Introduction

Welcome to Tim Harding’s blog of writings and talks about logic, rationality, philosophy and skepticism. There are also some reblogs of some of Tim’s favourite posts by other writers, plus some of his favourite quotations and videos This blog has a Facebook connection at The Logical Place.

There are over 2,300 posts here about all sorts of topics – please have a good look around before leaving.

If you are looking for an article about Skepticism, Science and Scientism published in The Skeptic magazine titled ”A Step Too Far?’, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about the Birth of Experimental Science published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Out of the Dark’, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about the Dark Ages published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘In the Dark’, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about the Traditional Chinese Medicine vs. Endangered Species published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Bad Medicine’, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about the rejection of expertise published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Who needs to Know?’, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about Charles Darwin published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Darwin’s Missing Link“, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about the Astronomical Renaissance published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Rebirth of the Universe‘, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about DNA and GM foods published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘The Good Oil‘, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about animal welfare published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Creature Features‘, it is available here.

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What is logic?

The word ‘logic‘ is not easy to define, because it has slightly different meanings in various applications ranging from philosophy, to mathematics to computer science. In philosophy, logic’s main concern is with the validity or cogency of arguments. The essential difference between informal logic and formal logic is that informal logic uses natural language, whereas formal logic (also known as symbolic logic) is more complex and uses mathematical symbols to overcome the frequent ambiguity or imprecision of natural language. Reason is the application of logic to actual premises, with a view to drawing valid or sound conclusions. Logic is the rules to be followed, independently of particular premises, or in other words using abstract premises designated by letters such as P and Q.

So what is an argument? In everyday life, we use the word ‘argument’ to mean a verbal dispute or disagreement (which is actually a clash between two or more arguments put forward by different people). This is not the way this word is usually used in philosophical logic, where arguments are those statements a person makes in the attempt to convince someone of something, or present reasons for accepting a given conclusion. In this sense, an argument consist of statements or propositions, called its premises, from which a conclusion is claimed to follow (in the case of a deductive argument) or be inferred (in the case of an inductive argument). Deductive conclusions usually begin with a word like ‘therefore’, ‘thus’, ‘so’ or ‘it follows that’.

A good argument is one that has two virtues: good form and all true premises. Arguments can be either deductiveinductive  or abductive. A deductive argument with valid form and true premises is said to be sound. An inductive argument based on strong evidence is said to be cogent. The term ‘good argument’ covers all three of these types of arguments.

Deductive arguments

A valid argument is a deductive argument where the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises, because of the logical structure of the argument. That is, if the premises are true, then the conclusion must also be true. Conversely, an invalid argument is one where the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises. However, the validity or invalidity of arguments must be clearly distinguished from the truth or falsity of its premises. It is possible for the conclusion of a valid argument to be true, even though one or more of its premises are false. For example, consider the following argument:

Premise 1: Napoleon was German
Premise 2: All Germans are Europeans
Conclusion: Therefore, Napoleon was European

The conclusion that Napoleon was European is true, even though Premise 1 is false. This argument is valid because of its logical structure, not because its premises and conclusion are all true (which they are not). Even if the premises and conclusion were all true, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that the argument was valid. If an argument has true premises and its form is valid, then its conclusion must be true.

Deductive logic is essentially about consistency. The rules of logic are not arbitrary, like the rules for a game of chess. They exist to avoid internal contradictions within an argument. For example, if we have an argument with the following premises:

Premise 1: Napoleon was either German or French
Premise 2: Napoleon was not German

The conclusion cannot logically be “Therefore, Napoleon was German” because that would directly contradict Premise 2. So the logical conclusion can only be: “Therefore, Napoleon was French”, not because we know that it happens to be true, but because it is the only possible conclusion if both the premises are true. This is admittedly a simple and self-evident example, but similar reasoning applies to more complex arguments where the rules of logic are not so self-evident. In summary, the rules of logic exist because breaking the rules would entail internal contradictions within the argument.

