Scientia Salon: a manifesto for 21st century intellectualism

Arcimboldo's Librarianby Massimo Pigliucci

During the Enlightenment, the Marquis de Condorcet defined a public intellectual as someone devoted to “the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them.” A number of years later, on 13 January 1898 to be precise, the writer Emile Zola showed the world — and in particular the French government — what public intellectualism could do. He penned his famous “J’accuse” letter to the President of France, concerning the abysmal behavior of the French authorities in the infamous Dreyfus affair.

Intellectualism, of course, has its detractors, particularly in the United States. Richard Hofstadter’s classic “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” [1] traces several strands of the phenomenon all throughout American history, and we can very much see it today in the form of religious-based opposition to the teaching of evolution in public schools, or in the open disdain for politicians who dare name a favorite philosopher that is not Jesus.

At the City University of New York, where I work, I often teach a basic course in Critical Reasoning that uses a handy little booklet entitled, A Short Course in Intellectual Self Defense, by University of Québec-Montreal professor of Education Fundamentals Normand Baillargeon [2]. I highly recommend it, just as I wholeheartedly agree that teaching critical thinking really ought to be part of our concept of “educational fundamentals” — despite the fact that it is seen as optional even at the college level, let alone earlier.

The title of Baillargeon’s book is a play on a quote by the most famous (and controversial) public intellectual of the late 20th and early 21st century: Noam Chomsky. In his essay on Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies [3], Chomsky wrote that “Citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control, and to lay the basis for meaningful democracy.” No kidding. Just turn on Fox News, MSNBC, or even CNN and you will see just how intense and damaging the political propaganda is in the US (I know it is no less so in the other country I am directly familiar with, Italy — and I doubt the situation is much different elsewhere, give or take).

People concerned with developing a thriving society have always been worried about the specter of totalitarianism, let’s call it the “1984” scenario. And to be sure, there is much of that still going on in the world, with billions of people living under non democratic (or democratic only in name) regimes, from China to Russia to much of the Middle East.

But a more subtle, arguably more effective, way of controlling people is rather akin to the scenario presented by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. In that particular dystopia it is psychological (and biological) manipulation that plays the crucial role — and it is much more powerful than overt coercion. Or, if you prefer, arch back to the Roman empire, where its military might abroad was coupled with the famous panem et circenses approach to handling the civilian population at home: give them enough food and entertainment and they won’t have the stomach for a revolution. If that sounds as an even rough approximation of many modern societies, then we agree that we have a serious problem.

That problem, to put it plainly, is that many of our fellow citizens have not taken any intellectual course in self-defense (literally or more broadly speaking), and that they are bombarded by the best political and — let’s not forget it — corporate propaganda money (a lot of money) can buy.

This has a cascade of effects, from the very personal to the societal. At the personal level, many go about their lives with hardly a clue about why they are doing what they are doing. Socrates’ dictum that an unexamined life is not worth living was surely an exaggeration, but it definitely pays from time to time to pause and reflect on what we want from our existence on this planet and why. The ancient called it the pursuit of eudaimonia, the good and moral life. But in order to reflect and make informed decisions we need thinking tools, and there is a dearth of them both inside and outside of our educational system.

At the societal level, this means that we elect politicians because they look like the sort of fellows one would want to have a beer with, rather than because they are honest and brimming with good ideas about how to navigate the perils of the modern world in ways that maximize fairness and well being.

For all of this, I am not so naive as to propose that more education — or even more courses in critical thinking — is the panacea needed to cure the ills of humanity. After all, David Hume famously said that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” [4], by which he meant that human beings aren’t just the rational animal (as Aristotle suggested), but also the passionate one. It follows that one needs to take care of emotions just as much, if not more, as one addresses reason.

Indeed, modern research in cognitive science has borne out Hume’s warning. Antonio Damasio [5] has argued in his Descartes’ Error that a functional human being cannot be modeled on the emotionless Spock, unless we wish for a polity of sociopaths. And of course more recent writings by the likes of Daniel Kahneman [6] and Jonathan Haidt [7] have clinched the case that we are so fraught with cognitive biases and so prone to rationalization that it is a miracle anything gets done around the world.

And yet, stuff does get done. Humanity has invented philosophy, and then science, and both have thrived precisely because we can and do use reason to understand the world and improve our lot. I find it somewhat amusing (well, frustrating, really) that every new paper coming out of the social or cognitive sciences showing just how limited and biased the human mind is becomes an argument for the irrelevance of rational thinking. As if those discoveries were made in any other way but by deploying the best reasoning abilities we have in order to overcome whatever biases even the researchers involved in those very studies surely suffer from.

To draw on a pertinent analogy: we have incontrovertible evidence that people in general tend to be bad at estimating probabilities, a phenomenon on which the multi-billion dollar casino industry is built. But very few people (other than casino owners, perhaps) would argue that therefore it is useless to teach about the gambler’s fallacy and other pertinent concepts. On the contrary: teaching the rudiments of probability theory is the best way we know of at least partially immunizing fellow human beings from wasting their fortunes at gambling establishments.

The same goes with critical reasoning and open intellectual discourse. They are not a silver bullet, but I guarantee you that once my students are made aware of the standard logical fallacies [8] they see them everywhere (because they are everywhere!), and they are better off for it.

Which brings me to the current project, of which this essay is the beginning and informal “manifesto.” Scientia is a Latin word that means knowledge (and understanding) in the broadest possible terms. It has wider implications than the English term “science,” as it includes natural and social sciences, philosophy, logic, and mathematics, to say the least. It reflects the idea that knowledge draws from multiple sources, some empirical (science), some conceptual (philosophy, math and logic), and it cannot be reduced to or constrained by just one of these sources. Salons, of course, were the social engines of the Age of Reason, and a suitable metaphor for public intellectualism in the 21st century, where the gathering places are more likely to be digital but where discussions can be just as vigorous as those that took place in the rooms made available by Madeleine de Scudéry or the marquise de Rambouillet in 17th century salons.

