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On Coyne, Harris, and PZ (with thanks to Dennett)

Massimo Pigliucci
By Massimo Pigliucci
Rationally Speaking

Posted: Feb 5, 2014

Oh dear, I pissed off the big shots among the New Atheists — again. If you are on Twitter or happen to have checked a couple of prominent NA blogs recently, you will have noticed a chorus comprised of none other than Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, PZ Myers and, by way of only a passing snarky comment, Richard Dawkins — all focused on yours truly. I’m flattered, but what could I have possibly done to generate such a concerted reaction all of a sudden? Two things: I have published this cartoon concerning Sam Harris, just to poke a bit of (I thought harmless, good humored, even!) fun at the guy, and — more substantively — this technical, peer reviewed, paper in a philosophy journal devoted to a conceptual analysis and criticism of the NA movement, from the point of view of a scientist, philosopher, and, incidentally, atheist.

(The same issue of that journal carries a number of other commentaries, from theists and atheists alike.)

I watched the Twitter/blog mini-storm with some amusement (decades in the academy have forced me to develop a rather thick skin). The event was characterized by the usual back and forth between people who agreed with me (thank you) and those who don’t (thank you, unless your comments were of the assholic type). I thought there was no point in responding, since there was very little substance to the posts themselves. But then I realized that the mini-storm was making precisely my point: the whole episode seemed to be a huge instance of much ado about nothing, but nasty. So I decided a counter-commentary might be helpful after all. Here it is, organized by the three major authors who have lashed out at me in such an amusing way. I’ll start with a point-by-point response to Coyne’s longest blog post, followed by a more cursory commentary on PZ (who actually makes most sense out of the whole bunch, and indeed was himself mentioned only in passing in my paper), and ending of course with Harris, in whose case I will simply let Dan Dennett (another NA, did you know?) do the job for me. (If, however, you are tired of the somewhat childish back and forth, however, by all means skip to part IV below.)

Part I: Coyne

Jerry begins thus: “when I have read Massimo’s site, Rationally Speaking, I’ve been put off by his arrogance, attack-dogishness (if you want a strident atheist, look no further than Massimo), and his repeated criticisms of New Atheists because We Don’t Know Enough Philosophy.”

While I plead guilty to the latter charge, to be accused of arrogance, attack-dogishness and stridency by Jerry Coyne, of all people, is ironic indeed. Please, go ahead and read my critical paper, compare it with what Jerry wrote, and then measure the two against your own scale of arrogance, attack-dogishness and stridency. Let me know the results.

“He has just published a strong attack on New Atheists (mentioning me, albeit briefly)” — It wasn’t an “attack,” Jerry, it was a criticism, though apparently you and other (though not all) NA's can’t see the difference anymore. And were you disappointed that I mentioned you only briefly? I apologize, I’m trying to make amends now.

“It’s a nasty piece of work: mean-spirited and misguided. It’s also, I suspect, motivated by Pigliucci’s jealousy of how the New Atheists get more attention and sell more books than he does” — First, see my comment above along the lines of the pot calling the kettle black. Second, accusing someone of jealousy is surely a despicable type of ad hominem, and it is easily refuted on empirical grounds. If the motivation for my criticisms truly was jealousy of people who sell more books than I do, why on earth would I praise Dennett, or Sean Carroll, or plenty of other best selling authors I write about on my blog or interview on my podcast? Could it be that my focus on Harris & co. is the result of actual, substantive, disagreements with their positions, and not stemming from personal rancor?

“I have to say that the paper just drips and seethes with jealousy and the feeling that Pigliucci considers himself neglected because philosophy is marginalized by New Atheists.” — Another example of just how dripping and seething Coyne himself can be, though I’m pretty sure he isn’t jealous of me, at least.