Inductive arguments

An inductive argument is one where the premises seek to supply strong evidence for (not absolute proof of) the truth of the conclusion. While the conclusion of a sound deductive argument is supposed to be certain, the conclusion of a cogent inductive argument is supposed to be probable, based upon the evidence given. An example of an inductive argument is: 

Premise 1: Almost all people are taller than 26 inches
Premise 2: George is a person
Conclusion: Therefore, George is almost certainly taller than 26 inches

Whilst an inductive argument based on strong evidence can be cogent, there is some dispute amongst philosophers as to the reliability of induction as a scientific method. For example, by the problem of induction, no number of confirming observations can verify a universal generalization, such as ‘All swans are white’, yet it is logically possible to falsify it by observing a single black swan.

Abductive arguments

Abduction may be described as an “inference to the best explanation”, and whilst not as reliable as deduction or induction, it can still be a useful form of reasoning. For example, a typical abductive reasoning process used by doctors in diagnosis might be: “this set of symptoms could be caused by illnesses X, Y or Z. If I ask some more questions or conduct some tests I can rule out X and Y, so it must be Z.

Incidentally, the doctor is the one who is doing the abduction here, not the patient. By accepting the doctor’s diagnosis, the patient is using inductive reasoning that the doctor has a sufficiently high probability of being right that it is rational to accept the diagnosis. This is actually an acceptable form of the Argument from Authority (only the deductive form is fallacious).

References:

Hodges, W. (1977) Logic – an introduction to elementary logic (2nd ed. 2001) Penguin, London.
Lemmon, E.J. (1987) Beginning Logic. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis.

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Reasoning

Rationality may be defined as as the quality of being consistent with or using reason, which is further defined as the mental ability to draw inferences or conclusions from premises (the ‘if – then’ connection). The application of reason is known as reasoning; the main categories of which are deductive and inductive reasoning. A deductive argument with valid form and true premises is said to be sound. An inductive argument based on strong evidence is said to be cogent. It is rational to accept the conclusions of arguments that are sound or cogent, unless and until they are effectively refuted.

A fallacy is an error of reasoning resulting in a misconception or false conclusion. A fallacious argument can be deductively invalid or one that has insufficient inductive strength. A deductively invalid argument is one where the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises. That is , the conclusion can be false even if the premises are true. An example of an inductively invalid argument is a conclusion that smoking does not cause cancer based on the anecdotal evidence of only one healthy smoker.

By accident or design, fallacies may exploit emotional triggers in the listener (e.g. appeal to emotion), or take advantage of social relationships between people (e.g. argument from authority). By definition, a belief arising from a logical fallacy is contrary to reason and is therefore irrational, even though a small number of such beliefs might possibly be true by coincidence.

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A Dark Age Chronology

Books & Boots

Inspired by Robert Ferguson’s brilliant book, The Hammer and The Cross, I collated key dates from the so-called Dark Ages (let’s say from the departure of the Romans from Britain in 410 to the Norman Conquest of 1066). Why? Why not?

An at-a-glance summary of the period would be:

  • 400 Romans leave England – Angles and Saxons invade Christian Britain
  • 500 Anglo-Saxon kingdoms exist all across Britain, the Heptarchy
  • 600 St Augustine comes as missionary to the pagan Anglo-Saxons
  • 800 Vikings attack Lindisfarne, going on to colonise east and north England: a century of battles
  • 900 Alfred the Great and successors unify the Anglo-Saxons against the Danes, creating ‘England’
  • 1000 Aethelred the Unready fails to deal with repeated Viking attacks

5th century

410 Traditional date for the Romans quitting Britain. In fact it was a gradual process: 407 the army elects Constantine III emperor and he takes a…

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Histories by Tacitus

Books & Boots

Biography

Publius Cornelius Tacitus, generally referred to simply as Tacitus, was a Roman statesman and historian. He lived from 56 to 120 AD. Like many Roman writers he had an eminent career in politics and public service. He started his career under the emperor Vespasian (ruled 69 to 79) and entered political life as a quaestor in 81 or 82 under Titus (ruled 79 to 81). He became praetor under Domitian (ruled 81 to 96) in 88 and then a quindecimvir, a member of the priestly college in charge of the Sibylline Books and the Secular Games.

