CPBD 055: Massimo Pigliucci – The Limits of Science

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 14, 2010 in Podcast,Science

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview philosopher Massimo Pigliucci. Among other things, we discuss:

  • The differences between hard and soft science, between science and pseudoscience, and between science and nonscience
  • What science can say about aesthetics and ethics
  • How scientific is climate change? How scientific is intelligent design?
  • The psychology of belief and why libertarians deny climate change
  • Are science and religion compatible?

Download CPBD episode 055 with Massimo Pigliucci. Total time is 59:51.

Massimo Pigliucci links:

Links for things we discussed:

Note: in addition to the regular blog feed, there is also a podcast-only feed. You can also subscribe on iTunes.

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{ 66 comments… read them below or add one }

Josh July 14, 2010 at 7:05 am

Wow, great job getting Massimo! I don’t always (or even usually) agree with him, but that’s great.

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Reginald Selkirk July 14, 2010 at 9:09 am

Nice job, the production was total win. Good music, good audio quality, etc.

Massimo Pigluicci, Ph.D. Ph.D. Ph.D. said a number of questionable things which fall into the general category of strawman misrepresentations of the positions of others which someone should call him on.

New Atheists are nothing new: Yes, and they are not self-named, and most of them will readily acknowledge the lack of novelty. As to whether they are doing any good, read up on the Overton window.

“Dawkins says all religious persons are stupid.” – Please supply one instance of his having said so.

“Dawkins said religion is the root of all evil.” Again, when and where did he ever say that? I would guess Pigluicci is referring to the title of a documentary which Dawkins hosted, and this information is readily available: “Richard Dawkins has said that the title The Root of All Evil? was not his preferred choice, but that Channel 4 had insisted on it to create controversy.

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Reginald Selkirk July 14, 2010 at 9:12 am

Here is the response of Jerry Coyne to certain statements made by Massimo Pigluicci, Ph.D. Ph.D. Ph.D.:

Can we apply science to the supernatural?

In a recent post about Sam Harris’s new ideas about morality, Massimo Pigliucci decided to take a few shots at the “scientism” supposedly espoused by Richard Dawkins and me.

But Pigliucci is off the mark, I think, when insisting that we can’t apply science to the supernatural. We’ve gone around about this before, but I want to make the point one more time. This view is pretty common; it’s held not only by Massimo, but also by people like Eugenie Scott, who once told me that the supernatural is simply immune to scientific analysis.

Here’s the point. Virtually every religion that is practiced by real people (as opposed to that espoused by theologians like Karen Armstrong) makes claims that God interacts with the world. That is, most religions are theistic rather than deistic. And to the extent that a faith is theistic, it is amenable to empirical study and falsification—that is, it’s susceptible to science.

Here is a short (and very incomplete) list of all the ways that science already has tested the supernatural assertions of faith:

When Pigliucci talks about “The God hypothesis” I want to ask him which God hypothesis he means. Most formulations of religion and theism involve scientifically testable claims about the natural world.

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Reginald Selkirk July 14, 2010 at 9:34 am

The recent mention of Pigliucci by PZ Myers at Pharyngula:
I shall be no friend to the appeasers

But back to Pigliucci. I am deeply underwhelmed. His entire complaint is about goddamned tone; he even advises me to look up rational thoughtful discourse in the dictionary, as if I should be swayed by bloodless definitions.

So forget the whole complaint about tone. Let’s deal with the substance. This is where we differ, and where I think De Dora is an idiot. This is all about a dunderheaded creationist complaining about a textbook that called his superstition a “myth”. Here’s the full quote from the book, Tobin and Dusheck’s Asking About Life(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll):

If a science teacher can’t even flatly state that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, not 6000, because philosophers will complain about epistomological boundaries, we’re doomed.

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Martin July 14, 2010 at 10:19 am

When Pigliucci talks about “The God hypothesis” I want to ask him which God hypothesis he means.

Most of the time, this refers to the vanilla God of the philosophers. He can be identified as the triune Biblical god, but he doesn’t have to be.

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noen July 14, 2010 at 11:19 am

I really like this Massimo guy and appreciate the discussion. Anyone who brings the hate on from PZ and Dawkins can’t be all bad.

Darryl Cunningham cartoon on homeopathy


@ Reginald Selkirk — Massimo’s objections have to do with the New Atheists claiming a domain for science that it does not have. As much as Sam Harris would like it to be so we cannot derive values from facts. All the facts in the universe will never amount to a single value. I also agree with Massimo that reason is a larger domain than scientific inquiry.

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Reginald Selkirk July 14, 2010 at 11:31 am

Massimo’s objections have to do with the New Atheists claiming a domain for science that it does not have. As much as Sam Harris would like it to be so we cannot derive values from facts…

I don’t think that is the bulk of his disagreement. Most of the “New Atheists” of which I am aware also disagree with Harris on that particular question.
PZ Myers
Sean Carroll

Most of the disagreement I have seen is on the proper domains of science and religion, as discussed in the previously provided links from Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers. And I think their objections are good ones.