Jerry notes that I mention Hitchens, another prominent NA, only in passing, adding “why did he mention Trotsky and Iraq rather than, say, Mother Teresa or the Elgin Marbles? And of course the phrase ‘notoriously excelled’ is simply a gratuitous slur.” I mentioned Trotsky and Iraq because I wanted to make the point that someone who swings that far in opposite directions on political grounds is more of a (incoherent) polemicist than anything else, and Mother Theresa simply had nothing to do with it. As for my phrase being a gratuitous slur, I can certainly see how it could be interpreted that way. Or it could be taken as an accurate description of Hitchens’ writing career.

Commenting on a specific paragraph from my paper Jerry then adds: “it’s simply wrong to claim that a) believers don’t see God as a real entity who interacts with the world in certain ways (making that a hypothesis), and b). that one can’t test the supernatural, an old and false argument often used by Eugenie Scott. In fact, believers are constantly adducing ‘evidence’ for God, be it Alvin Plantinga’s claim that our senses couldn’t detect truth without their having been given us by god.”

But I had made neither claim, as ought to be crystal clear to anyone reading the paragraph that Jerry quoted before proceeding to completely misunderstand it. I had simply said that Dawkins et al. are wrong to consider “the God hypothesis” as anything like a scientific hypothesis (as opposed to a semi-incoherent ensemble of contradictory statements easily failing the test of reason and evidence). That is, my complaint was, and has always been, that NAs simply give too much credit to their opponents when they raise religious talk to the level of science. Coyne simply, willfully it seems to me, misread what I wrote and very plainly intended.

Along the same lines, Jerry later on adds: “they have reasons for being Christians, Jews, etc., even if those reasons are simply ‘I was brought up that way.’” Indeed. And how does that amount to a scientific hypothesis, as opposed to self-evident cultural bias?

More: “If you think the Moral Law is evidence for God, you can examine whether our primate relatives also show evidence for morality, and whether and how much of human morality really is innate. That’s science!” No, it ain’t. Does Jerry truly not see that the believer can simply say that the observation of prosocial behavior in other primates is no contradiction of the statement that God gave us the Moral Law? And does he truly not see the difference between morality (a complex set of behaviors and concepts that require language and cultural evolution) and mere prosociality (which we share with a number of other species, including several non-primates)? Incidentally, the fact that the latter was likely the evolutionary antecedent of the former (which I think is very reasonable to believe) in no way undermines the idea that there is an important distinction between the two.

“Science deals with the supernatural all the time. What else are scientific investigations of ESP and other paranormal phenomena, or studies of ‘spiritual healing’ and intercessory prayer?” Yes and no. First of all, there is nothing inherently supernatural in claims of telepathy and the like. The occurrences, if real, could simply be the result of unknown natural phenomena. Second, yes, we have tested the effects of intercessory prayer, and of course have come up empty-handed. But what always struck me as bizarre about such experiments is how ill-conceived they are. They couldn’t possibly be testing for supernatural effects mediated by a God who would presumably know that we mere mortals are about to test His power. Why would He lend himself to such games? And if we had, in fact, discovered an effect, I bet atheists (myself and Jerry included) would have immediately offered alternative, naturalistic explanations, along the lines of Arthur Clarke’s famous Third Law.

Next: “‘most of the New Atheists haven’t read a philosophy paper’? I seriously doubt that. I won’t defend myself on this count, for I’ve read many, and so, I suspect, have Dawkins, Harris, Stenger, and others seen as important New Atheists.” Well, I take Jerry at his word, though his philosophy readings surely don’t seep through his blog in any clear way. I know Harris has read some philosophy as an undergraduate, but has clearly not understood it (this isn’t a gratuitous statement, just a conclusion derived from having spent far too much time reading what Harris has wrritten. As you’ll see below, Dan Dennett agrees with me, and then some!). As for Dawkins, I’ve met him several times, the last time at the naturalism workshop organized by Sean Carroll and he has plainly told me that he doesn’t read philosophy.

