Massimo Pigliucci on the Skeptic and Atheist Movements

Massimo Pigliucci has a rather scathing essay about what he sees has happened to the skeptic and atheist movements (which he refers to as SAM for short), which disappoints him greatly. I don’t agree with everything he says, but a lot of it certainly hits the mark in my view.

The Harris-Chomsky exchange, in my mind, summarizes a lot of what I find unpleasant about SAM: a community who worships celebrities who are often intellectual dilettantes, or at the very least have a tendency to talk about things of which they manifestly know very little; an ugly undertone of in-your-face confrontation and I’m-smarter-than-you-because-I-agree-with [insert your favorite New Atheist or equivalent]; loud proclamations about following reason and evidence wherever they may lead, accompanied by a degree of groupthink and unwillingness to change one’s mind that is trumped only by religious fundamentalists; and, lately, a willingness to engage in public shaming and other vicious social networking practices any time someone says something that doesn’t fit our own opinions, all the while of course claiming to protect “free speech” at all costs.

Let me give you some examples and name some names of big boys who can take the criticism and who will keep doing what they have been doing regardless of what I write anyway.

I have already mentioned Harris, who writes about ethics with little acknowledgment (or understanding, or both) of just how complex a topic it is, and how much literature there is out there to engage with. As he infamously wrote in the first footnote of chapter 1 of The Moral Landscape, “Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy … [but] I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’ … directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.” Why are we taking such a brazen display of anti-intellectualism as anything more than a clear mark of an overinflated ego? But far from that, Michael Shermer then builds on Harris’ point (or perhaps simply restates it, at much greater length), coming out with yet another “revolutionary” book about the science of ethics, predicated on an argument that had so many holes in it that I felt a bit embarrassed having to explain them in a public forum a couple of years ago [15].

Then we have Neil deGrasse Tyson. Great science popularizer, but also prone to anti-intellectualism in the form of dismissing an entire field (philosophy) of which he knows nothing at all [16], not to mention his sometimes questionable behavior when it comes to intellectual fairness, as even my colleague (with whom I often disagree) Jerry Coyne has firmly pointed out [17]. That particular episode had to do with yielding to the whims of yet another physicist/anti-intellectualist who has become a darling of SAM: Lawrence Krauss [18].

And speaking of great science popularizers who are very much adored within SAM: Richard Dawkins has actually gone on record as trashing yet another field (besides philosophy) of which he knows nothing, namely, epigenetics: “I am heartily sick of the ‘epigenetics’ bandwagon and almost look forward to the next one, whatever it turns out to be.” [19] Luckily, that so-called “bandwagon” (actually very sound, cutting age biological research) keeps going regardless of Dawkins’ opinion, producing thousands of papers every year and securing tens of millions in funding from evidently profoundly misguided federal agencies. And let’s not go (again) into the exceedingly naive approach to religious criticism that has made Dawkins one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism.

It’s hard to disagree with most of that. I feel the same way much of the time. I strongly disagree with another point he made in the article, about the alleged confusion of progressivism and social justice activism as “tenets of atheism,” but that is a topic for another time. But the SAM could do with a great deal less hero worship (including of me, to whatever tiny degree that may operate among a small group of people; I am made profoundly uncomfortable when people lavish me with praise) and simpleminded tribalism.

Unlike Pigliucci, I am not willing to withdraw from the movement, but I have changed the way I engage with it and the priorities I hold. Much more of my energy and time goes into community building and putting humanist principles to work than it used to. And I’ve grown much more critical of my fellow atheists for what I believe are overly simplistic or just plain dishonest criticisms of religious belief and practice. I will continue to do so. For all its flaws, I’m not ready to give up on SAM.

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  • StevoR

    Then we have Neil deGrasse Tyson. Great science popularizer, but also prone to anti-intellectualism ..

    And being an absolute arsehole to those -including schoolkids – who disagree with him over Pluto.

  • gshelley

    I now groan audibly when a journalist (usually from continental Europe where they spend too much time learning philosophy rather than science) asks me the now inevitable ‘what about epigenetics?’ question. It is a real disease among science journalists, this unseemly eagerness to find something that enables them to say “Darwin was wrong” (New Scientist under Roger Highfield is a lamentable example). I am heartily sick of the ‘epigenetics’ bandwagon and almost look forward to the next one, whatever it turns out to be.

    While you may disagree that journalists have latched onto epigenetics with little real understanding of it, Pigliucci does not seem to be representing Dawkins accurately

    To me, it comes across as a tantrum by someone upset that not everyone appreciates philosophy

  • StevoR

    Which is and always will be a planet. Just a question of how long it takes till the IAU realise how utterly idiotic they have been!

    (Hint : if a dwarf star is still a star -and 90% or so of stars are dwarfs -then a dwarf planet is still a planet – plus Pluto has heaps of stuff that, frex, Mercury doesn’t like a proper atmosphere weather, more moons than the all the inner four planets put together and perhaps even rings as well – and Earth and almost all other planets couldn’t clear their orbits at Pluto’s distance either and why the hell should a clear orbit be important anyhow!)