As also previously stated, Pigliucci has a tendency to deliver strawman misrepresentations of other people’s positions, that never helps a discussion.

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Bill Maher July 14, 2010 at 12:32 pm

I probably take Massimo’s side over PZ and Harris. Like he said, I don’t think science can make aesthetic and moral claims. It can talk about our “software”, but not if Beethoven is better than Schuman or if abortion is wrong. It can provide us with lots of facts to make sure we properly understand the situation, but not the decision itself.

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Mastema July 14, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Bill, PZ doesn’t agree with Harris. Reginald’s link is of a post PZ made a couple of months ago where he took Carroll’s side in the debate over morals. I don’t recall aesthetics being discussed by PZ or Carroll in conjunction with this, but I can’t imagine them thinking science can make aesthetics claims either, if they were to be consistent.

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Bill Maher July 14, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Mastema,

It was in regards to the scientism that the New Atheists ted to throw around. The aesthetics was in reference to the podcast.

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piero July 14, 2010 at 2:53 pm

Noen:

As much as Sam Harris would like it to be so we cannot derive values from facts

Why not?

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Mastema July 14, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Bill, understood. I haven’t heard the podcast, but will be downloading it as soon as I get home. I don’t read everything PZ posts, so I’m not sure what his position on aesthetics is. Anyone who thinks science can answer all questions deserves the criticism.

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Sputnik July 14, 2010 at 4:36 pm

Good overall interview, but I find Pigliucci’s criticism of the so called “new” atheists pretty weak. He mostly dwells on tone (all while expressing himself in a smug/condescending tone) and worse, spreads falsehoods about the positions of the “new” atheists (a label that he complains about…as if the atheists in question coined it).

Further, like Reginald Selkirk, I’d like to see evidence of where Dawkins “goes around saying every religious person stupid,” as well as where Dawkins “famously” says that “religion is the root of all evil.”

Lastly, Pigliucci said to check what PZ Myers recently wrote about him…well, I checked, and there is a post that’s critical of him and De Dora, but there’s also a more recent post where PZ defends Pigliucci from a book critic who (ironically) complained about Pigliucci’s tone and scientific certainty.

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Jeff H July 14, 2010 at 5:27 pm

Interesting interview. I enjoyed the bulk of it, but like some of the people above, I thought his comments on the New Atheists were a bit weak. Whatever, though.

I also found it odd that he lumped eugenics in with science. I mean, after talking about how science can’t weigh in on values, how does one say eugenics was a result of science? Certainly it was informed by science (as he says values can be), but any statement about a eugenics program inevitably makes some sort of value judgment about “Weak people should be eradicated” or “the human species should be improved”. This seems to fall firmly in the realm of philosophy. The science behind eugenics was solid – it was the philosophical conclusions drawn from that science that created the problem.

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Eric July 14, 2010 at 5:46 pm

Glad to hear you were an ex-libertarian, Luke, lol. I was once a libertarian myself. Then I started studying economics, history, and politics. Now I am a centrist liberal.

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Eric July 14, 2010 at 5:48 pm


Further, like Reginald Selkirk, I’d like to see evidence of where Dawkins “goes around saying every religious person stupid,” as well as where Dawkins “famously” says that “religion is the root of all evil.”

Interestingly enough, he actually objected to the name of that show. Its just that the network wanted to keep that name for sensationalist purposes. To a degree though, it is his fault for not being more vocal about his objection to the title.

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rvkevin July 14, 2010 at 6:01 pm

as well as where Dawkins “famously” says that “religion is the root of all evil.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqyVYegJqP4

“I do not believe that religion is the root of all evil, thank you channel 4. Religion is the root of quite a lot of evil, but that didn’t make for a catchy title.”

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Sputnik July 14, 2010 at 6:44 pm

Eric and rvkevin,

Yup, I enjoyed “Root of All Evil”, and I’m well aware of Dawkins’ objection to the title…

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Bill Maher July 14, 2010 at 6:46 pm

In Dawkins’ defense, The Enemies of Reason and The Genius of Charles Darwin are both excellent documentaries.

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Camus Dude July 14, 2010 at 11:46 pm

As Reginald (and several others have) already pointed out, Massimo isn’t the only one who disagrees with Harris. PZ, one of the arch-”New Atheists” disagreed just as completely with Harris as Massimo. I would like to ask Massimo what he thinks about Victor Stenger, who wrote a whole book on the scientific investigation of the existence of god! I think the quotation Reginald provides from Coyne (which is similar to what PZ and Ophelia Benson have also argued), and which seems to me similar to what Dawkins also argues is that it is simply wrong to say that the “supernatural” is by definition beyond the realm of scientific examination. This sounds nice and neat, but I think Stenger argues quite strongly in his book that certain imaginations of god would result in the world being a certain way. So we see if the world is that way, and if it isn’t, that’s evidence that there isn’t such a god. I don’t see why that is a controversial point of view, honestly.