Tacitus gained acclaim as a lawyer and as an orator, then served in the provinces from about 89 to about 93, either in command of a legion or in a civilian post. He became suffect consul (someone appointed to replace an elected consul who had vacated their office before the completion of their year-long…

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Soviet Secret Cities: Entire Cities Hidden from The World

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The Life of Nero by Suetonius

Books & Boots

Executive summary

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus in 37 AD. He was the fifth Roman emperor and the final emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, reigning from 54 AD until his suicide in 68, aged just 33.

He was the son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina the Younger, one of the daughters of Germanicus and sister to the emperor Gaius (Caligula). After Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD, Germanicus’ brother Claudius – who was Agrippina’s uncle – took the throne. Claudius took his niece as his fourth wife in 49 AD.

A year later Claudius was persuaded by Agrippina to adopt her son, Lucius Domitius, and make him his heir. Nero was 13 when he was adopted. When Claudius died (in October 54) it was widely believed that Agrippina poisoned him to ensure her son succeeded to the throne before Claudius’s biological son by his…

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The Life of Tiberius by Suetonius

Books & Boots

‘Poor Rome, doomed to be masticated by those slow-moving jaws.’
(Augustus’s dying comment on his adoptive son and successor, Tiberius, quoted in Suetonius’s Life of Tiberius, section 21)

Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus was the second Roman emperor. He succeeded his stepfather and adopted father, the first Roman emperor, Augustus, in 14 AD. Born in 42 BC, Tiberius reigned from 14 (i.e. aged 56) until 37 AD, 23 years in total, dying at the age of 78.

Roman texts were divided into short sections, sometimes called ‘chapters’ though most are less than a page long. Suetonius’s biography of the emperor Tiberius is 76 chapters long. Like all the emperors, you can divide his biography into two parts, before he was emperor, and his reign as emperor.

The central fact about Tiberius is that he was a grumpy, unsociable and reluctant emperor who began his reign with exaggerated respect for the…

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Reflecting on Ken Frazier, skeptic

Massimo Pigliucci

by Massimo Pigliucci

Ken Frazier has passed away a few days ago. His death affected me more than I would have anticipated. We were not close friends, largely because we have lived our lives thousands of kilometers apart and had only a few opportunities to spend time together at conferences. But I have knownofKen for most of my life, and met him personally the first time in 1999. It has been an occasional, but long relationship.

Ken was the longtime editor ofSkeptical Inquirer, the premier magazine devoted to fighting pseudoscience and defending reason and science. Indeed, Ken has been the editor since the magazine changed its name from the rather unwieldy “Zetetic,” back in 1978. He has written essays ineveryissue for 35 years.

He has also published a number of books, most recentlyScience Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience. He won the…

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Insinuation by questions

‘Insinuation by questions’ is a devious rhetorical tactic increasingly being used in political campaigns. It also a way of dog whistling to conspiracy theorists.

The aim of this tactic is to try to discredit popular political figures by undermining their trustworthiness. The method is to keep asking questions that have already been answered by the political figure under attack. These answers have often been corroborated by independent evidence. The theory is that if such questions keep being asked, voters will come to think that they must have some substance. This in turn will raise doubts and suspicions in the minds of some voters.

A notorious example of this tactic was the ‘birther movement‘ in the USA, before and during President Obama’s term of office. Questions were continually raised as to whether Obama was actually born in Hawaii rather than Kenya as alleged. These questions persisted despite Obama’s pre-election release of his official Hawaiian birth certificate in 2008, confirmation by the Hawaii Department of Health based on the original documents, the April 2011 release of a certified copy of Obama’s original long-form birth certificate, and contemporaneous birth announcements published in Hawaii newspapers. As usual, conspiracy theorists dismissed this convincing evidence as being part of the alleged conspiracy.

