As I prepared for our recent podcast on New Work and we interviewed Bergman himself, I found that I have many sympathies with the project. Even without an analysis of the calamitous effect of the current job system on our economy, I can buy the fact that our job system is a structure with rules, […]
I’m in the midst of reading Karl Popper in preparation for our next recording and have been thinking about the distinction between the fruits of scientific exploration, the theories and accounts of the world, and the underlying disposition of scientific argument, especially as it applies to the way we, as a community, discuss and expect […]
3:AM magazine has a nice interview of the physicist Sean Carroll by Richard Marshall that’s part of an ongoing series interviews, generally of philosophers, being done by the magazine. Carroll is an theoretical astrophysicist who has managed to avoid the pratfalls of physicists like Stephen Hawking who recently declared the death of philosophy. Carroll considers […]
I’ll be giving a public lecture entitled “Surprises and Sweet Spots” on Friday night, February 8th, at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland if you’re pining for something to do and are in the neighborhood. The lecture starts at 8pm and is followed by an extended “conversation period” for those that want to hang around. […]
The Santa Fe Institute has jumped into the massive open online course game, launching “Introduction to Complexity” run by Melanie Mitchell, a professor of computer science at Portland State University and author of Complexity: A Guided Tour. The Santa Fe Institute has done lots of interesting work over the years in complexity, chaos, and emergent […]
The most recent brough-ha-ha from one of Mark’s posts seems to center on rationality and philosophy, but underlying all the stuff in the “new rationality” is understanding the process of updating our current knowledge with new information through Bayes Theorem (LW calls the process belief updating or bayesian updating). Bayes Theorem is both very useful […]
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 […]
There’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 […]
Joining Mark’s reading of Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empricism” on our member site, I’ve added the other essay we read for Episode 66, “On What There Is” to the lot. Due to copyright issues, I can’t just put this on our public site, nor can I sell it as a one-off item, so the member […]
A friend of the podcast pointed me to today’s column in the NYTimes Gray Matter by Alisa Quart about a backlash against neuroscience, particularly popular accounts of it throughout mainstream media from Malcom Gladwell on tipping points to Chris Mooney on the “republican brain” to Eben Alexander on the neuroscience of heaven. These all follow […]
Freeman Dyson has a review of Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? in the early November issue of The New York Review of Books. Dyson is an esteemed physicist who, as a young man, cinched the link between accounts of quantum electrodynamics given separately by Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger, and Sin-Itiro Tomonanga in the […]
In a recent column in The Stone, Harvey Cormier considers the political oomph of pragmatists through a nice presentation of some central thinking of William James. The occasion for the piece is a recent spate of writings characterizing Obama as “a pragmatist politician.” What I like best about Cormier’s article is his refutation, through James, […]
Two friends of mine have recently started blogs, though of different stripes. One is by Gary Borjesson called Idle Speculations. Gary and I met on the faculty at St. John’s, and, like me, is on leave right now. Gary’s book on dogs, friendship, and philosophy, Willing Dogs & Reluctant Masters: On Friendship and Dogs, has […]
For your weekend podcast-listening pleasure, a friend of the podcast pointed me to the most recent episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast in which the hosts take up science fiction and chew on what kinds of philosophical insight might garnered from such speculative fiction. (Beware those who, like Seth, abhor the thought experiment!) In the […]
The Federalist Papers (originally published as just The Federalist) are a collection of essays published in newspapers in 1787-1788 arguing for the ratification of the American Constitution. Each was published under the pseudonym “Publius” though most were written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. (There are a few written by John Jay.) They were collected […]
Every August for the past ten years my family and I have spent a couple of weeks on a smallish lake in northwest Michigan. I say small, but it’s about 1800 acres, plenty big for most purposes, if tiny compared to the big water of Lake Michigan just five miles away. Most every afternoon the […]
Every now and then you find something that is, on the one hand, unexpected. The thought of it hadn’t occurred to you, neither as a fact found through the memes of popular culture nor as an extrapolation from your current knowledge. On the other hand, the discovery isn’t so much a surprise as simply new […]