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Tomasz July 15, 2010 at 12:18 am

Haw dualast can explain unconsciousness??
Immaterial agent just chooses to be unconscious? Than haw can he get back to be conscious again? So iven in case of deepest general antesthesia he can still just choose to be conscious? Why develop anesthetic drugs if agent can just conscious or not by pure choice??
Life in heaven is ridiculous fairy tale about never ending unconsciousness, relatinoship with God or in other words with utter nothingness, highest happiness possible…This is why theists are so feverishly pro life, they are very humble presons. They just honestly telling to everyone that they are not worth of such “prize”. Being humble person is such incredible virtue.

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Rob July 15, 2010 at 4:10 am

Good interview. I too object to his claim that science has nothing to say about the so-called supernatural. I am not alone.

http://sites.google.com/site/maartenboudry/teksten-1/methodological-naturalism

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Reginald Selkirk July 15, 2010 at 4:22 am

Bill, understood. I haven’t heard the podcast, but will be downloading it as soon as I get home. I don’t read everything PZ posts, so I’m not sure what his position on aesthetics is. Anyone who thinks science can answer all questions deserves the criticism.

Well there you go. You have taken Massimo Pigliucci Ph.D. Ph.D. Ph.D.’s view of the discussion, even after you have been notified that he is guilty of strawmanning. Shame on you.

Sputnik: Lastly, Pigliucci said to check what PZ Myers recently wrote about him…well, I checked, and there is a post that’s critical of him and De Dora, but there’s also a more recent post where PZ defends Pigliucci from a book critic who (ironically) complained about Pigliucci’s tone and scientific certainty.

A recap, with links, for those who might want to check out the substance before taking sides:

Witless wanker peddles pablum for CFI
In which Myers calls out a neuron-crushingly dumb statement made by Michael De Dora.

PZ Myers is a witless wanker who peddles pablum
In which M.P. Ph.D. Ph.D. Ph.D. leaps to the defense of his stupid friend, mostly carping about tone. (Which, for those who do not regularly follow such discussions, means that he doesn’t have any substance on his side)

I shall be no friend to the appeasers
Response and reiteration from Myers.

Massimo Pigliucci is so very rude
The title has ironic intent, it is a defense of M.P. Ph.D. Ph.D. Ph.D. over criticism from Carlin Romano, mostly on tone (Which indicate Romano does not have substance on his side).

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Reginald Selkirk July 15, 2010 at 5:14 am

Mroe on the De Dora flap:
Massimo Pigliucci is a childish, raging, foaming at the mouth fundamentalist with a cavalier attitude toward the substance, rationality and coherence of his arguments

April 16, 2010 by Chris Hallquist

The silliness of De Dora’s position becomes acute in this paragraph:

Some have argued that teaching the Earth is 4.5 billion years old is the same as denying the Earth is 6,000 years old. But one clearly imparts scientific knowledge; the other clearly denies a religious idea. One is constitutional; the other is not. Scientific knowledge makes many ideas seem crazy, but there is no reason for a high school biology teacher to actually go into denying all of them, specifically the religious ones.

Logically, though, the Earth’s being 4.5 billion years old entails its not being 6,000 years old….

So who, other than Massimo Pigliucci Ph.D. Ph.D Ph.D., wants to defend the actual substance of De Dora’s statement, which I characterize as neuron-crushingly dumb?

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G'DIsraeli July 15, 2010 at 5:49 am

I love his podcast “Rationally speaking”.
Nice to see him on Common Sense Atheism.
Sorry I have no comment on the substance, I tend to either suspend judgment here or agree with him.

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Mastema July 15, 2010 at 6:15 am

Reginald,

Excuse me, but you don’t know my position, other than I don’t think science can answer all questions. Please don’t strawman me based on one statement that I will admit was not very specific. Can you please ask for clarification next time before making assumptions on what I think?

I have heard Massimo’s recent appearances on some podcasts (SGU and American Freethought), so I have an idea of what he is saying about Harris and morality and the supernatural. He didn’t discuss the New Atheists on those podcasts, but I’ve heard the same canards from other critics of the New Atheists for years. I’ve asked for proof, and never received any.

I agree with some of what Massimo says, and I disagree with other things. Science can certainly give us more accurate information with which to make decisions concerning morality. We should be using information from psychology, neuroscience, sociology, and other related fields to make our decisions. The facts alone won’t tell me whether I should do something or not. In this area, science and philosophy need to be used together. I could be wrong. Maybe science can bridge the is-ought gap. I await Harris’ book, and I’ll see what he has to say in greater detail. Until them, I am not convinced.

Science can’t tell me whether I should like a particular song or painting. It might be able to give me some insight into why people like certain features in one musical genre or another, but not whether the music is good.

When it comes to the supernatural, I very much disagree with Massimo. I think if the supernatural is said to have any affect in reality, we can test for that effect. We have done so with intercessory prayer, and it failed (or perhaps proved that God likes to mess with people who know they are being prayed for). I like what Stenger had to say in God: The Failed Hypothesis, that based on the definition of God that he used, that we would expect to see certain things in the universe, which we do not. The supernatural does not, by definition, get a free pass from science.

