no coherent or sensible way in which the idea of god can possibly be considered a “hypothesis” in any sense remotely resembling the scientific sense of the term. The problem is that the supernatural, by its own (human) nature, is simply too swishy to be pinpointed precisely enough.

I don’t know what Pigliucci means by “swishy” or “pinpointed,” but it’s simply wrong to claim that a). believers don’t see God as a real entity who interacts with the world in certain ways (making that a hypothesis), and b). that one can’t test the supernatural, an old and false argument often used by Eugenie Scott.  In fact, believers are constantly adducing “evidence” for God, be it Alvin Plantinga’s claim that our senses couldn’t detect truth without their having been given us by god, or Francis Collins’s argument that our innate “moral law” is evidence for God, or the common claim that the “fine tuning” of the constants of physics is evidence for God, or that our sense of “beauty” and “purpose” is evidence for God, or even the James-ian argument that our intuitions and emotions about God constitute a kind of evidence, or at least a reason to believe.

This is all evidence, and believe me, if credible evidence turned up, of the type I’ve mentioned before (Jesus returns, heals amputees, gets filmed, ascends back to heaven, etc.), the faithful would be the first to adduce it, as they already do now when canonizing a new saint. (I wonder what John Paul’s miracles were?) Believers have reasons for what they believe, and that makes god a hypothesis. Further, they have reasons why they reject other faiths. Ask a Christian why he rejects Islam, and he’ll adduce evidence, or rather the lack thereof. Ask a Mormon why she believes, and she’ll mention the Golden Plates—vouched for by two separate testimonies at the beginning of the Book of Mormon. Those who say they don’t need reasons to believe will nevertheless give you ample reasons for not believing in other faiths.

As reader Sastra has often mentioned, atheists do believers the honor of taking their claims seriously, for the believers don’t just pull God out of their tuchus: they have reasons for being Christians, Jews, etc., even if those reasons are simply “I was brought up that way.” And if there are reasons, then one can argue using both rationality (in the case of the “I was brought up that way” argument) and evidence. If you think the Moral Law is evidence for God, you can examine whether our primate relatives also show evidence for morality, and whether and how much of human morality really is innate. That’s science!

Finally, Massimo should know better, for science deals with the supernatural all the time. What else are scientific investigations of ESP and other paranormal phenomena, or studies of “spiritual healing” and intercessory prayer? If religions make claims about how God interacts with the world, then those claims, “supernatural” or not—and the word “supernatural” is notoriously hard to define—can be examined scientifically.

Throughout Pigluicci’s article we find digs at the philosophical ignorance of New Atheists, which belies his claim that this is not a “turf war.” Here’s one connected to the claim of “you can’t test God”:

Besides the obvious fact that one can genuinely be puzzled by what exactly qualifies Stenger (or Dawkins) to authoritatively comment on the straightforward philosophical matters that make up most of their books, the basic problem with Stenger is precisely the same as Dawkins: he treats the “god hypothesis” as if it were formulated precisely and coherently enough to qualify as a scientific hypothesis, which it manifestly isn’t, for the reasons already explained. It is, of course, this very insistence on the part of Dawkins, Stenger, and others that provides the bulk of the evidence for the conclusion that the New Atheism movement has a markedly scientistic flavor which was missing from its historical predecessors.

And here’s another, which is just wrong:

Moreover, it seems clear to me that most of the New Atheists (except for the professional philosophers among them) pontificate about philosophy very likely without having read a single professional paper in that field. If they had, they would have no trouble recognizing philosophy as a distinct (and, I maintain, useful) academic discipline from science: read side by side, science and philosophy papers have precious little to do with each other, in terms not just of style, but of structure, scope, and range of concerns. I would actually go so far as to charge many of the leaders of the New Atheism movement (and, by implication, a good number of their followers) with anti-intellectualism, one mark of which is a lack of respect for the proper significance, value, and methods of another field of intellectual endeavor.

Really, “most of the New Atheists haven’t read a philosophy paper”? I seriously doubt that. I won’t defend myself on this count, for I’ve read many, and so, I suspect, have Dawkins, Harris, Stenger, and others seen as important New Atheists.  The charge of anti-intellectualism is snobbish, and what Pigliucci means by it is that New Atheists harbor a “lack of respect” for his field: philosophy. It’s statements like the above that make it hard to take Massimo seriously as a dispassionate critic of New Atheism.  Did he ask any of us if we’d read any philosophy papers?

Another major gripe of Pigliucci is that people like me and, especially, Sam Harris construe “science” too broadly: we see it as any endeavor to find out truths about the universe using observation and reason. I’ve used the example of car mechanics and plumbing as science “broadly construed” (I used “broadly construed” to avoid confusion with “real” science as done by scientists). But really, formal science as done by scientists differs only in its trappings from what a plumber does when he tries to find a leak. Finding leaks, or working out an electrical problem in a car, involves hypotheses, tests, falsification, and so on. Sam has a fine essay about this issue that he wrote for Edge, “Our narrow definition of science”, and I recommend it.

Pigliucci calls this broadening of the term “science” as a form of “scientism” which, he says, is philosophically unsound (really? it’s just a definition)—a trait that actually hurts science by making us seem arrogant, and also hurts atheism by somehow enfolding philosophy into the term “science”. That, of course, is Pigluicci’s real complaint:

What I do object to is the tendency, found among many New Atheists, to expand the definition of science to pretty much encompassing anything that deals with “facts,” loosely conceived. So broadened, the concept of science loses meaning and it becomes indistinguishable from just about any other human activity. One might as well define “philosophy” as the discipline that deals with thinking and then claim that everything we do, including of course science itself, properly belongs to philosophy. It would be a puerile and useless exercise, and yet it is not far from the attitude prevalent among the New Atheists.

Well, you know, I wouldn’t have any objection to including science as a subset of philosophy—one that includes not only philosophy’s rational thinking but applies it to answering questions about what is true in the universe. After all, science used to be called “natural philosophy” in Europe. What’s important is to distinguish those disciplines that enforce reasons for believing in things (disciplines like science, math, and philosophy) from those that don’t (postmodern literary criticism, theology, etc.).

This complaint becomes even more curious because Pigliucci is willing to enfold both science and philosophy into a broader discipline, “scientia”:

Assuming my critique of what is actually new about the New Atheism hits the mark, one can still pose the reasonable question of what might be the most constructive way for atheists of the new generations to look upon their metaphysical position, and in particular upon how it relates to both sound philosophical and scientific notions. I think that atheists need to seriously reconsider how they think of human knowledge in general, perhaps arching back to the classic concept of “scientia,” the Latin word from which “science” derives, but that has a broader connotation of (rationally arrived at) knowledge. Scientia includes science sensu stricto, philosophy, mathematics, and logic—that is, all the reliable sources of third person knowledge that humanity has successfully experimented with so far. In turn, when scientia is combined with input from other humanistic disciplines, the arts, and first-person experience it yields understanding.

This is pretty much o.k. except that Pigluicci includes “arts” and “first-person experience,” with “scientia” as ways of understanding.  “First-person experience,” of course, includes the many forms of revelation used to justify the existence of God, and while “arts” are ways of “feeling,” it’s arguable about whether the kind of understanding they yield is equivalent to the kind of understanding produced by physics and philosophy, or, for that matter, by revelation.

At the end of his paper, Pigluicci once again bashes New Atheists for attempting to subsume philosophy under science (he’s already said this elebenty gazillion times in his paper), and makes a final dubious argument that this type of conflation hurts the progress of New Atheism. What would really further atheism, according to Pigliucci is—wait for it—a proper respect for philosophy!:

But what the New Atheists seem to be aiming at is a replacement of philosophy by science, or at the very least a significant demotion of the former with respect to the latter. And this appears to be the case even among the philosophers who count themselves as New Atheists, Dennett and Rosenberg chief among them. This ends up diminishing the case for atheism and allied positions about gods, as they lose some of the the strong intellectual ground that has been their hallmark since the Greek atomists.

. . .What the atheist movement needs, therefore, is not a brute force turn toward science at the expense of everything else, but rather a more nuanced, comprehensive embracing of all the varied ways—intellectual as well as experiential—in which human beings acquire knowledge and develop understanding of their world. A healthy respect for, and cooperation with, other disciplines should be the hallmark of the twenty-first century atheist, and this is precisely the direction toward which some post–New Atheism writers, such as De Botton and Grayling (not at all coincidentally, both philosophers) have been pushing most recently. That path, rather than the one attempted by the New Atheists, is the one that I think has the most potential to lead to a long-standing rational and persuasive case for atheism.

(Note to readers: when you see the word “nuanced” used in criticism of atheism, run!)

Now I am a fan of certain types of philosophy, including the moral philosophy of people like John Rawls and Judith Jarvis Thomson, the blending of philosophy with science as practiced by Dan Dennett and Peter Singer, and the philosophical examination of theological claims as done by people like Hermann Phillipse and Walter Kaufmann (note to Pigliucci: I’ve read all of them).  I like philosophy that deals with real-world problems, for the genuine benefit of philosophy, to me, is not arguing about useless things like the “meaning of meaning” (Pigluicci will of course object that that’s an important problem), but to help us weed out misconceptions, erroneous thinking, and logical errors in how we think about science, life, and morality. Philosophers have a lot to teach us about how to think rigorously. But what atheism needs is not arcane and “sophisticated philosophy”, but people like Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens who know enough philosophy of the nonacademic sort that they can point out errors in the thinking of regular religious people.

And they have done so—quite effectively. In fact, the success of New Atheism in recent years can be attributed mainly to “philosophically naive” books like The God Delusion, The End of Faith, and God is Not Great, as well as to the dissemination of New Atheist videos and writings via the Internet and the connection that the Internet provides between previously closeted and isolated atheists.

Let me return Pigluicci’s snark for a moment and argue that he himself, although a professed atheist, has had virtually no influence in the rising visibility and success of New Atheism. That seems to bother him, but what it’s really done is turn him onto an intellectual siding that dead-ends at irrelevance. Instead of the important task of dispelling religious mythology and getting people to examine their harmful beliefs, Pigliucci is on a campaign to damn other New Atheists because they don’t afford his discipline the proper respect. That has accomplished very little: it’s not only angered potential allies (something he says that New Atheists are doing by being scientistic and arrogant), but has marginalized him, though he doesn’t seem to realize it.

I was once favorably disposed to Pigliucci, but nasty and mean-spirited articles like this one, which really say nothing he hasn’t said before a thousand times, don’t make me see him as much of an ally. He is the Rodney Dangerfield of atheism, always pulling at his Philosophical Tie and claiming that he doesn’t get enough respect.

At any rate, Massimo’s dissing of New Atheists, especially Sam Harris, has caused a bit of an intellectual kerfuffle on the Internet. Pigliucci recently published this cartoon on his website Rationally Speaking, a cartoon explicitly aimed at Sam’s view of science (and mine) as something that can be construed broadly. (I take credit for the plumbing trope.)  This is very like a Jack Chick tract!

14-1-14-Sam+Harris-1And Sam has responded on Twitter:

Sam Harris tweet

I’m pretty much with Sam: the important work is what people like Sam, Richard, Dan, and Steve Pinker have done (and that Hitchens did before he died), not the yapping at their heels done by the likes of Pigliucci. There are many “pigliucci units” between Massimo’s new paper and The End of Faith.

And if New Atheism has been such a miserable failure, why does Pigliucci admit this?

The extrinsic character of the New Atheism is to be found in the indisputably popular character of the movement. All books produced by the chief New Atheists mentioned above have been worldwide best sellers, in the case of Dawkins’s God Delusion, for instance, remaining for a whopping 51 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. While previous volumes criticizing religion had received wide popular reception (especially the classic critique of Christianity by Bertrand Russell), nothing like that had happened before in the annals of Western literature. The search for the reasons explaining such an unprecedented level of popularity is best left to sociologists, and at any rate is not really relevant to my aims here.

Of course it’s relevant; Pigliucci simply doesn’t realize it.

__________

Pigliucci, M. 2013. New Atheism and the scientistic turn in the atheism movement. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 37:142-153.

208 Comments

  1. Cara
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    Subscribe.

    • francis
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 7:40 am | Permalink

      //

    • Dawn Oz
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Cara – I’m not into Twitter, however have just subscribed to Harris and also found Dennet, Kraus and a few others.

    • Stephan Brun
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      I subscribed for the birds. And this, of course.

  2. Posted January 24, 2014 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Small point, to begin with:

    In turn, when scientia is combined with input from other humanistic disciplines, the arts, and first-person experience it yields understanding.

    This is pretty much o.k. except that Pigluicci includes “arts” and “first-person experience,” and I’m not at all sure they belong in “scientia”.

    I don’t think Massimo is including the arts &c. within scientia; just asserting that scientia plus arts &c. yields (greater) understanding.

    /@

    • Posted January 24, 2014 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      Right you are, Ant. I’ve fixed it.

    • Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      It’s fairly remarkable. He spends the whole paper sneering at the concept of all reason/evidence-based knowledge being subsumed into “science”. Then at the end he proposes exactly the same thing except he uses the term “scientia”.

      • Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:44 am | Permalink

        It’s simple turf defence. “I don’t want philosophy (my! subject) to be subsumed within science.”

        P ⊄ S

        Sʹ = S ∪ P ∪ L ∪ M (supulum!)

        Not sure if he thinks: S ∩ P = ∅

        We could talk about rational inquiry (which David Deutsch discusses as problem solving; he sees science strict sensu as a refinement of everyday problem solving) as an even larger supserset:

        S″ = Sʹ ∪ Pb … 

        /@

        • Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:48 am | Permalink

          * sensu stricto

        • Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:49 am | Permalink

          (I should have just gone with “narrowly construed”!)

        • Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:11 am | Permalink

          So if we reverted to “natural philosophy” then Pigliucci would be hunky dory with it?

  3. Posted January 24, 2014 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Nice rebuttal Jerry. I really don’t understand why Pigliucci takes the sneering tone that he does. The other point to make about this article is the way it strawmans continually.

    For example, after lamenting that there is nothing particularly new in The God Delusion, Pigliucci writes:

    “Yet Dawkins and his followers present The God Delusion as a shining example of how science has dealt a fatal blow to the idea of gods.”

    Yet in a recent interview Dawkins replies to:

    Q. “People talk about “new atheism”. Is there something new about it?”, with:

    Dawkins: “No, there isn’t. Nothing that wasn’t in Bertrand Russell or probably Robert Ingersoll.”

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      He’s got two PhDs. Do you think that someone with only one PhD can do what he does?

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

        Did I say two PhDs? That wouldn’t even be enough. I think this requires three.