A PEL fan pointed us to the work of the recently deceased philosopher Paul Cilliers from South Africa, particularly to a short paper he wrote for “On the Importance of a Certain Slowness.” (published as a chapter in Worldviews, Science, and Us: Philosophy and Complexity ). In the essay, Cilliers points to the various “slow” movements that have […]
Dennis Overbye has a nice article this week in the NYTimes on the recently published explanation of the Pioneer Anomaly. As he explains, The story starts with the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes, which went past Jupiter and Saturn in the late 1970s and now are on their way out of the solar system. In the […]
It is oft said (at least when exercising etymology muscles) that philosophy is “love of wisdom.” Just like other mind-related topics such as emotion and creativity, wisdom is getting the scientific treatment. One of our listeners pointed us to a book by Stephen S. Hall titled Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience which surveys a variety of […]
Jim Holt has a new book out with the provocative title Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, featuring encounters with the mathematician Roger Penrose, author John Updike, physicist Steven Weinberg, philosopher Adolf Grünbaum, and theologian Richard Swinburne, among others. David Ulin at the L.A. Times summarizes: That question — “Why is there […]
Not only is today “Independence Day” here in the US, celebrating 236 years since a group of American rabble-rousers declared independence from Britain, it is also now the day that the Higgs Boson discovery was announced at the LHC in Switzerland. (Read about it in the Washington Post and the NYTimes as well.) In one […]
While discussing (through Bergson’s book) how humor works in us, we had a couple of forays into related off-topics. The first was the question of laughter and delight. My contention was that the laughter of delight may be related, but is not the same thing as a reaction to something being funny. The second was […]
I’ve mentioned Oxford’s Very Short Introductions before on the blog, but I can’t help pointing out another written by A.C. Grayling on Wittgenstein. It’s a great example of distilling something complicated down into digestible hunks in an honest presentation and analysis. Very well done. In addition, he’s a fine essayist with a number of collections […]
I subscribe to a number of thick writing journals filled with short stories, essays, and poetry. I am generally behind in reading them, though once I sit down and do so I never regret it. Tin House’s recent 50th anniversary issue devoted to “Beauty” falls in this category and is apropos of Wes’ recent comments […]
Socrates famously calls dogs “philosophical animals” in Plato’s Republic. In this vein, a friend of mine, Gary Borjesson, has a book coming out that’s in large part a philosophical meditation on our relationship with dogs and the nature of friendship. I’ll get to posting about the book itself this summer, but he had a nice […]
This is an obvious cross-reference for this group—indeed, many of you likely already read it. Peter Singer and Agata Sagan have an column in NYTimes’ “The Stone” today called “Are We Ready for a Morality Pill?” They present the conundrum of the how to factor in our growing understanding of the effect of brain chemistry not […]
It is my firm understanding that while The Partially Examined Life tilts decisively toward philosophy generally understood — contemplations of being and nature and self and ethics and thought and morality and consciousness — the disposition we have of engaging texts for ourselves and talking about them thoughtfully and seriously (if occasionally irreverently) extrapolates well […]
Discussing Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975), parts 1, 2 and section 3 of part 3.
Are we really free? Kings no longer exert absolute and arbitrary power over us, but Foucault’s picture of the evolution from torture and public executions to rehabilitative, medical-style incarceration is not so much a triumph of liberty but a shift to more subtle but more pervasive exertions of power. Read more about the topic and get the book.
Discussing Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s “Primacy of Perception” (1946) and The World of Perception (1948).
What is the relation of perception to knowledge? In M-P’s phenomenology, perception is primary: even our knowledge of mathematical truths is in some way conditioned by and dependent on the fact that we are creatures with bodies and senses that work the way they do. Science is great, but it doesn’t discover the truth of things hiding behind perception: it is an abstraction from certain kinds of perceptions. Other modes of approaching things, e.g. art, can equally well give us knowledge, though of a different kind.
Both the Sartre and the Merleau-Ponty episodes have me thinking about memory, body, and truth lately. Our memories are indispensable for forming our identities and are the causal path for experience itself and its effect on our identities. So, there’s a piece to this that we can get to by thinking about memory (and the […]
Discussing Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Transcendence of the Ego (written in 1934).
