Dr. Massimo Pigliucci
Tales of the Rational: Skeptical Essays About Nature and Science

I'm going to have to give Tales of the Rational a rather mixed review. I didn't personally find it too enlightening, but that isn't to say that others would share the same opinion. The subtitle is a bit of a misnomer. The bulk of the skepticism is aimed at fundamentalist religion rather than nature and science. As such, if you have already read much skeptical material on the subject of religion, you may feel burnt out on hearing the arguments again.

Most of the chapters can be found elsewhere having been previously printed in Skeptic or Skeptical Inquirer. A subscriber to Skeptic will find that they have already read more than half the material in the book. Since the chapters, for the most part, were previously written as separate essays they don't particularly flow from one to the next although Pigliucci has attempted to reference back and forth between them a bit and stick the ones that are somewhat similar into the same sections of the book. Further elaborations of portions of the book have been published online in his "Rationally Speaking" monthly e-column. I think I enjoy the e-columns more as they are more focused and are given up in shorter doses.

One of the highlights of the book, for me, are portions of the chapter entitled "Is religion good for you?". Skeptics sometimes call believers names or otherwise attempt to make them look like idiots. This doesn't do anyone or anything any good except perhaps the skeptic's pride. Pigliucci, here, shows how the need for and belief in religion isn't necessarily a result of pure ignorance and/or stupidity and/or a rejection of the rational. The brain actually works in such a way that allows for religion and potentially irrational beliefs to thrive.

The two hemispheres are in charge of different aspects of our way of interpreting the world. The left hemisphere controls our general worldview and rationalizes every bit of information within such a view. Dissonant facts are either ignored or twisted to fit. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, feeds discordant data to the left, in a continuous feedback controlled by the corpus callosum, the substance that joins the two hemispheres. In a sense, the right brain is providing "seeds of doubt" to the left one. When enough dissonant information has been fed by the right brain, the left brain occasionally alters its worldview, and we experience a "sudden" change of mind. Our innate necessity to hold on to a coherent worldview, regardless of how flawed it actually is, probably explains why so many people believe in supernatural entities and powers of which there is no evidence. (p. 110)
Now, if the need for religion is not a need for irrationalism and transcendence, but rather a basic need for a model of the world that makes sense, what is the alternative to widespread religion as an engine of social betterment? We need both science (to provide the real answers to questions concerning the world and its meaning), and a positive humanist movement... Religious authorities have understood this [latter component] (perhaps subconsciously) ages ago. (p. 111)
In other words, what we need as a replacement for religion is not just a tool to make sense of the world (i.e., scientific methodology) but also some sort of social structure so that individuals can meet, take part in a community, and have their needs met. A sense of belonging is a major item offered by religion. Unfortunately, it frequently has non-rational undesirables that go along with it in a religious context. Pigliucci feels that a positive humanistic movement can provide for that basic human need.

The description of what skepticism is on page 253 is a must read for those who equate it with cynicism. We are all skeptics in a way. Religionists are skeptics when it comes to other religions and those who don't believe. The skepticism which the author refers to is of a different kind. It is skepticism in the case of beliefs and claims which aren't reasonable or for which there is no evidence.

If you are just beginning down the road of this latter view of skepticism, starting to question your inherited belief system, then Tales of the Rational is a valuable first or intermediate stepping stone.

from the publisher:
Tales of the Rational is an attempt to put in perspective some of the most fascinating scientific and pseudo-scientific claims of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The author discusses philosophical issues concerning the way we can know and understand reality, as well as the complexities of the relationship between science and religion.

The book includes essays on creationism and theism, as well as critical accounts of debates with two of the major figures of “scientific” creationism and Christian apologetics.

Pigliucci does not spare science from a critical examination, discussing the advances as well as the failures of our search for the origin of life, extraterrestrial life, and that all-encompassing mathematical theory of complexity known as chaos theory.

About the Author:
Massimo Pigliucci is Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He has a Doctorate in genetics from the University of Ferrara (Italy), and a Ph.D. in botany from the University of Connecticut. He has been a post-doctoral associate at Brown University. His academic research focuses on the ecology and evolution of genotype-environment interactions. He has published 46 technical papers in evolutionary biology. He has written two popular science books in Italian. Sinauer published in 1998 his technical book Phenotypic Evolution: a Reaction Norm Perspective (co-authored with Carl Schlichting), and he has just finished preparing Phenotypic Plasticity: Beyond Nature vs. Nurture for Johns Hopkins University Press. He has been awarded the prestigious “Dobzhansky Prize” by the Society for the Study of Evolution. As a skeptic, he has debated creationist Duane Gish and Christian theologian William Craig, and has published in Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer.

Table of Contents:

Philosophical tales

1- Rationalism, skepticism, and other “isms”: How do we know what’s out there, and where “there” actually is.

2- Methodological vs. philosophical naturalism, or why we should be skeptical of religion.

3- In defense of straw men.

Tales of science and religion

4- A refutation of Pascal’s wager.

5- A case against God: science and the falsifiability question in theology.

6- Personal gods, deism, and the limits of skepticism.

7- Is religion good for you?

Creation tales

8- Academic freedom, creationism, and the meaning of democracy.

9- Chance, necessity, and the new holy war against science.

Tales of personal encounters

10- The white knight of Christianity: an evening with William Craig.

11- Creationism’s numero uno: surviving Duane Gish.

Tales at the frontier of science

12- Where do we come from? A skeptic's look at the origin of life.

13- Are we alone? Science and non-science in the search for extra terrestrial intelligence.

14- Chaos, fractals, complexity and the limits of science.

"You will come away refreshed, with your mind challenged by what is now not as simple as it seemed, and with a clearer grasp of what before seemed hopelessly complicated. And you'll get fascinating tales from an essayist who is as much a good storyteller as he is a great scientist." -- Ed Buckner