Philosopher's Corner

  • Neuroscience and the Law

    Neuroscience is revolutionizing our understanding of how the brain works. In the process it is challenging ago-old ways of thinking about crime and punishment. Some neuroscientists even say that it’s time to completely rethink our judicial system in light of their discoveries.

    September 5, 2014 | 12 comments | Read More »
  • Is Intuition a Guide to Truth?

    Scientists might start with an intuition, but they never treat their intuitions as evidence. Instead, they go out and test them. Philosophers, on the other hand, like to sit in their armchairs and come to all sorts of conclusions based on intuition. But why should anybody treat their intuitions as evidence of anything?

    August 27, 2014 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Does Language Affect Thought?

    Does language affect the way you think about the world? Can the grammar or vocabulary of the language you speak play a role in shaping your experiences? Or is language merely how you give voice to what you experience?

    August 21, 2014 | 5 comments | Read More »
  • What Might Have Been!

    Many things that did not happen, might have happened. For example, if John hadn’t been such a procrastinator, he might have written more in his career. Of course, since John has really had a highly distinguished and productive career, that’s sort of a frightening thought. 

    August 21, 2014 | 8 comments | Read More »
  • Remixing Reality: Art and Literature for the 21st Century

    Remix is all the rage, these days. Some people claim that absolutely everything is a remix. Of course  if that were literally true, it would imply that nothing new is being created anymore. 

    August 18, 2014 | 0 comments | Read More »
  • The Race Delusion

    Race is important. It has huge ramifications for the ways that we live our lives. But what exactly is race? And is it even real?

    August 11, 2014 | 3 comments | Read More »
  • Captivity

    Putting a person in a prison deprives him of freedom and autonomy. Putting an animal in a cage does the same thing. Of course, people and animals are different, but should these differences change how we view the morality of holding either one captive?  

    August 11, 2014 | 1 comment | Read More »
  • Theological Correctness Part I: The Question

    When church-goers declare, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth,” they refer to the psychological state of “belief.” But what is the psychological nature of religious “belief”—or credence? And do believers really believe their so-called "beliefs"?

    July 24, 2014 | 0 comments | Read More »
  • Privacy and The New Surveillance Society – Big Brother Grows Up

    What we think about Edward Snowden exposing the NSA’s program of spying on our emails, phone calls, and the like, probably turns on what we think about privacy. So what is privacy? An inalienable right? Or a privilege we need to give up on behalf of national security?

    July 24, 2014 | 15 comments | Read More »
  • Tainted by the Sins of Our Fathers?

    According to the Bible, when Adam and Eve ate that darned apple, they tainted all of humankind with Original Sin. But why should anybody be held responsible for what someone else did? What kind of justice is that?

    July 22, 2014 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • Anatomy of a Terrorist

    There's an old saying -- “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.”  That suggests the words “terrorism” and “terrorist” are contested terms. Are these words so entangled in rhetoric and polemics that they're useless for objective philosophical discussion?

    June 26, 2014 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • 'Human' is an honorific title (video)

    Philosophers' Corner Contributor David Livingstone Smith in conversation with primatologist Annette Lanjouw at the Arcus Forum "Less Than Human" in September 2013.

    June 13, 2014 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • Art and Obscenity

    Ken: If I stuck a turd on a plate and called it “Dinner,” would you think that was art?

    John: Well, I’d rather call it art than dinner...

    June 10, 2014 | 1 comment | Read More »
  • Gods, Psychology, and Occam’s Razor

    What makes people believe in God? The relatively new research field cognitive science of religion has come up with some powerful answers to this question. Importantly, its answers are psychological

    June 4, 2014 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • The Problem of Other Minds

    I know that I have a mind, that is, feelings, sensations, thoughts and the like, in a very direct way. I am directly aware of what goes on in my own mind. But how do I know that something like this goes on in other people? 


    May 29, 2014 | 16 comments | Read More »
  • Being Human is Like Being Here

    If being human is a category that doesn’t map clearly and cleanly onto scientific categories like Homo sapiens, do our folk-conceptions of the human offer anything that’s more useful?

    May 27, 2014 | 0 comments | Read More »
  • The Reality of Time

    Nothing seems more basic or real than time, yet many philosophers find it deeply puzzling. Some even claim time is unreal. And it's not just philosophers. It's physicists too. 

    May 19, 2014 | 17 comments | Read More »
  • The Metaphysics of Color

     Is color in the eye of the beholder? Or is color objectively real? Would colors still exist in the world, even if no one was around to see them? 

    May 5, 2014 | 16 comments | Read More »
  • Risk and Rationality

    The world is a risky place where all sorts of nasty things could happen.  So, how do we decide what to do when there are risks at every turn?

    April 24, 2014 | 16 comments | Read More »
  • Is Being Human More Like Being a Weed than Like Being Water?

    You are human, and so am I. We can both agree on that. But what does it mean to say of someone that they are human?  

    April 22, 2014 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • What's on your summer reading list for 2014?

    Every year, we do a special program called the Summer Reading List. As we're preparing for this year's show, we want to know what YOU, our fans and listeners, are planning to read this year.

    April 18, 2014 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • Conspiracy Theories

    Do you think of conspiracy theories as the kind of theories that paranoid nutjobs relentlessly like to spout? Before you judge all conspiracy theories in a single stroke, you should consider that there are conspiracy theories that you probably believe. And with good reason.

    April 18, 2014 | 15 comments | Read More »
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction

    What do nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons all have in common? It can’t just be that they’re all horrible. Is it because they're more destructive or efficient than any others that we call them Weapons of Mass Destruction?

    March 28, 2014 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Acting Together

    Thomas Hobbes famously said that in the state of nature, life is solitary, brutish and short -- as if nature designed people to act alone, rather than together. But acting together is one of the most natural things in the world. So, what exactly is it to act together? 

    March 16, 2014 | 9 comments | Read More »
  • Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir was probably best known as a novelist, and a feminist thinker and writer, but she was also an existentialist philosopher in her own right and, like her lover Sartre, thought a lot about the human struggle to be free.


    March 7, 2014 | 5 comments | Read More »
  • Science and Gender

    Science used to be seen as a thing for boys only. Back in the 1980s, when students were asked to draw what a scientist looks like, 48% drew a scientist with facial hair; 25% gave their scientist a pencil protector. Only 8% drew a woman.

    March 4, 2014 | 9 comments | Read More »
  • Inspiration for Evil

    David Livingstone Smith presents on the philosophical topic of dehumanization and sheds light as to why humans are capable of horrific atrocities that have occurred throughout history.

    February 21, 2014 | 1 comment | Read More »
  • The Legacy of Freud

    It would be hard to deny that Freud was one of the towering intellectual figures of the 20th Century. Arguably, he single handedly changed the way we think about ourselves with his detailed theory of the unconscious mind.

    February 9, 2014 | 4 comments | Read More »
  • Memory and the Self

    There is a long tradition in philosophy of thinking that memory and the self are intimately connected. Locke claims, for example, that what makes me today the very same person as I was yesterday, is the fact that I can now remember what I did or experienced yesterday. 

    January 26, 2014 | 23 comments | Read More »
  • Moral Luck

    In a fair moral system, it seems that how one is treated, whether by the state, other people, or oneself, should depend on what one deserves. And what one deserves should depend on one’s own intentions, desires, motivations and things like that; it shouldn’t be a matter of luck.

    January 12, 2014 | 15 comments | Read More »
  • Trust and Mistrust

    Trust is a pattern of reliance that is no doubt essential to social life. But is it rational? Does trust really amount to being stupid or helpless or both?


    December 27, 2013 | 5 comments | Read More »
  • Welcome to Philosophy Talk's Community of Thinkers

    If Philosopy Talk is to keep bringing you quality, thought-provoking and entertaining programming, we need the help of you, our listeners. That is just one reason why have introduced our online Community of Thinkers. Through the Community of Thinkers we hope to turn ownership of our program over to you.   

    December 20, 2013 | 1 comment | Read More »
  • Do Religions Deserve Special Status?

    The First Amendment to the US Constitution protects our right to say and publish whatever we think, but doesn’t in general guarantee the right to do any more than that. I can believe that people shouldn’t wear fedoras, and I can publish my view.

    December 14, 2013 | 15 comments | Read More »
  • The Ethics of Soda

    At the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year, Sarah Palin sipped from a 40 oz. super big gulp in the middle of her speech, poking fun at NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on large sugary drinks. 

    December 13, 2013 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • Tennis as a Way of Knowing

    What does Berkeley philosopher Alva Noë mean when he says that dance is a form of knowing? It depends on his theory of consciousness. According to the outmoded view that he rejects, consciousness is something that happens inside the head. 

    December 13, 2013 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • Why Science Will Never Replace the Humanities

    Questions about the value of the humanities and the relationship between the sciences and humanities have been very much in the news recently. Notable intellectuals, like Stanley Fish, Steven Pinker, Philip Kitcher, Daniel Dennett, and Martha Nussbaum, have all weighed in on the discussion. 

    December 13, 2013 | 0 comments | Read More »
  • Do Natural Laws Prove That God Exists? A New Wrinkle on an Old Problem

    Things happen. And things happening make other things happen. Drop an egg off the Empire State Building and it’s bound to break when it meets the pavement. Stick your naked finger in a live electric socket and you’re going to get a very nasty shock.

    December 13, 2013 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • The Dark Side of Science

    This week we're stepping over to the Dark Side of Science. Of course a skeptic might ask, what dark side? Without modern science, we’d still be bleeding the sick, travelling by horseback, and using carrier pigeons for long distance communication.

    October 25, 2013 | 15 comments | Read More »
  • Lessons from the Trolley Problem

    There is nothing morally special about trolleys, except the historical accident that around thirty years ago the great philosophers Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thomson used trolleys in a series of examples, originally to help us think about moral aspects of abortion. 

    October 17, 2013 | 13 comments | Read More »
  • The Limits of Self Knowledge

    There’s a long tradition in philosophy of thinking that we actually know ourselves quite well. Descartes, who has a reasonable claim to be the founder of this tradition, apparently thought that we had infallible and complete knowledge of everything going on in our minds. 

    October 8, 2013 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Latin-American Philosophy

    It's National Hispanic Heritage Month, and this week on the program we'll be tackling Latin-American Philosophy. By Latin America we mean all the Spanish and Portuguese speaking parts of the Americas, including Mexico. 

    September 27, 2013 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • Diogenes the Cynic

    Sunday's program is about Diogenes the Cynic.  Diogenes was born about 413 BCE and died in 323 BCE, the same year, and, at least according to legend, the same day as Alexander the Great, who had an unrequited admiration for Diogenes.

    September 20, 2013 | 8 comments | Read More »
  • The Moral Lives of Animals

    Can animals possess moral virtues, like altruism or empathy, or act according to moral principles, like fairness or justice? Or is any ascription of morality to animals is just a case of anthropomorphizing?

    September 14, 2013 | 12 comments | Read More »
  • Memes and the Evolution of Culture

    I bet that when most people hear the word ‘meme’ they think of the Internet and the viral spread of things like planking. Or maybe new expressions like LOL, or Gangnam style or the Harlem shake. This week's program may touch on that stuff, but that’s mostly not what we want to discuss.

    August 27, 2013 | 8 comments | Read More »
  • Life as a Work of Art

    Some philosophers, including the guest on Sunday's program, Lanier Anderson, his teacher Alexander Nehamas, and their hero Nietzsche, are of the opinion think that we should think of our lives as works of art.

    August 16, 2013 | 4 comments | Read More »
  • Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times

    Most Ancient Greeks thought the earth was flat, that slavery was OK, and that women were second-class people. Plato thought democracy sucked, that poetry and drama were bad things, and that freedom of speech is a sort of joke. He even thought that Philosophers, of all people, should be Kings. 

    July 2, 2013 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Nations and Borders

    What gives nations the right to control who can cross their borders? That’s the question we’re addressing in this week’s show.

    June 23, 2013 | 9 comments | Read More »
  • Education and the Culture Wars

    The “Culture Wars”. Not just Liberal versus Conservative and Democrat versus Republican; but Secular versus Religious; Evolutionist versus Creationist; Feminist versus Traditionalist; MSNBC versus Fox. John Stewart versus Bill O’Reilly.

    June 12, 2013 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • Science, Philosophy, and Theology

    Before the Scientific Revolution, the lines between science, philosophy, and theology were blurry. But as scientists started to gather further evidence for the Copernican model of the cosmos, the divide between science and religion grew. 


    June 7, 2013 | 19 comments | Read More »
  • Religion and the Art of Living

    Religion offers us a comforting and inspiring vision of human existence. In the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Islam and Christiantiy, a just but loving and merciful God created the universe. He’s in charge. And he’s got a plan -- not just for the universe as a whole, but for each of us. 

    May 17, 2013 | 10 comments | Read More »
  • Good, Evil, and the Divine Plan

    If God knows all, is all-powerful, and is benevolent, why did He create a world with suffering, evil and injustice in it? That’s what philosophers call “The Problem of Evil”.  

    May 1, 2013 | 18 comments | Read More »
  • The Demands of Morality

    Does living morally add or detract from the goodness of a life? The answer may seem obvious to some people. When you do the moral thing, you're doing the right thing. Violating morality is doing the wrong thing. 

    April 29, 2013 | 10 comments | Read More »
  • Dance as a Way of Knowing

    The title of this week’s show might sound a little mysterious. How can dance, of all things, be a way of knowing? Most things we know, we know either through perception or through thinking and reasoning. But on the surface of things, it doesn’t look like dance is either a form of perception or a form of thinking.

    April 12, 2013 | 15 comments | Read More »
  • Truth & Other Fictions

    We've titled this week's show "Truth – and Other Fictions." Now that’s a provocative title, since truth is usually opposed to fiction. So why don’t we break it down and start with truth.

    March 28, 2013 | 16 comments | Read More »
  • The Fine-Tuning Argument for God

    Probably the most persuasive argument for the existence of God goes something like this: All of this -- that is, a world with life, intelligence, beauty, humans, morality, etc., -- couldn’t have come about by accident. It must be due to some intelligent, powerful Being.

    March 18, 2013 | 34 comments | Read More »
  • The Psychology of Partisan Politics

    Some Americans view gun ownership as a non-negotiable, an almost sacred right, and view homosexuality as an unholy abomination. Other Americans see guns as one of our greatest social ills and see differences in sexual orientation as no more significant than differences in eye color. 

    March 11, 2013 | 19 comments | Read More »
  • The Self

    What is a self? Here’s is a really simple answer. I’m a self, namely, myself. You are a self, namely, yourself. A self is just a person, a living, breathing, thinking human being. We use the particle ‘self’ to form reflexive pronouns, like “myself” and “yourself”, and these pronouns, refer to persons. So there’s the simple theory of selves: selves are persons.

    February 22, 2013 | 13 comments | Read More »
  • The Linguistics of Name Calling

    Our topic this week is the linguistics of name-calling.  This episode is sort of the linguistic companion of our episode on Forbidden Words.  On that one, we talked to a philosopher about the semantics of slurs that are so offensive that

    January 20, 2013 | 21 comments | Read More »
  • Turbo-charging the Mind

    With all the rapid advances in computer technology, are we humans moving toward a day when we will be able to “turbo-charge” the mind? Will we soon develop machine-enhanced super-human intelligence?

    December 29, 2012 | 9 comments | Read More »
  • Has Science Replaced Philosophy?

    While both science and philosophy aim at the truth, they clearly have different methods and tackle different problems. Yet in the last few years, a number of scientists, like Stephen Hawking, have been very vocal in pronouncing the death of philosophy.

    December 15, 2012 | 8 comments | Read More »
  • Unconditional Love

    Parents may profess to love their children unconditionally. But how often do children test the limits of parental love? Couples in the first blush of new love may make dewy-eyed promises to love each other for better or for worse. But how often do such promises give way to betrayal and recrimination?   

    December 8, 2012 | 1 comment | Read More »
  • Are Some People Better than Others?

    You might wonder what kind of a question that is. On the one hand, there’s no controversy—some people are smarter than others, some are more creative, some are stronger or faster, and some are kinder or more virtuous. So, if that’s all we’re asking, the answer is obvious. 

    November 30, 2012 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • How Fiction Shapes Us (guest blog)

    What, if anything, do works of verbal art—poems, plays, novels, films—do for us?  These days, most people will tell you one of two things: some will claim that works of verbal art make us better human beings, and others will insist they have no effect on us whatsoever.

    November 25, 2012 | 4 comments | Read More »
  • How Fiction Shapes Us

    A good novel can do all sorts of things—it can entertain us, move us, confound us, and even outrage us. Fiction certainly unleashes the imagination. But how is it supposed to shape us?

    November 24, 2012 | 18 comments | Read More »
  • Economics: Cult or Science?

    You’ve got the Chicago School of economics, supply-side economics, Keynsian economics, and on and on. Beyond the basic law of supply and demand, is there really much that they agree on?

    November 16, 2012 | 16 comments | Read More »
  • The Evolution of Storytelling

    Is the distinctively human practice of telling stories an evolutionary adaptation? How is storytelling changing and evolving as human culture and technology advances?

    November 3, 2012 | 18 comments | Read More »
  • Forbidden Words

    When we say "forbidden," we don’t mean legally forbidden. This is, after all, still the friggin’ United States of America. And last I looked, we still enjoy the First Amendment right to say whatever we darn well please. We’re talking about morally forbidden words – words that hurt, insult, and demean.

    October 24, 2012 | 5 comments | Read More »
  • The Sex Trade

    The sex trade includes pornography, erotic dance, phone sex, and probably some things I’ve never heard of. But our focus today is prostitution in many but not all of its varieties. 

    October 13, 2012 | 20 comments | Read More »
  • Regulating Bodies

    Nobody has the right to tell me what to do with my own body -- not even the government! It’s my body. I can do with it as I please. But then I realize that there are things like mandatory seat belt laws, prohibitions against prostitution, and laws against the buying and selling of bodily organs. 

    September 30, 2012 | 11 comments | Read More »
  • Why Be Moral?

    What kind of question is that? Morality is a good thing. Immorality is a bad thing. A person should always do good things and never do bad things. Doesn't everybody agree? Well, judging by people's behavior, not necessarily. 

    September 14, 2012 | 28 comments | Read More »
  • The Nature of Wilderness

    The 1964 Wilderness Act defines wilderness as an area where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” which “retains its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvement or human habitation.” That definition is poetic and inspiring -- just like the wilderness itself. But it’s not entirely accurate. 

    August 23, 2012 | 12 comments | Read More »
  • The Moral Costs of Climate Change

    We’re already beginning to see the devastating effects of climate change around the globe, and it’s only going to get worse. Yet despite the fact we've known what the consequences of our actions are for some time now, instead of slowing down, we’ve actually increased the rate at which we burn fossil fuels.

    August 19, 2012 | 16 comments | Read More »
  • Gut Feelings

    Sometimes we make decisions that we think long and hard about, but often we make decisions simply because it feels right. Call it a hunch, an intuition, or an instinct—what they all have in common is that we don’t know why we feel the way we do, yet the feeling is so compelling, it moves us to act. 

    July 20, 2012 | 13 comments | Read More »
  • Hypocrisy

    This week’s episode is about Hypocrisy. There’s certainly a lot of hypocrisy around, especially in politics. But how bad is it? Is it a simply necessary evil for an effective politician? Or is it really one of the worst kinds of vices?

    July 6, 2012 | 8 comments | Read More »
  • Identities Lost and Found in a Global Age

    There was a time when identities were much more tied to geography than they are now. Most people in the world spent their entire lives living in or close to the place in which they were born. Take the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, who never strayed further than a few miles outside his hometown.

    June 29, 2012 | 3 comments | Read More »
  • Corporations and the Future of Democracy

    Our topic this week is Corporations and the Future of Democracy. That title suggests that corporations are a potential threat to democracy. So we should start off by getting clear on what exactly a corporation is, and how it might threaten democracy.

    June 22, 2012 | 10 comments | Read More »
  • Freedom, Blame, and Resentment

    We blame people when they do bad things. Blame often leads to or is accompanied by resentment, especially when we are directly and personally harmed by another person.

    May 13, 2012 | 9 comments | Read More »
  • What Is (This Thing Called) Love?

    Many of us have been in love, and there have been countless great poems and popular songs written about it. So you’d think we’d all know what it is. Yet a lot of what has been written points to a deep mystery. So—as Cole Porter famously asked—what is this thing called love?

    April 21, 2012 | 17 comments | Read More »
  • What Are Leaders Made of?

    Whether you’re talking Girl Scout troops or Army troops -- an effective leader has to have the ability to communicate and motivate. But motivating a troop of pre-teen girls to work hard and earn their badges is a lot different from motivating a troop of soldiers in the face of battle. 

    April 13, 2012 | 8 comments | Read More »
  • Mind Reading

    Before people think we’ve gone off the deep end, we should explain that by Mind Reading, we don’t mean anything having to do with the paranormal or the occult. We’re talking about the way human beings can be good at understanding each other, the way we figure out what other people believe, desire, or intend. 

    April 8, 2012 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • Poetry As a Way of Knowing

    If the title of this week’s show sounds strange, it may be because we don’t normally think of poetry as being in the business of producing knowledge. Poetry, we might think, is about capturing impressions and expressing feelings. The goal of poetry is not to describe the world. That’s what we have science for.


    March 31, 2012 | 19 comments | Read More »
  • Epicurus and the Good Life

    In common parlance an epicurean is one who is “fond of or adapted to luxury or indulgence in sensual pleasures; having luxurious tastes or habits, especially in eating and drinking.” But the Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus was decidedly not an epicurean in that sense of the word. 

    March 4, 2012 | 25 comments | Read More »
  • Pantheism

    Pantheism is the view that the world is either identical to God, or an expression of God’s nature. It comes from ‘pan’ meaning all, and ‘theism,’ which means belief in God. So according to pantheism, “God is everything and everything is God.”

    February 24, 2012 | 30 comments | Read More »
  • On Being Normal

    This we’re going to discuss what it is to be “normal”. It seems simple enough. What’s normal is what most people do. Or perhaps what most people do, or what typical people do, or what most typical people do. It’s definitely what normal people do --- but that’s circular.

    February 17, 2012 | 8 comments | Read More »
  • The 2012 Dionysus Awards

    This week it's our annual Dionysus Awards show. The Dionysus Awards are presented to the most philosophically interesting movies of the year. And sometimes, when we feel like it, we also honor philosophically notable movies from the past. Unlike your average awards show, we accept nominations from the floor. So we’ll be talking to some of our listeners who wrote in with their suggestions, and to some special guests as well.

    February 10, 2012 | 1 comment | Read More »
  • Black Solidarity

    February is Black History Month. So we thought it might be a good time to do an episode on Black Solidarity. Now I admit that this topic may seem to be a bit, shall we say, 20th century. When this country still suffered from rampant racism, it made perfect sense for black people to band together on the basis of their shared history and experience to fight it. But now, in the 21st century? in the age of Obama? Why should we bother with matters racial anymore?

    February 6, 2012 | 14 comments | Read More »
  • The Right to Privacy

    This week we’ll be asking about the Right to Privacy. This is one of those times when we need to start by disentangling concepts. We use ‘private’ and ‘privacy’ in several different ways. Both words derive from ‘privus’ in Latin which means `single’ or `individual’. Being private is usually opposed to being public; privacy means withdrawn in one way or another from the public.

    January 27, 2012 | 12 comments | Read More »
  • Philosophy in Fiction

    Some famous and not-so-famous pieces of philosophy are, strictly speaking, fiction: the Dialogues of Plato, Hume and Berkeley and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, for example. And Rousseau’s Emile has some novel-like elements. Among the less famous are my own Dialogues. (In case you are interested, the are Dialogues on Personal Identity and Immortality, and Dialogue on Good, Evil and the Existence of God. Both published by Hackett publishing. Small and inexpensive, they make great gifts.)

    January 20, 2012 | 8 comments | Read More »
  • Is Democracy a Universal Value?

    The program broadcast this Sunday asks the question: “Is Democracy a Universal Value?” According to the dictionary: “Democracy.” A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives. The dictionary definition leaves a lot of room for variation. In a direct democracy, for example, the people collectively decide political matters. In a representative democracy, the people elect representatives to make the political decisions. And exactly who is an "eligible member"? Only those over 18? Or 21? Only men? Only property-owners?

    January 13, 2012 | 24 comments | Read More »
  • The Examined Year: 2011

    This week, we do something special. We take a look back at the past year, though the lens of Philosophy. We call the episode -- The Examined Year: 2011. But this is not your typical year in review show -- not by a long shot. We take our inspiration, from Socrates who said that the unexamined life is not worth living. For us, that implies that that the unexamined year is not worth living through. Fortunately for us all, though, 2011 was a year well worth living through and well worth examining. It was best of times and the worst of times -- a year in equal parts inspiring and troubling.

    January 8, 2012 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Nihilism and Meaning

    'Nihilism’ is based on the Latin word for `nothing’: nihil. Nihilism is used for a lot of positions in philosophy… that there is nothing at all; that we know nothing at all; that there are no moral principles at all, and virtually any other position that could be framed with the word `nothing’. But the most common use, and what we'll explore today, is nihilism as the view that nothing we do, nothing we create, nothing we love, has any meaning or value whatsoever.

    December 30, 2011 | 9 comments | Read More »
  • What would Jesus do?

    Millions of people believe that Jesus is the Lord, the Son of God, sent to earth to teach us how to live. Many others, including some of the founding fathers like Jefferson, modern Unitarians, and a lot of people who don’t consider themselves Christians at all, aren’t convinced that Jesus is the Son of God, but think he was a great moral teacher. When they confront an ethical decision, or a morally loaded issue of public policy, they may ask, ``What would Jesus Do?”

    December 23, 2011 | 24 comments | Read More »
  • What’s to be done?. A blog for Christmas

    While trying to get my C.V. in order for some university committee that wanted it, I stumbled across an article I had written for a journal called "Topoi" on the topic What’s to be done?. I think they asked a couple of hundred philosophers to write short essays. This was in 2006, but since I mostly deal with timeless topics, my views haven't changed. So I thought I would recycle it as a Christmas blog, since it's sort of cheerful and with respect to the Eastern APA, seasonal.

    December 18, 2011 | 4 comments | Read More »
  • Is it wrong to wreck the earth?

    This week's topic is, ``Is it wrong to wreck the earth?” I suppose the obvious answer is “yes”. The answer may be more obvious than the meaning of the question. We’re not asking if it’s wrong for me or you to wreck the earth for everyone else, but something more like whether the people that are currently alive and busy polluting the streams and rivers and oceans, warming the globe, killing off species, and the like, and thus making the earth a less agreeable place for future generations, are doing something wrong.

    December 16, 2011 | 12 comments | Read More »
  • To Forgive and Forget

    This week’s episode is about “Forgetting and Forgiving.” Frankly, though, the ‘forgetting’ part is sort of throw-away. You should never forget the wrongs done to you. Why would you want to? Forgiving, though, is another thing entirely. When somebody wrongs us, negative emotions can eat away at us. If we let go of our anger and resentment, we experience healing and reconciliation.

    December 11, 2011 | 11 comments | Read More »
  • The Military: What is it Good for?

    Our topic this week is the military. And we’re asking “What is it good for?” Let me start out by granting the obvious. Though a few of my most left-leaning friends think we could do entirely without any sort of military, there has never been and will never be a vast and populous nation like ours without armed services. But even if we take it as a given that any nation, especially a nation that wants to be a significant player on the world stage, is going to have a military of some sort, that still leaves lots of questions open. Here are just a few of them. Exactly what sort of military should we have -- a compact military, adequate for homeland defense and little else or a large and robust force, capable of projecting power around the globe? Who should serve in the military? Should all able-bodied citizens be compelled to serve? Or should the burdens of service be left to volunteers? To whom should the military be accountable, and how, exactly, can it be held to account? And do we civilians owe our military leaders a high degree of deference?

    November 27, 2011 | 18 comments | Read More »
  • Kierkegaard

    Kierkegaard was a very important Danish philosopher of the early 19th century. He criticized Hegel severely. But apart from not liking Hegel, he just seems to exemplify most things I dislike in a philosopher. I like philosophers who tell you what they think in a clear and straightforward manner. Kierkegaard wrote under a bunch of pseudonyms, poetically I guess, but turgidly. I think reason is the method of philosophy. Kierkegaard thinks we should accept contradictions and make leaps of faith.

    November 19, 2011 | 9 comments | Read More »
  • Is Nothing Sacred Anymore?

    Today we're asking the question: Is Nothing Sacred Anymore? Holding something sacred is often associated with religion and God. Some things are held to be sacred because of their relation to God’s wishes and commands. I think our question is in part about contemporary mores. It's also about what sort of convincing rationale there might be for something being sacred, in our more or less secular age. For example, we might agree that human life is sacred. For some people this is explained by God’s wishes, but others might think there's just something about human life itself. A commandment of God might be one explanation, but not the only one.

    November 13, 2011 | 15 comments | Read More »
  • Miracles

    Should a sane, rational person ever believe in miracles? We all believe that the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2010. That was surely a miracle. The Giants victory was unlikely, against the odds, and surprising. And it answered the prayers of long-suffering Giants fans everywhere. But it wasn’t a real miracle, of the sort that religious people believe in, but many philosophers and more or less scientific types are skeptical about. Real miracles require a break in the laws of nature through divine intervention or some other supernatural force.

    November 5, 2011 | 18 comments | Read More »
  • Thinking Inside the Box

    This week, we are “Thinking Inside the Box!”   The box we have in mind?  Television -- of all things.   We’re looking at TV through the lens of philosophy. 

    October 23, 2011 | 3 comments | Read More »
  • Cooperation and Conflict

    Our topic this week is Cooperation and Conflict. Cooperation is found in many species of animals. Take dolphins, wolves, and chimpanzees. They’re all amazingly successful hunters. Why? Because they’re highly cooperative hunters. And there’s no doubt that human beings have taken the art of cooperation to levels that our animal friends can’t begin to match. Take money. Money makes possible the kind of co-operation and coordination required to make a sprawling economic system work. But it’s not just in the domain of the economy that humans cooperate. Politics, education, science---- all of them are domains in shaped by highly complex forms of cooperation. Cooperation is so pervasive among human beings that it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to think that natural selection has specifically designed human beings to cooperate. At any rate, cooperation clearly has been and will be the key to our survival. Indeed, we need more of it than ever. 21st century humans have to cooperate on a massive scale. Otherwise the earth might burn to a crisp.

    October 17, 2011 | 4 comments | Read More »
  • From the Minds of Babies

    Imagine what it’s like to be a newborn baby. For months, you’ve been all alone in this warm and cozy womb -- your every need catered to. Then suddenly, out of the blue, you’re thrust into a chaotic world, filled with strange new sights and sounds -- and people … lots of people … big people. They’re doing all sorts of things that you have no idea about. And all you can do is lie there, looking helpless, cute, and dumb. Fortunately, babies are a lot smarter than they look. They get their bearings in the world very quickly. Before you know it, these helpless creatures are speaking a language, and having deep insights into the causal structure of the physical world and the moral structure of the social world. Which raises the question: Just how do babies manage to learn so much, so quickly and effortlessly.

    October 8, 2011 | 4 comments | Read More »
  • Morality and the Self

    Our topic this week is Morality and the Self. Now most people think of themselves as pretty decent types, maybe not saints, but they tell themselves they're willing to do the right thing most of the time. But if you examine how people actually behave in various situations, situations that put their moral characters to the test, we don’t actually measure up to our own-self assessments. Social psychologists have long known that our evaluations of other people are suspect in certain ways. More recently, they've uncovered surprising and provocative results about the ways in which people evaluate their own moral characters. Start with a simple example about evaluating others. Suppose Alice sees Bob trip over a rock and fall. Alice might consider Bob to be clumsy or careless. But if Alice herself tripped over the same rock, she’d be more likely to blame the placement of the rock for her tripping. and not her own clumsiness. In evaluating others, in other words, people are much more likely to focus on character, to the exclusion of situation, while in evaluating our own actions, we take full account of the effects of the situation. Social psychologists call this tendency to ignore the effects of the situation in evaluating others the fundamental attribution error. It’s also called actor-observer bias. That label highlights our tendency to make moral attributions in one way in our role as first person actor, and in a different way, in our role as third person observer.

    September 30, 2011 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Wisdom

    Our topic this week is wisdom. We hope to figure out both what it is and how we can cultivate it in ourselves and in others. And we’re also eager to think about where all the wise men and women have gone. After all, ours is an age of unparalleled scientific knowledge and technological expertise. But for all of our knowledge and expertise we don’t seem to have an excess of wisdom. Quite the contrary, in fact. Now once upon a time, especially in the ancient world, philosophers thought a lot about the nature of wisdom. In fact, that was true almost by definition. The two Greek words ‘philo’ and ‘sophia’ from which our word ‘philosophy’ is derived literally mean love of wisdom. I think it would be fair to say that for many Greek philosophers, the pursuit of wisdom was the be all and end all of philosophy Perhaps no ancient Greek philosopher was more assiduous in his pursuit of wisdom Socrates. He launched a life-long quest for wisdom after being told by the Oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest man in Athens. He couldn’t for the life of him see how the Oracle could be right since even though he hungered for wisdom, he knew he didn’t have it. Of course, there were lots of people in Athens who did regard themselves as wise. And Socrates thought to himself, “Surely, they must really be wise – at any rate, wiser than me.” So in the role of a student, eager to learn from his superiors, he set out to question the wise men of Athens. But he quickly discovered that despite the fact they all professed to be wise, none of them really were. Most of them didn’t actually know anything at all. And that helped Socrates to finally understand what the Oracle had meant. At least he, Socrates, knew one thing -- that he wasn’t wise. That alone gave him a leg up on the self-declared wise men.

    September 24, 2011 | 16 comments | Read More »
  • War, Sacrifice, and the Media

    In honor of the 10th Anniversary of 9/11 and in lasting solidarity with all the victims of both the original tragedy and its costly and controversial aftermath, we thought we’d rebroadcast our episode on War, Sacrifice, and the Media this week. We don’t seem to have blogged for the original episode – somehow that got sacrificed. But here is a fresh one for your consideration.

    September 11, 2011 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • Deconstructing the College Admissions Rat Race.

    Getting into the college or university of your choice – especially if it's highly selective one -- has become more daunting and more stress-inducing than ever before. The odds are stacked against students from the start. Consider Stanford. This year we had just over thirty two thousand applications to fill about sixteen hundred freshmen slots. So we accepted just seven percent of those who applied. Those are astounding numbers. And Stanford's not alone. Harvard admitted seven percent of its applicants, while Yale admitted eight percent and Princeton admitted nine percent of the students who applied. To be fair that’s not the whole story. Many very fine colleges and universities admit a significantly higher proportion of their applicants. UC Berkeley, for example, admitted twenty-two percent of the forty eight thousand who applied. And the University of Michigan admitted just over half of its applicants. It is a great thing about America, that if you want to go to college, there’s a school somewhere that’ll accept you, and it’ll probably do a good job of educating you. But given that there’s a college out there for everyone and most colleges are pretty good, it makes it all the more puzzling why there's such intense competition over the relatively few spots in the so-called elite colleges and universities.

    September 4, 2011 | 9 comments | Read More »
  • Today: Schizophrenia and the mind.

    Schizophrenia affects about one out of two hundred people. It’s a serious mental disorder that typically involves distortions in perception, especially vivid auditory hallucinations, and bizarre and usually paranoid delusion. Imagine trying to carry on a conversation with while at the same time you're surrounded by four other people, talking loudly to you, often about thoughts you might have considered to be private. That’s an exercise support groups often use to suggest to family what it's like to be a schizophrenic. The best-known portrayal of a schizophrenic is probably the movie `A Beautiful Mind’. Russell Crowe plays John Nash, a mathematician who won a Nobel Prize in Economics. In the movie, Nash’s hallucinations are portrayed as both auditory, visual and tactile. But that’s really not at all common, and wasn’t truly the case with Nash. Like most schizophrenics, his hallucinations were purely auditory. There is some debate whether schizophrenia is just a label for a bundle of commonly co-occurring symptoms, or a single underlying disease. There are no laboratory tests for schizophrenia. However, it is frequently associated with excess dopamine --- a neuro-transmitter in the brain. On the basis of this, there are some pretty good medications. John Nash in real life, and in the movie, preferred not to take medication. That’s very common. There are side-effects, and the schizophrenic also often sees the medications as part of a conspiracy. Schizophrenia is interesting to philosophers for several reasons. Schizophrenics often think the thoughts they're directly aware of in their own minds belong to someone else. Sometimes they just mean that the thoughts come from the outside --- perhaps in radio transmission through their fillings, or some other bizarre way --- and they can’t control them. But sometimes they insist that the thoughts actually and literally belong to someone else.

    August 26, 2011 | 14 comments | Read More »
  • Health Care – is it a right or a privilege

    I think when people say healthcare is a right, or ought to be a right, they don’t always have the same thing in mind. I think everyone would agree that you shouldn’t be denied healthcare on account of race or religion or ethnic origin, or sexual orientation. Well, maybe everyone wouldn’t agree, but it’s not what people usually dispute about. The question is whether you can get healthcare if you don’t have money to pay for it. And you know that question is still not so clear. Does it mean that you have a right to healthcare even though you can’t pay for it, but you still get billed and have to deal with it one way or another eventually? That’s pretty much the current situation; if you’re broke you can go to an emergency room of a publicly supported hospital and get taken care of, and then maybe get a bill for $20,000 a month later. Or does it mean that healthcare is basically free, in the sense of covered by taxes with no debt or out of pocket charge to the recipient, the way it is in some other countries?

    August 19, 2011 | 13 comments | Read More »
  • Time, Space, and Quantum Mechanics

    Quantum mechanics developed in the last century to deal with the tiniest parts of nature. It seemed that classical physics, which applied to everything from stars to grains of sand, should have sufficed. But it didn’t. A whole new theory was needed. To it we owe modern bombs and modern computers. It’s been called the most empirically powerful and accurate theory ever developed. But quantum theory has been a pain, or at any rate a challenge, for philosophers since its beginning. In the first place, the quanta turn out to be neither particles, or waves --- each of which classical physics could deal with --- but something that shares the properties of both, in a way that is impossible to picture. This used to bother people more than it does now. There is a consensus that if we can understand things mathematically, or at least physicists can, we don’t need picture them. More worrisome is the strange role for the observer in quantum mechanics. The idea seems to be that the systems move along from quantum state to quantum state in predictable and unproblematic ways as long as there is no observer. But these quantum states are just probabilities about what’s happening. But as soon as there is an observer, things have to resolve themselves one way or the other. And this seems to not be determined by the quantum state. So, to use Schrödinger’s famous example, you put a cat in a box with bottle of gas rigged up so that if a particle ends up in one place, it will be released and the cat will die, but if doesn’t’ end up in that place, the cat will be OK. Quantum theory tells us exactly what the probabilities are, but not what happens. But when someone opens the box and looks in, the cat is alive or dead. Some how the observer forces the world make up its mind in some way the laws of quantum physics don’t. Well some physicists, and some philosophers, say that what happens is the world splits, with the cat living in some and not in others, matching the probabilities. I think that is really weird.

    August 12, 2011 | 18 comments | Read More »
  • The State of Public Philosophy

    Philosophy Talk is devoted to public philosophy. But we mean two different things by that. OUR first aim is to encourage the public - our listeners and participants in our blog - to do philosophy, to engage in the ongoing activity. That’s because we think it's something a lot of people enjoy, and that it leads to better discussions and decisions. The second thing we try to do is to present what influential philosophers of the past and present, are thinking about. The latter aim is definitely secondary. We're mostly interested in what philosophers think about, because we believe our audience may want to think about the same things. So given that, what are we worrying about when we ask about the state of public philosophy? People sometime worry that modern-day philosophers don’t have the same impact on the public that philosophers have traditionally had, and continue to have in some other countries. That is what our experience suggests. Lots of public radio stations and their program directors are startled to hear about a show on philosophy. They're very skeptical that their listening public would be interested. In fact, one of our motives in doing the program is to make philosophy more a part of public life.

    August 5, 2011 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • Philosophy and Everyday Life.

    Sunday’s guest is Robert Rowland Smith, author if Breakfast with Socrates and Driving with Plato. These books explore how the sorts of events that happen to everyone can give rise to philosophical thoughts, provide examples of philosophical insights, and be enriched by considering those insights. From his picture, Smith looks to me like a young guy. I don’t know how he has lived long enough to read all the philosophers he discusses. He has really mastered a fascinating kind of essay. He takes an ordinary event, like taking a bath, and finds all sorts of interesting things to say about it. The chapter ``Going to a Party’’ leads from Leslie Gore --- of ``It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” ---to Machiavelli. As I read Breakfast with Socrates, it seemed to me that Smith and I seem to take exactly the opposite approach to philosophy. I usually start with something people find intrinsically philosophical and mysterious and extraordinary, like personal identity or consciousness or freedom, and put a lot of effort into finding that nothing all that fascinating is going on. That’s not really how I think of what I do, but it’s how lots of other intelligent people react to it. As if I were trying to make the philosophical into the banal. Smith, on the other hand, takes having a bath, or driving to work, which seem sort of banal, and makes them philosophically alive, examples of insights from Socrates to Sartre.