Closer to home, questions have recently been asked during the Victorian state election campaign about two incidents involving the Premier, Daniel Andrews. These were a car accident about 10 years ago, and his fall on some wet steps at his holiday accommodation in Sorrento. Both incidents were independently investigated, and Andrews’ account was corroborated. Yet questions continue to be asked via tabloid media such as the Herald-Sun newspaper. One of the world’s leading experts on the amplification of conspiracies, University of Oregon Assistant Prof Whitney Phillips, says mainstream coverage like the Herald Sun’s presents a ‘huge turning point’ in helping to legitimise conspiracy theories.

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The Evolution of Darwin

Martin Bridgstock re-views an old biography, and discovers much about the evolution of Charles Darwin.

(An edited version of this book review was published in The Skeptic magazine, September 2022, Vol 42 No 3)

This year is the 140th anniversary of Darwin’s death, so it is appropriate to revisit a book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, simply titled Darwin, that is itself now over thirty years old. I am embarrassed that I had not read this brilliant biography until now. Perhaps it was partly the book’s enormous 677 pages which deterred me. Still, I recently found a copy and worked through it. My view of Darwin was transformed. His scientific work was awesome, gradually transforming our understanding of life on this planet.

In addition, the authors place Darwin in his time, a likeable, mildly progressive country gentleman. The science is enormously important, but so is the social background. I am grateful to the authors for giving us this detailed and rounded picture of a great scientist and a great man.

In his lifetime, he witnessed the titanic political battle between the Whigs and the Tories and played a part in it. The Tories, early in the nineteenth century, represented the interests of powerful landowners in Great Britain. The Church of England provided religious backup, teaching divine creation and stressing the God-given nature of Britain’s class structure. The Whigs, by contrast, believed in progress and had a clear set of objectives, including “extended suffrage, open competition, religious emancipation (allowing Dissenters, Jews and Catholics to hold office), and the abolition of slavery”. Darwin came from a line of Whig gentry. His father was a doctor and had amassed wealth from his work. In addition, the Darwins were related to the Wedgwoods, who had made a fortune from pottery.

Universities

Charles Darwin went to Edinburgh to study medicine, but he hated the sight of blood, and found the teaching appalling. Still, there were signs of his future vocation. He loved “beetling” – collecting and identifying insects. Darwin also joined a student science club, and here he made his first scientific presentations. He also met political radicals who wanted to overthrow the biblical story of creation. Why? Because the Church of England preached biblical creation and the political status quo, so a blow against one was a blow against the other. By the time Darwin dropped out of Edinburgh University, he was on his way to becoming a scientist.

What next? Charles went to Cambridge University with a view to becoming an Anglican clergyman. This was logical, as many clergymen were distinguished naturalists, including some of Darwin’s friends. Darwin worked to pass his exams, eventually passing tenth out of 178 candidates. Some theology did impress him. He adopted Paley’s argument for design. If you saw a watch in a field, you would naturally infer the existence of a watchmaker. And, of course, a living being is much more complex than a watch. Mostly, though, Darwin continued his beetling and also began “botanising” – finding and classifying plants.

A possible solution

It is clear from his record that Darwin was very bright and fascinated by biological science. However, biology was mostly a hobby, practised by rich people and country clergymen. And the dominance of the Church inhibited scientific development.

Then came a possibility. A place had fallen vacant for a geologist on a ship that was sailing round the world. However, his father was not convinced enough to finance the trip. Charles appealed to his uncle Josiah Wedgewood, who thought it was a fine idea. Darwin’s father changed his mind, and Charles Darwin embarked on the Beagle for five years of voyaging round the world. He was never the same.