Do you have a better understanding of where I am coming from? Can science answer ALL questions? Can science tell me what I ought to do. Can it tell me whether I should prefer one band over another? Is there some reason I should not criticize someone who says science can answer all questions?

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Reginald Selkirk July 15, 2010 at 6:34 am

Excuse me, but you don’t know my position, other than I don’t think science can answer all questions… Do you have a better understanding of where I am coming from? Can science answer ALL questions? Can science tell me what I ought to do. Can it tell me whether I should prefer one band over another? Is there some reason I should not criticize someone who says science can answer all questions?

Yes, feel free to criticize someone who says science can answer all questions. But good luck finding that someone. The persons Massimo Pigliucci Ph.D. Ph.D. Ph.D. accuses of making that claim have not made it, and have in fact explicitly denied it. See for example the post by Jerry Coyne linked above.

Okay, let me get one thing clear at the outset. I do not believe, nor have I ever asserted, that science provides us with all the answers that are worth having. Some answers worth having involve subjective taste: which bistro should I eat at tonight? Should I go out with Sue or with Megan? Is Joyce’s The Dead truly the best story ever written in English? (The answer to that, by the way, is “yes”.) Why does Beethoven move me to tears while Mozart leaves me cold? And there are the moral questions, such as “Is abortion wrong?”

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Mastema July 15, 2010 at 6:56 am

I’ve never seen Dawkins, Meyers, Coyne, or any of the other New Atheists say that science can answer all questions. I never implied that the people Massimo mentioned were deserving of the criticism. I don’t think Harris thinks science can answer all questions, but I think he has stepped over the line with morality, and should be criticized until he can prove his claim. I do, however, run across lay atheists in online forums who hold to a hard scientism, especially after Harris’ TED talk.

I think Massimo is wrong on some things, and I think he should be challenged on his views on the New Atheists. If they are going to be criticized, I want it to be for things that they ACTUALLY do or say. He, and many of their other critics, may be ignorant of their actual stances, or dishonest.

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Mastema July 15, 2010 at 7:09 am

I guess I should be more specific about. Yes, you are right, Reginald, that it’s very hard to find people who think science can answer all questions. The few I’ve run across are very naive, have a disdain for any sort of philosophical inquiry, and seem to have traded one fundamentalism where they don’t have to think for another.

I think anyone who thinks science can answer questions it can’t, such as morality, should be criticized.

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Emil Karlsson July 15, 2010 at 7:34 am

He also stated at the end that atheism was the denial of the supernatural. There are hundreds of million of atheists who are devote supernaturalists, such as Buddhists.

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Reginald Selkirk July 15, 2010 at 7:38 am

A believer in reincarnation showed up at a local atheist meetup once.

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noen July 15, 2010 at 8:44 am

piero

As much as Sam Harris would like it to be so we cannot derive values from facts

“Why not?”

Because one commits the naturalistic fallacy when one attempts to draw ethical or moral conclusions from brute facts. We simply cannot deduce how things ought to be from the facts of how they are.

A good example is that we cannot deduce from the facts of evolution that our society should be organized by the principle of natural selection. That’s called Social Darwinism.

But by all means, if you can deduce an ought from what is please do so and collect your prize.

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noen July 15, 2010 at 9:05 am

From Reginald Selkirk’s link above

Ophelia, Hallq,

sorry to have apparently disappointed you, but I really have a hard time understanding why so many people are giving a pass to PZ’s behavior, which should strongly be condemned by the rationalist community on the *sole* basis of language, regardless of any substantive issue. My point is that we can disagree (civilly and even constructively) on the issues, but that PZ’s bullying is not the way to do it. If someone on the other side had used that sort of language we would all (rightly) be outraged by it.

As for the NA in general, the case is of course harder to make, because there are no sociological data. Still, it seems to me that most (not all) of the NAs have escalated the rhetoric, and indeed that an escalation in tone is pretty much the only “new” thing about the NA. Myers is simply a minor player who hopped on the bandwagon and is now making as much noise as possible in order to be noticed. And unfortunately, it’s working.

PZ Meyers is combative, even abusive and the commentors at his site are even more so. I think that there is a general sense about the so-called New Atheists. That they are guilty of scientism and tend to be overbearing and arrogant.

The question one should ask oneself is: “Is my strategy of aggressive dismissal of my opponents likely to succeed?” I am pretty sure it will not. I have found that when I am highly emotional and react too strongly to things I find objectionable that I don’t get what I want. Which is to positively influence the debate.

I’ve tried to change my tone from being a little too argumentative to being as strictly rational as I can and I think that the results, at least for me, have been good. Civility actually works. Ad homs, something PZ revels in, do not.

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Reginald Selkirk July 15, 2010 at 9:26 am

Civility actually works. Ad homs, something PZ revels in, do not.

How about strawman mischaracterization of the positions of others, which is what MP apparently revels in – does that work?

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piero July 15, 2010 at 10:40 am

Noen:

Calling a line of reasoning “naturalistic fallacy” sounds better than merely saying “I think that’s wrong”, but it explains exactly as much, i.e. nothing. In fact, your reply amounts to “you can’t because you can’t”.

