Ta-Nehisi Coates Reflects on Obama

Caption: President Barack Obama and Ta-Nehisi Coates at the White House What role did race play in his presidency and his path to it? Was Obama a black president, or a president who happened to be black? You might hear people complain that Obama wasn’t really black — or that his experience wasn't representative of the black experience. Is there something to this comment, or are there insidious racial stereotypes couched in it? And perhaps the timeliest question of all: What did Obama and his race have to do with the rise of Trump? Could it be that part of what white Trump voters were...

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Hail to the Chief of Philosophy

Today is Barack Obama's last full day in office as the 44th President of the United States. As Producer I'll leave the philosophical implications of that to John an Ken, and instead present a sample of one of my favorites parts of working on Philosophy Talk, the one-minute billboard that opens each program. Preparing these for live broadcasts involves searching for music and media clips that complement the hosts' questions and observations, and President Obama has provided me with some pretty good material over the last eight years. Of course I started on the show during the term of George W...

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Outrage or Pity?

This present moment is a bizarre crossroads for race relations in America. In between honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and inaugurating Donald Trump, we remember one of our greatest civil rights leaders and anticipate the presidency of an unabashed exploiter of racism, arguably a racist himself.   We sense we are regressing. Even if we are in a better position in absolute terms now than in the 1950s—no more Jim Crow, for example—racism has recently become more open, prominent, and vicious than ten years ago. I saw this recently in the live comments on the Fox News Youtube stream of Obama’s...

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The Value of a College Education

Starting the week of January 22, we will be airing our episode about the value of a college education. It’s a show we performed and recorded back in October live in front of an audience of high school students at De Anza High School in Richmond, California. That school serves a very ethnically and economically diverse student body – a reality reflected by our audience. Beside the episode, which will be broadcast next week and available online starting the following week, you can hear the extended audio of audience questions that didn’t make the broadcast here.   But we thought it would be...

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Time To Take Off The Tinfoil Hat!

One person says the medical establishment pushes autism-causing vaccines on the public, and “they” perpetrated a massive cover-up. A second person claims the tobacco industry colluded to distort the evidence that smoking causes cancer. Each of these persons is pushing a “conspiracy theory,” a theory that says a group of people did something bad and is conspiring to cover it up. But the first person (the anti-vaxer) is badly confused. The second, however, is right: the tobacco industry did collude to distort and suppress science about the link from smoking to cancer. This comparison highlights...

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Teaching Philosophy: The Answer to Automation?

In our annual year-in-review show, John and Ken were joined by political theorist Margaret Levi to discuss what the future looks like for workers when technology and automation are putting so many out of work. The particular technology discussed on The Examined Year 2016 was driverless vehicles, as there were some major advances (and some setbacks) in that area last year. But that is just part of a bigger trend in automation that is threatening jobs in many sectors. In The Guardian this week, teaching philosophy to children was suggested as the way to prepare future workers for this...

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#FrancisOnFilm: The Highs and Lows of 2016

The end of a year is a time when film critics reflect on the best and the worst films of the year.  Here are my top and bottom five picks for philosophers in 2016, listed alphabetically. Even the worst weren’t awful; they just weren’t my favorites. And I must admit what film critics often don’t: there are a lot of films I didn’t see, and I expect many of them were very good and some were worth missing. I’m the type who likes suspense, so I’ve tried to write these reviews on the assumption that it would be bad to give the endings away. Sometimes that’s meant I’ve had to say less about he...

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Extended Q&A at De Anza High School

Last fall, we took the show just up the road to De Anza High School in Richmond, California, where a theater full of AP students and their teachers joined John and Ken for a conversation about The Value of a College Education with John Hennessy, who had just stepped down as the 11th president of Stanford University. The students had a ton of questions, but of course not all of them could make it into the radio show itself (which airs Januarry 22 on KALW in San Francisco), so check out some of the extended Q&A that we managed to fit in before the bell rang for lunch.

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Empathy for Deplorables?

