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RS15 - Q&A with Massimo and Julia

Release date: August 15, 2010

In the first of what we hope will be a regular feature of Rationally speaking, Massimo and Julia answer listeners' questions. These range from what are M & J's sacred cows, to how we should approach morally repugnant claims made by venerated philosophers, to whether we are deluding ourselves believing that our votes count.

Comment on the episode teaser.

Reader Comments (20)

Hmm. A lot of tough questions, most of which do not have satisfactory answers. I like the idea of the Q&A, and I'm sure that it is a good way to come up with new ideas for future podcasts, but many of the questions required much more time than practical for the short time allotted.

Regarding the ability (or lackthereof) to falsify the existence of a God. I think a lot of the disagreement between other skeptics regarding this question has to do with the question being falsified. Massimo usually approaches this question from the perspective a a vague and general notion of a deity who can do whatever (s)he wants. He is correct in that this cannnot be falsified. I think a lot of people who think they disagree with him actually are thinking in terms of a specific god of a specific religion. (besides most beliefs in god are attached to a particular religion) In this situation I think a case can often be made that the god described by a given religion can be falsified if the person takes the teachings/writings of the religion literally. If the specific claims of religion are shown to be wrong, how can a belief in the god from the same set of teachings be correct? A person could argue that the god is deceptive and is testing everyones' faith, but as soon as that claim is made that person is no longer believing in the same god... (s)he just made up a new one.

I find it intersting that Julia respects rationality much more than kindness. I wonder how that relates to her own rationality (which we definitely hear in the podcast) and her own level of kindness (which we would never be able to hear in a podcast). I consider myself extremely rational (similar enough to Julia and Massimo), but I value both rationality and kindness in other people to a similar degree (i think). I particularly value kindness that comes from compassion (versus kindness that is convenient). I certainly think both qualities are lacking in our society, and probably all societies.

"Science does not make as much progress as people think it does." I find this statement a weak attempt at equalizing the progress of science with philosophy. I'm not even sure what this means... who are these people he is talking about? Yeah, science does not progress linearly, but so what? We learn from dead ends and they are often as necessary as the breakthroughs. We can see the progresses in nearly every area of science to varying degrees by simply looking at our understanding 250 years ago and looking at that same understanding now (250 is just an example, that number would vary with the area of science). I think Massimo is correct to say that science and philosophy are not directly comparable in regards to progress, because they are different types of endevours... but attempting to downplay the progress of science in no way helps his argument.

I don't find either side of the voting in democracy question exactly convincing. I think Massimo is more correct, because Julia's perspective completely ignores the fact that we are not individuals in a vacuum. I have sympathy for her rejection of an absolute duty, but I think there is some resonsibilites that we all have as individuals in a society. We can choose to reject those, but I think that is a negative quality.

August 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChrisB

Hey Chris B., thanks for listening! A couple comments on your comments:

(1) When I said I respect rationality in a way I don't respect kindness, I specifically tried to clarify that I don't think the former is more objectively valuable in some sense. Kindness probably does a lot more good, all else equal, than rationality. I'm very glad people are kind and I think I'm a pretty kind person too.
I was just trying to say that respect is this separate evaluative reaction people have that doesn't seem to boil down simply to a judgment of what's objectively useful to the world. If I had to guess, I'd say that the difference in my "respect" reaction towards rationality vs. kindness just stems partly from the fact that the former is rarer, and thus I get more excited and impressed when I find it.

(2) I should have clarified what I meant by voting not being rational, but I got cut off. I just meant that, conditional on other people's behavior, the expected benefit of my vote is quite small. (Here, expected benefit = chance of my vote being the deciding one, multiplied by the benefit of my candidate winning).
You said "Julia's perspective completely ignores the fact that we are not individuals in a vacuum" but I don't think that's fair; nothing in my argument does that. When you consider what the rational action for YOU is, you need to make that decision conditional on the constraints of your situation, i.e., what you can't control -- and you can't control other people's decisions to vote. (Well, only very slightly; it's possible a few people you know might be influenced if they know you're not voting.)
Maybe my position will be clearer if I explain that with this (standard) definition of rationality, it is NOT the case that everyone acting rationally would always lead to a good outcome. Quite the contrary! There are plenty of cases like prisoner's dilemma and tragedy of the commons in which individuals acting rationally leads to a terrible outcome.