  4. malcolm
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Very much agree with this piece. I used to read Matthew’s website regularly but have stopped doing so as there is too much of this type of oiece on it at the moment. However one minor typo – are not golden plates to do with Mormons and not Christian Scientists?

    • gbjames
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 7:53 am | Permalink

      Yes. I was going to point this out, too. But you beat me to it.

      Christian Scientists have a different set of nonsense references.

    • Posted January 24, 2014 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      Yes, of course. I’ve fixed it, thanks. This is what happens when you publish first-draft material at 6 a.m., before the coffee has kicked in!

      • Dawn Oz
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

        Coffee and cats – yeah!

    • karled
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      yes, Golden Plates are from Mormon mythology, not Christian Scientists. (Speaking as a recovered Mormon, myself.)

  5. George
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    When I was 18, my distance was about a million pigliuccis. Now it is zero since, like Socrates, I know that I know nothing.

    • Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      If you know that you know nothing, then you still have a few picliuccis left!

      • Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:56 am | Permalink

        Or to quote my favorite philosopher:-

        “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

        ― William Shakespeare, As You Like It

        • Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:02 am | Permalink

          But the wise man doesn’t know what it’s like to be thick as a brick …

          /@

          • Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:40 am | Permalink

            Nice!

          • Reginald Selkirk
            Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

            I understand that involves qualia.

            • Posted January 24, 2014 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

              Nope, just flute.

              ‘Sokay — it’s an easy mistrake for non-musicians to make. I run into people who think what I play is a trombone, even.

              b&

    • Kevin
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      How does society go about vaccinating its citizens of pigliuccis?

    • @eightyc
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think those are Pigliuccis.

      Pigliucci is a measure of the disparity between what you think is important and that thing’s actual importance.

      • @eightyc
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

        For example,

        If I thought it’s very important that I stand on one leg while my western blot is running because it will give me unsmeared bands, then that would garner 1 billion pigliuccis. It is because it’s actual importance is essential nil.

        • Dale
          Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

          I think the Pigliucci must be a ratio. A number between 0 and 1. What one thinks is important divided by actual importance.

          A Pigliucci value of 1 indicates one is completely misguided. Values greater than 1 can be achieved if one is also snarky and superior about it.

          • gbjames
            Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

            “What one thinks is important divided by actual importance.”

            That won’t work. It will produce a divide-by-zero error.

            • @eightyc
              Posted January 24, 2014 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

              Yes it is a ratio.

              We can fix the value of the actual importance of any thing to 1.

              As long as what you think is important about any subject matter matches its actual importance, you should always get a Pigliucci of 1.

              The more you become delusional and put more and more importance on what a thing actually warrants, then the higher your Pigliucci value will become.

              For example,

              Subject matter: Understanding protein folding

              Scenario 1:

              I think it’s really important to know at what temperature the protein starts to denature. So I want to spend all my time figuring out the different temperatures at which different proteins melt at.

              Actual importance: I must consult others to get a gauge on how important temperature actually is to the folded state of a protein. I think we can all agree that temperature is very important.

              Pigliucci ratio: It’s likely 1 or not too far from 1.

              Scenario 2:

              I think it’s really important what color my pipette is when I transfer the aliquot of protein from my stock tube to my sample tube.

              Actual importance: This is likely superstitious behavior akin to baseball players who perform similar routines before they go up to home plate to bat (i.e., tapping their shoes a certain number of times, adjust their gloves a certain way).

              Pigliucci ratio: 100 (I don’t know what the ceiling value is). I don’t think there is a limit to a person’s level of delusion to the importance they impart on certain things.

              So I think Pigliucci units should range between 1 and infinity.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 25, 2014 at 7:30 am | Permalink

                Many a software developer has dealt with algorithm containing zero as the denominator. Unless “actual importance” is never “nothing”, it will break. Your scenario 2 isn’t actually nothing, so it squeaks by. I suppose you could call it “The Agnostic’s Escape” or something.

    • Filippo
      Posted January 25, 2014 at 6:23 am | Permalink

      Regarding “Pigliucci” . . . a bit of stream of consciousness (and bloviation).

      I know we’re in English mode here.

      Re: “Pagliacci,” Leoncavallo’s opera – “Pagliacci” is plural. Pagliacco is the singular.

      So, seems the basic unit should be a “Pigliucco.” Some appropriately and sufficiently large number of them should be a “Pigliucci,” and an even vastly larger number should be a Pigliucciplex.” ;)

      • @eightyc
        Posted January 25, 2014 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        re: gbjames’ comment above, sub

        re: fillipo’s comment,
        haha i’m down with that!

        how about using decibels when the picliucciplex becomes too large?

        perhaps we need a reference picliucci value analagous to sound pressure. For noise it’s 20 uPa.

  6. Posted January 24, 2014 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Re your last point, it may be precisely because New Atheism doesn’t wrap itself in the clothing of Sophisticated Philosophy® that is has its popular appeal.

    This scientia is what Massimo previously called ”sci-phi” in Answers for Aristotle. I think it’s fine as an idea in itself (at least for certain values of φ), as far as I’ve read, but I can’t see any justification (except the invisible monster with green eyes) for sniping at those who excel at “sci” alone.

    I wonder if it irks Anthony Grayling to be lumped together with Alain de Bottom? It irks me, since I respect one, but not the other.

    /@

    • gbjames
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:01 am | Permalink

      Bingo.

      The fact is that Philosophical Sophistication™ is not needed here.

      What examples can practitioners of that art point to as examples of non-apologetic analysis of religion that aren’t better presented with clear and direct (Gnu-style) writing?

    • Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      * de Botton

      • Kevin Alexander
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:58 am | Permalink

        I for one didn’t think it was a typo.

      • Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

        No, you got it right the first time :).

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      You can see the ivory tower behaviour with Pigliucci – he treats philosophy like it’s just something so specialized that no one could possibly understand it without being admitted into the secret philospher’s club.

      This is opposite of modern science which seeks to educate people and does so by figuring out how to communicate discoveries about the natural world without the need for specialized training. In other words, if we were to take what Pigliucci espouses as philosophy’s role, it’s to be as insular and distant as possible so that its specialists can appear all knowing; an educated public must really irk him. His use of Latin is all telling. His vocabulary betrays him. Pigliucci should stop trying to impress us with Latin root words and instead try to engage us with his ability to appeal to our interests.

      Ironically, it is the popularization of science and by extension the popularity of its communicators that irks Pigliucci the most because why should those scientists be exalted and not him!

      Well, the regular folk of popular culture tend to appreciate learning new things without condescension. My advice to Pigliucci is to stop this sniping and figure a way to communicate philosophy in a way that makes it accessible and interesting….maybe look to Dan Dennett as someone who has an approach you can learn from instead turning up your nose to the rest of us.

      • gbjames
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        And I thought you were a fan of Latin! ;)

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 24, 2014 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

          I am; that’s why I hate it being used for evil!

      • Kevin
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

        His ivory tower attitude makes him a bad modern day philosopher. His attitude will have to retreat or he will perish as part of a much older tradition of philosophy which he has voluntarily attached himself.

  7. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    That is not a problem in and of itself, since after all Occam’s razor—as much as it is clearly an extra-empirical criterion—is routinely invoked within scientific practice.

    Occam’s razor is used frequently in science. And so is mathematics, and logic. Science embraces much of what Pigliucci would label as philosophy, making his science vs. philosophy dichotomy appear very artificial.

    To the extent that there is anti-philosophy sentiment among scientists, it can probably be attributed to sophistry; religious apologetics dressed up as philosophy propounded by the likes of Plantinga and William Lane Craig.

    • Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      As I have said here and elsewhere – where’s the dividing line, if one’s philosophy is science friendly, anyway… If it isn’t, there may be a clear cut, but then, so much the worse for your philosophy.

    • Kevin
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Pigliucci does make arguments, which I often wonder, were not developed under the auspices of undermining his own principles.

  8. Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Though I wouldn’t count myself as a New Atheist, the New Atheist movement is important as the religious claim all kind of special privileges not given to secular opinions (with all kind of negative consequences). Since the justification of such a special treatment for religions is based on shaky foundation, it’s important are exposed by some one.

  9. Barry Lyons
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    “I like philosophy that deals with real-world problems.” Exactly.

    Or as I like to put it, I like philosophy that is tethered to material reality. When philosophers start to drift away toward their empyrean somewhere beyond the clouds, that’s when I lose interest and nod off.

  10. NewEnglandBob
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    I used to read Pigliucci’s blog “Rationally Speaking” but stopped about 2 years ago because of his nastiness and arrogance and his useless navel contemplation with things like the meaning of meaning (is he trying to mimic Bill Clinton?).

    It just goes to show that being a triple PhD (DrDrDr) doesn’t help one being a respected likable person one can turn to for knowledge.

    • Dermot C
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      Just like Pigliucci did
      I try to keep my sadness hid…

      as Smokey Robinson nearly said.

      Slaínte.

  11. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    a broader connotation of (rationally arrived at) knowledge

    This is the sticking point for me. Many lovers of philosophy defend rationally arrived thought -as a process – without any apparent interest in investigating or explaining why so many different destinations are arrived at.

    Anyone, philosopher, politician, or conman, can produce a convincing narrative but unless their ideas can be tested, they are just flapping their lips.

  12. Greg Esres
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    In the vein of “When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail,”, to Massimo, every problem looks like a philosophical problem. It’s not surprising that he might be annoyed with those who don’t respect his hammer.

    I don’t gather that he thinks the New Atheist movement has been a failure, but rather that it’s crass at its core. The New Atheists are providing remakes of “Three’s Company” for a tasteless audience.

    I like Massimo, but I think he does himself no favors by yapping about his attitude.

  13. Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Maybe I missed it, but does Pigluicci state anywhere in his piece exactly what philosophy contributes that New Atheists are missing?

    • gbjames
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      That’s the rub, isn’t it!

    • Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:46 am | Permalink

      Sophistication! :-D

      /@

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink

        Is that a synonym for word-salad nonsense?

      • Posted January 24, 2014 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

        Spats and monocles and moustache wax!

    • Greg Esres
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      On his blog, one thing he does say is this:

      Their argument is that the world will be better off in the latter scenario[no religion]….a statement that is impossible to substantiate with empirical evidence, and that amounts to nothing but faith (ouch!).

      • Larry Gay
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:11 am | Permalink

        You can look at livability statistics among countries of the world, as Jerry has many times on WEIT. The more religious, the less livable. The same can be said about states within the USA.

        • Greg Esres
          Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

          Jerry has also pointed out that the causation appears to be the reverse….the less livable, the more religious people become.

      • Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

        Would we like religion to go away? Sure. I bet you and Pigliucci would, too.

        But the argument isn’t just “the world will be better off without religion”. It’s “the world will be better off without faith.” It’s “the world will be better off without religiously motivated hatred”. “The world will be better off without religiously motivated discrimination, religiously motivated attacks on education, attacks on equality, attacks on attempts to improve our environment and quality of life”.

        All of that is eminently testable. Give a theist and an atheist the same task to accomplish, the same “mountain to move”, so to speak, instruct the theist to use only faith, and record the results.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      and this:

      The problem, of course, is that some of those evils were justified using religious grounds, but more likely perpetrated because of the usual suspects: greed, political power, and the like. And similar evils — pace Dawkins’ convenient denial — have demonstrably been carried out by “atheist” governments, as recently as, well, now. Just think of Stalin’s Russia or the recent and current China. Ah, but those are not really the fault of atheism, the NA’s loudly complain, they are cases of political ideology taking up the cover of atheism. Sure, and what, exactly, makes anyone think that the same argument cannot be applied to the Inquisition, or to the various Christian massacres (often aimed at other Christians)? It’s called the no true Scotsman fallacy, you know.

      • TJR
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

        Although its not really the NTS fallacy, its just pointing out that political religions can be just as bad as theistic religions.

        • Larry Gay
          Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

          To abandon rationality to any all-encompassing ideology, religious or political, is dangerous and can lead you right off the cliff.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:19 am | Permalink

        FWIW, I tend to agree with this criticism. At least it makes us look like we have a double standard.

        From my limited knowledge of what the early Soviet government was up to, it seems like the vast majority of the deaths occurred through the forced collectivization of the farms and the ensuring famine. While they may have indeed persecuted the Church, I’m not aware of any action against individuals simply because they weren’t atheists.

      • Bezels
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        No, it’s the fallacy of attributing Hitler’s willingness to slaughter millions of people to his vegetarianism. The Inquisition a) killed people IN THE NAME OF religion, not b) killed people, and happened to have a religious component.

        I see this kind of sophistry deployed frequently by friends on the left, when they talk about “Christian” nations bombing Muslims–as though “Christian” is the defining and motivating characteristic of US attacks on rich, natural resource-producing regions. Which is not only intellectually dishonest and just plain wrong, but a failure of analysis.

  14. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    I would actually go so far as to charge many of the leaders of the New Atheism movement (and, by implication, a good number of their followers) with anti-intellectualism, one mark of which is a lack of respect for the proper significance, value, and methods of another field of intellectual endeavor.

    As a philosophical layman, I have no respect whatsoever for the field.

    Some philosphers, sure, but not the field.

    Why should we respect philosophy as we respect the scientific method?

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted January 25, 2014 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      » Jesper:
      Why should we respect philosophy as we respect the scientific method?

      “And yet, I am quite ready to admit that there is a method which might be described as ‘the one method of philosophy’. But it is not characteristic of philosophy alone; it is, rather, the one method of all rational discussion, and therefore of the natural sciences as well as of philosophy. The method I have in mind is that of stating one’s problem clearly and of examining its various proposed solutions critically.” (Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery)

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted January 25, 2014 at 8:49 am | Permalink

        But it is not characteristic of philosophy alone…

        Pretty much sums it up for me.

        Anyone with a working bullshit detector can call her/himself a philosopher according to this definition, which is hunky dory, but that doesn’t make it worthy of respect.

        In my view philosophy at its best acts as a bullwark for the scientific method against mumbo-jumbo of all sorts. More often than not though, to me it sounds more like long-winded rhetorical exercises without much substantiality.

        Pigliucci wants us to stop thinking about the god hypothesis critically and furthermore he wants respect.

        I’ll repeat my question; Based on what?

      • Posted January 25, 2014 at 10:34 am | Permalink

        Clarity and criticality are, of course, important.

        But we know that because of experimental observation. People who fail to express themselves clearly are regularly misunderstood, and those who fail to reflexively examine their proposals inevitably waste time flailing around with propositions that could have been dismissed with much less effort.

        If philosophy is to be defined so broadly, then the definition is useless…which, perhaps not quite so coincidentally, is also a perfect descriptor of philosophy itself. To wit, a middle manager trying to decide how to budget his funds is practicing philosophy, so long as his final report is nice and neat and he’s gotten direction from senior management.