    July 28, 2011 | 5 comments | Read More »
  • What Are Words Worth?

    'Ilunga’ means a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time. That’s a word I’ve just imported into English from Tshiluba. A bunch of linguists voted it the world’s hardest word to translate. Then they gave us a translation. I’m so happy to have this word. It allows me to think thoughts that I couldn’t think before. I wonder if Obama is basically an ilunga. My wife is definitely not an ilunga. She’s all over me after my first abuse. I don’t know about you, but I do most of my thinking in words. If I don’t have the words, how can I have the thoughts? And if you can’t have the thoughts, you can’t make plans. Tonight I’m going to do some schoogling. Until I learned the word, I couldn’t have had that plan. While 'schoogling' sounds like something we can’t talk about on Public Radio, it’s just googling the names of old schoolmates. It’s increasingly the cause of cylences. Cylences: are the long gaps in a phone conversations that occur when a person is reading e-mail or cybershopping while talking on the phone. Or schoogling. I think there are lots of thoughts we can’t think without having the right words. Or at least, wouldn’t be very likely to. Different languages and cultures have different words, and hence have different conceptual schemes, and even see the world differently

    July 22, 2011 | 14 comments | Read More »
  • Atheism and the Well-Lived Life.
    Anonymous (not verified)

    Posted by JP 



    An atheist is someone who not only doesn't believe in God, but believes, with some confidence, that there isn’t a God.  But ambiguity remains.  Does that simply mean rejecting the classical Judeo-Christian all-perfect God?  Or does it mean rejecting Hume’s much weaker criterion: that the world was created by some thing or things bearing some remote analogy to human intelligence?

    I’ll call the more radical view “strong atheism”.  It says the world was not created by, and is not controlled by, any intelligence, or anything having any remote analogy to intelligence whatsoever.  There is not one all-perfect God, nor are there several less than perfect gods.  Not even the Great Pumpkin.  To be a strong atheist is to reject supernatural deities of all forms and kinds. 

    Ken and Louise Anthony, our guest, both are, or are in the neighborhood of, being atheists of tis kind.  The more interesting point for this show is that they find it a rewarding, sustaining, and even inspiring point of view.  Let’s pose some questions, and imagine their answers. 

    At first glance, it seems odd to find inspiration in the non-existence of something.  What’s it like to be converted to atheism?  We have many accounts of conversions to religion.  The world suddenly takes on new meaning; your sorrows are lifted when you learn that there is someone up there who cares.    But when you’re converted to atheism, the world goes from meaningful to meaningless, from caring to uncaring, from hopeful to hopeless.  It really sounds depressing -- the source of despair, not inspiration.  If Richard Dawkins are Christopher Hitchens set up a traveling revival show, to convert people to atheism, would the converts appear revived?  Or sort of depressed by their new-found belief in the  meaningless of everything?

    But, our enthusiastic atheists will reply, conversion to atheism is not usually a sudden event.  It’s a more gradual process, and it comes in two parts.  First, it becomes clear to you that there’s no evidence whatsoever for God, and considerable evidence against anything like the Christian God, or any lesser version of God.  That can be depressing, we all must admit.  

    But with more thought it becomes clearer that not as much depends on God as you might have thought.  You still have fun.  You still have friends.  Certain things still are valuable, others less so.  And, unlike what Ivan Karamazov thinks, not everything is permitted. 

     What about the afterlife?  Isn’t it depressing to give up that belief?

     Well, admittedly, there is no afterlife without some miracle worker like God to provide it.  But as Hume said, all the years before I existed weren’t so bad for me.  Why think the years after I die will be so bad?

    But what about the question Dostoyevsky’s Ivan poses:  Why isn’t everything permitted for the atheist?  What sort of fact is it that something is wrong --- say that torturing innocent children is wrong?  It doesn’t seem like a fact of nature; nature seems all in favor of all sorts of undeserved pain.  It doesn’t seem like a rule of etiquette.  It seems like an objective fact about the world.  Who could the fact-maker be, if not God?

    But what’s implicit in this question is the Divine Command theory of right and wrong.  Something is wrong because God says it was wrong.  But that’s not the only theory of objective right and wrong.  You might think there are just moral facts -- like mathematical facts -- without God having anything to do with it.  You might think that morality derives from perfectly objective facts about pleasure and pain, life and death, human nature, reason, logic, cooperation and the like.  The atheist has no shortage of answers to Ivan’s claim.

    Granted all of that, doesn’t it still seem strange to define one’s life by a negative claim, by the non-existence of something.   You can become the village atheist, and make it your mission in life to tell religious people what idiots they are.  But that doesn’t seem very fulfilling.

    To which Ken and  Louise Antony will reply, no doubt, that they don’t define their goal in life to rag on the religious, but rather to explore the joys of positive atheism.   I find atheism difficult to resist, but I'm not quite so sure I should be joyful unto the non-existence of the Lord.  We shall see.



    QuickPost | TypePad.

    July 8, 2011 | 19 comments | Read More »
  • Lincoln

    Lincoln is revered as our greatest President; he is virtually an American Saint. In Sunday’s program, we look at his philosophical ideas --- both political and religious. Some of these are disturbing. The Second Inaugural Address --- the one that’s carved on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial --- is really quite chilling. Especially if you think it really represents the philosophy of someone who has just pursued a path that led to the death of half a million people. It ends with a very moving statement: With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.’’ Those words express a noble philosophy: charity, fairness, compassion.

    July 2, 2011 | 3 comments | Read More »
  • The Language of Responsibility

    By the language of responsibility, we mean the way we report events for which someone might be held responsible --- events for which someone might be blamed, or praised. For example, in reporting a famous event witnessed by millions of people on TV, I might say "Justin Timberlake ripped off Janet Jackson’s blouse, revealing her naked – uh --- chest." Well, actually, her right breast, not to be overly euphemistic.

    June 11, 2011 | 10 comments | Read More »
  • Gay Pride and Prejudice

    Our society, taken as a whole, can’t make up its mind about Gays and Lesbians. On the one hand, many studies have documented increasing tolerance of homosexuality, especially among younger, more educated, more affluent, and more liberal Americans. On the other hand, a substantial number of Americans still don’t think gays should be allowed to marry, serve in the military, adopt or even teach children. The extent of how divided we are about gays and gay rights is evident in our politics. While there's substantial grass-roots activism in favor of gay rights, surprisingly few national politicians -- even politicians who are progressive on other issues -- are willing to actually stand up and lead the charge in favor of gay rights. I can’t think of a single national politician who has taken on gay rights as a cause célèbre. To be sure, there was San Francisco’s former mayor, Gavin Newsom, who officiated at all those gay weddings. But given that it was San Francisco, it’s not really clear how much courage that took. But in any case, there’s no shortage of politicians wiling to demagogue against the so-called “gay agenda” and demonize gays and their so-called lifestyle.

    June 5, 2011 | 16 comments | Read More »
  • Summer Reading

    Each year Ken and I together with our listeners, previous guests, and special guests, come up with a number of suggestions for summer reading. The books don't have to be philosophy books, but they should have a philosophical angle. So the categories come down to philosophically interesting fiction, philosophically relevant non-fiction, and straight philosophy.

    May 28, 2011 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • The Prison System

    This week, we tackle the prison system. America imprisons more of her citizens, for more crimes, and for longer periods than any other nation in the world. At the beginning of 2008, nearly two and a half million people were in prison in the US. That’s one in every one hundred adults. China, with a population about four times ours, had a prison population of about one and a half million during that same period. Does this mass incarceration really serve the interest of justice? Or is it an inefficient, dysfunctional way of addressing social ills that would be better handled in other ways?

    May 22, 2011 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Beliefs Gone Wild

    The human mind is a wondrous thing. It has uncovered the innermost secrets of the natural world; it’s created art and democracy; and even explored the depths of its own operations. But human minds can be filled to the brim with superstition, prejudice, and all kinds of falsehoods. Which brings us to today’s topic: Beliefs Gone Wild! Where do all these false beliefs come from? Why are so many of our beliefs out of sync with reason, evidence, and argument? And, what, if anything, can we do to guard against falsehood, while at the same time increasing the stock of the true things we believe? This is an age-old question -- one taken up by Socrates, Plato, Descartes, Hume, James, Dewey -- to name just a few. With all that accumulated philosophical wisdom -- not to mention the advances of science, the decline of superstition, the fall of tyrannical regimes that tried to bludgeon their citizens into believing lies -- with all that intellectual progress, you might think that nowadays we believe a lot more truth and a lot less falsehood than we used to.

    May 15, 2011 | 10 comments | Read More »
  • Cities, Gentrification, and Inequality

    I’ve fallen a little behind on blogging, cause I’ve been a busy, busy, boy. So I’m posting both an entry about last week’s topic, Cities, Gentrification, and Inequality, and this weeks topic. Throughout history, cities have been major centers of commerce, creativity, and culture. They have been places where classes and races mingle and mix, places where the young go to make their dream and expand their horizons. But beginning apparently as early as the 1920’s, but certainly accelerating to a feverish pace during the social turmoil of the 60’s, many once great American cities began to empty out, as the middle class, especially, fled for the comfort and security of the sprawling suburbs.

    May 15, 2011 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • Should Marriage Be Abolished?

    Our topics this week: Should Marriage Be Abolished? That’s a pretty punchy and provocative way to ask the question, we’re trying to get at, but we need to be careful. Asking whether marriage should be “abolished” isn’t like asking whether slavery should be abolished. We don’t want to suggest that people should be forbidden from marrying. Of course, some people are forbidden from marrying. In most places in the United States, gay couples are not legally allowed to marry. Once upon a time, interracial couples were not legally permitted to marry. So one question that we could be asking is whether the legal inequality between those who are permitted to marry and those who aren't, is morally and/or politically defensible.

    May 1, 2011 | 15 comments | Read More »
  • The Extended Mind

    Our topic this week is The Extended Mind Hypothesis.   If you haven’t followed certain literature, you might be puzzled by today’s topic – especially if you just go on the meanings of the individual words involved.  Most people are pretty clear what the mind is.  It’s the seat of thought, consciousness, emotion…  Stuff like that.  And we know what it means to say something is extended – it’s   stretched out through space or maybe over time.   But I don’ think it is obvious what it means when we combine these two things, and say the mind is extended.

    Descartes, for example, distinguished what he called thinking substance –the mind -- from what he called extended substance – material objects that occupy space.  So you could read the claim that the mind is “extended” as just the denial of Cartesian Dualism, just the claim that, contrary to Descartes, the mind occupies space after all.  Of course, that topic has been beaten to death by now.   Plus,  even if we grant that the mind occupies space, there’s still a big question.  Just where in space is the mind?

    You might think that there’s an easy answer to that question, especially if you are a thoroughly modern materialist.  Materialists think that the mind is simply the brain working and that  The brain resides in the skull.  Hence the mind resides in the skull.  QED.

    But friends of the extended mind hypothesis think that this way of looking at the mind entails a kind of vestigial Cartesianism.  It construes the mind as a little black box, locked up inside our heads, as something separate and distinct both from the body in which it's contained, and from the environment that surrounds the body.   Except for the part where the materialist grants that the mind is a material thing, it remains Cartesian in the sense that it takes the mind to be entirely separate from (the rest of) the body.

    I know that’s a pretty big “except.”  And maybe it’s even part of common sense to think of the mind as something “contained in”  the body, but still separate from it.   But it’s just this way of looking at mind that proponents of the extended mind hypothesis wish to question.   They take it to be part of the essence of mind to be embodied and situated.  The mind, body, and environment are not three separate and distinct things, on this view,  but one massively interactive, massively interconnected whole.

    Poppycock, a skeptic  might say.   Consider the following analogy. I live in a house.  Couldn’t live nearly so well without one.  But that doesn’t make me and my house one massively interactive and interconnected whole.

    But maybe a little experiment will help you skeptics out there get force of the claim. Probably there’s an object you can reach out for an grab while you are reading this – maybe a cup of coffee or a bottle of water.   So do something for me. Reach for that bottle of water – or whatever it is --  and take it into your hand.   I am going to assume that you pulled that off quite effortlessly.  Now the reason you were able to do so, is because the human hand is a really cool thing.  And I am not just thinking of the opposable thumb, here.     Rather, I'm thinking of the collapsibility of the hand.  Because of the way the hand naturally collapses, you didn’t have to do a lot of calculating to grab that bottle.  You didn’t have to independently calculate the trajectory of each individual finger, for example.    All your brain had to calculate was a trajectory that got my hand into the rough vicinity of the bottle and with the right orientation toward it, and from that point on, the hand just sort of took over, by automatically collapsing around the bottle.

    The point is that when the body moves, some of the work of making it move is done by that little computer we call a brain and some some of the work is done by the body itself.   So If you think of the mind as whatever is ultimately responsible for movement, then you can’t just identify the mind with the brain, with the inner computer.    At the same time it would be just as wrong to identify the mind with the body and ignore the inner computer.  That’s what behaviorists did.  It’s not an either-or thing.  When we’re talking about the mind, we’re really talking about the brain-body complex.  There is no fixed boundary between the mind and the body. 

    And if  you start down this route, there won’t be any reason to stop at the boundaries of the body.   The structure of the environment is at least as important to the nature of cognition as the body.  Think of external memory aids like my lovely little iPhone, with its sync-able calendar.   Technology enables us to offload onto the environment cognitive tasks that in earlier times the brain had to perform all on its own.  Modern technology extends the mind, right out into the world.

    So now that we’ve got a feel for what is meant by the extended mind hypothesis,  I hope you’ll agree that this will be a fun topic to think about.  And we’ve got a really fun guest to help us do the thinking.  We’ve extended our collective mind to include George Lakoff,  co-author of Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought.

    April 16, 2011 | 9 comments | Read More »
  • What is an adult?

    What is an adult?

    Suppose I say an adult is someone who's 18 years or older, unless the issue is drinking legally, in which case an adult is someone 21 years or older.  That’s a start.  But we’re not so much interested in legal definitions, as changing conceptions, of what an adult is.  You could argue that unless we know what an adult is, we don’t really know what a person is or what a human being is.

    Aristotle said that to know what a thing is, one needed to know what its final cause is.  For example, I could show you a corkscrew, a piece of wood with a spiraling wire descending from it. I would explain that it's for removing corks from wine bottles.  That’s what it was designed and created for.  That, for Aristotle, was its final cause.

    The Final Cause of a living organism is the function that organism normally performs when it reaches maturity. The form or structure it develops through childhood should help it to perform these functions well when it reaches maturity.  To understand what humans are, we need to understand what it is we expect fully developed, adult humans to be like.  Which for Aristotle meant creating and raising the next generation, contributing to the economy, safety, and governance of the community and, if you were fortunate, doing philosophy.

    This raises the question, who gets to say what an adult is supposed to be like?  God?  Whose God?  Reason?  Economists?  Philosophers?  The Liberal Media?  Rush Limbaugh? Aristotle?

     Even if we can’t answer that question, if we want to understand what a given society thinks humans are all about, then a good place to start is what that society thinks being an adult is all about.  Hence our topic: what is an adult.  That is, what is our society’s conception of an adult, and how is it changing?

     Well in that case, it seems our society must ha an evolving conception of human nature, because our concept of adulthood sure is changing.  I was raised to think you got a job, fell in love, got married, and had children, became part of a community, and started paying taxes big time, all in your early twenties, and roughly in that order.  That’s what adults do, with exceptions here and there, of course.  But people in their twenties don’t do that so much anymore.  They bind together in urban tribes, like on Seinfeld, or Friends.

    Are people becoming adults later?  Or have we changed what counts as being an adult?  Have we forgotten what human life is all about?  Or have we just changed the rules for making it happen?  Have we discovered new patterns of growing up, or forgotten what it is to grow up?

     Today’s guest, Ethan Waters, has written a lot about these topics, including a book called Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment.

    April 8, 2011 | 8 comments | Read More »
  • Social Networking

    I actually got a Facebook page at Ken’s  urging so that I could be part of the Philosophy Talk Facebook Community.  And while I’m glad that so many people like to follow the comings and goings of Philosophy Talk over facebook, for me personally, it’s a big pain.  People I’ve never heard of, ask to be my friend.  Once a month I log on and say yes to all requests so I won’t hurt anyone’s feelings.  Aside from that I never use it.  I mean do I want to know when you’re walking your dog, or see pictures of some party I didn’t go to?  It’s a complete waste of time.   With one exception.  You can go through Facebook to play Scrabble with family and friends, which is kind of fun.

    Ken inists, however, that although a lot of time is wasted on online social networks, there is great importance and potential to it.   On this view, eventually, social networking is going to change the way we relate to each other in pretty far-reaching ways. 

    The basic idea is that the internet changes the shape of friendship.  People with common interests, but little chance of seeing each other, can become good friends.  The sorts of high-bandwith communications, that used to be possible only with people close by, can now be conducted with people all around the world.  How can this not be a good thing?

    But  what kind of friendships are these?  I like to eat lunch, have a beer, shoot pool with my friends.  You can’t do that on the internet.

    But I’m probably mistaking my own limitations, for limitations on the possibilities of true friendship.  Ever since the dawn of writing, there have been long-distance friendships.  People have kept up and even started friendships via the mail and the telephone.  The internet just extends this trajectory in the development of human relationships.

    All human relations, insofar as they are mediated through the internet, are undergoing a revolution.  Think about the way businesses relate to their customers, the way we conduct scholarship, the way groups of like-minded people dedicated to a cause organize themselves –  these things are all being affected by this social revolution.  I think it’s potentially a huge big deal.  And I think we ought to pause to reflect philosophically on this huge big deal before it overwhelms us, not after, whether we are enthusiastic about the changes, or just think it is one more case, like guns, nuclear energy and hard drugs, of advances in technology leading to the deterioration of human life.

    April 2, 2011 | 16 comments | Read More »
  • Is it All Just Relative?

    Our topic this week is relativism.   “Is it all Just Relative?” we ask.   Clearly some things are relative.  Tastes in food or matters of etiquette, for example.  If I like single malt scotch and you don’t, there’s no basis for saying that one of us is right and the other is wrong about how good it tastes. Taste is just relative to our individual taste buds.    Same thing seems true of etiquette – except that etiquette is relative to cultures or subcultures rather than to individual people.  I’m told that in some cultures, a gentle burp after a meal is a polite way of expressing satisfaction.    Not in mine.   But again, there isn’t any basis for saying that one culture has it right and the other has it wrong.   Our question is whether everything – including truth, knowledge, and morality – is  like matters of taste or etiquette? 

    At first blush, that seems like a pretty straight-forward  and easy question.   It seems pretty clear that some things are not relative.   It’s hard to feel much intuitive pull in the idea that truth is  relative. Clearly, believing something to be true, doesn’t make it true. Certainly there's a sense in which if I believe something to be true,  then it is "true for me."   But to say that something is true for me really is just to say that I believe it.  It is not to say that it is flat-out true.  Just because we take there to be a distinction between believing true and actually being true,  relativism about truth seems pretty hard to make out.  

    The same might seem to go for morality -- though here making a case against relativism seems a little harder.  I think Hitler was a really bad man. And I think that's not just a matter of opinion, that's  a matter of cold hard fact.  And I like to think that the fact that  he  and his Nazi followers  thought it was a morally good thing to slaughter the Jews, didn't make it so.  Not for me  and not for them either.

    Still, as little intuitive pull as relativism about truth seems to have,  there are people who take relativism, especially moral relativism to be both obvious and obviously true.  Partly due to the influence of thinkers like Rorty and Derrida,  even relativism about truth and knowledge  is something of the  rage in certain circles of academia. And with respect to the intuitive pull of moral relativism,  scratch any 17 year old college freshman, for example, and you’ll get a reflex moral relativism, according to which each of us has his own moral code, and nobody is really entitled to question anybody else’s moral code.  Moreover, if you believe Pope Benedict,  relativism is just about  everywhere. Not only does he  see relativism everywhere, he decries it as the main enemy of the Church and laments that  Western civilization is being destroyed by “the dictatorship of relativism.”

    Of course, sometimes people’s commitment to a controversial doctrine is   more in word than in deed.  Lots of people may think that they  (and others)  are  relativists. Some people may  even talk like relativists.  But when push comes to shove,  it may be that they  don’t act like relativists.   Ask yourself what your supposedly secular, post-modern  relativist actually  does when faced with the reality of female genital mutilation or the criminalization of homosexuality in certain African countries?  Do they just shrug their shoulders in indifference and say “well, that’s how they do things over there? ”   I bet that that's  not at all what they would do.  Most of them would feel some degree of moral outrage or disgust.

    Now  most arguments for relativism begin by observing that some cultures endorse things like female genital mutilation, while other cultures prohibit such things.   But the argument can’t end there.   The relativist has to show not only that there are diverse moral outlooks but that they are all “equally valid” and that “disputes” between them can’t be rationally adjudicated.   And you might think that the very fact that we express moral outrage over female genital mutilation in other cultures shows that we don’t regard all moral systems as equally valid, even if we say we do. In practice, we regard some systems as superior to others, as closer to the moral truth of the matter.

    Of course, one kind of relativist will insist that regarding our own moral system  (or our belief system more broadly) as superior to another is little better than a form of intolerant arrogance or cultural imperialism.   But against the line of reasoning I am trying out now that observation misses a point. The point is that on the face of it,  we don’t regard differences in moral systems as on a par with differences in taste or rules of etiquette.  In these domains,  we may indeed say “to each his own,”  “live and let live” and leave it at that.   But when it comes to weighty moral matters, we certainly behave as if there’s a right and wrong of the matter.  Or so it seems, anyway.    It is certainly true that we may or may not be certain where the truth lies in a particular case.  But when we doubt that we know the truth, we don’t ipso facto doubt that there is a truth to be found out, somehow or other. That’s why we engage in further argument and investigation in the face of disagreement. If we didn’t believe that there was a truth out there to be known, the absolutist will say,  argument and investigation would simply lose their  point.  The conclusion is supposed to be that the bare fact that we greet moral disagreements with arguments, rather than with automatic acceptance or indifference, shows that we aren’t really relativists after all.

    But a not so small voice inside me thinks that the last line of argument just went by much too fast. Why,  the not so small voice plaintively asks,  can’t a relativist rationally prefer that others share his or her moral outlook?   If she does rationally prefer such a thing,  then that bare optional preference itself would give her a reason to invite further argument in the face of apparent disagreement.  And there’s no reason,  the not so small voice says,  that she can’t coherently both have such a preference and believe that there is no absolute truth of the matter where things  like morality are concerned. 

    Consider an analogy with matters of taste.  I offer you a sip of what I take to be a very fine pinot noir.   You don’t like it.  Perhaps you find it disgusting.  What do I do?  Shrug my shoulders?  I could, but I am not required to do so.   Cause I might believe that I could,  by giving you the right experiences, educate your palate into the glories of fine pinot.   I might believe this even if I also believed there were no absolute, taste bud independent facts about the taste of pinot.   How might I do this re-education of your palate?  Well, by offering you the functional equivalent of further arguments and evidence.   That is, I’ll get you to taste it again,  perhaps after having gotten you to taste several inferior varieties.  Perhaps, in the end, with the right arrangement of vinoic arguments, as it were,   I could bring it about that your tastes and my tastes converge.

    Now why on earth would I bother to do such a thing, especially if there are no objective facts about taste?   Well, perhaps partly because I simply don’t like to drink alone and partly because its fine pinots that I love to drink.   That is, because I want to keep drinking pinot and I want company in the drinking of them,  I try to bring you around to my way of tasting.  

    Couldn’t an analog of the same story be told about moral arguments?  I prefer company in my way of valuing the world. In the face of disagreement,  it’s not so much that I try to get  you to see the truth.  Rather,  I try to bring you around to my way of valuing.  I offer you up what I take to be a compelling version of how the world is to be valued and try to lead you into adopting that version as your own.  I can have perfectly good reasons for that attempt.  It need not be a form of arrogance.  And it need not presuppose that there are objective matters of fact about what things are really and truly valuable independently of our valuing.

    Who knows if this is the right way of thinking about relativism, disagreement, and argument.   But I’m sure our guest,  Paul Boghossian, author of Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism,  can help us straighten this all out.  Paul tends to give no quarter to relativism, while I feel its pull quite strongly – at least in the realm of morality.  So it should be an interesting conversation. 

    March 19, 2011 | 26 comments | Read More »
  • Free Will

    There's a long history of philosophers worrying about whether we’re really free.  One of the first worries was whether we can be free, given God’s alleged omniscience, which seems to mean He knows what we are going to do before we do it.

     Take yourself back to the time when God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, for disobeying him and eating from the apple tree.  Suppose you travel back in time, and offer your services to Adam and Eve as a defense attorney.  What would you say?

     I think I'd say this: "Look God, you created everything, including Adam and Eve, the apple tree, and the serpent.  You decided what the world was going to be like--- every detail.  You are all-powerful and all-knowing.  So you knew what the serpent would say to Eve, and what Eve would say to Adam.  And you knew how Adam would react.  So how can you blame Adam, when you created him just the way he was --- a spineless wuss who would do what his wife told him.  If you didn’t want him to eat the apple, you should have created him differently; you should have created someone who would have said, 'Sorry Eve, I cannot disobey God, and you musn’t either'.”

    Now what if God replied: "But Adam was free.  He could have eaten the apple, or he could have refrained from eating the apple.  It was up to him.  It was his choice.  He made the wrong choice, so I’m mad at him, and intend to punish him, and all his descendants, including you."

     I’d bolster my courage and say, ``Look God, that makes no sense.  Adam may have thought to himself: I can eat the apple, or I can not eat the apple.  But that thought was an illusion.  No finite mortal can do something that God already knows he won’t do.  You created Adam with the sense of freedom, but not the reality of freedom.  So it is grossly unfair to punish him."

     This response gets at the answers to the core questions, What does `freedom’ mean? And Why is freedom important?    What we seem to mean by freedom is the power to choose between two actions.  We not only have the thought ``I can do A, and I also can refrain from doing A”, but the thought is true.  And this is important, because unless one can really choose, one doesn’t deserve to be punished.  So there's the first challenge to free will: If God really knows ahead of time what we're going to do, we really can’t do otherwise.  So if no one is really to blame for what they do, then no one should be punished for what they do.

     There's a second serious challenge to free will – where the problem isn’t that God knows everything, but that everything is caused, including our own thoughts and decisions.  In other words, can we really be free if our decisions are caused by our brain states, which themselves have prior causes, and so forth and so on, so that our decisions are really caused by events in the remote past, and what we decide now was really settled long before we were born. 

    This is what people mean by ``determinism”.  Everything we do is determined by the laws of nature, and past events.  Suppose you get a ticket today for speeding.  Given the state of the world in say, 19oo, long before Ken or I or our listeners were born, and the laws of nature, it follows that you was going to break the speed limit today.  You can’t do anything about what the world was like in 1900.  And I can’t violate the laws of nature.  So how can you really do anything except that is determined by those facts?  It seemed that youI could slow down, but really, you  couldn’t.

     Still, if you'd been stopped by a police officer, and explained all of this to her to avoid getting a ticket,  what do you think he would have said?

     Perhaps  if she had philosophical training, she might have said, ``That may be, but it is equally determined that I should give you a ticket”.  Or maybe she would have said: ``that doesn’t matter, because quantum physics tells us that determinism isn’t true after all.”

    To this you might respond: ``Look, quantum physics might show there's a little leeway in the way the universe unfolds, but it hardly shows that my speeding wasn’t the inevitable consequence of the state my brain was in, which was the inevitable result of my experiences throughout life and the nature I was born with.   So don’t give me a ticket.  Please."

    So freedom seems to pose a challenge for two quite different philosophical world-views.  Theists have to worry about whether free-will is compatible with God’s foreknowledge.  While people who go for determinism - naturalists, who believe humans and all that we do are subject to the laws of nature - also have to worry about it.

    For today’s program, we had a brilliant young philosopher, Manuel Vargas from the University of San Francisco, to help us think it through.

    March 4, 2011 | 17 comments | Read More »
  • John Locke

    In America, the 17th century British philosopher, John Locke is probably best known as one of the inspirations for the Founding Fathers.  His Two Treatises of Government argues against the divine right of kings, and in favor of government by the consent of the governed.  His views were admired greatly by Jefferson and the other Founders.  Locke was a political activist as well as a philosopher.

    He lived through the last half of the seventeenth century, exciting times in England.  Charles the first was beheaded, Oliver Cromwell governed for a while, followed by two more Stuarts, Charles the second and James the second, and then William came from the Netherlands, married James the second’s daughter Mary, and William and Mary took over as constitutional monarchs — what they call “the glorious revolution”.  Locke’s Two Treatises were written, I think, to justify the revolution in England.

    Quite independently of his political philosophy, John Locke would still be counted as one of the great philosophers.  His Essay Concerning Human Understanding is one of the most important books in the history of philosophy.  He more or less invented the subjects of personal identity and the philosophy of language.

    Our guest is the prominent Locke scholar Bill Uzgallis, who will be channeling John Locke.  It’s a technique they've developed at his Oregon State Philosophy Department, with the help of computer science and astrophysics. 

    We’ll  ask Locke about his life, his political philosophy and his political activism, and his views on slavery and   about women.  There are some glimmers of rights for women in Locke.  But what did he really think?

    March 1, 2011 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • A dialogue on Biracial Identity

    This week's show  is a rebroadcast of our show about biracial identity, first aired back in 2009.   You can think of it as our contribution to Black History Month, I guess.   I wrote the following little dialogue as a way of getting the juices flowing on this issue.  I republish it here pretty much without change.  

     A Black Guy (BG)  and a White Guy  (WG)  are in a bar, having drinks.  You may be tempted to think that they are John Perry and Ken Taylor -- but since I'm putting words in both people's mouths,  don't hold John responsible for any of this. 
    BG:      I've been thinking a lot about biracial identities,  lately because I see that my favorite radio show,  Philosophy Talk  is about to do an episode on it.     
    WG:   I wonder what they'll talk about.  I mean  thanks to Obama,  biracial is the new cool, BG.   But  I don't really see that there are  deep philosophical questions connected with the  topic of bi-racial identities raise.  Do you? 
    BG:  Yeah ,  I do.   Biracial identities challenge our old understanding of race.   I think  biracial people and their struggles to constitute their identities  are beginning to push our old concepts of race to the breaking point.
    WG:    This is America, dude.  Race is a reality and race isn't going anywhere anytime soon.  As a black guy, you should know that. 
    BG:   Whatever do you mean by that remark?   
    WG:  I mean black people experience the reality of race everyday.   White guys, like me,  tend to think of ourselves as non-racialized, as if we don't have a race.   That's a form of white privilege that you black guys don't enjoy in our racialized society.    Of course,  I'm not saying that white people are right to think of themselves as non-racialized.   It's, in fact,  part of our racial consciousness to think of ourselves as non-racialized, if that makes any sense.  
    BG:  It makes lots of sense.   In America,   white is racially "unmarked."  Black is racially "marked."    if you are a member of the unmarked race, you entitle yourself to think of yourself as somehow free of race and you entitle yourself to think of  the other as the racialized other.  On other hand,  if you are part of racially marked group, you aren't so free to deny race.    And if you are one of the racially marked "others"  you are sort of confronted with your racial difference, your racial markedness at every turn.   And that gives you a distinctive form of racial consciousness.   
    WG:  Er, well, something like that  -- I think.    But back to biracial people.   You said that they somehow  challenge  our old understanding of race.   But I don't see it.  Think of animal and plant species.    You can cross breed animal and plant species to produce hybrids -- sometimes stable and fertile hybrids.  But that doesn't challenge our ideas about species, does it?   In the same vein,  you  can cross breed races to produce people of biracial ancestry.   Where’s the challenge to our understanding of race in that?  I don't get it.  
    BG:  But you're thinking of race as if it were analogous to biological species.   But it just isn't.   Once upon a time, people did believe that there were such things as biologically grounded racial essences.   And racial essences were supposed to distinguish people from each other in socially and morally relevant ways.  But modern biology will have none of that.
    WG:  Dude,  are you really suggesting that there are no races?   Let's follow the logic of that out a little.   If there are no races, then you are not a black man, I am  not a white man, and Obama is not a man of bi-racial ancestry.  But that’s absurd isn't it?    Let me put the question to you directly.  Dude, are you now, or have you ever been,  a black man?
    BG:     Of course,  I am a black man.   And you are a white man, and Barack Obama  is – well, he’s something more complicated.    Everybody thinks of him as our first black president.  But isn't he  really as much and no more a white man than he is a black man?  Why isn't he thought of as our first biracial president or even just another in a long line of white presidents?   What really makes Obama black, anyway? 
    WG: Wait a minute.  Wait a minute.  You're going too fast for me.   I'm confused.    You seem to want to claim that races aren’t really real.   But you defiantly – or was it reluctantly    -- admitted  to being a black man.    What gives?  You can't have it both ways.  Either there are no races,  and you are not a black man.  Or there are races and you are a black man.  
    BG:  I didn't say races aren't real.  I said they aren't biologically real.   The fact that races aren’t biologically real, doesn’t mean there’s nothing to the concept of race.  National identities aren’t biologically real, either.    But national identities can matter quite a lot in human affairs.
    WG:    So you think that  race is a social reality, even if it isn't a biological reality.  I can buy that.    But then I don’t see how biracial identities push our concepts of race to the breaking point, as you claim.    Think about ethnic identities.  Does the fact of people of multiple ethnicities  push our old concepts of ethnicity to the breaking point? 
    BG: Well,  I'm not sure.  But race and ethnicity are different in some ways and similar in others.    I think we need a distinction.   Let's  distinguish between race and racial identifications.  I'd like to  reserve concept of race for something that pretends to be  biologically grounded and  reserve racial identifications for something socially and culturally grounded. When I acknowledged  being a black man – and I was doing that proudly, by the way --  I wasn’t  making any claim about my biology.  I was making a claim about my social and cultural heritage. 
    WG:    Now it just sounds like racial identifications, as you are construing them,  are very much akin to ethnic identifications or national identifications.   You seem to think we've got two things going on without being very clear about them.  We've got a set of ethnicity like racial identifications and a set of would be biological racial categories.    Is there a problem with that? 
    BG:    I think there is.  I think you're finally starting to get my point.     Go back to what I was saying earlier about biology and race.  Even though we now know that racial categories are biologically empty, we still have this deeply ingrained, cultural habit of identifying ourselves in racial terms.  But it turns out that our racial identifications are anchored in, well, nothing really.  Or at least they aren't anchored in the kind of thing we once thought they were.    And I think our struggle to make sense of biracial identities helps us to see that.  
    WG:  I'm not sure  I'm following this.   But let me try something out to see if I catch your drift here.  Take Barack Obama, again.    What race does he belong to?   And why exactly does he belong to that race?  Is he black?  White?  Or is he something else entirely?  In the old days,   the one-drop rule told us the answer.   If you had one drop of “black blood,” then you were ipso facto black.   But that's clearly non-sensical,  especially if we're thinking of racial categories as biologically grounded.   But suppose we let culture and stuff like that be our guide.    Given Obama's quite distinctive upbringing,  you  wouldn't be wrong to think that from a social/cultural perspective he's much more of a white dude than a black dude.  
    BG:  Of course,  neither blacks as a whole nor whites as a whole are cultural monoliths.   But if Obama's life story represent some strand of some typical American subculture, it's certainly not a paradigmatically black strand of the plethora of American subcultures.   I don't think anybody would deny that. 
    WG:  So what makes this guy a black dude?
    BG:   He's decided that he's black and his decision counts as authentic,  I think, because he's got one black parent.  
    WG:  That seems right, as far as it goes.  But it doesn't go far enough.  Ask yourself,  could Obama just decide that he is a white man, rather than a black man or a biracial man?
    BG:    I think you're onto something important here.  It seems to me that   Obama’s got two, and only two socially acceptable options for his racial self-identification.    Like a rare but growing number of people who think of themselves as  a sort of multi-racial vanguard, he could  permissibly identify himself as a biracial person – full stop.   Or he could permissibly  do the more standard and  less culturally threatening thing and self-identify as black – full stop.  But we’re not yet at the point where Barack Obama is socially allowed to self-identify as white, rather than black. 
    WG:    What do you mean by "permissibly"  here?    He’s the goddamn  President of the United States.  He’s free to self- identify as whatever he chooses.  Remember George Bush I and his refusal to eat broccoli? 
    BG:    You and I both know that Obama isn't free to self-identify as white and deny the black part of himself. First it would so radically change his political narrative that it  would be political suicide.   But politics aside, there's a much, much broader point here that gets us right to the heart of things.   Old fashioned  white people and old fahisoned black people  have a perhaps not fully conscious,  but deeply ingrained  cultural investment in  maintaining the racial status quo.  They, in effect,  try to  force biracial people into the  old comfortable and familiar  racial categories.    For some reason -- I'm not sure why -- we pigeon-hole biracial people into the socially “marked” race – in the case of black and white in America that's  the black race  --  rather than allow them into the socially unmarked race –  the white race (at least in America from its beginning until now).   
    WG:   Now I finally see why you think the struggles of biracial people to constitute their identities -- racialized and non-racialized -- is a threat to our old ways of thinking.   They just don't fit.   And our attempts to make them fit distorts many things.   
    BG:  That's one reason I referred to old-fashioned white people and black people.   I think maybe some younger people are beginning to see things differently.    They are willing to allow racial identifications to be as fluid and multiple as ethnic identifications. 
    WG:  You're talking about the harbingers of a post-racial age.  I think I think that's a fantasy and isn't coming anytime soon.   But  this is tough stuff and my head is beginning to spin.   I think I need to listen to the upcoming episode of Philosophy Talk to get this all straightened out.  
    February 19, 2011 | 14 comments | Read More »
  • Lights! Camera! Think!

    This week, it’s the third annual Dionysus Awards Show. The Dionysus Awards are presented to the most philosophically interesting movies of the year.  And sometimes, when we feel like it, we also honor philosophically notable movies from the past.   Now  unlike your average awards show, we accept spontaneous nominations from the floor.  So we’ll be talking to some of our listeners who wrote in with nominations and to some of our past guests as well.  But since John and I are the ultimate judges, we reserve the right to either grant or refuse awards to nominated movies. 

    We’re in the thick of award season  – that time of year when just about everybody and her brother is honoring and celebrating the film industry.  But besides the fact that movies are fun to watch and fun to talk about, we should we here at Philosophy Talk jump on the already overcrowded Awards bandwagon?  It starts with the fact that movies, at their best, are really cool things.  They can make you laugh or make you cry.  They can frighten you out of your wits, transport you to far off places and times, take you deep inside the hidden reaches of the mind.   Movies are kind of magical in that way.   But there’s something else that movies can do, something moviemakers aren’t always rewarded for doing.  In the right hands, movies can be amazing vehicles for expressing and exploring philosophically significant ideas.  And that’s precisely why we inaugurated the Dionysus Awards.  Our aim is to reward and encourage movies that make us think.

    Of course, it’s not an either or thing.  We’re looking for movies that effectively explore ideas at the same time as they do all the other things that the best movies do. So in order to win a Dionysus Award, a movie really does have to be something pretty special.  It’s got to be a good movie – a movie that tells a compelling story and works on the heart and imagination in the way that the finest films do.  But it’s got to work on the intellect just as effectively.

    In fact many movies that rack up awards in other places are often also-rans in the stiff competition for a Dionysus Award.  Think of Slumdog Millionaire, a nominee for our First Dionysus Award.  It won the Academy Award for Best Picture – and that award was well-deserved.  But we decided it just didn’t measure up to the high standards of Dionysus. Or think of last year’s hard-fought contest between District Nine and   Avatar, for Most Philosophically Compelling Movie About Man’s Inhumanity to Crustaceans.  It was the little-seen and lightly-promoted District Nine in a landslide.

    Now Hollywood’s main claim to fame is decidedly not that it churns out movie after movie designed to make us think and think hard.  So every year, aided by a stable of film critics, past guests, and our listeners, we uncover a true treasure trove of films worthy of consideration.  Some of them are big movies, that’ll win many other awards.  But some of them are small movies that hardly anyone has seen. Last year’s Dionysus winners included not just District 9, but also the Academy Award winning, Hurt Locker.  But there were also hardly noticed gems like, Me and Orson Welles, a brilliant and entertaining movie that came and went from theaters in the blink of an eye.  This year’s nominees run the gamut too.   From the little seen mockumentary, I’m Still Here, about the dark side of our celebrity culture. To mind-bending movies that transgress the borders of reality: The Black Swan and Inception.