August 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJulia Galef

I think the differences arise when you use a specific definition of rationality that is not a univeral one, and assume that everyone is on the same page. There are different definitions of rationality depending on the discipline, and there is the definition that everyone uses in everyday language. In fact in the podcast you use the term rational in at least two different ways. In the everyday use of the word, it is irrational to choose a path that has a worse outcome, and it is not irrational to cooperate (but again I am using this term differently than the way you used it).

Regarding kindness and rationality... I think that perhaps your bar for rationality is a bit higher than that for kindness. I think superficial kindness is fairly common, but truly kind and compassionate people are somewhat less so.

By the way I think that you and Massimo are doing a great job, and I look forward to your podcast every 2 weeks.

August 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChrisB

Great podcast - I'm really enjoying it a lot, thanks!

In the last episodes there were many interesting topics but I wanted to comment about last one, which is "voting". I agree with the arguments made in favor of voting on podcast however they only works if:

a) voters have clear and reasonable understanding of issue/candidate and make rational decisions

b) voting system itself is trustworthy

In reality both points are arguably false. Simply talking to people who vote lead to conclusion that wast majority of them do not have complete picture and/or heavily emotionally involved in the topic. I can make fair number of arguments leading that majority of voters do not have all the facts and not in position to make rational decision. It is wrong to assume that every person who votes researches every issue at length and great details thinking about it at various angels.

In addition, at risk to sound like a conspiracy theory buf, I have little faith to the voting system itself and there are number of reasons to back up my doubts (for example, infamous Florida recount, Iran elections etc). It may be rigged at worst or simply not accurate at best.

to sum up - there are better things to do :)

August 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOstap Bender

Great episode. I like the creative tension.

My follow-up question about voting is how much time should one spend to do the necessary research. I mean, if we all pretend that our votes may decide the election, that's a tremendous responsibility more worthy of our time than most activities. And so, I do the research as if my vote is the deciding vote, and a couple hours into it I start to think who am I kidding, this is a waste of time, it'll have even less impact than commenting on blogs.

P.S. Ostap, do you have the key to the apartment with the money?

August 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Hello and thanks for another great podcast. I think the Q&A format worked well and the Qs and As were interesting.

Massimo, I'd like to pick you up on your response to the question about what evidence would convince us of (a specific) God's existence. You seem to be arguing that evidence cannot possibly bear on Gods or other supernatural phenomena in the way it does other stuff but I don't think your argument holds. This relates closely to the comments discussion for your recent post "Jerry Coyne, then and now" so apologies if you're sick of this discussion by now - maybe others will still find it interesting.

Building on Julia's suggestion, imagine that we observed stars being rearranged to spell out "I am the God of the Bible". I argue this would be highly relevant evidence, but I think you dispute this. The key argument you used in the podcast was of the form: it would always be possible that any evidence was produced as a trick by very technologically advanced aliens. You summarised your view: "I don't think the question of God is a question of empirical evidence".

My two questions are:

(1) Doesn't this alien argument apply to all empirical evidence and all science?

For example, it could turn out that fossils were all planted by aliens as a trick. Indeed it could turn out that every scientific observation we've ever made was a trick played by aliens (or Descartes' daemon). For these sorts of reasons, empirical evidence is never proof, it just makes things more or less likely (although, of course, the strength of evidence can mount as more of it is gathered until it becomes overwhelmingly convincing).

(2) If that's the case, given that this is a general issue about any empirical evidence but you're only playing this card when discussing the one area you think is protected from empirical evidence, ie the supernatural, aren't you doing the sort of thing pseudo-scientists like homeopaths do when they're faced with evidence that doesn't suit them?

You say "it might just be aliens playing tricks" if and only if some hypothetical evidence pertains to supernatural claims; homeopaths say "well science doesn't know everything" (or whatever) if and only if some evidence pertains to the failure of homeopathy. I can't see a fundamental difference.

Three big disclaimers (that are obvious but worth stating) :
* I'm not claiming that you're being disingenuous, just that your reasoning has lead you to a certain structure of argument.
* I'm also not suggesting that you're not a great deal smarter than the typical homeopath.
* I'm well aware that I could be wrong but this seems like an apparent issue to me and I'd be interested to know what you (and others) think.