        I’ll grant, though, that that definition isn’t entirely useless, for it does provide a clear distinction between philosophy and science. Specifically, it leaves out empirical observation of objective reality, and refinement of theories until they’re consistent with reality.

        Cheers,

        b&

  15. Peter Ozzie Jones
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Prof. Massimo Pigliucci in his 2010 book “Nonsense on stilts : How to Tell Science from Bunk” appears to get his science wrong too. I emailed him, in particular raising issues on two facing pages. He rejected my suggestions, preferring his own version.

    From the paperback version ISBN 978-0226667867:
    =====
    Page 190, towards the end of the 2nd paragraph:

    “. . . to carry out better fundamental science (think of the invention of radars, which makes possible the entire field of radioastronomy).”

    This is contradicted on page 3 of this free 109-page “Basics of Radio Astronomy” PDF from NASA:

    http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/radioastronomy/

    “As often happens in science, RF radiation from outer space was first discovered while someone was looking for something else. Karl G. Jansky (1905-1950) worked as a radio engineer at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey. In 1931, he was assigned to study radio frequency interference from thunderstorms in order to help Bell design an antenna that would minimize static when beaming radio-telephone signals across the ocean.”

    =====
    Page 191 he states:
    “The reason they feel solid to us is because the molecules of which they are made are bound together by strong forces at the submicroscopic level, forces that we can neither perceive nor penetrate.”

    It is not the strong nuclear force, if that is what he meant by “strong forces”.
    The reason they feel solid can be said to be either due to the Pauli exclusion principle or even just the electric forces (which are strong, but weak compared to that which binds the nucleus).
    As Rutherford first showed in his gold foil experiment, most of the molecule is empty and only the small nucleus deflects those alpha particles fired at it.
    What we touch are those electrons quite some distance out from the nucleus.

    =====

    • Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      1. Perhaps he was thinking of the engineering behind the dishes used for radioastronomy He says radars which makes me think he means the physical artefacts, rather than RADAR in itself.

      2. I think he was using strong” in an idiomatic sense, not a technical QT sense. But its an ambiguity that a more QT aware writer would have deliberately avoided.

      /@

      • Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:45 am | Permalink

        I think so too. I have read through this part of his book and I did not detect it as a problem. But to someone with training in atomic physics, they would no doubt be more sensitized to see it.

    • John Harshman
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      In some book whose title I forget, Pigliucci has a discussion of the bacterial flagellum, accompanied by a very nice figure showing a eukaryote flagellum. I lost interest in the book after that point.

  16. lancelotgobbo
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    It’s not that one should not criticise Hitchens now he’s dead; of course one can do that. It’s that such criticism should be judged in the light of what Hitch would have responded if he were alive. I don’t think little Massimo would be so brave under those circumstances.

  17. TJR
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    The entire Pigliucci article in summary:

    I define “science” in the strict “what people in white coats do” sense. If you define it in a broader way then you are wrong.

    This is especially odd given that in section 2 he explicitly agrees with Wittgenstein (and Richard Dawkins in his Edge article) that clear-cut definitions don’t make sense.

  18. Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Philosophism is precisely what religionists have used forever to confuse and manipulate people. We needn’t go further than the “philosophers” of the catholic church eg Aquinas. That more or less proves it’s not the adequate field to examine religion.

  19. chascpeterson
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    “The only requirements of scientific method are honest observation and accurate logic.”
    -Robt. MacArthur

    also, ‘pigliucci’ is clearly the plural of Harris’s new unit; if one’s estimate of importance is really close, it could be measured as a single pigliucco, or perhaps even some number of picopigliucci.

    • chascpeterson
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      And the SI symbol for the ‘pigliucco’ ought to be Dr3.

      • chascpeterson
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        (darn it. Superscript ‘3’ above)

    • Sastra
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      No, I’d add another necessary element to science: respect for the critical opinions of other people — an assumption of a common rational ground.

      You can’t leave out the aspect of peer review, whether it’s formal or informal. Take your cherished hypothesis to your worst critics and ask “ok — where do you see a problem?” And listen.

      Without the open debate and requirement that one must make a convincing case to people who DON’T already agree (as opposed to addressing only those who do), it isn’t ‘science’ in any respect.

      That’s why new atheists are bringing not just science, but the scientific approach to theology and apologetics. Faith is a vice, and skepticism is a virtue.

      • Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        +1

      • Larry Gay
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        +2! Science is a community project.

      • chascpeterson
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        agreed. But what can be criticized other than the accuracy of the logic? (The replicability of the observations, I suppose.)

        So I’ll add a second maxim: “Until you publish, it’s just a hobby”
        -innumerable thesis advisors

  20. Sastra
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    The real issue is that Dawkins (and most if not all of the New Atheists) does not seem to appreciate the fact that there is no coherent or sensible way in which the idea of god can possibly be considered a “hypothesis” in any sense remotely resembling the scientific sense of the term. The problem is that the supernatural, by its own (human) nature, is simply too swishy to be pinpointed precisely enough.

    Actually, although the supernatural is indeed swishy the concept has just enough consistent content to be used as an explanation for phenomenon. That’s why it’s believed in by believers — there’s something they mean by it, something they are thinking about which is different than materialist naturalism and most of them can articulate it well enough to understand it themselves and be understood by others. Pigliucci is confusing immunizing strategies (like faith or Mystery talk) with the content of the claim.

    He’s also way overdoing it on there being NO sensible or coherent way that the idea of “god” can POSSIBLY be considered a “hypothesis” in ANY sense REMOTELY RESEMBLING the scientific SENSE of that term. Hey now, that’s a pretty broad area there, what with all the remote possibilities he’s left us, isn’t it? Construe “science” as “scientia” (thanks, Massimo!) and we’re in the ballpark.

    The dictionary defines a “hypothesis” as “A tentative explanation for an observation, phenomenon, or scientific problem that can be tested by further investigation.” People who believe in God generally have a story of their belief. It’s called either “Why I Have Always Known There Is a God” or “How I Lost My Doubts About the Existence of God.” This narrative involves

    1.) things which only God could explain (or best explain)
    and
    2.) experiences which confirmed God for them after they investigated.

    Bottom line, theists assure themselves that it’s reasonable to conclude that God exists. Whether you draw this conclusion through the mind (rational) or by trusting the heart (sensus divinitis) the believer thinks the atheist has it wrong and has misunderstood reality — and they have a better explanation. This takes “god” out of the category of tastes, preferences, personal goals and identities and turns it into — yes — a “hypothesis.”

    And theists will almost always AGREE with this if it’s framed in a flattering light, as opposed to wielded as a criticism.

    One might as well define “philosophy” as the discipline that deals with thinking and then claim that everything we do, including of course science itself, properly belongs to philosophy.

    Um, yes. I don’t have a problem with this either.

    New atheists don’t “hate philosophy.” I’m regularly bothered by New Atheist writers with a strong philosophy background attacking New Atheism because there aren’t enough philosophers in it.

    • josh
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      Well said.

      ‘Philosophy’ just means ‘love of wisdom’ of course, and the ancient job of philosopher was basically a professional (or well known) thinker. Aristotle, when he commented on what we would now call biology or physics didn’t stop to tell his readers that he was now changing gears and taking off his philosopher’s hat.

      Moreover, it is extremely common to find modern philosophers in essence claiming that ‘anything that deals with thinking’ is properly philosophy. Thinking about how to do science, that’s Philosophy of Science. Commenting on ethics, clearly the domain of Philosopher’s. Discussing logic, well Philosopher’s invented that!

      Point being, the people we call philosophers today are a modern historically-dependent social phenomenon. Basically the self-proclaimed thinkers who don’t want to do the nitty-gritty of ‘science’ and who like to work on broad or meta- questions from the comfort of an armchair, but without the discipline of mathematics. Which, by itself, is fine; we should have some people who focus on the big picture or the foundations. But the attitude that only they are qualified to comment on those issues, that the people who actually understand the details can’t have anything to say is toxic.

    • Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know.

      “1.) things which only God could explain (or best explain)”

      Sure, the theist will think this looks good: “yup, no other explanation but god”. But the theist is, well, wrong. Why should we grant “goddidit” the respect of treating it like it even has a chance of having explanatory power? It says nothing. Just because theists mistakenly take it seriously?

      The thing to show the theists is not “your hypothesis has been falsified” (unless they’ve actually posited a concrete, specific claim), but “your claim (goddidit) can’t be tested, not yet, not until you make a specific claim about what this god did and how it did it.”

      • Posted January 25, 2014 at 3:33 am | Permalink

        Another instance of Hitchens’s “You still have all your work before you.”

        /@

  21. Peter Beattie
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Pigliucci is an embarrassment to philosophy. Somebody with his apparent arguing and critical thinking skills shouldn’t be a philosophy student, much less a professor of the discipline.

    Here are some examples:

    Dawkins says that the “God
    hypothesis” should be treated as a falsifiable scientific hypothesis; …. All of these are, to my way of seeing things, standard examples of
    scientism.

    Neither does he even mention that Dawkins explicitly argues that the God Hypothesis (which in TGD has a concrete form that Pigliucci seems to deem it irrelevant to even quote) has empirical consequences that are, in effect, falsifiable, and have been falsified, nor does he adduce even a single argument in favour of his glib dismissal of Dawkins’s idea. For a philosopher in a professional journal, I’d say that’s malpractice.

    Scientism here is defined as a totalizing attitude that regards science as
    the ultimate standard and arbiter of all interesting questions; or alternatively that
    seeks to expand the very definition and scope of science to encompass all aspects
    of human knowledge and understanding.

    What many people, including, obviously, Pigliucci, do not realize is that philosophy is not just a separate discipline but is also employed as a part of science. Science is simply a specialized way of obtaining empirical knowledge of the world, which in every case builds upon philosophy—in every argument, in every decision about experimental or study design, in questions about how science in general should be done, etc. And, of course, both fields employ the same methodology, as a certain Karl Popper, eminent philosopher of science, has remarked:

    And yet, I am quite ready to admit that there is a method which might be described as ‘the one method of philosophy’. But it is not characteristic of philosophy alone; it is, rather, the one method of all rational discussion, and therefore of the natural sciences as well as of philosophy. The method I have in mind is that of stating one’s problem clearly and of examining its various proposed solutions critically.” (The Logic of Scientific Discovery, p. xix)

    And then there is this bit of disingenuous misrepresentation by Pigliucci:

    Harris is saying that the whole of the only field other than religion that has ever dealt with ethics is to be dismissed because he personally finds it boring.

    That is, of course, bullshit. What Harris actually says in the footnote Pigliucci quotes without most of its context (it is reproduced as the third paragraph of “ Toward a Science of Morality”) is that a) while he had read a fair amount of the academic literature on ethics, he arrived at his position independently of it, b) he wanted to avoid riddling his book with academic jargon, and c) he wanted to avoid “many of the…conceptual distinctions that make academic discussions of human values so inaccessible”. Based on that footnote, as Pigliucci’s criticism is, for him to say that Harris thinks “the whole field” of academic ethics “is to be dismissed because he personally finds it boring” is completely irresponsible and intellectually dishonest.

    Not that there’s much of a chance of that happening with somebody who is so full of himself, but Pigliucci should be ashamed of himself and of how bad he makes philosophy look.

  22. northedmontonsculptureworkshop
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Is it wrong of me to giggle any time I read the name Alain de Botton? It’s just so comedically perfect: so utterly pretentious sounding, so appropriate for his egregious middlebrow mind.

    I watching the wonderful Mitchell and Webb comedy “Peep Show”, and was delighted to hear David Mitchell’s character name-drop de Botton, as a way to highlight his character’s pedantry and pseudo-intellect.

    Smart people see through these charlatans easily, but smart people are in short supply, worldwide.

  23. northedmontonsculptureworkshop
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Is it wrong of me to giggle any time I read the name Alain de Botton? It’s just so comedically perfect: so utterly pretentious sounding, so appropriate for his egregious middlebrow mind.

    I watching the wonderful Mitchell and Webb comedy “Peep Show”, and was delighted to hear David Mitchell’s character name-drop de Botton, as a way to highlight his character’s pedantry and pseudo-intellect.

    Smart people see through these charlatans easily, but smart people are in short supply, worldwide.

  24. @eightyc
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Is a pigliucci an absolute unit of measure??

    For example, I think they should put cart lanes on the floor of Costco so that it’s not always chaotic navigating the aisles while grocery shopping. It’ll be analogous to car lanes on the road.

    I think that’s really really important but I am unsure of its actual importance.

    So how many pigliucci units would that be??

  25. Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    The squealing about scientists not understanding philosophy is largely because postmodern philosophy is one of the last hiding places for religion. Politically, in the UK, you can’t hold that any one religious viewpoint is any more correct than any other, so the idea that realities are “plural, subjective and dependent on an individual’s worldview”, is heaven sent for religious obscurantism combined with political correctness, whereby you must recognize that everyone’s worldview is equally valid.

    • @eightyc
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      exactly.

      They’re telling the public at large that scientific “truths” are up for grabs depending on what “epistemological” hat you happen to be wearing.

  26. Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    I would *love* to hear him comment on the philosophers who argue for philosophy-science continuity.

    The very fact that they can even be regarded as distinct is an artifact of, at most, the time since Kant. Where in Democritus is the dividing line? In Epicurus for sure we know that the natural philosophy and ethics went hand in hand, as it was in a different way for the Stoics, and even in Aristotle.

  27. Isaac
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    For what it’s worth, here is a relevant quote by Sam Harris:

    “I don’t think there’s an interesting boundary between philosophy and science. Science is totally beholden to philosophy. There are philosophical assumptions in science and there’s no way to get around that.”

    If my memory doesn’t fail me, Harris’ bachelors was in philosophy at Standford, not science. And he said once that he’d rather be thought of as philosopher who is interested in the brain, than as neuroscientist who enjoys philosophy. Given this, it’s really hard to label Harris as someone who is trying to downplay the importance of philosophy.

    I don’t know know where Pigliucci got this impression that people like Harris have taken to undermining the field of philosophy. Dennet is of course a philosopher, Hitchens knew more about philosophy than most non-philosophers I know, and Dawkins uses philosophy to buttress his argument in TGD.

    I’m sorry, Dr. Dr. Dr., but your claim is simply insane.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      I think people might like to know where that particular quote is from and read the whole interview. But thanks for mentioning it, I wasn’t aware of either quote or interview. Kind of confirms what I thought his views would be, though.

    • ek chakkar
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      “I don’t know know where Pigliucci got this impression that people like Harris have taken to undermining the field of philosophy.”