    Also I think Ed Brayton missed out on what he said about PZ Myers too.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    And speaking of great science popularizers who are very much adored within SAM: Richard Dawkins has actually gone on record as trashing yet another field (besides philosophy) of which he knows nothing, namely, epigenetics: “I am heartily sick of the ‘epigenetics’ bandwagon and almost look forward to the next one, whatever it turns out to be.” [19] Luckily, that so-called “bandwagon” (actually very sound, cutting age biological research) keeps going regardless of Dawkins’ opinion, producing thousands of papers every year and securing tens of millions in funding from evidently profoundly misguided federal agencies…

    It’s hard to disagree with most of that.

    Actually, I disagree with everything Pigliucii has to say about epigenetics and Dawkins. That’s because he has demonstrably misread Dawkins’ statement, which he quotes out of context. If you read the comments, you will find more details by myself and several others on this.

    Basically, there is real and important biological research on something called ‘epigenetics.’ Epigenetics is a phenomena in which some environmental signals may cause changes in the DNA, frequently methylation of the bases, which can be passed on to progeny. Unfortunately, articles about epigenetics in the mainstream media have heralded epigenetics as a serious challenge to “Darwinism,” as a rebirth of Lamarckism, have touted that “everything you know about genetics is wrong”, and so forth.

    This is all cattle effluence. To get epigenetics, you need: 1) a methylase or other modification enzyme, which is coded by a gene. 2) A stretch of DNA which will be modified, thus causing some change in genetic expression. 3) A control system which will sense some environmental cue and cause the modification enzymes to alter the appropriate sections of DNA. And how do you get 1, 2 and 3? You inherit them in a manner completely consistent with the modern synthesis (Darwinian evolution + Mendelian genetics).

    If you bother to hunt up the quotes by Dawkins (appearing in several places and versions) it is the overblown hype that he protests, not epigenetics itself. Pigliucci, who himself has a background in biology, ought to know this.

    This is not the first time Pigliucci has badly strawmanned Dawkins’ positions. One might wonder why.

  • StevoR

    Plus there’s the not-so-little flaw of the IAU definition explicitly excluding all planets around stars other than our own Sun – pretty much the very definition of violating the Copernican “Mediocry” law and Ockham’s razor .. Pigliucci wasn’t near harsh on on N.D. G. Tyson if y’ask me!

    Not that I agree with him on everything and everyone else he names either.

    As for philosophy well its good in bars and to think about but it kinda needs a lot more hard tangible evidence to rate up there with proper science y’know. Also which philospher invented the microwave or the laws of optics or discovered the neutron stars hey?

  • StevoR

    ^ For clarity (yeah, need some o’that meself!) that’s :

    .. pretty much the very definition of violating the Copernican “Mediocrity” law and Ockham’s razor .. Pigliucci wasn’t nearly harsh enough on N.D. G. Tyson if y’ask me!

  • Reginald Selkirk

    To me, it comes across as a tantrum by someone upset that not everyone appreciates philosophy

    I see you have posted much the same comments on epigenetics that I have.

    Pigliucci may be upset that not everyone appreciates philosophy, or perhaps he is upset that not everyone appreciates Pigluicci. If he doesn’t want to be viewed as an envious ass-hat, he shouldn’t make envious ass-hat statements.

  • colnago80

    It should be pointed out that the Nobel Prize winning physicists Richard Feynman and Steven Weinberg also had low opinions of philosophy.

    Feynman: Philosophy is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.

    Weinberg: The best antidote to the philosophy of science is a knowledge of the history of science.

    Pigliucci lacks the intellectual heft to carry either Feynman’s or Weinberg’s briefcase.

  • http://en.gravatar.com/mrupright Mr. Upright

    colnago80 @8

    Pigliucci lacks the intellectual heft to carry either Feynman’s or Weinberg’s briefcase.

    Perhaps in particle physics, but what about their specialized knowledge gives them intellectual heft to discuss philosophy? Feynman took exactly one philosophy course in which, by his proud admission, he paid absolutely no attention (although I suspect he did).

    While I don’t agree with all of Pigliucci’s gripes, I do very much agree that, when it comes to philosophy, very many people in the “SAM movement” would do well to display much more humility than they do.

  • scienceavenger

    I’ve read Pigliucci for years, and while I’ve found some value in his writings, for the most part (and this essay is a good example) I find them to be overly tedious, pedantic self-indulgent whines from a philosopher who is butthurt over the rightful and permanent reduction of prestige of his area of study.

  • eric

    @1 – your comment kind of exemplifies what Pigliucci is talking about.

    We live in an on-line culture nowadays, where pretty much everything you say and do in public is recorded, particularly if you’re someone like Dawkins or NDGT. I think one rule of thumb for ramping back the antagonism, public shaming, and ugly confrontational stuff is to realize we all have bad days and make malapropisms, and not wave a flag over someone else’s for years on end. Some amount of ‘fuhgetaboutit & move on’ is good, both for the SAM and for other communities.

