Dec 312012

Merleau-Ponty! Buber! Lacan! Physics! Aesthetics! The Residents! Derrida! Deleuze! Searle! Pynchon! DeLillo!

Credit to

The holidays have definitely made it more difficult for me at least to be on top of my Not School activities, but nonetheless the new month is immanent, and I thought I should convey to those not currently monitoring the Citizens’ Forum what new groups look to be on the horizon:

1. Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. Intrigued yet unsatisfied by our treatment of M-P on the episode last year? Here’s your chance to take a giant leap into his major work Phenomenology of Perception, and see if it fulfills the promise of its hype. The group promises to be a multi-month endeavor, but that doesn’t mean you have to commit to more than the first month. Note that the group leader for this (Will Yate) has also proposed one on Husserl, though he hasn’t yet gotten any takers.

2. Martin Buber’s I and Thou (led by me). This will be PEL’s episode #71 (which will be released in Feb.), so be prepared for once! This is a fine bit of existentialism which, unlike Sarte’s and Camus’s, supports a buxom ethics and is not hostile towards religion (even while it seems not Jedaism-centric in the way that Kierkegaard relies exclusively on Christianity).

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Dec 292012



If you don’t know what the acronym “PPT” means, consider yourself lucky that you have avoided a work or social context where doing presentations is required.  If you are like me, the power of those three letters to inspire dread is almost unparalleled.  The phrase ‘Can you put together some slides…’ evokes panic, fear and nausea made worse only when accompanied by ‘What’s the business case?’

For those who don’t know, “PPT” is short for “PowerPoint” and more commonly a “PowerPoint Presentation”.  PowerPoint is a Microsoft Office application used for creating visual presentations.  It allows for the presentation of information in text, visual, graphical and audio/visual format through a slide-show series of pages.   Continue reading »

Dec 282012


Earlier this month I had the pleasure of discussing P.W. Anderson‘s famous 1972 article More is Different as part of  a PEL Not School study group on emergence with Not Schoolers Bill Burgess, Casey Fitzpatrick, Ernie Prabhakar, and Evan Gould.

Anderson argues that the sciences don’t form a reductive whole — that chemistry isn’t applied physics and psychology isn’t applied biology — taking early aim at the conceits of the uber-reductionist elementary particle physicists. Part of his argument is an articulation of how the principles of symmetry-breaking make this non-reductionism clear in the physical world. We discuss all these matters trying to sort out Anderson’s claims and what we think of the evidence for them.

You can read the article yourself here.

If you’re a Not School member (or as we like to say, PEL Citizen), you can access the audio of this discussion on the Free Stuff for Citizens page, along with the audio from several other Not School discussions.

If you’re not a member, please consider joining. For $5 a month you’ll get access to regular audio discussions (above and beyond our regular podcast episode). As one Not Schooler put it about a recent discussion with Mark about Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind, these can be “almost as good as a regular podcast.” Membership also gets you access to study groups and discussion forums, all sorts of other bonus content, and the opportunity to participate in Skype/Google Hangout audio or video discussions yourself if you’re interested (fame and/or notoriety await you). Read more about Not School and sign up.


Dec 212012

On his book Constructing the World (2012).

How are all the various truths about the world related to each other? David Chalmers, famous for advocating a scientifically respectable form of brain-consciousness dualism, advocates a framework of scrutability: if one knew some set of base truths, then the rest would be knowable from them. What sort of base? Well, there may be many principles bases, and what’s important for Chalmers is not the details of which is picked but of the scrutability framework as a whole. The base he discusses the most in the book is PQTI, for Physical, Qualia (mental), “That’s all,” and Indexical (like “I’m here now). Being able to derive the rest of reality from PQTI has implications, Chalmers thinks, for the philosophy of language, mind, and metaphysics.

Mark tries to draw Chalmers into speculating outside his areas of expertise. Dylan asks about physics, of course. Wes has technical issues and drops off half way through (listen for the “ping” as he texts Mark to that effect). Read more about the project and get the book.

End song: “What You Want” by New People, from the not-yet-released third album. Become a PEL Citizen to get bonus content, including an mp3 of the above song and a full discussion of Chalmers’s book on consciousness. You can also participate there in Not School discussion groups; new ones are starting in January on philosophy and physics, Merleau-Ponty, Martin Buber, and other topics. Alternately, support us by making a donation, or check out our new T-Shirt/mug/sticker designs.

Dec 212012

Listen to the episode.

