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Interview with Dr. Massimo Pigliucci on Cognitive Limitations, Consciousness, and Qualia, and Mystical Thinking, and Human Rights (Part Two)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/01/08


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: cognitive limitations, consciousness, and qualia; mystical thinking; speculative metaphysics and religion; human rights as a new stoic; and bottom-up and top-down ethics and the implications for human life.

Keywords: consciousness, ethics, Massimo Pigliucci, mystical thinking, new stoic, qualia, religion, speculative metaphysics.

Interview with Dr. Massimo Pigliucci on Cognitive Limitations, Consciousness, and Qualia, and Mystical Thinking, and Human Rights: K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy, City College of New York (Part Two)[1],[2]

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

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: With these cognitive limitations, how would you apply that to problems such as consciousness and qualia? I know you have attacked the distinctions that are attempted to be made between hard and soft problems.

Dr. Massimo Pigliucci: Yes. I think the hard problem is a misunderstanding, probably. I know a lot of people have gotten a lot of mileage out of it.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pigliucci: I do not get it. I think it is what philosophers call a “category mistake.” It is asking the wrong question. The problem of consciousness is the problem of how a piece of matter organized in a certain way – the human brain and nervous system – can produce first person impressions, such as the feeling of seeing color.

Again, we may not get to solve it. But if we do, the solution will come from neuroscience. It will not come from quantum mechanics, because the fundamental physics is too low of a level of description for what we are talking about; it does not tell you anything relevant about consciousness.

Yes, brains are made of cells, which are made of molecules that are made of quarks. Absolutely, it is the same for a bunch of other things. I am made of quarks as well. But try to come up with a quantum mechanical description of human physiology and anatomy, good luck with that.

The solution to the problem of consciousness will be compatible with fundamental physics. Whatever we come up with, it better be compatible with fundamental physics. But I do not think that it will come from fundamental physics.

At the same time, I think this hard problem is not something that science cannot solve because it involves a first-person perspective. Let us assume for a minute that neuroscientists can tell you, mechanistically, how an arrangement of neurons and chemicals and so forth causes or triggers what we call first person experiences. Then there is nothing else to be added.

The fact that you say, “Yes, but I still have a first-person experience, a third person description cannot simulate or make me have a first person perspective,” is true. It is also irrelevant. The problem is the one I just stated. How is it possible that a bunch of matter organized in a certain way, with certain characteristics, makes it possible for certain beings to have first person experiences?

Obviously, only individuals can have first person experience. But that is a problem. It would be like saying, “I described everything there is to know about how bicycles work. But that, in and of itself, is not enough for you to drive a bike. You have to try it on your own.”


Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pigliucci: But it does not mean that a scientific description of bicycles is missing anything. It just means that human beings, being what they are, if they just read about bicycles, they will not be able to ride one [Laughing]. We must make the mistakes in order to learn.

There is no mystery there. What irks me about the hard problem of consciousness is that these are people who, on the one hand, fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the question itself, but, on the other hand, they propose alternatives that do not stand up to any scrutiny at all.

So, what? Are we supposed to be dualists?

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pigliucci: Dualism went out with Descartes, “Oh! But I am not talking about substance dualism. I am talking about property dualism.” Whatever! It still puts consciousness squarely outside of the physical universe. I am sorry [Laughing]. I do not think anything is outside of the physical universe [Laughing]

If you go there, you already lost me. You are not doing anything interesting as far as I am concerned. Also, they get into bizarre issues. Let’s talk about David Chalmers, for instance.

Chalmers has, for years (!), said, “Science will not have a solution to the problem of consciousness.” Then he proposes panpsychism, where consciousness is fundamental. In other words, he invented a problem that is not there and came up with a solution that goes against everything we know about how the world works.

It’s like, “Wait, what?! How does that even go?” I don’t understand why people take this stuff seriously.

2. Jacobsen: When do not sufficiently skeptical scientists step into forms of mystical thinking? In the sense that, if they are approaching the problem of consciousness as a non-technical problem, they attribute some form of magical property to it.

How do they tend to think about this when you are reviewing some of the things they write, they say?

