Jul 312011

Pat Churchland

For folks that just wanted to hear Pat talk a bit more about her book, focusing on the bits she wants to focus on rather than what we pushed her toward, here are a few video selections:

In this video from her publisher’s web site, she gives a short monologue summarizing Braintrust.

In this one, she’s interviewed by Roger Bingham of The Science Network.

Watch on YouTube.

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Jul 292011
Brain scan from gawkerassets

Criminal minds indeed!

At about 30 minutes into the most recent episode with Pat Churchland, the discussion touched on how the neurochemistry of people who are well socialized differs from those who aren’t.   More specifically, there was a point made about how people who are well socialized and have the Humean (as we will soon discover, actually Smithian) moral sentiment have different brains than people who don’t.  Representative of that latter group are criminals.  Dylan made a point mentioning that this poses a challenge – or at least something to think about – relative to our notions of justice and punishment.

At one level, we want to hold someone accountable for their actions, regardless of whether we think they were made to do what they did by virtue of their brain chemistry.  At another level, if someone’s brain chemistry affects how they act, it doesn’t make sense to punish them for it.  Punishing a criminal who was not properly socialized and doesn’t have the same moral sentiment as most others won’t engender that moral sentiment in him/her.   If it’s true that criminals don’t have or have a weakened moral sentiment and this is evidenced in their brain chemistry, we might consider as a society trying to socialize and address the brain chemistry, rather than simply punishing them.  Additionally, there is the thorny issue of testing for this pre-disposition:  doing tests on children to determine their proclivity for anti-social and criminal behavior, for example.

All interesting topics that made me recall a recent episode of Philosophy Bites, where Nigel interviewed David Eagleman, a neuroscientist.  Eagleman’s understanding of philosophy has the typical scientific naivete, but he didn’t make outrageous and unfounded moral claims, as many scientists do.  Instead, he seemed genuinely interested in how discoveries in neuroscience would complicate our understanding of criminal justice and punishment.  Worth both a listen and a read of the comments to the podcast, which seem to mirror the tone and content on our site (but I still like all of you better).  Or you can go read this article about an Indian court using a brain scan to determine guilt…


Jul 282011

I see Ken Perrot of the Secular News Daily has cogitated on our Churchland episode and raised some follow-up questions. Read the article here.

To respond to one of his points:

1: Is consciousness over-rated?

Pat Churchland devoted little of her discussion to the unconscious, or subconscious, aspects of human morality. The conscious aspects are important to understanding social rules and lawmaking, and to understanding how humans set up moral societies. But at the day-to-day and personal level our instincts and intuitions are critical. We operate largely in the automatic mode.

I am sure Pat acknowledges the important role of the subconscious, it’s just that in this discussion it was not really covered.

The distinction is not covered in the book using the term “subconscious” either, I believe. She considers both our moral gut reactions and those more well-considered ones, though, and I think believes them to be explained by the same biological, evolutionary, and cultural mechanisms for the most part. I didn’t get any kind of Freudian vibe from the book whereby what we consciously assert might be at great variance with what we really deep down believe and act on.

I’ve tried to address Perrott’s second question–”What do we mean by ‘right’ and ‘wrong?’”–via this blog post and our subsequent discussion of it, because I agree that there’s something missing from the discussion in her book about it, which our discussion on Hume in the episode was meant to fill in.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Jul 272011

Girls RockIn preparation for the feminism discussion, I decided to reconfigure my iPod so as to listen only to female artists from the moment we finished recording the previous episode (so, for about three weeks in total).

Irritatingly, I both forgot to announce this shtick on that previous episode, and then entirely forgot to bring it up when we recorded feminism this last Sunday, so this’ll have to be a blog-only bit of amusement this time around. Nonetheless, I invite you to do the same, and immerse yourself in the female psyche for the couple of weeks until the feminism episode is posted.

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Jul 262011

moral quandryGiven that Churchland focuses on the causal story (physiological, evolutionary, psychological, cultural) for where we get our moral sense, does that mean that the causal story is all there is to it, i.e. that by understanding the causal theory, you understand morality itself?

Certainly Kant thought not: the causal story is only relevant for him in figuring out how to teach people morality and the like, after the essence of morality has already been determined through a priori reasoning.

At the other extreme, you might think that we have these sentiments, and sometimes they agree, so in that sense there’s something “objective” about rightness, in that it’s intersubjectively verifiable, but really, it’s just a shared fiction (like the value of money).

Certainly Churchland’s view is closer to the latter than the former, but the vigor with which she took to discussion of actual ethical/social problems means that she’s not an error theorist about ethics.