It should be obvious that values are derived from facts. What else could they be derived from? For example, no culture I know of has held sticking thorns up your ass to be a worthy activity. Why not? Because it is silly, you’d say. But why is it silly? Because it causes damage and serves no purpose. And why does it cause damage and serve no purpose? Because of our biological make-up.

So values can in fact be derived from facts. The problem arises, I believe, when people accept values that are derived from illusions, and treat them as if they were derived from facts. For example, religious values.

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Sharkey July 15, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Mastema:

Science can’t tell me whether I should like a particular song or painting. It might be able to give me some insight into why people like certain features in one musical genre or another, but not whether the music is good.

Why not? What is particular about music appreciation is not accessible via scientific inquiry? I would argue that music ranking is scientifically accessible, and a profitable line of applied science; check out Pandora Radio or Last.fm.

Or, to be more direct: “music” is the combination of a complicated sound wave that is picked up by your auditory nerves, processed through a set of brain modules that have been contingently modified via genetic and environmental factors to find certain patterns pleasing, where “pleasing” is itself another brain state. Each of those factors can be investigated in isolation or compared to related objects; i.e., your subjective experience is my objective observation.

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Atheist.pig July 15, 2010 at 1:17 pm

Each of those factors can be investigated in isolation or compared to related objects; i.e., your subjective experience is my objective observation.

Your still not telling me what music is good and what music is not good, what I should like or what I shouldn’t like.

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Josh July 15, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Sharky,

I think you’re talking about something different than what Mastema is talking about.

Sure, it might be possible to look at someone’s brain states when they listen to certain music and then say “Aha, I know with certainty that you will also like x and y and z!” That’s fine.

What Mastema is talking about, I think, is whether you can use such data in any meaningful way to say that “x is musically better than y!”

I don’t think so, personally.

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Mastema July 15, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Josh responded similar to how I would have, but I’ll add a little more.

Different scientific disciplines can give us all kinds of information on various aspects of music. It can give us tremendous insight why some people prefer certain genres, rhythm patterns, minor or major keys, etc. Record executives can use scientific information to find artists who appeal to the widest demographics possible. Records sales may tell you that Britney Spears sells more albums than The Ramones. Does that tell you that Britney Spears is better than The Ramones? Only if you value record sales, which is not a fact that science can discover. It’s a personal preference.

You can look inside my brain to see how it responds to bands like Joy Division, Metric, and other bands that I like, as opposed to Nickelback and recordings of pigs being slaughtered set to disco music. That will tell you that I love Joy Division, and hate Nickelback. It will not tell you that Joy Division is a better band than Nickelback. Of course Joy Division is a MUCH better band than Nickelback, but that’s just my opinion.

It’s not that science can’t tell us anything about aesthetics, but it all depends on what we each value when it comes to aesthetics.

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rvkevin July 15, 2010 at 2:21 pm

What do you mean by “X is better than Y”? Is such a claim meaningful without choosing the criteria for evaluating the claim?

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al friedlander July 15, 2010 at 2:43 pm

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Mastema July 15, 2010 at 2:51 pm

I normally don’t approve of violence, but I have to hand it to Portugal. They know how to handle Nickelback.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7F3O6WYfHQ

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Konrad Talmont-Kaminski July 15, 2010 at 4:20 pm

Massimo states at one point that psychology does not have a guiding theory. While this is correct, I think that it is in the process of getting one. The relevant text I would recommend is Evolution: The Extended Synthesis edited by a certain Massimo Pigliucci and Gerd Muller. The book contains a number of papers that discuss how the Modern Synthesis that lies at the core of biology should be extended beyond, basically, molecular genetics and natural selection. In effect, however, the scope of the phenomena the synthesis is relevant to also comes to be extended and, I would argue, comes to also cover psychological phenomena. This doesn’t just end up meaning evolutionary psychology, either, as that approach is only the tip of the iceberg that is hitting traditional psychology as we speak.

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Sharkey July 15, 2010 at 7:00 pm

Mastema:

It will not tell you that Joy Division is a better band than Nickelback. Of course Joy Division is a MUCH better band than Nickelback, but that’s just my opinion.

I agree with rvkevin, you’re using the term “better” in an unspecified manner. If you want to impose a “better” ordering on music (the meaning of ‘better’ in your first quoted sentence), you’ll have to state the terms objectively. If you’re unable to do so, it will remain a personal ordering (second quoted sentence), but it will only be subjective to you; to me, I’ll be able to objectively determine your personal ordering by analysis of previously purchased records, brain scans, descriptions of childhood memories, songs played during emotional events, etc. (Assuming that your brain is a deterministic machine and we have the resolution and history to make those observations.)

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lukeprog July 15, 2010 at 7:30 pm

Konrad,

I hope you’re right!

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noen July 15, 2010 at 7:34 pm

piero
“Calling a line of reasoning “naturalistic fallacy” sounds better than merely saying “I think that’s wrong”, but it explains exactly as much, i.e. nothing.”