August 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGoogleGhost

I just want to respond to goiogleghost in case Massimo doesn't see the question. I'm definitely in agreement with Massimo on this question and here is my take on it.

In the senario of a god (supernatural by definition) versus the highly technologically advanced (aliens or people from the future, etc), the insertion of the supernatural is a much more extraordinary claim. By definition these senarios are otherwise identical, with the exception of whether the cause is supernatural or not.

On the other hand, in the example of a mundane observation in science (or all obervations in science) versus the technologically advance tricking us by replicating all of our observations everywhere, well the senario is reversed. In this example the techonological trickery is much more extraordinary.

In both of these cases we must go with the less extraordinary claims even if they could be incorrect, because these are most likely. Notice that conclusions are different depending on the alternative explanation proposed.

August 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChrisB

@Max, re: voting -- yes, I'd say the time and effort it takes to do the research about the candidates and the issues should be counted in as part of the cost to the voter. I didn't get a chance to finish this thought on the episode, but this does seem like one of those tragedy of the commons problems, where we need some sort of social pressure to get everyone to participate since it's not really that rational from the individual's point of view. The social pressure does seem to work pretty well, though. I forget where I read/heard this, but someone once said "I vote because voting is the best way to not feel like an asshole when someone asks whether I voted."

August 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJulia Galef


I don't think everyone would agree with you that God is a much more extraordinary claim than aliens that can move stars faster than light over vast distances. Nevertheless, I agree with the essential point you're making that it's a tad more complicated than I acknowledged in my previous post.

Still, I don't think it fundamentally deals with my point and gets Massimo out of the pickle, because all this shows is that we'd need more evidence to be more confident of the God claim above the alien claim. When you find your first dinosaur fossil, you might reasonably hypothesise meddling aliens, believing that to be a less extraordinary hypothesis than billions of years of evolution and giant lumbering dinosaurs etc. Still, that doesn't mean that life's origins is immune to evidence, just that more evidence is required to make the evolution hypothesis relatively stronger.

Imagine if the evidence was much more in favour of God than it is. Imagine the evidence we've gathered over the past couple of millennia had turned out differently than it has:

* Say it turned out that there was very little human suffering and all human suffering was directly caused by bad moral choices or disobeying the Christian God.
* Say God appeared and spoke to us on regular intervals and we had very solid evidence for this.
* Say the Bible (and no other book) gave us lots of knowledge which no-one could have known at the time but which we later confirmed.
* Say praying for (good) things was effective but only when directed at the Christian God.
* Say that when we found out about other religions, we didn't uncover lots of precedents for Biblical themes (virgin births, resurrections etc) in earlier religions.
* Say science had proven that the universe was pretty small and that earth was at the centre of it.
* Say it turned out that life had been created around 6000 years ago, hadn't really changed since and bore no traces of being created by natural processes.
* Say it turned out that humans were constructed very differently to all other life.
* Say there were many well-evidenced miracles that all related to Christian worship.
* ...and on and on and on...

In that case we would have lots of evidence pointing to a God and no evidence pointing to aliens. The rational thing to do would be to be guided by the evidence and accept the God claim rather than MUCH more extraordinary claims about aliens. To refuse to accept the existence of God when every piece of relevant evidence pointed in that direction would be irrational.

Yet since Massimo is claiming that the question of God is not a question of empirical evidence, he would still have to reject the evidence in front of him and try to explain it all away with aliens for which he has no evidence at all.

August 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGoogleGhost

@GoogleGhost and ChrisB -- In the course of our discussions with Massimo about the supernatural, and the question of whether there could in principle be evidence for God, I've come to realize that Massimo defines "supernatural" to mean that there could never be any evidence of it. So if we can detect or observe something, then -- by definition! -- it can't be supernatural.

I've said before that I think that's an overly restrictive way to define supernatural, but it's essential to understand that definition if you want to understand his point of view on this issue.

Now, the example of the stars rearranging themselves to spell out a message -- I raised that as an example of evidence that I would find convincing that our universe is being controlled by a higher being, e.g., if we were actually just entities in a simulated world. And I had said that such a being would fit SOME people's definition of god, since it would be omnipotent and omniscent relative to our world (though not relative to its own world).

