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An Interview with Dr. Massimo Pigliucci on Postmodernism and Fundamentalism, Intelligence, and Role Models of Kindness (Part Four)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/01/22


Prof. Pigliucci has a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He currently is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of science, the relationship between science and philosophy, the nature of pseudoscience, and the practical philosophy of Stoicism. Prof. Pigliucci has been elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science “for fundamental studies of genotype by environmental interactions and for public defense of evolutionary biology from pseudo-scientific attack.” In the area of public outreach, Prof. Pigliucci has published in national and international outlets such as the New York TimesWashington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, among others. He is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a Contributing Editor to Skeptical Inquirer. He writes a blog on practical philosophy at At last count, Prof. Pigliucci has published 162 technical papers in science and philosophy. He is also the author or editor of 12 books, including the best selling How to Be A Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books). Other titles include Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (University of Chicago Press), and The Philosophy of Pseudoscience (co-edited with M. Boudry, University of Chicago Press). He discusses: postmodernism and fundamentalism; smartest person; and his role model.

Keywords: Carl Sagan, doctorates, Elon Musk, fundamentalism, kindness, Massimo Pigliucci, postmodernism, Pythagorean Theorem, Stoics, truth, Virtue Ethics.

An Interview with Dr. Massimo Pigliucci on Postmodernism and Fundamentalism, Intelligence, and Role Models of Kindness: K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy, City College of New York (Part Four)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let us say someone is a postmodernist, and let us say someone is a fundamentalist ideologue…

Dr. Massimo Pigliucci: …that is an interesting combination. Okay [Laughing].

Jacobsen: Two separate people, they ask the question, Mr. Pigliucci, what is truth?” They would ask this to you knowing that you have a secular humanist background, an atheist background. Of course, I know there is not a necessary overlap between those two words.

Pigliucci: I would give them a short course in epistemology 101. I would say, “Truth is actually a heterogeneous category.” It is not one thing. There are different notions if it, different theories of truth in philosophy.

There is no single answer to the question. It is instructive to look at the options that philosophers have put on the table. One of them is the correspondence theory of truth. Something is true only if it corresponds to the way things are in the world out there.

I mentioned before the example of the relative positions of Saturn and Jupiter to the Sun. Is it true that Saturn is farther away than Jupiter? It is. Why? Because if you check the data, Saturn is more distant from the Sun than Jupiter is. So, to speak the truth about empirical matters, you must find some way to establish – or if not establish then reasonably infer to the best of your abilities — the state of affairs out there.

The correspondence theory of truth is obviously useful in science. I know there are a lot of caveats there, like in order to establish the correspondence, shouldn’t you have a view from nowhere, where you are basically omniscient? No, you do not.

That is why I said, to the best of your abilities. I always start these discussions accepting the notion that we are human beings and, therefore, epistemically limited. I assume your readers and you are perfectly capable of understanding the thing about Jupiter and Saturn.

The correspondence theory of truth applies to everyday matters, too. If I say, ‘I am in New York City, not Rome,” it is (currently) true. Why? Because I live in Downtown Brooklyn. I can turn around the video camera and show you.

That is my window. You can see Manhattan in the distance. What I said corresponds to the best of our knowledge to the truth.

However, there are other concepts of truth that are useful in other areas, such as a coherence notion of truth, which is useful in logic and mathematics.

Consider the Pythagorean Theorem in geometry. Is it true? It is not true in the sense that it is true that I am here in New York. Geometry is the creation of the human mind, it does not correspond to anything out there. You do not need any actual triangle to understand the Pythagorean Theorem.

It is true in the sense that it is coherent. It is what you get out of certain axioms of Euclidean geometry. The coherence concept of truth is also useful in certain human affairs. We said earlier about that a philosophy of life better be coherent, because if it is incoherent, we create obstacles for ourselves, incurring in contradictions.

If I run into a given situation and my philosophy tells me to do contradictory things, what do I do?

In real life, you probably want a combination of those two notions of truth, correspondence and coherence. If you are talking about values, judgments, and prescriptions of what to do and not to do, you are probably using some version of a coherence notion of truth.

If you are asking about facts about the world as it is, then you are using the correspondence theory of truth.

Interestingly, in Virtue Ethics you must use both. Again, let me go back to the example of the Stoics, when they say, “A good human life is one in which you practice the four virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice.”

Where did they get that from? The prescription to practice those virtues is internally logically coherent. Chrysippus was the third head of the Stoic school, and a great logician. He was the one who made sure that Stoic principles were internally coherent.

But the philosophy also comes out of a certain understanding of human nature. And understanding human nature is an empirical issue. It is not a priori. Therefore, you can see the Stoic system as a combination of correspondence and coherence.

To live a good life, according to the Stoics, you must study two other things, other than ethics. First, logic. Meaning, you must reason well. Second, what they called physics, which is, essentially, natural science. Why? Because in order to live well you must understand the way the world works.

If you misunderstand how the world works, or cannot think straight about things, then you are not going to live a good life. If you think about it, these two areas of study that influence Stoicism, one is based on the correspondence theory of truth, the other is based on the coherence theory of truth.

2. Jacobsen: One last question, who is the smartest person you know or have met? You have three doctorates.

Pigliucci: As a philosopher, I reject the notion of “smartest person” for a couple reasons. For one, intelligence means different things to different people. Are we talking about intelligence as the ability to solve abstract problems, or intelligence to solve practical problems? They are not the same thing.

The notion of “smartest” implies that there is some sort of linear scale of intelligence, with someone at the top and others at the bottom. That’s hard to believe.

That said, there are some people who I think of as particularly smart in a way that is meaningful and interesting.

Socrates was smart. Actually, he was wise more than smart. He was not necessarily into solving mathematical or scientific problems. But he was certainly a person who seemed to be able to navigate society and culture in an intelligent way. Epictetus is another I would count as smart.

Among our contemporaries, there are individuals who I personally know and think are very smart, but who would not mean anything to your readers or you, because they are not famous. Among people your listeners might recognize I would count Carl Sagan, the astronomer. He was a model of an intelligent person, in my book.

I cannot think of a lot of other examples among people alive now, because most of the people that come to mind are smart in a technical sense, but they are not wise. For instance, Elon Musk is obviously smart in a technical sense. But he is one of the most unwise and obnoxious people walking the earth now. So, do I want him as a role model? No.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pigliucci: So, I think a good question is, “Who would you pick as a role model?”

3. Jacobsen: Okay. Who would you pick as a role model?

Pigliucci: My grandfather.

Jacobsen: Why?

Pigliucci: He was a kind person. He was always trying to do his best towards other people. It was never about him. It was always about how he would interact with the rest of the family and society. So, my grandfather is my role model.

There are also people I know who have gone through hardship and come out the right way. My friend Larry Baker, who died last year, for example. He was a professor of philosophy. He went through his life after being hit by triple polio when he was young, and still managed to have a successful academic career.

He learned to grade students’ papers with his right foot. That kind of person is inspiring. He was also a nice guy. Role models to me are those who are concerned about others, who can overcome adversity when adversity comes to them, and who, nevertheless, maintain a cheerful demeanour and are a good example for other people.

Are they smart? Yes, in a sense, but not in the sense that most people would think of “smart.”

4. Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Pigliucci.

Pigliucci: All right! It was a pleasure.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy, City College of New York.

[2] Individual Publication Date: January 22, 2020:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2020: Image Credit: Simon Wardenier/Massimo Pigliucci.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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