While I have been thinking for years about a venture like Scientia Salon, and have indeed slowly ratcheted up my involvement in public discourse, first as a scientist and more recently as a philosopher, the final kick in the butt was given to me by my City University of New York (Brooklyn College) colleague Corey Robin. I have never (yet) met Corey, but not long ago I happened across his book, The Reactionary Mind [9], which I found immensely more insightful than much of what has been written of late about why conservatives think the way they do.

More recently, though, I read his short essay in Al Jazeera America, entitled “The responsibility of adjunct intellectuals” [10] and it neatly crystallized a lot of my own unease. Corey points out that academics have always loved to write for other academics using impenetrable jargon (his example of choice is Immanuel Kant), while other thinkers have forever complained about it. He quotes Thomas Hobbes, for instance, as saying that the academic writing of his time was “nothing else … but insignificant trains of strange and barbarous words.”

And yet, observes Robin, we live in an unprecedented era where more and more academics engage openly and vigorously with the public. This, of course, has been made possible by the technologies of the information age, and especially by social networking platforms like blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and the like. While the average academic article is read by tens or hundreds of people, and it is the rare academic book that reaches 2000 copies, blogs such as my Rationally Speaking (the predecessor to Scientia Salon) is hit by tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of readers per week, connecting to it from the world over.

Sounds like good news for public intellectualism, no? Well, not exactly, for the simple reason that the tenured academic (such as myself, and Robin) is in decline. While extinction is not an immediate threat, the trend has been as obvious as ominous: in 1971, American universities featured slightly less than 80% full time faculty, complemented by slightly more than 20% adjuncts. In 2009 the two percentages essentially coincided, around 50% per part [11]. It’s not good. Not for adjuncts, not for universities, and not for society at large.

This is not the place to enter into a defense of the tenure system (which, like any social institution, has its pros and cons). But an essential idea behind its inception — which dates back only to the beginning of the 20th century, and was not widely in place until after World War II — is to safeguard faculty from undue administrative and political pressures, giving them relatively free rein as scholars and, you guessed it, public intellectuals. By shifting the balance increasingly toward precariously employed (exploited, really) adjuncts, especially public universities and the States that fund them are effectively undercutting the potential for a new generation of academics interested in engaging in public discourse.

I am not suggesting that the rise of the adjuncts was a premeditated plot by Big Brother to curb the vibrancy of intellectual life — it’s pretty clear that the situation is simply the result of economic decisions coupled with an exceedingly myopic concept of what universities are for. Nor am I claiming that tenured professors are necessarily particularly interested in (or good at) talking to non-peers about what they do. But the fact remains, as Robin so aptly puts it, that “the vast majority of potential public intellectuals do not belong to the academic one percent. They are not forsaking the snappy op-ed for the arcane article. They are not navigating the shoals of publish or perish. They’re grading.”

And this is why I decided to start Scientia Salon and to ask a few colleagues and other interested people to join me. I’m not grading that much compared to the adjuncts working in my Department, and I decided that my time is much better spent working on that “snappy op-ed” (or on essays like this one), which is likely to reach tens of thousands and contribute to the wider debates in our society, rather than on yet another “arcane article” for which I will be lauded by the four or five hyper-specialized colleagues who bothered to read it.

Francis Bacon, arguably the first philosopher of science, famously wrote Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est (which, you may have noticed, is the tag line of Scientia Salon): knowledge is power. While he meant it especially in the sense of harvesting the power of understanding how nature works in order to manipulate her and make human life better, I intend it even more broadly: knowledge and understanding — scientia — of what goes on in the world gives everyone more power over their lives, more ability to influence events, and ultimately more meaning to their existence. This publication aims at making a small contribution in that direction.

Which finally brings me to our manifesto, such as it is.

1) Scientia Salon is a forum for academic and non-academic thinkers who do not shy from the label “public intellectual.”

2) We think intellectualism — in the broader sense of a publicly shared life of the mind — is crucial to the wellbeing of our society.

3) We acknowledge — as is clear from research in the cognitive sciences — that human beings navigate the world by deploying a complex mixture of reason and emotion, and that they often engage in rationalization more than rationality.

4) Indeed, we think with David Hume that this is a crucial part of human nature, since emotions are necessary in order to actually care about anything in the first place.

5) But we also think that open and reasoned discourse is fundamental for the pursuit of a eudaimonic life on the part of the individual, as well as for the development of a just and democratic society.

6) Scientia, understood as the broadest range of scientific and humanistic disciplines that positively contribute to human understanding, is an essential tool for pursuing that eudaimonic life and achieving that just society.

7) In order to make an impact, we think that writers concerned with these matters ought to aim at a wide audience, avoid unnecessary jargon, and write clearly and engagingly, even humorously when appropriate.

8) We therefore welcome authors and readers who are willing to contribute honestly and substantively to an open dialogue on all matters of the intellect, especially those of general interest to fellow human beings.

Happy writing, reading and commenting, everyone.

_____

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter, 1966.

[2] A Short Course in Intellectual Self Defense, by Normand Baillargeon, 2011.

[3] Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, by Noam Chomsky, 1999.

[4] For a good introduction to the context of that quote, and Hume’s moral philosophy in general, see this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[5] Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, by Antonio Damasio, 1994.

[6] Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kanheman, 2001.

[7] The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, 2012.

[8] See the exceedingly well done and fun “Thou Shall Not Commit Logical Fallacies” site, and while you are at it, download their handy poster.

[9] The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, by Corey Robin, 2011.

[10] The responsibility of adjunct intellectuals, by Corey Robin, Al Jazeera America.

[11] For an in-depth analysis of the “adjuncts phenomenon,” with handy data provided, see “The work of the university” by Stephen Perez and Andrew Litt.

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76 thoughts on “Scientia Salon: a manifesto for 21st century intellectualism

  1. >>But a more subtle, arguably more effective, way of controlling people is rather akin to the scenario presented by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. In that particular dystopia it is psychological (and biological) manipulation that plays the crucial role — and it is much more powerful than overt coercion.