This for me was the gap in Churchland’s book, and why I built Hume into the conversation. Scholars have the same trouble interpreting Hume in this respect as I’m running into here. Let me just quickly throw out my own view as I’m trying to formulate it:

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Jul 252011

This episode will feature Azzurra Crispino, whom you might recall from our Kant on epistemology episode. We’re reading two works that were significant for the development of her interest in feminist philosophy:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland

Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice

Jul 242011

I had been thinking about the PEL debate on the value of higher education, and came across this compelling story by Damon Horowitz.

Did you know that Google has an “in-house philosopher”? Horowitz shares his personal story of self-transformation in this article for the Chronicle of Higher Education. With a background in software engineering, he had developed a career in the world of information technology. He had established his own business engineering “natural language processing” components for Artificial Intelligence systems. (Natural language processing is the part of AI, usually based on formal logic, that is supposed to make computers understand us).

But his challenging encounters with the limitations of AI led him to broader philosophical questions about “the nature of thought, the structure of language, [and] the grounds of meaning.” Horowitz thus left the world of IT to do a PhD in Philosophy and has today become a sort of evangelist for appreciation of the humanities in the world of technology. He makes an argument for the value of leaving technology to do a degree in the humanities (it is an article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed after all), but even if you are not sold on that idea, his point extends to a larger argument about importance of bringing a humanities perspective to the world of technology which is bad off for its lack:

From Technologist to Philosopher

- Tom McDonald

Jul 232011

softballFaraone, a commenter on our Facebook page, says:

The Churchland episode was disappointing. You had a controversial academic who has made some bold and dubious claims during her career, and you spent your time tossing softballs to-and-fro. If you could not think-up challenging questions on your own, you could have read the many reviews of her book. Instead, it appeared that you prepared by simply reading her book. Don’t do that. The podcast is not supposed to be about respecting academic reputations. Anyone can do that, and it is boring. Its also boring to listen to people find agreement over such “controversial” theories as ‘our neurological responses might play a role in some decisions we make.’ Come on, really? That’s not what she is about. And if you can’t find a whiff of ‘scientism’ in a conversation with Churchland, then don’t you think you went a little tone-deaf on everyone?

Thanks for the comment, F. I think this is a good one to kick off some discussion on this little format experiment.

Here’s the fundamental difficulty: The issue for us wasn’t whether we were going to ask critical or easy questions to her, but whether we would ask questions at all.

The format of our show is not an interview. When guests come on, we have a conversation with them, just as we do when we don’t have a guest. I think making Hume an official part of the episode worked well: it made it a little more like a normal conversation.

What we do is essentially an on-air study group, not a debate. If a professor — the author of the book you’re reading — agrees to come by your study group, what do you do? My strategy was largely one of denial: Let’s try to just make our way through the reading as we normally would, despite the fact that she’d have much more to say than an ordinary guest. Having the author there, we could try to get some additional insight re. what she was about and help in incorporating what we had to say into our own thinking.

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Jul 222011

people on a brainAround 55 min into the episode, Pat described one of the possible roles of a philosopher re. the sciences is “the analogue of doing theoretical physics,” and she mentioned Chris Eliasmith as a paradigm example of this. He’s the Director for the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience at the University of Waterloo.

I quote from their web site:

Theoretical neuroscience is the quantitative study of neurobiological systems using the tools of information theory, signal processing, control theory, machine learning, and dynamic systems theory. It is concerned with issues of neural representation, neural architecture, learning, nonlinear systems, and complexity as they relate to understanding the uniquely flexible and effective behaviours of humans and animals.

Eliasmith is the laboratory head for the Computational Neuroscience Research Group, which is:

…dedicated to developing and using a unified mathematical framework for modeling large-scale neurobiological systems. We are currently applying this framework to specific projects in sensory processing, motor control, and cognitive function. Our on-going work encompasses purely theoretical issues, specific biologically realistic models (e.g., of Parkinson’s Disease, hemineglect, human linguistic inference, rodent navigation, among others), and practical applications (e.g., automatic text classification, clustering, and data mining). These modeling efforts are carried out in collaboration with various experimental groups who use techniques that span the range from single cell physiology to fMRI.

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Jul 212011

W.D. RossOur Churchland episode was exceptional in that we suspended some of our regular rules, including, I think, the one on name dropping, so I want to fill in some of the gaps through this blog by giving you readers an idea who some of these people are.