This is surprisingly poor reasoning on your part. The truth is that saying “I think that’s wrong” explains nothing, it has no explanatory power. Saying “I think that’s wrong because it is X fallacy” does indeed explain. It communicates two things: That something is incorrect and why it is incorrect.

“It should be obvious that values are derived from facts. What else could they be derived from?”

Not actually an argument is it? Your claim that “values are derived from facts” because you cannot think of anything else is invalid.

“For example, no culture I know of has held sticking thorns up your ass to be a worthy activity. Why not? Because it is silly, you’d say. But why is it silly? Because it causes damage and serves no purpose. And why does it cause damage and serve no purpose? Because of our biological make-up.”

Your ignorance of anthropology is a poor argument for or against any practice. In fact many cultures have what would seem to you to be quite extreme practices of body modification. You committed several fallacies: argument from ignorance, the naturalistic fallacy and, by implication, the moralistic fallacy.

“So values can in fact be derived from facts.”

You have yet to prove this is so. An assertion is not a valid argument.

“The problem arises, I believe, when people accept values that are derived from illusions, and treat them as if they were derived from facts. For example, religious values.”

This is the fallacy of the appeal to belief. Just because you believe something does not make it so. You have not shown that values are derived from illusions, nor have you shown that people treat values as though they are derived from facts, nor have you shown that religious values are derived from either.

You simply make assertions and attempt to justify them on fallacious reasoning. That is not how this business of rationality is done.

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noen July 15, 2010 at 8:03 pm

Reginald Selkirk
How about strawman mischaracterization of the positions of others, which is what MP apparently revels in – does that work?

Only if it is in fact a mischaracterization. It is my opinion after having read PZ’s blog that he enjoys engaging in ad hominem attacks on his opponents. I suppose I could be wrong but it seems unlikely to me.

I think that says something about his character.

Sharky
“Why not? What is particular about music appreciation is not accessible via scientific inquiry? I would argue that music ranking is scientifically accessible, and a profitable line of applied science; check out Pandora Radio or Last.fm.”

This is the fallacy of the appeal to popularity. Just because a song is number one in sales doesn’t mean that it is intrinsically superior to a song that is number 100. If this were true then we must conclude that The Twilight Saga: Eclipse is an intrinsically better movie than Toy Story 3.

“I’ll be able to objectively determine your personal ordering by analysis of previously purchased records, brain scans, descriptions of childhood memories, songs played during emotional events, etc.”

Or he could just tell you. The fact that I value a thing is not really an argument for or against the claim that the thing possesses an objective value beyond my own subjective appraisal. This is the same fallacy that Desirism commits. Playing games with NMR scanners or constructing a statistical map of my listening habits will never change my subjective values, or a billion people’s subjective values, into objective facts.

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Mastema July 15, 2010 at 8:13 pm

In the example you quoted, the second sentence was meant in jest. I use “better” to mean that I enjoy listening to Joy Division more than Nickelback based on my own personal enjoyment. If you had a scan of my brain, you would have an objective observation of what my subjective taste in music is. I’m not disputing that. You won’t learn whether you or anyone else should like the music I like.

What I don’t think science can do, as Josh said, is tell us “whether you can use such data in any meaningful way to say that ‘x is musically better than y!’”

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piero July 16, 2010 at 5:28 am

Noen:

Saying “I think that’s wrong because it is X fallacy” does indeed explain. It communicates two things: That something is incorrect and why it is incorrect.

No, it doesn’t. It is simply attaching a label. You have not shown why the naturalistic fallacy is a fallacy. If I said “deriving values from facts is the greatest icecream flavour ever” would you take my word for it?

Your claim that “values are derived from facts” because you cannot think of anything else is invalid.

Then perhaps you could help my underachieving imagination by providing an example of a value derived from a non-fact.

Your ignorance of anthropology is a poor argument for or against any practice. In fact many cultures have what would seem to you to be quite extreme practices of body modification.

Do they have a purpose? If so, your objection fails. Can you please provide an example of a cultural tradition that causes harm and serves no purpose at all?

You simply make assertions and attempt to justify them on fallacious reasoning. That is not how this business of rationality is done.

Thanks for the info. After reading your posts I was convinced that the business of rationality consisted in precisely that. Now I know better.

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Sharkey July 16, 2010 at 5:30 am

Noen:

This is the fallacy of the appeal to popularity. Just because a song is number one in sales doesn’t mean that it is intrinsically superior to a song that is number 100. If this were true then we must conclude that The Twilight Saga: Eclipse is an intrinsically better movie than Toy Story 3.

Noen’s use of the term ‘intrinsically better’ shows the issue clearly: I don’t agree that music nor movies have intrinsic properties, only relationships with other objects. One can only define the ‘better’ relation in the context of a human audience, which is then open to scientific investigation via economics, neurology, psychology, anthropology etc.

Mastema:

If you had a scan of my brain, you would have an objective observation of what my subjective taste in music is. I’m not disputing that. You won’t learn whether you or anyone else should like the music I like.