    I have no problem at all criticizing people over their books and lectures: these are the sorts of things we expect people to take time and care in developing, they express (or should express) a person’s considered opinion, not just their off-the-cuff reaction on some given day. But I think we could all benefit by not treating occasional crappy behavior as if its an indelible mark. Unless, of course, you SteveO have never ever treated people more crappily than they deserved?

  • colnago80

    Re Mr. Upright @ #9

    OK, Pigliucci lacks the intellectual heft to carry Dan Dennet’s briefcase. That better?

  • colnago80

    Re StevoR @ #1

    Well, ole Neil says he didn’t fire the gun, he drove the getaway car.

    https://goo.gl/TvsPpT

  • http://en.gravatar.com/mrupright Mr. Upright

    colnago80 @12

    OK, Pigliucci lacks the intellectual heft to carry Dan Dennet’s briefcase. That better?

    I guess, but Pigliucci praises Dennett in his post, so I don’t understand the relevance.

  • StevoR

    @11. eric : If it was just an occassional thing and Tyson admitted he’d had a bad day and got it wrong then I’d be happy to agree with you there – as it is that’sadly not the case.

  • Johnny Vector

    Jeez, StevoR, what crawled up your ass? Tyson didn’t “get it wrong” about Pluto. It ain’t a planet. Get used to it.

    Some questions for you: Is Eris a planet? How about Haumea? Makemake? They’re all roughly the same size as Pluto (Eris is bigger). How about Ceres? It’s large enough to be spherical. How about all the Kuiper Belt objects we haven’t found yet? Unless you just want to call everything that orbits the sun a planet (making it a largely useless definition), you have to make a dividing line somewhere. Pluto doesn’t fit with the rest of the planets in size, composition, or orbital parameters.

    Why are you so attached to calling it a planet? I grew up next door (literally) to the telescope used to discover Pluto, and I can let it go. Surely you can.

  • http://www.respectfulinsolence.net Orac

    While you may disagree that journalists have latched onto epigenetics with little real understanding of it, Pigliucci does not seem to be representing Dawkins accurately

    Absolutely. Dawkins has said a lot of dumb things in his time, but that wasn’t one of them. Indeed, Pigliucci’s criticism of Dawkins on that point was incredibly ignorant and reveals more about him than it does about Dawkins. Clearly Pigliucci did not understand what Dawkins was saying about epigenetics, which was that there are a lot of journalists out there who leap at epigenetics as a way of proving that “Darwin was wrong,” which there are. It’s not that different from my complaints about epigenetics in how it is used by advocates of quackery to “disprove” genetic determinism and argue that we can virtually completely control our health and prevent any disease through modification of epigenetics; e.g., with diet. I don’t know how much Dawkins knows about epigenetics (I suspect it’s way more than Pigliucci), but I can tell from Pigliucci’s criticism of Dawkins that I definitely know way more about epigenetics than he does.

    Dawkins’ complaint about epigenetics was not about the science or legitimate research. It was about the misappropriation and misuse of a legitimate science to argue for pseudoscience, not unlike how a physicist might complain about Deepak Chopra’s misappropriation of the word “quantum.”

  • http://www.respectfulinsolence.net Orac

    If you bother to hunt up the quotes by Dawkins (appearing in several places and versions) it is the overblown hype that he protests, not epigenetics itself. Pigliucci, who himself has a background in biology, ought to know this.

    This is not the first time Pigliucci has badly strawmanned Dawkins’ positions. One might wonder why.

    Indeed. That one complaint was so incredibly off that it made me wonder about the validity of Pigliucci’s other complaints that I don’t know enough about to be able to evaluate based on my own information.

  • http://www.respectfulinsolence.net Orac

    but I can tell from Pigliucci’s criticism of Dawkins that I definitely know way more about epigenetics than he does.

    At least, current epigenetics and how it applies to medicine. I realize Pigliucci has a strong background in genetics and biology. I just rather suspect he hasn’t been paying attention to how epigenetics has been used and abused.

  • colnago80

    Re StevoR @ #1

    In fairness, Pluto was designated as a planet when it was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh because it was thought to be a much more sizable object that it has turned out to be. This was because the presence of a planet beyond Neptune was predicted because of deviations in the motion of the planet Uranus, which was not fully explained by the planet Neptune. Back then, the largest telescope in the world, the 100 inch Hale Telescope on Mt. Wilson in Southern California was insufficient to determine its dimensions.

  • sugarfrosted

    I only know a little bit about philosophy and it’s mostly philosophical logic vs. mathematical logic.

    Essentially the former lacks much rigor, to the point where you get people like Wittgenstein saying mundane shit like that it’s a paradox that you can continue a finite list of numbers in two ways and rather than philosophical logicians laughing at him, they think this trash is deep. (There are parts that are slightly more interesting, like gettierization, which is a formalization of luck leading to knowledge, but this isn’t pure philosophical logic, it’s a melding of statistics and philosophical logic.)