I brought up W.D. Ross in the context of trying to fill out Churchland’s actual ethical views. Churchland concentrates in her book on the back-end story: what’s going on in the brain, and what went on in evolution, to produce our moral sense? She was much more forthcoming in our conversation with her about how to resolve actual issues (e.g. re. the drug war), and even that discussion was more of a sketch re. how ethical deliberation might run (i.e. consider all the complicated factors involved, including the history and “facts on the ground”) rather than a fully fleshed out example.

I posited that Ross might provide a model for actual ethical decision-making under her general, Humean framework. At the same time, Ross has key elements in common with some of Hume’s opponents among his contemporaries who said that relations between ethical terms such as “beneficence” and “gratitude” are given by reason itself (I believe that example is from John Balguy).

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Jul 182011
Pat Churchland

We spoke with Patricia Churchland after reading her new book Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality. We also discussed David Hume’s ethics as foundational to her work, reading his Treatise on Human Nature (1739), Book III, Part I and his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), Section V, Parts I and II.

What does the physiology of the brain have to do with ethics? What bearing do facts have on values? Churchland thinks that while Hume is (famously) correct in saying that you can’t deduce “ought” from “is,” the fact that we have moral sentiments is certainly relevant to figuring out what our ethical positions should be, and it’s her main goal to figure out what the mechanisms behind those moral sentiments are: What brain parts and processes are involved? How and when did these evolve? How did cultural factors come into play, building on top of our biological capacity to care for others?

Pat spoke with Mark and Dylan Casey here about topics ranging from the war on drugs to the rationale of punishment to Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape. Read some more initial thoughts (and some substantial discussion in readers’ comments) here.

To read along with us, buy Pat’s book.

End song: “Bring You Down” from the 1994 album Happy Songs Will Bring You Down by The MayTricks.

Jul 182011

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (which we didn’t get around to spelling out on our Plato’s Republic episode) has been given scads of video treatments, both professional and amateur. Here are some I found on YouTube before getting too irritated to look at any more:

Easily the best of this bunch, here’s Orson Welles narrating over creepy animations, going on at some length to give probably the clearest depiction of the story:

Watch on YouTube.

I kind of like this claymation one with a maybe-South African narrator:

Watch on YouTube.

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Jul 182011

Back in our Descartes episode, we brought up the movie The Matrix as an example of the kind of situation whose possibility motivates Descartes’s project of doubt. Here’s a video getting into some of the other ways of interpreting this metaphor about deception:

Watch on YouTube.

One type mentioned here is Marxist “false consciousness” (which we got into a little in our recent Hegel discussion), with a clip from Cornel West about blind submission to authority.

Our concern here is Plato’s allegory of the cave, which we referred to in the recent Plato’s Republic episode (and also in our previous Plato on knowledge episode) without ever really laying out the story with the clarity it deserves. Starting around 3:45min into this clip, John Patridge tells the story, though generically, indicating that truth is hidden from us, and we could potentially break out of our deception and be enlightened. Without filling in the account to indicate what Plato thinks the truth is, this of course could mean anything: we could discover that all is God, or be imbued with the light of Reason, or confront the Absurd, or any number of other things. It should be clear, then, how Plato’s imagery could be coopted by Christianity or any kind of mysticism, despite the fact that Plato’s rationalism appears exactly opposed to the kind of mysticism that eschews analysis.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Jul 162011

Sesame Street podcast iconWe’ve had some nice things to say about plenty of philosophy podcasts on the web, and we salute anyone who makes the attempt, however informally, to record and distribute discussions of philosophical matters.

I’m also very proud that P.E.L. has gained some visibility on the web and in the iTunes store such that anyone with a deep desire to find philosophy podcasts will likely stumble across us.

However, due to peculiarities in iTunes podcast categorization and what to many is a vagueness in the term “philosophy,” we will likely never be at the very top of the iTunes store philosophy podcast rankings. Here are some of the fascinating cultural events that recurrently kick P.E.L.’s collective ass in those rankings:

The Survival Podcast. Featuring recent topics such as “producing your own food,” “gardening solutions for transitional or harsh environments,” and “bat conservation and habitat management.” Yes, you fans of Descartes will flock to this one.

Stuff Mom Never Told You, from HowStuffWorks.com. This consistently #1 show addresses questions like “Is there a link between semen and happiness?” and “Should you sell or donate your breast milk?” Occasionally a topic approaches something philosophical: “Why are more people enslaved than ever before?”

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Jul 152011

In response to my Steven B. Smith post, Facebook commenter Robinson K. recommended Michael Sandel of Harvard as another great lecturer in political philosophy.