    The most realistic dystopia is, in my opinion, a hybrid of “1984” and “Brave New World”. On one hand modern consumerist societies attempt to pacify the masses by pampering them with all kind of entertainment and luxury (compared to previous generations). Whilst on the other hand mass surveillance is put through with an appeal to public security.

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  2. Sounds like a good project, Massimo, and your manifesto reads well.

    … the idea that knowledge draws from multiple sources, some empirical (science), some conceptual (philosophy, math and logic), and it cannot be reduced to or constrained by just one of these sources.

    Hope it’s ok if I argue that knowledge in philosophy, maths and logic is also, ultimately, derived from empirical reality.

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  3. Congratulations on a very good beginning.

    I find it somewhat amusing (well, frustrating, really) that every new paper coming out of the social or cognitive sciences showing just how limited and biased the human mind is becomes an argument for the irrelevance of rational thinking.

    You have hit the nail on the head. For all our passions, biases, prejudices and desires, our rational mind still manages to assert itself. Let’s celebrate the victory of rationality over biology while we continue to enjoy our biology.

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  4. Well-done, Massimo. I’d like to note an online reference that perhaps not all readers are familiar with: The Skeptics Dictionary–http://www.skepdic.com/about.html

    This site is concerned with many of the obstacles to critical thinking that you mentioned and is regularly updated.

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  5. Of course it is OK for you to argue that, but I would be interested to hear the argument you would make in favour of that proposition.

    Mathematical concepts are often abstracted from observation but are usually proved by deductive logic and are often derived from abstract reasoning.

    Sometimes such concepts will only find empirical correlates after they have been discovered through abstract reasoning, for example imaginary numbers.

    On the other hand much of the interesting maths being done these days is being verified using empirical (or quasi-empirical) methods.

    So I am interested in hearing views and arguments about where knowledge ultimately derives from.

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  6. Congratulations Massimo on launching this noble enterprise. I feel overwhelmed by the intellectual firepower you and your Rationally Speaking brethren tend towards so I’ll mostly be lurking in the shadows for a while. I definitely enjoyed the opening salvo and look forward to future installments.

    One nit to pick, unless it’s my morning brain having trouble. The following sentence seems to have a “were” that should be a “where” (after “21st century, “:

    >Salons, of course, were the social engines of the Age of Reason, and a suitable metaphor for public intellectualism in the 21st century, were the gathering places are more likely to be digital but where discussions can be just as vigorous as those that took place in the rooms made available by Madeleine de Scudéry or the marquise de Rambouillet in 17th century salons.<

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  7. Hi Robin,

    I would be interested to hear the argument you would make in favour of that proposition.

    Ask Massimo to invite me and I’ll happily do so! 🙂 But, in essence:

    Mathematical concepts are often abstracted from observation but are usually proved by deductive logic and are often derived from abstract reasoning.

    What validates that deductive logic and that abstract reasoning? I suggest that ultimately you’d arrive at one of two arguments:

    (1) We validate our logic by the fact that we observe that it works in our world. Axioms of maths and logic are thus “distilled empiricism”. I suggest that the first people who wrote down things like 1 + 1 = 2 did so not from abstract reasoning from first principles, but from codifing what they observed to be true in our universe (and even if they did do it from “first princuiples”, where did they get those principles from? From distilled empiricism?). It is an empirical fact that if you put one apple into an empty bag and then another apple into the bag, the bag then contains two apples. I don’t think that it is just coincidence that our logic/maths matches the empirical world.

    (2) Our brains are products of evolution, programmed to produce “logic” that works sufficiently well in our universe. The “programmer” is natural selection, or brute empirical facts of animals living or dying as a result of their decisions. Thus the only reason to suppose that our brain’s “intuition” and logic are valid are that they work well enough in our universe. That means they are ultimately derived from the empirical nature of our universe.

    Can you give any other validation for the basic axioms of logic/reasoning that you may want to use?

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  8. Coel,
    Our brains are products of evolution, programmed to produce “logic” that works sufficiently well in our universe.
    Isn’t this a form of ‘it must be so’ reasoning?
    We evolved as hunter/gatherers, so why are our brains so ridiculously overqualified for the job? Our brains are capable of functions far, far in excess of the demands placed on them by hunter/gathering. That is an extraordinary fact that demands an explanation. The explanation that we evolved therefore our brains have evolved to do this is sort of begging the question. It simply doesn’t explain the extraordinary capacity of our brains.

    I’m guessing here, but it might be that by good luck we have acquired brains that are capable of rewiring themselves in very short order(short in evolutionary times). The present amazing capacity our brains reflects the operation of a positive feedback loop, i.e. increasing cognitive capacity created the demand for greater cognitive capacity. The ready adaptability of our brain made this possible.

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  9. Hi labnut,

    Isn’t this a form of ‘it must be so’ reasoning?

    Yes. Our brains evolved to make decisions, ones that facilitated survival and reproduction. They can only make sufficiently good decisions if there is sufficiently good concordance between the logic of our brains and empirical reality. Or, put another way, natural selection would have strongly favoured such concordance. As above, the question is, what other reason is there for accepting that the logical reasoning of our brains has any validity?

    Our brains are capable of functions far, far in excess of the demands placed on them by hunter/gathering.

    Most likely (and I accept that this is speculation), large brains evolved to interpret other humans. Social success and social standing would have mattered just as much as the hunting and gathering, and would have produced an “arms race” to greater social competence.

    … it might be that by good luck we have acquired brains that are capable of rewiring themselves …

    It’s very unlikely that anything significant about our brains is “luck”, since they are so hugely expensive in evolutionary terms. They consume a huge slice of the body’s energy and they enforce hugely long and expensive childhoods.

    The present amazing capacity our brains reflects the operation of a positive feedback loop, i.e. increasing cognitive capacity created the demand for greater cognitive capacity.

    What would keep this “feedback loop” to “cognitive capacity” focussed on valid logic/reasoning, other than natural selection to match the empirical world? If it’s just going off on a spiral of it’s own, with no grounding in anything, then what reason is there to suppose that the end-product “reasoning” it produces has any sort of validity, anything that can be called “knowledge”?

