Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


September 13, 2011

A Defender of Reason

Massimo Pigliucci, a self-described skeptic and humanist, stakes out the Internet as a platform for a 21st-century public intellectual.

Vincent Valk

Massimo Pigliucci, a professor and philosopher at CUNY Lehman College, is the proprietor of Rationally Speaking, his "skeptic and humanist" website. Pigliucci and a roster of contributors write about ethics, philosophy, and science, among other things, from the perspective of a skeptic—or, as Pigliucci puts it, quoting Hume, "a wise man [who] proportions his belief to the evidence."

Massimo Pigliucci
"I'm a skeptic in the David Hume sense. He said that 'a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.'"

Massimo Pigliucci

In the following interview, conducted via email, Pigliucci talks to Gelf about what it means to be a skeptic and a humanist, morality sans religion, and the role of the public intellectual in the internet age.

Gelf Magazine: Right at the top of your blog, you refer to the phrase "public intellectual" as a bad one. I assume you do not think it's bad, but are referring to the concept having fallen out of favor. Why do you think this is?

Massimo Pigliucci: Good question. I do think that the idea of a public intellectual is vital to society, and I traced its history (and decline) in a chapter of my book Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (Chicago Press, 2010). Public intellectualism began in France, when Emile Zola wrote to the French President about the infamous Dreyfus affair in 1898. Perhaps today's foremost public intellectuals in the US are the highly controversial Noam Chomsky, a linguist, and Peter Singer, a philosopher. Chomsky writes largely about questioning US foreign policy, while Singer is concerned with animal rights, the right to euthanasia and related matters.

Chomsky, in his classic article "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," written in 1963 for the New York Review of Books, said that "Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions.... It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies."

But it is unquestionable that the role of public intellectualism has diminished over the past few decades, in part because of increasingly strong anti-intellectual currents in American culture, in part because of the rise of ideologically motivated (and well-funded) so-called "think tanks," and in part because of the phenomenon of punditocracy spurred by the 24-hr news cycle.

At Rationally Speaking we are doing what little we can to bring back the idea that public intellectualism is vital to a democracy, and that academics and other intellectuals ought to engage in public discourse about things that matter.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think that the Internet can help bring back the public intellectual?

Massimo Pigliucci: Absolutely. A number of scientists, philosophers, and generally broad thinkers have started publishing blogs or contributing to other web-based outlets. The more the better, in my opinion. Of course the internet is a tool, and as such it can be used also to spread nonsense and to foster narrow ideologies, but, again, the idea about a democracy is that people are going to be exposed to a variety of opinions and that, hopefully, the best ones will emerge from the fray, just as John Stuart Mill was hoping it would do.

Gelf Magazine: Do we still need philosophy, now that we have social science? What distinguishes the two?

Massimo Pigliucci: Oh yes, we do. Science, including social science, is descriptive, it tells us how things are, based on empirical information. Philosophy is reflective and prescriptive, it deals with how to think and what to think about things. The two are complementary and mutually enhancing, not at all in competition with each other.

Gelf Magazine: Why do you describe yourself as a "skeptic and humanist"?

Massimo Pigliucci: I'm a skeptic in the sense of 18th century philosopher David Hume, who said that "a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence." I think that's a very sensible attitude, which is unfortunately not sufficiently widespread in our culture. As for humanism, it is a positive philosophy based on the idea that human beings don't need the magical and the supernatural to figure how to live and what to do with their lives. So a skeptical humanist is someone who keeps trying to understand the human condition and to flourish in his own life, doing so while keeping an eye toward distinguishing sense from nonsense.

Gelf Magazine: You've done a lot of writing and thinking about the evolution debate in the U.S. Why is evolution, essentially the foundation of modern biology, the subject of such controversy in the U.S.?

Massimo Pigliucci: There are complex reasons, which I explored a few years ago in Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science (Sinauer, 2002). The public's opposition to evolution stems from an anti-intellectual attitude fostered by fundamentalist religion. It really is a shame, particularly because it not only undermines sound teaching of science, but it fosters an adversarial relationship between science and religion that nobody needs. Mainstream theologians have long since accepted evolution and have managed to carve up a space for God anyway (e.g., Pope John Paul II), so there is no reason for the conflict, except of course that it is easy to exploit in support of narrow political agendas.

Gelf Magazine: On your blog, Rationally Speaking, you recently completed a series on ethics. Religious people often contend that ethics cannot be separated from religion. Your series focused mostly on philosophy – how can we define a coherent ethical vision without the help of religion?

Massimo Pigliucci: First we need to understand that there are very solid reasons to think that gods—even if they existed—couldn't possibly have anything to do with morality. This was explained very clearly (and beautifully!) by Plato in his dialogue, Euthyphro. Socrates at one point asks whether something is good because the gods say so, or whether the gods cannot but do what is ethical. In the first case, morality becomes an arbitrary matter of might makes right; in the second morality exists independently of gods and we can figure it out on our own. Either way, one doesn't need religion to be moral.

Ethical philosophers have proposed various ways to be moral based on reason and human compassion. The three main approaches, which I describe in the blog posts, are consequentialism (the consequences of actions are the only thing that matter), deontology (duties and rights matter), and virtue ethics (it's not a question of right and wrong but of being a person with good character, who then makes good decisions). In the blog posts I explain why virtue ethics is the approach that I think makes more sense as a guide to both being moral and to flourish in life.

Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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Article by Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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