I continue to disagree. Assuming we have the technology, background comparables, personal histories, one could look at your brain, determine what made you consider the music subjectively “better”, and determine if the relevant structures in my brain correspond. Considering the empirical popularity of Pandora Radio, Amazon’s recommendations, etc., the chances are good that our tastes overlap.

Science can say ‘x is musically better than y’, but you’re attempting to hide behind the imprecision in your term ‘musically better’. Noen seemed to think using popularity would be a fallacy, but science could be used to show that popular music leads to more profit, leading to job creation and therefore increasing financial aid to disadvantaged people. And science could also show that, given basic assumptions, increased aid to disadvantaged people leads to outcomes that have desirable properties; similarly, scientific investigations into the assumptions needed to evaluate “desirable outcomes” could be conducted.

The above is simply conjecture, but the goal of the field of neuroethics is to bring such questions into a rigorous domain of scientific investigation.

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Reginald Selkirk July 16, 2010 at 6:36 am

Further, like Reginald Selkirk, I’d like to see evidence of where Dawkins “goes around saying every religious person stupid,” as well as where Dawkins “famously” says that “religion is the root of all evil.”

Two days now, and no takers?

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Reginald Selkirk July 16, 2010 at 6:42 am

It is my opinion after having read PZ’s blog that he enjoys engaging in ad hominem attacks on his opponents.

It is my opinion that you do not understand what an ad hominem fallacy is.

“X is wrong AND X is a doofus” is not an ad hominem, it is an insult.

“X is wrong BECAUSE X is a doofus” is an an hominem.

I could have sworn I posted this yesterday, it must have got lost somehow.

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Reginald Selkirk July 16, 2010 at 7:11 am

Quote from Massimo Pigliucci Ph.D. Ph.D. Ph.D.: Myers is simply a minor player who hopped on the bandwagon and is now making as much noise as possible in order to be noticed. And unfortunately, it’s working.

Because when blogging, the thing to do is avoid being noticed. Jealous much?

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noen July 16, 2010 at 8:57 am

piero
“No, it doesn’t. It is simply attaching a label. You have not shown why the naturalistic fallacy is a fallacy.”

It simply does not follow that what is natural must be good and what is unnatural must be bad. You have to supply *reasons* why you think something is good or bad. You cannot simply appeal to the fact that something exists as justification for it’s moral worth. Them’s tha rules buddy.

“Then perhaps you could help my underachieving imagination by providing an example of a value derived from a non-fact.”

I don’t have to. Your argument that values must be derived from facts because you cannot think of anything else is an invalid argument. I am not required to say where values come from. All I need to do is to refute your argument, which I have done.

However… ya know… people just make shit up. I think that values may come from the same place that a new hypothesis comes from. Someone just invents it. In the case of the scientific method we then subject the new hypothesis to experiment. In the case of values, after someone comes up with the idea that X should be valued he then has to convince other people that it is a good idea to value X. Many values fail, good thing too, but some succeed. The idea that maybe we shouldn’t kill other people seems to be a pretty good value. We can never *prove* that is.

But why is that? Why can’t we prove a moral statement, a value, as being true? Moral truths are institutional facts and they have the same kind of existence that money has. You can’t *prove* that we should value money but it is useful to society that we should. The same is true for moral values. If one wishes different values, like that we should allow gay marriages, then you have to convince enough people that your side should prevail. That’s political rhetoric not argument.

“Can you please provide an example of a cultural tradition that causes harm and serves no purpose at all?”

No, that was your claim not mine. Don’t you remember? It was one premise in your argument that no culture would have a value that was based on causing bodily harm. To refresh your memory here is the quote.

“For example, no culture I know of has held sticking thorns up your ass to be a worthy activity. Why not? Because it is silly, you’d say. But why is it silly? Because it causes damage and serves no purpose. And why does it cause damage and serve no purpose? Because of our biological make-up.”

So your argument is a negative one that relies on the non-existence of any culture deriving value from self harm because it, according to you, serves no purpose. But of course humans are perfectly able to value self harm and do so every single day. Drinking poison is one example, people do this all around the world every day. They do it because they value the feeling that drinking poison induces. Piercing the body is another, amputating limbs still another. Also inserting objects into their lips, noses, ears and under the skin. Scarification still another.

The reasons or purpose that these practices serve are many. Mostly to do with social status. Sometimes it is because people enjoy the feeling that comes with harming yourself. For others is it is a demonstration of loyalty or grief or religious ecstasy.

Your thesis that there exist no cultures that value self harm is therefore invalid.

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noen July 16, 2010 at 9:15 am

Sharky
“Noen’s use of the term ‘intrinsically better’ shows the issue clearly: I don’t agree that music nor movies have intrinsic properties, only relationships with other objects.”

Well that is because it is a property that things will have to have in order for them to be *objectively* better than other things. The statement that Mnt. Everest is higher than Pike’s Peak is epistemically true because height, width and breadth are intrinsic properties of the matter of which mountains are composed.

