Episode 90: Sci-Fi and Philosophy with Guest David Brin

Discussing David Brin's novel Existence (2012) with the author.

What's the point of thinking? Brin sees the future as a pressing threat, and Existence speculates that the reason we don't see evidence of life on other planets is that no species survives its technological adolescence. The solution? We need to be smarter than our parents and work to give our kids the tools to be smarter than we are. In the book, the ultimate hope comes from a concerted effort to develop and diversify the coalition of Earth's intelligent life, to make "humanity" encompass more than just the biological humans that we currently are.

In our present political difficulties, Brin sees the solution as positive-sum games: institutions like science and markets that (are supposed to) result in everybody benefiting overall. We need to keep elites (whether corporate or governmental) from screwing these games up, and to use technology to foster reciprocal accountability. The government is illicitly spying on people? Spy back and call them out when power is abused! Instead of vainly trying to hold back technology, just make sure that it's not restricted to elites, that there can be effective debate re. its uses.

The point of thinking for Brin is to "be a good ancestor." Philosophy and science fiction can help through thought experiments that visualize the outcomes of our ideas and can help in developing scientific theories. Philosophy's most Brin-approved task is to promote the critical argumentation needed for reciprocal accountability. The "examined life" is not just for navel-gazers, but for societies prone to catastrophic mistakes.

As this is largely a Brin monologue (with a few interjections by Mark, Seth, Dylan, and also Brian Casey), we recorded a follow-up without him that you can listen to after this. Be sure to listen to Mark's introduction, and then read more about the topic and get the book.

End song: "Persevere" by Mark Lint & the Simulacra (recorded mostly in 2000, sung and mixed now).

Please support the podcast by becoming a PEL Citizen (which will get you access to that exclusive draft Brin essay) or making a donation.


  1. C. M. Frederick says

    Got 21 minutes in and couldn’t take anymore… I do like good hard science fiction, but somehow this episode didn’t float my boat. Wes apparently had the right idea by being absent this go around.

    PS – sorry if this comment was too critical.

  2. Dylan Rtk says

    Hey all. First time, long time. I hate to have my first comment on this site be something negative, but this episode irked me enough to break my chains of self-conscious introversion and actually think my opinion matters (on the internet of all places). I started listening to this episode hoping for a high point in this podcast. What I got was something quite different. Instead of hearing the intelligent and lively discussion ,that I would occasionally do the reading for, I listened to 50 minutes (because I couldn’t take anymore) of David Brin’s shrill, arrogant, and sometimes incoherent babble. I knew this was going to happen. I have read a few of Brin’s articles and know where I stand in relation to him. The problem is that almost the entire episode was Brin talking. It was not a discussion like you had with people like Pat Churchland and David Chalmers. This was Brin talking non-stop and a lot of the time unchallenged on many points that he should not have gotten away with (i.e his future fetishism). I know these episodes are edited and that may be part of it, but I find the fact that Brin went that unchallenged disappointing. The biggest reason why is because I know you guys are smart enough to argue against much of what he said (I am assuming Brian is also smart enough to argue against him being an astronomy Phd). Not only are you smart enough but I caught enough of his underhanded comments making digs at philosophy and the humanities in general to know you all had something to say. The follow up episode will remedy some of that but another reason I wanted you guys to engage Brin was to see how he defended his claims when they were thoroughly questioned, mostly because I have my disagreements with Brin but cannot question him myself being a nobody and all. Though you would not question him as I would have I think hearing him challenged a bit more would have helped me gauge the strength of his argument a bit better. Saying all that I do love this podcast and I really look forward to you guys discussing this subject matter without Brin smugly dominating the conversation.

    • Toby K says

      I understand where you’re coming from, Brin certainly did dominate the conversation by a huge margin, a fact that was made more annoying by his frequent comments to the effect of “I really ought to let to you guys speak more”. But you’ve got to remember that PEL asked him to do this for free, and he probably wasn’t aware of the usual format (i.e. a free-form discussion rather than a traditional interview). He certainly did make a bunch of questionable and bizarre claims, but the nature of how he talked (in 10 minute long bursts) meant that the guys couldn’t properly challenge him without interrupting, which would just be rude.

      I think Brin’s most objectionable points, that philosophy is only good for teaching logical fallacies and sophism, and that modern philosophy is still rooted in Scholasticism (seriously, what?), were actually challenged by Mark, it’s just that Brin didn’t really answer.