What is consciousness, and does it necessarily involve an “I” who is conscious of things? Sartre says no: typical experience is consciousness of some object and doesn’t involve the experience of myself as someone having this consciousness. It’s only when we reflect on our own conscious experiences that we posit this “I.” The ego is our own creation, or more precisely a social creation. This means that far from being some primordial structure of all experience, this transparent thing inside us that we have more immediate knowledge of than anything else, the ego is an object: it has parts we don’t see, and we can be wrong when we make judgments about it. Other people might even know us better than we know ourselves.
Free will is always a sticky wicket. On the one hand, we make decisions every day that point to our having a say in what we do. Accountability, in general, relies on this notion. On the other hand, whatever our will is, it is clearly constrained: we can’t will away gravity. Free will is a […]
Discussing Plato’s Euthyphro.
Does morality have to be based on religion? Are good things good just because God says so, or (if there is a God) does God choose to approve of the things He does because he recognizes those things to be already good? Plato thinks the latter: if morality is to be truly non-arbitrary, then, like the laws of logic, it can’t just be a contingent matter of what the gods happen to approve of (i.e. what some particular religious text happens to say).
To the extent that we talked about Richard Dawkins at all in the new-athiesm podcast this summer, we never got around to properly discussing science as wonder. Dawkins makes this argument in a really beautiful new book “The Magic of Reality”. Illustrated by Dave McKean, it’s ostensibly a children’s book, structured around a series of […]
Discussing parts of David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1740) and Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).
Where do we get our moral ideas? Hume and Smith both thought that we get them by reflecting on our own moral judgments and on how we and others (including imaginary, hypothesized others) in turn judge those judgments. Mark, Wes, Seth, and guest Getty Lustila, a phil grad student at Georgia State University, hash through the Scottish stoicism to lay out the differences between these two gents and whether their views constitute an actual moral theory or just a descriptive enterprise.
Discussing selections from Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel C. Dennett.
Should we be religious, or is religion just a bunch of superstitious nonsense that it’s past time for us to outgrow? Does faith lead to ceding to authority and potential violence? Can a reasonable person be religious? We say lots of rude things about these authors, and at times about their targets in this listener-requested episode featuring Mark, Wes, Seth, and Dylan. Read more about the topic.
Discussing Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopian novel Herland (1915) and psychologist Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice (1983).
How does human nature, and specifically moral psychology, vary by sex? Charlotte Perkins Gilman claims that when philosophers have described human nature as violent and selfish, they have in mind solely male nature. Females, left to themselves in an isolated society, would be supremely peaceful, rational, and cooperative.
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.
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.
Discussing Friedrich Schleiermacher’s “On Religion; Speeches to its Cultured Despisers” (1799, with notes added 1821), first and second speeches.
Does religion necessarily conflict with science? Schleiermacher says no: the essence of religion is an emotional response to life; it doesn’t give knowledge or even tell us what to do exactly. Moreover, this attitude is a necessary to fully enter into life, to be a whole and fulfilled person. Yes, he’s of the “romantic” school, but his approach can still be seen today in liberal Protestant churches.
Featuring guest podcaster and blog contributor Daniel Horne.
Discussing Russell’s Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy (1919), ch. 1-3 and 13-18.
How do mathematical concepts like number relate to the real world? Russell wants to derive math from logic, and identifies a number as a set of similar sets of objects, e.g. “3” just IS the set of all trios. Hilarity then ensues.
Discussing John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1690).
What makes political power legitimate? Like Hobbes, Locke thinks that things are less than ideal without a society to keep people from killing us, so we implicitly sign a social contract giving power to the state. But for Locke, nature’s not as bad, so the state is given less power. But how much less? And what does Locke think about tea partying, kids, women, acorns, foreign travelers, and calling dibs? The part of Wes is played by guest podcaster Sabrina Weiss.
Part 2 of our discussion of G.F.W. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, covering sections 178-230 within section B, “Self-Consciousness.”
