The importance of doubting

by Massimo Pigliucci

There is freedom of thought, and each one can sustain what he wants, as for me, I will stick to my principle, and I will always seek in every question the maximum probability, without being bound by the law of any particular school to which shall forcibly follow my speculation. (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, IV.4.7)

Sometimes one of my students, perhaps a bit frustrated at the inability to defend their position on a subject under discussion, will say: “Well, everyone is entitled to their opinion.” Yes and no, I reply. In the world at large this may be true. Unfortunately, everyone feels entitled to their opinions, and even more unfortunately they don’t hesitate to broadcast it as far as their social media account will carry. But in a philosophy class, or in reasoned discourse in general, people are entitled to their opinions only to the extent they can defend such opinions on the basis of evidence and argument.

This is something that our media could benefit from learning. The notion that, whenever there are two positions on a given issue we need to listen to both, to allow “equal time” no matter how nonsensical or harmful an opinion may be is nonsense on stilts.

But how do we balance the values of freedom of thought and respect for truth? By actively cultivating an attitude of doubt, like the Roman advocate, statesman, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero did throughout his life. … (continue at Substack)

Is it true that you can’t derive an ought from an is?

by Massimo Pigliucci

Here is one of the most momentous short paragraphs ever written in the history of philosophy:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it’s necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

It was written by David Hume, and it appears in book III, part I, section I of his A Treatise of Human Nature, published in 1739. It is often interpreted as saying that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” or—to put it differently—that there is an unbridgeable gap between values and facts.

If this interpretation of Hume were right, it would follow that moral statements can only be of two kinds: either they refer to a different category of “facts,” somehow entirely separate from facts like “Saturn has rings,” or there simply are no such things as moral facts at all. … (continue at Substack)

On the steps of Marcus Aurelius: visiting Carnuntum

by Massimo Pigliucci

Some people go to Mecca. Others to see the Pope in St. Peter’s Square. I go to sites that are connected to ancient Greco-Roman history, especially to philosophers, and more often than not in particular to Stoicism.

I call these episodes my “secular pilgrimages,” as they serve a function similar to what—I assume—is the function of a pilgrimage for a religious person. My dictionary provides the following helpful definition:

Pilgrimage: a journey to a place associated with someone or something well known or respected.

Mecca, officially known as Makkah al-Mukarramah, is one such important place because it was where the Prophet Muhammad was born around 570 CE. St. Peter’s Square, in the Vatican City, is where the Christian Pope regularly appears to the faithful to deliver messages of hope and charity. And Carnuntum is a location on the Danube River, between Vienna and Bratislava, where the emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius spent several years fighting the Marcomanni and other German tribes while writing parts of his Meditations. … (continue at Substack)

The axiom of futility

by Massimo Pigliucci

Axiom of Futility. Agents are required not to make direct attempts to do (or be) something that is logically, theoretically, or practically impossible. (L. Becker, A New Stoicism, ch. 4)

A few days ago I was at the 19th European Skeptics Congress, where I had the honor to deliver a keynote address on skepticism as a philosophy of life. One of the discussion sessions highlighted what I have come to think of as a persistent issue not just with skepticism, but with any kind of activism to make the world a better place: people, unwittingly, are often in violation of Larry Becker’s Axiom of Futility, i.e., they try to do something that is logically, theoretically, or practically impossible. And then, of course, they become frustrated and more likely to give up.

For instance, there was much talk at the Congress about the need to teach critical thinking in schools, to overcome people’s superstitions, to convince politicians to act rationally in the interest of society at large, and so forth. All of these are, without a question, highly commendable goals of the skeptic movement. All of which we have been pursuing for decades (or, depending on how you look at it, centuries…). All of which we have failed to accomplish, despite some gain (and some losses) here and there. … (continue at Substack)

A Different Take on E.O. Wilson

by Massimo Pigliucci

Here is a Roman joke: Two old friends who haven’t seen each other in a while happen to meet in the street. One says to the other: “Oh, hi! I thought you were dead!”

“What on earth makes you say so?”

“Well, all of a sudden people were speaking well of you …”

That joke came to my mind when I read three short tributes to biologist E.O. Wilson in Skeptical Inquirer (May/June 2022). Wilson passed away on December 26, 2021, at age ninety-two. The tributes are by evolutionary biologist and science popularizer Richard Dawkins, evolutionary developmental biologist Sean B. Carroll, and cognitive linguist Steven Pinker. Predictably, all three portraits are very positive. Just as predictably, they are somewhat flawed.