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  10. Coel, I hope this is not a silly question but in what sense do you mean derived? I have the sense that I agree with you but I want to clarify to be sure. Do you mean that all valid knowledge from philosophy, maths and logic ultimately are something that can empirically verified or simply that they arose out of empirical process (as per your example of how 1 + 1 = 2 was not done in abstract but based on mapping onto empirical phenomena)? For the former, I’m not sure if things like ethics and other normative enterprises can be derived empirically, even though they can be informed by empirical facts. For the latter, I largely agree and believe that the various abilities we have are based on evolutionary process (but not all as some maybe spandrels) and are learned for pragmatic reasons during the lifetime of humans.

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  11. Hi Coel,
    thanks for the careful reply.

    if there is sufficiently good concordance between the logic of our brains and empirical reality. Or, put another way, natural selection would have strongly favoured such concordance.

    On the face of it that is plausible. However we still have small bands of hunter/gatherers, have seen their lifestyle and nothing in it suggests selection for the advanced cognitive capacities we possess. I’m sorry, but this is still ‘a must be so’ form of reasoning. Below I am going to suggest the answer is exactly the opposite of what you say, that our cognitive abilities freed us from the normal bounds of natural selection.

    and would have produced an “arms race” to greater social competence.

    There are several problems with this line of reasoning. We are by far not the only species with social organisation but ours is the only one to acquire this capacity. In any case this would not explain other, non-social kinds of cognitive ability. And, if history is anything to go by, our social skills are pretty destructive.

    It’s very unlikely that anything significant about our brains is “luck”

    Luck initiates a change, selection rewards or punishes the change.

    What would keep this “feedback loop” to “cognitive capacity” focussed on valid logic/reasoning

    That is indeed the vital question. I suggest that it was spectacularly successful because our cognition freed us from the normal constraints of natural selection, which works at a glacial pace. Our cognition allowed us to modify our environment, adapt quickly to changes and to plan ahead. This effectively freed us from the constraints of normal natural selection. The right kind of cognitive changes were very quickly rewarded and reinforced because our brain could rewire itself so quickly. This kick started us in the direction of a densely interconnected society with high cognitive demands, setting up a positive feedback loop where society rewarded increasing cognitive ability.

    Having said all of that, I can only admit to being very speculative in the hope of uncovering what seems to me to be a great mystery. Saying it must be that way because we evolved that way just does not seem to be an adequate answer, even if my answer is far from adequate.

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  12. Good inaugural post. I agree with you that it’s silly to think that just because humans in some sense are fundamentally irrational that it’s therefore not important to train people (and oneself) to be rational. That’s just silly; it just demonstrates the need for more rationality! Anyway, I look forward to eavesdropping on the discussions that are going to take place in this salon.

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  13. Hi imzasirf,
    I’m asserting that maths/logic is empirically derived in the following sense: (1) people observe regularities in nature; (2) people codify these regularities, producing “axioms” of maths/logic; (3) people then use these axioms to generate new knowledge. The end-product knowledge of this process is still, ultimately, derived from empirical observation of the universe. Indeed, the above process is the same whether we are talking about axioms of maths or about scientific laws of nature. It’s all distilled empiricism.

    I’m not sure if things like ethics and other normative enterprises can be derived empirically, …

    That one is resolved by the stance that there are no “absolute” or objective ethical or normative statements, all there are are human feelings and opinions on such matters. (Of course there can be objective statements about those opinions/feelings.) Thus ethics is also entirely within the domain of empirical enquiry (provided that you understand your questions properly!).

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  14. Hi labnut,

    However we still have small bands of hunter/gatherers, have seen their lifestyle and nothing in it suggests selection for the advanced cognitive capacities we possess.

    Are you really sure of that? Are you sure that, in such hunter/gatherer tribes, people with an IQ of 130 do not tend, on average, to leave more grandchildren than people with an IQ of 70? (Leaving aside various issues of what IQ means and how it is measured.)

    We are by far not the only species with social organisation but ours is the only one to acquire this capacity.

    There are strong correlations between mammalian brain size and how social the species is. Also, our abilities differ only in degree from those of other animals. (Elephants are the only ones with such hyper-developed and hyper-extended noses, but that is not an argument against them being the product of natural selection.)

    In any case this would not explain other, non-social kinds of cognitive ability.

    Cognitive ability, evolved for social reasons, could then be turned to other tasks.

    And, if history is anything to go by, our social skills are pretty destructive.

    What matters for evolution is only *relative* success within the species, not whether something is overall beneficial/destructive to the species.

    our cognition freed us from the normal constraints of natural selection, which works at a glacial pace. … The right kind of cognitive changes were very quickly rewarded and reinforced because our brain could rewire itself so quickly.

    Do you agree that our large brains and high cognitive abilities are encoded in our genes (and thus that you could not bring a monkey up in a human environment and train it to be just as intelligent as a human)? If so, then your above “cognitive changes” need to be encoded back into the genes and thus fed to the next generation. If you’re not invoking natural selection to do that then what mechanism are you invoking to produce the drive towards genes for higher intelligence?

    Saying it must be that way because we evolved that way just does not seem to be an adequate answer …

    It’s a very powerful argument. Our large brains are hugely costly (huge energy requirements to run them; expensive extended childhoods to train them; lots of women having died in childbirth over the ages, because the baby’s brain is so big; the fact that the baby has to be born premature [relative to other mammals], in order to get the large brain through the pelvis, and the resulting compromises in female anatomy that forces). There is no way that natural selection would have tolerated all of that unless the big brains were giving very big natural-selection advantages to outweigh the big disadvantages.

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  15. In my view, the human mind is to a large extent a creative structure creating itself. Some part of our cognitive and emotionla structures are genetically determined, but the brain is also plastic, i.e. programmable, so a lot of our cognitive structures are culturally programmed rather than genetically inherited. There is no guarantee that such cultural components of our cognition are rational in any way and indeed we can see a lot of irrational stuff arround us, not only due to emotions or insufficient “hard wired” cognitive mechanisms but also due to cultural stupidity. Open, public discussion is therefore the means to proceed and therefore I support this project.