    I’ve also been a bit jaded by the philosophy of mathematics people. They know literally nothing of the field, but some how claim they have deep knowledge of how it should be done, so they make useless shit, like “New Foundations” that no mathematician, including those interested in logic, would use.

    Also there is a philosophy of mathematics class at UC Berkeley, where no knowledge of mathematics is assumed, but knowing Kant is… and that makes me want to cry.

  • abb3w

    So, some of Pigliucci’s essay hits the mark, and some of it misses… much like the work of those he criticizes.

    For myself, based on this essay and a couple quick glances at a few other pieces he’s published, I suspect that the root of the problems on both sides is in the territory of Hume’s Is-Ought divide, the associated nature of value, and the more subtle associated problem of merit versus reputation. (EG: Pigliucci considers some of his critics to undervalue philosophy, while some of them criticize that it is overvalued.)

    Then again, I’m an amateur with a bit of a bee in my bonnet on this.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    I don’t know why anyone is so impressed with Dennet. He makes arguments that are pretty obvious, and makes them sound much deeper and more interesting than they are. He mumbles; he’s a shitty speaker. His celebrated attack on religion amounts to: “we should think about religion as a social construct and study it as a behavior” Wow, no shit? His work on free will can be summarized as: “Yeah, you have free will. And by ‘free will’ I don’t mean what you think ‘free will’ means, but rather that you just think you have free will, therefore, you have free will.” Whoah. Nobody’s ever thought of that before. I mean, he’s an aging white male, he’s got that much going for him, but other than that? Meh. He’s inoffensive, and at least he’s not a flaming ignart like Harris. But he’s incredibly overrated. Not as overrated as Massimo Pigliucci, of course – maybe that’s the issue that’s really at play here. Sam Harris is definitely more overrated than Massimo; I’m sure that bothers Massimo a lot. But, really, if the idea is that we need to respect philosophy more, I think philosophy needs to meet us halfway and stop coughing up such weak proponents.

    I’m a big fan of AC Grayling, though, I think he’s actually underrated.

  • abb3w

    Noting remarks by sugarfrosted, I’d agree much of the philosophy problem appears to creep in about there. The big problem seems to be on the one hand that much of philosophy gave up on trying for the rigor of their mathematical brethren (possibly due to fundamental ineptitude), while on the other hand the mathematically ept mostly seem to be no longer trying to apply the rigorous tools of mathematics to the problems, or having their successful applications be completely incomprehensible to (or at least, not further applicable by) the majority of the philosophy community.

    This may help to earn them the disdain of the more scientific… who can apply mathematics as a language to help ensure rigor for their models.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    If you want something really cringe-worthy check out some of Massimo’s podcasts. Those are the ones he “co-hosts” with Julia Galef, and constantly speaks over her, interrupts her, and self-fellates whenever there’s a pause in his monologues. He came across as a phenomenally pretentious ass even for a philosopher.

    In fairness, I only managed to listen to two; perhaps out of all the podcasts he’s done, I got the two that were horribly bad. But I’m not doing any more research on that topic.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    Abb3w:

    philosophy gave up on trying for the rigor of their mathematical brethren

    OK, so here’s what happened: around 300BC or so, philosophy metastasized a form of extreme skepticism that amounted to a series of ultimately destructive attacks on the underpinnings of philosophers’ ability to make claims of knowledge. Basically, it was a hyper-sophisticated mutant strain of the high-school playground philosopher who says, “NYAH! How do U kno U exist!! Hurr!” and that mutant strain evolved resistance to logic and refutation because it’s actually a completeness flaw in how systems of knowledge work, that they can’t prove themselves and if you reject their underlying assumptions everything else falls apart. That form of radical skepticism was weaponized by Sextus Empiricus, who must have been one of the most annoying philosophers ever into a meta-viral form that allowed you to destroy any argument from anyone as long as you (in turn) never made an assertion yourself. Sextus Empiricus was the kind of smart aleck that got beaten up too many times on the play-ground, presumably. And the weaponized form of pyrhhonian skepticism was lost for a long time but kept occasionally cropping up (David Hume’s approach is heavily influenced by Sextus) but the worst thing evar happened during the “enlightenment”: both the catholics and the protestants unleashed hyper-skeptical viral forms of pyrhhonian argument on eachother in an attempt to undercut their opponents’ claims to knowledge about god. By the time that was over, philosophy was nothing but scorched earth, ploughed over with salt, and David Hume came along and paved it with concrete and put up a sign reading “GAME OVER”

    Philosophy, in other words, refuted itself, mooted itself, shot itself in the brain, and has forever marginalized itself. There are still plenty of useful things philosophy can say but whenever someone starts to say something interesting, their opponent reaches for a vial of the ole weaponized Sextus Empiricus Strain of The Ancients, or the David Hume Strain, and causes all productive discussion to grind to a halt.

    I’m not good enough with the math to come up with a particularly apt analogy but, imagine that geometry was still really important, and whenever someone tried to build a nice palace or castle or whatever, and someone came along and said, “HOLD! You cannot build that palace, because The Parallel Postulate upon which it depends remains unproven.” And everyone puts down their tools and stops work while the architect tries to figure out what to do.

