Profiles in pseudoscience: Rupert Sheldrake

An unabashed purveyor of nonsense keeps getting invited to international conference on science and philosophy

by Massimo Pigliucci

“Sheldrake’s book [A New Science of Life] is a splendid illustration of the widespread public misconception of what science is about. In reality, Sheldrake’s argument is in no sense a scientific argument but an exercise in pseudo-science.” (John Maddox, then editor of Nature magazine)

Next week I will once again take part in the “How the Light Gets In” festival, a gathering of philosophers, scientists, poets, and musicians, to celebrate human knowledge and understanding. The upcoming version will take place in Hay (Wales), but the event is also sometimes held in London.

I’m very much looking forward to give a talk on “How to be a skeptic,” and to participate as a panelist in two discussions, one on “Getting Everything, Losing Everything” (about Zuckerberg-style virtual reality) and the second on “The Good and the Evil” (on whether these moral categories make sense, or are useful).

Unfortunately, I’m not looking forward to another regular feature of the HTLGI events: running into pseudoscience purveyor Rupert Sheldrake, who keeps being invited year after year by the organizers for perverse reasons that are beyond my understanding. I’m sure he will take this essay as yet more evidence that there is a worldwide conspiracy of scientists against him, because Sheldrake is not just the source of wide-ranging nonsense, he is also paranoid. … (continue at Medium)

On Pigeon Chess and Debating

by Massimo Pigliucci

“Debating creationists on the topic of evolution is rather like trying to play chess with a pigeon—it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory.”

This famous quote is by Scott D. Weitzenhoffer, who wrote it as an Amazon.com review for Eugenie Scott’s book Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction. It raises an important question: When and how should we debate people who hold to opinions that we consider entirely unscientific and either ideologically or religiously motivated?

When I first encountered the notion of creationism, as a young assistant professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee in the mid-1990s, I was astounded that there were creationists around so close to the end of the twentieth century. The mythical year 2000 was looming over the horizon. Not only were the much-promised flying cars nowhere to be seen, but now I had to deal with these nutcases! … (continue at Skeptical Inquirer)

Cicero’s political philosophy — IV — Social duties and personal virtues

Duties toward others are deeply intertwined with the cultivation of personal virtues in our attempt to live in agreement with nature

by Massimo Pigliucci

“And Socrates properly persisted in condemning that man who first separated the useful from the right, for that, he charged, was the source of all moral disorder.” (Cicero, Legibus I. 33–34)

It is a common assumption, even and perhaps especially nowadays, that what is right is often in tension with what is expedient, that is, useful for us personally. Apparently, the problem goes all the way back to Socrates, and Cicero wrote an entire book, On Duties, to deal with it.

The surprising and counterintuitive answer that Socrates sketches and Cicero elaborates in detail is that any perceived conflict between ethics and utility is just that, perceived, apparent, not real. Once we properly understand what is actually useful to us then we see that it coincides with the right thing to do. … (continue at Medium)

Is Stoic virtue “foolish”? Not so fast

Stoicism deserves criticism on a number of fronts, but the Stoic conception of virtue ain’t one of them

by Massimo Pigliucci

I’ve recently quit social media. I’ve consciously, willfully left close to 50,000 followers on Twitter and a few thousands on Facebook. Why? Because, I reckoned, it was the virtuous thing to do. The case against social media and their increasingly pernicious effects on society is increasingly well established on empirical grounds. And as a welcome side effect, I regained some peace of mind and control over my own time.

Am I under the illusion that my quitting those platforms will make any dent in the global situation? Of course not. But since when one has to be assured of having a planetary impact before doing anything? Virtue, as they say, is its own reward.

Which brings me to an article by Douglas Bates provocatively entitled “Stoic ‘virtue’ is delusional,” to which I wish to respond because it raises interesting questions about Stoicism in particular and the broader notion of virtue — common to most of the Hellenistic philosophies — more generally. Besides, I’d rather not be thought of as delusional. … (continue at Medium)

Cynic satire

So-called Menippean satire was invented by an ancient Cynic philosopher. And it has influenced us for millennia

by Massimo Pigliucci

Menippus of Gadara (modern day Jordan) was a slave. He was also a Cynic philosopher and a satirist. We don’t know much about him, except the fact that he was a Greek, likely of Phoenician descent. When he obtained his freedom he moved to Thebes. Even more unfortunately, all his works have been lost. Which makes Menippus one of the most influential figures of antiquity you probably never heard of. According to the commentator Diogenes Laertius, Menippus wrote books with titles like Necromancy, Letters Artificially Composed as If by the Gods, and The Birth of Epicurus, among others. They were works of satire of a new kind, which is nowadays referred to as Menippean. … (continue at Medium)

SETI: a skeptical take

We’ve been looking for extra-terrestrial intelligence for several decades. What is that all about anyway?

by Massimo Pigliucci

I’ve always been fascinated by the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Who isn’t? When I was a kid, I got into UFOs and such. Then the age of reason dawned and I realized that actual science is more interesting than fantasy. So I got into SETI, the (scientific) Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. I read about the pioneering work of Frank Drake (more on him in a moment), devoured everything Carl Sagan wrote about it, and even — for a long time — downloaded and used the SETI program screen saver, which doubles as data processor on behalf of the SETI Institute. … (continue at Medium)

Rationality is instrumental, and that’s a problem

The subtle and complex relationship between logic, philosophy, and science

by Massimo Pigliucci

Today I read a decidedly unfavorable review of the latest book by Steven Pinker, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. I’m no fan of Pinker, but this article isn’t (mostly) about him or the book. Rather, it’s about one of the main criticisms brought up in the review, written by Ted McCormick for Slate magazine. Pinker wants to argue that if only people acted rationally then this would be a much better world. But he — correctly — defines rationality as an instrumental quality: “[rationality] is a kit of cognitive tools that can attain particular goals in particular worlds.” … (continue at Medium)

Making sense of the Hellenistic philosophies

A brief conceptual guide to what differentiated the Greco-Roman schools of philosophy as a way of life

by Massimo Pigliucci

The Hellenistic period span from the death of Alexander the Great and the consequent collapse of the Macedonian Empire in 323 BCE to the battle of Actium in 31 BCE, where the future first Roman emperor, Octavian, beat the crap out of the joint forces of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra. It was an incredible period in human history, which saw the flourishing of a number of philosophical schools that went on to impact the development of western civilization, and that are still very much relevant today. … (continue at Medium)