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  16. My worry is that if you expand empiricism to include everything ultimately derived from reality, there is nothing much you exclude, including homeopathy, art appreciation, humour, religion, etc.. Empirical doesn’t mean “has as its origins something derived from reality” but means testing ideas by direct observation. Philosophy and mathematics as commonly practiced do not fit this description.

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  17. 5) But we also think that open and reasoned discourse is fundamental for the pursuit of a eudaimonic life on the part of the individual, as well as for the development of a just and democratic society.

    This, I think is the very heart of Massimo’s manifesto. In article 3 he made the point that we “often engage in rationalization more than rationality“. There is growing acceptance of the idea that our minds have two systems, a quick response system and a thoughtful response system, both necessary. Rationalization is the result of dipping into the quick response system, digging out a template response from a library of templates. In the hurly burly of life we are often compelled to resort to the quick response system(which is why we have it).

    How well this works depends on the size and depth of our store of library templates. Its size is a measure of our life experience and its depth is a measure of our thoughtful engagement with life. This is why article 5 is so important. By developing a habit of thoughtful engagement we are deepening our store of template responses so that, when we call upon our quick response system(as often we must), there is a better chance we will call up the right response template.

    The first part of your essay dealt with the importance of intellectual defence and I think we all agree with that. But it can have negative consequences. It encourages oppositional and combative thinking which in turn taps into our tendency to use our quick response thinking, often inappropriately. We need intellectual defense but it must be built on a foundation, a habit of thoughtful engagement with life, not on a habit of combative and oppositional thinking.

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  18. To illustrate what I mean we can consider the example of the climate change debate. I’m assuming that we all agree here that climate change is real and a threat. And yet there is a large and vociferous segment that vigorously denies climate change. Why is that? There are many blog sites that delight in taking down the claims of climate denialists(my favourite is Tim Lambert’s Deltoid). One look at the comments will show the combative, oppositional thinking at work. What does this achieve, other than polarizing society and poisoning the debate? We have not won the debate and changed policy.

    Yes, we need to see the flaws in their thinking and counter them, that is intellectual defence. And yet, we are missing something. There are deeper forces at work in society and until we uncover them, understand them and counteract them, we are doomed to an endless cycle of combative and oppositional thinking. This is the role of thoughtful engagement that Massimo calls for in article 5.

    These two books give an indication of the deeper forces at work(but more needs to be done):
    Merchants of Doubt by Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes
    Counterknowledge by Damian Thompson
    Massimo has made his own contribution with
    Philosophy of Pseudoscience by Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudri.

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  19. Mordanicus,

    > The most realistic dystopia is, in my opinion, a hybrid of “1984” and “Brave New World”. Hope it’s ok if I argue that knowledge in philosophy, maths and logic is also, ultimately, derived from empirical reality. We need intellectual defense but it must be built on a foundation, a habit of thoughtful engagement with life, not on a habit of combative and oppositional thinking. <

    Agreed. Years of blogging have taught me the perils of responding too quickly to people’s comments. I have also learned that written exchanges tend to be more thoughtful then oral ones, precisely because one has more time to think about what one wants to say and how (caveat: contributions cannot be anonymous, otherwise the quality of the discussion quickly plummets — hence the decision to have commenters identify themselves on this platform).

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  20. Knowledge in the physical sciences presents interesting complexities. Einstein said that he knew the basic truths of relativity as a child, but it took him until 1906 to get the maths needed. He believed his equations to be true because they were so beautiful, and now it looks like expansion theory, partially growing out of his work, will be true. How does it make sense, or pass the test of rationality, but beautiful equations to represent facts about the universe that can’t possibly be known as fact when the equations are created. Am I the only one to find this profoundly weird?

    JG

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  21. Coel,
    Thank you for the clarification and I agree with your that knowledge of things like logic/math were “initially” derived from empirical regularities that we perceived. However, as Disagreeable Me pointed out, there are problems with it when the disciplines advance beyond how they were established towards things that no longer need to make empirical contact, such as advance math that does not in anyway relate to any empirical reality but is coherent with other mathematical formulas.

    On the question of morality I’m more or less unsure because it would also questions all forms of normative statements, including why be rational? Is that also a mere opinion? Perhaps it just needs to be placed in context, such as “being rational in context X is helpful towards…”. In any case, definitely more to think about on my end.

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  22. On climate change: years ago, my first instinct was to be a climate skeptic. Particially maybe because I’m a natural contrarian, but partially because I indentified climate change with a group of people who wer implacably hostile to the typical Western (more particulalry American) middle-class way of life. People for whom the prospect of climate change was *good* news because it was a brickbat with which to beat the car-intensive, energy-intensive Western lifestyle. But after reading a few fact-filled climate related postings I changed my mind and saw that there seemed to be a raft of pretty solid-looking science behind the notion of climate change. But most people don’t get that far. Most people see climate change NOT as a scientific proposition, but as part of a culture war and they see climate change advocates as people who hate they way they live, not as people who are trying to help them. Popular notions of environmentalists as puritanical killjoys has more to do with resistance to the notion of climate change than any actual arguments against it. When they hear a climate change advocate, they hear the same person who would hector them about their big house on a one-acre lot and their 50-minute commute and their jet ski (or their hopes to get all these). They hear James Kuntsler rejoicing in images of trapped suburbanites subsisting on the carcasses of seagulls in the desolate parking lots of abandoned malls. The biggest problem climate change has is not specious counter-arguments, which constantly shift anyway. It’s in the cultural rift between consumeristic middle-class values and the alter-verse–environmentalists, Frankfurt school-influenced folks, new urbanists, etc.–which has embaced climate change as if it were the oaken stake with which to kill the vampire of Mammon. Climate change may not come from the alter-verse, but it looks as if it does. And as long as that’s true, it faces an uphill struggle with a lot of people.