    Philosophy has self-inflicted wounds; self-inflicted by pompous jackasses like Massimo who’d rather be right than anything else. (You’ll notice how Massimo is just offering criticism of others but not actually taking a position, himself? That’s Sextus Empiricus’ playground trick in action) Don’t cry for philosphy. Shake your head and walk on by.

  • busterggi

    At least Massimo isn’t an elitist. He knows he’s better than that.

  • abb3w

    Marcus Ranum

    Philosophy, in other words, refuted itself, mooted itself, shot itself in the brain, and has forever marginalized itself.

    […]

    I’m not good enough with the math to come up with a particularly apt analogy but, imagine that geometry was still really important, and whenever someone tried to build a nice palace or castle or whatever, and someone came along and said, “HOLD! You cannot build that palace, because The Parallel Postulate upon which it depends remains unproven.” And everyone puts down their tools and stops work while the architect tries to figure out what to do.

    I disagree. I think you’re neglecting the legacy of Hume by way of Russell, and the attempt to get solid foundations for mathematics. The critical fork to me looks to be in the 1950s, when Gödel showed this had some major problems. Philosophy seeming said “Hah!” and proceeded to dismiss mathematics as more than a curiosity… due to a fundamental failure to understand Gödel’s results on completeness systems. Effectively, they took the tomb and secured its radioactive contents for geologic deep-time storage.

    However, as a result of the associated work of Turing, mathematics more-or-less bottomed out on the problem. Under model theory formulations, the ultimate foundations are simply an arbitrary choice akin to language (only even less important), for which translation back and forth can be done (at least in a philosophical sense, although too inefficiently for practical use). Essentially: yes, you have to pick a starting point, and it won’t guarantee you can answer all questions unless it also guarantees every question will each have all answers (IE: uselessness), but a starting point may still let you get somewhere. That you can’t get everywhere doesn’t rule out the ability to get somewhere. And the mathematicians kept on going.

    Or, in short: it looks to me mathematics has developed to the point where it can handle the radioactively toxic problems entombed by Hume… but most philosophers now are too wimpy to apply the required mathematics.

  • sugarfrosted

    @24, Partly that’s not a problem. Depending on the part of philosophy, I’m ok with the lack of rigor. It’s just that when philosophers try coming close to mathematics it turns into what is essentially a joke.

    Like with my example of that “paradox” Wittgenstein came up with. It’s not far off from legitimate inquiry, but instead it stops far short of doing anything. Kolmogrov complexity, complexity and computability/recursion theory are fields where that “paradox” naturally leads, but even arguably one of the best modern philosophers stops essentially at “woah! that’s deep man,” and moves on.

    Also if you’re going to have no mathematical rigor at all, philosophy of math is kind of a joke, always in the shadow of metamathematics. Creating “New Foundations” that no one outside of philosophy would even consider using, because you want to avoid the “paradox” of the non-existence of a universal set, though this is an issue that is easily avoided in every context ever.

    (Full disclosure: I’m a graduate student of mathematical logic.)

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Marcus Ranum #23: But, really, if the idea is that we need to respect philosophy more, I think philosophy needs to meet us halfway and stop coughing up such weak proponents.

    I think a large part of philosophy’s problem is that the better-known current representatives do a poor job of it. If you ask around, who are the best-known names in philosophy today? Probably Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, even though the latter is employed as a theologian, not a philosopher-proper. These douchenozzles practice something that should more properly be labeled sophistry than philosophy.

  • laurentweppe

    accompanied by a degree of groupthink and unwillingness to change one’s mind that is trumped only by religious fundamentalists

    At this point, I’m not sure fundies actually beat Harris’ groupies in the groupthink and muleheaded wrongness department: I’d call it a draw.

  • Scientismist

    Marcus Ranum @23 — Why is anyone so impressed with Dan Dennett? Well, I can tell you why I am.

    I’ve disagreed with Massimo Pigliucci’s notion of “scientism” (especially the notion that science can supposedly say nothing about the existence or nonexistence of a non-evolved intelligence, or “God”), and I have discussed it, lectured about it, and written about it in humanist mags (as an amateur in philosophy of science), since before Massimo was born. I have never seen a philosopher address the question to my satisfaction. I once wrote a letter-to-the-editor about it, in response to one of Pigliucci’s SI essays, and he responded by totally dismissing my position as “scientism”, and was otherwise ignored.

    I also once had the opportunity to speak to Dan Dennett about it. The exchange was brief, but his response was “Oh, I see, a Bayesian approach.” He understood immediately.

    What bothers me about philosophers like Massimo is that, with his multiple degrees and revered standing as a “philosopher,” you are expected to just accept his judgement and not ask that he explain what is wrong with your own approach. Dennett is not like that.