“The charge of anti-intellectualism is snobbish, and what Pigliucci means by it is that New Atheists harbor a ‘lack of respect’ for his field: philosophy.” — This constantly amazes me, especially coming from Jerry, who really ought to know better. I would perhaps understand his comment if I were a philosopher with no science background, presumably just envious of the prestige of science. But I am also a scientist, indeed with a specialization in Jerry’s own discipline of evolutionary biology. How, then, could it possibly make sense to accuse me of wanting to defend “my” field from encroachment from, ahem, “my other” field??

Now, not all this sniping is entirely wasted, for Jerry and I certainly agree on the following: “What’s important is to distinguish those disciplines that enforce reasons for believing in things (disciplines like science, math, and philosophy) from those that don’t (postmodern literary criticism, theology, etc.),” which you would think ought to be more than enough for the two of us to find common ground. It’s really unfortunate that it isn't.

Jerry continues by giving me some credit for a broader view of knowledge — what used to be called scientia, which would actually go a long way toward reconciling our diverging views. But then says: “This is pretty much o.k. except that Pigluicci [sic] includes ‘arts’ and ‘first- person experience,’ with ‘scientia’ as ways of understanding. ‘First-person experience,’ of course, includes the many forms of revelation used to justify the existence of God, and while ‘arts’ are ways of ‘feeling,’ it’s arguable about whether the kind of understanding they yield is equivalent to the kind of understanding produced by physics and philosophy, or, for that matter, by revelation.” Except that I most explicitly do no such thing! In a long essay in Aeon, where I expand on this, I make a distinction between knowledge and understanding, and very clearly say that scientia is about knowledge, while the arts, the humanities and first-person experience — together with knowledge — form understanding. How could Jerry so blatantly confuse the two, or fail to get the not at all subtle distinction I was trying to make?

Toward the end of Jerry’s rant we get to a downright surreal turn: “I was once favorably disposed to Pigliucci.” Seriously? When, exactly? Either Coyne is lying or he has a very short memory. Indeed, our disagreements and discord date from way before either of us started writing publicly about atheism and related matters. It goes back to Jerry’s conservative take on the state of evolutionary theory, where he is a staunch defender of the so-called Modern Synthesis (of the 1920s through ‘40s), while I and others have advocated what we refer to as an Extended Synthesis that takes seriously the many empirical and conceptual advances in biology over the past six decades (instead of treating them as cherries added as decorations onto the already finished cake).

But the problem is that Jerry is obviously just not reading very carefully what I’m writing, reaching for his keyboard instead as a straight result of a knee-jerk reaction. Otherwise he wouldn’t complain: “if New Atheism has been such a miserable failure, why does Pigliucci admit this?” going on to cite me as saying that NA books have been very successful. Does Coyne not realize that number of books sold isn’t the only, or in some cases the most important, measure of “success?” Because if he doesn’t, then he ought to wake up to the realization that Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey have probably outsold all the NAs combined. I was talking about what I see as a conceptual failure of the NA movement (remember, the kerfuffle is about a technical paper published in a somewhat obscure philosophy journal!), not whatever it is Jerry thinks I was talking about.

The last thing to notice is that Jerry managed to misspell my name a whopping eight times. He really doesn’t like me!

Part II: PZ

Let us now turn to the far shorter (and much less nasty) post by PZ, rather amusingly entitled “Philosophism,” which is PZ’s counter to the accusation of scientism. And he is, of course, right. Some philosophers are surely guilty of philosophism, just like some scientists are guilty of scientism. The irony here is that when I got into this business I thought (very naively, as it turned out)  that my new colleagues in philosophy would be glad to have a member of their profession who was also a scientist, and that my colleagues in science would regard me as one of their own who might be a trusty bridge to the “other culture” (as C.P. Snow famously put it). What happened instead, with a few exceptions, is that philosophers tend to consider me too much of a scientist, while scientists consider me too much of a philosopher. Life, don’t talk to me about life

At any rate, on the issue of scientism — and of the role of philosophy — there is much that PZ and I agree on. He correctly notes his criticisms of people like Krauss, Hawking and Pinker, for instance. It is not, however, correct to say that “Krauss has retracted his sentiments,” as anyone can plainly see by reading his non-apology (prompted by Dan Dennett) in Scientific American. PZ also wonders why I don’t mention Pinker in my NA paper, which is strange, since the paper is about the foremost figures who have initiated and defined NA, and Pinker — as brilliant and controversial a writer as he is — is simply not among them.