First, Hegel’s famous “master and slave” parable, whereby we only become fully self-conscious by meeting up with another person, who (at least in primordial times, or maybe this happens to everyone as they grow up, or maybe this is all just happening in one person’s head… who the hell knows given the wacky way Hegel talks)? Then the story leads into stoicism, skepticism, and the “unhappy consciousness” (i.e. Christianity).
Discussing G.F.W. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Part B (aka Ch. 4), “Self-Consciousness,” plus recapping the three chapters before that (Part A. “Consciousness”).
We discuss Hegel’s weird dialectical method and what it says about his metaphysics, in particular about ourselves: not static, pre-formed balls of self-interest, but something that needs to be actively formed through reflection, which in turn is only possible because of our interactions with other people. Featuring guest podcaster Tom McDonald.
Discussing Gottlob Frege’s “Sense and Reference,” “Concept and Object” (both from 1892) and “The Thought” (1918).
What is it about sentences that make them true or false? Frege, the father of analytic philosophy who invented modern symbolic logic, attempted to codify language in a way that would make this obvious, which would ground mathematics and science. Applying his symbolic system to natural language forced him to invent strange entities like “thoughts” and “senses” that are neither physical nor psychological, and we pretty much spend this episode kvetching about the metaphysical implications of this and the fact that Frege didn’t care about them.
Discussing Michel de Montaigne’s Essays: “That to Philosophize is to Learn to Die,” “Of Experience,” “Of Cannibals,” “Of the Education of Children,” and “Of Solitude” (all from around 1580) with some discussion of “Apology for Raymond Sebond.”
Renaissance man Montaigne tells us all how to live, how to die, how to raise our kids, that we don’t know anything, and a million Latin quotations. Montaigne put the skeptical fire under Descartes and both draws upon and mocks a great deal of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. Plus, he’s actually fun to read.
Discussing Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), mostly the intro and ch. 1 and 2 of Part 1.
When philosophers try to figure out what really exists (God? matter? numbers?), Heidegger thinks they’ve forgotten a question that really should come first: what is it to exist? He thinks that instead of asking “What is Being?” we ask, as in a scientific context, “what is this thing?” This approach then poisons our ability to understand ourselves or the world that we as human beings actually inhabit, as opposed to the abstraction that science makes out of this.
Discussing Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations (1931).
How can we analyze our experience? Husserl thinks that Descartes was right about the need to ground science from the standpoint of our own experience, but wrong about everything else. Husserl recommends we “bracket” the question of whether the external world exists and just focus on the contents of our consciousness (the “cogito”). He thinks that with good, theory-free observations (meaning very difficult, unnatural language), we can give an account of the essential structures of experience, which will include truth, certainty, and objectivity (intersubjective verifiability): all that science needs. We’ll find that we don’t need to ground the existence of objects in space and other minds, because our entire experience presupposes them; they’re already indubitable.
Editor’s Note: You may recall our new contributor Dylan Casey from our quantum physics and pragmatism episodes. He’s a physics Ph.D. who teaches philosophy, literature, and other things at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and I’m married to his sister. -ML This article from “The Stone” (as in philosopher’s stone) in the NYTimes argues […]
On William James’s “The Will to Believe,” and continuing our discussion on James’s conception of truth as described in his books Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth. Does pragmatism give ground for religious belief, like if it feels good for me to believe in God, can that justify belief? Is belief in science or rationality itself a form of faith?
End song: “Who Cares What You Believe?” by Madison Lint (2001).
Discussing G.W.F Hegel’s Introduction to the Philosophy of History. Though he didn’t actually write a book with this name, notes on his lectures on this topic were published after his death, and the first chunk of that serves as a good entrance point to Hegel’s very strange system.
How should a philosopher approach the study of history? Is history just a bunch of random happenings, or is it a purposive force manipulating us to fulfill its hidden ends? If you have asked yourself this question in this way, then you, like Hegel, are mighty strange.
Reading Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince and Ch. 1-20 of The Discourse on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy.
What’s a philosophically astute approach to political matters? What makes a government successful? Should you keep that fortress or sell it for scrap? If you conquer, say, Iraq, do you have to then go and live there for the occupation to work out? Is it OK to display the heads of your enemies on spikes, or should you opt for a respectful diorama?