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  23. On brains: how is it different to say “We got smarter for evolutionary reason” that “We got smarter in the eyes of God” It’s the kind of observation that just doesn’t seem to me to get us anywhere. Did smarter people have more grandchildren on average? Fine, grant that . . . and then what? It just doesn’t seem to make any difference to the questions we really have to answer.

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  24. Hi imzasirf,

    I didn’t at all mean to imply there was anything problematic with going beyond the empirical. I just don’t think the word “empirical” describes logic, mathematics and philosophy. But I still think these are potentially valuable areas of study, no matter how abstract they become (particularly mathematics).

    Although I guess I would have a certain skepticism for very abstract philosophy that has devolved into such abstract and jargon-riddled modes of argument as to make little sense to me..

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  25. Years of blogging have taught me the perils of responding too quickly to people’s comments.
    That is a lesson I should learn 🙂
    I am reminded of this NY Times article Teaching Children to Calm Themselves
    When Luke gets angry, he tries to remember to look at his bracelet. It reminds him of what he can do to calm himself: stop, take a deep breath, count to four, give yourself a hug and, if necessary, ask an adult for help.
    In my case the adult is my wife!

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  26. Most people see climate change NOT as a scientific proposition, but as part of a culture war and they see climate change advocates as people who hate they way they live, not as people who are trying to help them.
    That is a useful insight.
    I get the sense that there has been a growing volume of criticism on many fronts that has increasingly alienated a large part of our society, creating what you call the culture war. I have looked for evidence of this and this link to Google Ngram is my first try. It is the frequency of the phrase ‘critical thinking’ compared with the frequency of the phrase ‘creative thinking’. References to ‘critical thinking have very sharply increased since 1980 while references to ‘creative thinking have stayed relatively flat.

    This tends to support my idea that we have become a very much more critical society and this has amplified the divisions, creating polarisation. Quite why this has happened is still not clear in my mind. I could throw out the facile observation ‘those who can do, and those who can’t, criticise‘ but I don’t think that does enough to explain the phenomenon. There is another trend, which I have not graphed, the growing consolidation of wealth in the hands of the kleptocrats, creating a new division of the ‘haves’ and the articulate ‘have-nots’. I am guessing here, but I think the articulate ‘have-nots’ have responded by increasing the volume of criticism and this has had the unintended consequence of creating the culture wars.

    There is, I think, a third trend and that is a decline in traditional virtues. This has, as it were, disabled the governor on our behaviour, allowing us to become more shrill, more strident, more aggressive and less respectful. Combine this with the growing volume of criticism and increasing envy, we have, if not the perfect storm, certainly a major tempest that is roiling society.

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  27. Hi Oran,

    It’s the kind of observation that just doesn’t seem to me to get us anywhere.

    Knowing the process (Darwinian evolution) that produced us helps hugely in understanding ourselves (“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” — Dobzhansky).

    Did smarter people have more grandchildren on average?

    Yes.

    It just doesn’t seem to make any difference to the questions we really have to answer.

    Which questions are you thinking of? Granted, the evolutionary perspective doesn’t help with all questions about ourselves, but it does help with a vast swathe of them.

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  28. Hi Disagreeable Me,
    We’re dealing here with sources of knowledge (not with all areas of human activity), and certainly some claims to knowledge can be mistaken (e.g. homoeopathy). However, I do assert that maths and physics are fundamentally the same. The mathematician takes axioms that are derived from our empirical world, and reasons from them (using empirically derived reason). The theoretical physicist does exactly the same, though the axioms are called “physical laws”. I don’t see any great epistemological divide.

    It’s true that in maths one might have sufficient confidence in the axioms and reasoning that one might by confident enough in the result without direct empirical corroboration, but then that also applies in science some of the time. There are differences in style in the different fields, but no epistemological divide.

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  29. Excellent initiative, Prof. Pigliucci!

    I teach Math and Computer Science at a Swedish upper secondary school (students 16-18 years old). I have been following your blog “Rationally Speaking” for some time, and we have even exchanged comment and e-mails a couple of times. I have also read your books and listened to your talks. Our views seem very much aligned.

    I use quite a lot of your material in a course I teach, as it fits perfectly with my intentions. The year-long course, called “Science+”, which I have been developing over the last few years, is aimed at third-year (18 years old) Science students and has recently earned the attention of the The Swedish National Agency for Education. I am currently expanding it and making material available to other schools in Sweden. I am working in close contact with several academics in diverse areas, such as Statistics, Psychology, Ethics, Anthropology, Physics, Evolutionary Biology, and Computing Science. I also work closely with teachers in various subjects: Swedish, English, Civics, Arts…

    I would very much like to contribute to this salon, and I would greatly appreciate any further contacts and collaborations that might be mutually beneficial. As I’ve mentioned before, most of my own material is in Swedish, so I will need to translate it before it can be of any use to you or readers.

    Let me send you more information about my work via e-mail. Perhaps we could then schedule a video-conference in the near future to discuss this further (I use Google Hangouts).

    Regards,

    /Björn Bengtsson

    http://natvetplus.blogspot.se/
    https://www.facebook.com/natvetplus
    https://twitter.com/search?src=typd&q=natvetplus

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  30. Why Smart People Aren’t Necessarily Stupid

    My reactions to an article in The New Yorker, June 12, 2012: “Research Shows That the Smarter People Are, the More Susceptible They Are to Cognitive Bias” (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/frontal-cortex/2012/06/daniel-kahneman-bias-studies.html)

    The fact that “raw” intelligence may actually exacerbate problems of bias and meta-bias is perhaps not so surprising given the relative complacency and inflated sense of self-importance that may be associated with admission to the ivy league. To illustrate this, it is unusually apt to experiment on university students. Education may not in itself be a “savior”, but this wording is consciously chosen to amplify a defeatist message.

    If we did not believe that (certain kinds of) education can help us see ourselves and the world more clearly, we could just as well close down shop completely. It is ironic that Kahneman’s self-professed shortcomings are taken to imply the inadequacies of both intellect and (appropriate) education, since he would hardly be able to report them without the very faculties purported to be so unattainable.