PZ more generally accuses me of cherry picking, sparing from my criticisms in the paper people like Susan Jacoby, David Silverman, Hemant Mehta, Greta Christina, Ibn Warriq, Ophelia Benson. But, again, with all due respect to all of these people, they aren’t the founding fathers (yeah, they were all old white men) of NA, nor have they been quite as influential in terms of the public face of the movement — at least in terms of the Coynian ultimately meaningful measure of number of books sold.

PZ is correct to point out that there is indeed a range of attitudes toward philosophy among atheists, and he is a prime example. But, again, this is simply not the case, by and large, where my big targets are concerned, despite his contention that Stenger's (again, not one of the founding fathers) work is full of history and philosophy. History yes, philosophy, not really.

Toward the end of his post PZ tells his readers that I have two criteria for criticism in mind: “1) We’re popular. That’s an accusation that has me stumped; would we be more respectable if nobody liked us at all? 2) We’re scientists and take a scientific approach. Well, we’re not all scientists, and what’s wrong with looking at an issue using evidence and reason?”

(1) is, of course, another example of Coyne’s confusion between popularity and soundness of ideas. I’m not accusing the NAs of being popular. They obviously are, and good for them. I’m accusing (some of) them of being sloppy thinkers when it comes to the implications of atheism and of a scientific worldview.

As for (2), I never said that all the NAs are scientists (indeed, my paper explicitly excluded Hitchens from the analysis on precisely those grounds — which as we’ve seen didn’t please Coyne). But a major point of the paper was to discuss what I see as a tendency of NA qua movement (i.e., founding fathers and many followers) toward scientism, a tendency that has been codified precisely by the sciency types among the NA (it surfaces very clearly in the many comments that both Coyne and PZ got to this latest round of posts). Finally, of course there is nothing at all wrong with looking at an issue using evidence or reason, nor am I aware of ever having written anything to that effect.

Part III: Harris

And now let’s get to Sam Harris. Readers of this blog know exactly what I think of him as an intellectual (I have no opinion of him as a person, since I’ve never met him). But what follows is a (long, apologies) list of quotes from a single review of Harris’ latest effort, his booklet on free will, penned by non other than Dan Dennett. While I have to admit to being human and having therefore felt a significant amount of vindication reading what Dan had to say on this, I reprint representative passages below to make three points:

I am clearly not the only one to think that Harris’ philosophical forays are conceptually confused, to say the least. Please notice the mercilessly sarcastic tone adopted by Dennett throughout. This is at least as heavy an attack as anything I’ve written about Harris, and arguably much more so. But, do you think Dennett has therefore been excoriated by Harris, Coyne & co. for his message or the form in which it was delivered? (Yeah, that was a rhetorical question, glad you got it.)

These quotes, of course, do not constitute Dennett’s argument (for that you’ll have to read his full, long, essay). But they are representative of why I think Dan has been much harsher than I have been with Harris (for good reasons, in my mind). Incidentally, Dennett includes the following people as others who hold ideas similar to Harris’ and are equally misguided: Wolf Singer, Chris Frith, Steven Pinker, Paul Bloom, Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein (!), Jerry Coyne, and Richard Dawkins. Here is the man himself:

I think we have made some progress in philosophy of late, and Harris and others need to do their homework if they want to engage with the best thought on the topic.