    You should definitely tune in.   It is a fun and entertaining hour.   Unlike most of our episodes,  this one was pre-produced.  That fact enables us to do two things that we can’t normally do.   First, we were able to make it extra-ordinarily sound-rich.  Second, we are able to give a “stand-alone” sort of character.   The latter enables us to offer it to public radio stations everywhere,  even those who don’t normally carry philosophy talk, as a stand-alone special.   Given that it’s award season, and that the Oscars will be fast upon us, it would make a perfect compliment to the regular programming to any public radio station that wants to help their listeners think more reflectively about the movies.

    So far,  a dozen or so additional  stations have  expressed interest in our Dionysus Special.   We’d love your help in signing up even more stations to carry this special episode.   Contact a public radio station near you, and urge them to carry our special for the movie season. 

    February 11, 2011 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • Too Much Information?

    Our topic this week is information – specifically,  too much Information.   Now I can hear someone wondering,  “Too much information for what?”  To answer that question, we need to go back in time.  Some of you will be too young to remember, but once upon a time, if you wanted to find a book, for example, you went to this place called a library.  And you searched in this ancient artifact -- a thing called a card catalog.  The card catalog gave you a number that was assigned to the book.   And the books were all shelved in order in dusty old library stack.  

    I really do have  fond memories  those days -- and not just because library stacks could be good places to procrastinate instead of studying.  LIbrary stacks were places were serendipitous discoveries happened. Sometimes, when you got the catalog number and went to where the book was supposed to be,  it wasn’t there.  But even then, you could browse around for other things that you wanted, since the books were all neatly arranged in a nice tidy order, with similar books next to each other on the library shelf.  I used to love whiling away the hours, browsing through library stacks like that.

    But that’s not to say there weren't  downsides to this search method.   There were actually lots of them.  Suppose, for example, that you originally came looking for a book on, say, the US Civil War,  but decided that you really needed to browse through all the books about any Civil War, whatsoever, no matter when or where they happened.  And suppose you wanted to know not just about the histories of various civil wars, but about their role in reshaping subsequent philosophical thought.   The  old library catalog just didn’t have category for “everything having anything to do with some civil war or other throughout History.”    So there wasn’t an easy way, using it,  to find books about Civil Wars in general, their histories, and their different impacts.    Plus,  even if you did manage, through a lot of catalog searching, to generate a list of all the different books about all the different Civil Wars, and their cultural and philosophical implications, you’d have to spend hours physically tracking down the books, section by section, because they would probably be spread out all over the library.   

    Wouldn’t it be infinitely better if the library could instantly re-categorize and re-shelve the books to suit your needs as a would-be browser?   How could doubt that?   But that’s precisely what an online, searchable database does really well.   In the digital age, we can have multiple, simultaneous, ever-shifting categories, made up on the fly.  And once all books, newspapers, magazines – you name it – go fully digital we won’t even have to worry about how books are arranged on an actual physical shelf.  We’ll be able to rearrange the books on the virtual shelf in an instant to anyone’s liking.

    That sounds really cool – especially to the lover of all things all things technological and new in me.  But I have to admit that part of me still finds something at least a little bit satisfying about the old ways.  Those old fixed categories and well-ordered shelves weren’t there just because of the limits of the old technology.  They represented somebody’s best estimation of the proper divisions of human knowledge.  They carried some weight because they were backed by the authority of an intellectual tradition.  In the brave new user driven rather than authority driven digital world, where seemingly anything goes, where categories are made up on the fly, where the virtual shelf can be rearranged at the whim of the user, what separates the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff, the silly from the serious?

    One could easily worry that in this  brave new user driven digital age we are just at sea on a chaotic ocean of information.  The user may have too much power, backed by too little authority.   Hence our topic:  Too much information!   And luckily, we don’t have to try to navigate this sea alone.  We’ve got the help of someone who has thought long and hard about both these opportunities and challenges.  That would be,   David Weinberger, author of Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. 

    February 6, 2011 | 8 comments | Read More »
  • Procrastination

    This Sunday we talk about procrastination.   Now I am not only an expert practitioner of the procrastinating arts, but  have actually written an essay on this topic.  In fact, in spite of my many outstanding contributions to philosophy (IMHO) I’m pretty sure it's the most read thing I have ever written.  You can find it at


     However, this doesn’t mean I’m really and expert on the phenomenon of procrastination.  It’s a very short somewhat tongue in cheek essay to make procrastinators feel better about themselves.  But there are real experts on procrastination, and one of the finest, Timothy Pychyll of Carleton University, will join us Sunday.  He has done psychological research on why we procrastinate, and also what the best methods are for dealing with it.

    But that leads to the question: why is procrastination a philosophical problem. 

    Since the time of the Greeks, philosophers --- at least some of them --- have been puzzled by how we decide that something is best to do, and then not do it.   And procrastination is an example of that.  I decide the best thing to do, all things considered, is to get up from the couch, go to my desk, and grade some term papers.  But instead of doing so, I lie on the couch and watch a rerun of Cheeers for the fourth time.

    We might just call that being laxy.  But perhaps I finally get up, but instead of grading the papers, I start cleaning up the kitchen, and then move on to cleaning the garage.  I’m not being lazy; I’m just not doing what I think it’s best to do…that’s procrastination, not  it’s not laziness.  As Robert Benchley put it, managing to anticipate the main point of my essay,

    anyone can do any amount of work,provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.


     Procrastination isn’t laziness.  It is irrationality.   But is it mysterious?  After all, if people weren’t irrational, philosophers wouldn’t have much to do.

    But it seems like a peculiar form of irrationality?  Suppose you are multiplying 7 times 5 and adding ten.  So you figure 7 times 5 is 35, add 10 and you have 45.  And then you carefully write down 55.  I don’tmean a slip of the pen.  Having figured out that the right answer is 45, you carefully and intentionally write down something else.  That seems pretty weird.

    Well procrastination is like that.  You figure out what’s best to do, most important to do, the rational thing to do, the right answer to the question, what should I do?  And then you do something else.

     But to be puzzled, of coiurse, we have to have a certain picture of the will, --- that is, with how we decide what to do, and how that leads us to do that  ---that makes the analogy work. The picture is that deliberating is like figuring out the answer to a problem, the problem of what to do, and that acting is just drawing the conclusion. If that was the right picture, procrastination, as well as other forms of  ``weakness of the will” would be mysterious.

    The phrase “weakness of the will” actually suggests another one.  It’s the job of reason to figure out the best thing to do.  But what gets done is what we want to do the most.  The job of the will is to make us want to do the best thing, so that we do it.  But often the will is weak …. quite often with procrastinators like you, and, occasionally, me. It can’t convert the results of reasoning into a desire that motivates us.

     Well, philosophers are good at spinning out theories, but psycholgists have to actually put them to the test.  Timothy Pychyll will help us choose between our pictures, or, more likely, suggest something better. 


    QuickPost | TypePad.

    January 28, 2011 | 15 comments | Read More »
  • Philosophy Talk's Free Weekly Podcast has been launched: Sign Up Now!

    Go here for more information and to sign up!

    As part of our continuing drive to serve our listeners better, we are offering free weekly downloads of Philosophy Talk.  Now, you can get every new episode for free!  

    Keep current with Philosophy Talk.   Subscribe to our free weekly podcast and get each week’s episode delivered to you. Listen at your leisure, on your own time.  And it’s absolutely free! 

    But you must sign up.  Here’s how it works.  Each new episode will be available for one week only, beginning shortly after the completion of its broadcast run.  After one week, it will move into the archive bin, where it can then be purchased for the low, low price of $1.29.  So the sooner you sign up the more free episodes you will receive.

    We continue to offer our entire archive of past episodes at the greatly reduced price of $1.29 per episode.   Or buy bundled five packs and get an even greater discount.  And if you just can’t get enough of Philosophy Talk, or pick up our complete catalog of nearly 250 past episodes for just $199.95 – just 82 cents per program.

    We need your help to make this free download service feasible.  Believe it or not, it costs us a lot to give stuff away for free.  To help cover the costs, we will be retiring our free stream of past episodes.  You can do your part to keep our free download service available to everyone by purchasing an episode or two from our archive of past programs. 

    Once you sign up, whether you choose to buy or not, you still get access to our free download service – each new episode of Philosophy Talk at no charge!  But do think about purchasing a legacy episode while you are at it and help keep our free podcast available for everyone who loves Philosophy Talk.

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    January 25, 2011 | 1 comment | Read More »
  • Different Cultures, Different Selves.

    Cultural Psychologists claim that people in different cultures have different selves. They  have a lot of data showing that Asian selves and American selves are quite different. But what does this even mean? I think we need to make a couple of distinctions before this make sense for those of us coming from the direction of philosophical discussions of the self and personal identity.

    To begin with, what is a self?  My view is that a self is just a person, a human being with the normal capacities of thought, memory, reason, and the like.  ``My self” is like “my neighbor”.  My neighbor is just an ordinary person, thought of as the person who lives next to me.  My father was just an ordinary person, thought of as the person who fathered me.  `Self’ means `identical with’.  Suppose I say, ``Obama doesn’t like `drama kings or queens’ and expects everyone in his office, his secretary, his national security advisor, and himself, to remain cool and rational.  When I say `himself’ I'm just referring to Obama by the relation he has to the person I am talking about --- namely, identity.

    Now admittedly this simple theory doesn’t fit with a lot that we say and think about selves.  Philosophers often talk of the self as though it were an inner principle of some sort.  We say that a person should be true to himself, or that a person is not herself this morning.  This doesn’t seem to make much sense if the self is just the person.

    I think that’s better thought of as talk about our concepts of ourselves.  We each have a very important concept, the one we express with the word `I’.  It’s the way we think of ourselves.  It’s where we store all the information we get, like what we’re thinking and our reasons for doing things.  My concept of myself has a quite special structure, compared to my concept of other people.   But it seems likely to me that in many basic ways my self-concept will be similar to the concepts of themselves that other persons have of themselves, whether they are from Japan or China or even Ohio, like Ken. 

    For example, we all think that we have bodies, that we can control in ways no one else can, just by deciding and willing what to do.  We all think we have special ways, our senses, of finding out about what is going on around those bodies.  We all think we have special access to our own thoughts and sensations.  And so on and so forth.

    Even within this agreement, there is room for important differences between people, and patterns of difference between cultures.  One important consideration is which things we find most important about ourselves, the ways we can’t even imagine being different.  For example, I’m from Nebraska.   But I have clearly not seen that fact about me as being tremendously important.  When I left Nebraska after college, I didn’t think anything important about me had changed; I was just in different situation, with different opportunities.

    That’s a pretty common attitude for Americans.  We pick up and move at the drop of a hat.  Cultural psychologists will tell you that that's pretty unusual.  Far more common, especially in Asia, is that who one is --- one’s self-concept in my vocabulary --- is rooted in one’s home, one’s family, one’s ancestors.   Moving across a country, or across the world, is hard to imagine.  It may be necessary, but it will be traumatic.

    For example, my friend Syun Tutiya commutes three hours every day across the whole of Tokyo to his job at Chiba University.  He won’t move closer, even though the housing is less expensive, because it would mean moving away from his father and mother and brother, who all live in a neighborhood where his family has lived for generations.  I think this is sort of odd, but he thinks its sort of odd the way I moved away from Nebraska, the home of my family for several generations, with no thought of returning.

    One important difference is the western emphasis on ``individualism”.  We think what is most important about people are their individual values and ideas, the beliefs they've developed from their own unique perspective.  Data shows that Americans, if asked about who they are, will emphasize facts about their biography that differentiate them from other people, while Asians will emphasize where they are from, and what the  people in that city or region do.  We think of our “American individualism” as an expression of the great discoveries of the Enlightenment, which Americans are kindly educating the rest of the world about.  But cultural psychologists may think it is a culture-bound way of thinking that’s no more valid than any other way of thinking.

    To help us think through all of this, our guest is Hazel Markus from Stanford University, editor of Engaging Cultural Differences: The Multicultural Challenge in Liberal Democracies.

    January 22, 2011 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • Derrida and Deconstruction

    This week our topic is Derrida and Deconstruction. Derrida was one of the most widely revered and widely reviled   thinkers of the mid-to-late twentieth Century. Many people in a variety of disciplines – especially in the literary humanities --  regard him as an absolutely seminal figure.   Mark Taylor recently called him one of the three most important philosophers of the 20th century --  right up there with Heidegger and Wittgenstein.  On the other hand, many philosophers would strongly disagree with that assessment (including that assessment of Heidegger and, to a lesser extent, Wittgenstein) -- especially philosophers, like John and I, who belong to the Anglo-American tradition.  In our circles, Derrida tends to be regarded as something of a fraud and a charlatan.  Moreover, folks blame him for what they often see as the  especially sorry state of literary studies.  But we question everything here on Philosophy Talk.  So in complete fairness to Derrida, we should ask ourselves whether it’s just prejudice that keeps us from appreciating Derrida’s profundity and importance.

    My first reaction to that question is that it clearly isn’t just prejudice that causes him to be so reviled by so many.   I mean for a man who was deeply concerned about the nature of written language and with the interpretation of written language,  Derrida was awfully hard to read and interpret.   Of course,  you could ask whether he’s harder than Kant or harder than Hegel.  Neither of those guys is easy to read or interpret, but nobody dismisses them as frauds or charlatans.  Perhaps, though, that just shows the difference between German obscurity and French obscurity.  German obscurity can seem profound, but French obscurity is just irritating and perplexing.

    But all kidding aside – and I was just kidding – I think there’s a deeper reason why Anglo-American philosophers often find Derrida so off-putting.   His work purports to undermine what he takes to be the very foundation  of everything that we do.   I’m talk here about the so-called logocentrism that Derrida perceives to be at the heart of Western Philosophy and his claim to have moved us decisively beyond it.  Since analytic philosophy claims to be the continuation of the western philosophical tradition,  it carries on the tradition of logocentrism.   To speak a little bit of Derrida-ese,  it might be said that like the logocentrics of old we anal-retentive, logo-phallo-centric philosophers privilege logos – that is,  meaning,  reason, spirit  -- and we take speech to be prior, in the order of signification, to writing.    And by privileging speech over writing, we privilege presence over absence.   We hanker after transcendental signifieds  --  signifieds that transcend all signifiers, meanings that transcends all signs.  Now I’m not sure what all that means, but it sure sounds bad.   And Derrida shows us how to get beyond all that.  That is, how to get beyond an oppressive metaphysics of presence, that excludes, marginalizes and fails to acknowledge that which is absent, that which is different and other.   Think, for example, of all the voices that were historically absent from the Western philosophical canon.  The voices of women,  blacks, gays, the poor, and on and on.   Through the canon’s privileging of presence, it fails to acknowledge what is not there, what is absent.

    It sort of astounds me, though, that through the seemingly apolitical and morally innocent act of taking the spoken word to be somehow prior to the written word, we do all that nasty stuff.   I know, I know.  There’s a long story about how that works.  But thanks to Derrida there’s supposedly a way out of the mess that traditional western philosophy has gotten us into.   We execute a sort of reversal.  We privilege texts, that is, writing, over speech.  The benefit of that move is that  unlike speech  the text is constituted as much by what it excludes as by what it includes, by absence as much as presence.   Studying texts, even the texts of the canon with its oppressive metaphysics of presence,  allows us to recognize and acknowledge what is absent. 

     The way we  get at absence via the text is by deconstructing the text.  Now that doesn’t mean tearing it down and ripping it apart, sort of like tearing down a building -- at least not exactly.  Rather,   to deconstruct a text is to expose the inevitable and ineliminable contradictions and oppositions upon which it is founded, which it disguises and refuses to acknowledge,  to expose it as devoid of fixed and determinate meaning, as irreducibly complex, unstable, and, even, impossible.

    That’s a mouthful. And I know I'm not up to making complete sense of it on my own.  And I doubt John is either.  We are definitely going to need some help with this one.   Luckily for us, help is on the way in the form of Joshua Kates, author of Fielding DerridaPhilosophy, Literary Criticism. History, and the Work of Deconstruction. 


    January 14, 2011 | 14 comments | Read More »
  • Abortion

    We need to distinguish two questions in considering abortion:

    • Why is abortion morally objectionable, if it is?  Is it because we violate the rights of the fetus?  Or is it some other reason, like that it expresses a cavalier attitude towards human life?
    • if we interfere with a woman’s choice to have an abortion, have we wronged the woman?  Do we,  or does government, have the right to interfere with the exercise of that choice?

    The answer to the first question only partly determines the answer to the second. If there’s nothing morally objectionable about abortion, there’s no legitimate reason to interfere with a woman's choice.  But just because there might be something objectionable, it doesn't follow that we have the right to interfere.

    Here’s an analogy.   I think its wrong to drink yourself silly in your own home, in a way that undermines your potential as a human being and your ability to have relationships with other people.  But I don’t think the government or society has the right to prevent a person from doing these things, at least not in the privacy of his own home when he’s alone.

    Still, if abortion is wrong because a fetus has a right to life, and in fact is the murder of a human being, it’s a much more serious wrong than drinking oneself into oblivion.  If that’s the answer to the first question, then doesn’t it determine the answer to the second --- that government and society have a right to prevent abortions?

    Well, maybe not.  There’s a famous article by Judith Thomson.  She imagines a situation in which a gifted violinist, for reasons that are left obscure, has taken up residence in your abdomen, and needs to remain there for nine months before he can be safely extracted.  Wouldn’t you have the right to insist that he be removed forthwith, even if it meant his death? 

    This leads to a second distinction.  I think there are two basic strategies for defending a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

    The more straightforward strategy I’ll call the ``Tooley” strategy, after one of its clearest exponents, Michael Tooley.  It says basically that the right to life pertains to persons, and not every live human being is a person.  So, even if we grant --- which I must say seems to me undeniable --- that a human fetus is a live human being, it doesn’t follow that it’s a person, and it doesn’t follow that it has a right to life, and that killing it is a case of murder.

    People who advocate this line argue that being a person involves various things that fetuses don't have --- at least in the early stages, perhaps self-consciousness and certain emotions.  And of course plenty of people think this strategy is wrongheaded --- perhaps because the issue is really when the fetus gets a soul, not when it acquires some intellectual capacities.

    The other strategy is the Thomson strategy.  Even if a fetus is a person, even if killing it is homicide, it may be something a woman has right to do.  Homicide may be justified in self-defense, or in war, and perhaps it’s justified when a person has taken up residence inside you.

    Well, now that we’ve clarified things, it should be a simple matter to figure out where the truth lies, and solve this issue once and for all. [joke]

    January 9, 2011 | 18 comments | Read More »
  • The Moral Costs of Markets

    This week begins both a new year and a new season of Philosophy Talk.   Hard to believe, but we're into our  8th season.  It's been a great ride so far and we hope to keep building the program.  

    To launch a new season and a new year, we take up the topic of  free markets, in particular the moral costs of free markets.  Free markets are, on balance,  wonderful things, I think.  When they're truly open and free and not monopolized by a few big players, or overly regulated by excessively intrusive governments, markets are amazingly efficient ways of providing people with the things they want and need.  They're the chief engines of economic progress, and are singularly conducive to human happiness. 

    But my enthusiasm for free markets is not unlimited. It’s not that I don’t like free markets or that I am some kind of socialist – though I do think that democratic socialism of the Western European variety has something going for it.  In their place, markets are very good things. But I just don’t believe that every product or service is best distributed by the market.

    To make a pretty basic point, take something as simple as the air we breathe. I doubt that even someone with boundless enthusiasm for free and open markets, would suggest that there should be a price on air. 

    Now you could say that that is cheating, since nobody controls the air.  So nobody can stop you from breathing just because you won’t pay up.   There couldn’t be a market in air.   But of course there markets in air  -- sort of.  At least there are markets in clean air -- where companies get to buy and sell pollution credits.   That points to a different problem with markets.  You buy your gas-guzzling dream car.  The oil company gets rich.  The car company gets rich.  And me? I get to breathe dirty air.

    Here  I’m talking what economists call externalities -- costs generated by economic transactions between two parties that are borne by somebody else, somebody not a party to the original transaction.  Markets can generate lots of different externalities and many of them are morally problematic. 

    But that wasn’t my original point about markets in air.   My point was that even if there could be a market for air, nobody would accept it.  People have a basic and equal right to air.  And things to which we have basic and equal rights shouldn’t be subject to the whims of the market – you know… some folks having more, some having less, and some having none at all.

    I know that there are, of course, lots of things that the rich have more of and the poor have less of.  The poor live in less luxurious houses than the rich; drive less expensive cars; go to less fancy schools, have less access to the political process.  Plus they eat less well and probably don’t wear as finely-tailored clothing.   And I admit that if we were  going to restrict markets wherever they generate inequality, we’d truly have our work cut out for us.

    But I didn’t say that wherever markets generate inequality they're bad and ought to be regulated.   Still, markets are not divine.   They don’t have godlike wisdom into the right and just distribution of every possible good.  That’s because they pay attention only to the bottom line, not to considerations of justice and morality.  That’s why markets sometimes need to be regulated or even prohibited.  

    Of course, that raises the question of what principles distinguish morally intolerable markets from morally tolerable ones.   Here’s a first quick thought about that.  Votes definitely shouldn’t be traded on the free market.  And public schools definitely shouldn’t be driven by markets.  Public schools should offer an education that’s good enough for rich and poor alike – independent of ability to pay. 

    But of course, those aren’t really principles, are they?   Those are just examples.  I gave examples because, frankly, I don’t know what the right principles are.  I’m not even sure that all the moral limits of markets have to do with inequalities.  Markets in woman’s sexual labor seem wrong to me, for example,  but not because of issues about inequality -- not exactly, anyway. 

    It seems clear that we need to call on somebody who has thought a little harder and deeper about this question than I have. That would be our guest, Stanford philosopher Debra Satz.  She's the author of the very fine book, Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets.

    January 2, 2011 | 5 comments | Read More »
  • The Philosophy of History

    Our topic this week is the philosophy of history. There are different ways the word ‘history’ might be defined, so we had better start out by defining our terms. For example, you could define history as the sum total of past events. But that’s not how historians or even philosophers of history would define it. The problem with that definition is that it encompasses every single event that has so far happened in the Universe – from the big bang to the emergence of humankind and everything in between. We do sometimes talk about history in this broad and inclusive sense, but that’s not what we’re talking about today.

    December 26, 2010 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Nominations open for the Third Annual Dionysus Awards!

    We're gearing up to record our third annual Dionysus Awards Show.  This will be the third year in a row that we have given out Dionysus Awards for the most philosophically interesting movies of the year.   We're seeking nominations from you, our listeners.  Submit a nomination to, along with information on how to reach you, in case we want to include you and your nomination on our final broadcast.  Please submit your nomination by January 9th, so that we have ample time to sort through them all and decides which ones we want to include in our awards show. 

    This year,  the Dionysus Awards show work a little differently than in the past.  Instead of a live broadcast from the studios of KALW, we will "pre-produce" the show.  That will give us far more freedom to pick and choose movies and to include clips and other sound elements in the episode.  We plan, by the way, to market the show to the entire public radio system as a stand-alone, pre-Oscar special.   it's going to be great fun and a great episode.  And we'd love to have you be part of the action.  So step up to the microphone, and nominate the movies that you found most philosophically interesting for 2010.   You can also include philosophically interesting blasts from the past if nothing from the current crop strikes your fancy -- but we're  more likely to include movies from the past year than older movies. 

    Don't just tell us what movies you liked, though, be sure to tell us why you liked it and why, in particular,  you found it philosophically compelling.

    Let me make it clear that a movie can  doesn't have to be explicitly philosophical  in the way that, say, Inception is in order to count as philosophically compelling.  Indeed, some movies that try too hard and too laboriously to be philosophically interesting sometimes just don't work as movies at all.  As long as the movie is both good as a movie and  fruitfully looked at through the lens of philosophy, it's a plausible candidate for a Dionysus Award.  

    So join the fun and submit a nomination!  You can do so by sending an e-mail to  You can also leave a comment here on our blog or over on our Facebook page  -- though those are by nature more public, of course.   No matter where you submit your nomination, make sure that we can get in touch with about it if you think you might like to talk about it on the air with us.

    We'll be recording and editing the program during the last couple of weeks of January, for broadcast sometime early mid February  -- beginning February 13th on KALW and our other regular affiliates and hopefully right up until the time of the Oscars on other stations around the country. 

    December 23, 2010 | 0 comments | Read More »
  • Children as Philosophers
    Anonymous (not verified)

    Posted by JP


    While licking a pot, six-year-old Tim asks: "Papa, how can we be sure that everything is not a dream?" His father admits he has no idea.  Tim says "Well, I don't think everything is a dream, ‘cause in a dream people wouldn't go around asking if it was a dream."

    That’s an example from Gareth Matthews, a philosopher who has gotten interested in the idea that children are natural philosophers; they ask interesting philosophical questions and come up with interesting answers.


    This week’s program was recorded at the Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children.  We talk with the founder and director, Jana Mohr Lone, about the work of the Center.  But for most of the program, we talk to fourth-graders about identity, personal identity, the mind and the body and the nature of happiness. 

    Confronted with issues like the ship of Theseus, what to say about brain transplants, whether the mind is the brain, and whether happiness is a feeling or something more complicated, the children come up with a range of responses that pretty much corresponds to the solutions philosophers have offered.

    I think you’ll enjoy it!

    December 17, 2010 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • The Power of Thought

    Our topic his week is the power of thought.  Human thought is an amazing thing.  It has given us science, literature, morality, and last --  but certainly not least -- philosophy.   Thought even has the power to create new realities.   And I’m not primarily thinking of literature and the arts or even of technology.   I’m thinking  of the entire social world.  Every size  social reality from clubs to nations and every thing in  between is a creation of the human mind, of human thought in particular.  They all exist because we simply think them into existence.  

    Of course, the mind is not all sweetness and light.  Besides all the things I just mentioned, it has also given us superstition, slavery, and war.    But that just makes the nature and power of human thought all the more puzzling.  The mind that spent millennium after millennium, mired in archaic social formations, in the grips of irrational superstitions is the very same mind, with the very same powers of thought, as the mind that produced science, philosophy, and art.   Our goal is to understand just what human thought is such that it produces both the science and superstition, both democracy and slavery.

    So let’s start at the beginning and ask just what thoughts are in the first place.   When you ask the person in the street, like our roving philosophical reporter did, she or he is liable tell you that thoughts are that little voice inside your head -- where that means inside the brain, if the person is a materialist and inside the mind, if person is a dualist.   But we’re trying to figure out  what thoughts are, not where they are.  If we’re going to understand the power of thought, we need to first understand the different kinds of thoughts and how each different kind works.

    Take a simple thing like the belief that there is beer in the fridge. That’s a thought. But it’s only one kind of thought.  And suppose that you want a beer.  That’s a thought too.  But a different kind of  thought – a desire.  Beliefs represent, or misrepresent, how things are in the world.  They are the kinds of things that can be true or false.  Hopefully our beliefs are more true than false.  If our beliefs are false,  the rational thing to do is change our beliefs to match the world. Desires, on the other hand, don’t represent how the world is.  We don’t say that my desire to have a beer is false just because I don’t have one.  But we do say that my desire is unsatisfied, when you want a beer, but don’t have one.   The way to satisfy a desire is not to change it, but to change the world.   That’s  where a third kind of thought comes in – intentions.  If you believe there’s a beer in the fridge and you really want a beer, then maybe you will form a new kind of thought –  an intention.  An intention is the kind of thing that can make you get off your duff and walk over to the refrigerator and get a beer.    Or not --  if you’re a weak willed, lazy sort.

    Now we really want to understand the power of thought  and what it actually does in the world we have to to understand  how beliefs manage to represent, or misrepresent,  the way the world is; how desires manage to set forth ways the world might become; and how intentions move us to act to actually change the world.      That may seem like a very tall order, but it’s a little more simple than it might at first seem,  because beliefs, desires, and intentions are built out the same basic building blocks -- just put together in different ways.  In particular,  they are all built out of concepts or ideas.  My belief that there is beer in the fridge, my desire to drink a beer, and my intention to go and get a beer all involve the concept or idea of beer, for example.  So  we can make a start on understanding the power of thought by thinking about the nature of concept or ideas, where they come from, and the different ways they can be put together to create such a wide-variety of thoughts.  And once we’ve got a handle on that, we can think more about the different things that different kinds of thoughts do. 

    Unfortunately, that’s probably more than John and I can handle on our own – especially in a one hour radio show.   But luckily for us, we’ll have help in the form of Steven Pinker, the world-renown author of an amazing series of books about the human mind – including his most recent, The Stuff of  Thought:  Language as a Window on Human Nature.  Should be a fun hour. 

    December 10, 2010 | 12 comments | Read More »
  • Disagreement

    Isn’t it a bit odd that philosophers disagree? Consider Ken and I. We’re both a reasonably well-educated, fairly intelligent, pretty perceptive, not overly neurotic philosophers. Why shouldn’t we agree about everything?

     We need to distinguish between apparent and real disagreements.  Suppose Ken says lima beans taste good, and I say that he’s wrong, lima beans taste bad.  It seems there is no real disagreement here, just differing tastes.  We only have real disagreement when two people hold opinions that cannot both be true.

     Exactly where to draw the line isn’t so clear.  Lima beans: differing tastes, or is there a fact of the matter whether they taste good or not?  One might say there are subjective facts: they taste good to Ken, but not to me.   Tasting good is not a property of lima beans, but a relation between lima beans and a person, a subject; they taste good to some people, but not to others.  Our ordinary way of expressing subjective facts often disguises them as objective facts:  Lima beans taste good.  No they don’t.

     How about disagreement on aesthetic issues.  Dickens is a deep an interesting author?  No he’s not; he’s a nineteenth century hack.  Subjective, or objective?  Jane Austen is a better author than Dickens?  No she’s not!  Is there a fact of the matter?

     How about the abortion debate.  It’s sort of puzzling, because intelligent people and learned people look at the same facts and draw opposite conclusions.  But maybe the conclusions aren’t really opposite.   Maybe one party is really just saying, “we really really disapprove of abortions  and don't like them at all,” and the other party is saying, “we don't mind them all  that much.” There's no real disagreement, just different taste.  Or maybe they are not really looking at the same facts.  Maybe those on one side or the other are ignoring important facts, like souls, or like the slippery and conventional nature of all classifications, even attributes like being a person, or committing murder?

    So knowing what is a real and what is only an apparent disagreement is itself a philosophical problem, or a bunch of them, and rich source of disagreement.

    But take a case where there is no question but that we are dealing with an objective fact.   Suppose Ken and I each have a clear view of a certain  tree. Suppose we are both reasonably well educated about trees but not real experts.  Ken says it’s a cedar, I say it’s a redwood.  Should we each lower the confidence we put in our own conclusion, on the grounds that an equally good judge has come to an opposite one?

    That seems reasonable, but suppose I have carefully considered the matter.  The bark looks like a redwood.  The needles don’t quite look like a redwood, could be a cedar.   Ken did the same.  Now if I take Ken’s view into account,  it seem I am just taking the same evidence into account that I already did, but weakening the conclusion.  What’s rational about that?

     Perhaps it’s not the very same evidence.  I am adding the evidence that Ken came to a different conclusion.  Think of it this way.  We are both fallible devices for getting at the truth.  When I came to the conclusion it was a redwood tree, that was based on the results of the device nearest at hand --- my own mind.  But now I can take account of the result of a different device Ken’s mind.  If the devices agree, it’s like the old advice, measure twice, cut once.  But if they disagree, it’s best not to cut until you’ve considered the matter further.

    But, if I measure a length twice, and come up with different results, common sense suggests the true length may be somewhere in between.  Measure a third time, or split the difference.  But the tree is either a redwood or a cedar.  The fact that Ken and I come to different conclusions is really not evidence that it’s some kind of hybrid.  Unless I think Ken has consulted evidence I haven’t, or knows more about trees than I do, his conclusion really doesn’t seem to provide me with any new information at all.  Well, perhaps it shows that we aren’t really peers, and one of knows more than the other?  But which one?

    The issues here are more complex than meet the eye.  There is in fact a large and growing disagreement about how rational people should treat peer disagreement.   I’ve gotten to the limits of what I know about this debate, but following tomorrow’s program, I’ll know a lot more.  I think.

    December 4, 2010 | 12 comments | Read More »
  • Reading, Narrative, and the Self

    This week’s topic  is Reading, Narrative, and the Self.   I suppose everybody has a pretty good idea of what each of those things, taken individually, means.   Reading is something that most people do.  A good narrative  -- or story, to use a less fancy term -- is something most people enjoy.  And a self is something everybody has.   But I think I need to explain what reading, narrative, and the self have to do with each other.  I’ll take them in reverse order, starting with the self.

     Everybody has a self.  Or maybe it would be better to say that everybody is a self.  But what exactly is a self, anyway?  The answer to that question depends on who you talk to.  Psychologists, for example, tend to  think of the self in terms of the particular set of attributes a person most strongly identifies with – those attributes that define who and what he or she is in the world.   But we philosophers tend to think of the self less in terms of particular attributes, and more as the underlying agent or thinker who possesses the kinds of attributes that define the self in the psychologist’s sense. 

     We’re going to be concerned with both senses of the self at various stages of this week’s episode.  Let’s start with the self in the psychologist’s sense.  The self in that  sense is not just given to us in advance as something fixed and determinate.   The self in that sense has somehow to be “constructed” out of materials that our society and culture make available.

     It may sound absurd  -- or at the very least so very post modern -- to call the self a social construct.  The self, it would seem, could exist even without society and culture.   But whether that’s absurd or not really depends on what notion of self you are talking about.   When I say that the self is a social construct, I really have in mind only the psychologist’s notion of self.  But the self in the philosopher’s sense – the thing that underlies the psychologist's self – that definitely isn’t a social construction.   In fact, I think the self in the philosopher’s sense is the thing that does the constructing, not the thing that gets constructed.

    Now here’s where narrative begins to come in. Narrative helps us to make sense of our selves.  One way we understand ourselves is by narrating ourselves, telling ourselves stories in which we figure as prominent characters.  Think of a son who inherits the family business.  In trying to make sense of his life, his choices, his situation, he narrates his life as an episode in a great drama, stretching backwards in time over multiple generations.    But the stories that we tell ourselves aren’t just about relating the present to the past.  They also look to the future. They help shape our choices and decisions.  We try to make our narratives true, by trying to become what we've told ourselves we are.

    I don’t mean to make it sound like we're prisoners of the stories we tell ourselves, or the ones we inherit from our family, or our culture.  We have the freedom to reject the narratives that our society or culture or family offer up.  But we can’t make sense of ourselves or even plan for the future without some background narrative in place.   We don’t really have a choice about that.  It’s part of the human predicament.

    And now it should be easier to appreciate what the third topic on our list of three – namely, reading -- has to do with the other two.  Great works of literature are rich storehouses of narrative possibilities.  In real life, we only get one time through.  We get one chance to narratively construct a self.  But the great works of literature can expose us to thousands of experiments in narrative self-construction.    So who better to help us with this trio of topics – reading, narrative, and the self -- than someone steeped in the theory of literary narratives.  That's Josh Landy from Stanford University, where he co-directs the Literature and Philosophy Initiative.  

    November 27, 2010 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Coming Soon to a Player Near You: Free Weekly Downloads!

    As part of our continuing drive to serve our listeners better, beginning with the episode of December 5th we will offer free weekly downloads of Philosophy Talk.  Beginning with that episode you will be able to  get every new episode for free! Think of it as our Holiday Gift to you, our listeners.

    Keep current with Philosophy Talk.  Subscribe to our free weekly download service, and get each week’s episode delivered to you.  Listen at your leisure, on your own time.   And it’s absolutely free! 

    But you must sign up.  Here’s how it will  work.  Each new episode will be available for one week only, beginning shortly after the completion of its broadcast run.   After one week, it will move into the archive bin, where it can then be purchased for the low, low price of $1.29.  So the sooner you sign up, the more free episodes you will receive.

    And as an added Holiday Bonus, we continue to offer our entire archive of past episodes at the greatly reduced price of 1.29 per episode.  Or buy bundled five packs and get an even greater discount.   And if you just can’t get enough of Philosophy Talk, pick up our complete catalog of nearly 250 shows for $199.95 – just 82 cents per program.

    We need your help to make this free download service feasible.  Believe it or not, it costs us a lot to give stuff away for free.  To help cover the costs, we will be retiring our free stream of past episodes.  You can do your part to keep our free download service available to everyone by purchasing an episode or two from our archive of past programs.

    Once you sign up, whether you choose to buy or not, you still get access to our free download service – each new episode of Philosophy Talk at no charge! 


    November 24, 2010 | 0 comments | Read More »
  • Civil Disobedience

    Civil disobedience is a great tradition.  Particularly in America, where we have Thoreau, who refused to pay a poll tax, because the money supported the Mexican War and the Fugitive Slave Law.  Then, there’s Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.  And the Viet-Nam War protester.  But then, as philosophers, we must ask, what exactly is civil disobedience?   Suppose Henry Thoreau and Henry Schmo both refuse to pay their poll tax.  Thoreau does it for the noble reasons you mentioned, but Henry Schmo does it because he’d rather spend the money at the pub.  They're both disobeying a civil law; they're both, in a literal sense, civilly disobedient.  What’s the difference?  Just that Henry has good intentions? 

    Thoreau was trying to influence policy; his non-payment a speech act.  Is that the important difference? What if Thoreau’s grouchy uncommunicative cousin Larry Thoreau didn’t pay his poll tax, either.  He also didn’t want to support the fugitive slave law and the Mexican war, but he didn’t tell anyone why. So it wasn’t really a speech act, no attempt at communication.  The war and the slave act made him sick; he couldn’t bear to pay his taxes, so he didn’t.  Still seems kind of admirable.  But no speech was involved. Is that Civil Disobedience?

    Well, Civil disobedience clearly isn't a scientifically precise concept.  I can’t give you a definition.  But I bet we can list some traits that a paradigm case of civil disobedience will have.  For one thing, it will be a refusal to obey or follow a law that is itself unjust, like the law against making salt that Gandhi broke, or a law that supports unjust policies, like the poll tax.  That’s a start, but it doesn’t tell us the difference between famous Henry and grouchy Larry.

    Gandhi and Thoreau weren’t just disobeying the law, but protesting law and policy by doing so publicly.  Their acts were of speech as well as disobedience.  They were done openly, and they didn’t attempt to escape punishment.  The same for draft-card burners, and those who sat in at shops that refused to serve blacks.  So grouchy Larry Thoreau gets eliminated, at least as a paradigm civil disobeyer.  That doesn’t mean we can’t admire him.

    To continue with our paradigm, usually we have in mind non-violent activities, like sit-ins and marches.  And of course there is the intent is to change things; to get the law repealed, or the policy changed.

    Putting it all together, a paradigm act of civil disobedience includes:  Disobeying or refusing to follow a law or policy believed to be unjust, or supportive of injustice, publicly and non-violently, with the intent of drawing attention to the law and policy, and getting it changed.

    That leads to the next question.  We admire all those people we mentioned --- Thoreau, Gandhi, King, the student boycotters in the Civil rights movement, and so on.  Does that mean that they were right to break the law?  How can it be right to break the law?

    We, the admirers, think the laws or policies were unjust.  How about a crowd non-violently blocking the entrance to an abortion clinic?  I don’t happen to think the laws allowing abortion are unjust.  But these people do.  Does that make them morally right?

    We admire those who protest the laws we think are unjust.  But we're all part of a democracy full of people with very different values.  We're supposed to settle things by voting, or having our representatives in legislatures and congress vote.  But any law or policy on a controversial issue is going to go against someone’s deeply held beliefs.  Does that give them the moral right to disobey it?  That would create chaos.

    Other things being equal, it seems in a society like ours, where there are other remedies, like voting and taking things to the courts, those methods should be tried first.  But other things aren’t always equal.  Time may be of the essence in setting the injustice right, but courts take time --- and money.  Sometimes it seems civil disobedience has to be a first resort, not a last resort, because it's the only way to make anyone care about an unjust policy in time to do anything about it.

    That doesn’t exactly solve all the issue or answer all the questions.  Luckily, Ken and I will be joined by Kimberley Brownlee, Professor of  Political Philosophy at the University of Manchester, to help think things through.  I hope you join us!

