Spiritual but Not Religious

I am not a religious person, and I'm most certainly not spiritual either. Both of these statements get me into trouble in polite society, especially when they are coupled.

About Sam Harris’ claim that science can answer moral questions

The buzz in secular circles lately has been about a TED talk by Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith, and Letter to a Christian Nation. The title of Harris’ talk is “Science can answer moral questions,” and you just know that as a former scientist and currently a philosopher, I simply have to comment on it. As it turns out, there is much that Harris and I agree on, but I think his main target is actually moral relativism, and that he would get more mileage out of allying himself with philosophy (not to the exclusion of science), rather than taking what appears to be the same misguided scientistic attitude that Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne have come to embody so well. But let us start with a summary of Harris’ arguments, with extensive quotations from the lecture, proceeding then to my commentary.

Krista Tippett does it again

Readers of this blog know that I am not fond of Krista Tippett, the fuzzy thinking host of National Public Radio’s “Speaking of Faith” (it really ruins my early Sunday mornings). She and New York Times’ columnist Stanley Fish make for entertaining targets when I feel like venting at irrationality disguised as profundity. And now Tippett has done it again.

About my grandmother's death

I just returned from a short trip to Italy to attend my grandmother Clara's funeral. I was there for my family, of course, since my grandmother has ceased to exist and will no longer be, ever.

On the bases for morality: an exchange

A short debate on the bases for morality: are there any? And can science tell us anything about them?

James Randi, global warming and the meaning of skepticism

James “the Amazing” Randi is an icon of skepticism. The man has done more — over a span of several decades — to further the cause of critical thinking and to expose flimflammery of all sorts than arguably anyone else in the world, ever. That is why I was struck with incredulity and sadness yesterday when I read Randi’s latest take on global warming.

Podcast Teaser: Love, a skeptical inquiry

Hey there, rational readers! I’m honored to be Massimo’s guest blogger and co-host of the upcoming Rationally Speaking podcast for the NYC Skeptics. Since our second episode is scheduled to air the week of Valentine's Day, we couldn’t resist making that show's topic, “The Skeptic’s Guide to Love.”

Podcast Teaser: Why rationality?

Dear readers, Rationally Speaking is soon going to be (also) a podcast, produced by New York City Skeptics, and co-hosted by Julia Galef and yours truly. Before each (initially biweekly, starting at the end of January) episode we will publish a “teaser” like the one below, introducing the topic of that episode and inviting comments from our readers. Your comments will provide us with additional food for thought, and the most interesting ones will be read and discussed during the show

Inverted qualia

A couple of months ago I attended a lecture by Saul Kripke at CUNY’s Graduate Center. Kripke is one of the most influential philosophers of the late 20th century, someone who you simply have to go see give a talk if you have the chance, on the sole basis of his legendary status. As in many such cases, it is not unlikely that one is going to be disappointed, given the extremely high expectations. Sure enough, Kripke was not at his best that day, and his legendary extemporaneous style of lecturing fell short of the mark, resulting in an interesting, but somewhat chaotic and hard to follow talk. Still, I’ve seen the genius at work. Which reminded me of the problem of inverted qualia, about which Kripke has an ongoing disagreement with other philosophers of mind, chiefly Colin McGinn.

The incoherence of free will

I recently re-read a classic piece by J.L. Mackie (April 1955), entitled “Evil and Omnipotence,” a stupendous philosophical essay about why theologians like Richard Swinburne are forced by their belief in an omnipotent, omnibenevelont and omnipowerful god into incredible and rather painful feats of mental gymnastics.

On the difference between science and philosophy

Attentive readers of this blog may have noticed that those who post comments to my entries often show two interesting and complementary attitudes: a fundamental distrust of (if not downright contempt for) philosophy, coupled with an overly enthusiastic endorsement of science.

David Chalmers and the Singularity that will probably not come

David Chalmers is a philosopher of mind, best known for his argument about the difficulty of what he termed the “hard problem” of consciousness, which he typically discusses by way of a thought experiment featuring zombies who act and talk exactly like humans, and yet have no conscious thought (I explained clearly what I think of that sort of thing in my essay on “The Zombification of Philosophy”).

Cable news: who cares?

The recent news coming out of the perennial war of ratings among cable news channels was shocking, I tell you, just shocking: CNN, which three decades ago invented the whole business of cable news, is now dead last in terms of prime time viewership!

On the scope of skeptical inquiry

There has been much discussion lately on this blog and elsewhere about the relationships among skepticism, atheism, and politics. I have roundly criticized Richard Dawkins for extending scientific skepticism into areas that are more properly the domain of philosophical analysis, as well as Penn and Teller and Michael Shermer for doing the same with politics to support their libertarian views. Of course, even a cursory reader of this blog will easily find my own pieces about religion and politics, which may make it seem like I’m a sinner throwing stones at my fellow skeptics.

Penn & Teller: More Bullshit!

All right, I promise to leave Penn & Teller alone for a while after this post, though I’m beginning to think that their show has run out of gas, and that they need a couple years of rest. Catching up with season 6, I just finished watching the episode on “world peace.” It has now become a very predictable pattern: P&T are effective and at the peak of their game when they take on the paranormal and other forms of pseudoscience. But, when they veer into politics, they are full of bullshit.

Michael Moore’s Capitalism, a Love Story

I’m not shy about admitting that I like and even admire Michael Moore. For those of you who made it past that first sentence (this blog has some highly opinionated aficionados who don’t necessarily buy all I write), let me qualify. I do not think for a moment that Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko or, for that matter, the current release, Capitalism: a Love Story are documentaries. They are clearly not. I think of them as op-ed pieces, films that blend factual information, anecdotes and silly (but funny!) stunts to make a point, to force people to think by shaking them out of their complacency. And boy does this country need a bit of shaking and a lot more thinking.