Back in ancient Athens, the big-name intellectuals were not the philosophers and proto-scientists we remember today, but the sophists, who taught people how to argue and make speeches in front of courts of law and groups of people. Plato (speaking as usual through his teacher Socrates) thought this to be a vastly overrated skill, because it’s fundamentally bullshitting. If a rhetoritician (a sophist) and a doctor were both to go to the city council to argue who should be hired as the next city physician, who would win? Well, assuming that the council didn’t know much about medicine, then the rhetoritician would win, even though he wouldn’t really know what he was talking about.

In the Gorgias (written in 380 BC or so and considered a mid-period dialogue), Socrates takes on real-life sophist Gorgias and a couple others (Gorgias’s student Polus, and then most at length, another rhetoritician, Callicles), arguing that rhetoric is morally worthless, that rhetoriticians don’t need to know anything about virtue, and that by catering to their audience’s prejudices and ignorance, they miss out on the opportunity to make the audience better people. Like the “chefs” at Hostess, they’re only concerned with what tastes good to their customers, not what is actually good for them. Continue reading »

Dec 182012

Just wanted to kick out a question to you folks: do you most enjoy academic research when you’re focusing on just one thing, or pursuing multiple lines

Credit to

at once? I at some points in grad school thought that I would much more enjoy it if I only had to take one class at a time. I like immersing myself in a subject, and that’s one thing I’ve really liked about the podcast: reading not only the work we’re assigned, but trying to get a grasp (sometimes) on that author’s other writings, what others have said about him, what others have written about the same topic. I would get into such a mode with a grad school class, but then some other course would demand my equal attention, and it was hard to constantly shift focus, and too easy in the end to not get sucked up into any of my courses.

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Dec 162012
Not School

Excerpts of discussions about David Chalmers’s The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, and Paul Auster’s City of Glass.

What’s the relation between mind and brain? What is consciousness? Can science study consciousness, and can evolution really account for it? What is the self and how does this relate to language? All these questions are tackled in these discussions, which were recorded as part of PEL’s Not School members-only website (aka PEL Citizenship). Each was recorded by a PEL podcaster (Mark or Wes, for the ones here) in conjunction with 2-5 listeners who joined a Not School group. Not School gives us the chance to cover more material than we have time to tackle as a full PEL group as well as the chance to get to talk with such great people: the listeners involved are often fully as articulate and informative as the guests we’ve had on the show, with expertise not only in philosophy, but in science, the arts, and other disciplines. (Don’t be intimidated though; we’ve got active Not Schoolers of all levels.) Yes, the recording quality is not nearly as good as for our regular episodes, but you’ll get past it.

Read more and sign up at This will give you access to the full-length (ca. 90 min) recordings of these, plus lots of supporting forum posts on these readings. Best yet, you can join these ongoing groups yourselves, among many others. New ones are being proposed now to kick off at the beginning of January, so get in there to try to draft people into reading what you want to read (or listen to, or watch).

Dec 122012

After our posts about philosophical literature it seemed appropriate to refer to this post from the NY Times on philosophy itself as literature by Jim Holt.

An excerpt:

Now let me narrow my query: Does anybody read analytic philosophy for pleasure? Is this kind of philosophy literature? Here you might say, “Certainly not!” Or you might say, “What the heck is analytic philosophy?

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Dec 092012

Today I had the pleasure of discussing Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False as part of a PEL Not School study group on the book. Joining me were Not Schoolers Neil Earnshaw and Jon Turner.

We discussed our dissatisfaction with with Nagel’s argument that evolutionary naturalism fails to explain consciousness and therefore must be supplemented by a teleological explanation. In the next few days I’ll be publishing a full review of the book.

If you’re a Not School member (or as we like to say, PEL Citizen), you can access the audio of this discussion here (as well as a lengthy and interesting forum discussion on a number of issues, including Nagel’s idea that the evolutionary development of consciousness is “implausible”).

If you’re not a member, please consider joining. For $5 a month you’ll get access to regular audio discussions (above and beyond our regular podcast episode). As one Not Schooler put it about a recent discussion with Mark about Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind, these can be “almost as good as a regular podcast.” Membership also gets you access to study groups and discussion forums, all sorts of other bonus content, and the opportunity to participate in Skype/Google Hangout audio or video discussions yourself if you’re interested (fame and/or notoriety await you). Read more about Not School and sign up.

– Wes

Dec 082012

A feature of Carnap’s system discussed in the episode was his his attempt to objectivize our talk of objects by removing any demonstrative or ostensive elements. Though the “elementary experiences” as I examine them are of course mine, and not analyzable in themselves according to Carnap’s account, the only way they become useful to science is through their connection with other experiences, which enables quasi-analysis that picks out qualities which we can then talk about in common.

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Dec 072012
Rudolph Carnap

On Rudolph Carnap’s The Logical Structure of the World (1928).