      Look up Lawrence Krauss’ comments on a 2013 Swedish panel about the definition of nothing. He outright states that philosophy is not useful to science anymore. “If you can’t empirically measure it, it isn’t knowledge.” He says it between minutes 40 and 42 in a 65-minute video.

      Quite disingenuous!

      • Posted January 24, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

        So because Krauss said something boneheaded (which I criticized, by the way), you think Pigliucci therefore gets the right to accuse all New Atheists of ignoring philosophy? And you need to look up the word “disingenuous,” because it doesn’t mean what you think it does. Krauss is stating what he really believes.

        At any rate, I hope you’re not justifying Pigliucci’s wrongheaded dismissal of New Atheists’ relationship to philosophy based on one statement by Krauss. Or are you?

        • @eightyc
          Posted January 24, 2014 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

          Well I disagree with your statement, “Krauss is stating what he really believes”, regarding philosophy.

          If you watch enough of Krauss, you can discern his sense of humour and his statement about the usefulness of philosophy was more or less a joke in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

          He likes to take these jabs in different areas of study. He routinely makes a joke about physics and cosmology being “demoted” to an environmental science because it may be that the constants of the universe happen to be they way they are simply by the accident of nature.

        • ek chakkar
          Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

          Let’s clear up definitions first.

          disingeneous: not candid or sincere, typically by pretending that one knows less about something than one really does.

          I meant exactly that Krauss was insincere by *pretending* he didn’t know much about philosophy, nor did he care about it because it was irrelevant in his work, and yet spent the entire hour philosophising (at one point, even stating that he had read philosophy)!

          Hopefully, then, we agree on what I meant.

          Oh, I think Krauss’ one statement on that panel is indicative of a deep-seated bias against philosophy for like-minded people! Pigliucci’s words against New Atheists are unfortunate and I disagree vehemently with the tone he used. Remove the tone and sometimes-unfortunate language; you then have a sense of the frustration of those scientifically exploring philosophised ideas.

  28. Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    I agree. Either ‘the supernatural’ interacts with the physical world in some way, therefore placing it firmly within the realm of science. or it does not, and therefore is totally meaningless and irrelevant to our lives.

  29. Pablo
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Every complain by Pigliucci seems to fall in the old authority appeal fallacy that if you don’t agree with him is because you didn’t read enough classics.

  30. Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    The real issue is that Dawkins (and most if not all of the New Atheists) does not seem to appreciate the fact that there is no coherent or sensible way in which the idea of god can possibly be considered a “hypothesis” in any sense remotely resembling the scientific sense of the term.

    I’d actually agree with that — in the exact same way that I’d similarly describe married bachelors and the land north of the North Pole.

    But Pigliucci seems to think that gods, unlike married bachelors living death in Spartan luxury north of the North Pole, deserve serious and sophisticated philosophical inquiry.

    And he and his ilk wonder why I have so little respect for philosophy….

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Sastra
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      How are you defining “God?”

      Not all definitions contain internal contradictions. Those that do — are attacked via philosophy, not science.

      • Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

        The only definitions of the term that I’ve encountered that aren’t self-contradictory are of idols of one form or another — the ones where divinity is the result of the worship directed towards it, not necessarily because of any intrinsic property of the entity itself. That would include totems, emperors, money, hyperintelligent alien shades of the color blue, and so on.

        All the rest I know of inevitably necessarily entail some sort of contradiction. That especially includes the theological “omni-” gods. It also includes the lesser miracle-working gods (such as rainmakers), too; the reason they’re gods is because they do the impossible. But either what they do really is impossible and thus even the gods can’t do it, or else the gods demonstrate the possibility of the action by performing it. Therefore, assuming they’re not just figments of the imagination, either they’re just powerful idols or plot devices.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Sastra
          Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

          All the rest I know of inevitably necessarily entail some sort of contradiction.

          Inevitably necessarily? No. A contradiction with reality isn’t a logical internal contradiction in the definition. I’m aware of analytic arguments using logic alone regarding the “omnis” — but I’ve never seen any definition of God which includes “God does what is impossible even for God.” Have you?

          • Posted January 24, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

            Well, that’s just it. As soon as you start qualifying absolutes, you wind up with girls just a little bit pregnant.

            Omnipotence is a self-contained contradiction, in the exact same sense as “the largest prime number” is a self-contained contradiction. Assume that either exists, and there follows a direct logical sequence of deduction that ends in contradiction.

            For example, it is impossible even for Jesus to draw a triangle with more than one right angle whilst keeping the paper flat on the table. He could, of course, do the trick by wrapping the paper around a globe — but, then again, so could you or I. Therefore, it is not possible for Jesus to do anything and everything (that being the only meaningful definition of “omnipotent” there can be).

            Some religionists then like to limit the limitless in some fashion, making excuses for Jesus’s inability to do this-or-that. The problem with that is twofold: first, every excuse that’s valid for Jesus is equally valid for you and me; therefore, if Jesus is omnipotent, so are we. The second is that there are things that we can do that Jesus cannot. An omnipotent being cannot commit suicide, for example, or pass his power on to another or revoke it or share it or otherwise dilute its all-encompassing nature; if he did any of those things, then he’s no longer all-powerful, for there’s suddenly huge swaths of things he’s incapable of doing. Humans, on the other hand, have no problem (for example) abdicating the throne to make way for our children to outgrow and surpass us.

            Or, to put a paraphrase a popular proof of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem into a single line of iambic pentameter: All but God can prove this sentence true. As with primes, there isn’t just a single prime bigger than whatever one you had in mind that was the biggest, but there’re infinitely many such. The number of things that one entity can do that another cannot is literally uncountable.

            The theologians are just playing “name the biggest number you can think of,” and getting all impressed with themselves when they’ve topped not only “nine billion nine hundred ninety nine…” with “Infinity!” but “Infinity plus one!” They never got the memo that Cantor moved waaaaaay past that sort of childishness.

            Another variation on the theme: “Tell me, God, ‘Yes,’ or, ‘No,’ will you answer, ‘No’?”

            Or, imagine Jesus wants to test Satan to see if Satan has reformed. So, Jesus puts Satan in some sort of virtual reality such that Satan thinks he’s now omnipotent. Satan, being no dummy, first uses his newfound omnipotence to determine if he really is omnipotent or not. Either his omnipotence works and Satan learns that he’s Jesus’s bitch, demonstrating that Jesus didn’t have the power to create a perfect illusion; or his omnipotence doesn’t work and Jesus wasn’t able to give Satan true omnipotence. But that now poses a problem for Jesus: is Jesus’s own omnipotence really real, or is he himself the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s bitch? But, of course, it’s actually worse than that. If Jesus can’t even be sure of his own omnipotence and its ability to inform him that he’s omnipotent, of what sense does it make to claim that he’s omnipotent in the first place?

            No matter what way you turn, conflating the infinite and the enumerable inevitably (and instantly) blows up in your face.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Sastra
              Posted January 24, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

              All fine points — but irrelevant if “God” isn’t supposed to be “omnipotent.” Not all versions of God have that problem. And among those non-omnipotent gods, nobody defines “God” as “a Being which can do what it is impossible for it to do.” So that’s beating a straw man (or give me a reference.)

              I’m also puzzled as to why you’re making a serious philosophical case against the existence of an Omnipotent God after complaining that Massimo Pigliucci uses philosophy on God and thus loses your respect for philosophers.

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

                Perhaps we should cut to the chase, then. Can you offer an example of a definition of the word, “god,” that is neither necessarily entails a self-contained oxymoron nor is some variation on the idol theme?

                As for the “practicing philosophy” accusation…that’s actually one of my biggest beefs with philosophers. All I’ve been doing is taking the claims of the religious and carrying them to their logical conclusions. If what I’ve been doing here is philosophy, then the database programming I do at the day job is philosophy, too, except in a different and more formalized language.

                Philosophers like to claim that everything is philosophy. By any independent observation, though, philosophy can be nothing more than deciding upon what reality must be based on what you think it should be without any care for independent objective observation. It’s atheistic theology, or non-empirical science.

                Yes, doctorates are still philosophy degrees, and philosophy departments often offer classes in logic and ethics and the like. But logic is a branch of math and / or computer science (which are two variations on the same theme), and ethics done right is an empirical science (with things like patient outcome analyses and the like). When philosophers try to do those things, we wind up with arguments over the meaning of meaning and trolly car torture fantasies.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • NewEnglandBob
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

                How about this as a definition of the word God: an individual’s wishful thinking to make himself or herself comfortable with the fear of death and justification for the meaning of his or her life.

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

                Well, that’s of course quite accurate and useful from a psychological perspective, but I don’t think you’ll find many theologians or believers who would sign off on it….

                b&

              • NewEnglandBob
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

                Of course they wouldn’t sign off on it. The truth is too painful/the emperor has no clothes. ;)

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

                There is no spoon. Emperor. Whatever….

                b&

              • Sastra
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

                Can you offer an example of a definition of the word, “god,” that is neither necessarily entails a self-contained oxymoron nor is some variation on the idol theme?

                We’ve done this before. Happy early Groundhog’s Day.

                “God”: a creative, non-material pure mental agency or essence which creates and/or sustains what we can experience of reality.

                All I’ve been doing is taking the claims of the religious and carrying them to their logical conclusions. If what I’ve been doing here is philosophy, then the database programming I do at the day job is philosophy, too, except in a different and more formalized language.

                As I understand it, what you have been doing is indeed philosophy. I don’t know if your second example is usually counted as an application of logic or perhaps math — which are subsets of philosophy — but you could probably make an argument for it.

                It seems to me that your complaint is over rationalism divorced from empiricism in empirical areas. Fine. But that is only one version of philosophy. Your complaint — and your reasons — exemplifies another form. It’s like arguing that the field of archaeology is crap because it allows poseurs like Von Daniken to flourish. But Von Daniken is debunked through archaeology.

                You’re in a pickle. The more I admire your reasoning and the more persuasive you are, then the better I think of philosophy in general, that it allows such fine and thoughtful work on your part.

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

                God: a creative, non-material pure mental agency or essence which creates and/or sustains what we can experience of reality.

                That would be an idol.

                First step, let’s make it marginally more material. Barring the non-material constraint, the Matrix is a perfect fit for your definition.

                Second step, let’s put the Matrix in an universe with physics so different from our own that “materiality” is a meaningless concept, but in which computation is still possible. Our Matrix is now a perfect fit for your definition.

                It is also logically equivalent, save from scale, to a child playing Sim City.

                As a similar parallel, imagine Randi setting himself up as a god to some back-bush tribe. There’s no doubt he could do it (if it weren’t for the niggling little detail that he’s an honest man). The difference between the tribespeople and Randi is comparable to the difference between the simulated people in the video game and the child, and us and the Matrix overmind.

                Further, the pure-mental Matrix could itself even be a simulation of an entirely physical computer, which could, in turn, be the product of the imagination of Alice’s Red King.

                So, I’ll grant you that it’s not a self-contained contradiction…but it most emphatically is a variation on the idol theme.

                As for your attempts to paint me as a philosopher…well, the problem, again, is that the dividing line between philosophy and science can only meaningfully be that of empiricism. As soon as so-called philosophers start giving primacy to empirical observation over their wishful thinking, they’re no longer doing philosophy; they’re doing science. Giving philosophy credit for knowledge gained through empirical observation is no different from giving theology credit for the same knowledge because it’s all just part of the greater glory of some god-or-other.

                It doesn’t work like that. The ones doing the work are the ones who get the credit for it. And the ones actually doing the work are the empiricists, not the philosophers or the theologians. Even when they dip their toes into each others’s pools.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Sastra
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

                Ben wrote:

                First step, let’s make it marginally more material.

                Haha. No. Let’s not. The entire POINT of the supernatural is that mental properties or essences can’t be reduced to mindless physical components. Pure mentality with no need to be preceded by or attached to the material world.

                Making God an alien or computer program and calling it an “idol” is fine with me as long as you stop labeling that thing “God.” First step, you fall boom.

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

                Erm…you should have read to the end of the post, rather than going for the “gotcha” point at the beginning. I only used that first example to establish the equivalence of most of the points of your definition, leaving out only the “physicality” part for later analysis. Then, in the next step, I addressed the “physicality” part to show that it, too, is irrelevant.

                With a multi-part definition such as the one you offered, it’s natural and usual to break apart the pieces before re-assembling them. That’s all I did.

                If you have a problem with the final assembly, that’s one thing. But objecting that I suggested imagining a car with an electric motor before moving on to one with an atomic one is…well, it’s a bit beneath you….

                b&

              • Sastra
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

                Ben wrote:

                Then, in the next step, I addressed the “physicality” part to show that it, too, is irrelevant.

                If “the pure-mental Matrix could itself even be a simulation of an entirely physical computer, which could, in turn, be the product of the imagination of Alice’s Red King” then to get back to pure mentality it sounds like the Red King is God imagining the universe into existence. Maybe.

                You are ignoring the multiple parts of my multi-part definition, which combine. If some form of pure mentality (an Agency, Love, Intention) “creates and/or sustains all we experience of reality” then this “idol” has leaped away from James Randi doing tricks for the villagers and is turned into an Idol-with-a-capital-I. This is not a small distinction.

                Your definition of “idol” was “where divinity is the result of the worship directed towards it, not necessarily because of any intrinsic property of the entity itself. That would include totems, emperors, money, hyperintelligent alien shades of the color blue, and so on.”

                I maintain that “a creative, non-material pure mental agency or essence which creates and/or sustains what we can experience of reality” is too intrinsically different and impressive to fit into being like a totem, emperor, money, etc…. unless you’re willing to really stretch your definition. Which makes your challenge trivial.

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

                The essence of my definition is that divinity is in the eye of the beholder.

                Your claim is that your loving version of Alice’s Red King is worthy of deification because it’s so radically different from less impressive idols. My claim is that it’s just a more impressive member of the same class of entity.

                Taking it again in a stepwise manner — and, again, stepwise to demonstrate the continuum nature of the phenomenon: imagine some technologically-advanced alien able to impersonate any of the Olympian or other similar gods. Star Trek addressed this one many times. On the one hand, it is understanding that primitive beings would worship them as gods. Indeed, some Mesoamericans worshipped the Conquistadors as gods. But we know that these are all merely idols.

                The next step is some even more-powerful alien with multiverse technology capable of initiating Big Bangs. Seriously more impressive, conceivably beyond human comprehension. But, still, whether or not it wants our worship, it’d still only be an idol if we were to worship it.

                With our next step we’re on the doorstep of your hypothesized god. This one is a multiverse alien so smart that it’s able to imagine the Big Bang, in all the detail and precision we perceive, including us ourselves. But, still, whether or not its intelligence is biological or mechanical in nature, it, too, clearly would only achieve godhood by being worshipped. Otherwise, it’s just a dude with a seriously oversized braincase.