    November 20, 2010 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Levels of Reality

    If you think about it, reality comes in many levels, each level involving different kinds of things, having different kinds of properties. Perhaps most people would think of things like dirt at the bottom level, then us at the next level, and the sky at the highest level. But philosophers have a different, more abstract concept of levels of reality. Here are some examples:

    • You and I---or at least our bodies--- along with tables and chairs and cities and towns and planets. This is what philosophers call the level of medium size objects. This level of reality is what most of our lives are concerned with. The sorts of things we can perceive with our senses, and so forth.

    • Contrast that with a level called quantum reality. Objects like quarks that we can’t see, having properties like spin that we can barely make sense of.

    • On the level just above quantum physics, we find electrons and atoms; then there’s the level of chemical facts, where you have chemicals and bonds; then the level of biology, where you have cells.

    • Higher levels too, like maybe involving minds, societies, nations…

    • And there are angels and God… and numbers for that matter. So we’ve got lots of levels!

    Intuitively each level has a characteristic kind of object, characteristic kinds of properties and facts, and usually a different profession for people that study or work with it: quantum physicists, solid-state physicists, chemists, biologists, psychologists, sociologists. Nearer the top, mathematicians and theologians. And then, at least according to Aristotle, at the very top: philoophers. He put philosophers there because we think about Being --- that is, the whole shebang, and we try to figure out how the different levels are related. Most contemporary philosophers feel more in the middle than at the top. And their approach to the issue of levels of reality focuses on the topic of reduction.

    We can set God and the angels aside; philosophers who believe in them aren’t likely to suppose they are reducible to something else, and those who don’t believe in them don’t worry about their reducibility either. We can also set numbers aside, since neither Ken nor I have any firm ideas about them. Then, physicalists like Ken and I both tend to be, think that the rest must be one big reality, physical reality. Facts about chemicals really are just facts about atoms and electrons, and they are really just facts about subatomic particles, or whatever else turns out to be at the bottom. And the same with biology and chemistry; psychology and biology; sociology and psychology.

    The divisions are based on how humans interact with the different phenomena, the tools we use, the interests we have, and, of course, the National Science Foundation budgets involved. and Ultimately, metaphysically, philohically, there is just one reality, matter in motion --- or whatever quantum physicists replace matter with, or whatever they replace motion with.

    One might think of this as depressing and mysterious. I don’t feel like a complex of quarks. Of course, there is another theory. It’s the competitor to Reductionism. It’s called Emergence. That’s the idea that each level in some way emerges from the one below, under certain conditions. And when emergence happens, truly new objects, properties, and facts are involved.

    One might favor reductionism over emergence on the basis that in some cases, the reductions though not yet discovered,  are in principle to be had.  Biologists have known since Mendel that something, which they called `genes', are responsible for inherited characteristics. But for a long time, there were debates about whether genes could really be explained by physical and chemical properties. Many biologists thought that genes could never be fully explained just in terms of physics and chemistry.   They thought, in other words, genes were emergent, and not reducible. But with the discovery of DNA and the development of molecular biology, we know this isn't so. The structure that Watson and Crick discovered has allowed scientists to explain how genes work without appealing to anything but the principles and properties of physics and chemistry.

    If everywhere some philosophers see emergence, scientists will eventually provide reductions, emergence will just be another idea in the dust-bin called the history of philosophy. But that grand result would require a biological understanding of consciousness and all the other mental phenomena. Should would-be physicalists like Ken and I really be so confident of that? Is it so obvious that it even makes sense?

    Luckily we have an expert on all of this to help us think about it, Tim O’Connor, author of Theism and Ultimate Explanation.

    November 14, 2010 | 18 comments | Read More »
  • The Idea of a University
    Anonymous (not verified)

    Posted by John Perry


    I’m really happy universities exist, and that they support philosophy departments, and seem to think I do something useful.  But the longer I have spent in universities, the more I've become familiar with the vast differences in schools and departments, the complexity of funding, how different things are done in other universities, particularly those in other lands… and, frankly, the less I have a feel for what universities are really supposed to be.  Here are four issues around which my doubts and confusions cluster.


    Research versus teaching.  At Stanford we charge the undergraduates a lot of money.  We draw the best students in the world --- or at least as good any others.  But at Stanford, and Harvard, and the University of California, and all the other elite universities, we all know that research is the main criteria for hiring and promotion.  So what is a university?  A teaching institution?  Or a big research lab with some students around the edges?


    Academy or Laboratory?  I tend to see the university on the model of the philosophy and other humanities departments.  After all, our heritage goes back to Plato’s academy, perhaps the first university-like thing in the Western tradition.  We think about hard intellectual problems and teach students to think.  But when you’ve been around a university as long as I have, and chaired the department as both Ken and I have, and sat through countless committee meetings with colleagues from all over the insititution, you have to adopt a larger perspective.  The place is  a sprawling megalith, and the paradigm model is not thinkers in a library or seminar but scientists in a lab, funded by government or industry, competing with others for the next round of grants and prizes.


    Who owns the university?  Whose university is it, anyway?  To whom do we answer?  Officially, we are a corporation, so the Trustees are in charge.  But as a non-profit corporation, do we answer to a higher authority?  If so, what is it?  The needs of the world?  Of the nation?  Of something more abstract, like Knowledge or Truth?  And who are the final arbiters of how we conduct our mission?  The faculty?  The alumni?  The students?  And what is the administration’s job?  To convey the deep wisdom of the faculty to the Trustees?  The Trustees for the most part are practical people in touch with the wider world.  Maybe our mission should be to translate the Trustees vision to the university’s work force --- like you and me.


    Finally the future of universities like Stanford and Berkeley and all of the ones we're familiar with for that matter leaves me mystified.  Traditionally, universities whatever else they are, are a place.  They provide a place where books and faculty and labs and students can all be together, and reap the benefits of being together.  Will that continue to be important with the changes wrought by the internet?  There are already internet universities.  Are they the wave of the future?  Will Stanford and Berkeley and UCLA and Cal State San Francisco become dinosaurs in a great new world of distributed universities, whose libraries and classrooms are just U-R-L's on the internet?


    So, we’ll have lots to talk about with our guest, the Stanford provost, the philosophy department’s very own John Etchemendy.  We’ll start by asking him just how he sees the university --- a school with researchers around the edge, or a big lab with students around the edge.



    QuickPost | TypePad.

    November 6, 2010 | 12 comments | Read More »
  • Comments Will be Moderated, beginning immediately.

    Like every blog,  we wage a constant war against spammers.   But spammers always seem to be ahead of the game.   They are able to leave hundreds of comments at once, even with the safeguards that Typepad has built into its software.  The only sure way to block the spammers  is to moderate comments --- something we haven't really wanted to do.   But it looks like its time to finally give moderation a try.   So starting now,  we will moderate comments.   That means that if you post a comment, it may take awhile to appear.  Indeed, if it's off point, or inane,  or otherwise inappropriate, it will never appear. 

    Many bloggers tell us that moderated comments promote much more useful discussion.  So let's see.

    November 1, 2010 | 3 comments | Read More »
  • The Occult Philosophy

    Our topic this week is the Occult Philosophy.  These days, we tend to think of those who believe in the occult as soft-minded, superstitious, new-age hippie-types who would rather commune with imaginary mystical forces than face cold, hard scientific facts.     But it wasn’t always so.  During the Renaissance, for example, things like Alchemy, Astrology, White Magic, Hermeticism,  Cabala, Numerology were intensely studied by some of the best minds in Europe.   Literature from that period is often rife with references to the occult.  The works of Shakespeare are a prime example.    You might even say that   the study of the occult was once culturally dominant in parts of Europe.  And although the occult is surely culturally marginalized as anti-scientific gobbledygook today, many historians of science believe that the study of the occult played a crucial role in the development of modern science itself.  Alchemy begat chemistry and astrology begat astronomy.

                That’s not entirely surprising if you think about the meaning of the word ‘occult.’    On one meaning – no doubt the most common meaning, the word ‘occult’ means   “Of, relating to, or dealing with supernatural influences, agencies, or phenomena.”  That, of course, is the very opposite of what science deals with.     But the word  ‘occult’ has another meaning  --- “secret, concealed or hidden from view” as in “occult causes.”  That’s a more old fashioned use of the word ‘occult’.    You find it used that way in 16th and 17th century philosophy texts.  Not many people use ‘occult’ to mean secret or hidden very much today.  But during the Renaissance,  students of the occult were  very much in the business of trying to discover, understand and manipulate the hidden causes of everything in the universe.  To that extent, their goals were very much in line with modern science.

                Of course, their heir methods were quite weird, by our contemporary lights -- a veritable witches brew of religious mysticism, metaphysical speculation and magic.   Or to put it differently, Renaissance thinkers thought that that the occult in the sense of the hidden causes of everything included agencies and phenomena that were occult in the sense of supernatural.  So although the Occult Sciences and Philosophy of the Renaissance may have been forerunners of modern science, they were not scientific by today’s standards.  Modern science has no truck with the supernatural.    

                Eventually occult practices and philosophy were driven into the shadows of  Western Culture.  That was no doubt partly due to the consolidation of the scientific revolution.  But it wasn’t just that.  There was also an intense religious backlash against the occult, especially after the protestant reformation. The Occult philosophy drew liberally not just from Christian theology, but also from pagan and eastern beliefs.   Occult practice seems to have been both unorthodox and, apparently, threatening to the Church.   So the occult became identified with dark and sinister forces.  Its practitioners were subject to intense religious persecution.  They were often tortured and executed. Some historians even refer to the numerous witch-crazes of the period as a kind of holocaust.

                But let’s jump ahead to today.  Despite the dismissive attitude of people who may be overly awed by science, some apparently sane people still believe in the occult.  And thankfully, we don’t burn people at the stake for practicing a little witchcraft anymore.   And to top it off, we’re recording this episode on a Halloween Sunday.     For those reasons and more there couldn’t, I think, be a better thing for us at Philosophy Talk to be doing today than asking where our ideas of the occult came from and examining how those ideas got driven from the center of Western culture to its margins.  It should be a fun and fascinating hour.  But since neither John nor I is adept at either occult theory or occult practices, we’ve  used the white magic of radio to conjure ourselves up some help.   We’ll be joined by one the world leading experts on the history of occult theory and practice – that would be  Christopher Lehrich,  author of, The Occult Mind: Magic in Theory and Practice. It should be a fun and informative hour.  So why don’t you join us too? 


    October 30, 2010 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • Bargaining with the devil

    The title of our show,  “Bargaining with the devil,” is supposed to bring to mind the issues of bargaining and compromise. These are good things, involved in virtually all cooperative and productive behavior. Everyone has to bargain. Even dictators need to bargain with other dictators and heads of state.

    But there are times when we shouldn't compromise because basic principles are involved; and there are issues that we shouldn't bargain about. Or so it seems.

    Still, even when you are completely right about an important principle, can't the situation you are in force you to compromise? Bernard Williams imagined the following. You are an anthropologist in some country wracked by revolution. One group or another comes in to the village in which you work and rounds up all 15 males. The leader says they will execute them all. You protest. He says, “Fine. If you will shoot the first one we will let the other ones go.” He hands you the gun. What do you do? Surely, in some sense, it is wrong to bargain with murderers about who gets murdered. And it's completely contrary to your principles to kill an innocent person. But if you don't bargain, and act contrary to your principles, 14 extra innocent men will die.

    Of course ethical theories may dictate one course or the other. The utilitarian says shoot. The Kantian, I assume, says not to. But recently philosophers like Avishai Margalit have suggested that instead of focusing on theoretical ideals, a useful ethical and political theory needs to start by considering the rights and wrongs of compromise; Rawls may tell us what an ideal group of reasoners in an original position would come up with as a just society; Nozick may tell us who would own what in the extremely counterfactual situation in which we could start with legitimate cases of ownership. But in the real world people have things; nations control territories; societies are ruled by various combinations of laws and principles; and the political actor is never faced with choosing an ideal but rather with making the best out of a messy and unjust situation.

    History abounds with leaders who had to compromise with evil. Churchill refused to negotiate with Hitler. But he did negotiate with Stalin, agreeing to the forced repatriation of dissident Soviet refugees among other things. Our nation was founded on compromise. Many of our founding fathers, not only those from the northern states, but some of the slave-holding Southerners as well, knew that slavery was wrong, about as wrong as a thing can be. They compromised away the life, liberty, and happiness of millions of Afro-Americans, in order to have a union.

    Margalit distinguishes between compromise and “rotten compromise”. Rotten compromises are those that institute or perpetuate truly inhumane regimes, and such compromises are morally prohibited. By that standard it seems to me the founders' compromise was rotten. And by that standard, I guess, we shouldn't compromise with the Taliban. And Churchill probably shouldn't have compromised with Stalin at Yalta. And I suppose we shouldn't be negotiating with North Korea, and possibly not with Iran either. Inhumane regimes are a fact. Can there really be a moral prohibition against negotiating with them? And doesn't willingness to negotiate imply willingness to compromise?

    We will have some help from Carrie Menkel–Meadow, professor of law at the University of California, Irvine. She's the author of What's Fair: Ethics For Negotiators.

    October 23, 2010 | 10 comments | Read More »
  • Philosophy Talk Live at The Marsh SF this Sunday

    This Sunday we kick off another series of live recordings at the Marsh theater with two new shows in San Francisco:

    • 12 pm: The Moral Costs of Free Markets.  We live in a market-driven society—our day-to-day lives consist of buying and selling goods and services, and to some, our ability to do so without government regulation is the underpinning of democratic freedom itself.  Everything has a price, and pretty much everything is for sale, from concert tickets to political influence. But should it be this way?  John and Ken to discuss the moral limits of the free market with Stanford philosopher Debra Satz, author of Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets.
    • 3pm: Abortion.  Nothing stirs up controversy like abortion. To some, it carries the steep moral cost of destroying human life, and to others, it represents an inviolable bastion of women’s rights over their own bodies. Despite the polarizing nature of the debate, it covers broad philosophical ground, and touches on religious, political, social and moral considerations.  John and Ken unravel the complicated issues surrounding abortion and see what can be gained by a rational philosophical approach to the discussion with UC Berkeley Journalism professor Cynthia Gorney, author of Articles of Faith: A History of the Abortion Wars.

    Tickets for these shows can be pruchased through Brown Paper Tickets or by calling the Marsh box office at 1-800-838-3006.

    This year, we're also offering advance-ticket and multiple-show discounts.

    Speaking as one of the men behind the Philosophy Talk curtain (official title: Production Coordinator), I can say that putting the program on for a live Bay Area audience is both a ton of work and incredibly rewarding. There are a lot of individual elements to line up for everything to run smoothly and coherently: tables, microphones, music, visuals, etc. Not to mention making sure everyone is in the right place at the right time with the right material. And once the tape is rolling (so to speak), I tend to focus on what'll need to happen production-wise to get the program ready for broadcast.

    But what unique radio it is! And as we start our second full season of Marsh tapings, I can only hope that if you haven't yet made it out for a live event you'll make the trek to the Mission district. And if you have been to one before, we hope you'll be enticed by this year's lineup. Philosophy Talk is nothing without its audience (Ken refers to the callers on the radio broadcast as a "second guest"), so this Sunday come down and question everything -- except your desire for thought-provoking, audience-engaging radio.

    October 14, 2010 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • Digital Selves

    Digital Selves Promo

    A digital self isn’t really a person made out of numbers or fingers.  It’s a computerized representation of a person.  It can be a “VRS”---a virtual representation of yourself.  Or a VRO --- a virtual representation of another person.

    So, important distinction:   we've got me, the real person.  And  then there are  representations of me: My name in the paper, my image in a mirror, the picture of me on our website, even my idea of myself in my own head, and your idea of me.

    Quite apart from the digital revolutions, we all encounter many other kinds of representations of ourselves.  I see my name in the phonebook, or in the Stanford catalog.  I hear myself talking when I listen to Philosophy Talk on my ipod.  I can see myself, or a representation, when I watch a video of my grandchild’s last birthday party.  I can see an image of myself in the mirror.  And in all those ways, I can also have representations of others.  So now what’s special about digital representations?

    For one thing, given today’s technology, they can be very lifelike.  If you go into Jeremy Bailenson’s virtual reality lab at Stanford, and put on some goggles, you can meet people that look and talk pretty much like real people, although they are actually just digital representations.

    Another important categories of digital representations are avatars.  An avatar is  a representations of a real person that appears in games like “Second Life” or interacts with other avatars.

    All these digital representations have something in common.  They can be programmed to behave in what seems like an autonomous way, unlike a photo, or a video recording, much less like a piece of language like my name in a book.  I can set up my avatar to be less responsible than I am, to live a wilder virtual life than I do in real life.

    So what’s philosophical about all of virtual reality and virtual selves? 

    First, there is what virtual reality can tell us about belief, perception, and emotion.  When you enter a virtual world voluntarily, like Bailenson’s lab, you know you’re in a plain old room, without a bottomless pit to fall into, snakes to attack you, or other people to bump into.  But when you meet virtual representations, these beliefs about the real world don’t block your emotional and physical reactions to the virtual world.  You’re scared of stepping into the bottomless pit in the virtual room.  Even though you feel the solid floor beneath your feet.

    Second, it seems to hold the promise of making philosophical thought experiments come true.  How do I know whether I’m Ken Taylor at the Marsh, or Ken Taylor with goggles --- maybe goggles so small I can’t feel them --- in a virtual Marsh?  Descartes would love it.  We could prove the existence of a virtual God ---- or at least a beneficent webmaster.

    Finally, the nagging question from philosophy and science fiction:  How much does reality matter? If all our experiences can be manufactured virtually, is reality that important?

    On today’s program, we have the very man whose lab I mentioned, Jeremy Bailenson, Director of the Human Virtual Interaction Lab at Stanford, to help us think through some of these issues.



    October 10, 2010 | 5 comments | Read More »
  • The terror of death, and how to overcome it
    Anonymous (not verified)

    Captured ruminations of Ken and John



    The title of this week’s program makes at least three assumptions that deserve to brought into the light of critical reflection:

    ·      That death is terror-inducing.  

    ·      That being terrified of death is a bad thing.  

    ·      And that overcoming the terror of death would be a good thing.

    One can take issue with each of them. 

    Is death really terror-inducing?  True, most people don’t want to die.  But most people don’t walk around seized by the terror of death.  Perhaps, people faced with the imminent and vivid prospect of death – soldiers at war, people who have fallen gravely ill, people whose aged bodies fail them more and more each day – may often be gripped by a Kierkegaardian fear and trembling and sickness unto death.  But not everybody in those situations is filled with dread.  Some are calm and serene in the face of death.  And certainly not everybody walking around, going about their everyday lives, is filled with this dread.   

    Be that is it may, for most of us, on a daily basis, the terror of death manifests itself more like a low-grade, but persistent anxiety.  We mostly manage not to focus on it, but it’s always there in the background of our consciousness, shaping every aspect of our lives.   Sometimes events beyond our control can force this anxiety into the foreground of our thinking and awareness.  And then our low-grade anxiety can become an intense horror.

    Well then, is terror of death such a bad thing?  It actually seems like a perfectly rational thing.  Suppose a very evil, very sadistic demon was to tell you that at some unknown future moment, he would appear out of nowhere and cut your arms and legs off.   Wouldn’t you be terrified?  You might not be seized with intense, debilitating terror at every waking moment.   Maybe your terror would mostly manifest itself as a low-level hum of suppressed anxiety.  But what would be wrong with that?  Something really bad is going to happen to you, something over which you have no control.   Don’t you have the right to be terrified?  

    Still, if you allow yourself to become so terrified that you just sit there worrying about losing your arms and legs, instead of using and enjoying them while you have them, that would be utterly silly  --wouldn’t it?  It’s the same thing with life!  If dread of death drives out your embrace of life, then you’re wasting this precious and precarious gift.  Don’t waste your time dreading death, spend your time embracing life instead.  So perhaps it’s rational to fear death, but irrational to let that fear get such a grip on you that you don’t enjoy life.

    Our third assumption seems to suggest that denial a better attitude toward mortality than the clear-eyed acknowledgement that the boundless nothingness of death awaits us all, that at any moment the dark abyss may open beneath our feet. But isn’t it possible to simultaneously embrace life while acknowledging and facing the reality of death?

    We’ve got one the world’s leading psychotherapists,  Irvin Yalom, to help lead us through the thicket of issues that surround the topic of death.  So tune in.



    October 1, 2010 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Gandhi as Philosopher

    Our topic this week is Gandhi as philosopher.  That would be Mahatma Gandhi, the great spiritual and political leader, father of the Indian Independence movement.  The man who preached and practiced non-violence, and inspired millions around the world -- including America's own apostle of non-violence, Martin Luther King.  Though one may not typically think of Gandhi as a philosopher, he was, in fact, aprofound philosophical thinker.  He wasn't an academic philosopher like John and me, but he wrote a lot that could be called philosophy.   

    To be sure, academic philosophers would probably find his philosophical writings frustrating at times.  But when you realize that Gandhi's spirituality, his approach to politics, and his philosophical outlook are interconnected, then you realize that if you really want to understand the phenomenon that was Gandhi, you have to also understand his philosophical outlook. 

    And we’re betting that a taste of Gandhi as philosopher and how it might help us better understand Gandhi the spiritual and political leader.   Take, for example, Gandhi's views about morality.  You might think that the leader of non-violent non-cooperation, as he liked to call it,  would be big on moral condemnation of his opponent, and would be constantly claiming the moral high ground.   After all, revolutionaries do tend to criticize the old order as morally problematic.

     Just as an aside, though, I should point out that one could wonder whether it is completely fair to call Gandhi a revolutionary.  He didn't lead an armed rebellion, like most revolutionaries.  He and many of his followers were willing to be killed, but they weren't willing to kill.  And the term 'revolutionary' does tend to connote  the violent, rather than the peaceful overthrow of the old order.  So  I'm not sure we have a good word for exactly what Gandhi was. 

     But let’s get  back to Gandhi and morality.  Most revolutionaries – or whatever exactly Gandhi was – are utterly and inalterably convinced that they have morality wholly on their side.  Though Gandhi was a deeply principled man who constantly strove to be on the side of morality, he wasn't big on claiming to know the moral truth.  And he actually thought that the ethical condemnation of one's opponent was itself a form of violence.  And he rejected all forms of violence.

    That can seem a little puzzling. If you have morality on your side, what's so bad about claiming that you do?  Isn't that just stating what you believe to be true?   But it’s worth making two points in this connection.  The first one is about truth.  Gandhi had very complicated views about truth.  He believed there is such a thing as absolute truth.  And he felt he was on a quest to know the absolute truth.  But he also thought that that quest for truth was unending and uncertain.  Only God actually  knows the absolute truth.  Gandhi, in fact,  took it to be a form of arrogance to claim to have the absolute truth on your side in disputes between humans.  We, humans, only know what he called relative truth.

    That makes  Gandhi a kind of relativist, in a way.  One might reasonably suppose, then,  that it must have been  his relativism that led him to reject moral condemnation as a form of violence.  Relativists, after all, promote tolerance of competing points of view and competing moral outlooks.  Problem is that  Gandhi can't really be called  a straight-forward relativist.  Relativists  tend not to believe in absolute truth  -- even as the elusive object of an unending quest.  But that’s just what Gandhi did believe.  Of course,  Gandhi isn't straight-forward absolutist either.  At least  some absolutists think that they have a firm grip on the absolute truth.  And under the illusion, at least as Gandhi would see it,  that they alone know the absolute truth, they tend to lord it over those who disagree with them.  Gandhi would never pretend to know the absolute truth and would never lord it over anyone.    

    I'm not sure, but Gandhi's attempt to sort of have it both ways  makes things a little complicated.   Suppose we follow Gandhi and say that lording it over others, under the illusion that you alone grasp the absolute truth,  is  a form of violence. Well then, aren’t we criticizing and morally condemning the other?  But by Gandhi’s lights, moral condemnation is itself a form of violence.  So  don’t we have to reject even this moral condemnation?  But that, it would seem, doesn’t make any sense. It prevents us from simply stating what we take to be the case -- that one shouldn't lord it over others under the illusion of having sole possession of the absolute truth.   But the very rejection of that way of looking at things is built into Gandhi's own way of thinking.  So it looks like Gandhi can't really declare hi sown principles, maybe.   

    Maybe we should turn this around, though,  and look at it from the perspective of the opponent, to see what Gandhi is getting act by rejecting righteous moral criticism as a form of violence.  I think he pretty clearly thinks that   if  you constantly criticize your opponent, that the opponent  will experience your condemnation as an attack.  Perhaps not an attack on his physical person but an attack on, as it were, his spiritual person.  And that puts your opponent on the defensive.   But if  you want to win your opponent over or at least lower his resistance,  that’s a bad strategy.  Whether it's morally wrong is less clear, but maybe perhaps strategically wrong.   

    You  could, I suppose,  think that Gandhi is really carrying this non-violence thing too far.   Moral condemnation is an attack only in a metaphorical sense and not literally and truly a form of violence.  But Gandhi would insist that violence takes many forms -- not just physical.  There's economic violence, cultural violence.  For Gandhi,  moral condemnation is just another form of violence.  And he insisted that all forms of violence are to be resisted.  It is certainly true that violence takes many forms and that not all of them involve the infliction of direct physical harm to the body.  But I'm still not completely convinced that freedom from violence of any kind would entail freedom from moral condemnation. 

    I haven't unravelled, by any means, the puzzle of Gandhi.   He was clearly a complicated man.  And he was a complicated thinker too.  It’s not at all obvious that his views really add up to philosophically speaking.  But fortunately, for this episode John and I were joined by  a man who has thought long and hard about Gandhi: Akeel Bilgrami author of "Gandhi, the Philosopher".

    September 26, 2010 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • Philosophy for the Young: Corrupting or Empowering?

    Our topic this week: Philosophy for the young – corrupting… or empowering? We asked that question in front of an audience of high school at Palo Alto High School, in Palo Alto, California. We record this program there last May, at the invitation of a teacher, Lucy Filppu, an English teacher by training, who teaches a special humanities course. We had a blast and we’d very much like to thank the students and teachers at Paly, as it is affectionately called, for having us. We’d love to go back sometime. Now the The charge that philosophy actually corrupts the young is nearly a old as philosophy itself. Over 2,400 years ago, in one of the most famous trials of all times, Socrates, one the founding fathers of Philosophy, was condemned to death for corrupting the youth of Athens. Now I have no doubt the young men who followed Socrates all around Athens being tutored by him were royal pains for the authorities. But Socrates didn’t corrupt the young; he empowered the young. He empowered them to think for themselves, to question received wisdom, and not to be cowed by authority. No doubt, they made the authorities uncomfortable. But making the authorities uncomfortable isn’t the same as being corrupt.

    September 3, 2010 | 11 comments | Read More »
  • Why Self-Deception Research Hasn’t Made Much Progress

    I’d like to talk frankly about why research on the topic of self-deception hasn’t made much progress—as far as I can see—despite a steady-stream of on-going interest. There’s been some excellent work, but it doesn’t seem to me that the topic on the whole has moved forward all that much. In both philosophy and psychology there has been a tendency to talk about self-deception as if it were one thing. If it’s one thing, we can just figure out what that is. Right? The philosopher’s approach is to try to solve the paradox of self-deception and come up with an analysis of self-deception in terms of necessary and/or sufficient conditions. The psychologist’s approach is to try to demonstrate experimentally that certain behaviors require positing a mental state of “self-deception.” (This approach is excellently illustrated by the classic 1979 article from Ruben Gur and Harold Sackheim, entitled “Self-Deception: a Concept in search of a Phenomenon.”) Neither approach is exactly wrong. But here’s the problem. “Self-deception” is a term that only loosely refers. If we were to survey all the psychological states that the term can aptly be applied to, we’d find vast differences within that set of perfectly real phenomena. There are, at least, what I would call classic self-deception, self-inflation bias, semi-pretense, and false emotion, all of which seem to me to be distinct—but all of which get loosely termed “self-deception.” I’ll turn to those shortly. For now, let’s stay focused on the methodological problem.

    September 2, 2010 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Self Deception

    Our topic this week is self-deception. Self-deception is rampant in human affairs. And although too much self-deception is probably a bad thing, a little self-deception may be just what a person needs to get through the day. One should never underestimate the power of positive illusions. For example, psychological studies show that people who are overly optimistic about their own abilities often have enhanced motivation, which enables them to do better in the face of challenges than people with more realistic assessments of their own talents.

    August 27, 2010 | 28 comments | Read More »
  • Humanism

    Our topic this week is Humanism. The program was recorded live at at meeting of the American Humanism Assocation, in San Jose. Well, one might wonder, what controversy can we find in Humanism? We usually think of Humanism as that glorious movement in thought that began in the Renaissance, with the rediscovery and re-appreciation of the texts and art of the Greeks and Romans. Human life, in this world, moves to the center of attention, while God, Heaven, angels and the like, the focus of medieval thought, move aside. Humanism led to the Enlightenment, to Locke and Hume and Kant, to democracy and science and progress. Not to mention to Humanities Divisions in modern universities, with philosophy departments, and philosopher hired to teach and think. Three cheers for Humanism!

    August 21, 2010 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Bodies for Sale

    Our topic this week is Bodies for Sale.The buying and selling of vital organs is illegal in most developed countries.  But there is a thriving, global black market in body parts.  Should the buying and selling of organs be legalized and brought into the above ground economy?  Or is something inherently wrong about treating the human body and its parts as mere commodities?

    One thing for sure.  There is huge pent-up demand for body parts.  In the US alone, according to the National Kidney Foundation, over ninety-five thousand people are currently waiting for an organ transplant, with another four thousand added to the wait list every month.  In 2006, more than six thousand people died awaiting life-saving organ transplants.  And of the twelve thousand dying people who could donate organs, only about half actually do.  The numbers are just staggering – utterly staggering.   In 2002, the World Health Organization pegged the number of people suffering from diabetes around the world at a hundred seventy one million.  By 2030 the number will climb to nearly four hundred million.  Those folks are prime candidates for kidney transplants.

    So… we’ve got a huge global demand for bodily organs and an inadequate supply of donations.  Is it any wonder there's a thriving black market?  Legend has it that a healthy kidney can fetch up to a hundred fifty thousand dollars.  That’s a mighty tempting number.  Doesn’t that suggest that if there were open, legal, well-regulated markets in bodily organs the supply problem would just disappear?  And we might do a lot to alleviate third world poverty while we’re at it. 

    But legend and reality don’t always match.  Take that hundred fifty thousand price tag for a kidney, for example.  Numbers like that are sometimes thrown around on internet chat rooms, but the reality is quite different.  In places like the Philippines or Iran -- where the buying and selling of organs is not against the law -- the price for a kidney is pretty low -- a few thousand dollars at most.  It’s true that black market brokers will sometimes charge as much as ninety thousand dollars to their rich Western clients for third-world kidneys.  But hardly any of that money reaches the person who offers up the kidney for sale.

    You might think that the  problem is the black market itself, but it also could be that even an  open global market in kidneys might do more to enrich those who exploit the poor than it would do to help the poor themselves.    Even open global organ markets have great potential to exploit the poor and desperate around the world by turning their bodies into repositories of spare parts for the well-off, without really doing much to improve their own lot.  After all, not many middle or upper class Westerners are going to sell a kidney for a few thousand bucks -- even on a legal open market.   And not many of the world’s desperately poor are going to be able to afford to buy kidneys on ANY market.   So even in an open market the burden would fall disproportionately on the poor, while the benefit would fall disproportionately on the rich.   

    So the situation is deeply morally fraught.  It seems pretty nearly completely upside down to the egalitarian liberal in me.  And then there’s the intrinsic yuckiness of  thinking about your own body parts as mere commodities.   I tend to be a Kantian and the Kantian in me tends to recoil at the very idea of treating my own body as a mere thing, a mere tool to be bought and sold like any other commodity.  Kant would probably say the buying and selling of organs is inherently wrong.  When you sell an organ, you're treating yourself as a mere means, rather than as an end in itself.  And Kant thought you should always treat yourself and others as ends in themselves.  And my gut instincts almost always go with Kant on these matters. 

    But, of course, it turns out to be more complicated than Kant realized.  When I sell my labor, for example, I allow my employer to treat me as a mere means.  If it’s morally okay to sell your bodily labor, why isn’t it morally okay to sell your bodily organs?  I'm not sure the Kantian has a satisfactory answer to that question. 

    We’ll put that question and much more to our guest,  Debra Satz,  author of the very fine book, Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale: On The Limits of Markets.  Tune in to see what she has to say. 

    August 13, 2010 | 9 comments | Read More »
  • William James

    William James, the topic of this morning’s program,  is one of America’s greatest philosophers.  His career spanned the turn of the Twentieth century; he actually was teaching at Stanford at the time of the 1906 earthquake, and wrote an interesting essay about his experiences and feelings during the quake.

    James was a precursor to contemporary philosophers, in that he was really a cognitive scientist / philosopher.  He was in both departments at Harvard.  His two-volume PRINCIPLES OF PSYCHOLOGY was the bible of psychologists at the time.  It still makes fascinating and rewarding reading. His book THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, which is a combination of philosophy, psychology and sociology, virtually originated the serious study of the psychology of  religion.

    As a philosopher, James is best known for pragmatism.  I think there are two sides to pragmatism, one pretty plausible, one not so plausible

    The plausible side is his pragmatic theory of meaning.  James illustrates it with a story.  Some campers are having an argument about this situation.  A squirrel is running around a tree in a certain direction.  A man is following the squirrel around the tree in the same direction.  Both the squirrel and the man are clearly going around the tree.  But is the man going around the squirrel?  He must be, since he is going around in a circle, inside of which the squirrel lies.  But he must not be, because he is always looking at the squirrel's back.  If you go around a squirrel you first see his back, then his side, then his front, and so on...

    You can see that James hung around with a very intellectual crowd.  Apparently, instead of drinking beer and talking about sports, or movies, or even politics, they chose to discuss this rather arcane subject.   Anyway, according to James, there was a spirited argument, about whether it was true or not that the man went around the squirrel.  But James pointed out that the two hypotheses  --- that the man goes around the squirrel and that he does not --- don't lead to different observable consequences.

    So he asked his friends:  what evidence, what observation, would show that one hypothesis was correct and the other incorrect.  And the couldn't come up with anything.  So they were really arguing about nothing.The pragmatic theory of meaning points out that both hypotheses have the same observable consequences; or, as one might put it, they both do the same work in predicting the future.  So they have the same meaning and the argument is empty.

    This is similar to things that Hume said, and what later philosophers, like Carnap, called the verifiability theory of meaning.  The meaning of a sentence is basically the observations that would show it's true.  William James is a bridge between earlier empiricists like Hume and modern empiricism.  Hume looked for meaning of an idea or belief in the causes of an idea, the “sense-impressions” which gave rise to it.  20th century empiricists, following James, look to later sense-impressions, the sense-impressions you will expect to have, if the belief is true.

    I don’t think that the pragmatic theory of meaning is going to solve all of our problems, but there is something pretty plausible about it.  By my lights the same cannot be said for the pragmatic theory of truth.  This is the idea that what makes a belief true is that it works.  Here’s a quote:

                Truths are goods because we can "ride" on them into the future without being unpleasantly surprised. They "lead us into useful verbal and conceptual quarters as well as directly up to useful sensible termini. They lead to consistency, stability and flowing human intercourse.  They lead away from eccentricity and isolation, from foiled and barren thinking"

    This  seems to me to have things just backwards.  If  you hold true beliefs you won’t be surprised by experience.  But the lack of surprise isn’t what makes the beliefs true.  It’s their truth that accounts for the lack of surprise.   At any rate, this dubious idea gave James an opening for beliefs like immortality and God; these beliefs may help your life go well …. But that doesn’t, in my humble opinion, make them true.

    Our guest will be Russell Goodman from the University of New Mexico, who can take us a little deeper, and perhaps make James theory of truth a little more plausible. 

    August 8, 2010 | 4 comments | Read More »
  • William James and the Squirrel Example.

    This post was originally published shortly after our episode on William James -- which is being rebroadcast this wee-- originally aired. We're moving it up to the top of the blog in honor of the rebroadcast. Russell Goodman, who was our guest a couple of weeks ago, for our episode on William James sent the following remarks as a follow up to our on-air conversation. They are posted here with his permission. I wanted to comment on that squirrel going around the tree story with which James opens the second chapter of Pragmatism. It's a great story, but it seems, from my experience, to itself provoke as much disagreement and puzzlement as the squirrel and the man themselves do. At first blush, it seems like a good verificationist story- a dispute about two terms or hypotheses that have the same empirical consequences. James's point would be then be that the dispute is idle (as you put it in your introduction, the campers are “arguing about nothing.”) This seems to be James's conclusion in the second paragraph, where he writes: “If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle.” That's fine, and this statement fits Peirce's example (in “How to Make our Ideas Clear”) of a cup of wine that is allegedly Christ's blood but gives all the signs of just plain wine. But James's conclusion does not fit what he says in the first paragraph, where the point is NOT that there is no “practical difference” between the cases but rather that if one makes the distinction between two senses of “going around” (i. e. passing north of, east of, south of, west of, vs. facing the belly, then the side, then the back, then the other side of the squirrel) there is no need for disagreement. That's because each sense determines a DIFFERENT, empirically verifiable set of consequences, either for the man himself (if he can catch sight of the squirrel's belly, etc, it being a narrow tree) or certainly for the observers, who can tell whether the man is facing the squirrel's back or belly (is the squirrel standing?) or merely circling a squirrel who keeps his belly facing the man.

    August 8, 2010 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • Social Reality

    Our topic this week is social realities. I must admit that when I first brought the nature of social reality up as a topic for an episode of Philosophy Talk, the non-philosophers on our team all went “huh?” That phrase obviously doesn’t mean much to the person on the street. But social realities are all around us. Think of cocktail parties, football games, bar mitzvahs, political rallies, and even nations. These are all social realities.

    July 30, 2010 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • The Irrationality of Human Decision Making

    Our topic this week is the irrationality of human decision making. As philosophers, I’m sure that John and I would like to believe that we make decisions in a perfectly rational way. Indeed, I’m sure that most people think of themselves as pretty rational decision makers. How would thoroughly rational decision making go? Well, first, you’d decide what things you want, and how much you really want them. Second, you’d survey your options for getting what you want. Third, you would assess the upside benefits and downside costs of each alternative. And last but certainly not least, you’d choose the alternative that has either the greatest upside or the least downside, depending on whether you were risk-averse or risk seeking. It’s pretty simple really.

    July 23, 2010 | 10 comments | Read More »
  • Loyalty
    Anonymous (not verified)

    Our topic this week is loyalty. Loyalty binds people together. Friendships, marriages, even nations are built on loyalty. Try imagining a person who has no loyalty whatsoever to anything or anyone. Such a person would be friendless, loveless, nationless. She would feel no devotion to any higher cause or principle – like truth or justice. She would not even be a fan of any sports team. A life like that would be empty, devoid of many of the things that make us fully human.

    July 16, 2010 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • Rawls on Justice

One of the most influential political philosophers of the 20th century, John Rawls articulated a vision of a liberal state, focused on justice. His significant book was his Theory of Justice. Continuing the ideas of Locke and others, Rawls maintains the best way to think of the state is as the result of a social contract. Think of the beginning of the Declaration of Independence:

    July 8, 2010 | 4 comments | Read More »
  • Democracy and the Press

    Freedom of the Press was important to the Founding Fathers; it’s right there in the first amendment. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Still, the founding fathers had a lot of ideas. They weren’t all good. Two that have turned out bad are the second amendment and the U.S. Senate. The second amendment gives people the right to own and even carry into Starbuck’s weapons that can allow them to kill me at a great distance, with no warning. Doesn’t do much for my sense of liberty, much less my sense of safety. The anti-democratic institution of the Senate means that I, as a Californian, have considerable less say about American government than the citizens of any other state, about 1/70th as much say about the makeup of the Senate as citizens in Alaska or Wyoming. Other really bad ideas, like countenancing slavery and not letting women vote or hold office, have been eliminated through war and amendment. But these two bad ones, at least, remain.

    July 4, 2010 | 12 comments | Read More »
  • What are Human Rights?

    Our question this week is “What are human rights?” The American declaration of independence offers a compelling answer to that question so its the first place one might think to look of for a characterization of human rights. It says in what I personally find stirring language that “All men are created equal … they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights … among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    June 26, 2010 | 10 comments | Read More »
  • Corporations as Persons

    According to American law, and the law in a lot of the rest of the world, corporations are persons–fictional persons, or corporate persons, or something like that. There must be two sides to this issue. But I can only see one. This is a really stupid idea. Corporations are not persons. Groups of persons in general are not persons. It's almost always a bad idea to call something by a name that doesn't deserve. By calling corporations persons, we seem to let a lot lame brains, including a majority of the Supreme Court, to think that they are persons. Corporations as persons is a dumb idea, that should be flushed down the toilet of history.