In order to prove that one song is *objectively* better than another you would need to show that it possesses some intrinsic property that inferior songs do not have. It is not enough to “define the ‘better’ relation in the context of a human audience” because human audiences are not intrinsic properties of music. Music is just organized sounds. Any scientific investigation of the economics, neurology, psychology and anthropology of an audience will only give you facts about why people choose to listen to some music rather than others. It will never get you to the claim that song A is objectively better than song B.

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noen July 16, 2010 at 9:19 am

Reginald Selkirk
It is my opinion that you do not understand what an ad hominem fallacy is.

“X is wrong AND X is a doofus” is not an ad hominem, it is an insult.

“X is wrong BECAUSE X is a doofus” is an an hominem.

I see. So your defense is that P.Z. Meyers is just an asshole. Good to know.

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Mastema July 16, 2010 at 10:58 am

Sharky,

I think there’s been some miscommunication. Maybe it’s my fault. Let me repeat what I said before, “It’s not that science can’t tell us anything about aesthetics, but it all depends on what we each value when it comes to aesthetics.”

Music is a combination of sound, and includes features such as rhythm, melody, harmony, texture, etc. It has no intrinsic value. It is what it is. Science cannot tell you if one combination of sounds are objectively better than another without a human placing a value on what the criteria for evaluating the sounds should be. That value varies from person to person. You can gather data about what people value and look for comparisons to suggest other combinations of sounds that may fit their values. Science can’t tell us if one person’s taste in music is better or superior to the taste of another.

I don’t dispute that science can’t inform our decisions and give us better insight into why we like what we like, but what people prefer aesthetically is all a matter of opinion. Without a subjective value to bridge the ought from the is, all the science in the world won’t tell you anything about aesthetics, only the characteristics that the objects possess.

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piero July 16, 2010 at 11:27 am

Noen, is your brain having a holiday? If so, could you wait until it comes back before posting again? It is really tiresome to have to explain things step by step.

It simply does not follow that what is natural must be good and what is unnatural must be bad.

And of course that’s equivalent to “values can be derived from facts”, isn’t it?

I don’t have to. Your argument that values must be derived from facts because you cannot think of anything else is an invalid argument.

No, it isn’t. Nobody has so far succeeded in deriving a value from anything but a fact. That’s strong evidence in favour of the claim that values derive from facts. Since you also failed to provide a counterexample, your objections are dismissable. Your theory of values being made up haphazardly is too silly to merit comment.

I notice you also failed to provide an example of a cultural tradition that causes harm and serves no purpose. All the examples you mentioned serve a purpose.

Send my greetings to your brain.

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Sharkey July 16, 2010 at 11:51 am

Mastema:

It’s possible we’re vigorously agreeing. My take is, as far as individual aesthetics can be rigorously described, it can be described scientifically; i.e., by appealing to empirical evidence and founded upon prior inferences. We seem to agree upon that point.

I think our differences are applying that local scientific knowledge of “better” and extrapolating to a general, “global better”, and it may be that I wasn’t clear on my position. I think the idea of a perfect ordering of music, in complete isolation from its preferred context of human ears, is a nonsensical question. But, the problem is the question itself is meaningless; a similar but fully-specified question could be answerable.

Once we start talking “intrinsically better”, I immediately look for ways those intrinsic properties are actually a result of external relationships between inferred objects (w.r.t, music, the inferred context is a human audience with a future outcome resulting after the music is played/produced/marketed/etc). Similarly, opinion is not the end of investigation: why does this person have this opinion of Nickelback? Does this opinion lead to choices that benefit or harm the individual, the community and the planet?

In fairness, it could be that my assumption of science’s reach is too broad…

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Mastema July 16, 2010 at 12:14 pm

Sharky,

I think you’re right. I think we’ve been talking past each other, and agree much more than we disagree.

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Reginald Selkirk July 16, 2010 at 1:03 pm

noen: I see. So your defense is that P.Z. Meyers is just an asshole. Good to know.

Yes, and unless you can provide some facts to back up your opinion (that Myers makes ad hominem attacks), then my opinion of your opinion is that it is worthless.

“Holds worthless unbacked opinions” vs. “is an asshole” – guess which one I respect more.

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Reginald Selkirk July 18, 2010 at 7:33 am

Further, like Reginald Selkirk, I’d like to see evidence of where Dawkins “goes around saying every religious person stupid,” as well as where Dawkins “famously” says that “religion is the root of all evil.”

Four days, and neither Massimo Pigliccui Ph.D. Ph.D. Ph.D. nor any of his fanbois have met this request.

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Reginald Selkirk July 21, 2010 at 5:16 am

One week, and still waiting.

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Reginald Selkirk August 6, 2010 at 8:23 am

Still waiting.

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piero August 6, 2010 at 9:12 am

Reginald, I believe Noen’s brain turned its holiday into permanent leave. I doubt you’ll get a reply.

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Reginald Selkirk August 12, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Yeah, that’s not what I’m waiting for, which is the clearing up of what I claim is strawman misrepresentations by M.P. Ph.D Ph.D. Ph.D. Pigliucci himself, one of his fans, or anyone who cares about truth could point out the evidence I seek, if it existed.

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