The Beagle was small and accommodation was cramped. In addition, the captain, Robert Fitzroy was a Tory with an explosive temper. Still, Darwin grasped the opportunities given him. One concerned Charles Lyell’s controversial theories of geology. Lyell’s key argument was termed uniformitarianism: the geological structures of features of the world could be explained by the processes we can see now – erosion, deposition of silt, volcanic upthrust and the like. Of course, this necessarily implied that the Earth was enormously old.

On one of his first landfalls in South America, Darwin saw a band of fossil seashells and corals 30 feet above sea level. Later, on a long expedition inland, he stood upon mountains thousands of feet high- and saw similar fossils beneath his feet. In the Chilean city of Concepción he saw a catastrophe. A terrible earthquake struck the city. Then a twenty-foot tidal wave rolled in. Darwin’s key observation, though, was that a bed of live mussels had been elevated several feet above sea level. So Lyell was right. Both coasts of South America were being elevated by vast forces, which were slow-acting. So the Earth must be unimaginably ancient, and a huge hole was blown in his creationist beliefs.

While on the Galapagos Islands he had collected a number of bird specimens. He noted that the four Mockingbirds were from different islands, and some of them were different from each other, He thought there were also finches, wrens and relatives of the blackbird. Eventually, he turned these over to a bird expert, John Gould. Gould reported that Darwin was wrong: they were all finches. Darwin had not annotated his finds properly, but it looked as if the finches on different islands had developed differently. Species were not unchangeable.

Darwin also saw humans behaving in ways that suggested that intra-species warfare – and indeed extinctions – were common. In southern Argentina, Darwin met General Rosas, who was conducting a war of extermination against indigenous rebels. Then, in Tasmania, he saw the culmination of this process. The main island of Tasmania apparently had no aborigines. The shattered remnants of the indigenous peoples had been shipped off to smaller islands. Extinctions could happen within one species, Darwin summised.

Back to Britain

Returning to Britain, Darwin discovered that he was a minor scientific hero. His findings and reports were well-known among naturalists. His friend, clergyman Rupert Henslow, had summarised some of his notes and published them as a twelve-page pamphlet. Darwin farmed out his geological and naturalistic specimens, looking for people who had expertise in the different areas. He made the rounds of his friends and acquaintances, not revealing the massive changes that were going on in his mind.

Gradually, the parts of Darwin’s personal life fell into place. He proposed marriage to his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, and she accepted. They got on well, and in addition Emma had a substantial dowry from her family to add Charles’s father’s contributions. The couple lived in London for a few years, then bought a large house in the village of Down (later Downe) in the south-eastern county of Kent. The Darwins slotted easily into the role of country gentry and had a sizeable staff of servants and gardeners. There were still problems. Emma Darwin was a devout Christian, and was deeply distressed about Charles’s spiritual state.

Darwin developed nasty digestive problems, which plagued him for the rest of his life. There has been much debate over whether he picked up an unpleasant bug on his world travels, or whether it was all psychosomatic. My guess is that the bug was genuine, but at times of stress the symptoms became worse. After endless consultations, Darwin limited his working hours to about three per day. He also minimised his exposure to stressful situations. Slowly, steadily, over the decades, he built a massive body of work.

Building the Theory

A popular myth is that Darwin read the work of Thomas Malthus, and this gave him the idea for evolution. Not really. Malthus’s ideas had been public property for years, Darwin finally read the sixth edition of the “pitiless parson’s” thesis, and it gave him the key to understanding how life changed. Malthus’s argument was that the human population would eventually outrun the food supply, leading to mass starvation. Helping with food supplies was useless: the population would simply expand again. So, for Malthus, humanity was doomed to misery. Salvation lay only in heaven.