    I have my own disagreements with Dennett, too; but, in the most serious cases, I have found that in his written works he has explained to me why my own approach was not so much wrong, but was more or less irrelevant to the point he wanted to make. In his book “Freedom Evolves” he ended up convincing me that his “free will worth having” was/is defensible on his terms, even though I think he missed an opportunity to make his case even more strongly*. I’d love to talk to him about that, but he is busy, and has moved on to other concerns. He has earned my respect. Massimo has not.

    * This is another issue on which I disagree with a lot of philosophers of science, but is OT here, and I won’t elaborate. A few years ago I did bring it up in a thread on WEIT, the forum of Massimo’s good friend Jerry Coyne, where at the time he liked to talk about the non-existence of free will. There I made the mistake of disagreeing with Jerry’s favorite philosopher, Philip Kitcher, and In response Jerry erased my comments and banned me. I haven’t gone back, so I don’t know if he’s evolved on the issue since then.

    PS — Marcus, I just read your post @26. I love it. I’m keeping that (and the responses by abb3w and others) for future reference.

    Reginald Selkirk @30 — I rather like Alvin Plantinga. I keep a copy of “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism” on my Kindle for laughs.

  • Johnny Vector

    Marcus Ranum: Are you Mark Knopfler in disguise?

    Philosophy is useless; theology is worse.

    And since we’re talking about philosophy, and Dennett, I want to be sure all of you have seen The Greatest Thread in the History of the Internet: Daniel Dennett’s Darwin Day Delivery. Y’all probably have, but just in case anyone is new here.

  • wscott

    Am I the only one who noticed that Ed chose to end the quoted section just before Pigliucci criticized PZ?

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    Am I the only one who noticed that Ed chose to end the quoted section just before Pigliucci criticized PZ?

    I noticed. I think Ed was being generous to Massimo, since MP’s “philosophical” complaint about PZ appears to be tone-trolling.

    As someone quite brilliant said in another forum about a tone-troll on another topic:

    “He’s tone-trolling so hard I’m afraid he’s going to give himself carpal tunnel syndrome…”

    I’m sure that, as an underrated philosopher, Pigliucci knows the difference between whingeing about tone and making an argument. Or he’s not underrated enough.

    PS – With regards my comment @#26, I should mention that that’s a sort of hiphopized post-it-note synopsis of Popkin’s “history of skepticism from savanarola to bayle” which is really quite wonderful and makes the case that skeptical tropes keep getting weaponized in service of religious disagreements and result in philosophy’s epistemological quagmire. I highly recommend the book.

    Czisko, in “without miracles” makes a really interesting attempt to ground epistemology using evolutionary principles; arguing, to wit, that it’s not necessary to address pyrrhonian skepticism at all, since we can state that knowledge evolves and incorrect knowledge dies, therefore ideas that stand the test of time are correct enough for government work. It’s a noble attempt and I also recommend it. Meanwhile the metastasized strain of weaponized skepticism evolved and came roaring back in its most absurd form, yet – Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument. Bostrom’s technique is to simply call everything into question and not try to attack epistemology directly, but basically it’s pyrrhonian trope “infinite regress” – but it’s simulations all the way down. Oh, your evolved epistemology: that’s simulated too.

  • =8)-DX

    *eyeroll at StevoR the Plutocrat*

    Explaining to kids when they have misconceptions about science isn’t being an arsehole. It’s called education.

  • ludicrous

    Marcus @ 25,

    Yeah, me too. Massimo really spoils the podcast, how can he not hear himself? I only watched a couple of shows too but enough to notice that Julia Galef is marvelous, she should have her own show.

  • StevoR

    @ =8)-DX : Abusing and mocking kids and adults who disagree with you the way Neil deGrasse Tyson did wasn’t education tho’. On the issue of Pluto Tyson was both mean and wrong, That Pluto is a planet isn’t a “misconception” its a fact even if the IAU has, I think temporarily, decided to claim otherwise. Oh & rolling your eyes at me is not a counter-argument.

    @Johnny Vector :

    Jeez, StevoR, what crawled up your ass? Tyson didn’t “get it wrong” about Pluto. It ain’t a planet. Get used to it.

    Saying “get used to it” isn’t a counter argument either. Notr is simple contradiction really at least not a good argument. Pluto is indeed a planet when planets are defined properly ie without the silly and unworkable “orbital clearance criterion” which fails the reductio ad absurdum logic test. If applied strictly no planet could count as a planet because all planets have comets and asteroids crossing their orbits and Earth at Pluto’s distance would be unable to clear its orbit yet still would be a planet. Also as noted earlier in my #3 here dwarf stars are still stars therefore consistently dwarf planets still are planets just as giant planets and giant stars are..

    Some questions for you: Is Eris a planet? How about Haumea? Makemake? They’re all roughly the same size as Pluto (Eris is bigger). How about Ceres? It’s large enough to be spherical. How about all the Kuiper Belt objects we haven’t found yet?

