Friday, March 19, 2010

Pigliucci is nice 'n fluffy

I am quickly realizing that CUNY professor Massimo Pigliucci is a previously unknown (to me) vein of high quality boorish nonsense. In a post on his blog Rationally Speaking he discusses what he calls “fluffy thinking.” If his examples are a guide, then what Pigliucci means by “fluffy thinking” is actually this: if you are a scientist and you say something, anything, that might be used by those who see science and faith as compatible, then you are engaging in fluffy thinking or speaking. Before I discuss a couple of his examples, let me take a rabbit trail.

In a way Pigliucci’s “fluffy thinking” is remindful of one of the apsects of New Atheism that I find the least appealing, or the most frustrating, but one in which I lack the writing skill to do justice. But it is something like this: I believe that the New Atheists are no more devoted to rationalism than I am—even if you allow that my religion is irrational. That is, people are often irrational, and I suspect that the best you can predict is that if Richard Dawkins is irrational N times per day, then for me it is N+1—a negligible difference as N tends to a big number.

Most of my irrational activities are unrelated to religion. I have irrational private outbursts in my car. My private thoughts are filled with irrational schemes and scripted dialogs in which I always come out on top. I sometimes get angry with someone, my spouse for example, even when I know I am wrong. I could go on and on. My assumption, which might be wrong, is that in this regard I am far from unique. (And I would argue that some of my irrational tendencies, and I’m not talking about gross immorality but just responses to everyday scenarios, are at least plausibly suppressed by my religion, dropping me down to, say, N-ε, where ε << N, but again that is meaningless)

Now when the time comes, when I have to teach or do science, or am in a technical argument, I can crank up the rationality dial. Irrational thoughts and actions go into remission. I don’t flip-off a student if he does something incredibly annoying. And in research, when I get in the zone, I am almost Spock-like. Almost.

The New Atheists advocate, if you take their comments seriously, a world in which we are in the “rational zone” more or less 24-7. And some of them make claims that taken at face value suggest that they are already living in this manner or close to it.

Bullpucky. When a New Atheist argues that he tries to live a life ruled by rationality what he is really saying is nothing more than this: I am an atheist. He is patting himself on the back for that one (out of N) highly visible instance for which, for the sake of argument, we grant him a plus one in the rationality column.

Christians will be familiar with an analogy—the pious man regarding another man caught sinning overtly and bragging, at least to himself, that at least he is not as bad as that guy; in fact by comparison he’s pretty darn good.

The New Atheist utopia is a fantasy. If religion were to disappear from the United States, our daily production of irrationality would hardly burp.

Before ending this rabbit trail, let me repeat myself a bit and then hold the thought, especially regarding Pigliucci.
  • When a New Atheist says: “I am ruled by rational thinking,” what he really means is: “I am an atheist.”
  • When Pigliucci says: “this is fluffy thinking,” what he really means is: “this scientist is not on the incompatibility bandwagon.”
Back to Pigliucci and his examples of fluffy thinking.

He slams Freeman Dyson for this quote:
Science is full of mysteries. Every time we discover something, we find two more questions to ask, and so that there's no end of mysteries in science. That's what it's all about. And the same's true of religion.
Pigliucci’s critique:
what are we supposed to do with that? Besides the trivial observation that the one-for-two ratio is entirely made up (sometimes science does settle questions, and that’s the end of the line), in what sense could this possibly be like religion?
Look at the Dyson quote. If you cut it off before the last sentence then it is something that virtually any scientist might say—something Carl Sagan might have said. The sentiment “every time science solves a puzzle, two new puzzles are revealed” is ubiquitous. It doesn’t matter that it is not literally true, it suggests, quite nicely, that science is a never-ending source of new wonders and amazement. No, it’s that last sentence that converts it in Pigliucci’s mind to fluffy thinking. The first part is a red-herring, it allows Pigliucci to pretend that he is criticizing Dyson for generic fluffy thinking. But that’s a lie. He is criticizing Dyson for one thing only: he is a scientist who lacks a proper hostility toward religion.

Pigliucci does not want to argue the point on its merits so he simply gives the opposition a name: fluffy thinkers. Joy. We now have a slightly larger set: {appeaser, accomodationist,  faitheiest, fluffy thinker}.

Next up for fluffification is Paul Davies. Here Pigliucci repeats an absolutely ridiculous criticism from a previous post (which I discussed here):
Or when Paul Davies, another guy who ain’t exactly an intellectual lightweight, states “Augustine was onto this already in the fifth century because he was addressing the question that all small children like to ask, which is, What was God doing before he created the universe?,” can we ask Prof. Davies on what, exactly, was Augustine “on”? Certainly not on Einstein’s conception of time (which is the context of this quote), and more likely on nothing at all, since god is a human made construct, and therefore it is rather silly to ask what he was doing “before.”
Pigliucci doesn’t seem to mind quote-mining or question-begging, the latter of which he employs here and throughout his post. Nor does he seem to think that “duh” statements (“Certainly not on Einstein’s conception of time”) are fluffy.

At the time of my writing, one commenter on his blog, someone named Artie, had already pointed out the stupidity of this particular criticism of Davies:
Massimo, your use of Davies as an example of a fuzzy thinker is the irony of ironies.
Viewing Davies' alleged statement in the larger context of his other writings, it should be clear that he's not comparing Augustine to Einstein, and even clearer that he "knows," as even such as Augustine and little children do, that there should, if not would or could, have been a big banger around before the big bang. Even if there most probably wasn't.
Pigliucci’s response to Artie is worth reading
I'm sorry but I'm getting a little tired of people pulling the "that's not what he meant, you need to look at the broader context" excuse. No, I don't have to dig up everything Davies wrote to evaluate his statements. The quote is straight from the transcript of a radio show, which I read in its entirety, and it's hard to see what else he might have meant. If he didn't mean it, than he needs to work on his English or communication skills.
This is the classic quote-miner’s defense: But that’s what he said!

In his post, Pigliucci writes
The problem with fluffy thinking is that it sounds much more sophisticated, and it is next to impossible to criticize frontally both because it barely has anything to do with empirical evidence, and because it is hard to articulate what, exactly, these people are saying.
Pot. Kettle. Black.

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