                Now, we finally arrive at “your” god. The alien isn’t just in some other branch of the multiverse-as-we-understand it, but is in some entirely-unrelated “really real” universe, but what passes for physics in the real universe is incomprehensibly and radically different from anything we could ever describe as physical reality. But the alien here still has a (non-corporeal) mind and is still super-smart and still imagines our radical-to-it universe, Big Bang and all. And, whatthehell, it’s even a very loving and mindful alien who really cares what type of sex humans have and with whom.

                That last example is, unquestionably, “your” god. And, yet, there can, equally unquestionably, be no doubt but that it exists on the same continuum that includes Star Trek aliens and the Matrix computer. I’m pretty sure we would agree that all the other entities on that continuum are false gods, even if quite impressive. So, what is it about “your” god that somehow makes it not an idol, even if it’s even more impressive than all the others?

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Sastra
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

                So, what is it about “your” god that somehow makes it not an idol, even if it’s even more impressive than all the others?

                Because this “idol” has no body or physical mechanism behind either its thoughts or its actions it has now crossed the line into being a “spiritual” being. That is a huge and significant step which changes the nature of the claim.

                A spiritual entity which exists in a strange, transcendent reality and creates and sustains the universe using psychic powers as an act of its love is not a space alien people foolishly worship. It is a “God” which people foolishly worship.

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

                Well, at least we’ve finally distilled it down to the essence. As the notoriously sexist joke would put it, we’ve settled on the price.

                Turning water into wine and walking on water are parlor tricks not worthy of a true god. Not even if it’s some super-powerful alien doing the trick.

                And seeding the pre-biotic Earth with life isn’t good enough, either. Nor, for that matter, initiating the Big Bang.

                Even creating a computer simulation of the Big Bang and everything since then (including us) wouldn’t qualify the entity for godhood. Nor would imagining it all without benefit of mechanical computation be sufficient.

                But!

                If the alien in question can do all that, and do it without a physical brain,…well, now you’re talking! Now that’s a real god!

                Color me unimpressed.

                I’ll also note that your definition also skates perilously close to a logical contradiction. Specifically: how is this god — a god who needs a name; let’s pick, “Mynd,” and a female gender — how is Mynd supposed to know that she really, truly, is immaterial? How does Mynd eliminate the possibility that she herself is really just a subroutine of some bored hyperintelligent teenager’s game console? How does Mynd know that she’s all there is?

                The answer, of course, is that she doesn’t. If noncorporeality is an essential property of Mynd, and since Mynd herself is incapable even in principle of knowing if she is or isn’t noncorporeal, then how is it that we’re supposed to know if she is or isn’t truly divine? Are we just supposed to take some random priest’s word for it?

                Cheers,

                b&

            • Sastra
              Posted January 24, 2014 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

              By the way, you might enjoy this:

              It would seem, then, that an omnipotent god is a logical impossibility. Since logical impossibilities are stronger than physical and contingent impossibilities, it follows that there cannot be such a thing as an omnipotent god. Oops. So the next time someone says something as inane as “anything is possible,” ask them about the paradox of omnipotence: you will kill two birds with one stone, showing both that not anything is possible and that the most common type of god worshiped nowadays is a contradiction in terms. (Massimo Pigliucci)

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

                Yes, but with one big, honkin’ caveat.

                It is an empirical observation that logic (including the law of non-contradiction) is a reliable means of understanding nature.

                Just as the Sun has never risen in the west (excluding supersonic jets at high latitude and the like), no married bachelors have ever been observed. And, in both cases, the reasons why we should never expect to encounter either are so overwhelming as to make them unthinkable.

                But.

                It would take just a single true western sunrise or married bachelor (or rabbit in the precambrian) to utterly devastate all we know about the universe and send us right back to square one.

                In a practical sense, Piglucci is right to put logic first. Empirically, we know that nothing is a more reliable method of ruling out possibilities than examining them for logical consistency. But it’s empiricism that got us to that point, and empiricism that’s the only truly reliable method we know of for figuring out what is and what isn’t.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

                Also…he’s confused when he draws a distinction between “physical” and “logical” impossibilities.

                Levitation, on the other hand, falls under a stronger type of impossibility, because it would, in fact, violate the known laws of physics. It still wouldnt be logically inconsistent, however, because there is no logical contradiction in imagining a universe with different natural laws, one in which levitation is, in fact, possible.

                That’s exactly like my example with drawing a triangle with two right angles. It is physically impossible to do so if you keep the paper on the table. There is no difference between physical and logical impossibility in this or any other case, for physics is nothing more than geometry. Positing different laws of physics is just a matter of positing a different geometry, or saying that it’s okay to pick up the paper and wrap it around a sphere.

                An empirical physicist would understand this. It takes a philosopher to make that kind of mistrake; what he’s doing here is just another variation on Platonism.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Sastra
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

                No, a married bachelor couldn’t be discovered even in theory because it’s not an empirical claim: it’s a definition. And a damn fuzzy one, which is why I hate to use it.

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

                …except, of course, that it’s a close parallel to the dual nature of quantum-scale physics. How is an electron being both a particle and a wave at the same time any different from a man being both married and a bachelor at the same time? Plus, there’s the superposition of states, quantum entanglement, all those sorts of things. We know them to be true, but, were you to attempt to explain them to an eighteenth century physicist (and many nineteenth and twentieth century physicists), you’d be facing accusations of logical incoherence.

                But reality really is like that. So which are you going to believe?

                Cheers,

                b&

              • NewEnglandBob
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

                “? Plus, there’s the superposition of states, quantum entanglement, all those sorts of things.”

                Entanglement belongs to married people, not bachelors. :)

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

                Erm…hate to break it to you, but most people entangle long before marriage….

                b&

              • Peter Beattie
                Posted January 25, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

                » Vaal:
                I’m not challenging the issue that Hume pointed out; I’m just challenging the way you have characterized the issue, characterizing induction as irrational

                This is what Hume says:

                These two propositions are far from being the same: I have found that such an object has always been attended with such an effect, and I foresee, that other objects, which are, in appearance, similar, will be attended with similar effects. I shall allow, if you please, that the one proposition may justly be inferred from the other; I know, in fact, that it always is inferred. But if you insist that the inference is made by a chain of reasoning, I desire you to produce that reasoning.

                Shorter Hume: yes, we always rely on inductive thought processes, but please don’t call that process reasoning. And what do you call a belief you came by without reasoning? I don’t think that “irrational” is the wrong choice of word here, TBH.

                for which we have a strong history of observation and theory (gravity…all of which involves induction)

                If we’re talking about theories, then no, they do not involve induction. You may think they do, but you’d be wrong. See the Deutsch quote above (and the whole book, if possible), as well as Peter Medawar’s excellent short paper “Is the Scientific Paper Fraudulent?”, in which he argues exactly my point: that our usual inductive stories “misrepresent scientific thought”.

                As to the criticism of Popper’s solution and the idea that falsification somehow relied on induction after all: yes, I know about that—I’m doing a dissertation on Popper’s philosophy of scicence. So far, I have found no such criticism even remotely convincing, and the idea that falsification is based on induction only shows that the person putting it forward hasn’t understood the basic underlying logic of Popper’s theory, at all. (Very short version: this excerpt from Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations; longer, recommended version: Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery)

            • Peter Beattie
              Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

              Ben Goren said:

              It is an empirical observation that logic (including the law of non-contradiction) is a reliable means of understanding nature.

              Just as the Sun has never risen in the west (excluding supersonic jets at high latitude and the like), no married bachelors have ever been observed. And, in both cases, the reasons why we should never expect to encounter either are so overwhelming as to make them unthinkable.

              Your first statement relies on induction—which cannot be justified, as Hume has convincingly argued (so far without serious opposition): there is no contradiction between any number of identical observations in the past and their disappearance tomorrow. And arguing for induction on the basis that it has worked so far would be to blatantly beg the question.

              Your second statement involves two distinct notions: that the sun has never risen in the west is an empirical observation; that no married bachelors exist is a definitional matter (if e.g. “bachelor” = “unmarried male”). The second is unthinkable because it would involve a logical contradiction; the first is unthinkable most emphatically not because it has never been observed before (which even Hume would have called irrational, if unavoidable, because he couldn’t see an alternative to induction) but because we have an explanatory theory about planetary motion that forbids it. This theory may be false, but our most stringent attempts at proving it wrong (i.e., testing it) have failed so far, which is in fact what gives us confidence that the same behaviour will be observed as long as relevant circumstances (the ones that featured in our tests) do not change.

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

                And arguing for induction on the basis that it has worked so far would be to blatantly beg the question.

                And, yet, there is overwhelming empirical observation to support the utility of empirical observation.

                In the words of Randal Munroe and Richard Dawkins and countless others: “Science. It works, bitches!”

                The second is unthinkable because it would involve a logical contradiction

                But how is it that we know that logical contradictions really are impossible?

                Because, despite every attempt to create or observe one, none has ever been observed.

                If I were to introduce you tomorrow to somebody who actually was a married bachelor, no matter how unthinkable you think that concept may be, you would be faced with two options: deny the reality of the observation of the married bachelor, or accept the invalidity of the law of non-contradiction.

                You could, of course, deny reality. Philosophers and theologians do so all the time. But reality has a way of biting those who deny it. Purity may be more philosophically desirable, but it’s empiricism that’ll keep you from getting eaten by a carnivorous wildebeest.

                Sill, if you’d rather maintain your philosophical purity, even if it means death-by-hungry-ruminant, that’s your business.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Sastra
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

                But how is it that we know that logical contradictions really are impossible?
                Because, despite every attempt to create or observe one, none has ever been observed.

                No. Logical contradictions are impossible because we design the system and set it up so that they are impossible. A =/= Not A and this is absolute. It’s an analytical truth.

                The problem comes in the application to real life: the real world is fuzzy and ambiguity enters the picture. Reality is not cut into simple pieces for the sake of ease and comfort.

                A “real life” married bachelor would not contradict the logical law of non-contradiction and force us to throw it out. It would only reveal how unclear the terms were in the first place. “Married” and “bachelor.”

                This is a very important point in arguing against woo and other bs, whose proponents will eagerly trade in on ambiguity in situations to argue that logic is now an opinion and irrationality is rational and anything goes and God exists. You really don’t want to go there.

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

                Actually, “going there” is a very good idea.

                If people want to argue that logic is an opinion and that, as in our current example, the law of non-contradiction is not necessarily absolute, that’s fantastic. Because first I’ll remind them that, empirically, it is and absolute; then, I’ll insist that they offer up empirical evidence to the contrary. And, hey, if they really can provide empirical evidence of their gods, fantastic. Much more likely, of course, it’ll be an opportunity for me to explain the meanings of the terms, “empirical,” and, “objective,” and, “evidence.”

                If they want to insist on the unimportance of empiricism and objectivity, I’ll remind them never to buy a used car without taking it to an independent mechanic. If they acknowledge the importance of empiricism and objectivity, I’ll show them how that gets us right back to classical logic for the classes of things we’re talking about — for example, with a quick diversion through the Pythagorean Theorem.

                There’s nothing to fear with the primacy of empiricism, just as there’s nothing to fear with any truth.

                …unless, of course, one is in that Egyptian river….

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Peter Beattie
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

                » Ben Goren:
                And, yet, there is overwhelming empirical observation to support the utility of empirical observation.

                And I suppose it’s turtles all the way down? The very point that Hume made was that however many observations you make, there is no rational way to rely on them continuing that way—all observations may have been flukes, your observational setup may be such that only one particular observation is visible, you may be overlooking all sorts of contradictory evidence, etc. If you just cheerfully go back to “And yet it works”, then you haven’t understood the problem.

                But how is it that we know that logical contradictions really are impossible?

                They don’t have to be; we just use the principle of non-contradiction as a premise in our attempts to expand our knowledge because one consequence of not using it would be that there couldn’t be a way even to be reasonable sure what we’re talking about. But that last quality (being reasonable sure what we’re talking about) is something we’d like that thing we call “knowledge” to have.

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

                I’m pretty sure I’ve repeatedly gone to non-trivial lengths to point out that empiricism isn’t perfect. How many times in this thread alone have I suggested that some sort of observation that contradicts everything we know would force us to revaluate said everything.

                Your problem — the philosopher’s problem — is the insistence that perfection is a necessary prerequisite for anything that follows. It’s a perfect example of why I refer to philosophy as atheistic theology.

                In reality, we know, more than we know anything else, that reality is messy and imperfect and that we know damned little about it. Yet, all obstacles in our way notwithstanding, we’ve actually managed to make pretty good sense of our surroundings.

                We’ve done this not because we have some sort of perfect ideal of knowledge that we can use to reach down into the messy depths with; quite the contrary.

                We’ve done this because we started with some seriously fucked-up and very, very, very (but not completely) incorrect notions of reality. Starting with those profoundly imperfect beginnings, we’ve evolved our knowledge to greater and greater levels by keeping what works and discarding what doesn’t.

                Your “turtles all the way down” objection applies equally well to biological evolution. So we evolved from apes, who evolved from monkeys…who evolved from fish…who evolved from worms…who evolved from bacteria…who evolved from self-replicating molecules…so where does it end? Supernovae explosions? Inflation? The Big Bang? Cosmogenesis? Multiverses?

                But how is it that we know that logical contradictions really are impossible?

                They dont have to be; we just use the principle of non-contradiction as a premise in our attempts to expand our knowledge because one consequence of not using it would be that there couldnt be a way even to be reasonable sure what were talking about. But that last quality (being reasonable sure what were talking about) is something wed like that thing we call knowledge to have.

                That is a perfect example of the empirical basis for our confidence in the utility of the logical principle of non-contradction. If it didn’t work, we wouldn’t use it.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Vaal
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

                Peter Beattie

                “The very point that Hume made was that however many observations you make, there is no rational way to rely on them continuing that way…”

                Peter, I don’t agree with this, at least as you’ve stated it here. First, most concepts of “rational” assume induction to begin with (e.g. given everything has always “fallen down” it’s irrational to believe the rock you drop next will fall “up,”). So it’s a bit weird to indite induction on the grounds it is not “rational” when it is often seen as a basis of rational action.

                Also, to indite induction on the grounds it is not deduction makes little sense, since deduction is not justified by any deeper basis either, nor does deduction answer any better why “something will work tomorrow as it did today, or over here as it worked over there.” Our nature, our natural and apparently necessary inductive tendency, already defines what “reasonable” and “rational” are.