    • Alexandra Phipps says

      Brin is a gifted but insincere thinker who seems to prefer the sound of his own insufferable voice to the search for truth. No wonder all his previous incarnations were “burned at the stake”. Brin has cooties.

    • says

      Exactly. I must have listened to half of the podcasts on here and this is the only one I stopped half way through. I come here for philosophy, not punditry.

  3. Jake Z. says

    I don’t think Brin ever said what this apocalypse we need to save ourselves from is. I was quite confused.

  4. Profile photo of Daniel Cole says

    Like Dylan said above, I knew going in that I fall pretty far from Brin’s position on damn near everything, but it’s still beneficial to hear alternative, even adversarial viewpoints. Even if I’m shaking my head the whole time, it forces me to shore up my own thoughts. I’m hoping the next episode will follow quickly, so that we can hear an actual conversation that delves these ideas philosophically. I like the guest episodes, but they do seem to mean that the material at hand can’t be dissected as ruthlessly as when the author isn’t present. Obviously you don’t want to have a reputation for shredding the guests who are cool enough to come on for free.

    Off the top of my head, it seemed to me that Brin doesn’t take the human activity of myth making seriously enough. I have difficulty imagining how literature or art could be quarantined off in the way he spoke of, and his ‘my meat doesn’t touch my potatoes’ division of the scientific and the “Romantic” seems utterly unrealistic to me. The idea of a disentangling a “magical” worldview that we keep around for fun and entertainment, from the scientific one that we’ll take toward everything else ought to be thoroughly discredited by this point. We’re just not going to dodge human nature in that way, unless of course we do just accept the eventual piecemeal replacement of humanity that the transhumanists are so ecstatic for.

    I’d also question his characterization of the nadir of the twentieth century as being the result of “Romantic” projects. This seems like a bit of semantic jiu jitsu. Sure, messianic myths swelled up around the dictators of the twentieth century, but many of these projects were deeply and self consciously progressive. How about the eugenics movement, which unsurprisingly seems to be making a comeback on the froth of transhumanist ideology? Seems like some group always falls short of the cutting edge, and thus becomes a candidate for “upgrading”.

  5. Nate says

    I have listened to 45 minutes so far, but I have noticed Brin refers to the concept of “reciprocal accountability,” which is something I like very much and is one of the crowning achievements of the enlightenment, I think. Too much power in too few of hands doesn’t work for human beings in general. I wonder though why “reciprocal accountability,” wouldn’t apply to the scientific method also? The scientific method would somehow weed out human self interest in humanity also? It seems more like as in politics, religion, health and medicine, education, etc…human self interest would intervene and science would fall into some of the “wrong hands,” and people would start using science for their own purposes. Without some form of checks and balances or as Brin calls it “reciprocal accountability,” science would do the same as all our other areas of learning. In fact eugenics, and current degradation of the environment have already shown this too some degree. I think he ultimately has a type of “romanticism” also, but it is not in the past or in heroes, but in science, which sadly to me seems at best overly optimistic and and worst just purely naive.
    I guess I would agree with someone like Paul Tillich, who writes that everyone has an “ultimate concern,” and Brin’s ultimate concern just happens to be this nebulous thing we refer to as science. People’s ultimate concern while often self evidently “good” to them though, and the scientific method is included here, can easily be abused because of the very sense of transcendental truth they intuit in it, still needs a form of checks and balances. Without this I think we are in a world of trouble, including science. Well anyways, thanks.

  6. Profile photo of Khary Tafari Robertson says

    I really enjoyed this episode, not to say that I agree with most of David’s thoughts, I think he is quite contrite most of the time, I do endear, however, that he makes philosophical assertions, and he has a historic view of how material circumstances attribute to the current social environment. If you ignore connotation and his tone and just take his words at face value, he at least provided a cogent account of his thoughts. I greatly appreciated this episode.

  7. Alex Perez says

    I just finished reading Mark’s discussion about all the negative feedback the Brin episode garnered, right after I tried, unsuccessfully, to actually listen to the thing all the way through. Instead of reiterating the majority opinion concerning Brin, which I fully agree with, I’ll say this: I’m truly impressed, time and again, at the patience and charity of the PEL crew when it comes to difficult texts that quite often at least a few of them really don’t like–my grad school seminars would have benefited enormously from that kind of approach. And now I’m about equally impressed at their patience and charity when dealing with a guest who is, to put it mildly, a less-than-gifted conversationalist. If I were a participant in that episode, I seriously doubt I’d have had the good manners and poise not to take Brin down several notches.