    June 19, 2010 | 18 comments | Read More »
  • Psychological vs. Biological Altruism

    There are at least two kinds of altruism. Psychological altruism means acting out of concern for the well-being of others, without regard to your own self-interest. Biological altruism refers to behavior that helps the survival of a species without benefiting the particular individual who’s being altruistic. It may not be obvious what exactly these two forms of altruism have to do with each other and why they should be discussed in the same breath.

    June 12, 2010 | 4 comments | Read More »
  • Hannah Arendt
    Anonymous (not verified)

    Today’s topic is Hannah Arendt. All the philosophers we talk about have interesting thoughts. But many of them have relatively dull lives. Hannah Arendt is not one of them. She led a very interesting life, and the events in her life had a lot to do with her philosophy.

    June 6, 2010 | 4 comments | Read More »
  • Philosophy Talk's Fifth Annual Philosophical Summer Reading List

    This week, we broadcast our fifth annual summer reading list show. Over the five years that we've done this, we've been really impressed at how widely and deeply read our listening audience is. It really heartens us to know that there are still avid readers out there, in this age when reading has been declared all but dead.

    May 22, 2010 | 9 comments | Read More »
  • Culture and Mental Illness

    Our topic for this week is Culture and Mental Illness. Our aim is to consider the ways in which culture influences and shapes the very idea of mental illness and the also the way culture conditions the way particular mental illnesses express themselves.

    May 8, 2010 | 4 comments | Read More »
  • Apologies

    When one hears the word “apology” in a philosophical context, one naturally thinks of Plato’s famous Socratic dialogue, ``The Apology”. And then it strikes one that Socrates doesn’t sound all that apologetic. Historically, ``apology” often meant “reasoned argument or writing in justification of something”. Nowadays it mostly means “a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure”. It’s in this latter sense we are interested in apologies, including apologies in the political sphere, whether sincere or self-serving statements pretending to be expressions of regret.

    April 24, 2010 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • Faces, Feelings and Lies

    Our topic today: Faces, Feelings, and Lies. And, in particular, how can we know what a person is feeling by looking at their face, and in particular can we know if they are lying? There is clearly both a psychological side to this and an epistemological side. Our guest is famous for his work on the psychological side, with a positive result: we can know what a person is feeling, and whether they are lying; at least the information is often there in the face. But it’s not always so easy.

    April 18, 2010 | 3 comments | Read More »
  • The Ethics of Torture

    Is water-boarding torture? If it is, does that make it wrong? Always? Usually? What is torture, and why is it always, usually, or sometimes wrong? Almost every dictionary gives two definitions of torture: a narrow one… inflicting great pain. And a broad one… severe mental anxiety and suffering. Water-boarding clearly counts as torture by the second definition, perhaps the issue isn't clear given the first definition. But sure if our topic is the ethics, or morality, of torture, we need the more inclusive definition – severe mental anxiety and suffering.

    April 10, 2010 | 24 comments | Read More »
  • On Being a Wife

    What is a wife? From a philosophical point of view, it looks like the word `wife’ is a predicate and so should stand for a condition, presumably one that humans meet or don't meet at times. And so the first question is, which condition? And then the next questions would be about the importance of the property, its relation to issues of equality, social structure and the like.

    April 4, 2010 | 3 comments | Read More »
  • What is a Wife?

    Our topic this week is "What is a wife?" Now we know that that may sound like a sexist question, at least at first. Why focus just on wives? What about husbands? And what about homosexual marriages? Why not be gender-neutral and politically correct? Why not ask: what is a spouse?


    April 3, 2010 | 8 comments | Read More »
  • Fear!

    I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. This weeks episode is about fear. More particularly, it's about the use and abuse of fear as a political tool. We want to explore the ways in which politicians stoke our fears in order to mobilize us to action, stifle dissent, and justify all sorts of repressive policies. We by no means mean to suggest, though, that all political uses of fear are illegitimate. Some things are worth fearing. And fear sometimes leads us to do the right thing. For example, when we fear the consequences of global warming and try, as a consequence, to prevent it from happening, our fear has motivated us to do something good.

    March 26, 2010 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • Food and Philosophy: Live at the Marsh

    Satisfy your hunger for food and philosophy on April 25th at the new Marsh Theater location in Berkeley. Join Philosophy Talk for two live recording sessions and a lunch break in between where you can break bread with Philosophy Talk co-hosts John Perry and Ken Taylor.

    11:00am Show: Democracy and the Press

    Our founding fathers believed that a free press would serve democracy by promoting unfettered political debate and by exposing the actions of the government to the harsh scrutiny of an informed and engaged populace.  In today’s media landscape, however, large conglomerates have become part of the entrenched power structure and are driven as much by the profit motive as by a sense of public mission.  And even the most well-intentioned journalists sometimes find it wiser to suck up to power than to challenge it.  Even the untamed cacophony of competing voices unleashed by the internet provides as much dis-information as information. In such a media landscape, is it still possible to believe that the press lives up to the lofty ideals of our founding fathers?  If not, how might we reform the media so that it once again serves to promote and sustain democracy?  Join John and Ken and their guest, former TV news anchor Leslie Griffith, as they discuss Democracy and the Press.

    12-30 - 2:00  Break Bread  with John, Ken, and the whole Philosophy Talk Crew 

    3:00pm Show: Social Reality

    Few things affect our lives as much as fact that we are citizens of one country rather than another.  The government of, the economy of, and the rights recognized and opportunities provided by the country we live in shape our lives.  But how real are any of these facts and things?  Without human beliefs, and societies of humans, there would be no states, no facts of citizenship, no money, and few opportunities.  Are our lives built on ontological fluff?  Ken and John discuss the metaphysics of the social with famed Berkeley philosopher John Searle, author of The Construction of Social Reality.

    One show $20.00
    One show plus lunch. $30.00
    Two shows (lunch included): $40.00  


    Buy your tickets online at Brown Paper Tickets or by calling The Marsh's 24/7 toll-free ticket hotline at: 800-838-3006.  

    This live event will be held at The Marsh Theater's Berkeley location, 2120 Allston Way.

    March 25, 2010 | 0 comments | Read More »
  • Science and Pseudo-science

    One can imagine a kind of sceptic being put off by this way of setting up the episode. For one might think that the question of separating science from pseudo-science is really a political question in disguise. And by that we don't mean to buy into the stereotype that, for example, Democrats like science, because they're in favor of evolution, and Republicans like pseudo-science, because they're in favor of creation science. That's not what we mean at all.

    March 20, 2010 | 10 comments | Read More »
  • What is Normal

    According to the OED, the usual sense of `normal’ is: 2. a. Constituting or conforming to a type or standard; regular, usual, typical; ordinary, conventional. But do these uses constitute a single sense? It seems that there is nothing very normative about being typical, regular, usual and ordinary; but conforming to a type or standard seems like something one ought to do. We set standards, live up to standards or fail to do so, and the like. The original use of the word `standard', was for battle flags and such, then for weights and measures; then for things more generally; there are standards of comparison, accepted standards; official standards. These generate at least conditional oughts; if you want to submit an article to The Philosophical Review, you should do your best to follow its standards. We can talk of standards for all sorts of things one doesn't aspire to be: the standard idiot. This seems ironic, though.

    March 12, 2010 | 14 comments | Read More »
  • Infinity

    Joe: I’m not sure I agree with you Blow in denying that nature contains the infinite. But to settle this, why don’t we start out by defining infinity. Blow: That’s a piece of cake. The infinite is that which is not finite. Joe: But wait a second – you've only told me what infinity is not. That doesn’t tell me anything positive and definite about it. Suppose I ask you to define the color green. And you said green is the color that is not red, and not blue, and not orange and so on for every other color you can think of. That would tell me a lot about what green is not. But it doesn’t tell me much about what green is. I don’t want to know what infinity is not. I want to know what it is. I want a concrete definition to help me recognize infinity when I come across it. BLOW: I hate to tell you Joe, but you’re not very likely to come across infinity. Every number you’ve ever counted to has been finite. Every extent of space you’ve ever crossed has been finite. And every span of time you’ve ever experienced has been finite too. JOE: Okay, what’s your point?

    March 6, 2010 | 15 comments | Read More »
  • The Second Annual Dionysus Awards

    Joe:  Hey Blow,  I hear that Philosophy Talk is giving out it's Second Annual Dionysus Awards.  That's     such a cool award.  My favorite of the year.  I'm psyched.

    Blow:   You do seem extraordinarily psyched, Joe.  But what's the big deal?  There are dozens of movie     awards show every year.  

    Joe:    Well, Blow,the Dionysus Awards may not have achieved quite the cache of the Oscars just yet,     but,they may be having some effect. Just look at the crop of philosophically interesting movies     Hollywood produced this year -- a year after Philosophy Talk gave the first Dionysus Awards. There       were some really interesting movies from a philosophical perspective released by Hollywood this     year: District 9,A Serious Man,   Up in the Air,  Avatar – to name just a few.    Those are all both     good  movies and philosophically rich movies.   It’s like that line in A Field of Dreams – “If you build     it,  they  will come!” 

    Blow:  Ah, Joe.  You're  lost in a field of dreams.  I kinda doubt that the Dionysus Awards have had much     impact on Hollywood. But you know what?  It doesn’t matter if Dionysus awards get trumpeted  on     movie marquees.  Let’s just be grateful that there are so many philosophically interesting movies to     talk about this year.   And let’s get on with talking about them.

    February 27, 2010 | 5 comments | Read More »
  • New Blog Policy

    Well,  it's been awhile since we've updated our blog.  Since both John and Ken are extremely busy -- not only putting on episodes of philosophy talk, but with full time day jobs and research agendas (which means books and articles to write) -- they just don't get around to blogging that often, as you can see.   We always invite our guests to blog, but they are busy people too and seldom take us up on the invitation.   We had contemplated just closing down our blog, but thought before taking that step, we'd try one more innovation.   What we're going to do is for every show,  post something more or less based on the opening segment of the show -- which we think through hard in advance -- in order to just get the discussion started.  It should be up and running each week before the show actually airs on Sunday -- either Friday or Saturday or perhaps at the latest Sunday morning itself. 

    We will open comments and we will monitor comments during the show, at least if the broadcast is not one of our growing number of pre-recorded shows.   But be warned that we will also feel free to delete comments that are simply spam, irrelevant, inappropriate, etc. 

    We hope this policy revives our blog.  We love the idea of a blog.  It's just that our two principals and our many guests are very, very busy people.  

    We start with this week's Dionysus Awards show.  We should have a post up shortly to get the discussion going.  We've received dozens of e-mails and comments on our face book page.  Hopefully, there will be lots of traffic here too.  

    February 27, 2010 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • Move Over Letterman: A Philosophical Top 10 LIst for the 21st Century


    top 10 crop
     To mark the occasion of our
     200th episode, we invited three former  guests,  Brian Leiter, Jenann Ismael, and Martha Nussbaum, and also  our listeners to help us come up with a list of the 10 most pressing  philosophical issues of the 21st Century. We talked about all sorts  of ideas and it was hard to distill out just 10, but John and Ken  summarized the suggestions and compiled them on the fly at the end  of the show. But with a little more time to reflect, we decided to  clean the list up a bit. So what follows is an improved version of the  makeshift list that was generated during the broadcast. 

    10.  Finding a new basis for common sensibilities and common values.
    The world is more economically interconnected than it has ever been. But it still seethes with divisions and social fragmentation. Can we find a new basis for shared values that will bring us together rather than tear us apart?  

    9. Finding a new basis for social identification.
    Distant and powerful forces, not answerable to local communities, shape so much of our lives. Howcan we sustain local communities, communities with which we can identify?  Or is the very idea of a local community an outmoded parochial idea suited only to centuries gone by? 

    8. The Mind-Body problem. 
    Neuroscience is revealing so much about the brain. Does this new knowledge solve age-old mysteries of the mind?  Or does it reduce the mind to mere dumb matter and rob us of what we once thought was so special about us? 

    7. Can freedom survive the onslaught of science?
    Science, especially neuroscience, is revealing more and more about the true workings of the mind,  threatening to explode our ancient beliefs about things like the freedom of the will.  Can traditional practices that presuppose human freedom survive this scientific onslaught?  If we are not really free is it really permissible to punish people, and even put them to death, for their wrongful acts? 

    6. Information and misinformation in the information age.
    The 21st century threatens to wreak havoc on the social organization of information and knowledge. We are awash in a glut of information coming at us from all sources -- some reliable, some unreliable.  But the old top-down authorities that once functioned to certify some information as true and other information as false, are quickly being dismantled.  How can we distinguish the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff?  We philosophers for a new century thus face epistemological problems hardly imagined by our predecessors. 

    5. Intellectual property, in the age of re-mix culture.
    Ideas now spread like wildfire -- mixing and re-mixing in the blink of an eye.  Can the very idea of intellectual property survive in the age of re-mix?  Are outmoded ideas of property stifling the growth of a new culture?

    4. New models of  collective decision making and collective rationality.
    Solving the problems of the 21st Century will require coordinated rational action on a massive scale. But we really have no models of collective rationality, no idea of the institutional, social, political and economic structures that will allow us to meet these challenges.  Can philosophers help build them in time to guide us in meeting the challenges of this century?  

    3. What is a person?
    WIth the rise of cloning,designer babies, and drugs that can alter one's personality, enhance one's memory, or make one smarter, we may be forced to rethink the very idea of human person.   What exactly is a human person, when every aspect of our biological and genetic and psychological make-up can be manipulated at will?  What, if any,  part of a person is fixed and unchanging? 

    2.  Humans and the  environment. 
    What relationship should humans have to the environment?  Are we called to be stewards of the environment? Or is the environment just there for our exploitation and use?  Never in the history of humankind have such questions been so pressing.  But we have barely begun to think about them in a systematic philosophical way.  

    And the number one philosophical problem for the 21st Century: 

    December 18, 2009 | 15 comments | Read More »
  • The Philosophical Legacy of Charles Darwin

    Today our topic is Darwin's Philosophical Legacy and our guest is the one man in best suited to help think this through. That would be Dan Dennett, author of many books inspired by Darwinian ideas. Dennett thinks that Darwin's idea of evolution through natural selection is both the single best idea that anyone has every had about life and how it works and also a deeply unsettling even "dangerous" idea. You can join the conversation by posting to this open blog entry.

    December 6, 2009 | 21 comments | Read More »
  • 200 and Counting!
    Help Us Celebrate 200 Episodes of Philosophy Talk!
    Our 200th episode is coming up, and to mark the occassion we're compiling a Philosophical Top 10 List.

    What burning issue do you think philosophers and Philosophy Talk  should tackle in the years ahead?

    Send your suggestions for our Philosophical Top 10 list to or post them here on our blog.   We will be monitoring the blog during the show. 

    November 15, 2009 | 12 comments | Read More »
  • Does Postmodernism Mean Moral Relativism?

    For those not in the KALW Broadcast area, we will be re-airing our episode on Post-Modernism during this coming week. So we're moving an old blog post by our guest Gary Aylesworth, written when this episode originally aired, to the top of the blog.

    posted by Gary Aylesworth

    Toward the end of last Sunday’s broadcast of Philosophy Talk, a caller asked whether the “moral relativism” supposedly rampant in our time was part of postmodernism. While I would certainly agree that the current hysteria over moral relativism is a postmodern phenomenon, I don’t agree that postmodern thought takes an “anything goes” view of politics or ethics, or that it prevents us from saying that the terrorists of 9/11 committed mass murder. Instead, I see postmodern thought as a kind of moral humility, a humility that prevents us from assuming that the world divides neatly into “us” and “them” or that “others” are simply evil while “we,” by mere opposition, are assured to be in the right. Such absolutism, after all, has the same structure as the ideology of the terrorists. Several figures associated with philosophical postmodernism emphasize our obligation to the other as an other, that is, not as “one of us” but as one who marks the limit of our own identity or community. It is an obligation to receive the other as such and not to silence or eliminate her. We can agree that the 9/11 terrorists violated this obligation and that they are responsible for their actions, but it also forces us to examine our own sense of victimization. Nietzsche warned us against the moral righteousness of the victim; it is dangerous because it seeks to annihilate the other and tolerates no dissent.

    The alarms against moral relativism we hear around us are, I think, the latest bellowings of the morality of ressentiment, a morality that looks for someone or something to blame for the insecurities and uncertainties of our age. Postmodern thought did not create this situation, but tries to explore its structures and its limits. It also upholds certain Enlightenment values, such as the freedom to dissent, social and political emancipation, the rights of individuals and minorities, etc., but it does so without claiming to know, once and for all, who individuals are or what ultimately constitutes a right. That these identities must remain open is itself a moral imperative, and one that obliges us to be humble in our judgments. Moral humility, not moral relativism, is the lesson of postmodern thinking.

    September 13, 2009 | 22 comments | Read More »
  • Am I a Postmodernist

    The term ``postmodern’’ came into use as a description of certain trends in architecture, art, and literature in the 1970’s, although the trends it describes reach back earlier in the twentieth century, to Joyce and Finnegan’s Wake in the case of literature, and to the 1950’s at least in the case of architecture.  But what counts as postmodern philosophy?

    September 13, 2009 | 12 comments | Read More »
  • The Post-Modern Family Values: Open Blog Entry

    It's pledge week on KALW, our host station.  And we're doing a live pledge show that will only be heard on that station and not on our affiliates  around the country.  But if you'd like to tune it, you can do so at 10am PST time, on KALW's Website  where the show is streamed live.   Join the conversation.   Of course, even if you can't hear a broadcast version of the show,  we will eventually put the streaming version up on our own  website, from which you can also purchase an downloadable version.

    A couple of weeks ago, I started an open blog entry on pornography, so I thought I'd do the same for the Post-Modern Family.  Our guest today will be sociologist, Michael Rosenfeld, author of a The Age of Independence: Interracial Unions, Same-Sex Unions and the Changing American Family.   I've only read a bit of it,  but what I have read is fascinating.   He argues that increase in  same sex and interracial unions in America is due largely to the occurrence of a relatively new "life-stage"  -- the age of independence, he calls it -- during which young adults are single, co-mingled with one another in colleges, universities, and the work-force,  and, most importantly,  mostly free of their parents.   That's because more and more people go off to college in young adulthood, and go into the workforce at an age when earlier generations of their age cohort were living with or near their parents.  That gave earlier generations of parents more influence over their offsprings mate choices.   But that's been lost with the gradual rise of the age of independence as a distinctive life stage.    

    As a sociological, demographic thesis this strikes me as extremely plausible and I doubt either John or I will challenge  Michael on that score.  But my question is what does this mean about the role of the family in society.   One used to think of a family as one of the primary means of transmitting values from generation to generation.   One might have thought, in fact, that that is one of the primary things that family is for.  Of course, it has other functions -- providing for its members daily material and psychological needs prime among them.   It also inculcates a system of binding ties between the old and the young such that the old care for the young in their age of dependency in such a way that the young feel permanently bound to the old and out of love and affection, more than mere "duty"  return the favor when the old are very old.    Families also traditionally provided central ingredients of our self-narratives -- the narratives in the telling of which we constitute ourselves thick identities, as particular people, with particular life stories. 

    But can a family structure  which so radically weakens the normative ties between generations really do that identity constituting, value transmitting,  generation binding work? 

    That's one of the questions I'd like to discuss with MIchael on the air.  

    We'd love to have your input.    Leave a comment on this blog or call in or send us an e-mail.  


    gotta run.

    September 13, 2009 | 28 comments | Read More »
  • Work and the Self

    This post was originally published back in January of 2008, when the episode on work -- which was actually recorded in October of 2007 -- first aired. I thought it would be interesting to republish it at the top of the blog as we re-air that episode.

    Today's episode was on Work. Our guest was Al Gini from Loyola University of Chicago. He's a philosopher by trade, the author of a number of books about work and the self, and the resident philosopher at WBEZ public radio in Chicago.

    The episode was recorded a couple of months ago, back in late October, in front of a live, large and lively audience of students and faculty at Centenary College in Shreveport Louisiana. We were at Centenary for the better part of a week. We not only recorded today's episode there, but we also broadcast an episode on Philosophy and Literature live from Centenary's college radio station, KSCL, which has the singular distinction of airing our show twice per week. We also did a couple of other public events in connection with Centenary's First Year experience. Meeting with the students was especially fun. But we were also wined and dined, in very fine style, by many of Centenary's energetic and engaged faculty members. It was a delight getting to know you all.

    We thank all the good folks at Centenary, the nation's smallest Division 1 school, for making this all possible. And I hope you enjoyed having us around as much as we enjoyed being around.

    We'd like to do more of this sort of thing in the future -- as I think I've mentioned before. So if you'd like to bring us to a college campus near you, including your own, get in touch and let us know.

    Since it's been a couple of months since we recorded the show, I have to admit that it's been about that long since I thought hard about the topic of the show. I listened to it as it was broadcast this morning and was reminded of many things that I thought at the time. I think I still think most of them. But in the rest of this post, I'll try out briefly a few follow-up thoughts.

    September 5, 2009 | 11 comments | Read More »
  • Comment on Pornography by Rae Langton

    We invited Rae to guest blog, and she graciously agreed.  And unlike many who agree to guest blog for us, she actually followed through on her intention.  But somehow the technology didn't work for her.   So we're posting this on her behalf --Philosophy Talk.  


    John says, first, it's only fantasy, and second, outlawing is always 'a losing strategy'. 

    Well yes, it might be fantasy or pretend: someone is being paid to pretend to be bound, and paid to pretend to enjoy it. The viewer is joining in with the pretence. 

    But (i) note that even fictions are told and experienced against a backdrop of presupposed claims about the real world. For example, the Sherlock Holmes stories make claims about a fictional detective, against the backdrop of real world London. What does porn say or presuppose about the real world? That many real life women enjoy being bound and gagged, and that women who say no don't mean it. That's why, on the social science evidence, many consumers actually get their beliefs changed (see e.g. Donnerstein et al, the Question of Pornography). 

    And (ii) as 'one of many' points out, even if consent is there, the woman's pleasure may not be; and rehearsing even pretend violence can 'stay in that man's mind' to shape how he looks at other women later. There is a lot of psychological literature now about how our 'off-line' imaginings and pretendings can influence our 'on-line' behaviour. This can be a good thing when it means that rehearsing your tennis strokes, just in imagination, can actually help you play better! But bad when it's shaping your responses to real people. 

    Furthermore (iii) it's naive to assume that there is always consent, on the part of the actors, in the first place. Sara raises some excellent points about the real life conditions of many in the industry, for example in South East Asia, effectively the conditions of appalling sexual slavery. Consumers using pornography made in this way are effectively sex tourists, using virtual brothels in South East Asia. Possibly they are even the same consumers who would think twice about buying sneakers made with sweat shop labor.

    Strategies: Why so pessimistic about the law? Most people think the law can and should be used to restrict or make actionable some sorts of pornography, for example, in the US, child porn; and in the UK now (legislation pending) 'extreme pornography',  that eroticizes life threatening attitudes and behaviours such as necrophilia and asphyxiation. (This follows the porn-inspired murder of a school teacher by Graham Coutts, who was addicted to this sort of porn.) 

     I also agree with Michael that other strategies should be pursued—I would say, 'as well', not 'instead'. Yes, more and better sex education please! Otherwise porn will be the default sex educator of the next generation. But also: education for us all about porn itself: the conditions under which it's made (thanks again Sara!), and what it can do to people—to women, and to men too. It's naive, though, to think it will go away because it will just fail in the marketplace of ideas. People don't have their truth filtering brains switched on when they consume porn: they aim for pleasure, not knowledge. But it changes their minds all the same, just like effective advertising does. 

    And then in addition to education, a consumer boycott too. For the same reasons you might boycott sneakers made with sweat shop labour. Or for the same reason you might choose not to own a gun, even if you think you have a 'right to bear arms'. Why exercise that right, if it's more likely to damage you yourself—or those who are, or could be, closest to you?

    August 31, 2009 | 13 comments | Read More »
  • Pornography: Open Thread

    Blogging has been light around here as of late -- what with our gang's various and sundry  summer travels and the fact that we were often not in the studio this summer.  But it's time to kick this blog back into at least moderate gear.   For the upcoming season,  I plan to blog more regularly -- at least weekly, I hope.   (Daily is way more than I can manage.)

    Not going to make an elaborate entry this morning, before the show.  But I thought I'd give you a taste of what we're going to talk about today,   Here's a little dialogue, between Joe and Blow,  that sets up some of the issues we'll talk about today. 


    JOE:     I was thinking about the nature of pornography and I got stuck on the problem of definition. The late Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, is famous for having said that pornography he couldn’t define pornography, but that he knew it when he saw it.  Seems like he's right.   Or do you think you can do better?

    BLOW:   Well,  try this definition on for size.    Pornography is the graphic depiction or description intimate sexual acts,  with an intense focus on sexual organs,  for the express purpose of causing sexual arousal in the viewer, listener, or reader.

    JOE:       My first reaction is that seems too broad.  That definition would make things that are romantic, artistic and erotic count as something base and pornographic.

    BLOW:  You’re making the  pretty common, but mistaken assumption that pornography is, by definition, a bad thing.   Do yo really think it's an analytic truth, as philosophers like to say,  that pornography is a bad thing? 

    JOE:      Definitely,   pornography is a bad thing.  It debases and objectifies  woman; it  promotes the sexual exploitation of children; it glorifies sexual violence.

     BLOW:   Are you deliberately being obtuse, Joe?   I don't doubt that  some pornography is bad.  And probably some of it is bad in just the ways you say.   But that's not what I was denying.  I was denying that  pornography is bad by definition.  

    JOE:  I'm not being obstuse.  I get that you're suggesting that we shouldn’t define pornography in value-laden terms.    I just disagree -- that's all. 

    BLOW:   You want to try and settle the moral issues about pornography by appeal to definitions?  But that's a mistake.    We have to look at how pornography actually works – at its  real world social, and psychological and economic effects.  

    JOE:     I hate to appeal to the authority of dictionaries in philosophical arguments.  But if  you go looking in the dictionaries you get conflicting data. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines pornography as  “the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement.  That’s a value-neutral definition.   But at you find a more value-laden definition,   “obscene writings, drawings, photographs, or the like, esp. those having little or no artistic merit.” 

    BLOW:   I’m with Merriam Webster, obviously.   But however we want to define pornography, we’ve got the same problem.   The real question is which, if any depictions of sex organs and sex acts, are morally problematic and which are not?  And what distinguishes the morally problematic ones from the ones that are not morally problematic?

    JOE:      The morally problematic ones are the ones that debase woman, that exploit children,  that promote sexual violence.  

    BLOW:   Can we agree to set aside child pornography?    That has no defenders.   But are you suggesting that certain representations of sexual acts are intrinsically or constitutively morally problematic?

    JOE:       I am indeed, suggesting that.   I more than suggesting it,  I'm outright claiming it.       There’s just something plain distasteful about pictures of naked women in bondage.   Such representations treat woman as if they were mere things,  mere tools.   Woman are not and should not be represented as tools.  Don’t you agree?  Don't you find that sort of thing just disgusting.  I know I do. 

    BLOW:   You sound like you're trying to legislate tastes,  Joe.    But tastes vary and should be allowed to vary.   Some people like that sort of thing, obviously.  And some people don’t. 

    JOE:     I don't think we're talking about matters of taste.  I think we're talking about matters of morality.   There  is something intrinsically morally wrong with pornographic representations of woman in sexual bondage. Anybody ought to find such representations distasteful.    It's a perversion of taste that some men find the objectification of woman aesthetically pleasing.  So I might not want to  call someone who likes that sort of thing evil.  But I would call them perverted.   And I take perversion to be a term of moral condemnation. 

    BLOW:   Perversion is in the eye of the beholder.   What you call a perversion may for another person be a supreme and sublime erotic experience.   Look,  I'll grant you this.   Some people can’t handle explicit sexual representations.   It might lead them to sexual violence or other untoward behavior toward woman.  But some people can’t handle explicit violence in the movies either.    Perhaps we should keep pornography out the hands who people who can’t handle it.  But otherwise leave it alone.  That's about as far as I'm inclined to go in morally condemnation of pornography. 

    JOE: Look,  I gotta run, Blow.  I wish I could stay and talk you out of your silly views.  But my favorite radio show,  Philosophy Talk,  is about to air and it just so happens they are doing an episode on  Pornography,  with Rae Langton --who has written a wonderful book about the subject.   I wouldn't miss it for anything, 

    BLOW: That sounds cool.  Mind if I come along and listen too?

    JOE: Not at all.  I'd like that.  Maybe you'll learn something. 



    August 30, 2009 | 12 comments | Read More »
  • Torture

    Although we have not had, and don’t have scheduled in the near future, a program on torture, that’s the topic of this blog.   There are two reasons for this.  The first is a thoughtful email from one of our listeners, Gregory Slater, who is pretty disgusted with us for not having a program on torture already.  The second is that as we were discussing Lincoln today with Al Gini, we came to the question of whether Lincoln and George W. Bush should be thought to be equally culpable for their violations of the constitution in time of war.  This discussion also reminded me of an earlier program with Alan Dershowitz, who has written rather thoughtfully on the topic of torture; we did discuss the subject a bit on that program.

    Lincoln suspended habeus corpus, shut down newspapers, and did various other things that were clearly unconstitutional.  I don’t know of any evidence that he authorized torture, but then I’m not a civil war scholar.  But at any rate on the issue of violating the constitution, the conclusion we seemed to reach went like this. Bush and Lincoln both performed unconstitutional acts.  If we confine ourselves to things that happened shortly after September 11, 2001, and give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt, it seems that both did so on the grounds that the nation was in grave and immanent peril.  The Bush administration, remember, in the days after September 11, also had the Anthrax episode.  One can imagine that they were sincerely frightened that the 9-ll attacks and the anthrax episodes were simply the first in a series of planned attacks by Al Queda.  Lincoln, as Al Gini pointed out, was faced early in the War with the possibility that Maryland would secede, and Washington D.C. would be surrounded, and the war would be lost.  So both administrations violated the constitution under the fear of incredible immanent danger.  In retrospect, we may think that Lincoln’s worries were more justified than Bush’s.  If so, that’s one important difference.

    The other is that Lincoln was upfront about what he was doing, whereas the Bush administration was not, but tried to claim its actions were really constitutional, putting forward various lies about what it was doing, and self-serving legal analyses of the situation.  This is the difference that reminded me of Dershowitz’s position on torture.  But before getting to that, a brief digression.

    One of the most depressing things about the current discussion of torture is the idea, seemingly accepted by such sober analysts as the New York Time’s  David Brooks, that a key question is the issue of balance.  That is, in assessing the Bush administration’s use of torture, we need to know whether it worked.  The is a terrible idea, for just the reasons that the comedienne Wanda Sykes pointed out at the recent dinner for correspondents.  A bank robber couldn’t very well justify robbing banks on the basis of all bills he paid with the stolen money.  Bank robbing is wrong; an individual episode can’t be justified by the good the robber does with the money he gets. 

    Here is a perhaps more apt analogy.  A person has a right to a fair jury trial, where the jurors make their decision on the basis of evidence presented in the courtroom.  I’m sure many juries have felt that it would clearly be a good thing for society to have the accused put in jail, but didn’t feel they had the right to do so, on the basis of evidence presented.  The government is held to the same standards.  The issue isn’t whether, in a given case, the powers that be are certain that more good will come from imprisoning a defendant than letting him go.  You don’t’ say, ``Well, on the one hand, we don’t have the evidence to convict him, but on the other hand, we’re pretty sure that imprisoning him will do a lot of  good, so on balance it’s OK to do so.” Some things are a matter of cost-benefit analyses; some things are a matter of principles of fair play, human rights, and human dignity.

    Suppose we found that in fact innocent people were more reluctant to admit guilt in the face of torture than guilty ones.  To make it simple, and graphic, suppose that we somehow discover that if fingers on one’s hands are progressively chopped off, a guilty person will, nine times out of ten, confess after two fingers have been chopped off, while and innocent person will only do so after three fingers are chopped off.  We might become convinced that this was at least as reliable as the system of presenting evidence, having a trial, and the like.  So, why not, at least for serious crimes, which are expensive to prosecute, start chopping off fingers?  Anyone who resists after two fingers is deemed innocent, and compensated generously for the loss of fingers.  The whole thing might be more reliable, and far cheaper, than the jury system.  But I think most of us would way that it would nevertheless be wrong.  It’s not a matter of balance.  This is a wrong way for a government to deal with people accused of serious crimes.

    This all gets to the issue of what makes things right and wrong.  And here is where Dershowitz comes in.  Whenever one makes a claim, like I just did, that a certain procedure is wrong, because it violates human rights, human dignity, and such things, someone will come with a case where the costs of not using the procedure are so extreme, and thus possible benefits of using it are so high, that almost anyone will admit that, if those really were the facts, they would use the procedure: a so-called Doomsday Scenario.  Suppose the accused is thought to possess a nuclear weapon set to go off in the middle of San Francisco in an hour.  We have no way of stopping it except by cutting off fingers until he breaks.  Wouldn’t we do it then?  No?  Well than what if he were in a possession of a device that was going to end life on earth?  Or create a black hole in which the earth and every other part of the solar system would be sucked up, eliminating the possibility of life anywhere in the solar system forever?  Wouldn’t you start chopping off fingers in that case?

    Well, we all know Kiefer Sutherland would, and I guess I would too, unless it was one of those days when I was particularly depressed about the value of life and of the solar system. 

    There are two ways for one who thinks that certain things like torture, are best absolutely prohibited by laws and moral codes, and yet at the same time admits that in certain extreme circumstances particular acts of torture might be the best thing to do, because we are in a Doomsday situation --- in the limiting case, the very institutional fabric that supports the law and morality of which the absolute prohibitions are a part will be destroyed.
    Dershowitz’s idea is that the exceptional should be thought through and codified ahead of time, and then the Chief of State should have to determine that those circumstances applied and sign off on them personally, admitting up front that he is suspending laws and violating rights in an extreme situation.  The other approach is simply to rely on leaders to do what Lincoln did; admit that he is breaking the law, a law of which he approves, because he thinks such an extreme case applies.  Both of these seem preferable to trying to build it into the basic moral codes as a matter of ``balance.’’ 

    So, that’s my view of torture.  It’s wrong, and should be absolutely prohibited, as far as morality and  national and international law goes.  If some leader sees things as so extreme that things that should be absolutely prohibited in our legal and moral codes need to be done to preserve the very existence of the fabric of law and morality on which the prohibitions depend, then he’s on the hook to admit that is what he is doing, and say why, and take the consequences, whether meted out by a free press, the electorate, or a prosecutor in the next administration, if his judgment and reasoning are unconvincing.

    There are some other points to be made about torture.  The big issue of the day is waterboarding.  It’s clearly a pretty gruesome procedure, and as I understand it the U.S. is on record, prior to the Bush administration, of deeming it to be torture, and has prosecuted enemies for using it.  The whole idea of arguing that it is really not torture is just so much clap-trap, as far as I can see.

    On the other hand, we here confront that fact that language forces us to think digitally although we live in an analog world (or something like that).  There are clearly a range of treatments of prisoners that involve creating discomfort of various sorts: from putting them in unpleasant room; shouting at them; repeating questions ad nauseum; and insulting them, at one end of the scale, to pulling out fingernails, chopping off fingers, putting them in thumbscrews, and the like, at the other.  At some point a line is drawn; what falls on one side is torture, is illegal, is immoral, and so forth; what falls on the other side of the line is not.  Our legal laws and moral principles are by and large not based on the values a function takes on a continuous domain, but on words that are written into the laws and principles applying or not applying to a particular situation.  There is bound to be a murky area.  And then there are going to be areas adjacent to the murky area, and so on.  This is where lawyers and philosophers earn their living.

    But waterboarding, as I understand it, doesn’t seem all that murky, although it does seem less extreme than pulling out fingernails.  Still, a full philosophical theory of torture will have to get beyond the distinction between either being or not being torture, and consider the range of methods, the range of damages caused, and many other things.

    Mr. Slater thinks we should try to have Condi Rice on Philosophy Talk to talk about torture, and he is critical of the Stanford University faculties and the University of California faculties for saying nothing about the complicity of Condi Rice (Stanford Political Science) and John Yoo (Berkeley Law School) in the Bush torture program.  John Yoo seems a pretty clear case, and I think (speaking as a member of the broader UC faculty) he should be investigated by Berkeley to see if he has violated the faculty code of conduct.

    I’ve known Condi Rice for quite a while, not all that well, but as a colleague working on various faculty committees, and then while she was Provost.  I don’t know how intelligent people like she and Colin Powell got involved in such a disaster as the Bush administration, and I think philosophers ought to leave it to historians to figure out what their role was.  Nothing I have seen persuades me that Condi Rice was an advocate of torture; she has expressed the view that those who criticize the Bush administration for its policy after 9-11 are not putting themselves in the shoes of the decision makers at that time.  (This makes of sense, although it doesn’t speak to the situation a bit later in the game, when one of the motivations for torture seems to have been building a case for invading Iraq.)  The remarks of hers I have seen are consistent with her having opposed torture at the time in the inner councils, and that’s what I will take as most plausible scenario, given her intelligence and character, until shown otherwise.  So although I think a number of people in the Bush administration are legally and morally culpable for self-serving dishonesty on the issue, likely including John Yoo, I haven’t signed any petitions about this with respect to Condi Rice.

    May 17, 2009 | 22 comments | Read More »
  • Philosophical Wife Swapping

    I've never seen the reality TV  show Wife Swap.  And I have to admit that I find the title alone quite a bit off putting.  Just the title alone makes me think that the show  must be somewhat sexist and retrograde. So I was quite surprised and more than a little  skeptical when we at Philosophy Talk got an e-mail from a casting producer for the show requesting our help in finding parents who, as she put it,  "take on philosophical ways of thinking and reasoning when it comes to living their lives, raising their children and navigating the world around them."   At first,  I thought it must be some kind of practical joke.  And then I investigated a bit more and found that the casting producer, Danielle Gervais,  was really who she claimed to be and was really looking for philosophy-driven parents and thought that our listeners might be just the kind of people she is looking for. We had a brief debate among our philosophy talk posse about the show -- cause I have to admit I was still skeptical.   But some of members of our crew have actually watched the show.  They claim  it's often a  really fascinating study in human behavior and relationships. So they urged us to do what we could to help.  


    Since my own initial skepticism was based entirely on ignorance and a bad reaction to the title of the show,   (and John's was too, I think.)  and since it would be kind of cool if someone out there who actually listens to Philosophy Talk did appear on a popular reality show and showed how philosophy can make a real difference,  I thought  "Why the hell not!" 



    So if you are interested in possibly appearing on a reality show and if you do, to quote Danielle Gervais, again,    "take on philosophical ways of thinking and reasoning when it comes to living their lives, raising their children and navigating the world around them" why not give it a shot? 



    Here's what they say about themselves:



     3233_72761047581_15573277581_1765754_7120955_t  ABC's primetime series "Wife Swap" is currently casting its fifth season and looking for unique families with plenty of personality to take part in the show. Specifically, they're looking for parents who take on philosophical ways of thinking and reasoning when it comes to living their lives, raising their children and navigating the world around them. If yours is a unique family that is constantly seeking out the meaning of truth and existence and using these tools to raise your kids, the Wife Swap casting director wants to hear from you.

    If you are a two-parent family with at least one child over the age of 5 living at home, and you think your family would make terrific TV, please contact Danielle Gervais at 646-747-7956 or e-mail at


    What have you got to lose?  You might be chosen and you might have fun.  If you do contact, Ms. Gervais, though,  tell her that Philosophy Talk sent you.  

    April 28, 2009 | 12 comments | Read More »
  • Philosophy Talk and the Ignorant NEH Panelist: A Rant!

    I don't usually rant.   I fancy myself a calm deliberate guy.   Not only do I play a dispassionate voice of reason on the radio,  I really do try to be a dispassionate voice of reason in my every day life.   I don't always succeed mind you.  But at least my heart's in the right place. 

    But I've got to get something off my chest.  And what better place to do that than on a blog.  I wish I could do it anonymously, like so many do.  But I don't think that would work here.   So what's my beef?

    It has to do with Philosophy Talk and the National Endowment for the Humanities.   In general,  i don't have a big problem with the NEH.  Actually,  I kind of like at least the idea of the NEH.   They've funded many worthwhile endeavors -- some of which have materially affected my own research. 

    But I do have a bone to pick with them -- a bone I'd like to share with everybody who wishes Philosophy Talk well. We've applied to them five different times for various grants.  And five different times we've been turned down.  This time around, we were turned down -- rejected, refused, denied  (take your pick) -- for an America's Media Makers production grant.   The grant would have given us funds to produce a special 12 part series on the Philosophical Foundations of American Democracy.   

