Review of Tales of the Rational:
Skeptical Essays About Nature and Science
Pigliucci, Massimo. (2000): Tales of the Rational: Skeptical Essays About Nature and Science. Atlanta, Georgia: Freethought Press. 255 pages. U.S. $17.00.
Tales of the Rational: Skeptical Essays About Nature and Science begins by introducing the rational approach through the author’s own journey of discovery. Entertaining stories are brought to life in the first few pages and welcome the reader to embark upon the exciting adventure afforded at the brink of the 21st Century. The author recounts the memorable moments of childhood that influenced his entire worldview–a worldview guided by science, skepticism and reason. Readers can likely recall similar influences in their own lives that led them to begin doubting the beliefs and thoughts that pervaded their society: A book that opened the doors to learning and wonder; a teacher that excited the imagination and ignited the fires of the mind; a friend who challenged one’s ideas; a great discovery or event that stimulated a passion for science; or the simple exposure to a humanity dominated by nonsensical beliefs.
Dr. Pigliucci’s position as a skeptic and scientist developed naturally through the active role he took in exploring the world around him, of questioning the truths that were espoused by his society and through the challenges he inflicted upon his own mind.
By chance, Ravel’s Bolero provided the musical accompaniment to my reading and a sensible analogy began to take shape. The clarity and logical flow of the Tales compare well with the persistent, harmonious theme that provides the background for an incredibly beautiful piece of music. The eloquence of the author’s writing and the graceful manner in which arguments are devoured in punctuated bursts of common sense and scientific reasoning are represented by the march of the snare drum and the gentle melody of the oboe.
The author rightfully begins at the beginning by laying down the foundation of knowledge. A journey into the philosophical realm provides the reader with an understanding of the great minds and schools of thought that have helped advance civilization and expose the realities of our world. We are introduced to Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and David Hume among others. The confusion brought on by an overabundance of “isms” is lifted as rationalism, empiricism and materialism explain themselves.
We meet the humanist, the agnostic, the atheist and the freethinker; important players in the rational movement. The first opponent out of many the author will challenge is the school of thought that claims reality is but a figment of our imagination. The masterly blow comes by way of Bertrand Russell. Russell expressed the hope that all of those individuals questioning the objective understanding of reality made possible through science would “get into a car and drive straight into a wall at a speed proportional to their belief that the wall is not real.”
We are taken deeper into the philosophical realm where the author distinguishes between methodological and philosophical naturalism and introduces the reader to a debate about whether or not religion is a legitimate area of inquiry for scientific skepticism. Introducing two of the positions often taken in academia circles, the author exposes any inconsistencies and logical fallacies with the tools of reason. Again he gracefully devours his opponents, concluding that religion is indeed open to skeptical inquiry. Not only can inquiry be directed towards religion but the present state of science education exemplified by the creation/evolution debate clearly demonstrate the necessity of doing so.
In his next essay, the author challenges the popular use of accusing one’s opponent of employing a straw man in his attack. He explains the ingredients of a useful argument, showing that it is not necessarily constructed with obscure and abstract terminology, thereby disposing of the intellectual imposters of our times. Simple and clear statements, often accused of containing straw-man-like elements, are often the very backbone of a sound and reasonable theory. And with that we are catapulted into the realm of science and religion.
Pascal’s wager, “a unique blend of theism and probability theory,” is comparable, the author believes, to the same reasoning used by lottery agents to convince people to buy tickets and it has been just as successful, if not more, in convincing people to buy into religion. As science continues to unravel the mysteries of our universe, the odds of receiving the reward of heaven or the punishment of hell are less and less likely. Science has afforded us a very rich and complex understanding of our universe. Though the process of science does not set out to directly undermine outdated modes of thought, the knowledge it provides does indeed have ramifications in the theological realms. The reader is immersed in a world of ambiguous gods, faulty reasoning, and emotionally loaded thinking. The scientific method is applied and the limits of skepticism are reevaluated. The author, with reader in tow, returns from his exploration having torn down the flimsy barriers that are arbitrarily erected between science and religion and successfully forged new territory for the inquiring mind. Non-theism is shown to be a valid, perhaps inevitable, position to hold for scientists and skeptics alike.
In Creation Tales the author analyzes the claims made by William Dembski and the Intelligent Design Group. He emphasizes the anti-intellectualism that dominates their ideas and clarifies the distinction between a democratic government and the establishment of science. Misinterpreted and abused processes such as academic freedom and majority rule are put into the appropriate context with respect to science and science education. Dr. Pigliucci then challenges the odd stance taken by Fred Hoyle who neither subscribes to evolution or creationism but clearly is guided and blinded by a religious agenda and an active science-fictitious imagination.
Ravel’s Bolero is often described as both an elevating piece of music and a crushing finale to life. In the latter, the listener may feel unfulfilled or utterly dumbfounded by such a conclusion. Such a sentiment might share similarities with the experience of attending a creationist debate. In Tales of the Personal the author recounts debates he has participated in with creationist Duane Gish and Christian philosopher William Lane Craig. He continues to challenge their ideas and clarify the mistakes that riddle their well-known and popular arguments: For Craig it is the five lines of evidence that prove the existence of God; for Gish it is the absence of transitional fossils, the past mistakes made in science, and the atheist agenda of his opponent. The trumpets and trombones produce a cacophony of sound to mask the reader’s maddening screams. The author is far more tolerant, however, as he attends to all arguments and disposes of each quite gracefully into the trash heap of obsolete ideas. He points to particular claims that are made by his opponents that have been discarded decades ago yet continue to be rehashed at every opportunity. They are the very same arguments that are now being handed down and regurgitated by younger generations of apologetics. We are left remembering a statement the author makes early on in the Tales: “science is our main weapon to keep the world a sane place” and as the reader will see, many parts of our world are in desperate need of more science.
Next, we are hurled onto the frontiers of science with an exhilarating crescendo unfolding before our eyes. An odd feeling takes hold after digesting the great strides we have made in our thinking and the complicated webs our world has woven only to find ourselves fully immersed in the mystery of life’s origin. Dr. Pigliucci leaves no stone unturned as he inquires into the ideas that move and shake the scientific community and pits reason against science in an effort to provide further understanding. Bolero has reached its most energetic point and the excitement builds as we learn more about our universe and ourselves. The fascinating discoveries afforded by space exploration, the questions left unanswered, and the weirdness of chaos and complexity are explored and the limits of science are tested. The exuberance of knowing what fantastic opportunities we have created for ourselves to make life so incredibly rich and meaningful and the exciting discoveries that lie in our future provide a fitting end to Massimo Pigliucci’s Tales of the Rational: Skeptical Essays About Nature and Science. As with Bolero we are left wanting more although entirely satisfied with what we’ve been given.