Dear Penn and Teller: Bullshit!

I like Penn & Teller, the magicians and debunkers of pseudoscience and general inanity. I regularly use clips from their show in my critical reasoning class, despite cringing every time Penn indulges in his “fuck this” and “motherfucker that” exercise in free speech (it distracts the students from the real point, not to mention the always lurking possibility of an administrator asking me about the appropriateness of foul language in a philosophy class). Heck, I even recently went to Vegas to see them in person, had a photo taken with Teller, and managed to tell him (to his surprise) about how my students enjoy stimulating discussions triggered by the duo’s antics.

Fish against curiosity

Readers of this blog may begin to think that I have a personal antipathy for New York Times editorialist Stanley Fish. I don’t, really. Don’t even know the guy. And yet, somehow he manages to get criticized in writing by yours truly more often (and certainly more harshly) than Richard I-don’t-know-what’s-wrong-with-Bill-Maher-but-I’ll-endorse-his-award Dawkins.

Ah, metaphysics!

The other day I went to a talk about the fall and revival of metaphysics, given by Sebastian Kolodziejczyk at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Metaphysics these days has a bad reputation even among philosophers, so I was aware of its “fall,” but I was rather curious about the possibility of a “revival.” I came out of the lecture without much conviction that the 21st century is going to see anything like a resurrection of metaphysics.

The logic of skepticism

Being a skeptic is a rather lonely art. People often confuse you for a cynic, and I’m not using either term in the classical philosophical sense, of course. In ancient Greece, the cynics were people who wished to live in harmony with nature, rejecting material goods (the root of the word means “dog-like,” and there are various interpretations as to its origin). The Western equivalent of Buddhist monks, if you will. The skeptics, on the other hand, were philosophers who claimed that since nothing can be known for certain the only rational thing to do is to suspend judgment on everything. That’s not what I’m talking about.

Definitions, definitions

Scientists are often assumed to be obsessed by definitions. After all, if you cannot precisely define a concept, say what a planet is, or what a biological species is, you literally don’t know what you are talking about, and how can you then possibly do science using that very same concept? And yet, the practice of science is very different, and to a surprising extent does not seem to depend on definitions of its objects of study.
An Evening With Paranormalists

An Evening With Paranormalists

A local skeptic group here in Brooklyn organized a roundtable discussion on the paranormal. Real believers in the ghosts and the afterlife showed up, a somewhat rare opportunity to sit down with “the other side” and have a probing conversation to find out why people to believe weird things.

Good point, Dr. Sagan!

I finally got around to reading Carl Sagan’s The Variety of Scientific Experience, a volume edited by his wife, Ann Druyan, and based on a series of Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology that Carl delivered in 1985 at the University of Glasgow. The title of the book is a direct reference, and gentle challenge, to William James’s somewhat frustrating The Variety of Religious Experience (also based on a series of lectures, those presented at the University of Edinburgh in 1901).

The New Yorker vs. the Kindle

If you live in New York and like to feel a part of the local intelligentsia, you simply have to read the New Yorker. Which I do, regularly, every week. I can't get through the whole thing, so I usually concentrate on the short essays of "The Talk of the Town" (gotta read that!), browse "The Critics" (about the latest in theater, books, movies and sometimes music), and always skip poetry and fiction (sorry, I've got better sources for the latter and I don't care too much for the former). The "Reporting & Essays" section is the real tough nut to crack: the articles there are very long and in-depth, and usually only one of the 4-5 published in each issue really grabs me. This week it was an essay penned by Nicholson Baker, about the Kindle, the Amazon e-book device that readers of this blog know very well I absolutely love. Ok, I was bracing myself for an irritating experience, as surely an essayist for the New Yorker would be too sophisticated not to complain about the Kindle.

New blog: Gullibility is Bad for You (.org)

Those of you who know or follow me surely realize that I'm not exactly a guy with a lot of spare time on his hands. Yet, I just launched a second blog devoted to short entries (mostly a paragraph with an accompanying link) to document the fact that gullibility is bad for your health

Memes, selfish genes and Darwinian paranoia

I’m reviewing a book by philosopher of science Peter Godfrey-Smith entitled “Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection.” (This is not the book review, forthcoming.) Godfrey-Smith makes an excellent argument at some point in the book (chapter 7, on the gene’s eye view) that genes are not at all the sort of things Richard Dawkins and some other biologists think they are.

Republicans on health care: vicious, or just plain stupid?

Yes, yes, the title of this column is obviously partisan. But you have to wonder at what exactly the Republicans are doing in the midst of the health care reform debate. RNC Chairman and token black Michael Steelerecently characterized, again, the Obama administration effort as socialism.

Scientific misconduct and the nature of science

I just finished reading an interesting book review by physicist Martin Blume in a recent issue of Nature. Blume was reviewing Eugenie Samuel Reich’s provocative book “Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World,” and the whole thing prompted some further thoughts about scientific misconduct, objectivity, and the peer review system that is crucial to the advancement of science.

The problems with transhumanism

I have pondered writing about the transhumanism movement for a while, and the opportunity has finally landed on my desktop when I read a brief article by Kyle Munkittrick of the Institute for Emerging Ethics & Technologies. The article is in the form of a FAQ expressly addressing the question of whether aging is a moral good, and in it Munkittrick briefly explains and (thinks that he) refutes some of the standard arguments against transhumanism. Let’s take a look.

Vaccines do not cause autism

“The evidence is in. The scientific community has reached a clear consensus that vaccines don’t cause autism. There is no controversy.” So begins an in-depth discussion of the vaccines-cause-autism nonsense penned by “SkepDoc” Harriet Hall in a recent issue of eSkeptic