    “Meta-bias” is closely related to what social psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error, and with in-/out-group phenomena. Again, if I did not believe that these phenomena are well-known – and that such knowledge is routinely and successfully applied – in, e.g. law, medicine, political science, etc., I would have run to the hills a long time ago. It is fairly obvious that this is indeed the case: Otherwise we would probably be bigoted members of petty nationalist parties, the lot of us.

    One may even draw parallels between the article’s sentiment and a reactionary, anti-intellectual political movement, exemplified by the Swedish government’s recent official report on language requirements for immigrants, and the Liberal Party’s integration policies. In the U.S., Republicans do their best to denigrate science (as opposed to technology): Critical thinking is at best considered a cultural manifestation which you are free to practice (without subsidies) as long as you do not interfere with the affairs of government.

    http://bjornbengtsson.blogspot.se/2012/06/why-smart-people-arent-stupid.html

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  31. Björn, I think you are arguing against the title and not the article. The title was deliberately provocative(to catch attention and draw in readers) and should be ignored.
    Yes, smart people, in general, do better in the rat-race of life, which is uncontroversial. The article is a warning that, for all the advantages of smartness, smart people are still vulnerable to biases.

    I think this is an important warning because their smartness gives them a bigger voice in life and thus their biases can cause more damage. Smart people thus have a greater responsibility to examine their own reasoning for biases. My plumber’s cognitive biases have a minor effect but Massimo’s cognitive biases have a large effect. And of course mine have no effect(for obvious reasons, which illustrates an important point.) 🙂

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  32. American democracy in a nutshell

    Fishkin delineates four characteristics of various attempts at democracy: (1) equality, (2) participation, (3) deliberation, and (4) absence of tyranny (meaning an ignorant “majority” enforcing its will). He discusses at length why it’s hard (nigh impossible) to implement all of these at the same time. In practice, usually only two of these get prioritized. It’s partly a matter of compromise, and partly a matter of intentional design.

    The founding fathers were no fools. But they struggled with the compromise, and they did not agree with each other. And things have developed from there. Fishkin describes the American form of democracy as one of “competition”. It stems from the prioritization of (1) equality and (4) non-tyranny, while downplaying (or even ignoring or questioning) the value of the other two features.

    This choice reflects a disillusioned view of the potential of democracy: The (non-deliberated) opinion of the masses cannot be counted as a voice of reason, but at least everyone should be able to have their say. Leave it to the elites to do the actual deliberating and acting, on behalf of the people.

    Of course, Madison and others imagined benign elites (republican institutions); enlightened servants of the people — not of their actual will, but of their best interest. In practice, elites tend to get distanced from the people. (Ironically, this is one of the strongest arguments for democracy in the first place.) Also, participation is hardly mandatory. In fact, some proponents of “competition” actually prefer a low turnout. It doesn’t really matter anyway.

    Now, the marketplace of ideas is open for (deliberate) manipulation of people’s opinions. Given that it couldn’t be any other way (or so it is said) such manipulation should be encouraged, in a true competition for votes.

    So, the U.S. democracy is based on a misanthropic view of people in the first place: it’s no use even trying to accomplish (2) and (3). But it gets worse. Not even (1) and (4) are actually in place. Consider, e.g. the gerrymandering of districts, the registration procedure, the step-by-step electoral process, and the complex and skewed tallying of results. It’s actually a deliberate attempt to confuse people, to discourage them from voting, to disregard their votes, and to explain away the fact that “democracy” in this version never quite seems to work as alleged. So much for equality.

    All of the above means that tyranny is also present: By manipulating who votes and for what, and by keeping turnout low, the “support” for the governing elite is merely a facade. They don’t really have the mandate to do or say what they do, but they dare you to prove it, or to do anything about it.

    http://bjornbengtsson.blogspot.se/2012/02/impromptu-wrap-up-of-chapters-3-and-4.html

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  33. Rationalization is the result of dipping into the quick response system, digging out a template response from a library of templates. In the hurly burly of life we are often compelled to resort to the quick response system(which is why we have it).

    This meshes with something that came up in discussion at a vipassana meditation “dharma talk” I attended recently. I’ve seen some Buddha-bashing in comments at RS before and am typically reluctant to confess to such mushy headed practices – and the truth is that I am often of mixed mind about its benefits. A common thread of discussion in these talks is to contrast two modes of thought; the “monkey mind” of ordinary day to day thinking (bad) and the quiet mind achieved in a meditative state (good). It occurred to me that a third form of thought often arises which can be relatively focused and at the same time vigorous, but is not effectively beneficial. This is the rationalizing mind. It seems to appear unbidden and works hard toward tilting the mindset in a particular direction. It often seems to aid in supporting a particular view that is under attack and blocking any posssibility of creative insight that might provide a new and useful perspective.

    Perhaps the path to true insight is not to attempt to really quiet the mind, but to selectively block the quick response system that doesn’t lend itself to new templates of thought. How can this be achieved beside training the mind to notice rationalization when it occurs?

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  34. This is quite insightful. It seems to me part of natural tendency to arrange items in dualistic categories for the sake of easier judgment. I am a software developer and appreciate the marvels of technology while also having a deep appreciation for the natural world. If I have to commute long distances to my tech job in order to have the resources to drive even longer distances to commune with nature in the distant mountains I am accused of hypocrisy. To some degree I suppose it fits, but it seems counterproductive to the goals of those who share my love of nature – and a climactically stable world – if I am considered an enemy to the movement if I am not pure or one-sided enough. Do I have to sell my car – a Prius – and quit my job to be on the right side of the issue? Soon enough I’d be begging for handouts from people who drive SUVs. Just what good would that do to address climate change?