He’s got a whole course on “Justice” available for online viewing. Though there doesn’t appear to be a lecture on Plato in there, I noted that episode 7 was described by reference to the example Plato uses (referred to on the Plato episode, and more extensively on our Kant morality episode) about whether you lie to someone to prevent an act of brutality (the “Nazis at the door looking for the hidden Jews” example). Here’s that lecture in full:

Watch at JusticeHarvard.org.
Get the video podcast from iTunes.

Now, for the most part, this is just a rather labored (i.e. aimed at undergraduates unfamiliar with Kant’s difficult-to-understand views) presentation of Kant on morality, but I took a look at this with Plato in mind and found a parallel:

At around 6 minutes in, he describes Kant’s view of morality as arising out of our status as non-empirical beings:
“As a subject of experience, I inhabit an intelligible world… to be independent of causes in the sensible world is to be free.”

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Jul 142011

Here’s another old Bryan Magee video where he interviews Myles Burnyeant:

Watch on YouTube.

Anyone who’s listened to our Plato episodes will find nothing new in this first clip, which is just about who Plato and Socrates were, how Socrates died, and what Plato’s dialogues look like. Around 5 minutes in, Burnyeant lays out the evolution from the early dialogues through the more positive middle period (e.g. Republic); this is taken up again in clip 2, around 6:30. Buryeant focuses on the (e.g. epistemological positions) as Plato’s most important original contributions. Around 2:00 of clip 3, he gives a formulation of the theory of forms: “that justice, beauty, and the like exist independently of and prior to all the just acts, beautiful things…” He doesn’t seem to have any doubts about attributing this theory to Plato (as we did on the ‘cast), but he does warn against taking talk of the “world of forms” too literally; it means a set of “invariable generalities,” not a world of particular things.

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Jul 132011

After our Locke episode, I blogged re. this Steven B. Smith introduction to political philosophy course from Yale, but in the case of the Plato episode, I actually used these three lectures as part of my preparation and discussed them on the show:

Watch the first Plato lecture on Youtube.
Get the audio from iTunes.

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Jul 122011

Ever lose track of all those crazy ideas philosophers come up with? Do you like databases? Peter Gibson says yes, and developed philosophyideas.com. I quote the explanation on his site:

This database has been compiled by Peter Gibson from many years of philosophy reading. These studies led him to two MA’s from London University, and to teaching philosophy to teenagers for twenty-four years (at the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe). He is now researching metaphysics at Birkbeck in London.

The big thought behind the project is that philosophy has became such a vast and specialised subject during the last hundred years that not even the most learned student can keep track of it. The obvious next step seems to be the production of a clear and comprehensive map of what has been achieved. PhilosophyIdeas is meant as a tiny contribution to that task, though it began as a tool for helping students to write essays.

To give you an example, here’s an idea added in the latest update (5/19/11) relevant to our most recent episode:

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Jul 112011

Discussing The Republic by Plato, primarily books 1 and 2.

What is justice? What is the ideal type of government? In the dialogue, Socrates argues that justice is real (not just a fiction the strong make up) and that it’s not relative to who you are (in the sense that it would always be just to help your friends and hurt your enemies). Justice ends up being a matter of balancing your soul so the rational part is in control over the rest of you.

The Republic is Plato’s utopia, described by analogy with justice in the individual: In the ideal state, the rational people will be in charge, and these leaders should go through rigorous conditioning and live communally (spouse sharing!) in order for them to serve the state effectively.

You’ll hear Wes and Dylan Casey talk about their St. John’s experiences (the “Johnny” discussion-only format provides a chief model for P.E.L.’s). Plus, Gay Girl from Damascus, which music degrades your character, and does suffering make people morally worse?

Buy the book

End song: “Manager,” from the 2011 New People album, Impossible Things (song written in 1997).

If you enjoy the episode, please donate at least $1:

Jul 102011

First atheist

Given that we’ve been building to this “new atheism” episode for-stinking-ever (it’s scheduled to record at the end of August right now) and the next actual recording we’ll be doing is on feminism (scheduled for a week from now, but originally scheduled for back in March, so it’s not like we’re neglecting atheism to do this one), it struck me as serendipitous to see this pathetic she-said-that-he-said-that-she-said piece about Internet bickering from Salon.com.

It wearies me to repeat the story, so you can just look at the article if you want details, but its point is that Dawkins is an insensitive male, since he interpreted something that someone said on a blog the wrong way. I agree with the author of the article (Tracy Clark-Flory) that the blogger (who was complaining about creepy atheist guys hitting on her at inopportune times just after hearing her complain about how she didn’t like creepy atheist guys hitting on her) wasn’t out of line, and that Dawkins (if the report is correct) was acting dickish, but I barely care about that aspect.

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