Pigliucci: They are just bad scientists [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pigliucci: Remember, scientists are human beings. We are subject to all the foibles and cognitive biases and personal preferences for ideologies as every other human being. There is this notion, which many scientists, themselves, put forth, that science is objective. Science is not objective. It is no more objective than any other human endeavour. That is one of the reasons, I think, why Max Planck said, ‘Science does not make progress because people change their mind. It makes progress one funeral at a time.’

Because the older generation dies. A new one comes up with innovative ideas. They are familiar with it, and so on and so forth. Scientists make the same mistake as everyone else. Science as a human activity is  special not because of the supposed objectivity of scientists.

What make science special as a human activity is two things.

First, there is a real world out there. You must continue to confront this world as you conduct science. You can come up with any idea that you want. But if it does not work out and keeps failing, then, eventually, you must face the music.

This was, for instance, the case with Lysenko’s genetics during the Cold War. It was in the Soviet Union. Lysenko, for ideological reasons, as it turns out, rejected Darwinism and Mendelian genetics, and, instead, opted for some form of Lamarckian genetics.

Soviet crops failed. People starved [Laughing]. There is a real world out there. It will stop you.

This will not happen to the Chalmers of the world because they think about things like Philosophical Zombies. You will never have a philosophical zombie in front of you. You say, “Oh crap! I was wrong about this.”

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pigliucci: That is the difference between speculative metaphysics and science. That is one reason science works well. The other reason is that there is a high premium on science to show that other people are wrong.

So, one of the best ways to make a career in science is to show a big shot is wrong. Darwin, Newton, Einstein, you name it. If you can show, as a young scientist, that one of the lofty ideas is incorrect or wrong, then hey! You made it. You will probably get a Nobel Prize. There is a competition to show others wrong. It makes science work.

There is a premium in philosophy too, to show that other people are wrong. Unfortunately, philosophy, by its nature, talks about possible and coherent worlds, not real worlds. Therefore, there is, as you know, the Chalmers type of argument.

The p-zombies argument was about conceivability. Is it conceivable that I am talking to you and nothing is going on there in my mind? Sure, it’s conceivable, but conceivability is such a low bar. All sorts of things are conceivable. I can think of notions that are obviously impossible. People have been conceiving the notion of squaring the circle for, literally, two millennia until someone proved that this is impossible.

Conceivability is such a low bar. I do not know why people are wasting their time with it.

3. Jacobsen: When it comes to speculative metaphysics with even lower bars, what are your thoughts on religion?

Pigliucci: Good if you have it [Laughing]? I suppose.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pigliucci: Not for me [Laughing]. Religion, that is. It depends on what we mean by the term. It is an interesting cultural phenomenon, obviously. It helps many people get their lives together and adds meaning to those lives.

But when someone says, “There is a Creator God who started the universe,” then that it is worse than speculative metaphysics. There is no reason to think that it is the case. If you want to believe it, go ahead. But make no mistake, it is the same as believing in philosophical zombies.

4. Jacobsen: [Laughing] what do you think about a framework of ethics to do with human rights and their implementation in the world, especially as a new stoic?

Pigliucci: The concept of human rights is fundamental. It is important. So long as we agree rights are not some thing out there in the world, that is, they are not objective properties of the world, they are made up by human beings. So, when somebody says, “We have a right to choose…” (fill in the blanks), I want to know what they mean. The only way I can make sense of that is that we have agreed in society that people have a right to x. Outside of that, if you think that human rights somehow exist in some mind independent or objective fashion, my answer is the same as Jeremy Bentham’s: nonsense on stilts. Very tall nonsense.

Rights are human concepts. They are very important human concepts, but human concepts, nonetheless. Ethics is a human concept, a human creation. I do not believe in moral truths to be “discovered.” Moral truths are invented, not discovered. Some of them work much better than others.

You can adopt some frameworks for morality that are going to lead to disaster, in terms of human flourishing. Other frameworks are going to work much better. That, I think, is the way to judge ethical frameworks. Also, how internally coherent they are. Presumably, you do not want philosophical frameworks that are obviously incoherent.

But the crucial criterion is: does your preferred ethical framework bring about human flourishing? That is the reason for my interest in Stoicism. First, yt is highly internally coherent. The Stoics put a lot of effort into that. They were good very good logicians, after all.