                Our inductive inferences may involve having to make certain assumptions – e.g. Hume’s noticing we assume the basic “uniformity of nature” as the bridge (whereas I prefer to think of things having “natures” that we wish to understand).
                But the thing is, these basic assumptions seem *inescapable,* or “necessary.” We seem to have experiences, and we could only ever have *knowledge* about our experiences IF those assumptions were the case. So if induction involves certain assumptions that turn out to be essential to the very possibility or project of gaining knowledge, how in the world could these be seen as “irrational” or unjustified?

                Set the bar too high and absolutely nothing can be “rational,” and reason couldn’t get us anywhere. But what’s the point in that? Surely pragmatism is part of rational reasoning about the world.

                Anyway, enough with my blather…it’s been a fun conversation to read.

                Vaal

              • abrotherhoodofman
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

                Brother Ben:

                You’ve articulately and convincingly endorsed the philosophical positions of Sir Karl Popper with nearly every post you’ve written here, and yet you can still conclude that philosophy is useless?

                Just sayin’.
                ;)

              • Posted January 25, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

                These claims that all thinking constitutes practicing philosophy are as valid — and as offensive — as the claims of theologians that all science is really theology, since it’s all just an humble human effort to divine the mind of Jesus. And picking your favorite philosophers who said some of the same things as evidence to support your position is like a Catholic referring to Lemaitre’s work on Big Bang cosmology.

                Philosophers are notoriously and demonstrably unrestrained from the tedium of empirical validation of their work. Even when one happens to be right, that’s completely irrelevant unless and until somebody goes to the bother of gathering and analyzing hard data.

                Such is even the case with your favorite whipping boy, Popper. The bits of his ideas that actually stand up to independent verification are the ones that we run with, but not because he philosophized them into existence. Rather, it’s because we did the experiments, analyzed the results, and found them in harmony with theory.

                When philosophy rules the roost, one can philosophically justify any old method you like so long as it follows some set of rules laid down by a dead white dude with a beard. But that just doesn’t cut the scientific mustard.

                Also, as I recall, some of the practices of scientists considered most valuable (and with the empirical results to back said value) are things like peer review that he never even addressed.

                So, please. Enough with the “Your science is Christian because you’re healing the sick just like Jesus!” analogs. Close the empirical loop and you’re doing science. Leave it open and you’re doing philosophy, even in the cases where you aimlessly meander around back to the paths paved by empiricism.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Peter Beattie
                Posted January 25, 2014 at 9:50 am | Permalink

                » Vaal:
                First, most concepts of “rational” assume induction to begin with (e.g. given everything has always “fallen down” it’s irrational to believe the rock you drop next will fall “up,”).

                To the extent that certain concepts of “rational” do indeed assume induction, they are simply wrong. If you’d like to engage Hume’s arguments for why that is so, you’re very welcome. But just as saying that most concepts of “species” assumed separate creation before Darwin came along doesn’t tell us anything about how that concepts is most fruitfully understood, your assertion with respect to “rational” isn’t helping unless you consider alternatives.

                As to believing a rock would fall up as the only rational alternative, maybe you should consider that there’s such a thing as withholding judgement, i.e. yours is a false dilemma. And before anybody should think that I’d advocate withholding judgement with respect to falling rocks: that option is for when we have no other information and/or theories as to why the rock would fall. Which in that case we would obviously have. An example that is more to the point we’re discussing would be our observing a roulette wheel coming up red 10 times in a row, or 20. Does that make it rational to bet a large sum of money on red for the next spin? It does not, unless you assume that there is some mechanism (or foul play) to influence the wheel; if you’d have to assume that each spin of the wheel was independent of the previous one, then a large bet on red would be irrational.

                Also, to indite induction on the grounds it is not deduction makes little sense

                Well, it’s a good thing I didn’t do that then. What I would do, however, is to point out that deduction can indeed help us at one crucial point, where induction cannot. It can help us distinguish better solutions from worse ones. Of course, that has nothing to do with certainty, but it ensures that we can reasonably talk about “the growth of knowledge”.

              • Filippo
                Posted January 25, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

                I remember reading an article by Dr. Pigliucci (in either Free Inquiry or Skeptical Inquirer) about “abduction.”

              • Vaal
                Posted January 25, 2014 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

                Peter Beattie

                I’m not challenging the issue that Hume pointed out (he’s my favorite philosopher); I’m just challenging the way you have characterized the issue, characterizing induction as irrational. (And if you aren’t characterizing it that way, then my disagreement mostly goes away).

                “To the extent that certain concepts of “rational” do indeed assume induction, they are simply wrong.”

                But that’s either begging the question. I was pointing out that
                understanding the world inductively tends to be what we *mean* by being “rational,” at least in a general use sense. If you hold your bare finger in a fire, expecting it not to be burned, others calling that irrational are incorporating inductive reasoning into *what they mean by irrational.* If induction is incorporated into the very general use of the term “rational” then you can’t say people are “wrong” in using it – it’s definitional. You have to challenge the claim of whether induction underlies people’s general notion of “rational” (behavior).

                And if I’m right, then you are selecting out of general use, a different notion of “rational” and I’m asking what that is, divorced from inductive inference, just to see how you are using the word.

                “I’d advocate withholding judgement with respect to falling rocks: that option is for when we have no other information and/or theories as to why the rock would fall. Which in that case we would obviously have.”

                Though my falling rock example was necessarily terse, I thought it was obvious it was choosing and example for which we have a strong history of observation and theory (gravity…all of which involves induction). So I’m not sure why you would bother presuming otherwise.

                I’m unclear at this point as to whether you would consider it “irrational” to predict a rock will fall to the ground when standing on earth, or not. If it is irrational, then it implies you are using some idiosyncratic and impractical definition of “rationality” for such actions. If you think it’s rational, then it would seem you’d agree with me, inductively derived conclusions can be rational, which is my whole point (and which your original quote seemed to challenge).

                Again: Induction, when examined, may rely on certain axiomatic assumptions – e.g. the uniformity of nature (or some similar assumption). But if induction, and it’s assumptions, are *necessary* for the possibility of understanding/predicting experience, then inductive reasoning can hardly be cast as “not rational.”
                (As I’m sure you know, one criticism of Popper’s attempt to get around the problem of induction was that he never managed it, and his “falsification” theory for why we ought to value one theory over another ended up assuming induction, to be of any use).

                Vaal

              • Posted January 25, 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

                Again: Induction, when examined, may rely on certain axiomatic assumptions e.g. the uniformity of nature (or some similar assumption).

                That’s not an assumption; it’s a provisional conclusion based upon observation. And it’s one that’s been repeatedly tested, especially recently by cosmologists. To within the error limits of all measurements made to date at any scale in any discipline, the hypothesis of uniformity has held.

                But, again, it would just take one single verifiable observation….

                b&

              • Peter Beattie
                Posted January 25, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

                » Ben Goren:
                Also, as I recall, some of the practices of scientists considered most valuable (and with the empirical results to back said value) are things like peer review that he never even addressed.

                No, Ben, you really don’t know what you’re talking about. And doing it eloquently doesn’t change that, unfortunately. Pointing out the same tired old point-missing “arguments” again and again really doesn’t serve any purpose. All your “but it works”’s were already answered by Hume; if you can’t even be bothered to engage with his argument, neither can I with yours. Same goes for “practices” and how Popper didn’t mention this one or that one: he called his book about scientific method The Logic of Scientific Discovery. That’s Logic, not Practice—and for good reason, too. You could do worse than to read it.

              • Posted January 25, 2014 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

                Again, putting logic before empiricism is putting the cart before the horse.

                How dow we know that logic works? Because we’ve tested it, repeatedly.

                I imagine you’re of the opinion that math, like logic, is somehow more “pure” and fundamental than physics. Yet, again, you’re mistraking the map for the territory.

                We know, for example, that the Pythagorean Theorem is true because one can, indeed, draw squares on the sides of a right triangle and compare the areas of the squares and discover that the big square covers as much ground as the two little ones combined. Were that not the case, we would not have the Pythagorean Theorem. And, let me assure you, it was such empirical observation that led Pythagoras to his discovery of the underlying principle; he most emphatically did not philosophize his Theorem from some sort of sacred First Principles.

                Now, of course: thanks to the ground-breaking work by Pythagoras and other early geometers and mathematicians and logicians, we know that logic is a very useful tool that can be used to predict the likelihood of a given proposition as being consistent with observation.

                But the proof of the pudding is not in its recipe but its eating.

                That would be another way to distinguish philosophers from scientists.

                For a philosopher, the theory is sufficient; with his theory, the philosopher knows whether or not he’s right. But a scientist will (cheerfully, grudgingly, whatever) abandon the theory in the face of evidence that’s inconsistent with theory.

                That would, incidentally, even extend all the way to empiricism itself. If you could offer some as-yet incomprehensible method of gauging the effectiveness of a theory that didn’t involve comparison with reality that gave demonstrably-better results than comparison with reality, science would abandon empiricism for whatever this new method is.

                But that day has yet to arrive, and there’s as much reason to expect it will as there is to expect a Western sunrise tomorrow morning.

                Or, to put it colloquially, philosophy is all hat and no cattle, while the scientist, says, “Show me!”

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Peter Beattie
                Posted January 25, 2014 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

                » Ben Goren:
                Because we’ve tested it, repeatedly.

                Please read at least this and try to see why tests are meaningless if they look for confirmation—and why that, crucially, is a matter of logic. And yes, that (looking for confirmation) would be basically the same thing as induction; see the Adler episode in the same text.

                Ben, don’t get me wrong, I do think your heart is in the right place and you’re trying to advocate for pretty much the same reasonable science as most here do, but what you’re saying with respect to philosophy is completely confused. You’re reacting like a Pavlovian dog to certain terms, yet they don’t mean what you think they mean. And the opinions you imagine I hold: I do not hold them. But you can’t see that, because you have to attack “philosophy” and defend “science”. But neither am a attacking science nor am I putting forth any philosophy that is in the least hostile to science. And that’s because science, in part, is philosophy (see the Harris quote above), and philosophy would be a rather dull affair if it weren’t for science. Dismissing one without any real understanding of their relationship really isn’t helping.

              • Posted January 25, 2014 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

                That essay is actually an excellent example of the point I’m trying to make.

                Popper had an idea: that the more specific the predictions of a theory, the more useful the theory is.

                Neat idea. But anybody can come up with a neat idea — which was exactly the problem that was troubling Popper.

                So, what did Popper do?

                He tested his idea against reality.

                He made up a list of different theories, evaluated them for both the specificity of their predictions and their utility, and found a correlation that matched his own theory.

                In other words, he took off his philosopher’s hat and got his hands dirty with science. He aligned his beliefs proportionally with an objective analysis of empirical observation.

                Now, his methodology in that essay was certainly a bit informal, and I’ll grant you that he was proudly wearing his hat with the “philosopher” label when he was doing his work.

                But the actual meaningful work lay not in the philosophizing of pondering the deep meanings of important questions…but in the rational analysis of empirical observation.

                To be sure, Popper did an hell of a lot of very important scientific research, and his theory that specificity is an essential element of an useful theory has born an awful lot of useful fruit.

                But, once again, should empirical observation demonstrate that the theory doesn’t hold up as well as we once thought it did, then our choices are to go with theory or with observation. And the smart money, as always, is on observation.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Vaal
                Posted January 25, 2014 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

                Ben Goren,

                “That’s not an assumption; it’s a provisional conclusion based upon observation.”

                Ben, Peter is right, that really is missing the point.

                Of course an inductive inference is provisional. We all know that. It doesn’t matter that it’s provisional, what matters is whether you assign any confidence at all to an inductive inference. To do so, you must be appealing to some other underlying assumption.

                Take the idea that fire is “hot” (e.g. it will burn your bare finger, if held long enough in a flame). You can take all the instances of fire being “hot’ in your experience and put those in a pile. The thing is, you will want to use those PAST set of experiences to predict the FUTURE behavior of fire the next time you encounter it.

                How do you go from “fire has been hot every time in the past” to THEREFORE “fire will be hot the next time I encounter it?”
                There is no direct, logical bridge at all between “X happened in the past” to “therefore X will happen in the future.”
                If you even want to make a PROVISIONAL inference that fire will be hot the next time you encounter it, that inference STILL relies in making an additional assumption to bridge between “happened in the past” to “will happen again in the future.”

                If you don’t come up with a bridge, even a “provisional” extrapolation from past experience to future experience is unexplained. If you say “well, this type of inference worked in the past THEREFORE it’s good for predicting the future” that doesn’t add any more justification, since you are simply re-asserting the same thing that is being questioned. That was pretty much Hume’s observation about induction.

                To even extrapolate with any confidence at all that fire will continue to be hot based on past experience, you have to assume some uniformity to nature – an assumption of continuity. I prefer this re-cast as assuming that, essentially, “All things have natures” – different ways to exist, as it were. This is an assumption, or presupposition, of the continuity, and so we are trying to figure out the “nature” of things like stars, fire, gravity, fruit flies, what have you.

                The reason fire has always burned our finger is that it is the nature of fire to do so, and we haven’t discovered anything deeper in the nature of fire to suggest it will do otherwise at some point (and if, to our surprise tomorrow fire freezes our fingers, we add to our depiction of the nature of fire, and try to find out why that happened…e.g. any theory we build about fire….all of which will continue to ASSUME fire has a nature, a continuity, because if that WEREN’T part of our assumption, then any inference to the future behavior of fire wouldn’t make sense, provisional or not.

                So, you ARE employing an underlying assumption (or need to be to make sense) every time you move from inference from past experience to future prediction.

                Philosophers have been correct to point this out. And you can’t “prove the assumption” scientifically because to even do science relies on already taking the assumption as valid. You’d be doing no better than theists using viscous circular reasoning like: “I know the bible always tells the truth because it says it always tells the truth.”

                Cheers,

                Vaal

              • Posted January 25, 2014 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

                There is no direct, logical bridge at all between X happened in the past to therefore X will happen in the future.

                So what?

                No, really — I’m serious.

                Your objection that one needs some magic philosophical rock as a foundation to justify extrapolation of future events from observations of past events is exactly the same as the objection of the theologian that there is no salvation without Jesus for he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and none shall come to the Father but through Him.

                Both are manufactured solutions to manufactured problems.

                Those who assumed that getting burned by the fire once meant there’s a good chance they’d get burned again tended to not get burned in their future encounters with fire. Those who didn’t got burned. Those who never learned the lesson lost life and limb to burn and infection. The ones that learned that lesson survived to learn similar lessons.

                Some of those survivors thought they might be able to think their way into predicting the likelihood of more general things than just getting burned or not, and that thinking was in turn the early forerunner of what we today know as, “logic.” And they didn’t get burned as much as those who rejected this newfangled logic. Their children kept building and building up this logic to the point that it became an incredibly powerful and useful tool for understanding the universe — and, indeed, it has saved us unimaginable work in that endeavor, any good tool should.