The below-linked piece on racism and sexism in the election has the following passage on fighting prejudice, which for me raises an interesting philosophical / psychological problem:   To this end, the research also shows it’s possible to reach out to Trump voters — even those who are racist or sexist today — in an empathetic way without condoning their bigotries. The evidence suggests, in fact, that the best way to weaken people’s racial or other biases is through frank, empathetic dialogue. (Much more on that in my in-depth piece on the research.) Given that, the best approach to really...

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Introducing: Francis on Film

Philosophy Talk is delighted to announce a new column on our blog called "Francis on Film" with our newest contributor, Leslie Francis!  Leslie is a philosophy professor and law professor at the University of Utah.  A major attraction of Utah for her is the Sundance Film Festival; last year, she saw 22 movies in 9 days and she’s planning to see more this year. She will be blogging and tweeting for Philosophy Talk from Sundance, January 19-29, so look out for her here on Philosophers' Corner, as well as on our...

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R.I.P. Derek Parfit

The eminent British philosopher Derek Parfit passed away earlier this week. Although he had never joined us on the program, his 2011 book On What Matters was the subject of the first segment on our very first year-in-review special, when John and Ken talked about it with USC philosopher Mark Schroeder. As we prepare for the live broadcast of The Examined Year 2016 this coming Sunday, check out that (mostly) uncut conversation from The Examined Year: 2011.

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Against Santa

Around this time of year, many parents—God only knows how many—lie to their children about Santa Claus.  Youngsters are presented with an account of a man who flies through the air, descends through chimneys, and distributes presents to those kids who are “good”—that is, kids who conform to the behavioral demands of their elders.  And it’s not just a matter of words. Children are enjoined to leave milk and cookies for Saint Nick, and food for his team of reindeer.  Their disappearance overnight is then presented as material evidence that Santa has been by. As if this isn’t enough, kids are at...

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The Examined Year 2016: Triumph and Defeat

As we approach the end of 2016, we are gearing up for our annual year in review show, "The Examined Year." In this special show, which broadcasts live from our home station, KALW, we depart from our usual long-form conversation format with a single guest and instead have three different guests on three different segments.The theme we've chosen for our philosophical review of 2016 is "Triumph and Defeat." Politically speaking, it's obvious how that theme applies. The two biggest political upsets of the year that we'll be examining are Brexit and Trump. Joining us for that segment will be...

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Is Donald Trump Lying or Bullshitting?

If fact checkers are to be trusted even a little, one rare certainty of this last election is that Donald Trump is a fountain of falsehoods. Politifact, for example, found that Trump issued more pants-on-fire falsehoods than all other primary and general candidates combined (see point 4.). Trump’s falsehoods range from egregious exaggeration to wholesale invention. For an example of the former (exaggeration), take what he said to the New York Times Editorial Board about insurance premiums under the Affordable...

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The Dark Side of the Cosmos

What a weird and wonderful cosmos we live in! Here’s an astounding fact. If you take all of the ordinary objects you can see, from tables and chairs to all the stars and planets in the universe, you will have accounted for less than 5% of the universe’s total mass-energy. The other 95%? That’s invisible stuff like dark matter and dark energy.Dark matter and dark energy are so called because they neither absorb nor reflect light, which is why they’ve never been directly observed. Scientists estimate that dark matter makes up more than 25% of the entire universe. The rest—almost 70%—is dark...

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Trust and Mistrust

Trust is one pattern of reliance, where the trusting person, or trustor, can’t control what the trusted person, or trustee, does, and may not even know what the trustee does at the time he does it, but plans on the trustee doing one thing rather than another. This pattern of reliance is no doubt essential to social life. But is it rational?  Does trust really amount to being stupid, or helpless, or both? Well think of that old Russian Proverb President Reagan liked to repeat: “Trust, but verify”.  Meaning: if the trustor trusts the trustee to do a certain action, then the trustor should...