Let me first acknowledge where I agree with Dawkins, Carroll, and Pinker. Wilson, whom I’ve met a few times during my career as an evolutionary biologist first and a philosopher of science later, was indubitably one of the towering figures in late-twentieth-century biology. His expertise on social insects, and ants in particular, was unparalleled. As a science writer, he won two Pulitzer Prizes. Right there that’s more than enough to enshrine him in the history of biology, which is no small thing. For more (well justified) praise, see Ken Frazier’s in-depth biographical essay in the May/June 2022 SI (Frazier 2022).

That said, some of his scientific ideas were questionable, and some of his personal ethics were borderline despicable; this ought to be acknowledged as well. After all, as skeptics we are presumably interested in the truth about the man, not in mythologizing him. … (continue at Skeptical Inquirer)

Plato’s mistake

by Massimo Pigliucci

What is your take on metaphysics? Mine is not particularly positive. At least, I am deeply suspicious, and largely reject, the whole approach to the field known as “analytic” metaphysics, which has been dominant since the beginning of the 20th century. (I am increasingly skeptical of the value of all analytic philosophy, but that’s a story for another time. And no, I’m no friend of the continental tradition either!)

My favorite whipping boy is a leading analytic metaphysician, David Chalmers, who initially became famous for his notions about consciousness and philosophical zombies, and has more recently embraced equally problematic notions like panpsychism. Chalmers and his colleagues proposed their “theories” on the basis of their intuitions and of what they find “conceivable,” regardless of whether there is any empirical evidence for their speculation. Indeed, they tend to be contemptuous of empirical evidence, dismissing it as the result of a “reductionist” approach to understanding things. … (continue at Substack)

Figs in winter and the idea of an art of living

by Massimo Pigliucci

So if you long for your son or your friend at a time when they aren’t given to you, you’re longing for a fig in winter, believe me. (Epictetus, Discourses, III.24.87)

Figs are one of my favorite fruits. The common edible fig’s scientific name is Ficus carica, a plant native of the Mediterranean and western Asia. Figs are in season twice a year: during the first few weeks in June, and then again between August and October. That’s it. Which means that if I crave fresh figs in December or January I’m a bit of a fool. I’m even more of a fool if I don’t take advantage of the right season and manage to have my fill of figs when they are actually around.

This is the metaphor that the first century Stoic philosopher Epictetus uses to explain to his students why they should not regret their loved ones when they are longer around, but should very much pay attention to them when they are. The idea applies to everything in life: relatives, partners, friends, but also the stages of our own life—from childhood to old age—and of course for everything we think we possess, in terms of material objects. … (continue on Substack)

Seneca to Lucilius: 87, in favor of the simple life

by Massimo Pigliucci

I’m sure you noticed that we live in a capitalistic, and therefore hyper-consumerist society. The logic of capitalism implies that the economy has to keep growing, and in order for that to happen more and more people have to buy lots of crap that they don’t need. Setting aside the obvious observation — made even by some economists — that indefinite growth is the goal of a cancer cell, that is why we are bombarded by advertisements that not so subtly aim at convincing us that if only we had the latest smart phone, a nicer car, a bigger house, and so forth then we would truly be happy. … (continue on Medium)

The ethics (or lack thereof) of belief

by Massimo Pigliucci

William Kingdon Clifford (left) and William James (right)

A shipowner was about to send to sea a ship with immigrants on board. He knew that she was old, and not well built to begin with; that she had seen many seas and storms, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense.

Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors.

In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales. What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. … (continue on Medium)

Musonius Rufus — Lecture XV: Should every child that is born (or conceived) be raised?

by Massimo Pigliucci

Ever since I got interested in practicing Greco-Roman philosophy, and especially one form or another of Stoicism, I’ve had to face the inevitable fact that sometimes the ancients seem so hopelessly out of touch that one wonders whether the whole enterprise is actually worth it.

Stoicism, of course, is not the only philosophy of life to incur in this problem. Confucianism is often, rightly, accused of being too patriarchal. And of course there are countless ethical anachronisms marring all three Abrahamic religions, just to mention a few cases. … (continue on Medium)