Massimo maintained that such a being would NOT be a god, but again I think he's just using an overly strict definition of god. He has defined "god" in such a way that by definition there could never be any evidence of it; many other people, however, have a different concept in mind when they use the word.

August 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJulia Galef


Thanks for your post and for helping understanding of these various views.

Assuming that you're right that Massimo defines "supernatural" and "god" such that neither could ever, in-principle, be detected then I would argue his definitions are so narrow as to mean completely different things from the way the rest of humanity uses the words. His supernatural beings and gods could never interact with our world (for fear of being, in principle, detectable). But then which human narratives about supernatural beings or gods don't involve interactions with our world? Ghosts described in ghost stories are ruled out, gods described in holy books are ruled out, etc.

If I redefine terms such that they don't capture any of the entities people are referring to when they use the term, then is there any sense in me making public claims with those terms? Eg "All cat's breath fire (but I don't define "cat" and "fire" in the way other people do)".

August 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGoogleGhost


I think that I would say that a supernatural explanation is always more extraordinary than any nonsupernatural explanation. We have never seen the former since the vast majority of what we have seen in the universe is explanable with the latter. Now it seems that you may be creating a supernatural world, by definition, in your example, which is begging the question. If none of the the characteristics of your new world requires a supernatural explanation then I would still state that the introduction of the supernatural is more extraordinary.


It appears that you are accusing Massimo of begging the question, but he may be correct to the extent that he is using the term in a specific way. I would argue that it may be possible to reject a specific religion-based god based upon the claims the religion makes, but you cannot reach a vague omnipotent omniscient god with empirical evidence because he can do anything s/he wants by definition. I think when you break it down most people are in agreement, but may be thinking differently of the terms. I agree with Massimo that in your senario that entity is not a god, but is an intelligent creator. I'm not sure that the creator in your example is omnipotent and omniscient since he is not so in his universe (how can he be in ours unless our universe is outside of his and if it is how is he interacting?). We may not be able to tell the difference from here, and I don't know what the implication of that is.

August 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChrisB

@Julia - I find social pressure is pretty bad and unrelaible way to motivate people. I do not think we can expect rational bevahior from lemmings :D… well may be rationall from group dynamics point of view but that is orthogonal to the voting. If one is confident in his/her thoughts, ideas etc why they should be subject to opinion of other people especially onces they do not even know or care about ? Also do not forget about "3rd Newton's law" which I think will pefectly apply here - they more pressure (social or otherwise) you apply the more people will resist and find ways to turn againts you.

@Max - of course I do, and no you can't have it!

August 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOstap Bender

Chris B,

> I think that I would say that a supernatural explanation is always more extraordinary than any nonsupernatural explanation.

I would guess that Massimo agrees :-). Why do you think this? Part of my problem is that I don't think that these terms have any real meaning - ie I can't see what fundamental difference we're getting at with the term supernatural. The best I can do is something like "the supernatural is that which is far outside our current best understanding of the way the universe works". I can't see any a priori reason why we couldn't have been in a universe with a god that shows himself and whom we understand quite well but in which we remain confused about other phenomena such as quantum physics. In that case, I think it would be pretty meaningless to call god supernatural and quantum physics natural. What would that mean?

> We have never seen the former since the vast majority of what we have seen in the universe is explanable with the latter.

I think it's more the case that we've ended up using the word "natural" for stuff that we've seen a lot of in the universe and "supernatural" for stuff we've made up in stories that doesn't actually fit with our best understanding of the universe. If the universe had been different, I think we would apply the terms differently.

> Now it seems that you may be creating a supernatural world, by definition, in your example, which is begging the question.

I could be wrong by I don't *think* I'm begging the question. The question is whether or not evidence can bear on subjects like the existence of a god. I'm arguing that if the evidence were as I described, that would (and should) make us much more confident in the existence of god.

> If none of the the characteristics of your new world requires a supernatural explanation then I would still state that the introduction of the supernatural is more extraordinary.

OK. Of course you would be entitled to do that but I think you would have lost the "rational high ground" since you would have started choosing what sort of explanation you want rather than being guided by the evidence.