Darwin saw the analogy with the natural world. Living things always reproduced beyond the food supply, so there was a relentless battle to survive and propagate. He’d seen this in London, paupers battling for scraps in piles of rubbish. Only the fittest could win in this struggle, eliminating those with inferior abilities. Darwin’s new view was shocking for several reasons. First, he portrayed nature as a grim world in which all living things struggled to survive. Second, there was the shocking idea that blind forces of nature could produce creatures who were aware and intelligent. There seemed no need for a creator. Third, there was the indignity – for respectable Victorians – that humans are descended from ape-like creatures.

Darwin, a respectable country gentleman, was aware of how horrific his theory would appear. So he concealed his ideas, researching, writing and developing the argument. He confided in a few selected people. Joseph Hooker, the botanist, read and critiqued two drafts of what became On the Origin of Species. Darwin kept drafting and developing, until in 1858 his hand was forced – someone else had the same idea.

Publishing the Origin

Alfred Russel Wallace was younger than Darwin, born into modest circumstances in London. He travelled to what is now Indonesia, and worked at collecting bugs, sending them back to Britain. Wallace also began corresponding with Darwin and finally sent him a stunning paper. Darwin admitted that it was an excellent summary of his proposed big book, and that some of Wallace’s words and phrases appeared in the book as chapter headings. What was Darwin to do? A solution was reached. At the next meeting of the Linnaean Society, in London, Joseph Hooker and Charles Lyell explained the situation to members. Then Lyell read extracts from Darwin’s draft and Hooker read Wallace’s paper. There were no questions, but it was on the record that evolution was first discovered by Darwin and Wallace. Incidentally, when he heard what had happened, Wallace was delighted.

Darwin decided to focus on a shortened version of his big book, and it was published the following year. To his astonishment, On the Origin of Species sold extremely well. Reviews and comments were polarised, but among the rising class of professional scientists it was accepted and praised. The fact that the book’s author was an affable and respectable country gentleman certainly helped. Supporters like Huxley, Hooker, and Wallace confronted the deniers, and usually defeated them. Inevitably offers came to translate the book into other languages. Darwin was cautious, trying to make sure that foreign translations did not espouse revolutionary politics.

Later Life

Emma gave birth to ten children, seven of whom survived into adulthood. When chloroform became available to ease the pains of childbirth, the Darwins used it. On one occasion the doctor was late for the birth and Darwin himself administered the anaesthetic. Charles was grief-stricken at the deaths of his children, especially his favourite daughter Annie. It severed his last shreds of religious faith.

At Down House, Darwin’s life was mostly tranquil. His routine of working was, he said “like a clock”. He investigated pigeons, barnacles and earthworms. In each case he was thorough, extending the boundaries of knowledge and also showing how the development of these creatures could be explained by natural processes. He published 21 books and monographs, some of them running to several volumes.

On matters of religion, Darwin was clear. When two miliant German atheists sought his support, he replied that he remained an agnostic: he didn’t know.

He eventually died of angina at the age of 73, expecting to be buried in Downe churchyard. Instead, with the family’s agreement, he was interred in Westminster Abby in the company of other great scientists like Lyell and Newton.

About the author

Dr Martin Bridgstock is a retired senior lecturer in the School of. Biomolecular and Physical Sciences at Griffith University. Amongst other publications, he is the author of Beyond Belief.

(Reblogged with the permission of both the author and the Editor of The Skeptic).

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A Different Take on E.O. Wilson

Reblogging does not necessarily entail endorsement.

Massimo Pigliucci

by Massimo Pigliucci

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

“What on earth makes you say so?”

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

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

Let me first acknowledge where I agree with Dawkins, Carroll, and Pinker. Wilson, whom I’ve met a few times during my career as an evolutionary biologist first…

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Plato’s mistake

Massimo Pigliucci

by Massimo Pigliucci

What is your take on metaphysics? Mine isnot particularly positive. At least, I am deeply suspicious, and largely reject, the whole approach to the field known as “analytic” metaphysics, which has been dominant since the beginning of the 20th century. (I am increasingly skeptical of the value of all analytic philosophy, but that’s a story for another time. And no, I’m no friend of the continental tradition either!)

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

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