On Werner Heisenberg’s “Physics and Philosophy” (1958), and talking about it with an actual former particle physicist, Dylan Casey.
What weird stuff about reality does quantum physics imply? Is Heisenberg (of the Uncertainty Principle fame) right that we need to reject “metaphysical realism” based on this very well established scientific framework? The discussion ranges over the uncertainty principle, relativity, wave/particle duality, Pre-Socratic metaphysics, why Kant is wrong about space, and lots of very weird things.
Discussing the “Chuang Tzu,” Chapters 2, 3, 6, 18, and 19.
It’s the second-most-famous Taoist text and the most humorous, with anecdotes about people singing at funerals and jumping out of moving coaches while drunk. What could it possibly mean to “make all things equal?” and how is the Taoist sage different from our other favorite paragons of virtue (hint: magical powers)?
Discussing The Genealogy of Morals (mostly the first two essays) and Beyond Good and Evil Ch. 1 (The Prejudices of Philosophers), 5 (Natural History of Morals), and 9 (What is Noble?).
End song: “The Greatest F’in Song in the World,” from 1998’s Mark Lint and the Fake Johnson Trio.
We go through Nietzsche’s convoluted and historically improbable stories about about the transition from master to slave morality and the origin of bad conscience. Why does he diss Christianity? Is he an anti-semite? Was he a lazy, arrogant bastard? What does he actually recommend that we do?
Discussing Fundamental Principles (aka Groundwork) of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785).
We try very hard to make sense of Kant’s major ethical principle, the Categorical Imperative, wherein you should only do what you’d will that EVERYONE do, so, for instance, you should not will to eat pie, because then everyone would eat it and there would be none left for you, so too bad.
End song: “Stop” by Madison Lint (2003).
Discussing Jeremy Bentham’s An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation chapters 1-5, John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, and modern utilitarian Peter Singer’s “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.”)
End song: “So Whaddaya Think?” by Mark Lint and the Fake (2000).
Continuing last ep’s discussion of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with some Rudolph Carnap from his 1935 book Philosophy and Logical Syntax.
End song: “The Last Time,” by Mark Lint and the Fake from the 2000 album So Whaddaya Think?
Discussing the beginning (through around 3.1) of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Mr. W. wrote that the world is made up of facts (as opposed to things) and that these facts can be analyzed into atomic facts, but then refused to give even one example to help us understand what the hell he’s talking about, and so Wes and Mark argue about it per usual while Seth corrects our German pronunciation. The first 3/4 of this episode was recorded off-site from our regular equipment, making the audio quality relatively sucky. Enjoy!
End song: “Facts for a Moment (What You Are to Me),” recorded in 1992 and released on the Mark Linsenmayer album Spanish Armada, Songs of Love and Related Neuroses.
Discussing Leibniz’s Monodology. Have some tasty metaphysics, in mono!
Leibniz thinks that the world is ultimately made up of monads, which are like atoms except nothing at all like atoms, because they’re alive, and mindful, and eternal, and windowless, placed in the best kind of harmony at the beginning of time by God. Is there a concept album in all of this?
Plus, does reading philosophy make you a better conversationalist, or just get you ostracized?
End song: The soothing “Healthy Song” by The MayTricks, from the 1994 album Happy Songs Will Bring You Down.
Discussing Books 1 and 2 of the Nicomachean Ethics.
What is virtue, and how can I eat it? Do not enjoy this episode too much, or too little, but just the right amount. Apparently, if you haven’t already have been brought up with the right habits, you may as well give up. Plus, is Michael Jackson the Aristotelian ideal?
End song: A newly recorded cover of Billie Jean by Mark Lint and the TransAmerikanishers.
Discussing Camus’s “An Absurd Reasoning” and “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942).
Does our eventual death mean that life has no meaning and we might as well end it all? Camus starts to address this question, then gets distracted and talks about a bunch of phenomenologists until he dies unreconciled. Also, let’s all push a rock up a hill and like it, okay? Plus, the fellas dwell on genius and throw down re. the Beatles, the beloved Robert C. Solomon and Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers.
End song: “My Friends” by Mark Lint and the Simulacra (2000).