                But, every time that logic and reality has collided, reality has won. Logic said you couldn’t make a triangle with two right angles. Some smartass tried drawing triangles on a sphere, and it was logic that had to be revised, not reality — but the philosophers insisted that this was only some sort of hypothetical possibility not related to “real” reality. Then another smartass thought that this might actually explain why the predictions of Mercury’s orbit always needed a fudge factor to match up with observations…and another smartass confirmed as much by taking pictures of the stars during an eclipse.

                The most telling, as usual, is the answer to Richard’s favorite question: “How do you know that?”

                The philosopher insists that some sacred ultimate first principle is necessary to ground the being of all knowledge, without which we are left bereft in an infinite sea of perpetual and sinful ignorance. The scientist explains his methods and observations in exacting detail, invites you to check his work, and hopes you’ll independently validate his findings by replicating them for yourself.

                So, I’m sure it’s a very lovely bridge you’ve got that you’re trying to sell us to connect past observations to future predictions. And if we actually needed a bridge like that we might very well buy it — assuming it passed the structural integrity inspection and all the paperwork was in order.

                But we don’t actually need it…so thanks but no thanks.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Vaal
                Posted January 25, 2014 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

                Ben,

                There’s nothing “magic” about this. You don’t even have to mention the word “philosophy.” We are simply looking at whether we are making sense, if so how, and
                when we make some statement or claim, what does that claim seem to assume.

                It’s not magic; it’s simply talking about making sense.

                Let’s say “Ted,” who is currently in Los Angeles, says “When I get to New York, I’m going to visit the Statue of Liberty.”

                “John” asks Ted “How are you getting there?”

                Ted replies “Getting there?”

                John: “Yeah, I’m just curious how you’ll be getting yourself from Los Angeles to New York.”

                Ted: “Hold on, don’t go inserting something I didn’t say. I didn’t say I had a way to get to New York. I only said that when I get there, I’m going to see the Statue of Liberty.”

                John: But, uh, doesn’t your saying “when I get to New York” make sense only if you actually have a way of getting there?

                Ted: No it doesn’t. I’m not assuming or claiming any such thing. I’m simply telling you what I”m going to do, once I get there.

                John: So, you can’t tell me how you will get from Los Angelis to New york, and aren’t even assuming that you can, but you still want to tell me about what you are going to do…WHEN you get there?

                Ted: Yup. Going any further than that, talking about the things assumed in my statement to make more sense of it, is just philosophical bullshit.

                John: ???

                I’m in the position of “John” here, and you’d be exactly as baffled if you were getting the same strange answers on any other subject, but one that deals with philosophy.
                Why would it be so hard for Ted to simply admit that his statement carries with it certain assumptions that make sense of his statement? (E.g. that he has a way to get between those cities?). Ted has do push himself into some very strange and irrational sounding corners to avoid admitting something pretty obvious.

                Similarly, why is it so hard to just admit “Yeah, when we infer from past experience with fire to future experience, we are assuming there is some continuity involved in nature that we are trying to pin down” ?

                There’s no magic in there at all.

                Vaal

              • Peter Beattie
                Posted January 26, 2014 at 6:19 am | Permalink

                » Ben Goren:
                That essay is actually an excellent example of the point I’m trying to make.

                I, too, think that you are trying to get at pretty much the same thing that Popper is getting at—only you still don’t understand why. ;)

                Popper had an idea: that the more specific the predictions of a theory, the more useful the theory is.

                He didn’t just have this idea, this idea is a direct consequence of a certain system of logic. Specificity matters only a) if you take the law of non-contradiction for granted and b) if you use deductive logic to exploit contradictions that may turn up. Induction cannot lead to contradictions, which is why it is useless in this regard. (See this comment for an extended quote on that point by logician Mark Notturno.)

                So, what did Popper do? He tested his idea against reality.

                Um, no, Ben. That is exactly what Popper did not do. Maybe you think that’s what he must have done, but you are simply wrong. Popper clearly distinguished empirical from normative theories, with his own falsification falling into the latter category.

                He made up a list of different theories, … got his hands dirty with science. … But the actual meaningful work lay not in the philosophizing of pondering the deep meanings of important questions…but in the rational analysis of empirical observation.

                The first two points are simply wrong as matters of fact. You are fantasizing about ‘what Popper surely must have done’, but why don’t you try not just to talk the talk from the safety of your armchair but get your hands dirty and read some actual Popper and expose your fantasies to the risk of being shown false? Have a look at The Logic of Scientific Discovery to get a sense of why all notions of empiricism are useless (even purely as a matter of logic) without a deductive system of logic underpinning them.

              • Posted January 26, 2014 at 10:10 am | Permalink

                Peter, I’ll grant that you’re more familiar with Popper than I am, and you may well be representing his work and thought processes better than I did based on my direct reading of that essay you linked to.

                However, if so, that demonstrates that Popper missed the boat in the biggest possible way.

                You see, science is the ultimate expression of utilitarianism. It works. (“Bitches.”)

                By insisting that it’s the philosophical principles that Popper proposed that justify scientific methods, you’re making the same fundamental mistrake as those who insisted that Newton was right and all we had to do was find Planet Vulcan which was clearly responsible for the discrepancies in Mercury’s orbit.

                So long as we get good results by exploiting the law of non-contradiction to winnow the field of useful explanatory theories, we’ll continue to do so.

                But, I guarantee you: if some enterprising logician throws out the law of non-contradiction and thereby discovers some hitherto-unimaginable hidden method of predicting, say, the interaction of CMB-scale structures. (And it’s not even all that farfetched an idea; cutting-edge physics is replete with variations on the “many worlds” theme, each of which are the very antithesis of non-contradiction.)

                Whether it was Popper who tested his ideas, as he surely appeared to do at least informally in that essay, or the numerous scientists since who’ve had success implementing his ideas, the reason they’re scientifically important is because they work and we have the empirical evidence to prove they do. That they have some sort of philosophical purity is all fine and dandy for those who’re into that sort of thing, but it’s irrelevant to real scientists doing real science.

                “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” “Show me the money.” That’s science.

                But philosophy, on the other hand, is, “You didn’t follow the recipe right,” “Now witness the firepower of this fully ARMED and OPERATIONAL battle station!” and, “The check is in the mail.”

                Cheers,

                b&

            • Posted January 25, 2014 at 2:02 am | Permalink

              You just know when people diss philosophy that what they mean is any philosophy, but their own.

              • Posted January 25, 2014 at 10:25 am | Permalink

                You mean like how when people diss religion what they really mean is any religion but their own, with atheism being just another religion?

                Please.

                b&

              • Posted January 25, 2014 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

                Certainly a record stuck stance on philosophy has one of the characteristics of religion – that it isn’t responsive to any kind of rational argument.

                To say that all thought that doesn’t lead to the next advance in quantum mechanics is useless just smacks of ignorance and impedes the progress of rational thought. You might as well say that art is useless for the same reasons.

  31. Charles E. Jones
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    “Well, you know, I wouldn’t have any objection to including science as a subset of philosophy—one that includes not only philosophy’s rational thinking but applies it to answering questions about what is true in the universe”

    Do you think that if all of the horsemen signed off on the idea that science is a part of philosophy that Pigliucci would feel all happy and secure and write more productive essays?

  32. Curt Nelson
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I really liked Sam Harris’s essay because it says what it seems most people need to hear: Science is not an abstract or elite mode of operation but something we all practice without realizing it, and all the stuff of the modern world that we enjoy and take for granted is a product of science… so, you know, when you doubt evolution and global warming etc., you are questioning the validity of the very method that has feathered your nest so well.

  33. Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Of course Pigliucci didn’t bother to ask any new atheists whether or not they had read any academic philosophy, asking them would be empirical science, research even!

    No, he’d rather stick to his philosophy and merely pontificate and speculate about what seems likely.

    • gluonspring
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      Rats, beat me to it.

  34. @eightyc
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    lol

    I just got blocked on twitter by the Massimo.

    I guess he’s not too fond of sarcasm when I acquired a measurement of 40 pigliucci units for the perceived-to-actual importance of my cart-lanes in Costco idea.

  35. Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    I am saddened to hear of this trend in Pigliucci. His book Nonsense On Stilts is in my reading rotation. I am enjoying it, and felt I have learned a few things from it.
    I do not get the problem that some philosophers have about not getting enough respect from working scientists. Science grew from philosophy thousands of years ago, but so what? We actually do ‘call home’ every once in a while, but must we share everything with them? I am tired when I come home from the lab, and do they think they can really help me in next grant proposal about x-ray crystallography of cytochrome c in thermophilic bacteria? C’mon! Not every new genome project or measurement of the cosmic microwave background needs to acknowledge the special insights of Descarte or Popper. What did they know about those things?

    • @eightyc
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      lol

      maybe just maybe,

      those who can, do and those who can’t, do philosophy.

  36. John Dickinson
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Sam Harris has a BA in philosophy (Stanford no less)

    • gbjames
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      My son did a double major for his BA, one of which was in Philosophy. I (who didn’t study Philosophy) remember commenting to him that he probably learned from that discipline how to think logically and express himself clearly. He disagreed with me, telling me that what he learned in Philosophy classes he could have learned just as well in another discipline. Who am I to argue?

  37. Posted January 24, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    I wonder what Piglucci says about Peter Boghossian, who knows philosophy extremely well and relies on (and recommends we all read) Socrates among others. Maybe that makes him not “really” a “new” atheist on that score or maybe he’s semi-new since he also speaks highly of The Four Horseman and Dr. Ceiling Cat. I’ll bet he’s jealous of Boghossian too, though! He should be!

    • @eightyc
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      Pigliucci can philosophize all he wants until he’s blue in the face but once his philosophy starts making statements about the “real” world, then he has no choice but to go out there and start running experiments.

      And if he’s so keen on pissing everywhere to mark his turf, then guess where he’ll come crawling to for obtaining evidence?

      Science.

      lol

      • Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

        That actually gets right to the heart of the fundamental problem with philosophy.

        When it comes right down to it, if you want to understand reality, you can either philosophize about it or you can observe it.

        In the heyday of philosophy, when Plato and Socrates and the like ruled the roost, they didn’t know how to observe reality, so they philosophized about it. And they thought they had a pretty good handle on the answers to what we still call the Big Questions: the nature and origins of life, of morality, what governed the motions of the heavens, that sort of thing.

        And the philosophers got it all spectacularly worng. As in, not even close.

        It was only when we actually started to observe reality, to trust reality to represent reality, that we finally got a handle on reality.

        Philosophy is utterly useless in the modern world. Sure, it was important in the past and we wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for philosophy, but the exact same thing can be said of alchemy and astrology.

        We know better now. Or, at least, we should….

        Cheers,

        b&

        P.S. Some like to defend philosophical turf by suggesting that philosophers are a good well of novel ideas. Again, that might once have been true, but no philosopher was responsible for either quantum or relativistic mechanics, and no philosopher will figure out quantum gravity. Instead, the philosophers will just keep bickering amongst each other about the origins of beginningness. b&

        • @eightyc
          Posted January 24, 2014 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

          lol agreed.

        • abrotherhoodofman
          Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

          When it comes right down to it, if you want to understand reality, you can either philosophize about it or you can observe it.

          Empiricism is actually a philosophical doctrine, however mistaken.

          Allow me to quote David Deutsch:

          In reality, scientific theories are not ‘derived’ from anything. We do not read them in nature, nor does nature write them into us. They are guesses – bold conjectures. Human minds create them by rearranging, combining, altering and adding to existing ideas with the intention of improving upon them. We do not begin with ‘white paper’ at birth, but with inborn expectations and intentions and an innate ability to improve upon them using thought and experience. Experience is indeed essential to science, but its role is different from that supposed by empiricism. It is not the source from which from which theories are derived. Its main use is to choose between theories that have already been guessed. That is what ‘learning from experience’ is.”

          • Larry Gay
            Posted January 25, 2014 at 4:10 am | Permalink

            In Darwin’s case it seems that lots and lots of careful observation preceded the bold idea. Deutsch seems to put it the other way around. Why prefer one way or the other? The honest comparison of observation with mental pictures of reality is the crucial thing.

          • Peter Beattie
            Posted January 25, 2014 at 9:54 am | Permalink

            That David Deutsch quote, some people might be curious to know, is from his highly recommended The Beginning of Infinity.

  38. Posted January 24, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Pigliucci’s piece indeed needed some serious rebutting, especially the admonition against thinking of science in broad terms.

    But isn’t he basically saying the same thing, when he talks about the “swishiness” of the god concept making it useless as a hypothesis, as we gnus say when we call the god concept incoherent to the point of being meaningless and not admitting of further discussion until the theist gets specific? When and where theists make specific claims I’m all about testing, but just how would one test “goddidit” without asking for clarification?

    I don’t think these approaches are at odds. Concrete and specific claims can and should be tested; “swishy” assertions that are nearly not-even-there can be dealt with by applying “Hitchens’ Razor”.

  39. Bruce Gorton
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Massimo is essentially a guy jumping up and down yelling “Respect me! Respect me!” while doing nothing worthy of respect.

    In crude internet terms, he is butthurt.

    It is not, contrary to popular belief, that “New atheists” don’t respect philosophy – you’ll find atheists quoting Betrand Russell, or Hume, or all sorts of historic philosophers the whole time.

    Heck I remember Dawkins quoting Russell’s teapot in the God Delusion.

    It is that “New atheists” don’t automatically respect arguments from people just because they’re philosophers.

    It is not that new atheists don’t respect philosophy, it is that Massimo is such a stunningly bad philosopher he brings his entire field into disrepute.

    He does not produce new insights, his general style adds zero substance to anything, seriously what has he brought to the table?

    Further, his argument that science isn’t all that different to what everyone does in their day to day lives is arrogant? Can the ivory tower twit kindly remove his head from his ass, the suffocation he is suffering is killing his brain cells.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      “it is that Massimo is such a stunningly bad philosopher he brings his entire field into disrepute.”

      True, but he has a lot of help.

    • Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      He does not produce new insights, his general style adds zero substance to anything, seriously what has he brought to the table?

      And how would we know that he had brought something new and meaningful to the table?

      By replicating his findings through independent observation.

      Science, in other words.

      Not philosophy.

      b&

      • abrotherhoodofman
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

        And how would we know that he had brought something new and meaningful to the table?

        By replicating his findings through independent observation.

        Falsification? Sounds like Popperian philosophy to me!

  40. Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Hell, I might be butthurt too if I discovered any Average Jolene could do an end-run around my entire discipline (and by extension my personal importance and visibility) by reading a clearly-written 300-pager.

    If Pigliucci wants relevancy (or just attention) he could consider joining the conversation as it already exists and not standing in the corner of the room, issuing petulant demands that people change the subject (and how it’s discussed) to suit him.