    It would have been a fun series.   We would have done each  episode in front of a live audience at various venues around the country in Town Hall Format.  Sort of a Philosophy Talk takes Democracy on the road, kind of thing. 

    The 12 episodes in the series would have covered a range of Philosophical topics designed to provide the American public with a deeper understanding of the problem and prospects of Democracy in the 21st Century.  Shows  would have been clustered around four broad themes.  

    One theme was called American Political Philosophies.  Under this theme we proposed to do episodes on:  (a) Rawls, Justice, and Equal Opportunity:  (b)  Communitarianism;  (c)  Libertarianism and (d)  Neo-Conservativism & The Chicago School.   

    Another theme  concerned Pluralism and its Challenges and included episodes on the struggle to rewrite the narrative of American history and contemporary challenges raised by Multiculturalism.   

    A third theme would have concerned the idea of an educated and informed democratic citizenry and how to achieve it.   We intended to discuss the struggle over creation and evolution, and the role of the state in determining the content of an education more generally. The fourth theme was called something like "Our Brother's Keepers?  Individual rights and Public Responsibility."   We would have talked about a variety of things including whether money is speech, whether corporations are really persons,  what sorts of rights and responsibilities corporations have  to promote the social good.  We would also have done an episode on  religious freedom, religious conflict and  religious tolerance and the role of the state vs civil society in mediating these.  

    Stuff like that.  Stuff that's at the core of trying to make democracy work in the 21st century. You could think this wouldn't make great radio.   You could also think that  even if it would make great radio, there isn't any audience for it.  You could even think that somehow the Philosophy Talk team was inadequate to the task.  

    But it's hard to imagine being told that these topics were  "strange"  and "confused"  But get this.  That's just what one of the evaluators for the NEH did say.  I kid you not.  Here's a direct quote: 

    The intellectual content of this proposal is strange. The philosophical foundations of American democracy are to be found in the philosophers that influenced the founding fathers as they created the Constitution. The foundations are not to be found in John Rawls and the Chicago Schoo. You could probably solve this problem by giving the project a new title, something like "philosophical ideas that influence American culture."


    It is not clear what writing American history and multiculturalism have to do with philosophy--at least fundamental philosophy.
    American education doesn't seem to be a philosophical question, although the founding fathers excepted an educated and informed citizenry. This seems to be a special question, rather than a foundational question.
    Individual rights and public responsibility is an interesting question to which philosophers may have much to contribute, but it's not clear how this is the foundation of democracy.
    It seems to me that the topics to be considered are rather traditional philosophical topics and it may be much more important to understand (even in philosophical terms) the processes that actually move and shake the country. It might be more important to deal with "the predator state" than with democracy, the public good, or education.



    Let's just call this panelist, Panelist #4 -- cause that's how he/she is referred to in the materials we got back from the NEH explaining why our proposal was not fit to fund.   (Frankly, evaluator # 4 if you read this blog,  I wish you'd have courage enough to try and defend this dribble in a public forum.)  


    Now I can accept rejection.  Believe me in both the businesses I am in -- radio and Academia -- one gets used to rejection and develops a thick skin pretty quickly.  If you don't, you just  go crazy.  So rejection is not the point.   I can deal with rejection.  Really!  I can!

    But what I find  unfathomable is that anybody so ignorant could possibly be allowed to evaluate proposals of any kind for  the NEH.  Evaluator number 4 writes as if  philosophical thinking about the justification of the democratic political state began and ended in the 16th and 17th centuries, that nothing said or done since then adds to our understanding of the foundations of democracy, as if the founding fathers delivered to us our current democratic polity, and its complete philosophical justification, whole cloth.

    I certainly wish Evaluator #4 would tell that to the hundreds or thousands of  scholars currently writing books and articles about the foundations of democracy.  He/she should tell them that it was all already said by Locke and Montesquieu. They should just stop wasting paper and killing trees. 
    Just to carry on with the rant a tiny little bit more.   Again,  you might think the topics uninteresting, but to say that  "writing American history and multiculturalism"  have nothing to do with philosophy or the foundations of democracy is, well, extraordinarily ignorant again.     Not just we Americans, but peoples around the world, are faced with burning questions about whether and how there can be a shared democratic polity among people who are more or less divided and at odds with one another.   The question is one about what Philosophers like to call  "reasonable pluralism."  To be sure, the problem of developing a philosophical defense of a reasonable pluralism is indeed a problem with which our Founding Fathers, in their great but incomplete wisdom,  were hardly seized.  In their world   many, many voices were silenced, oppressed, etc.   But of course  the 20th century was massively seized with the problem of achieving a reasonable pluralism.  And no doubt the 21st century will also be.  Frankly,  it's hard for me to see what could be a more urgent topic of discussion for a radio program that purports to bring the resources of philosophy to greater public attention.
    I'm  almost done with my rant. I swear. Indeed, I'm feeling calmer already. But I can't let this go without standing up for John Rawls and defending him against the claim that his work has nothing to do with the Philosophical Foundations of Democracy.
    But on second thought.  I don't have to do that.  A former US President already did that.  I cite no lesser authority than former President William Jefferson Clinton, who awarded Rawls the National Humanities Medal in 1999.  I quote in full below  Clinton's citation of Rawls:

    THE PRESIDENT: John Rawls is perhaps the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century. In 1971, when Hillary and I were in law school, we were among the millions moved by a remarkable books he wrote, "A Theory of Justice," that placed our rights to liberty and justice upon a strong and brilliant new foundation of reason.

    Almost singlehandedly, John Rawls revived the disciplines of political and ethical philosophy with his argument that a society in which the most fortunate helped the least fortunate is not only a moral society, but a logical one. Just as impressively, he has helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself.

    Ladies and gentlemen, Margaret Rawls will accept the medal on behalf of her husband. 

    Take that evaluator #4,  whoever you are.
    We don't have much hope of changing the NEH's mind. I'm sure that if we apply a sixth time,  we'll get turned down a sixth time.     Plus,  I suppose everyone -- even someone as  ignorant as evaluator #4 -- is entitled to his/her opinion.   But I don't have to be happy that someone  so manifestly out of his/her depth sits in judgment of proposals to the NEH.  Do I? 
    If I thought it would do any good,  I'd urge all right-thinking Philosophy Talk fans everywhere to write to the  Senior Program Officer for the Public Programs division of the NEH to urge that the Evaluator #4 on proposal TR50035,  be barred, on grounds of sheer ignorance,  from ever evaluating an NEH proposal again. 
    But I'm not that bitter or vindictive.   I'm really not.   And rejection doesn't bother me -- much.
    UPDATE:  Somebody pointed out that I left out the parts where panelist 4 (and also another panelist) call our proposal "confused."   But that's worth quoting too. So here is panelist 4's overall conclusion: 

    The discussion convinced me that the content was confused and not terribly important to understanding democracy. 

    Another panelist,  who was initially more favorably disposed to our proposal ended up confused too (and lowered our score):

    Still confused on the content -- what is the role on the philosophy in the program? Are we learning philosophical approaches? Or basic philosophical ideas? How philosophy can help us in the present?

    I have to admit that the last one really gets me.  Is there supposed to be some conflict between learning philosophical approaches, basic philosophical ideas, and showing that philosophy can be applied to present social problems?   How else would one imagine that we might go about trying to present philosophy to a non-philosophical audience?   Seriously,  would it even be possible to do one of these things without doing the other two?   Imagine that we tried to teach philosophical approaches without teaching philosophical ideas.  How would that even work?   And suppose we taught approaches and ideas,  but didn't try to show how philosophy can help us in the present. Then who would care?   Or suppose we tried to illustrate that philosophy had application to present problems and situations,  but we never said what a philosophical idea is or didn't try to show how philosophers approach problems.
    In short this statement is sophomoric babble that shows as much seriousness of thought as one might expect from a casual conversation in a bar over too many beers.   That it is presented as some sort of criticism of our proposal is just astounding, utterly astounding.   That such nonsense could be utter as part of the NEH's supposedly "rigorous"  evaluation process is, well, both infuriating and depressing.


    March 24, 2009 | 28 comments | Read More »
  • The Place of Scepticism and Sceptical Arguments

    An encore post of mine on the topic of scepticism -- reissued since we are rebroadcasting that episode. --KT


    Today's show will be about scepticism. Our guest will be John Greco of St. Louis University. I don't really know John or his work, but I see that he has written a book called Putting Sceptics in their Place. That's sort of what I want to talk about in this warm-up to the show post.

    I should start with a confession about my philosophical tastes. I tend not to find epistemology the most gripping of philosophical subjects. Roughly, epistemology has to do with the nature of knowledge. And a big part of epistemology historically has been devoted to answering the sceptic who challenges us to say whether and how we can know anything at all. Sceptical arguments, I'm sure you will see as we do the show, are pretty seductive and pretty darned hard to answer. In fact, I suspect that ultimately that sceptical arguments are not really answerable at all. At best, the sceptic can always argue the defender of knowledge to a standstill. So if the defender of knowledge is the one with the burden of proving her claims, I think she never ever succeeds in discharging that burden.

    Does that mean that sceptic is right and that we really don't know anything at all?

    Well, maybe. I guess that depnds what we mean by "know."

    And here's precisely the thing that drives me batty about so much epistemology. So much of it is focused on analyzing and re-analyzing the concept of knowledge -- mostly in light of sceptical worries about the very possibility of knowledge. What could knowledge be such that it survives various sceptical arguments?

    March 15, 2009 | 4 comments | Read More »
  • Thoughts on the Reader


    Thanks to everybody who made our  First Annual Dionysus Awards Show  such a success.  It was a lot of fun.  We got lots of  great input from our listeners.   If you haven't heard the show, be sure to check it out.  We're trying to get it picked up as pre-Oscar special by stations throughout the public radio system.  Wish us luck with that.   



    Anyway,  I thought I'd follow up a bit on the discussion of one movie in particular -- The Reader.   David Thomson -- who was originally scheduled to be our guest but had to cancel at the last minute  -  had suggested to us in our preparation for the show that we  think about spending the entire hour talking about just this one film  --- I guess because he thinks that no other film from 2008 comes close the Reader in its depth and complexity.   I'm not sure I agree with that and we didn't accept the suggestion, in any case.   But I did find the movie profoundly interesting and profoundly challenging.   So I thought I'd ruminate about it a bit more in this blog entry as a follow up to our episode.  



    I know that some people seem to find this film  morally reprehensible.    Manhola Dargis, writing about the Reader for the New York Times,  concludes his review with  the following:



    Although the commercial imperatives that drive a movie like this one are understandable — the novel was a best seller and an Oprah’s Book Club selection, for starters — you have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard. You could argue that the film isn’t really about the Holocaust, but about the generation that grew up in its shadow, which is what the book insists. But the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those Germans who grappled with its legacy: it’s about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation.


    My reactions to this movie are completely at odds with this.   In my view,   the movie raises a number of profound moral questions and though it doesn't decisively answer those questions  -- what movie could -- it does explore -- in a way movies seldom do (though novels more often do) --  the space of possible answers to the questions it raises.  Let me explain what I mean.   Obviously  Hanna, aka,  Kate Winslett,  is the moral center of this movie. By the way, about Hanna,  Dargis says the following:

    In the novel and the film — which monumentalizes every trembling lip and fluttering eyelash, turning human gestures into Kodak moments — Michael’s pain turns him not just into Hanna’s victim, but also a kind of survivor. Outrageously, Hanna is a victim too, because she took the guard job only to hide her illiteracy, as if illiteracy were an excuse for barbarism.

    Dargis is surely right that both Michael and Hanna are represented as victims   -- he of her;  and she of something more diffuse and less pointed.   I suppose she is partly represented as a "victim"  of the German attempt to understand and come to grips with the past.   She is also, I suppose,  partly represented as the "victim"  of the Nazi system in which she was a participant.   But I don't think it's at all right  to say that the film  "excuses" Hanna's participation in the barbarism of the Holocaust because of her illiteracy.  The movie does nothing of the sort.  It is true that the movie doesn't take the morally "easy" way out of simply condemning Hanna's act. Certainly,   that would be the more superficially morally  satisfying thing to do -- to offer  (again) the simple, unambiguous, untroubled judgment that the Nazi's, and all who aided them,  were purely and simply evil barbarians.


    Why would that be the  "easy"  way out, you ask?   Well,  my answer  goes back to a claim made a few years ago, on a show we did about evil,  by our guest, Peter Van Inwagen.  He argued, as I recall,  that the psychology of evil is incomprehensible to us, that true evil is  alien and "other."   I think something like that thought lies behind Dargis's reaction to this movie.  I say that because if you think that the Nazi's were purely and simply evil barbarians, there is nothing much  to be said or done about them except to note and condemn their barbarism. Certainly,  no "explaining" or "excusing"  is necessary.   If we are in a position to unambiguously condemn, then there's not much self-reflection called for in thinking about the Nazi's.   They were evil.  We are not.  They performed acts of unspeakable barbarism. We did not.   That was them.  This is us.   We are different. 



    But I think the movie rejects this simple-minded picture and is  trying to make the point on behalf of Germans who came of age after the war  that such a proffered neat moral separation between those who lived through the war, and took part in the Nazi's atrocities and those who came of age only after the war, and therefore had no  part in those atrocities, is an illusion.   The movie makes that point in several ways.   First and foremost,  there is the somewhat opaque, but in many ways ordinary inner psyche of Hanna.  The remarkable thing about Hanna is that she is in almost every way unremarkable.  In particular,  she isn't Van Inwagen's alien other,  peculiarly capable of unspeakable acts that those her came after are incapable of.      No doubt,   Hanna is  a troubled and  wounded person, with things to hide.  But she's more than that too.   She is capable of joy and passion and a kind of love. 



    You could,  I suppose,  look upon her as a sexual predator.     If Michael were a Michelle and Hanna a Hermann, we'd no doubt  see Hermann as a child molester.  Curiously,   I find that I am not quite prepared to say that Hanna  molests the young Michael -- who is, after all,   only 14, if I've got my math right -- when they begin their affair.  But it's very clear that the affair with her leaves a scar on his psyche. 



    The fact that Hanna is in many ways an unremarkable person --  neither heroic, nor particularly virtuous,  but also not possessed with  an utterly alien and incomprehensible psyche of the sort that Van Inwagen suggested is the hallmark of true evil   -- is by my lights what gives the movie true moral force.  Hanna was put to a certain moral test.   She failed because she lacked whatever inner psychic resources it would have required to pass the moral test.  But I think that one of the deepest points made by the movie is that  many of who were fortunate enough not to be put the test differed from Hanna in no morally significant respect.  She and many in her generation were put to a moral test to which those in the succeeding generation were not subject.  



    That doesn't mean that Hanna gets a free pass.  She is not excused. Her atrocities are not explained away -- despite what Dargis says.   I think the movie makes that point forcefully and clearly.     But at the same time, in recognizing that Hanna is just an ordinary person with an unremarkable psyche,  the movie  also raises a very deep puzzle about what exactly we are condemning when we condemn her.    Of course, we condemn her acts.  But we'd like to condemn more than her acts.   We'd like also to condemn the inner psyche that produced the acts.   That's why the judge tries to discern whether Hanna  "willingly"  joined the SS.   But if it turns out that Hanna's psyche is not so unlike our own, is not so alien and other,  what then?  How are we really to distinguish ourselves from Hanna?   



    This  has to do with the problem of what  philosophers call moral luck.  Hanna was unlucky in her circumstances  -- or in the combination of her circumstances and her character.   Suppose that she had been born in Britain rather than in Germany.  In such circumstances,  the very traits that made her a willing SS guard, might have led her to willingly enlist in the British Red Cross.   And then we might have praised rather than blamed not just her acts but the inner character that led to those acts.    But the point is that it's the very same inner character in the two cases.  So on what basis do we condemn its expression through acts here, while praising its expressions through acts there?



    I said earlier that the movie explores the space of possible answers to the moral questions that it raises.  I'm thinking of a couple of different things.   First, recall the scene near the end when Michael goes to New York to meet the jewish woman who wrote the book about the death march from Auschwitz.   She is stern and steadfast in her refusal to grant any absolution to Hanna.   And I do not think that the movie represents her as being somehow wrong in doing so.   Rather,  the movie takes note of and accepts that attitude as one entirely legitimate attitude among others that we might adopt.  Michael,  recall, makes no attempt to change her attitude toward Hanna.  Indeed, he seems rather  silenced in the face of such moral certainty.  Just as the court offers no answer to Hanna's biting question  "What would you have done,"  Michael has no response to the survivors refusal to offer any kind of absolution to Hanna.  



    Though the movie takes note of the fact of felt moral certainty and does nothing to challenge it,  it also doesn't rest with moral certainty as the final and sole legitimate response.  Exhibit A for the movie's refusal to rest with moral certainty is the complexity of  Michael's own attitudes towards Hanna.  His welter of attitudes are as complex as could be.   I'm not sure that I can even fully describe the totality of his attitudes.    On the one hand, there is his  deeply passionate affair with her, that both opened up a certain realm of human experience to him and left him  scarred. The Hanna of his youth haunts his memory.    On the other hand, there is his subsequent encounter with her and his startling realization that she took part, willingly, it seems, in the atrocities of the past.  To the very end,  he wishes to be assured that she has "learned something from the past."  This bespeaks a kind of enduring condemnation.     But there is also more.  There is, of course,  Hanna's  refusal, driven by I am not quite sure what --  a kind of shame, I suppose --  to reveal that she is illiterate even when it might have saved her from years in prison and his silence in the face of that refusal.  He cannot even bring himself to see her to speak to her about what he knows and she knows.  And then there is the mercy he offers her years later,  through his subsequent act of recording books for her again.    Or is this a way of seeking absolution for himself?   You could see his failure to come to her aid as a kind of moral cowardice, driven by revulsion and shame, perhaps.  But if it is a kind of cowardice, it is the kind that disguises itself as "respect."    



    So how, ultimately,  should we understand  the moral relationship between  Michael - who I suppose is some sort of stand in for the generation whose moral task it was to narrate the history of Nazi Germany as somehow both a chapter in its  own history  and a chapter from which it is determined to make  a decisive break  --  and Hanna -- who I suppose is a stand in,  not for the main movers and shakers of the Nazi era, but for the millions of ordinary Germans, inwardly indistinguishable from the average run of humanity, without whose cooperation the Nazi's could not have carried off their barbarism?   How are we to understand that moral relationship?  



    The movie doesn't really tell us, I think,   because it doesn't really know.   It leaves us with no simple answers.  But I do think it leaves us with a profound question.   Again,  as a protective impulse, we may tell ourselves that  evil is other,  alien and distant.  But the reality is that it lives just around the corner in the souls of people little different from ourselves.   Only if we come to grips with that fact,  I think the movie is trying to say,  can we really come to grips with the past. 


    February 15, 2009 | 9 comments | Read More »
  • The Dionysus Awards: Join in the Fun.

    This is an open live blog entry.  Tell us what movies from 2008 or from the past if you like you find most philosophically compelling and why.

    We're about to go on air in one minute.   
    Join the fun!!


    February 8, 2009 | 4 comments | Read More »
  • Philosophy Talk and the Paradoxical Facebook Contest

    So we're approaching  1,000 fans on our  Philosophy Talk Facebook Page and we say to ourselves,  "We ought to have a contest.  Maybe we could give the 1,000th fan and the person, if any,  who invited the 1000th fan to become a fan some really cool philosophy related prizes."

    Sounded like a fun idea at first.   But after we thought about it for, oh,  a few seconds, we realized that there's a catch! Facebook pages publicly display the number  of fans who have subscribed to that page.  That means that if we were to announce that we were holding such contest   anybody who wanted to win the contest would, in all likelihood,   refrain from signing up or inviting a friend to sign up, until the the fan count was, say,  999.   If everybody thought this way,  we'd be in serious trouble because then nobody would sign up or invite another to sign up.

    Maybe  we could get around that perverse incentive by making the prize so valuable that 94 people -- fans 907 - 10000 -- might be incentivized to share the prize.  But believe me,  we're not likely to come up with a prize such that 1/94 share of it would be of significant value. 
    Or maybe we could just give out a prize and not announce that we intend to do so.  But then,  where's the increased incentive for new fans to sign up?  
    So what are we to do?   We  want to have a contest.  And we want the contest to incentivize more people to sign up on our facebook page as Philosophy Talk fans.  And we want to make it known that we are holding such a contest. 
    So here's the question,   how do we run a contest that satisfies al those constraints?   We came up with two quick  ideas.
     The first is to hold a drawing that all fans -- not just the 1000th fan -- have a chance of winning.    The trick is that the drawing is  triggered by the 1000th fan to sign up.  The announcement  would run something like this:    Become the 1000th fan of Philosophy Talk on Facebook and trigger a drawing that you have a 1/1000  chance of winning.   
    The obvious problem with that,  it seems to me, is that it's not much of an incentive  -- unless the prize is really good.   Plus something in me says it's not quite fair to the 1000th fan.  Shouldn't  the triggering  get something special, something that nobody else gets?   Maybe two chances to everybody else's one, perhaps? 
    Another thought is that we could do a sort of "surprise exam" type contest.  We announce that there is a contest and announce that for  some number n,  the nth fan will win a bunch of cool prizes, where n is greater than or equal to 1000.  But what we don't do is announce what n is in advance.  
    I think I like that one.   But it's probably got some hidden downside too. 
    Anyway, there will be a contest.   And it will be announce and it will incentivize people to sign up.   
    I'd love to hear your ideas -- serious, tongue in check,  whatever -- about how we should do it.


    January 14, 2009 | 11 comments | Read More »
  • The First Annual Dionysus Awards

    Philosophy Talk is initiating a new movie award.   

    I know;  I know.  Do we really need yet another movie award?  We've got the Oscars; the Golden Globe; the National Society of Film Critics, the People's Choice Awards ....  So what's the point of another, you ask?

    Well,  it's fun to talk about movies -- at least the good ones.  But more importantly,  nobody really explicitly applauds movies for their philosophical merits -- though filmmaking can sometimes be a highly philosophical art form.   So why not an award that does just that?  Finally,  what could be cooler than winning a Dionysus Award?  Sounds much cooler than an Oscar or a Golden Globe -- at least to me. 
    So on February 8th, we're going to inaugurate our Annual  Dionysus Awards for the most philosophically interesting movies of the year.    Our main guest will be noted film critic David Thomson.   But we'll also be joined briefly by some of our favorite philosopher-cinemaphile who will give their takes on the philosophically most interesting movies of the year.   
    We'd love to have you join in the fun.  Submit your own  nomination for a Dionysus Award to   Tell us which movies of 2008 you found most philosophically gripping and why.  If we find your nomination compelling,  we just may include you as a special guest  on our on-air broadcast on the 8th.


    January 13, 2009 | 0 comments | Read More »
  • Philosophy and history

    It seems likely that an important part of the evolution of language (and thought and consciousness, for that matter) had to do with sharing information.  Intelligence means using information to guide action.  With much of what we do, the link between information and action is hardwired; we perceive that we are falling, we balance ourselves; we see a projectile coming at us; we duck; we feel hunger, gaining the information that we need food, and we eat.

    But humans have developed the ability to accumulate information about particular things, and types of situations that go far beyond what we can pick up through perception at the time action is required, and to make our actions appropriate to this accumulated information.  When I react to Ken, it's not just in terms of what I see about him at the time, but my memories of previous encounters.  I can't see that his name is `Ken', or that he has a son who plays baseball, but I'll use these remembered bits of information to guide my behavior when I see him, and say, ``Hi Ken. How is Kyoshi's team doing?"

    Language provides a way of pooling information, so that the perceptions of one person end up providing information for another.   When I go on a trip to London, I take along a guidebook, and read reviews of the plays available at the West End.  What I do in London will not be guided only by what I see and have seen, but what numerous others have experienced.

    But an enormous amount of language has to do with providing information about things and people we will never encounter, that can't possibly be of value to us in guiding our interactions with those things and people.  I mean fiction and history.  In the case of fiction, the people don't even exist; I know a lot about Sherlock Holmes, but I'll never be in a situation to greet him by name, and ask how he really feels about Dr. Watson.  In the case of history, the people, for the most part, are dead.  I know a lot about Aristotle, but I'll never be in a position to ask him what Plato was really like.  What's the point of all of these books about dead people, and unreal people, and all the time we spend reading about them and talking about them?

    The best answer, it seems to me, is that exchanging information about people turned out to be too much fun to limit ourselves to people we might encounter.  The people we are liable to interact with don't provide enough stories to sate our appetite for this activity.  So we continue to talk about people after they are dead, and invent new people to talk about that don't exist.

    This information in the end does prove useful.  We each build up files about dead and fictional people, and a lot of the information we exchange is intended to keep those files similar enough to make the conversations work.  It's not interactions with the dead and fictional people, but interactions with other people who are talking about them, that makes the information useful.  I'll never talk to Aristotle, but I had to take exams about Aristotle, and need to occasionally say things in lecture about Aristotle, and these activities go better if my Aristotle-file pretty much agrees, in so far as it goes, with what the experts think about Aristotle.

    Is there more to it than this?  Are there lessons to be learned from fiction and history?  Are they of a fundamentally different nature?  In the case of history, how important is truth?  If we all agree about a past event, so that we gain the same lessons from it, does it really matter if we got it right?

    January 11, 2009 | 10 comments | Read More »
  • Rawls

    When I was in graduate school at Cornell from 1964 until 1968, and for some time after that, American philosophy was dominated by two Harvard philosophers, W.V.O. Quine and John Rawls.  Quine's books were required reading not only in the philosophy of language, but also in courses in metaphysics and ontology and epistemology, where his radical extensionalism seemed to be the starting point for rethinking everything.

    After World War II, the big issues on the ethical and political sides of philosophy seemed to get little attention in American philosophy.  That side of philosophy too was dominated by the inheritance of logical positivism.  It was almost as if American philosophers were somewhat paralyzed in thinking about the big issues of justice and political philosophy.  In Europe these were live questions, as the dominance of communism in eastern Europe set the agenda.  In America, there was McCarthyism and perhaps also a certain self-satisfaction with our institutions.

    Rawls changed all that with A Theory of Justice.  The importance of this book in starting a new era of political thought and re-invigorating the whole ethical side of philosophy in America cannot be overestimated.  I had thought of trying to explain this, when I found a passage in an article by our guest, Josh Cohen, that did it perfectly:

    "In A Theory of Justice (1971, 1999), John Rawls proposed a striking and original marriage of liberty and equality, animated by a tolerant and democratic faith in human possibilities. For much of the past century, the idea of a politcal philosophy devoted to both liberty and equality seemed to many people a contradiction in terms. Outraged by vast differences between the lives of rich and poor, egalitarians condemned the classical liberalism of John Locke and Adam Smith for giving undue attention to legal
    rights and liberties, while remaining in different to the fate of ordinary people. Traditional liberalism, they complained, prized equality before the law, but showed complacency in the face of profound and grim inequalities of fortune on earth. Classical liberals, in contrast, embraced personal liberty, and condemned egalitarians for their paternalism and willingness to sacrifice human freedom in the name of some possible future utopia. Practically speaking, democratic welfare states tried, with more or less success, to ensure personal and political liberties while protecting indviduals from unforgiving markets. But the philosophical options seemed starkly opposed. In between Friedrich von Hayek's classical liberalism and Karl Marx's egalitarianism, every thing was an unstable political compromise, or an ad hoc balancing of competing values.

    "A Theory of Justice changed all this. Rawls proposed a conception of justice – he called it “justice as fairness” – that was commit ed to both the individual rights we associate with classical liberalism, and to an egalitarian ideal of fair distribution conventionally associated with socialist and radical democratic traditions. Justice as fairness, Rawls said, aims to effect a “reconciliation of liberty and equality.”  His work prompted a remarable renaissance of political philosophy in the United States and elsewhere (A Theory of Justice has been translated into more than 20 languages), and has provided the foundation for all subsequent discussion about fundametal questions of social justice."

    From "The Importance of Philosophy: Reflections on John Rawls
    S. Afr. J, Philos. 2004, 23(2)

    December 14, 2008 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Welcome Valley Public Radio Listeners

    We at Philosophy Talk are really pleased to begin airing on Valley Public Radio, covering Fresno, Bakersfield, and  California's Central Valley, beginning Thursday December 11th at 7pm.   We're really excited about the opportunity to engage with you all about life, love, culture, science,  religion and the whole range of topics we cover on our show.  

    Before we before we actually began to air on Valley Public Radio, we  had an opportunity to appear live in front of audience from the Central Valley.  Just over a year ago we took the show on the road  to the College of the Sequoias in Visalia to do an episode on Immigration.   We love taking the show on the road, so I wouldn't be surprised if we got back down to the Central Valley again sometime.  
    We are very eager not just to talk to you, but to talk with you.  Because  our show  won't becoming to you live on KVPR 89.3 in Fresno and on KPRX 89.1 in Bakersfield,  but will be instead  be rebroadcast, we won't have the chance to talk with you during the live broadcast (unless you choose to listen to the live stream of the show provided by KALW, our originating station here in San Francisco).  But there are many other ways to interact with the Philosophy Talk Crew.  First,  you can submit a Conundrum.   Second,  you can join our growing and dynamic  Facebook Community.  And third you can become a regular visitor to this blog.
    We've been at Philosophy Talk for quite awhile now.  We're about to begin our sixth season, in fact.   If you want to catch up Philosophy Talk past, and all the fun you've missed during the years we weren't being broadcast in your area,  check out our online archive of past episodes.  All 180 or so past episodes of Philosophy Talk are available for free, in streaming media format.    If you want the convenience of downloading episodes to your mps player, we provide that too.   From time to time,  we make a Best of Philosophy Talk sampler available for free via iTunes.    And if a free sampler isn't enough for you w e make the entire archive of past episodes  and also monthly and annual subscriptions for future episodes  available for a modest fee through


    December 10, 2008 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • Why not buy and sell kidneys?

    Commerce in certain bodily parts is allowed, at least if we define `bodily part' rather broadly: blood, eggs, sperm.  But one cannot sell a kidney, even though we have two of them, and it is possible to have one removed for the needs of another without great harm to the donor. More accurately, one probably can sell a kidney, but it is illegal in most if not all countries, and widely thought to be immoral.  But it is OK to donate a kidney, and indeed thought to be a noble act.

    Why is this?  It's not so clear to me, but perhaps after today's program with Debra Satz it will be.  Nevertheless, let me try to state the case for a market it kidneys.

    Consider two scientists, Fred and Ethel.  Both are doing important work that benefits humankind.  Both are otherwise healthy, but need a kidney transplant or they will die.  Ethel is a gregarioius sort, with many friends, and part of a big family.  She has lots of potential kidney donors, who will donate a kidney if there is a match.  She gets a kidney transplant, from Rickey, a healthy fellow with lots of money.  Everyone thinks Rickey is a good person, and Ethel a lucky one.

    Fred is a recluse, with no living relatives.  He does his work in his lab, goes home, and reads.  He has few expenses, and has piled up a lot of money.  He could easily pay $200,000.  For a kidney.  Lucy is a single mother with huge expenses she cannot cover.   She wants to send her very bright and deserving children to a private school, since the public school is quite terrible.  She is healthy, her kidney is a good match for Fred's. 

    How can it be right for Rickey to donate a kidney to Ethel, but wrong for Lucy to donate a kidney to Fred?  What argument could we give Fred, and Lucy, that would convince them that this transaction, which would save Fred's life and insure a better life for Lucy's children, is wrong?

    December 7, 2008 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Legal Ethics

    Our blurb for this show says,

    Lawyers are often thought to be hardly better than hired guns, who, in the words of Plato, are paid to "make the weaker argument the stronger" -- like the sophists of old.  .

    My father, grandfather and uncle were lawyers, in the small firm then called "Perry & Perry" in Lincoln, Nebraska, and my cousin and his son continue in that firm, now known as "Perry, Guthery, Haase & Gessford".  If the Danforth Foundation hadn't kindly offered me a fellowship to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell, I would have followed the family tradition.  It never occurred to me, as I was growing up, the law was anything but the most honorable of professions. 

    November 30, 2008 | 9 comments | Read More »
  • Emergence: Live Blogging

    Share your thoughts about today's show.    

    Don't have time to add any thoughts myself but I want to get this blog going again.  
    If you have a comment, post it here, if you are willing to share it with the world. 


    November 23, 2008 | 8 comments | Read More »
  • Separation of Powers and the Charismatic Presidency

    I wrote this entry when our Separation of Powers episode originally aired. I'm moving it up to the top since that episode is about to air again. I welcome further discusssion. KT

    Later this morning, our episode "Power out of Balance? Exploring the Separation of Powers" will air. This epsiode was recorded back in July [of 2006] on Capitol Hill in a tiny little room in the basement of the building. Though the audience was small, they were quite engaged and engaging. We were there at the invitation of Congresswoman Anna Eshoo. We are most grateful to Congresswoman Eshoo for being our sponsor and for participating in the program. Our main guest during the program was Kathleen Sullivan. Kathleen was a terrific guest. They say that if the Democrats get to make a Supreme Court appointment anytime soon, Kathleen is high on the list of potential nominees. I can see why. She is very smart, very articulate, and has really deep knowledge of constitutional law. It was a pleasure having her as our guest. I've invited her to guest blog on the topic of separation of powers. But since she is a very busy woman, who knows if she'll take up the invitation. Anyway, I hope you enjoy listening to the program.

    In the remainder of this post, I'll ruminate, just a little bit, on what's become of the separation of powers in our time.

    August 17, 2008 | 13 comments | Read More »
  • Dualism Strikes Back? Live Blogging!

    One of the controlling questions for today's show is whether a reasonably well-informed, scientifically minded person can still believe in dualism in the 21st Century? Or is dualism really just a relic of the philosophical past?

    Certainly, there's almost no rational grounds for currently believing in old-fashioned Cartesian Dualism of the mind and body. According to that form of dualism, the mind and body were two metaphysically distinct substances -- with the body being extended in space and the mind being an immaterial somewhat, with no extension, no location.

    Cartesian dualism is unsustainable for many, many reasons. It's bad enough that it makes a mystery of mind-body interaction. But it also makes a mystery of the mind itself. Descartes believed that the mind was an indivisible simple, that it could not be broken down into an organized collection of interacting parts. But the mind obviously has a vast diversity of its possible states. It can think a potential infinity of thoughts. It can perceive and feel. And it's perceptions and feelings come with a vast variety of intrinsic qualitative characters. How could such infinite diversity subsist in a simple indivisible thing, with no internal structure of organized parts?

    Though Cartesian Substance dualism is dead. Other forms of dualism live on. Many philosophers of mind are property dualists. The property dualist grants that there is only one class of "stuff" in the world -- material stuff. But the property dualist insists that there are (at least) two kinds of properties that the one kind of stuff can have -- mental properties and physical properties. The property dualist insists that mental properties aren't identical with any physical properties.

    But property dualism isn't nearly as radical as Cartesian substance dualism -- or at least it need not be. That's because property dualist often argue that although mental properties don't reduce to and are not identical with physical properties nonetheless they in some sense "depend" on physical properties. If you fix all the physical properties of a thing, some property dualist think, then you will have fixed all of its mental properties as well. The technical term for this kind of relation is 'supervenience.' If mental properties supervene on physical properties, that still gives us a form of dualism, but a pretty mild one.

    What about stronger forms of dualism that deny that mental properties even supervene on physical properties? Does anybody believe in that any more? Could a rational, informed, scientifically minded person believe in such a thing?

    THe perhaps surprising answer is yes. SOme very scientifically minded, very rational thinkers do believe in a form of dualism that denies that mental even supervenes on the physical. We'll hear from one such thinker briefly today, during the report from our Roving Philosophical Reporter. I won't tell you who that is just yet. You'll have tune in and hear for yourself.

    But I will say that consciousness is the last refuge of the contemporary dualist. That's because conscious experiences seem to have properties that cannot be explained by our best current physical, biological, and psychological theories. In particular, our conscious experiences have intrinsic qualitative characters. These qualitative characters are essential features of those experiences. And there exists a pretty powerful argument to the effect that the intrinsic qualitative characters of our experiences couldn't possibly be (fully) explained by physics, biology, or psychology. I'm sure we'll go into that argument at some point on the air, so i won't repeat it here.

    What I'd instead like you to do is join the discussion. Leave a comment on this blog entry about dualism. Share your thoughts with us and with the world. If it's a particularly apt or insightful comment, we'll try to get it in on the air.

    August 10, 2008 | 15 comments | Read More »
  • The Luck of the Draw: Live Blogging!

    Today's episode is about Lotteries -- not the state sponsored gambling type, but the type that allocate scarce goods and also burdens. Think of housing lotteries, school admission lotteries, and the draft lotteries. In Ancient Greece many political offices were alloted by lottery. Our question is whether and when lotteries are a just distributive mechanism. Sometimes they seem just the thing. The draft lottery, for example, seemed like a good way of keeping the privileged and connected from gaming the selective service system. But suppose tax rates were assigned by lot, so that your rate of taxation depending no on your ability to pay but on random chance. That seems like an absurdly unjust outcome.

    One thing I'd like to ask our guest, Peter Stone, about are whether there are any general principle that explains when and why lotteries are just. It will also be interesting to explore whether lotteries should be used more or less in our social lives. I know that John Perry is an advocate of using a lottery for college admissions. He thinks it would save a lot of time, labor and money and that it would be more fair.

    I read a sort of tongue and cheek article that suggested we might be better off choosing senators and representatives by lot. Though the article was written in a somewhat kidding tone, the point it made was worth taking seriously. If office holders were chosen by lottery, that would certainly go a long way toward taking the money out of politics. There would be no need for interminable and expensive campaigns.

    There is even an argument in favor of what's called lottery voting. Put all the votes for all candidates or options in a hat. Choose one. Whatever vote is chosen decides the issue or candidate. Such a procedure would give all voices an equal chance of being heard. Isn't that the very essence of democracy?

    Obviously, there's a lot to talk and think about. Hopefully, you'll join in during the show. We'll have somebody monitor the comments on this blog entry during the show and if you make a good one, we'll try to include it on air.

    July 12, 2008 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • Philosophy and Film: Live Blogging

    I'm sitting in my study at home listening and thought I would get this blog back on track. Right now, a repeat episode of Philosophy Talk s about to air, even as I type. The episode is Philosophy and Film, with noted critic, David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. I thought that maybe a good way to get the show started would be to do a little bit of live blogging. I'll get it started by quoting our original blurb description of the show:

    Film is a distinctive and distinctively powerful art form. Cinematic representations move us in ways that few others do. Film has also proven to be an outstanding vehicle for conveying philosophical ideas. John and Ken explore both the philosophy of film and philosophy within film with David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.

    Would be glad to know your thoughts about the show as it develops in the comments section. I'll try to keep the conversation going.

    Join in.


    July 6, 2008 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Open Thread on Apologies

    Dear Listener:

    You probably have notice the lightness of blogging recently. But things are about to change. Today's guest, Nick Smith, has agreed to blog about today's topic of Apologizing. And to get things started, I thought I'd start an open thread and invite listeners to contribute their thoughts.

    I thought the episode was quite interesting myself. The one thing that still puzzle me is apologizing for things done accidentally.

    It seems to me if I accidentally step on your toe, I do owe you some sort of apology, even though I didn't exactly "wrong" you. It would be odd if I were simply indifferent to your pain, certainly. At the bare minimum, I need to acknowledge your pain, acknowledge my role, however unintended, in causing you pain, and express regret at it having happened the way it did.

    That doesn't quite add up to an apology, I admit. But it's something close.

    Or so it seems to me.

    Anyway, comment away!

    March 30, 2008 | 4 comments | Read More »
  • Saint Augustine

    When I was a graduate student at Cornell, Saint Augustine (354-430) wasn't required reading.  Years later I became responsible for teaching the Winter quarter of a freshman class at Stanford, where the books were selected from a "Core Reading List".  I somewhat reluctantly put Saint Augustine's Confessions on the list.  The structure of the Core List was such that I couldn't get by with Descartes, Hume and Locke.  I set about getting up to speed on Saint Augustine.

    January 26, 2008 | 14 comments | Read More »
  • Why Music Matters: Open Thread!

    I'm in the airport at Tucson. I'm listening online to our episode on "Why Music Matters" which we recorded in front of live audience at a locale in San Francisco. David Harrington, of the world famous Kronos Quartet is our guest. Since my flight is about to board, I won't have time to listen at length. And I've been too wrapped up in the conference to blog about the topic. But I thought it might be fun just to open up an entry to comments from listeners about the show and the topic. I'll add my own two cents worth in a separate entry when I get some time --hopefully later this week.

    For now, comments on the episode from listeners are welcome. Post away!

    January 13, 2008 | 11 comments | Read More »
  • Rename that Radio Show??

