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Neil Tyson And The Value Of Philosophy

Reprinted from Scientia Salon. You can read the original here.It seems like my friend Neil deGrasse...

What Does It Mean For Something To Be Metaphysically Necessary?

I mentioned before, this semester I’m teaching a graduate level seminar on David Hume, and having...

David Hume And The Missing Shade Of Blue

This semester I’m teaching a graduate level course on “Hume Then and Now,” which aims at...

Is Theologian Alving Plantinga For Real? Alas, It Appears So

I keep hearing that Notre Dame philosopher and theologian Alvin Plantinga is a really smart guy...

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Massimo PigliucciRSS Feed of this column.

Massimo Pigliucci is Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York.

His research focuses on the structure of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy

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Pierre-Simon de Laplace, the 18th century French astronomer who proposed one of the early theories of the formation of the solar system, famously postulated a “Demon” who had enough information to know what would happen in any place in the universe at any time. It was the height of mechanistic and deterministic hubris in science, and it seemed that it was only a matter of time before physicists would find out everything there was to find out about the way the world works
As promised in my previous post, I would like to bring to people’s attention one of the best reviews of scientific investigations of religion as a social phenomenon, a paper published in Science (3 October 2008) by Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff of the University of British Columbia. The article is chock full of fascinating, empirically based, insights into the relationship between religion and prosocial behavior, and is a must read for anyone seriously interested in this topic. Here, I will point to some of the highlights that will hopefully stimulate discussion and direct reading of Norenzayan and Shariff’s paper.
A couple of days ago I went to see Religulous, the investigative documentary by Bill Maher into why people believe weird things about religion. I enjoyed Maher’s laid back approach much better than the Dawkins-Hitchens style hard nose atheism, unfortunately so popular among some atheist groups. The difference is not one of substance (though Maher claims not to be an atheist, he comes very, very close), but of style. And yet style makes all the difference where belief isn’t just a matter of cold rational analysis, but also of messy human emotions.
In case you haven’t noticed, election season is upon us! Ok, it has been upon us for almost two years, but never mind that. Pollsters are busy trying to determine why people might be voting for one candidate or another, with special attention being paid to the so-called undecided voters, on whose last-minute whim the fate of the nation -- and the world -- seems to hinge.

Two recent studies, however, provide much food for thought about why people vote one way or the other, and about the reasons they give to themselves and others.
David Sloan Wilson, over at the Huffington Post, has replied to my criticism of his previous essay on why the so-called “invisible hand” guiding financial markets is, as he puts it, “morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead.” David and I have a good working relationship (he is one of the infamous “Altenberg 16”) and mutual respect, so the following is meant to be in the spirit of an open minded debate between two scholars. David agrees, contrary to many of our colleagues, that it is good for the public to see scientists honestly argue their diverging positions in public, so here it goes.

First off, David claims that both conservative commentator Larry Arnhart and I “have objected to [David’s] declaration that the invisible hand is dead.” Arnhart has, I certainly have not. I completely agree that this pernicious idea has gone the way of the dodos in light of the events of recent years (at least from the Enron debacle on). I simply disagree that such a conclusion has anything whatsoever to do with hypotheses on the evolution of human morality and cognitive abilities.

Wilson challenges my claim that evolutionary psychology cannot tell us much, as a science, about the evolution of social human behavior. He rhetorically asks “Would [Massimo] make the same claim about astronomy, geology, and paleobiology? Past events leave traces in the present that can be pieced together to produce solid knowledge.”
The nation’s economy is in deep trouble, which means financial woes all over the world, with millions of people affected. President Bush is hardly appearing in the news, as apparently “the Decider” has nothing to say about a disaster whose slow but sure build-up his so called administration has presided over for the last eight years. To compound disaster with disaster, the Treasury Department isn’t just trying to help by saddling the taxpayers with the sins of Wall Street; no, in perfect Bush style, Secretary Paulson is seeking to obtain from Congress -- and retain in perpetuity for his successors -- unfettered authority to intervene in the markets with essentially no oversight by the legislative branch.

Throughout all this, David Sloan Wilson and Larry Arnhart have been debating whether evolutionary theory favors government regulation or not. What on earth does evolutionary theory have to do with the global economy, one might reasonably ask?