    Some answers for you : Yes, yes, yes, (Eris is actually virtually identical in size to Pluto perhaps smaller in terms of radius at least based on the most recent studies) also yes and yes. I have no problem with stating that all ice dwarf type planets including Ceres, Eris, Haumea, Sedna, etc .. are also planets as well as Pluto as well as the rock dwarfs like earth and gas dwarfs like some of the exoplanets out there and the gas giants like Jupiter and Fomalhaut b are planets. Yes, that means we can discover new planets in our solar system which is more extensive and interesting than the old 8 (or 5) planet models imagined. I see that as a good thing. Even if it does mean we have fifty or more planets in our solar system.

    Unless you just want to call everything that orbits the sun a planet (making it a largely useless definition), you have to make a dividing line somewhere. Pluto doesn’t fit with the rest of the planets in size, composition, or orbital parameters.

    Actually if we include the ice dwarfs as planets as I think we need to then Pluto is average and indeed somewhat larger than average and most planets are small ice and rock objects like it is and also belong to the numerous if recently discovered ice dwarf planet sub-category. We then find three broad realms of planets in our solar system – the rocky, the gassy and the icy!

    No, not everything orbiting our sun gets to count as a planet. That would be an absurd strawperson on your part. My definition of a planet would be an object that is gravitationally rounded though its own mass thus not a comet or asteroid, never self-luminous from core nuclear fusion thus not a star or brown dwarf and not directly orbiting another planet thus not a moon. This alternative and superior definition, I think, is a simple clear and effective way to understand what a planet is avoiding the superflousities, logical inconsistencies and other flaws of the current (hopefully not for too much longer) IAU definition.

    Why are you so attached to calling it a planet? I grew up next door (literally) to the telescope used to discover Pluto, and I can let it go. Surely you can.

    Because the reality is that Pluto is a planet and the IAU got things horribly wrong when they demoted it. For all the logical reasons I’ve already noted and more. Wrong is wrong and a planet is a planet no matter how small just as a person is a person no matter how small to quote Dr Suess!

    @ 35.Marcus Ranum & #34 wscott : “Am I the only one who noticed that Ed chose to end the quoted section just before Pigliucci criticized PZ?”

    Hey, I said that right at the start of the thread here in comment #3 – so, no and I beat you to it! 😉

  • sugarfrosted

    @38, what about Charon, is Charon a planet? Is Pluto a moon? Neither Pluto nor Charon orbit each other. The center of the mass is closer to Pluto, yes.

    Also I get where Tyson is coming from. “Hey look at all this cool shit you could be learning, but instead you’re hung up on a slightly modified definition.” And for this reason *rolls his eyes* is a valid response.

  • sugarfrosted

    @38. Also, you used an incorrect definition of logic. Congrats. (Normally I’d let this go, but this is a definitional wankery argument already.)

  • StevoR

    @39 & ^ sugarfrosted : Charon and Pluto are binary planets I’d say. The next closest thing to one in our solar system is Earth and our Moon, and indeed we’ve actually got quite a bit in common – nitrogen atmospheres and snowfalls for instance!

    I think demoting Pluto and excluding ice dwarfs from planetary status for no really good reason* is a lot more than just a slight modification and for the reasons I’ve already gone into.

    Oh & my definition of logic is wrong how / why?

    * So what if they are small and there are a lot of them and they don’t have clear orbits? Why shoudl thatdisqualify something that is clearly a planet from being called a planet?

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    FWIW, Here’s my commentary about Pluto’s demotion, back when it happened:

    http://motherwell.livejournal.com/73905.html

    And here’s the summary of my opinion on the matter:

    I can kinda see why the Dynamicist faction wanted to narrow the definition of “planet:” the more we look at the Van Oort belt, the more Pluto-like bodies we’re likely to find — and the less significant they’re likely to become in our minds. “Another Pluto-sized hunk of ice?” I can hear them saying in the near future. “Oh rapture! Whose five-year-old niece gets to name it this time? Please tell her all the Pokemon names are already taken…”

  • StevoR

    @ ^ Raging Bee : Well, gee, that’s some good reasoning right there ain’t it – Not!

    Also, hint, there’s no such thing as the “Van Oort” belt. There’s the Oort Cloud and the Kuiper belt sometimes more correctly termed the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt although really neither astronomer actually got that close to what we’re observing.

    (See : http://www2.ess.ucla.edu/~jewitt/kb/gerard.html for instance.)

    Then there’s Van Maanen’s Star a nearby very ancient white dwarf and Van Biesbroeck’s star a red dwarf once wrongly thought tohave aplanet foudn around it etc .. But yeah, no Van ort cloud. Why am Inot surprised?

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Correction noted. Not that that either refutes my opinion or explains why you’re freaking out about a perfectly reasonable attempt to define and label celestial bodies more sensibly. (It’s not like the Iranians will get to launch nukes from Pluto if it’s not classified as a planet.)

  • StevoR

    @ ^ Raging Bee : More sensibly? I think you mean less and I’ve already provided the reasons for why I think this is wrong and I happen to care about astronomy, accuracy and logic – unlike you clearly.

  • Johnny Vector

    Well guess what, StevoR. You don’t get to decide what astronomers class as a planet. If you are a member of the IAU, feel free to petition them to change it from their unworkable definition to your unworkable definition. (Protip: “forms a sphere due to self-gravity” is no brighter a line than “clears its orbit”). Otherwise, just suck it up and stop calling people stupid and mean because they don’t agree with you about something that makes no damn difference to anything.