    I’m really looking forward to the follow-up discussion that Mark mentioned he’d be posting soon–and, god help me, maybe I’ll even force myself to listen to this entire episode so as to have a better sense of context for that discussion.

    Keep up the good work, guys.

  8. Profile photo of Kyle Harvey says

    I dont mind the monologue. However if I could characterize Brin I would say he is a bit like Rorty who claims that philosophy doesnt do much concerning practical affairs (but all the while making a living Philosophizing!).

    • Profile photo of Khary Tafari Robertson says

      I think Rorty is trying to make a distinction between the act of creating “original” philosophy like kirkegaard and hegel, and act of analyzing philosophy like harold bloom and the guys here do. the issue he has is that philosophizing has been used to describe both activities, though they are distinctly different to those who actually produce “original” philosophy.

      • dmf says

        no Rorty didn’t think that Philosophy can do the work that it thinks/claims it can and that the work that it might be able to do (in/on it’s own terms) is not very interesting/useful for daily life.

  9. says

    I agreed much with Brin, but didn’t like his rash arrogance and constant verbal diarrhea attempting humor where pause and discussion could have been a much better alternative. Also, his political meanderings were, hmm, far too polarized to be useful. Not that I don’t enjoy my politics and such ponderings, but his constant assurance of him being correct in his assertions were just … stupid.

    Anyway, great attempt and kudos for bringing in another interesting guest. Next time, try someone who engage rather than hold speeches. :)

  10. phil says

    Brin sounds to me exactly like a used car salesmen, but instead of used cars he sells intellectual pluralism without actually genuinely believing it. In other words he is a bigot, but wants you to think he is not. Worse still, he is a scientistic bigot. I find it ironic that he believes romanticism is the great evil that led to men like Hitler…because just from listening (painfully) for 90minutes to him spewing forth his ‘insights’ I am convinced he would make an excellent Hitler; the difference being that where Hitler’s romanticism was national socialism/purity of the Aryan’s, his would be his scientism and…his own unquestionable awesomeness and insight.

  11. Kyle Thompson says

    This is the only episode of PEL I turned off in disgust. I don’t mean to bash the show because I appreciate you guys experimenting with something different, but this was just a bit too much for me. It wasn’t when he started insulting leftists like myself that I shut it off, but when he started with his poorly-informed apologetics for the NSA. This episode reminded me of a Thomas Friedman article combined with a non-stop stream of TED-style empty rhetoric.

  12. says

    I find it mildly hilarious that the content of this podcast directly contradicts the content of the ad that’s read during the podcast.

      • says

        The ad says that when you have IT issues, you don’t have anyone to call. In the discussion, you say that when you have IT issues, you call Brian.

        • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

          Ah, I getcha. Yes, when we have a server crash or someone hacks the site or something like that, we call Brian to fix it. But the architecture of the site with its 47 plugins is our own Frankenstein creation, and if our ecommerce stops working or something like that, it’s up to us, typically Dylan.

  13. von Grünewald says

    I have to concur with the other comments. This was probably the one and only episode I had to turn of because I simply couldn’t stand listening anymore.

    1. I’m not American and thus dwelving too far into American politics only interests me that much.

    2. Brin’s babble about sophism when he clearly is the sophist himself. It’s amazing how one person can talk this much, with this much grandeur and vocal purple prose while saying nothing at all.

    I realize that you might be fans’ of his writings (I know I’m not) but he clearly isn’t cut out for a philosophical conversation.

    3. The lack of input from you guys. I realize that Brin was taking the reins from the get-go, but when a train is about to derail I would have hoped from you to at least try to steer it more forcefully in the right direction. Mark had some attempts but Brin merely shrugged them off.

    I hope the next episode prove more entertaining and interesting, as they tend to be – because don’t get me wrong, I’m a longtime fan and will continue to be so.

    • Daniel Horne says

      All valid points, vG.

      For what it’s worth, I think plenty of Americans were equally frustrated with the episode, and for the same reasons.

      It’s an interesting point in the larger scheme, though. I wonder if there are philosophical controversies of greater interest in Europe that may not be so prominent here, and vice versa. (I understand this may unfairly treat “Europe” as a single monolithic entity, but you get the idea.)