For me, at least, Stoicism also just works, in terms of providing me a way to navigate tricky situations in life and to help build meaning, focusing on what I find important in life – and what I should pursue in my life. Still, I would never say, ‘Stoicism is the only way to do that.’ There are plenty of other – both religious and non-religious – philosophical systems that do just as well.

In fact, with two colleagues of mine, Skye C. Cleary and Daniel Kaufman, we are about to put out a collection of essays. It comes out January 7th, I think. It is called How to Live a Good Life. It is a collection of 15 essays written by people who practice a given religion or a philosophy of life.

Each author talks about this in terms of their experience with the philosophy. They explain their philosophy of life or religion. I think all 15 and more are valid approaches. One may work better for some people and not for others. It is a matter of personal choices. This, however, does not mean that every conceivable philosophy of life works fine.

Nazism, to take the obvious example, is also a philosophy of life. But I do not think that it is a good one. I do not think it leads or yields human flourishing. I think, if you follow it, that you are mistaken. But not mistaken in the same sense if you thought Saturn was closer to the Sun than Jupiter. The latter is a fact of nature, it’s out there, and it can be verified. Whether Nazism is a good or a bad philosophy of life, it is not in the same sense.

Of course, philosophies of life are constrained by facts of human nature. One of the things that I like about Stoicism is that it takes seriously the notion of human nature. The Stoics say, “We need to practice an ethics conceived as the practical study of human nature.” Now, for the Stoics, the two most important aspects of human nature are that we are capable of reason and that we are highly social animals.

From which they derived the fundamental axiom of their philosophy: a good human life is one in which we use reason to improve human society. I can get behind that because I am, in fact, a being – a living being – capable of reason and who is highly social. If I was missing one or both of those properties, it would not make sense to me. It would be like “What are you talking about?”

5. Jacobsen: If we are looking at Big Bang cosmology, evolutionary theory, or a human rights ethic, all of them work bottom-up and from a technical, empirical perspective rather than top-down and mystical, magical.

Pigliucci: Right.

Jacobsen: What about the social, political, and economic consequences of a system of thought asserting a top-down framework of ethics, of the origin and development of things – living and non-, and then using that as a political force in life?

We see this in various – or some – sub-denominations in the Christian churches in the United States. We see this elsewhere in the world, whether it is in Hindu nationalism, or in Iran or Saudi Arabia for Sunni and Shia Islam.

Pigliucci: Yes, that is a good question. I do not know if I have a ready answer for it. I tend to be distrusting of top-down ethics. I recognize there is a difference between ethics and law. You must have a top-down system of law in society, because you cannot have everybody behave as they want. The law emerges at a societal level in some fashion. The ancient Romans were very aware of this distinction between law and ethics. They and the Greeks made a distinction between the natural world or Natural Law, if you prefer, and social law, human-made law.

Cicero is probably the most famous author in that sense. My preferred way to think about it is that ethics should be a bottom-up approach. We should be working on our own behaviour, our own character, and then influence other people to do the same.

But it is up to them how to do that. It is up to their efforts. However, because we live in society, we need laws that govern our collective behaviors. Of course, our laws are — ideally, at least — informed by ethical principles.

The question then becomes, “How do you have the two meet in the middle, where ethics comes from the bottom-up and law comes from the top-down?” Cicero’s answer was that you need virtuous legislators.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pigliucci: Unfortunately, there are few of those around; at least, not these days  [Laughing]. I was in Philadelphia recently. I visited the Museum of the American Revolution. One of the interesting things, despite the limitations of the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights, is that these were documents written in a top-down fashion, but inspired by virtuous principles.

Yes, they say that men are created equal and women are not mentioned, and blacks of course were enslaved. That is why we had amendments to the constitution later on. The amendments were positive later additions. Still, the American Constitution is a set of legal principles put together by largely virtuous individuals. Would I trust a lot of modern or contemporary politicians in the U.S. and the U.K. to do the same?

Hell, no, and that is the problem. Ethics is a personal matter. Law is a societal matter. But laws are written by individuals. If you get individuals who are unvirtuous to write laws, then you are in trouble.

Appendix I: Footnotes

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

[2] Individual Publication Date: January 8, 2020:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2020: Image Credit: Simon Wardenier/Massimo Pigliucci.


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