  41. Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    I sometimes very much enjoy the discussions on Massimo Pigliucci’s blog, and there are indeed, for example among the commenters though not the author of this website, really a few atheists who arrogantly dismiss all of philosophy even while making philosophical arguments, and there is clearly much to be criticized about Sam Harris’ constant refusal to acknowledge the is-ought problem, but this post is smack on target.

    It is puzzling that MP so aggressively attacks other atheists who do not disagree with him on anything of substance (calling it science or scientia, whoohoo…). Turf war and the zeal of the late convert to philosophy are sadly the only explanations that present themselves.

    Over the years I have followed the discussions on whether science can address the god issue very closely. Two comments I would like to make:

    MP’s argument is sometimes hard to understand but it boils down to arbitrarily giving the religious apologist permission to move goalposts. So if somebody says they have invented cold fusion and then starts moving goalposts when it cannot be reproduced, the scientist is allowed to reject the claim. However, when a believer makes a religious claim and then starts moving goalposts when no evidence presents itself, the scientist is suddenly not allowed to reject it but has to call in a philosopher again. In other words, MP’s stance is simply special pleading.

    Second, as mentioned in the above post in connection with Eugenie Scott, methodological naturalism is generally considered the trump card in this controversy. I strongly feel that the following consideration should be discussed more widely:

    IMO, methNat is about scientists being forbidden from providing a science-stopping non-explanation but it is NOT, and was never meant to be, about scientists being forbidden to tentatively reject a non-evidenced claim.

    In other words, as a scientist I am not allowed to say, ‘this was caused by an ineffable demon, done, now I’ll turn to another problem’, but I am fully within my rights to say ‘there is no evidence for demons so I will tentatively conclude they don’t exist’.

    Are there any problems with this? If not, I would really suggest to explicitly use this as a rejoinder for when one runs into those who try to exclude science a priori from examining supernatural claims.

    (Also, I have yet to see a useful definition of the term supernatural, so to me there are only empirical claims and non-empirical claims, and science deals with the first of those categories.)

    • gluonspring
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      “the scientist is suddenly not allowed to reject it but has to call in a philosopher again”

      Basic union rules.

  42. Dan
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    There was a time when Massimo Pigliucci was still relevant. He had published Tales of the Rational (a strongly New Atheist-ish book) and was still a biologist. Then he got a PhD in Philosophy and went downhill from there.

    • @eightyc
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      lol well surprise surprise.

      A PhD in philosophy.

      A quasi-intellectual armed with a catalogue of jargon that makes him sound smart is simultaneously comedic and dangerous.

      I think “knowing too much” became his undoing.

      • Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

        It seems to me that an individual who has earned Ph.D.’s in both biology and philosophy qualifies as an actual intellectual.

        • @eightyc
          Posted January 26, 2014 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

          lol.

          He should have stopped at the PhD in Biology.

          I suppose he should go for the trifecta. Get a PhD in Theology as well.

  43. gluonspring
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    The article does not seem to be free to me, even after registering. Am I missing something?

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      Try this direct link to the PDF.

      • gluonspring
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

        That worked. Thanks.

  44. irritable
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    That which can be asserted without reliance upon purely philosophical arguments can be rebutted without consideration of purely philosophical arguments.

    As for the tiny subset of theists who rely upon the purely philosophical arguments developed by Swinburne, Plantinga and Co, their assertions are are squarely addressed by Mackie, Philipse, Grayling and Co.

    Another thing: for a scholar writing in a scholarly journal, Pigliucci seems to rely extensively on rhetoric and ad hominem attacks to make his points. The rigour of a contention is usually inversely proportional to the amount of rhetoric in which it’s packaged.

  45. Jimbo
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to air a pet peeve.

    I think it does the New Atheism movement no good to state (as both Jerry and Richard have) that ‘there is nothing really new about New Atheism’ as if Ingersoll and Russell have said it all. If we construe science broadly as Coyne and Harris appropriately do, what’s “new” about the New Atheism is all of the scientific discoveries since Russell that have denuded huge swaths of philosophy. fMRI studies of the brain, notions of freewill, explaining the chemistry and biology undergirding heredity and mutation and natural selection collide with philosophy, broadly construed. Further, recent philosophical arguments that deconstruct the scientific claims of religion, or debunk non-overlapping magisteria, or bankrupt Pascal’s Wager are coming from the new guys, not Grandpa Russell.

    Philosophy mimics religion (to its detriment) when it morphs in response to new scientific information. How many philosophers invoked the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle or Quantum Mechanics or Libet’s experiments, giddy with new insight, in an attempt to square new scientific insight with old, musty philosophy?

    • Posted January 25, 2014 at 3:26 am | Permalink

      You did see my comment in the post above that I agree with Pigliucci that one of the distinguishing traits of New Atheism is its connection with science and its view that God is a hypothesis, right?

      In view of that, how can you say that I don’t think there’s anything “new” about New Atheism?

  46. Achrachno
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    I started my day reading this post while eating my cheerios. Didn’t know what to say then, but have been thinking about this sporadically all day. Now it’s evening, I’ve read everything else on WEIT today, including about the possible skateboarding cat. I’m finally back to this one again.

    All I can say is that, as a former regular reader of Massimo, Jerry is 100% on the money as far as I can see. Massimo seems so concerned with being respected that he irritates people. He also seems to sometimes lose the thread of what he’s writing about, becoming lost in philosophical sophistication. I read his “Nonsense on Stilts” a year or so ago and didn’t really disagree with any of it as I was reading, but at the end I realized that I couldn’t really say what the overall point was or that he’d clarified my thinking on anything. Right now, I can’t really remember one important point he made. Conversely, books like “Letter to a Christian Nation” hit hard and really force one to see things more clearly.

  47. krzysztof1
    Posted January 25, 2014 at 12:19 am | Permalink

    You quoted Massimo: “the fact that there is no coherent or sensible way in which the idea of god can possibly be considered a “hypothesis” in any sense remotely resembling the scientific sense of the term. ”

    A very smart friend of mine pointed out to me that if we follow Popper’s requirement of a scientific hypothesis is that it be falsifiable, then the proposition “God exists” can’t be a scientific hypothesis. HOWEVER “God does NOT exist” can. All that has to happen is for god to show up in a scientifically controlled situation.

    On the surface, it seems like the hypothesis “Dowsing (or homeopathy, if you like) works” is different, since we can test the claim under controlled conditions that, if true, would indicate that the best explanation for the result is that it works. There is no test for the claim of God’s existence because it isn’t about some thing or process that can be observed.

    But in reality what we are testing is the hypothesis that dowsing DOESN’T work, and so far all controlled tests have indicated that that is the case. So by that logic, “God does not exist” IS a scientific hypothesis. With all due respect, I think Mr. Pigliucci is a bit confused about the God hypothesis.

  48. St David
    Posted January 25, 2014 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    Dear Prof Coyne,
    Your reaction to Prof Pigliucci’s paper is disappointing. I read both your and Prof Pigliucci’s work and – as you well know – there is much more agreement than disagreement between the two of you when it comes to the philosophical and political issues (atheism, naturalism, scepticism, and other isms…).
    I am particularly disappointed because I remember an exchange from 2010 where Prof Pigliucci offered an apology for some personal attacks against other atheists/free-thinkers/sceptics which you accepted. Both of you made a dignified and reasonable impression back then. Now, however, you employ in your response to his paper the very same kind of personal attacks: Instead of substantive criticism (about which could be argued) you question your opponent’s virtues und ascribe lowly motives to him. I don’t believe that Prof Pigliucci is jealous of his peers (by the way, since he is both a scientist and a professional philosopher, it stands to reason that his philosophy is more nuanced than the layperson’s – I would welcome this asset instead of brushing it aside…) but more importantly, suggesting something like it is both undignified and unreasonable. I expected harsh criticism from you, not insults. And no, I do not find the same sort of personal attacks in Prof Pigliucci ‘s paper (it is harsh but not outside the bounds of intellectual discourse).
    Given that your disagreements are far fewer than your agreements on the important issues, I wish that there would be a less caustic culture prevalent in the discussion. But the fact that there IS a discussion (harsh but reasonable) within the atheist/free-thought/sceptic community is not a nuisance to be stomped on or laughed at – its a strength to be cultivated.
    Best regards and thanks to you, Prof Coyne!

  49. Posted January 25, 2014 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    [ its taking the idea of God as a hypothesis to be tested. ]

    So that means religion does have a place in the science classroom?

  50. Dango
    Posted January 25, 2014 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    First it was Pigliucci, now Edward Feser has called you out! (You just can’t catch a break…)

    • Posted January 25, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      Not sure Feser is worth the time of day – he’s just another religious (in this case catholic) apologist masquerading as a philosopher. Maybe best to just leave him in the woodwork.

  51. Posted January 25, 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Philosophy’s frustration with scientism can be summarized simply:

    How can you claim to know that an unfalsifiable hypothesis is false?

    • Glasseye
      Posted January 26, 2014 at 3:45 am | Permalink

      Ehhh.. And the answer is, it dosn’t. It sayes that the overwhelming evidence is that their is no God.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted January 28, 2014 at 6:35 am | Permalink

      Skeptic’s frustration with philosophy can be summarized simply:

      How can you claim to know that a falsifiable hypothesis is non-falsifiable?

      Except by making an unsupportable theological claim, that is.

      Sure, there are gaps in empirical methods such as solipsism, but we ignore them because they aren’t useful while empirical methods are. The useful, empirical, criteria is that the hypothesis test gaps are gone, that the observations can’t be predicted from random events. And such gaps are gone.

      Or to put if differently: if astrological and homeopathic magic is considered debunked (falsified) by science, if the existence of fairies and unicorns are considered non-starters, why would creationist magic or the existence of invisible bearded men be any different?

      Special pleading and theological claims are ugly. If philosophy wants to be ugly, fine. But don’t drag skepticism into it – skeptics are globally organized around accepting science. Simply summarized, it is so, because: “It works, bitches!”. (Ob xqcd reference.)

  52. strongforce
    Posted January 26, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Dennett just posted a review Of Harris’s book on Free will.

    http://www.naturalism.org/Dennett_reflections_on_Harris's_Free_Will.pdf

  53. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 28, 2014 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    I’m annoyed by the exceptionalism that the special pleading both religion and philosophy uses.

    If philosophy ever stood up and argued that skepticism analyzing astrology or homeopathy was to “pontificate about philosophy” or to “authoritatively comment on … straightforward philosophical matters” considering stars or waters magical effects on people, it has ceased to do so. For good reasons. Why would “invisible agency” magical effects be any different?

    Pigliucci’s other large mistake, besides arguing that the success of atheism isn’t relevant to deciding on its strategy (skepticism or philosophy), is this: “Scientia includes science sensu stricto, philosophy, mathematics, and logic—that is, all the reliable sources of third person knowledge that humanity has successfully experimented with so far.”

    Philosophy has two social uses, one of which is within science. All of it can be an inspiration for hypotheses, but so can theology and astrology. And Krauss identifies some specific social uses (for legislation and what not). The problem is that neither of those are “reliable sources of third person knowledge”, quite the opposite in fact.

    And this is wrong too:

    Occam’s razor—as much as it is clearly an extra-empirical criterion—is routinely invoked within scientific practice.

    According to diverse bayesian statistical methods, minimizing parameter use by a penalty term is to avoid overfitting and more generally to minimize information loss. See for example the Aikake information criteria http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akaike_information_criterion (AIC) or the Bayesian information criteria (BIC). (But note that AIC is not always exactly parsimony, as I believe BIC is, meaning AIC has a lower penalty on non-parsimonous models. Reality is sometimes more complex than parsimony, and maybe that shines through here.)

    Other statistical useful properties: “In particular, AIC is asymptotically optimal in selecting the model with the least mean squared error, under the assumption that the exact “true” model is not in the candidate set (as is virtually always the case in practice); BIC is not asymptotically optimal under the assumption. Yang further shows that the rate at which AIC converges to the optimum is, in a certain sense, the best possible.”

  54. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted January 28, 2014 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    If the meaning of meaning is decided, or not worth discussing, what is it?

    • gbjames
      Posted January 29, 2014 at 6:04 am | Permalink

      A yawn?

  55. Posted February 7, 2014 at 2:39 am | Permalink

    Hi Prof. Coyne, I tend to agree with you about Prof Pigliucci’s site. My own view on the matter is simply that belief is hypothesis to more secure knowledge. We base beliefs on past knowledge to extend it (Popper), and if “God” has no basis in past fact (except for unproved miracles), then “God cannot be defined in knowledgeable terms for testing let alone resolved.

    God is in a logical limbo pending miracles, simple as that, which means I just simply ignore anyone who talks about it unless they have witnessed a miracle (I haven’t met any – the people I meet who say they have seen ghosts have never had much credibility).

    Anyway, you might be interested in my free book / paper removing God from all possibility (he could not even be identified with the Fine Structure Constant or some physical event, as an abstract – just no need at all, no gaps).

    So I try to close the gap using geometry in my book at my site http://thehumandesign.net Its a geometrical design. I used that title despite the intelligent “design” crowd because they do not own that useful word.

  56. Posted February 10, 2014 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    You might be interested in my commentary on Pigliucci’s article. I argue that notwithstanding the other flaws in his paper, he fails to justify his claim that “science” must be narrowly restricted, and that a broader, philosophical definition enables the utility of the analyses he condemns in his paper without introducing any philosophical problems.

    The limits of science

  57. Posted May 21, 2014 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    Let’s just address the arguments rather than speculating on the possible “jealousy” of those presenting the arguments. Let’s leave appeals to psychic knowledge of your interlocutor’s emotions to the theists.


8 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Pigliucci to all New Atheists: we’re doing it wrong […]

  2. […] you might expect, the paper has attracted responses from some of its targets. Jerry Coyne’s response is rather ill-tempered, even as he criticises Pigliucci for his “arrogance” and […]

  3. […] [6] Pigliucci to all New Atheists: we’re doing it wrong […]

  4. […] Coyne offers his own review of the paper: “It’s a nasty piece of work: mean-spirited and misguided. It’s also, I […]

  5. […] few weeks ago, Jerry Coyne published a critique on his blog directed at an essay that Pigliucci published last September, titled “New Atheism and the […]

  6. […] and engineers are not scientists” (a point argued with, I think, malicious intent). Meanwhile Jerry Coyne and others think that car mechanics and plumbers are doing “science, broadly […]

  7. […] Pigliucci to all New Atheists: we’re doing it wrong […]

  8. […] published a paper critiquing some atheist views on philosophy, eliciting responses from Jerry Coyne and PZ […]

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