    Believe it or not, program directors, the gate-keepers of public radio, almost universally hate the name 'Philosophy Talk' -- whatever they think of the program Philosophy Talk. Even PD's who seem otherwise to like the program quite a lot, sometimes say they hate both the 'talk' part of our name and the 'Philosophy' part of our name. But folks seem particularly to hate the combination of 'Philosophy' and 'Talk'. A PD at a very major station on the West Coast hated our name so much that he/she even cited it as one reason for not putting us on the air when we were first starting out.

    Because we get this a lot, we've been thinking about changing the name. We're just starting to brainstorm about possible new names. We're thinking about having a "Rename that Radio Program" contest on the air and via our blog and our website in order to involve our listeners in this potential rebaptism.

    What's in a name, you say? Well, apparently a lot. The "talk" part apparently makes us sound to some PD's like we're trying to be the "Car Talk of Philosophy." That's apparently a definite no, no. "Can't tell you how many times I've been pitched a program purporting to be the Car Talk of X" says more than one PD dismissively. The "Philosophy" part is also apparently pure death to some. 'Philosophy' apparently connotes to some PD's staid academic discourse. And they believe that that is what it would connote to their listeners as well. They think that will be a turn off to the listener and will prevent the listener from even sampling our program. One PD wrote to us that he/she has seen no research suggesting that he/she should put 52 hours/year worth of philosophy programming on the air.

    When you tell people like this, "Well lots of people have sampled the program and love it," they are not always impressed. They may suspect that we have only a niche audience and that the name stands in the way of our breaking out of the niche. [Of course, they never ever acknowledge that one thing that prevents us from reaching a wider audience is their own unwillingness to give us access to their air.]

    Okay. So you see what we're up against? See why I sometimes get frustrated by the "business" side of this whole affair? I firmly believe that we are offering something that millions crave. But I guess I am willing to acknowledge that though people do crave what philosophy has to offer, they don't necessarily crave it under the rubric 'philosophy', if you know what I mean. That may have been what the surely well intentioned PD who cited the lack of market research justifying 52 hours/year of philosophy on the air was getting at. But who knows, really?

    My very dear and usually wise wife told me that we should just stick to our guns and not change our name. But some professional publicity and marketing types, who work in the trenches, say that if the name is a problem for the gatekeepers, then it's a problem that needs to be overcome.

    Anyway, got any ideas? We'd love to hear them.

    December 6, 2007 | 58 comments | Read More »
  • Political Correctness and the Speech Fashion War

    It's been awhile since I've done this -- awakened at a god-awful hour on Sunday morning, to write a blog about an upcoming show. I hope I'm lucid.

    Today's show is about the political correctness. Our guest is Leonard Steinhorn, author of a rousing defense of the baby boom generation, to which I proudly belong, called The Greater Generation. According to Steinhorn, we baby boomers were the leading edge of a great sea change for the better in America. Our age cohort almost single-handedly ended racism, sexism, and homophobia. We brought down corrupt and mendacious presidents. We ended a pointless and forlorn war. By elevating the sanctity and fragility of the environment to national consciousness, we brought to heel a kind of anything goes capitalism that saw our lakes and streams and air as just more commodities to be used up and discarded. We took the university by storm, first as students and then as faculty, helping to make them more than perpetuators of narrow privilege. We took the conformist, hierarchical and oppressive America bequeathed to us by our so-called greatest-generation forebears and shook it up root and branch and in the process gradually remade it into a more caring, progressive, egalitarian society.

    Assuming that we boomers really do deserve all this praise, it's still fair to wonder what any of this has to do with political correctness. Well, I think it actually has a fair bit to do with at least the fate of the term 'politically correct' especially with the claiming, reclaiming and disclaiming of that somewhat odd phrase.

    December 1, 2007 | 19 comments | Read More »
  • What We've Been Up To, lately!

    Obviously, this blog hasn't been buzzing with activity recently. That's mainly because life and work have been incredibly, incredibly busy for both John and me. And it seems harder and harder to get our on-air guests to take us up on our invitations to guest blog. So much to do, so little time to do it! I'm sure you understand. But I hope we can do better in the coming months.

    I can already see a new New Year's resolution coming. I will blog on a more regular basis.

    Just to get back in practice, I thought I would write not so much of a philosophical blog entry, but an entry about about the recent comings and goings of the Philosophy Talk crew and about some things that are on the horizon. It's been a busy and exciting time for us.

    November 25, 2007 | 4 comments | Read More »
  • Philosophy Talk Holiday Treats Coming Soon!

    Just in time for the holidays, we at Philosophy Talk will offer our listeners some holiday treats, including:


    Until the end of the 2007, you will be able to purchase The Complete Philosophy Talk , the entire archive of Philosophy Talk to date -- all 147 (and counting) episodes -- for the price of $129.95. That works out to about 88 cents/episode.

    Buy it for yourself! Or give the gift of thought!

    A perfect holiday treat for your philosophically inclined friend, offspring, parent, or significant other!


    Purchase either The Complete Philosophy Talk for the bargain price of $129.95 or a Philosophy Talk Annual Subscription for the low, low price of $1.35/episode between Monday, November 27th and December 31, 2007 and receive as a bonus thank-you (for either the purchaser or the gift recipient) an invitation to an exclusive teleconference with John Perry, Ken Taylor, and the entire Philosophy Talk posse.

    Dialog with America's Public Intellectuals #1, in real time, up close and personal, without ever having to leave the comfort of your home, office, or dorm room!

    All current subscribers will also be extended invitations to this special event.

    More details about the exact time will be available on here


    Don't want to own the complete archive of Philosophy Talk? Aren't sure you're ready for an annual subscription? But you still want to sample the gift of thought?

    Just for listeners like you, we will also be making each individual episode available at a reduced price. Between Monday, November 27th and December 31st, 2007, you can purchase any past episode of Philosophy Talk for $2.95.

    For more details on how you can give Philosophy Talk, the gift of thought, for the holidays, click here.

    November 21, 2007 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • Why we Charge for Downloads

    A lot of our listeners are unhappy that our new download service is not a free service, but is instead a subscription based service. Some have written that's it's anti-democratic of us to charge, that's it's contrary to the the mission of Stanford University, that we're just being capitalist pigs. One apparently former listener even wrote that he was so offended by us charging for our download service that he would no longer listen even to our free stream, despite the fact that Philosophy Talk is one of his favorite radio programs and despite the fact that we are not broadcast in his listening area. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face!

    Because the reaction from some of you has been so intense, I thought I'd take this opportunity to explain just why we really need to be charging for our download service.

    September 9, 2007 | 27 comments | Read More »
  • Suscribe to the Phiosophy Talk Download Service!!

    We are very pleased to announce that Philosophy Talk has launched a subsciption-based download service. For more details and to sign up now go to our webpage

    There you can subscribe to Philosophy Talk downloads for automatic, weekly delivery. By subscribing to our download service, every future epsiode of Philosophy Talk will be delivered to you shortly after it has completed its broadcast run.

    In addition, you can download your favorite programs from our archive of nearly 150 past episodes. About one-third of the archive is online and available for immediate downloading, with more episodes being encoded and uploaded on a daily basis. We expect the process to be complete within a week or two. And then you will have access to the entire archive.

    By downloading Philosophy Talk programs, you will have a personal library to listen to on any mp3 player, anytime, anywhere.

    Become an early subscriber to Philosophy Talk downloads, and play a vital role in keeping Philosophy Talk on the air in San Francisco, Portland, and other cities across the country. Though the program will continue to be streamed for free on our website, we hope that many of you will take this opportunity to show how much you support and value Philosophy Talk. With your help, we can keep Philosophy Talk going and grow into the future. Without your help, our bold experiment in bringing the vast resources of philosophy to a radio audience is much less likely to endure.

    Once again, our entire line up of past and future shows will be available to you -- including engaging discussions of Marriage and Monogamy, Math and the Mind, Love, Poetry and Philosophy, and much, much more.

    We know that the online community is listening. As one blogger wrote recently:

    "The program (helps) the listener form philosophies for themselves on issues they may not have previously thought about."

    And from a professor at a small college:

    "Philosophy Talk downloads are perfect tools for schools like ours to expand our resources, to leap beyond what we may have been able to think and talk about when our resources were limited to the books we could afford... Students have access to great discussions from one of the most respected universities in the nation."

    Now its time to show your support! Show the program directors, the guardians of the radio airways, who are often sceptical that there is an audience for philosophy on the radio, that they are wrong. Every time you listen - to the program and to the download -- you give us evidence that can help us combat their scepticism. By doing so, you help us expand the reach of Philosophy Talk.

    For more details and to sign-up now, visit our webpage,

    As always, thank you for listening and thank you for thinking.

    p.s. Tell your friends!

    August 27, 2007 | 5 comments | Read More »
  • Flirting as a two-step dance

    Ah the glories of summer. Though lots has been happening behind the scenes at Philosophy Talk -- much of which you will hear about very soon -- not a lot has been happening on this blog of late. But now that our summer more or less hiatus draws to a close, we will be in the studio more often, producing more live shows. That should mean more blogging too.

    I can't honestly say that today's show is about an age-old philosophical question. In fact, as a philosophical topic, flrting is, like, so last second. As far as I can tell, it was put on the map by today's guest, Carrie Jenkins, and her mate Daniel Nolan in a pair of dualing articles. You can download Carrie's by clicking here and Daniel's by clicking here. Also, be sure to check out Carrie's blog Long Words Bother Me, where she mostly doesn't flirt, but does serious philosophy.

    I don't profess to have a well worked-out theory of flirting. In my youth, before I settled down, I was nothing like a master flirt, though I tried hard. So I don't even speak from rich experience. But I'll offer a few quick takes just to get the juices going before this morning's show. I'm sure Carrie's thinking will be much more sophisticated than my own feeble attempts.

    August 12, 2007 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • Check us out Wednesday and Thursday in Portland

    Be sure to check out the Philosophy Talk team this week in Portland. We'll be doing two events. On Wednesday, June 20th, we'll do a live taping a Powell's City of Books on Burnside. The show starts at 7:30. Our guest will be poet and philosopher Troy Jollimore, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry for his collection of poems Tom Thomson in Purgatory. Come and be part of the audience. After the show, Troy will be signing copies of his very fine book. Plus you can meet and greet the entire Philosophy Talk team. We're really looking forward to it. Some come on over to Powells.

    The following day, Thursday June 21st at 8pm, we'll do the show LIVE from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting. We're really looking forward to interacting with listeners from all over Oregon in real time. So call in Oregon at 503-452-4373. Our topic will be Philosophy through Humor. Our guests will be Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, authors of Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes.

    June 18, 2007 | 1 comment | Read More »
  • What's on you Summer Reading list?

    On today's show, we'll be talking about books. The sun is out, the surf is up, and it's time to take to the beach, with a few good philosophical books in hand. We did a similar episode last year and it was fun. So we thought as the summer of 2007 approaches, we'd try it again.

    OUr guest will be Danielle Marshall from Powell's City of Books in Portland Oregon. You may or may not have noticed that Powell's is now an official sponsor of Philosophy Talk. We're really pleased about this and are looking forward to along and fruitful partnership with Powells.

    By the way, if you are in the Portland area, come and check us out week after next. We're going to be doing two events of there. On Wednesday evening, June 20th at 7:30, we'll being doing a live taping of the show at Powell's downtown store. Our guest will be the poet and philosopher Troy Jollimore, whose first book of poetry, Tom Thompson in Purgatory just won the National Book Critics Circle award in poetry. More details about that event are here.

    The following evening, we'll be doing our show LIVE from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting, Thursday evening at 8pm. This will give our Oregon area listeners a chance to interact with us live, rather than getting their usual re-broadcast version of the show. Our two guests for that epsiode will be Tom Cohart and Daniel Klein, authors of Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy through Humor. Be sure to tune in and call-up, Oregon!

    I have to admit to have slightly subversive intentions with regard to OPB. I very much want them to move us to Sunday's at 10am, so we can be live all over Oregon. They aren't likely to do it, but maybe by coming up and doing the show live just once, that can create a bottom-up groundswell of demand for more live episodes of Philosophy Talk.

    In any case, do come and check us out at Powell's on Wednesday the 20th and tune in and call up to our live OPB broadcast on Thursday the 21st.

    But back to our summer reading list.

    June 10, 2007 | 9 comments | Read More »
  • Science, Censorship and Subsidy

    Our topic today is science and censorship.  The case of smallpox provides an interesting case-study.

    May 13, 2007 | 5 comments | Read More »
  • Sixty-Seconds -- Really?

    Recently, we had a couple of Program Directors -- the gate keepers of the public radio airwaves -- listen to some episodes of Philosophy Talk and tell us what they liked and didn't like. We won't bore you with the details, but just to give you a feel for what we're up against with these folks, we thought we'd share a few comments they made about Ian Shoales, the sixty-second philosopher.

    One PD says the following:

    If he was the 60 Second Philosopher, his segment was 2:20. That in and of itself is a problem.


    Another says:

    − The 60- Second Philosopher lasted 2.5 minutes ... they lied to me. I thought, 'They said all of that in 60 seconds?'


    Still another says:

    • 60 – second – A good element, because it introduces another voice, another point of view. ... I also noticed that it was more than a minute.


    Do you detect a pattern [of extreme literal-mindedness] here?

    Because these folks are the gate-keepers of the airways, they must be possessed with god-like wisdom. So, inspired by the divine word, we went to Merle (aka Ian) and asked him what he thought about the idea of possibly changing the name of the sixty-second philosopher to something, well, more literal. You can read his reponse below the fold.

    [By the way, you'll be able to listen to his reponse after we post our most recent episode this coming weekend. We never post the episode on-line until its had a chance to air in all markets that carry us, by the way.]

    May 9, 2007 | 16 comments | Read More »
  • Journalistic Ethics?

    The topic for today's show is Journalistic Ethics. Our guest will be Dale Jacquette, of Penn State University, who has recently published a book about the topic called, Journalistic Ethics: Moral Responsibility in the Media. I'm sure you can get a copy of the book at Powell's Books -- which is now an official sponsor of Philosophy Talk.

    This will be a short post just to get my juices flowing before the show begins today.

    The preamble to the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists states that "public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues."

    These are certainly admirable sentiments. But it would be pretty hard case to make a case that in our times journalism, at large, lives up to the high ideals articulated in that preamble. Take, for example, propagandistic early coverage of the war in Iraq. That coverage provided precious little enlightenment and was, in my opinion, a complete disservice to our democracy. How has it come to this?

    April 29, 2007 | 4 comments | Read More »

    Dear Philosophy Talkers:

    I'm opening this blog entry for you to shout questions and comments for our SHOUT OUT show that will air later today. We'll monitor our e-mail as usual, but we'll also monitor this blog. You can shout to us, to each other, to the world. Tell us what's on your mind? What philosophical problems keep you awake at night? Where would you like to see Philosophy Talk go in the coming year?

    We really are eager to hear from you.


    April 1, 2007 | 16 comments | Read More »
  • A Philosophical Shout Out

    A Philosophical Shout-out, April 1st

    For pledge week at KALW we've decided to do something different: we're having a Philosophical Shout-Out, and we want you to join in too. Here's you chance to tell us what's on your mind. Tell us about your favorite philsophical ideas and puzzles. Stump the philosophers with a conundrum to solve, match wits with Ian Shoales, and wander down the philosophical highways and byways with our Roving Philosophical Reporters.

    Here's How:

    (1) Send us an e-mail, anytime between now and April 1st -- the sooner the better -- and tell us a topic you'd like to discuss on the air. It can be a conundrum, a suggestion for an upcoming show, or whatever is on your mind of philosophical relevance. If we like your suggestion, we'll include you in the shout-out. Be sure to include a a land-line phone number where we can reach you. We'll contact you before the show to let you know that you'll be on the program. Send your suggestions to with the subject SHOUT OUT SUGGESTION.

    (2) E-mail or call in during the program on April 1st. We will be taking spontaneous calls and e-mails; but you have a much better chance of getting on the air if you submit your ideas in advance.

    So get to it. Join the fun and Shout Out your ideas to us.

    March 18, 2007 | 1 comment | Read More »
  • Wanting More Life

    Nobody wants to die.

    Well, that's not exactly true. Some people do commit suicide in moments of deep despair. And many would rather die than live on in interminable and unbearable pain. I bet hardly anyone, if you asked them in advance, would say "Even if I sink into a persistent vegetative state, keep me alive. Better to live on as a vegetable than to die."

    So, the simple statement that I opened with needs to be qualified. No one who is in the full flowering of life, who is not overcome with a paralyzing despair or unbearable pain, etc. wants to die.

    It would seem to follow from that alone that we intrinsically prefer, at least at every moment of full flowering, life to death. And it would seem to follow from that alone that we prefer immortality to mortality.

    Of course, we aren't going to get immorality. At least not in THIS life. But if immortality really is something we intrinsically desire but are barred from achieving in the one and only life we are ever going to get, what follows? That's what I want to talk about a bit in this post in order to get my juices flowing before going on the air with todays guest Anne Ashbaugh. Anne, by the way, was our guest on one of the most popular Philosophy Talk episodes ever, as judge by the web traffic it still receives. Even in a supposedly high-brow subject like philosophy, sex still sells, I guess.

    March 18, 2007 | 10 comments | Read More »
  • Afterlife

    David Hume died in August, 1776, at the age of 65 --- rather young, by my standards (I'm 64) but not unusually so for that age, I guess.  The death is well-documented in literature.  Realizing that he was dying, Hume wrote his short, charming Autobiography.  His student and friend Adam Smith wrote a moving account of Hume's last days.  And, most interesting for our purposes, his fellow Scot James Boswell, most famous for his biography of Dr. Johnson, at Johnson's urging, visited Hume  to see if the old infidel's skepticism about an afterlife was shaken as death approached.  Boswell published a short account of his interview, recording Hume's good humor, unfailing skepticism about an afterlife, and his own shock at Hume's light-hearted discussion of such issues.



    March 17, 2007 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • Why I am not a Wittgensteinian

    Today's episode is about Wittgenstein. Our guest will be Juliet Floyd.

    Many regard Wittgenstein as perhaps the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. I don't share that view. But there's no denying that, for a man who published only one book during his lifetime -- a book that he later basically repudiated -- he really did have a tremendous impact on 20th century analytic philosophy. Indeed, Wittgenstein has to be regarded as one of the great founding fathers of 20th century analytic philosophy, especially of the so-called linguistic turn in philosophy.

    Now I don't profess at all to be an expert on Wittgenstein. I did read a fair amount of Wittgenstein as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, where a number of my teachers had an enduring fascination with his work. I don't doubt that Wittgenstein was a deep, ingenious, and highly impactful philosophy. Nonetheless, I find myself resistant to much of his philosophy -- especially his later philosophy. In the rest of this post, I'll try to say a bit about why.

    March 4, 2007 | 13 comments | Read More »
  • Democracy and the Judiciary

    Today's episode is about the Judiciary and Democracy.  Our guest will be Larry Kramer,  Dean of the Stanford Law School.   We're really looking forward to having Larry as our guest.   Larry has been an agent of change since coming to Stanford.   It used to be that the law school barely cooperated with the rest of the University.  But under Larry's able leadership many good partnerships are being formed between Law and other arms of the university.  For example,  there are  now joint PhD-JD programs in a number of areas in the university,  including a joint Phd-JD in philosophy.   So all you inspiring Philosopher-Lawyer Kings out there put Stanford on your list of possible places to pursue your dreams.

    Anyway,  on to the subject of today's show.   In one way,  it seems obvious that the  court system -- especially   judicial review of the acts of the legislative and executive branches of government -- is, in one way,   a bulwark of our constitutional democracy.   That was a point made clearly and forcefully by a past Dean of the Stanford Law School,  Kathleen Sullivan,  who was our guest on Capitol Hill when we did a show on Separation of Powers.   The court protects  certain minority rights from being trampled by the majority, protects the basic liberty and participatory rights of all,  and checks the excesses of the other branches of government.   That's all well and good and crucial for democratic self-grovernance.

    February 10, 2007 | 5 comments | Read More »
  • Truth and Bullshit

    On today's show (i.e., Sunday January 28, 2007) Ken and I will interview Harry Frankfurt, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University.  Frankfurt has been around a long time, even longer than me, I think.  He has written important work on Descartes and the Cartesian Circle (see Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen, 1970), freedom and free will (see Freedom of the Will and the Concept of the Person in the Journal of Philosophy, 1971)  and related issues  of caring, love, identity and much else (see The Importance of What We Care about: Philosophical Essays, 1988, Necessity, Volition, and Love, 1999 and Taking Ourselves Seriously & Getting It Right,  2005).  Today we'll focus on, or at least begin with, his two best-selling little books, On Bullshit, 2005, and  On Truth,  2006.  The first decries and  defines  bullshit; it assumes we care about the truth, the second  tells us why we should.

    January 28, 2007 | 11 comments | Read More »
  • American Pragmatism

    [Tom Burke, a Stanford Ph.D. and author of Dewey's New Logic, is associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina (  I invited him to guest blog on the topic of pragmatism, which he didn't think we quite did justice to on our program of a few weeks ago. --jp]

    What Is Pragmatism?

    by Tom Burke
    Department of Philosophy
    University of South Carolina

    Like any philosophical "ism," pragmatism lends itself to easily-refuted straw-man characterizations; and in any case, no doubt, there are inferior (short-sighted, self-serving, hard-nosed, unprincipled) forms of pragmatism. But the various views of Peirce, James, Dewey, Mead, and others are more sophisticated than one might think after reviewing such shallow characterizations. Professor McDermott made the claim that pragmatism is not so much a particular philosophical position as it is a philosophical attitude.  This handily disposes of critical strategies aimed at undermining pragmatism as a particular philosophical position, but more needs be said if we want to understand what pragmatism is.

    January 15, 2007 | 3 comments | Read More »
  • Children as a Philosophical Problem

    Tomorrow (Sunday November 19, 2006) Ken and I will discuss children with Tamar Schapiro.  Children certainly pose a lot of problems ---- but are they philosophical?  Coincidentally I gave a few lectures on John Stuart Mill's great little book On Liberty recently to Stanford frosh.  In thinking about that book one philosophical problem about children comes up, for Mill thinks the central principle of liberty he argues for in the book does not apply to children.

    November 18, 2006 | 5 comments | Read More »
  • How Can Smart People Still Believe in God?

    Today's show will be about the question whether it's still possible for smart, reflective people, fully cognizant with 21st century science, fully aware of the horrors of modernity, to believe in god.

    Clearly the answer is -- drum roll, please -- yes. Many smart, reflective scientifically literate people obviously still do believe in god. Thankfully (or unthankfully, depending on your perspective) religious belief is not merely the province of anti-scientific, anti-modern fundamentalists who take every word, comma and period in some sacred text -- like the Bible or the Koran -- to be the sole and authoritative truth about just about everything.

    So we thought it would make for interesting philosophical radio to find an intelligent, thoughtful, scientifically-minded true believer and probe in depth the basis of his belief. We did someting similar from the other side awihle back. Then we took an intelligent, scientifically-minded atheist, Walter Sinnot-Armstrong, and probed the basis of his disbelief. You can think of this one as giving equal time to the theist. Our guest will be Philip Clayton, of the Claremont Graduate University. It should be fun -- a good way to spend a Sunday Morning.

    Below the fold, I'll try to get the juices flowing by thinking aloud about three different possible bases for enduring religious belief in a scientific age, filled with moral horrors of all kinds.

    October 28, 2006 | 49 comments | Read More »
  • Music, Meaning, and Emotion

    Today's episode is about the philosophy of music. Our guest will be Peter Kivy, a leading philosopher of music and a former colleague of mine from Rutgers University.

    I fancy myself a pretty accomplished philosopher. I've been at this philosophy thing for about 25 years now. I also consider myself a decent musician. In my youth I played a lot of music -- trombone, violin, piano. Plus I sang in various choirs. I don't perform much anymore, but I still consume music of all sorts.

    But I have to admit that although I'm not bad at philosophy and pretty good at music, I've never given music a great deal of philosophical attention. That's one reason I'm so looking forward to our conversation with Peter later today. He has given a very great deal of philosophical thought to music. I think he's written something on the order of five or six books specifically about the philosophy of music. So I expect to learn a lot from him.

    Just to get the juices flowing, I thought I'd ruminate in my elementary, not yet completely well work-out sort of way on some things that I personally find philosophically puzzling about music. Here goes.

    September 19, 2006 | 14 comments | Read More »
  • 100 and Counting

    Today marks our 100th episode of Philosophy Talk. We're going to throw something of an on-air party to celebrate. We'll have five of our all time favorite guests drop by to wish us well and to tell us what they're currently up to. The five are Anthony Appiah, Anne Ashbaugh, Alison Gopnik, Jenann Ismael and Martha Nussbaum. Plus will try to take lots of calls from listeners about what they'd like to see -- or hear -- us do in the next 100 episodes. It should be lots of fun. Of course, it's going the be kind of hectic getting five guests on and off, along with callers. But hey, it's a party.

    If you've got some ideas about what we should tackle in our next 100, let us know. Send us an e-mail or give us a call later today while we're on air. Or comment below on this blog entry.

    I've got to scoot soon, to get up to the station, but I wanted to ruminate very briefly both on where we've been and where I personally would like to see the show go.

    August 29, 2006 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • The Future of Philosophy

    UPDATE Listen to the program> here.

    This weeks episode concerned the Future of Philosophy. It was something of a departure for us. We taped the show in front of live audience of professional academic philosophers at the annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association way back in March. We had three really good guests -- Liz Harman, Sean Kelly and Brian Weatherson. Thanks to the three of them for appearing. We've invited each of them to blog here any further thoughts they might have about philosophy's future. Perhaps they'll take us up on the invitation. Stay tuned. Brian Weatherson is a famous philosophy blogger -- though like many others he seems to have tailed off a bit on his blogging activity. Check his blog out here. Apparently Sean Kelly has a blog too, but it seems to have been inactive for awhile. You can check that out here

    I just listened to a recording of the episode and thought I would follow up on a few of the things that were said there. I'll begin with my last remark that undergraduate institutions would be improved if Philosophy Departments became the size of English Departments. I should say that I didn't really mean that as a knock on English Departments. Some of my best friends are professors of English or of Literary Criticism. The real point of my remark was that philosophy deserves to play a much larger role both in undergraduate education and in our intellectual culture more broadly. I think, or at least hope, that that is beginning to happen. Maybe Philosophy Talk can in some small way contribute to that eventuality. In the remainder of this post I want to defend the view that philosophy deserves a larger seat at the intellectual, educational, and cultural table than it currently has.

    August 4, 2006 | 12 comments | Read More »
  • Why I am not a Stoic!

    UPDATE Listen to the program here

    I learned alot about Stoicism both in preparing for yesterday's episode and from our guest  John Cooper.  Fortunately, although John Cooper  knows a great deal about the stoics, he wasn't very stoical in his discussion of them.  He was lively, impassioned, and engaging.  It was, I thought, a very good episode.   If you didn't hear it, check it out.   (I can't yet link to it, though, since the episode usually goes up on the web only after it's also aired on OPB.)

    I don't profess to fully understand stoicism.   I never read much stoic philosophy before now.  I did read the Enchiridion by Epictetus as an  undergraduate, but  frankly, it left  me pretty cold at the time.   I couldn't relate to it at all.    Maybe that's because as a young man,  I was pretty non-stoical.   I was  prone to  bouts of what I took to be deep existential angst,  prone to fall deeply, utterly in love with mostly unavailable members of the opposite sex, prone to be swept up with joy and anticipation when I finally did get a date with some much desired dreamgirl.

    In my advancing years,  I wouldn't say that stoicism leaves me cold in the same way it did when I was a n angst-ridden,  romantic youth.  It probably takes some maturity  and life experience to appreciate what is right about stoicism.   As one ages,  life hands one many surprises, often quite dismaying ones at that.   Life will surprise you about your  own abilities, your  own character,  about the people you admire, trust or love and about what human beings at large are capable of. All the hard truths and harsh realities that one tries one's best to ignore as a youth can strike you with force and vividness as one ages.  In the face of  life's disturbing surprises,  one needs to find a way to go on, to live one's life still on one's own terms.  So it's not  surprising that  experience and maturity make  us more receptive to stoic teachings.

    They sometimes say that philosophy is wasted on the young.  I know the Stoics were on me.

    July 26, 2006 | 4 comments | Read More »
  • Philosophy Talk Moves to Sunday

    We're back in the studio after our trip to DC.   DC was great fun and we had a great time doing our show in the Capitol Building.  There wasn't exactly a huge turn-out.   Unfortunately,  invitations to the event didn't go out until pretty late in the game,  and of those who RSVP'ed that they were coming, there were a fair number of no-shows.  But still, the audience was quite engaged and engaging.   Kathleen Sullivan was a truly dynamite guest.  The program will probably air in November,  the Sunday before election day.  It was an amazingly cool experience.  We're very grateful to Congresswoman Anna Eshoo for the opportunity and the platform.  We can't wait to go back to DC in September to do our show at the Smithsonian.

    You'll notice that  I said the program would probably be broadcast the  Sunday before election day.  Starting on October 1st,  Philosophy Talk will become a Sunday Morning talk show.  We'll air at 10am on the West Coast.   Now for a leisurely Sunday morning,  think a nice brunch,  the Sunday New York Times, and a live episode of Philosophy Talk.   We think it will be a very good move for us.

    July 26, 2006 | 1 comment | Read More »
  • Odds and Ends

    Our limited forray into podcasting via the Stanford Itunes experiment has been a great success.  Lots and lots of folks, though,   have expressed the wish that we would podcast all of our episodes.  Well, we're about to make those wishes come true.   We're currently in negotiations with two podcasting services.   We will probably sign a contract with one or the other in the next week or two. Once we do,  we will immediately start converting all of our files to the relevant format.  For a modest fee,  listeners will be able to subscribe to a service that will give them access to all future episodes of Philosophy Talk.  We will make our entire archive of past episodes available as well.  We may even make available via the podcast service material not otherwise available.   As always,  we will continue to stream our episodes for free.   

    June 25, 2006 | 3 comments | Read More »
  • What the Imagination is For

    Today's show features Alison Gopnik on the Imagination. This is Alison's second visit to Philosophy Talk. Check out the show she did with us on Nature vs. Nurture. Since it's been awhile since I've done a pre-show blog, I thought I'd jot down a few initial thoughts before we take to the air.

    First, thought. The imagination is a pretty cool thing, but also in some ways puzzling. On the one hand, it seems sometimes to give us cognitive acquaintance with real possibilities. A kid from Hope Arkansas imagines growing up to be president of the United States. And lo and behold that kid does grow up to be president. So some of the things that we merely imagine are really possible. And it's arguable that the imagination teaches us that they are possible.

    On the other hand, I can imagine being able to fly of my own natural powers, or imagine being able to travel faster than the speed of light. But these things are not possible, at least not physically possible.

    If even the impossible is imagineable maybe the imagination doesn't really have any intrinsic power to acquaint us with possibilities after all.

    May 30, 2006 | 10 comments | Read More »
  • Does Truth Matter?

    We've  been very, very busy  here at Philosophy Talk.  I'd like to say that that explains the slowdown in both my and John’s blogging.  It does – sort of.   We’ve just gotten back from a hecticbut exhilerating road trip.  We recorded two shows up in Portland – one in front of an audience of professional philosophers at the annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the  American Philosophical Association.   That was a blast and I think it will make good radio. 

    But that was just a warm-up for a superblast.   We made a combined TV/Radio special or pilot or something with the good folks at Oregon Public Broadcasting – who have been our partners from the beginning. I’m not sure when it will air on TV, but we’ll let you know when the folks at OPB decide.   This may be the beginning of a new undertaking for  the Philosophy Talk Crew.   I can envision us doing, say, 6-9 TV specials per year.

    It  was  a  great pleasure working with the OPB folks and meeting some of the folks in Portland listen to our show.  Thank you all for coming and being a part of a really special events.

    I would also like to welcome all you philosophically mind folks up in Seattle to Philosophy Talk.  We  had our debut on KUOW2  -- KUOW’s HD radio channel --  Saturday April 1st at 4pm.   If you don’t have an HD radio,  you can still check us out via the web, I’m told, via KUOW’s live stream.

    But to the topic at hand.   Today’s show is about “The Value of Truth.”  Our guest will be Simon Blackburn. I’m predicting Simon will be a fantastic guest.  He’s a very fine philosopher and a great conversationalist.    Unfortunately,  for you outside the Bay Area, since this is a special “pledge week” show, with a funny structure to allow for pitch breaks  (in which John and I will join in)  stations other than KALW probably won’t play this episode. But we’ll put it up on the web, for sure,  and you can listen at your leisure.

    April 4, 2006 | 28 comments | Read More »
  • We need your help!

    We at   Philosophy Talk are proud to have offered something uniquely valuable  to the radio world over the past two and a half years.  It's been an incredible adventure.   When we started,  many people in radio took our ideas with a very large grain of salt.  "Philosophy on the Radio?"  they asked incredulously.   "Two academics as co-hosts?   A stream of professional thinkers, rather than journalists or politicians or entertainers as your guests?"   "It will never work!"  "No one will ever listen!"

    I think we've begun to prove the naysayers wrong!!  But we certainly have a ways to go. 

    To get to where we want to go from where we are now, we need your help.    Up until now,  Philosophy Talk has mostly been funded by Stanford University.  We've also had a few small grants from various sources.  But those funding sources have either already run dry or will soon run dry.   To be sure, we are currently actively exploring many new avenues for funding, but we need your help too.   Think about giving a gift, small or large, to keep this unique programming on the air and on the web.   We do a lot with very little.  John and Ken, for example, work for nothing more than the love of philosophy and out of a  certain missionary zeal that makes them want to help philosophy reach the world. 

    You can give a gift online here  .   Or you can mail a check, made out to Stanford University  to:

    Philosophy Talk
    c/o Department of Philosophy
    Stanford University
    Stanford, CA 94305-2155

    Make the check out to Stanford University and write "for Philosophy Talk" on the comment line.

    If you want to become more actively involved with Philosophy Talk,  think about  joining our new organization,  The Friends of Philosophy Talk.  One our devoted listeners, Jack Barry, has generously stepped forward to  spearhead  the effort to get  The Friends of Philosophy Talk  up and running.  If you are willing to help out in any way, with either a donation of time or of money,   send Jack an e-mail, telling him that you are interested in becoming a Friend of Philosophy Talk.

    February 28, 2006 | 5 comments | Read More »
  • Not so deep thoughts about humor

    Why do birds fly?

    Because they don't like to walk.

    That was a joke made up by my granddaughter Erin when she was three.  She had learned the form of one kind of joke, without quite mastering the part about being funny.  She made up jokes non-stop for about three hours, most of them even less funny than the above, regaling those trapped in the car with her,  while turning blue from laughing so hard at them herself.

    It probably wouldn't be that hard to program a computer to do as well as Erin did.  If it spit out enough two-liners, maybe some of them would be funny.  It might be cheaper for Jay Leno to hire someone to go through the corpus and pick out the funny ones than to pay the high wages of a talented joke-writer.
    Our guest for today's show, Tony Veale, hopes to do better than that.  He want to program computers to write jokes, and to that end has studied some of the main theories of humor, some of them from philosophers, to see what help they can be.

    February 28, 2006 | 3 comments | Read More »
  • Thoughts on the Doubling of Consciousness

    W.E.B. DuBois's most famous writing was his wonderful book with the

    title "The Souls of Black Folks." The plural "souls" refers not just
    to the plurality of souls, one per person, of the many black folk, but
    to the two souls in each of them:

    February 7, 2006 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Legislating Values: A Reprise

    Today's show is about Legislating Values.   Our guest is Congresswoman Anna Eshoo.   The episode was taped in front of  a live audience, at an event we called Backstage Live with Philosophy Talk.   It was a lot of fun.  I love doing the show in front of an audience.  The post below the fold is a repeat of the post I wrote back in April in advance of a Capitol Hill symposium on the topic of Legislating Values in which I was a participant.  Since we've got many new listeners and readers and since it's pertinent to today's show and since I'm lazy, I thought I'd bring it back up to the top of the blog.   I think I still believe everything I wrote back then.  But hey, this is a blog, anyway,  so it's alright to trot out less than fully developed ideas anyway. Right?

    By the way, speaking of Capitol Hill,  the whole crew will be back in DC, probably in April, to do an actual  episode of Philosophy Talk from Capitol Hill, again in front of a live audience.   We're going to DC at the invitation of the Congresswoman, who liked the show so much that she insisted that we come and put a show on up on the Hill.  We're really honored to accept the invitation.

    Speaking of taking the show on the road, before we go to  DC , we  head  up to Portland, where we'll do two shows.  The first one will be at the American Philosophical Association meeting, in front of an audience of our fellow professional philosophers.   Our guests will be  Brian Weatherson, Liz Harman, and, probably, some yet to be named third person.   The topic will be "The Future of Philosophy."  Come check us out if you're in Portland for the Pacific APA.  There will be food, drink, philosophy and radio.  We're hoping we can turn a room full of professional philosophers into accessible and engaging radio.   Wish us luck!

    The second Portland episode will be produced at  the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting, in front of an audience of their members.  It's highly probable that that episode will be produced for television, as well -- in the mode of Imus in the Morning on MSNBC or, heaven forbid,  Howard Stern. It should be fun.

    Anyway, on to Legislating Values.

    January 31, 2006 | 10 comments | Read More »
  • Science: The Big Kahuna

    Today's show addresses the question  "What is science."    Our guest, Peter Godfrey Smith, has already posted a very intresting blog that addresses that question better than I could.   So I won't say anything here about the distinction between science and non-science.   Instead,  I want to focus a bit on the cultural and social impact of science, and a little bit on its relation to philosophy.   

    It seems to me that science is really the big kahuna, as they say in Hawaii, in our culture.   It is humanity's most successful cognitive endeavor ever and by a pretty long shot.    It has given us deep understanding into almost all  constitutents of the  material universe from the workings of the smallest micro-particles to the large scale organization of the cosmos at large.  It has increased our understanding of life, of the dynamics of the fragile ecosystem of the lovely planet on which we live, of the human psyche, of the evolution of human culture and on and on and on.    And it has all happened in the relative blink of an eye.    Moreover,  science has played an amazing role in increasing our power to manipulate the natural world, for good or ill, in ways that serve human needs and satisfy human ends.

    January 23, 2006 | 5 comments | Read More »
  • The Best of Philosophy Talk Podcast

    You now have three ways  to listen to past episodes of Philosophy Talk.  As always,  we will continue to archive each episode in a streamable format.  On our archive pages,  you will find not just our past shows but a plethora of helpful links that make each archive page a valuable resource.

    A few months ago, we  introduced a searchable data base of  our past episodes.   Using this data base, you can generate a customized library of inter-related clips, small and large,  from many different shows. 

    And now  Philosophy Talk  joins  the podcast revolution!   

    We will  be making a limited number of our best episodes available for downloading via Stanford University's new service,  Stanford on iTunes.   We're calling this collection of episodes the Best of Philosophy Talk

    January 23, 2006 | 9 comments | Read More »
  • The First Ever Online Philosophy Conference

    We would like to take this opportunity to announce the 1st Annual On-line Philosophy Conference (OPC), which is tentatively to begin on Friday, April 7th (2006). The first installment of OPC will be hosted on the newly created On-line Philosophy Conference Blog and will include invited papers by some of today's top junior and senior philosophers, such as Stephen Stich, Jonathan Kvanvig, John Martin Fischer, Alfred Mele, Julia Driver, Terence Horgan, Graham Priest, R.A. Duff, Thomas Hurka, Susanna Siegel, Brian Weatherson, Uriah Kriegel, Manuel Vargas, Kit Wellman, Joshua Gert, Joshua Knobe, Brie Gertler, Jessica Wilson, Benj Hellie, Amie Thomasson, Elizabeth Harman, Noa Latham, Andy Egan, and Neil Levy (with a few more in the works).

    The goal of OPC is to give scholars a much wider audience for their working papers, while at the same time saving everyone (both individuals and departments) the cost of travel stipends, etc. Moreover, we humbly believe that hosting an on-line philosophy conference would be an excellent way of fostering philosophy's growing presence on the web.

    To find out more and possibly submit a paper, go to the OPC Website.

    January 18, 2006 | 1 comment | Read More »
  • God, Design and Science

    Next, week's program --- assuming it isn't pre-empted by the Alito hearings --- will concern "intelligent design."  This phrase is most familiar these days in connection with the attempt by Christian groups persuade boards of education in various communities to require teaching of, or at least mention of, a theory called "intelligent design" in biology classes, as an alternative to the theory of evolution.  I'll call this the "IDM" for "Intelligent Design Movement," and use phrases like "the design argument," and "intelligent design," with the meaning that they have had for a long time in philosophy.  Many readers will want to consult the intelligent and fascinating opinion of federal judge John E. Jones, which can be found at

    January 9, 2006 | 12 comments | Read More »
  • God had a Technical Difficulty

    We had a really great show on Tuesday.  Unfortunately,  due to technical difficulties,  no one will ever be able  to hear it again.   Because of a series of miscommunications, the show didn't get recorded.   We are terribly, terribly sorry about this.   We apologize to our affiliates and to those who listen to the show via the internet.   