In fact, I don't think you would say that if you lived in that universe because I think the term supernatural would mean something different as I've argued above.

August 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGoogleGhost

A great post (even though my question about evolutionary psychology wasn't aswered..).

Regarding voting: I have two explanations for voting. One, people are voting just to make sure that their vote wasn't the one that decided the elevtion. Second, people want to have a share in the collective feeling of influencing the results, even if it didn't really make a different. If you voted to the person that won, than you get a feeling that you are also a winner. If your candidate lost, that you can say that at least you tried, and you can always feel better criticizing the winner for his or her policies as you didn't have a share of it. I think that we need to focus more on the feelings that evoke post election rather that just concentrating on the vote itself.

Additionally, I think that in the US there are way too many elections and this is actually not a good sign of democracy because as mentioned here, a lot of people don't know what they are voting for or don't vote at all, thus allowing for relatively small groups of interest to influence the results.

August 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commentergil

Regarding the question of possible racial differences in IQ: if one race were to be found to have a higher IQ, on average, than a different race, any such discovery of racial IQ differences would be based on studies about groups of people. Even if Race A is generally smarter than Race B, that says nothing about any given individual within that group. It would still be unfair and unjust to judge any member of a given race because on average that race has a lower IQ.

August 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCamus Dude

When there's social pressure to vote, it's usually not pressure to do research and make an informed decision. Of course, it's easier when the choice is obvious.

Camus Dude,

Statistics of Race A give you the prior probabilities about individuals of that race. If you obtain new information, such as one's test scores, you can use it to compute the posterior probability.

August 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Hello there, Julia this is a response to the sacred cow aspect of the show in which you expressed how you were flummoxed by the proposition of justifying 'respect' for certain traits.

I think that there may be a conflation of sorts in that respect for some traits may be attributable to very different mechanisms of psychology than others. We may, for instance, like something about someone else that is reflective of an aspect of ourselves, thus our 'respect' is a kind of egoism or in-group identification rather than being a justifiable position to take on its merits alone.

However the specific example you raised of respecting rationality, or at least the attempt to be rational, raises a different question. There may indeed be some aspect of egoism and in-group identification going on there, but I think there is also a more curious reason at play that does go some way to (ironically enough) rationally justifying this position.

When we are being rational we are necessarily attempting to remove ourselves from our biases, and to look at something as objectively as possible. And so there is necessarily a kind of selflessness in the pursuit of truth at play here, and that, to my mind, is a justifiable reason to 'respect' such a trait. Similarly one might 'respect' other forms of selfless behaviour, and whilst we may be able to determine to some extent at least that altruistic or empathic behaviour is 'only' a phenotypical manifestation of selection pressures, that is no good reason to not 'respect' such behaviours.

September 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJesse

Hey Jesse, thanks for your analysis.

The problem is that when I examine how I actually use the word "respect", it's not synonymous with "consider to be a beneficial trait". If that were the case, then I would feel respect for a trait in rough proportion to how beneficial I think that trait is. But I don't. I respect some traits more than others even though they're less beneficial.

Another example: I feel more respect for people who strive for consistency in their belief systems than I do for people who are inconsistent but strive for kindness. For example, if someone claims to believe the Bible to be the literal truth and is therefore anti-gay, I "respect" that more than someone else who claims to believe the Bible to be the literal truth but is nevertheless okay with homosexuality. Even though I know the world would be much better off if more people were like the latter and less like the former! In other words, if it's a choice between bigotry and hypocrisy, I feel more respect for the former, even though I think it does far more harm to the world.

Anyway, the above is not an endorsement of bigotry, obviously, just a demonstration of why I was eventually forced to admit that my concept of "respect" turned out to be kind of arbitrary and useless.

September 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJulia Galef
This episode really did give rise to a lot of great RSPC episodes.

Although it makes sense to respect logical consistency, having some inconsistent but correct views may actually have more benefit to yourself and to society than having a philosophy comprised entirely of consistent but wrong views. However, having logically consistent views does indicate a high degree of rationality, and the rational mind itself has a beneficial effect on society as well.

People without sufficient intelligence, rationality, or information to make wise choices should actually abstain from voting. If only highly capable people voted, we would have a much better society.
February 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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