I would hope that Harris would pause at this point to wonder—just wonder—whether maybe his philosophical colleagues had seen some points that had somehow escaped him in his canvassing of compatibilism. As I tell my undergraduate students…

There are mad dog reductionist neuroscientists and philosophers who insist that minds are illusions, pains are illusions, dreams are illusions, ideas are illusions—all there is is just neurons and glia and the like.

Again, the popular notion of free will is a mess; we knew that long before Harris sat down to write his book.

These are not new ideas. For instance I have defended them explicitly in 1978, 1984, and 2003. I wish Harris had noticed that he contradicts them here, and I’m curious to learn how he proposes to counter my arguments.

Harris should take more seriously the various tensions he sets up in this passage. It is wise to hold people responsible, he says, even though they are not responsible, not really.

There are complications with all this, but Harris doesn’t even look at the surface of these issues.

The rhetorical move here is well-known, but indefensible.

Even the simplest and most straightforward of Harris’s examples wilt under careful scrutiny.

If this isn’t pure Cartesianism, I don’t know what it is. His prefrontal cortex is part of the I in question. Notice that if we replace the “conscious witness” with “my brain” we turn an apparent truth into an obvious falsehood: “My brain can no more initiate events in my prefrontal cortex than it can cause my heart to beat.”

There are more passages that exhibit this curious tactic of heaping scorn on daft doctrines of his own devising while ignoring reasonable compatibilist versions of the same ideas.

If Harris is arguing against it, he is not finding a “deep” problem with compatibilism but a shallow problem with his incompatibilist vision of free will; he has taken on a straw man, and the straw man is beating him.

Once again, Harris is ignoring a large and distinguished literature that defends this claim.

His book also seems to have influenced his own beliefs and desires: writing it has blinded him to alternatives that he really ought to have considered.

I have thought long and hard about this passage, and I am still not sure I understand it, since it seems to be at war with itself.

Harris notes that the voluntary/involuntary distinction is a valuable one, but doesn’t consider that it might be part of the foundation of our moral and legal understanding of free will. Why not? Because he is so intent on bashing a caricature doctrine.

Here again Harris is taking an everyday, folk notion of authorship and inflating it into metaphysical nonsense.

Entirely missing from Harris’s account—and it is not a lacuna that can be repaired—is any acknowledgment of the morally important difference between normal people (like you and me and Harris, in all likelihood) and people with serious deficiencies in self-control.

I cannot resist ending this catalogue of mistakes with the one that I find most glaring: the cover of Harris’s little book, which shows marionette strings hanging down. … Please, Sam, don’t feed the bugbears.

I think I've made my point. Or, rather, Dennett did.

Part IV: Pars Construens

Francis Bacon, arguably the father of modern philosophy of science, wrote in his New Organum (1620, a polemical response to Aristotle’s famous Organum) that every philosophical project better have two parts: the pars destruens, where you should clearly state what is wrong with some other position you want to overcome, and the pars construens, where you present your own alternative views.


Much of what you’ve read so far is, of course, pars destruens. My pars construens has actually been presented before, in a number of essays on this blog, as well as in a couple of my books, and in the Aeon piece mentioned above. Still, it may be worth summarizing:

On science and/vs philosophy: I consider both science and philosophy to be intellectually serious disciplines, with much to tell to each other. Just in the way I have little patience for scientists who are ignorant and/or dismissi

ve of philosophy, I have little patience for philosophers who are ignorant of and/or dismiss science.

On what counts as knowledge: I distinguish between disciplines / approaches that contribute to our knowledge (in the intellectual sense of the term) and those that contribute to our understanding (both of that knowledge and of life in general). The first group includes science, philosophy, logic and math, and I use the above mentioned umbrella term scientia for it, from the Latin word meaning “knowledge” in the broad sense. The second group includes literature, the arts and other humanities. The relationship between the two groups is helped / mediated by bridge areas, such as history and social science. I don’t pretend this to be the ultimate model of human knowledge / understanding, it is simply my constructive way to push for what I see as a healthy disciplinary pluralism.