    Personally,  I was crestfallen when I heard the news, shortly after we got off air.  I  thought it was one of our liveliest shows.    Walter was really great.  We generated  scads of callers, scads of e-mails, even comments on the blog.    Too bad it won't ever be heard by listeners to our growing number of  affiliates  or by the many, many folks who listen to our show via the internet.   Once again,  we're terribly sorry about this all.

    We also had  a technical difficulty with  last week's show on Kant.  It got recorded, fortunately,  but we've had a problem getting it up on the archive page.  That should be corrected soon. 

    Talk about omens, though.   During our rehearsal before the show,  the door to our studio mysteriously closed on its own.   Our producer noticed this and said,  "Do you think god is sending us a message."   We laughed it off.  But now that the episode has disappeared into the ether ... who knows? 

    Anyway,  I still plan to blog about the topic of belief in god.   I'll begin by responding to some of the comments on the other thread.  But look for an extended post in the next couple of days.

    Happy Holidays!

    December 21, 2005 | 8 comments | Read More »
  • Why Believe (or Disbelieve) in God?

    Today's show is about the existence, or non-existence, of God.     Our guest will be Walter Sinnot-Armstrong.  This is Walter's second appearance on Philosophy Talk.  He did a great job on our episode about moral dilemmas.   And we're pleased to have him back.

    December 20, 2005 | 18 comments | Read More »
  • The Dark Allure of Idealism

    On our now not so recent episode about Berkeley, with David Hilbert,  I said in passing that idealism, in some form or other,  is permanently tempting.   Don't get me wrong,  I don't believe in idealism.  I consider myself a realist and a physicalist.  Not only do I think that the world is (largely) independent of mind.  I also think that the mind is ultimately just a part of that mind-independent world.   That is,  the mind is ultimately built out of and reducible to stuff that is not yet mind.   Or so I would argue.   So I don't come here to defend idealism.   Neither do I come to refute it -- not  exactly anyway.  Lots of philosophers  have claimed to have decisively refuted one form of  idealism or another, but   I suspect that such decisive refutation is probably not to be had.    Although I don't for a second endorse idealism,  I think it is worth ruminating on its (dark)  allure  just for a bit.

    December 12, 2005 | 10 comments | Read More »
  • The Philosophy Talk Magical Mystery Tour

    The Philosophy Talk team just finished a brief stint "on the road."   On October 27th,   we taped a show  in front of about 200 Stanford Alums up in Sacramento  on behalf of the  Stanford Alumni  Club of Sacramento.  The topic was "Progress and the Environment."   Our guest was Terry Tamminen,  formerly head of California's Environmental Protection Agency and currently Cabinet Secretary  (Chief of Staff, roughly) to our beloved Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.    A week later,  we did another live event -- Backstage Live With Philosophy Talk.  This time we had a smaller audience of about 50 KALW contributors, down on the Stanford Campus.  Our guest was another politician -- the second ever to appear on Philosophy Talk -- Congresswoman Anna Eshoo.  Our topic for that show was "Legislating Values."    Both episodes will be edited and broadcast soon.  Probably, they will be the first two  episodes we air in January.

    November 11, 2005 | 0 comments | Read More »
  • Fiction and Imaginative Resistance

    This post has been hanging in Limbo land for awhile, waiting for me to find time to get it finished.   I haven't had much time to blog lately but hope to squeeze more blogging in.  Also, I hope we can make a renewed push to get some of our on-air guests to contribute as well.

    Thanks to Steven Meyer for being our guest on recent  show on the willing suspension of disbelief.     Steve was the  first English professor we've actually had on the program.   Given that there can still be some hostility and talking at cross-purposes between philosophers and literary types these days, it was a nice to have a fruitful exchange in which we were  all more or less on the same page.

    I've been thinking a bit more about the phenomenon of  imaginative resistance and that's the main  subject of this post.

    October 20, 2005 | 1 comment | Read More »
  • Fiction and Belief

    When The Old Curiosity Shop was approaching its emotional climax -- the death of Little Nell -- Dickens was inundated with letters imploring him to spare her, and felt, as he said, "the anguish unspeakable," but proceeded with the artistically necessary event. Readers were desolated. The famous actor William Macready wrote in his diary that "I have never read printed words that gave me so much pain. . . . I could not weep for some time. Sensations, sufferings have returned to me, that are terrible to awaken." Daniel O'Connell, the great Irish member of Parliament, read the account of Nell's death while he was riding on a train, burst into tears, cried "He should not have killed her," and threw the novel out of the window in despair. Even Carlyle, who had not previously succumbed to Dickens's emotional manipulation, was overcome with grief, and crowds in New York awaited a vessel newly arriving from England with shouts of "Is Little Nell dead?"

    David Cody, from his website on Dickens' popularity

    October 14, 2005 | 1 comment | Read More »
  • Backstage Live with Philosophy Talk

    posted by Philosophy Talk

    On Sunday,  November 6th, 11:30 - 1:30,  we will be produce an episode of Philosophy Talk in front of a live audience on the Stanford Campus.  Our guest will be Congresswoman Anna Eshoo. The episode will be taped and broadcast at a later date.  Our topic will be  Legislating Values. 

    This is a special "thank-you" available to those who contribute at least $50.00 to KALW during the fall membership drive.  There are still seats available.  We invite you to join us for this radio happening.  Be part of the show!  Mingle with the Philosophy Talk team! Enjoy light food and drink!   There are still tickets available.   Currently, you can get one by donating on-line  here  and noting in the box labeled  "Comments for KALW"  that you wish to attend Backstage Live with Philosophy Talk.   (Soon the KALW website will be updated with a special link for this event.)

    This is one  of what we hope will be a series of episodes performed in  front of live audiences for later broadcast.   We already have a second scheduled for  October 27th, in Sacramento, where  we will put the show on in front of 200 or so Stanford Alumni.   

    We are currently discussing the possibility of taking the show up to Oregon and doing a live episode with the folks there, who never get to hear us live, except via the internet.   You Oregonians,  if you want that to happen,  let the good folks at  OPB know.

    October 4, 2005 | 0 comments | Read More »
  • The Costs of War

    Whatever theory of the leaders of a nation use to justify, or cast doubt upon, the wisdom and morality of going to war, surely the costs that one reasonably expects to incur must be relevant.  The most obvious costs are the deaths and injuries of the soliders who fight in the war on behalf of the nation in question.  I doubt that Americans have ever taken this cost fully into account, either in making or in retrospectively evaluating the costs of going to war.

    October 3, 2005 | 1 comment | Read More »
  • The Language of Politics

    We had a fun show last week with Geoff Nunburg about the language of politics.   In a little bit,   I'll ruminate a bit more about the language of politics.

    Since we're in the middle of the  pledge drive,   though,   I want a put in a brief   good word for KALW -- the innovative little station that could.   I really meant it  when I said on air that without the risk-taking and innovation that KALW brings to public radio, Philosophy Talk simply would not be happening.   I hate to say it - though it's probably  no secret -- but lots of public radio has turned really staid and highly risk averse.    KALW is an exception.   If you value risk-taking and innovation on the air,  you really should think about  giving  to this gem of a station.  They  really need you.   They  operate on a shoestring.  If you compare KALW's operating budget to a certain other public radio station that broadcasts out of San Francisco -- Bay Area folks,  you know which one I mean -- you'll be really amazed at the difference.   But for my money,  KALW beats that to remain nameless behemoth on the other side of town by a quite considerable margin when it comes to putting fresh and engaging stuff on the air.   Even if you don't live in the Bay Area, and listen to our archive over the Internet, think about giving to the station.   You can do so on-line here

    By the way,   for a mere $50 pledge to the station,  you can witness Philosophy Talk in action on Sunday, November 6th at an event we're calling Backstage Live with Philosophy Talk.   We're going to put on a episode of Philosophy Talk in front of a live audience.  Instead of taking questions from callers, we'll take them from the audience.   We'll tape the episode and broadcast it on a later date.  We'll also have light food and drink available.  And you'll have a chance to mingle with the whole gang.  Come and be part of the fun.  Again,  all you need to do is  make a $50 donation to the station.

    September 20, 2005 | 1 comment | Read More »
  • Saints, Heroes, and Schmucks Like Me.

    Thanks to Susan Wolf for an interesting discussion of  Saints, Heroes and the Well-lived Life.  The episode certainly  prompted lots of response from listeners.  We must have set a record for questions submitted via e-mail.  There were also more callers than we could get to.

    Susan has a point.   There is more to living well than slavishly  and  single-mindedly devoting oneself to moral perfection -- either of oneself or of the world.  I want a life filled with goods of all sorts -- many of them non-moral.  I want  moments in which I contemplate beauty, even if by such contemplation I achieve nothing for the world at large and merely  elevate myself above the mundane demands of the everyday.   I want to perfect my abilities as a philosopher and use them to  plumb the depths of the deepest philosophical mysteries, even if through my exploration the world remains as morally imperfect as can be.   I want to explore the heights of erotic pleasure with my deepest love, to tend my roses, to spend idle hours in the company of those I hold dear  or even merely in solitude. If morality were to ask, but not demand -- since we're talking about supererogation and not "mere" duty -- that I forgo the pursuit of such goods and devote all of my energies to pursuit of  moral perfection, either of myself or the world, I would refuse the offer.

    September 3, 2005 | 8 comments | Read More »
  • Beyond the Cartesian Moment?

    I'm finally back from Australia and New Zealand.    Thanks to all who invited me to speak and hang-out in various locales down under.  It was a grand trip and I'm eager to go back again sometime in the near future.  About the only thing that I won't miss is getting up at  3:30 am on cold winter mornings to do Philosophy Talk    Now that I'm back stateside,  I hope to resume regular blogging.  I probably could have blogged more from down under.   But I was pretty busy with other things, both philosophical and non-philosophical, during my stay there.   

    Anyway,  let me  go back a couple of episodes to our show on Descartes.  I've been gathering some thoughts about whether we've managed to move beyond  what  I called  "The Cartesian Moment" on the air.      Ron Rubin, our guest, didn't really want to  attribute the moment I have in mind to Descartes in particular,   He's probably right.   He's the historical scholar, after all.   Still,  I like that designation and will stick with it at least for the nonce.

    August 19, 2005 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • Caring

    It was terrific to have Martha Nussbaum on Philosophy Talk.  Martha is one of those philosophers, like Robert Nozick, John Searle, David Lewis and a few others, who seem to produce more interesting philosophy than seems humanly possible, and not just by repeating themselves, but in virtue of a steady stream of original insights.

    In the program I was skeptical about Nussbaum's rather cognitive take on the emotions, and I used some such phrase as "primitive caring." Ken mentions this in his blog, and seems not quite sure of what I meant.  Well, I'm not quite sure either, but I'll play with the idea here a bit.  There are two roots to my inchoate thoughts about this topic, one based on personal experience, the other on rather theoretical considerations.  I'll only discuss the former....

    July 30, 2005 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • Descartes

    Tuesday we discuss René Descartes, who lived from 1596 until 1650 ---- not very long, by my standards.  Descartes was a French philosopher, scientist and mathematician who is the father of analytic geometry in mathematics and modern rationalism in philosophy.  Pretty good for someone who died at 54....

    July 30, 2005 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Emotions, Judgments, and Mattering.

    Thanks to Martha Nussbaum for being a fine guest.   We've been trying to get her on the program for two years.  And we're please that she was finally able to do it.    It was certainly a lively and entertaining conversation that probed some philosophically interesting issues.   I haven’t yet had a chance yet to read her two big recent books on the emotions,Upheavals of Thought and Hiding from Humanity : Disgust, Shame, and the Law,  but both sound fascinating.   They are  definitely on my list.

    I am still not fully convinced that emotions are nothing but  judgments.  Certainly emotions are tied up with judgments, sometimes quite closely.   But it just seems wrong to say that an emotion is nothing but a judgment.   Judgments can be true or false.  Any given judgment, even a judgment concerning my own flourishing, can be made with  or without an accompanying emotion.  Emotions, on the other hand,  are sometimes appropriate and sometimes inappropriate, but they don’t seem the sorts of things that can be true or false.   Also emotions, at least conscious emotions, seem to have a felt qualitative character, but judgments, even conscious judgments, don’t.   It’s like something to be (consciously) angry.  But what’s it like to judge that you have been wronged?  Such a judgment might cause  an episode of anger.  But could such a judgment  really just be an episode of anger?

    July 27, 2005 | 1 comment | Read More »
  • Greetings from Down Under!

    You may have noticed that neither John nor I  nor our on-air guests have been blogging much recently.   But we're all about to get back in the saddle.   I've been travelling for the past few  weeks.   I'm in Australia, even as I write.   I gave a paper a couple of weeks ago at the University of Sydney at the annual meeting of the Australasian Associaton for Philosophy.   After eight fun-filled days in Sydney, it was off to Canberra, where I am a visiting fellow at the Australian National University until August 15.  Before heading home,  it's off to New Zealand to give a couple of talks, one in Wellington, the other in Auckland.   

    July 15, 2005 | 0 comments | Read More »
  • Improving the World vs Improving my Country

    Thanks to  Peter Singer for helping us to put on a good show yesterday.  It was certainly  an interesting, lively conversation.  The phone lines were constantly filled.  So we do seem to have touched some nerve.   Unfortunately, there were many  more callers than we had time to get to.

    By the way,  Singer's  book,   One World : The Ethics of Globalization, in which he spells out more fully some of the ideas he touched on during the show, is a really good read.  It covers a whole lot of ground in a philosophically engaging and accessible way.   

    I'm pretty sure that Singer is right that  both reasonably well off individuals in the developed and developing world and the governments of the developed world could and should do a lot more to help ameliorate global poverty.  I'm not sure that I agree that well off  individuals in the developed world directly  owe it to individuals in the less developed world to donate money to various charitable organizations.   Being a good thing to do and being obligatory  or a matter of duty are two different things.

    In this post, though,  I want to think more about the relative merits of trying to  improve and/or  perfect one's own nation versus trying to improve and/or perfect the world at large.

    June 21, 2005 | 4 comments | Read More »
  • Negotiating Identities: The Crash Solution

    Thanks very much to Anthony Appiah for being our guest on the show last week.   You can check out the episode here.

    I meant to be blogging about this one awhile back, but the rest of my life intruded, unfortunately.    I'm about to head off to Australia for seven weeks, where I'll be a visiting fellow at the Australian National University.    I'll actually do three of the shows from down under.  That's going to be tough.  I'll have to be in a studio there at 4.00 AM.  Now that is dedication.

    But back to the topic at hand.   I thought our discussion with Anthony was interesting.  I   do wish we had had more time because we  really only scratched the surface and were just getting to an interesting topic toward the end of the episode.  By the way,   I'm about half way through Anthony's latest book, The Ethics of Identity.  It's a fascinating read and I highly recommend it.   

    I want to try to  dig a little deeper in this post into a question that kind of simmered beneath the surface of our discussion, but wasn't really addressed head on.   The issue has a little bit to do with identities that are regarded by those who adopt them as in some ways "non-negotiable" and as more or less direct sources of directives about how to live one's own life, and a source of directives about how to live one's life in relation to others who don't share one's identity and may even be hostile to it in some ways. 

    June 15, 2005 | 1 comment | Read More »
  • Intergenerational Obligations and the Rope of Lives

    Yesterday on the show,  John came up with a really nice metaphor.   He compared a generation to a small strand in a long rope.  Each strand is closely intertwined with a number of other nearby strands, but mostly  the strands don’t make direct contact with each other.  If you think of the rope as growing over time,  the metaphor captures a very nice fact about  relationships among the generations.  No one strand lasts very long, for example.  But the rope endures by having new strands begin where other strands have left off.   I like the  metaphor a lot and want to use it to explore a little bit further how we  might think of intergenerational obligations.

    June 8, 2005 | 8 comments | Read More »
  • Evolutionary Psychology: A Defense -- Sort of!

    It's amazing how divided opinions are about evolutionary psychology.    Some very fine philosophers and cognitive  scientists are  really big fans of  the genre.    Other equally fine philosophers and cognitive scientists appear to  see little of merit in it.   The philosopher of biology John Dupre, who was a guest on our show a few weeks back talking about genetic determinism, says the following about the  evolutionary psychology of sex and gender:

    ... [it]  offers us mainly simplifications and banalities about human behavior with little convincing illumination of how they came to be banal. It offers no account of the great differences in behavior across cultures, which is exactly what we want to know if we were interested in exercising any measure of of control over changes in these phenomena.  It offers no account of why different people develop such diverse sexual proclivities (notoriously, it has nothing to but the most absurd evolutionary fantasies to offer in explanation of homosexuality).  And it offers no account of how complex motivations underlying sexual behavior interact with the pursuit of many other goals that inform the lives of most humans.  In fact it offers us nothing, unless perhaps a spurious sense of the immutability of the behaviours that happen to characterize our own contemporary societies.  This is scarcely the revolution in our undertanding of human behaviorus so enthusiastically advertized by the exponents and camp-followers of evolutionary psychology.

    Though Dupre is perhaps more extreme than many others,  he certainly isn't  alone in heaping at least some degree of  scorn on evolutionary psychology.  But  I don't think evolutionary psychology is nearly as bad off as its worst critics think.

    May 25, 2005 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Sex, Prostitution, and Well-lived Lives

    First, I want to thank Debra Satz for being our guest on the show yesterday.  It was interesting and fun.  I hope it was also enlightening.  The discussion certainly provoked lots of calls, e-mails, and even comments on the blog.  Even in philosophy, sex sells, I guess.

    Having sat with this topic for the last couple of weeks, I’m still pretty unsettled on my own final take on things.   I’m pretty convinced -- I think -- that criminalizing prostitution – either on the supply side or on the demand side –  is unworkable.  I tend to side with those who think criminalization probably makes what is already a bad situation for many much worse.  Moreover,  some ways of “configuring” prostitution seem clearly to be more problematic than others – both for the prostitutes themselves and for society at large.  And that makes it relatively easy to envision legal frameworks that outlaw or discourage certain forms of prostitution, but permit or incentivize other less debasing and destructive forms. Still, I don’t think the issue is completely cut and dry.   there will always, I think, be a demand for even the most debasing kinds of prostitution. There will always be people in dire straits with few options but to strike desperate bargains.   So there is no guarantee that  the more destructive, debasing and exploitative forms of prostitution would disappear or even seriously decrease if the less destructive and exploitative varieties were legalized.

    May 17, 2005 | 16 comments | Read More »
  • Prostitution

    The American Heritage Dictionary defines prostitution as “the act or practice of engaging in sex acts for hire.”  This definition may be a little obsolete.  First, while people of my generation include such things as oral sex under the term “sex acts,” the term now is often restricted to sexual intercourse.  Whether this is the effect of President Clinton’s use, or he was in fact simply very up-to-date, I do not know.  But if you look at online solicitations of prostitution, such as on Craig’s List under “erotic services,” you can see that the more restricted use is common.  Some ads say “no sex,” while it is clear that oral sex is on offer.  I’ll use the term “sex acts” with its old-fashioned meaning, however.

    May 16, 2005 | 21 comments | Read More »
  • Kjellberg to Guest Blog

    posted by Philosophy Talk

    We at Philosophy Talk are pleased to announce that Paul Kjellberg who will be our on-air guest this coming week for a discussion  of Confucius and the philosophical heritage of ancient China, has agreed to guest blog on "Philosophy Talk: the Blog."  We are grateful to Paul for agreeing both to be our on-air guest and to help us extend the conversation to the blog sphere.  Please make Paul feel welcome here by commenting extensively on his posts.

    May 8, 2005 | 1 comment | Read More »
  • Forgiveness Deserved, not Demanded

    First I want to thank Charles Griswold for being our guest.  It was, I thought, a very thought-provoking conversation about a philosophically under-explored, but interesting and rich topic.  I look forward to what I gather will be a two volume set - one about forgiveness and sympathy and the other about imperfection -- from Charles.   I know that I personally  exemplify the latter and that I  need a lot of the former. 

    I  admit to still  being puzzled by the question why, when forgiveness is deserved, one can only request forgiveness and aren't really in a position to demand it.   I thought I'd ponder that question just a little bit more in this post.   My hunch is that what's wrong with  demanding forgiveness, even when it's morally deserved,  has to do with what I'll call the dialectical character of the relation between the forgiver and the to be forgiven. 

    May 6, 2005 | 3 comments | Read More »
  • To blog is to forgive?

    In the movie “The Interpretor” Nicole Kidman stars as Silvia Broome.  She grew up among the Ku, in the fictional nation of Matobo.  When someone commits murder among the Ku, they are allowed to live for a year.  Then they are dumped in a lake with their hands tied.  The victim's family members must decide whether to plunge into the water and save them, or let them drown.  The prevailing wisdom among the Ku seems to be that those who save the murderer, in effect forgiving them, and releasing themselves from anger and resentment, are better off for it.
    Many thinkers agree with this idea of the Kus, that forgiveness is good for the forgiver.   Thus Francis Bacon:

    This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge keeps his wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well. 

    And Ann Landers:

    One of the secrets of a long and fruitful life is to forgive everybody everything every night before you go to bed.

    So perhaps it is a good idea to forgive others, to insure one’s own peace of mind, so that resentment doesn’t gnaw away at one.

    May 3, 2005 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • Griswold to Guest Blog on Forgiveness

    We at Philosophy Talk are pleased to announce that Charles Griswold, our guest for today's show on the topic of forgiveness,  has agreed to guest-blog.   It should be a fun show on a topic much discussed in religion and politics, but not much discussed by contemporary philosophers.   We are grateful to Charles for agreeing to appear on the show and also grateful to him for agreeing to guest blog.  Please make him feel welcome by commenting extensively on the threads he starts!

    May 2, 2005 | 0 comments | Read More »
  • How to be a Relativist

    Over at the blog Left2Right,  the philosopher David Velleman  has an interesting post about moral relativism.  Prompted by recent news coverage of moral relativism and then Cardinal Ratzinger’s denunciation of modernity’s supposed move toward  “the dictatorship of relativism,”  Velleman argues  that almost everyone who denounces relativism has it confused with some other doctrine.   Relativism, Velleman claims, is an extremely implausible doctrine and has precious few serious adherents.   Consequently,  he claims, “There is little point in campaigning against relativism, because almost no one supports it. Those who issue denunciations of "moral relativism" are usually pursuing some other agenda.”   Velleman does have a point – most people who attack relativism confuse it with something else.  Moreover,  I agree with him that there is little point in campaigning against relativism.  But not for the reasons he articulates.   Unlike Velleman,  I think moral relativism is plausible in the extreme and is, indeed, tied to the deepest challenges of human social life.   It isn’t worth campaigning against not because it has no advocates, but because to campaign against it is to deny certain very basic facts about the human situation.  This will take some explaining so bear with me.   By the way, in case you are interested,  check out our own episode on Truth and Relativism.  It was first broadcast last November.

    April 30, 2005 | 13 comments | Read More »
  • Propaganda and the Human Mind

    Today's  show is about the topic of propaganda.  Our guest will be Orville Schell,   Dean of the Berkeley School of Journalism.   The episode will focus on the nature of propaganda,  on what precisely is wrong with it, on the difference between the production and dissemination of propaganda in democratic and totalitarian societies and on what we can do to combat it. 

    Some people  naively associate propaganda with totalitarian regimes.  Certainly, the Nazis, the Soviet and Chinese communists, and brutal dictators like Saddam Hussein  have made heavy and sometimes brilliantly effective use of propaganda.   But totalitarians may not need to be true masters of propaganda,  since they often merely bludgeon people into at least apparent belief and acquiescence.   It's in supposedly democratic societies with  capitalist economies,  where  political consent   and economic demand are  manufactured, to use Lippmann's apt phrase, that propaganda has been elevated to truly  high and insidious art form.   Indeed, it seems to me that largely through propagandistic manipulation of the means of public  communication and representation, the  concentrated,  self-serving powers that own so much of our politics and so much of our economy have succeeded  in thoroughly debasing our public discourse.


    April 25, 2005 | 6 comments | Read More »
  • Do Genes Make the Person?

    Do genes make the person?  If you listen to popular press reports of new genetic discoveries coming out at fairly rapid pace, you certainly might think so.   Lung Cancer Gene!  Gay Gene!  Genius Gene!   Little wonder that many people believe -- or should I say fear? -- that  genes somehow directly and invariably determine who we are.  One has visions of  being  able to choose the IQ, personality, and physical attributes of one's offspring with the ease and reliability with which one chooses a meal at a good Chinese restaurant.   As Stephen Jay Gould once put it,  "If we are programmed to be what we are, then these traits are ineluctable.  We may, at best, channel them, but we cannot change them either by will, education, or culture."     But even a brief perusal of the scientific and/or philosophical literature about the role of genes in determining who we are  reveals that at least in this strong form, genetic determinism has little or no basis in either scientific fact or theory.   Genes clearly play an important causal role in the development of a phenotype.  And according to one standard, but by no means universally endorsed  conception of evolution, genes are the units on which natural selection operates.   But none of that entails rigid and direct  genetic determinism.    So what, really, is the big fuss?   

    April 18, 2005 | 11 comments | Read More »
  • Philosophers' Carnival, Number Twelve

    You might want to check out the twelfth edition of the recurring Philosophers' Carnival, a compilation of philosophical blog entries from around the blog sphere.    Included in this edition, is Ken Taylor's post on Freedom, Responsibility and Martian Anthropology.

    You can learn more about the history and purpose of the Philosophers' Carnival here.

    April 12, 2005 | 3 comments | Read More »
  • Naturalism and Value

    This is a response to Ken’s fascinating blog on naturalism, Schopenhauer and value.  I’m amenable to his naturalism.  But I’m not sure I see the problem of value as a matter of getting something out of nothing.

    April 11, 2005 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • Steroids and Baseball
    Anonymous (not verified)

    by John Fischer

    I do not want to distract us from the "heavy" (no pun intended) issues to which we have devoted our attention recently, but, what with the opening of baseball season and all, I thought I'd ask you to think about the following. Steroids (of the sorts used by some players and other athletes) apparently have serious health side-effects. For that reason it certainly seems reaonable to ban their use. But now suppose our wonderful pharmaceutical companies could develop side-effect free steroids--comparable medicines with (by stipulation) no bad health effects. Under such a scenario (admittedly implausible), would it still be reasonable to ban their use? Why exactly?

    I believe that John and Ken had the distinguished Kant and baseball scholar Allen Wood on Philosophy Talk to discuss baseball, but unfortunately I haven't yet listened to that episode; I'll check out the archive at

    Meanwhile, cheers, and Play Ball!

    April 8, 2005 | 20 comments | Read More »
  • Meaning from Meaninglessness

    Irv Yalom was a great guest.  We had a fun,  lively conversation that went back and forth between philosophy, biography, and psychotherapy.    You can hear the archived version of the episode here.

    I want to expand on a topic that we just barely touched on during the episode.  I discussed it briefly but not in great detail in my pre-show post.   I'm thinking about where values and meaning come from and whether a metaphysics anything like Schopenhauer's has the resources to make room for value and meaning. I think that the answer is yes.  And I suspect that Schopenhauer fails to see this, if he does, because he buys into a commonly held, but I think deeply mistaken criticism of naturalism.   I'll call it the "you can't get something from nothing" criticism. 

    April 6, 2005 | 7 comments | Read More »
  • Earlier Birth and Later Death
    Anonymous (not verified)

    By John Fischer

    Interesting show on Schopenhauer.

    Here is a way of thinking about our commonsense asymmetric attitudes toward prenatal and posthumous nonexistence.  Lucretius' "mirror-image" claim seems plausible if you think of these periods purely negatively, just as experiential nothingness.  But if you think of them "relationally", i.e., as experiential blanks that are deprivations of the goods of life, then one can understand the commonsense asymmetry in our attitudes as a special case of the commonsense preference that, other things equal, our pleasures be in the future.  That is, holding everything else fixed, I prefer my pleasures in the future rather than the past, just as I prefer my pains in the past rather than the future.  Since death deprives me of future pleasures whereas prenatal nonexistence does not, it is not surprising or irrational that I care more about my death than my prenatal nonexistence.

    For an early sketch of this idea, which builds on thought-experiments of Derek Parfit, see Anthony Brueckner and John Martin Fischer, "Why Is Death Bad?", originally in Philosophical Studies, and reprinted in Fischer, ed., THE METAPHYSICS OF DEATH, Stanford University Press.

    A small point about pessimism: typically it seems to function at least in part as a defense mechanism, seeking to protect the individual from disappointment.  This of course resonates with the Buddhist idea of reducing one's desires....

    April 5, 2005 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • The Only Mattering Worth Caring About

    Schopenhauer's view of life certainly seems bleak and pessimistic.  Consider the following description of the life of man (and animals):

    Willing and striving are its whole essence, and can be fully compared to an unquenchable thirst.  The basis of all willing, however, is need, lack, and hence pain, and by its very nature and origin it is therefore destined to pain.  If on the other hand, it lacks objects of willing, because it is at once deprived of them again by too easy a satisfaction, a fearful emptiness and boredom comes over it; in other words, its being and its existence become an intolerable burden for it.  Hence its life swings like a pendulum  to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituents.  This has been very quaintly expressed by saying that after man had placed all pains and torments in hell, there was nothing left for heaven but boredom

    April 4, 2005 | 5 comments | Read More »
  • Schopenhauer and Prozac
    Anonymous (not verified)

    by John Fischer

    I admit it: I've been reading a lot of Schopenhauer, especially his Essays on Pessimism.  They are fascinating, and extremely beautifully (and of course provocatively) written.  Here's a cheery and lovely passage: "Could we foresee it, there are times when children might seem like innocent prisoners, condemned, not to death, but to life, and as yet all unconscious of what their sentence means.  Nevertheless, every man desires to reach old age; in other words, a state of life of which it may be siad; 'It is bad to-day, and it will be worse to0morrow; and so on till the worst of all."

    Hmm.  Later, he says, "... you may look upon life as an unprofitable episode, disturbing the blessed calm of non-existence."  Take that, Lucretius! 

    What I'm wondering is this (and it is of course not original with me).  In present times, Schopenhauer would probably see a therapist of some sort, who would give him some kind of anti-depressant medication and "talk-therapy"--perhaps cognitive therapy or psychodynamically informed therapy.  The combination might be "effective"--but then we would lose this brilliant curmudgeon, or at least his delightfully curmudgeonly writing.  Would Schopenhauer have been better off undepressed?  Would the world have been better off?

    April 3, 2005 | 9 comments | Read More »
  • Mohan's Question
    Anonymous (not verified)

    By John Fischer

    During the call-in component of the show, Mohan asked a question about the relationship between political freedom and metaphysical freedom.  Although it was a bit off the central topics, it does raise a question that has troubled me.  That is,  I believe that genuinely available metaphysical alternatives or possibilities are not required for moral agency--the forward-looking aspect (practical reasoning) or the backward-looking aspect (moral responsibility).  But then why would I prefer to live in a nation with political liberties, such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, and so forth?  Also, why do I sometimes think that it is "good to have choices", such as when I apply for a job (as I do very occasionally!)?

    Can anyone help me here?

    I'm inclined to say that "ex ante" I would choose a world with political liberties, since there would be a better chance that I would act freely (sans metaphysical alternatives, of course) in such a world.  But is this plausible?  Can we really expunge metaphysical alternatives and still lead an attractive, recognizably human life?? 

    March 31, 2005 | 8 comments | Read More »
  • Did I Cheat?
    Anonymous (not verified)

    By John Fischer

    First, I wish to thank John and Ken for being so kind as to invite me to be a guest on the show; I enjoyed it very, very much.

    Ken wondered whether I have "cheated" in the sense that I call something "freedom" which perhaps is not a genuine freedom.  I certaiinly sympathize with the worry that traditional compatibilism is a "cheat" or in Kant's words a "wretched subterfuge."  I love W. I. Matson's fulminations about compatibilism: "The most flabbergasting instance of the fallacy of changing the subject to be encountered anywhere in the complete history of sophistry...  [a ploy that] was intended to take in the vulgar, but which has beguiled the learned in our time." 

    March 30, 2005 | 8 comments | Read More »
  • Freedom, Responsibility and Martian Anthropology

    As John Perry notes in his pre-show post,  some philosophers think that if determinism is true, then there is no freedom, and, consequently, no moral responsibility.     Other philosophers, the compatibilists,  try to find a way to reconcile freedom and determinism.  The goal of such attempted  reconciliations is often to find enough room for freedom to support moral responsibility.  Such philosophers worry a lot about figuring out just what sort of freedom is necessary to support ascriptions of moral responsibility and then they try to show that that kind or degree of freedom is thoroughly compatible with the truth of determinism.    But I want to suggest in this pre-show post  that  just maybe the connection between freedom and  responsibility has been oversold.   Maybe the two John's will talk me out of this view during the episode.  We'll see.

    March 29, 2005 | 18 comments | Read More »
  • Responsibility and "The Actual Sequence"
    Anonymous (not verified)

    by John Fischer

    John Locke came up with the original "Frankfurt-type example".  (The examples have been called "Frankfurt-type examples after Harry Frankfurt's ingenious development of them in a 1969 Journal of Philosophy paper, "Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility."

    Here is Locke's version.  A man is asleep, and while asleep, he is transported into a room.  When he awakens, he thinks about leaving the room, but he decides (based on his own reasons) to stay in the room.  Unbeknownst to him, the room was locked, and thus he could not have left the room.  Locke did not say that the man stayed in the room "freely," because Locke held that acting freely entails freedom to do otheriwse.  But he did say that the man voluntarily stayed in the room, although he could not have left the room.

    March 28, 2005 | 14 comments | Read More »
  • Free-will

    The term "free-will" has been used in philosophy and theology to formulate a number of different problems.  Here are some of them:

    March 27, 2005 | 0 comments | Read More »
  • Reverence for the Given? Further Thoughts on Cosmetic Neurology

    In my pre-show reflections,  I tried to isolate what exactly was being claimed by those who worry about tinkering too much with the  Wisdom of Nature.   What that argument really comes down to, I think, is the claim that we ought to have a certain reverence for what I called the given order of things.   I didn't say whether I thought that claim was true or false.  We began to talk about it a bit on the air, but we barely scratched the surface.  In this post-show  post, I want to delve a little more deeply -- though I don't pretend to get to the bottom of things here.

    March 24, 2005 | 1 comment | Read More »
  • On the so-called "Wisdom of Nature"

    I have to admit that when John Perry first suggested that we do a show on the emerging field of neurcosmetology,  I was a little hesitant.  I had never even heard of the subject until John brought it up. As John mentions,  if you Google  neurocosmetology  all that comes up are links to our  own web page announcing the topic.   And to top it off,  google asks if  you don't really mean"neurocosmology."   Heaven  knows what that one means!    But if  Google is a reliable indicator, "neurocosmology"  currently has a lot more currency than 'neurocosmetology.'  In fairness, though,  I should note that if you  Google   "cosmetic neurology"  you'll get quite a lot of hits.   There's clearly  lots happening out there on this score.   There's so much happening, in fact, that even the  President's Council on Bioethics has seen fit to weigh in with a massive report entitled  "Beyond Therapy:  Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness."

    March 21, 2005 | 3 comments | Read More »
  • Neurocosmetology

    Progress in neuroscience may soon make possible an age of neurocosmetology: the use of drugs to let people affect the way their brains work, so as to make them more effective, more attractive, and more like their "cognitive ideal."  A world where all the women are beautiful and all the men handsome might be bearable if boring. But would a society full of type-A's work at all?  Can it be rational to choose to change in ways that may change who you are?  Should there be moral or legal prohibitions against healthy people messing with their own brain chemistry?

    March 20, 2005 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • Beauty that Haunts

    Alexander Nehamas  was an excellent guest.   Thanks so much to Alexander for appearing on the show this week.  You can check out the episode here

    I want to respond further to one of Alexander's central claims.  He says that beauty has to do with what he calls "the promise of happiness."  To find something beautiful is to perceive in it a promise of happiness. He even says that when  you have exhausted what a thing  has to offer you in the way of happiness, you will no longer find it beautiful.   This  line does  explain a lot about what I'll call positive beauty, for lack of a better term.  I'm not sure, however, that it works for what I'll call negative beauty. 

    March 16, 2005 | 2 comments | Read More »
  • On the Absence of Dogmatism

    During our episode on Religion and the Secular State  Robert Audi claimed that some religions are non-dogmatic  He might be right about that,  I am not sure which ones he had in mind.   On the other hand,  John was pushing the line that many of our "secular" beliefs have pretty much the status and function of dogmatic religious beliefs. At least for some people, he might be right about that. I recall that   at  least one caller agreed with John's remark.  I still insist that if we are to have a shared public life that reflects what  John Rawls calls "reasonable pluralism"  citizens must pursue public debate with an absence of dogmatism.    

    March 13, 2005 | 4 comments | Read More »
  • Nehamas to Guest Blog

    We here at Philosophy Talk:  The Blog are please to announce our first guest blogger, the distinguished philosopher of art,   Alexander Nehamas of Princeton University.  Alexander will be our guest on next week's episode.  We think it'll be a fun show and we look forward to hearing from Alexander. We hope that Alexander is the first in a long line of distinguished guest bloggers.


    March 10, 2005 | 0 comments | Read More »
  • The Experience of Beautiful Things

    Since lots of beautiful things don't have skin,    whoever first said that beauty is only skin deep was clearly mistaken.  When I was a kid, by the way, we used to continue "...but ugliness is to the bone."    Of course, the speaker was probably being metaphorical.  Perhaps he or she was trying to say that beauty is the least of the virtues that a thing can have.   But is it really an apt metaphor?   Perhaps we can  answer by applying  the implied standard to the metaphor itself. A "skin deep" metaphor would, I suppose, not be  beautiful at all.  A beautiful metaphor would take us much deeper  than merely to the skin of things.

    But I digress.  What I really want to talk about is the experience of beautiful things and why having such experiences matters.   

    March 9, 2005 | 3 comments | Read More »
  • Beauty and subjectivity

    Here are two truisms about beauty:

    Beauty is only skin deep

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

    With respect to the first I can only say, “Thank God.”  The idea is that beauty is a superficial characteristic that does not provide great evidence for character, personality, wit, intelligence and other such virtues.  As a one of the beauty-challenged members of our species, I would really resent it if beauty were a good indication of those things.  Enough is enough.  Let the rich and the beautiful be boring and dimwitted as far as I am concerned.

    It’s the second truism I want to discuss a little.  What in the world does it mean to say the beauty is in the eye of the beholder?  And why would anyone say that?

    March 9, 2005 | 39 comments | Read More »
  • Random Thoughts on Religion and the State

    Today’s show is on Religion and the Secular State.  In our beloved more or less secular nation our thinking is anchored by the first part of the first amendment

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    The 14th amendment extends this to the states, many of which had established religions at the time of the constitution, as I remember  --- I wasn’t there, but as I seem to remember from my American History classes.

    March 8, 2005 | 8 comments | Read More »
  • Respecting Religious Belief

    Tomorrow, we do a show on "Religion and the Secular State" with Robert Audi as our guest.  There will be lots of issues to talk about I am sure.  Arguments for and against the separation of church and state,  whether "religious reasons"  can function as "public reasons" in a secular state,  hot button issues like abortion, the pledge of allegiance.   We might not, though, get to what I regard as one of the most fundamental issues about religion, since it isn't really the focus of this episode.  I'm thinking both about the epistemology of religious belief and religion's "practical significance,"  to use a not quite  perfect phrase.  If, like David Hume,  you think that religious belief is mostly  superstitious or, like the philosopher, Georges Rey (warning .pdf), you think it's mostly based on wishful thinking and/or self-deception, then it seems to follow that religious belief deserves no more respect and acknowledgment than superstition --  especially not from the state, but also not from anyone who is committed to the  minimal canons of evidential rationality.  To be sure, there are very smart philosophers, like  Alvin Plantinga and William Alston,  who argue that religious beliefs are  espistemically respectable.  But I want to assume in this post, just for the sake of argument,  that they are not and see what, if anything follows, about whether we should acknowledge and respect religious belief in either the public or private spheres. 

    So my question is this:  assuming  that religious beliefs are in some sense less than fully rational,  what follows for how they ought or ought not to be respected and acknowledge in private and public life?

    March 7, 2005 | 9 comments | Read More »

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