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  35. labnut, I have to agree with you. Reading the original article again now, almost two years later, I can’t say exactly what motivated my rant – though the rant itself may be motivated on other grounds… (Is it even the original article? Or is it just my cognitive-dissonance resolver hard at work? ;-))

    I guess my point is that there are different kinds of ‘smart’. Intelligence and intellectualism are not, in themselves, antidotes to bias (and may, at worst, even work as catalysts, which is the gist of the article). But the truly ‘smart’ person – or rather, the smart community – puts up safeguards against self-delusion. Case in point: the scientific community. Or why not the judicial system?

    When I teach my students about biases and fallacies, the last thing I want to do is to send them home with the message that awareness cannot make any real difference to their lives or to that of others. Of course it can, and it is important that they believe that (and hopefully act on it, in a truly ‘smart’ way). At the same time, it is equally important that my students do not come away from the course believing that they are now vaccinated from biases.

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  36. I just dove in at Massimo’s linked thou shalt not commit logical fallacies site. Regarding attacks from the “alter-verse environmentalists” I identified several common fallacies including black-or-white, appeal to nature, and my favorite, the no true scotsman fallacy.

    Angus declares that Scotsmen do not put sugar on their porridge, to which Lachlan points out that he is a Scotsman and puts sugar on his porridge. Furious, like a true Scot, Angus yells that no true Scotsman sugars his porridge.

    I can’t wait to accuse somebody of that one, even if it might mean I’m guilty of the fallacy fallacy.

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  37. “Knowing the process that produced us helps hugely in understanding ourselves.” How? For instance, what paths of philosophical inquiry would it encourage? Which would it rule out? What does it contribute to the discussion of the role of intellect or the intellectual in society?

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  38. Joel, I would say that in Europe generally, and in the Nordic countries especially, there is a lot more emphasis on participation – almost to the point of absurdity in some cases, where the *only* thing that seems to matter is a high turnout.

    Also, in Sweden, deliberation has traditionally been high on the agenda. Beginning in the mid-19th century, several unique initiatives have been taken with the goal of enlightening and engaging *every* citizen. Examples include obligatory schools (c:a 1840); an exceptionally strong labour-movement (c:a 1890 and onwards); a systematic transition to uniform education for all, regardless of socio-economic background (c:a 1950-1970); and a unique focus on – and economic support for – adult education, in the form of folk high schools and educational associations (c:a 1850 and onwards).

    Until recently, that is. Lately, since the early 1980’s at least, the “Swedish model” has been disassembled at a rapid rate.

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  39. Björn,
    the last thing I want to do is to send them home with the message that awareness cannot make any real difference to their lives or to that of others.
    It does make a difference, but I want to suggest a different strategy.

    By way of preamble. All of life is and always has been a ruthless Darwinian competition where the spoils went to the stronger and faster. Then smartness entered the picture and smartness was used to multiply strength and speed. It was the same ruthless competition taken to new levels of ruthlessness. Then something remarkable happened. We moved the competition from the physical arena to the symbolic arena. We see this most clearly in the law courts of Republican Rome where the courts became an arena for resolving competing claims. Good argument replaced a strong sword arm. Today we call that the adversarial system. The idea is simple enough. Truth can be very hard to arrive at and the best available means we have is to allow competing claims to fight it out in the symbolic arena, finally to be resolved by an independent arbiter. 2000 years of legal practice have confirmed the truth of this. Democracy is exactly the same idea, competition in a symbolic arena except that the parliamentary vote replaces the independent arbiter. The academy practices a variant of this concept with peer review, both before and after publication, and citations become the arbiter. Newspapers, in the way they represent competing segments of society, are also a form of adversarial system.

    My point is that arriving at the truth in human affairs is very difficult and the best available method is the clash of ideas exemplified by the adversarial system. This applies even in everyday discussions. But, in cases like these where there are no independent arbiters so we must change our strategy somewhat. We become our own internal arbiter.

    I want to suggest that the most important characteristic of the arbiter is a willingness to listen to and earnestly consider the other points of view. The ideas must be examined, broken down into their components and the structure revealed. The background, influences and motives must be understood. The idea must be contrasted with competing ideas. Finally the idea must be restated in its essential form.

    Once this is done something magical happens, one becomes open to the truths in the other argument, the cognitive biases in one’s own mind have been bypassed.

    This quote from Daniel Dennett expresses the idea succinctly:

    Anatol Rapoport once promulgated a list of rules for how to write a successful critical commentary on an opponent’s work.
    First, he said, you must attempt to re-express your opponent’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your opponent says “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
    Then, you should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement), and
    third, you should mention anything you have learned from your opponent. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism

    There is an extremely important psychological element here. By identifying points of agreement and learning points we are building bridges to the other person, establishing an empathetic connection. This empathetic connection is vital to constructive engagement in debate.

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  40. Joel, you ask an important question. The best reply I can give is to stop, pause and carefully listen to the other person. All people have access to some truth and our truths are enriched when we learn to see other people’s truths.
    I am repeating this quote from Daniel Dennett that I gave in another reply.

    Anatol Rapoport once promulgated a list of rules for how to write a successful critical commentary on an opponent’s work.
    First, he said, you must attempt to re-express your opponent’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your opponent says “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
    Then, you should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement), and
    third, you should mention anything you have learned from your opponent. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

    There is an extremely important psychological element here. By identifying points of agreement and learning points we are building bridges to the other person, establishing an empathetic connection. This empathetic connection is vital to constructive engagement in debate.

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  41. Joel,
    I’ve seen some Buddha-bashing in comments at RS before and am typically reluctant to confess to such mushy headed practices
    I have also been scornful of Buddhist practices but the writings of Thomas Merton changed my mind.

    The scientologists(note the lower case s) that dominate this forum would be horrified. It is an irony that people who claim ‘rationalism’ often have the strongest metaphysical prejudices.

    A note on terminology. The term, ‘scientismist’, often used to denote a believer in scientism, is clumsy, lacking euphony. Scientologist has better rhythm and also contains the idea of an unthinking and undue dependence on the machine, making it rather appropriate. Rather like Scientologists, scientologists are especially intolerant of dissenting views.
    Hee hee, after all this fighting talk I am going to quickly retreat and go for a long run. 🙂

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