On ethics and morality: I think ethics is a branch of philosophy that has to be informed by factual evidence (“science”) as much as possible, but I do think there is a pretty serious distinction between “is” and “ought” (despite some permeability of that famous boundary). I do think science can and does illuminate the origins (evolution) and the material basis (neurobio) of ethical thinking. Just like it can illuminate the origins and neural basis of mathematical thinking, without this resulting in the treatment of mathematics as a branch of evolutionary or neuro-biology.

On the nature of science: I think science is a particular type of historically situated epistemic-social enterprise, and that to attempt to enlarge its domain to encompass  “reason” as a whole is historically, sociologically and intellectually misguided, and it does a disservice to science itself.

On religion and the New Atheism: I am an atheist, and I am not shy about criticizing religion. But I like to do that in what I perceive as an intellectually honest and rigorous way. I am clearly not above harshly criticizing other people’s positions, but I try to do it constructively. My problem with the New Atheism is that there is little new in it, that it tends to be more loud than constructive, and that it has a tendency toward science-worshiping. Oh, and I think I have a right (perhaps even an intellectual duty) to criticize big boys who I think need to be criticized.

On atheism and social issues: I do not believe that atheism entails much else other than a (eminently reasonable!) negative metaphysical position (i.e., the denial of the idea that we have good reasons to believe in supernatural entities). As such, I am skeptical of “Atheism+” sort of efforts when they go beyond the obviously germane issue of separation of Church and State and the like. Of course, I do agree with many of the progressive social goals that are pushed by PZ, Coyne and others. I just think we have already been doing that for a long time under the banner of (the philosophy of) secular humanism — so  it's another example of people appearing to think they’ve come up with something new while they are in fact simply placing their label onto something that others have been doing (quite well) for a long time.

This has been far too long. ‘Till the next one, folks.

Massimo Pigliucci has a Doctorate in Genetics from the University of Ferrara (Italy), a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He has done post-doctoral research in evolutionary ecology at Brown University and is currently Chair of the Philosophy Department at Lehman College and Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of biology, in particular the structure and foundations of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy, the relationship between science and religion, and the nature of pseudoscience.
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Loved this on domains of knowledge:

“On what counts as knowledge: I distinguish between disciplines / approaches that contribute to our knowledge (in the intellectual sense of the term) and those that contribute to our understanding (both of that knowledge and of life in general). The first group includes science, philosophy, logic and math, and I use the above mentioned umbrella term scientia for it, from the Latin word meaning “knowledge” in the broad sense. The second group includes literature, the arts and other humanities.”

One of the biggest things that annoys me about the NA is their cultural and religious illiteracy.

For a good recent piece on literature’s role in uncovering the truth of the human condition see this from The Atlantic

I am not surprised that “New Atheists” whine self-righteously when they are criticized, I always found in them very little sense of proportion, respect for others’ ideas, and humor.

@Rick re “One of the biggest things that annoys me about the NA is their cultural and religious illiteracy.”

In many cases, scientific illiteracy too.


Your Midwest Studies in Philosophy piece was well reasoned and quite reasonable.  Coyne’s reaction at his website is unjustifiable.  He’s actually guilty of the accusation he leveled against you; his retort is “a nasty piece of work: mean-spirited and misguided.”  Meanwhile, Harris’ tweet was simply childish, reminiscent of something a snarky 8th grader would say. 

I think you emerge from this exchange looking like the more dedicated intellectual.  I don’t know how that will play out in public; celebrity has a way of insulating people’s bad behavior.  Regardless, you’ve handled yourself properly and they haven’t.

I stumbled on your well considered criticism of the “Big NA’s” I have read them and was struck by their strident strawman attacks and how unsubtly they have at it.keep up the good work! Dan

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