    Especially when this, from your first long response at #38,

    dwarf planets … dwarf type planets … dwarf planet sub-category …

    is compared with

    The first members of the dwarf planet category are Ceres, Pluto and Eris…

    from the IAU.

    I don’t even understand what your problem is, given that you called Pluto a dwarf planet at least three times in that one post. This kind of refusal to accept a trivial change in the definition of a word, in light of new discoveries, is exactly the kind of pig-headedness that religion loves to exploit. Usually toward the end of convincing you to fold, spindle and mutilate those unbelievers from a neighboring state. You might want to look to that.

  • StevoR

    @ ^ Johnny Vector : So you are basically saying that if the IAU gets things wrong this shouldn’t be pointed out and if people like Tyson are mean and illogical you think this shouldn’t be pointed out and criticised? Oh and that doing so makes me somehow like a religious zealot who is going to resort to physical violence?!

    Well, I disagree with you and that seems an awfully authoritarian view for you to take. Do you think the IAU is infallible? Are you aware of how undemocratic and dodgy the 2006 anti-Pluto decision actually was and that many astronomers totally disagree with the IAU view? For instance, of the 10,000 IAU members only 2,500 attended the 2006 Prague meeting that demoted Pluto and rejected the other planetary candidates, Eris, Charon and Ceres from planetary status. Furthermore, of those 2,500 only the merest handful – just 424 actually got to vote making therefore a very unrepresentative decision. Among those to excluded from voting and arguing their case in that last minute meeting were some highly relevant and articulate people – notably Pluto expert Alan S. Stern, head of the New Horizons mission. Stern’s summary of the IAU judgement was blunt : “ … idiotic. I have nothing but ridicule for this decision.” (Alan Stern, P.28, ‘Astronomy Now’, October, 2006.)

    (Protip: “forms a sphere due to self-gravity” is no brighter a line than “clears its orbit”)

    Actually you can tell at a glance if something is spherical and you certainly can’t with a clear orbit especially with longer unbound orbits. Roundness is much more obvious and intrinsic to the body in question whereas orbital clearance raises more unnecessary questions and complications and is really arbitrary and needless. Ockham’s razor applies.

    I don’t even understand what your problem is, given that you called Pluto a dwarf planet at least three times in that one post.

    Our Sun is also a dwarf star specifically a yellow dwarf – this does not mean its demoted and considered an asteroid or anything other than a star now does it! ‘Dwarf’ is a description meaning small – it doesn’t mean that something isn’t what it is, e.g,. a dwarf hippo is still a type of hippo, a dwarf plant is still a plant, a dwarf person is still a person and yes, a dwarf planet is still a planet! My point is that dwarf planets are still planets and need to be counted as considered as such. What part of this causes you confusion exactly?

  • Johnny Vector

    You keep using that word “wrong”. I do not think it means what you think it means.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    StevoR @ # 5: … violating … Ockham’s razor … As for philosophy well its good in bars and to think about but it kinda needs a lot more …

    How odd that over 40 comments later I seem to sit alone in pointing out that Ockham was a philosopher…

  • abb3w

    @49, Pierce R. Butler

    How odd that over 40 comments later I seem to sit alone in pointing out that Ockham was a philosopher…

    Yeah, but it took mathematicians to give the notion rigor.

    I’ll also note William of Ockham rather significantly pre-dates the separation of philosophy into subdisciplines of science, mathematics, engineering, and handwaving.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    abb3w @ # 50 – So far as I can tell from outside the field, modern philosophy concerns itself with three primary areas: social criticism, ethics, and epistemology.

    We have an abundance of that first, though I would say not enough until it has serious effect; of the other two, we suffer woeful deficiencies, so bravo to all working to fill in the vacuums (vacua?)!

  • abb3w

    @51, Pierce R. Butler

    So far as I can tell from outside the field, modern philosophy concerns itself with three primary areas: social criticism, ethics, and epistemology

    I’m a bit color-blind for distinguishing the first two. Maybe the difference is about an Arrow-style aggregation problem for “ought”. However, my point was that the mathematicians seem to be the ones allowing headway on the epistemology end of things, and seem to have some tools that can be used to provide framework for discussion of ethics.

    @51, Pierce R. Butler

    We have an abundance of that first, though I would say not enough until it has serious effect

    The deficit seems not of quantity but of quality.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    abb3w @ # 52: I’m a bit color-blind for distinguishing the first two.

    Here’s a f’rinstance – one might reasonably maunder on about whether a given social trend leans more toward the “romantic” or “rational” framework without having to decide on the ethics of either.

    … the mathematicians seem to be the ones allowing headway on the epistemology end of things…

    Good for them. Got any links on this which would do any good for a just-barely-passed-trig-40-years-ago reader?

    The deficit seems not of quantity but of quality.

    I suspect certain problems on the “user” end as well.