      • von Grünewald says

        Possibly so, but I’d wager that the essence, for a lack of a better word, of those controversies are more likely to be treated the same on both sides of the pond while getting to the point is where we diverge. North America and Europe still remain very much alike, and I find myself being able to relate for quite a while until it becomes too.. specific.

        It’s more the dichotomies in American politics that turn me off – left/right, liberal/conservative, it’s a running theme as far as I can see whereas I as Austrian find myself looking at a more diverse spectrum of entities. The whole narrative of American politics (well, to be more precise, American domestic politics) simply doesn’t resonate with the plethora of phalanxes in Austria, not to say the least the whole Europe.

  14. Lawrence says

    Chalk up one more first time commenter and I certainly do regret now not having written something before when I had something more positive to say. I’ve read a little of Brin’s stuff before and expected he’d have all kinds of interesting things to say, instead it was an hour and a half of him making assertion after assertion, all either unfalsifiably vague or downright wrong and facing only the most megre of challenges. I get that he’s a big name but I’d say that means he should be held to a higher standard, not lower!.

    One example – the thing he was saying about how conservatives don’t like being challenged to expand their “sense of loyalty”, leftists like it too much and liberals like it but also like to keep their old loyalties. How exactly would you test this hypothesis? How could it be falsified? It’s the kind of thing a hack columnist would come up with – trite and almost meaningless.

    I think of all the problems the most irritating thing is the way Brin seems to pause after telling one of his jokes to give everyone time to laugh and applaud. I spent the whole podcast making the wanker sign at my laptop screen.

    This isn’t about agreement or disagreement either. I remember the guest from the terrorism episode, thought he was great guest but still disagreed with almost all of what he had to say.

    It’s a shame.

    The song was good though!

    I’m going to make a habit of leaving positive comments as well from now on. Keep up the (usually!) very good work!

  15. Profile photo of klbillin says

    I was wondering if any one knew what book Brin was talking about that discussed fractional derivatives. It ~40 mins in. I can’t figure it out from the audio but would be interested in finding the book. Thanks in advance.

  16. J.S. says

    Probably Oldham & Spanier, “The Fractional Calculus”.

    A great critique of Brin’s enthusiasm can be found in the first chapter of Wittgenstein’s Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics. The only reason you can take a “fractional derivative” is because somebody, somewhere, decided to attach a particular meaning to a non-integer derivative. It’s the same reason that there are “fractional dimensions”, or the classical example: “imaginary numbers”. Once you realize there are plenty of other equally arbitrary meanings/usages/functionalities that could be attached, it becomes no more amazing than the statement “those colors clash”. You don’t have to be Chuck Norris to divide by zero.

  17. Oli H says

    I too had to sign up just to express my disappointment with this episode and my astonishment at the comic arrogance of Brin. I don’t blame the PEL guys too much for this. I get the feeling they were ambushed by his self righteous delusions and just found it so far off the mark you don’t know where to start with trying to point out all the myriad of flaws in his undisciplined reasoning. It would have been nice to have some dialogue or critique though – contrast this mixture of fawning and awkward silences with the ad hominem childish attacks on the new atheists in that episode and you have to start to question the commitment to truth seeking when faced with professional prejudice or social embarrassment.

    At best I found a handful of his brain farts insightful but poorly justified. Apart from that he is painfully unconscious of his incompetence in the areas of comedy, philosophy and indeed fiction writing. Only a cretin or a teenager regards sci-fi as the greatest genre. It is the easiest, least literary genre of fiction that obviously suits hacks like Brin to a tee as they can hammer out their simple, nuance lacking and unoriginal ideas in a format that doesn’t have the inconvenience of requiring good writing or rigour of thought.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with having guests that are not philosophers on. The difference between Brin and the others is that the others were not complete assholes.

  18. J.Guerreiro says

    i enjoy this podcast very much and loved all episodes that bring on a guest.
    Unfortunately Mr Brin is a good example of someone who’s body of work is more interesting than oneself. For that reason i still chalk this up as a very educative episode.

  19. DS says

    David Brin says that he is many things which he is not. I know enough about art to tell you that David Brin is not an artist, nor is he someone who makes art occasionally. I doubt that he is a philosopher either – which seems to be the PEL consensus. As a consequence, I doubt anything he says including the fact that he is a scientist. We do have material evidence that he is a pulp fiction writer, one with great aspirations. We have seen this combination of flawed personality traits before and on a occasion it resulted in a cult religion.


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