What can we know? Carnap thinks that all the various spheres of knowledge (e.g. particle physics, attributions of mental states, moral claims, the economy) are logically interrelated, that you can in fact translate sentences about any of these into sentences about sets of basic, momentary experiences. This book, better known as the Aufbau, is Carnap’s attempt to sketch out how this system of linguistic reduction can work. Though it certainly doesn’t work, it’s a pretty damned fascinating attempt.

Carnap’s hope was to integrate the language of scientific discourse with that of mathematics, and in doing so clarify traditional philosophical problems, in part by showing that anything that can’t be recast in this philosophically respectable symbolic language is a bunch of vague nonsense. So we can describe the relations between the various contents of our experience, but the question of what these entities really are (i.e. the traditional realism vs. idealism debate) doesn’t and can’t arise in the system. Carnap at some points described himself neutral about such questions, but at others as hostile towards the dead-end sort of philosophy that generated them.

Matt Teichman rejoins Mark, Wes, and Dylan to get into some of the details of this very funky constructional system and try to figure out what good it is and whether one can really ignore such metaphysical questions when doing science. Read Mark’s spiffy essay summarizing the topic and get the text.

End song: “Undershirt” by Mark Lint, the recording was produced and many instruments played by Edison Carter for his Talk Zack Talk Wound EP in 1996.

Become a PEL Citizen to get bonus content and participate in Not School discussion groups. Please donate!

Dec 072012

I’ll let the cat out of the bag now that our planned reading for ep. 69 will be Plato’s dialogue “Gorgias.”

I have in mind to record a full-cast audio version of this (there are 5 speaking parts) and am looking for some folks (men or women; I don’t care that they’re all dudes in the dialogue) who might want to read it with me over a Skype call.

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Dec 062012

Editor’s Note: PEL listener Paul Harris has written up this report on a great Not School discussion available for member download. Whether or not you want to join, it’s still a fricking great book, recommended for anyone with an interest in modern and/or philosophical literature.

Last Sunday, the Not School group ‘Worlds of Wordcraft’ – a group created to read and discuss philosophical novels – had its first live, remote discussion. The subject was Paul Auster’s novella City of Glass, which was published as the first part of The New York Trilogy. The book presents itself as a work of detective fiction. However, it soon becomes clear that it is far from conventional in its structure. The work has been cited as an example of ‘postmodern detective fiction’ where the mystery contained within the narrative is itself surrounded by the mystery of the novella’s construction.

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Dec 042012

On 12/4 we spoke with David Chalmers about his new book, Constructing the World. Listen to the episode. The book explores a series of related positions that attempt to generalize and improve upon Carnap’s project of logical construction in the Aufbau, the subject of our episode 67 (which will be posted soon).

Carnap’s project was problematic mainly because first, it was excessively reductionist: we have no reason to think we can really recast all language about the physical world in terms of statements about our immediate experiences. We also (says Chalmers) certainly can’t reduce all mental talk to physical talk (an effort that post-Aufbau Carnap was sympthetic to). Second, Carnap’s technique of using definitions as the way to reinterpret one term in terms of another seems not to work, due to objections like Wittgenstein’s against the classical view that any term can be defined using a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. It’s very easy, when faced with most definitions of this sort, to come up with a counterexample that doesn’t fit the definition.

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Dec 032012

Razor[Editor's Note: Here's a submission from Derick, guest from our Saussure episode.]

“Plurality should not be posited without necessity.” -Duns Scotus

“Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.” -William of Ockham

Here’s a philosophical thesis that should be obvious but apparently isn’t: Ockham’s Razor is not an ontological rule nor even a necessary rule of logic. It is a heuristic that is generally useful but given that complexity in one category can mask simplicity in another, and there is actually no empirical reason for us to favor elegance, which is, after all, an aesthetic preference, then it is impossible to ascribe to reality as a principle or a law the way one would the law of non-contradiction (itself actually logically questionable) or the fundamental theories of matter.  Or, as Seth Paskin put it in a recent episode on Quine which inspired this line of reflection: Why should we care?

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Dec 012012

Not SchoolThere’s lots of cool things going on in the PEL Not School discussion groups. To entice those of you that are interested in emergence to come check things out, I’ve proposed reading and discussing a short, interesting essay by the physicist P. W. Anderson called “More is Different: Broken Symmetry and the Hierarchical Nature of Science”. The essay itself is was originally published in 1972 in Science  and is a classic in the discussions of emergence. You can get a PDF copy of the original article or get it along with a bunch of other interesting articles  included in recently published collection Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science (Bradford Books) edited by Mark A. Bedau and Paul Humphreys.

I plan to have a single discussion over Skype or somesuch concerning the reading at a time to be determined in mid/late December.

Come check it out!