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Dewey's Democracy

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others….The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”  -Winston ChurchillChurchill wasn’t always as unenthusiastic about democracy as these quotes suggest.  But I doubt that he was ever as positive about it as the subject of this week’s show, John Dewey.In terms of impact on society, Dewey was probably the most important American philosopher of the twentieth century.  He died in 1952, in his nineties.  He influenced not only abstract philosophical issues – he was a pragmatist – but...

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Magical Thinking

How do you simultaneously cut taxes, increase spending, and balance the budget?   All it takes is a little magical thinking – our topic for this week.   Magical thinking happens when you have, say, firmly held beliefs base on scanty or even non-existent evidence or when you make plans in which ends and means are radically out of synch.   Think of the belief that doing a certain dance can cause it to rain or that wearing a baseball cap inside out can lead to a rally.  But, of course,  \magical thinking doesn’t show up just in outmoded superstitions or harmless rituals  at sporting events.  ...

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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. But I can’t go around knocking fedoras off the heads of those that wear them, and I may get in trouble if I fire employees for wearing fedoras. But it seems to go further with respect to religion. In addition to ruling out the establishment of a state religion, it also guarantees “the right to the free exercise of [religion].”  You cannot only...

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Election Special 2016 – Uncut

Happy Labor Day from your friendly neighboorhood producer. This weekend we present our first Election Special, a pre-produced epsidoe taking a (mostly) Trump-free look at some of the deeper issues raised by this year's presidential campaign. Once again I thought I'd offer a behind-the-scenes look (and listen) into the show's production.The idea of an election-related episode actually came up at a production meeting early in the year. Our student researchers had proposed a multi-segment show focusing on the moral duty to vote, the role of money in elections, and the history of socialism and...

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Dangerous Demographics

In many countries around the world, people are living longer.  At the same time birth rates are declining – sometimes rapidly. The result: More old people; fewer young people. Japan, for example, has one of the world’s lowest birth rates.  Combine that with the world’s highest average life expectancy, and the result is a population that's both rapidly shrinking and rapidly aging.  Now that’s dangerous demographics.  If Japan were more open to immigration, like Germany, they wouldn’t have the same problem.  Germany’s population is aging but shrinking much more slowly, thanks to immigration....

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Neuroaesthetics for Dogs?

Dogs love art, apparently! At least, when that art is designed with them in mind. The Huffington Post reports today about a canine-centric art show created by artist Dominic Wilcox in London. Wilcox did research about the canine visual system and added various scents to the artwork.  Judging from the photos, the dogs looked engaged by the art. “The dogs seemed to love their visit,” Wilcox told The Huffington Post. “Tails were wagging like crazy at the giant dog food bowl filled with brown balls. They were jumping in and out of that one.” So, the dogs enjoyed this interaction with art...

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Neuroaesthetics - Your Brain on Art

There’s a new and exciting discipline that combines traditional aesthetics—the branch of philosophy that is concerned with the nature of beauty and artistic taste—and the latest brain science. It’s called neuroaesthetics. Research in neuroaesthetics involves measuring brain activity, using technology like fMRI machines, when subjects look at works of art. It also involves looking at people with different brain disorders and seeing how this affects their ability to appreciate or create art. You might wonder how looking at someone’s brain can ever answer the big questions of aesthetics—like,...

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A Big Bang Blog

Our topic this week is the Big Bang – Before and After.   It’s another episode in our series "A Philosophical Guide to the Cosmos."    Now they say that the Big Bang gave birth to the entire universe.  So you might think that the Big Bang must have been one hell of an explosion.   But technically speaking, the Big Bang wasn’t actually an explosion at all.   It couldn’t have been.   An explosion involves a rapid expansion outward from a center. Like when a bomb or a grenade goes off and you get matter and energy being thrown outward in all directions.     But despite popular misconceptions,...

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The Philosophy of Puns

A Philosophy Talk show on puns can’t just consist of making puns, even if they are good ones.  We need to show what’s philosophically interesting about them. First a couple of definitions.           As a noun,  a pun a joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word or the fact that there are words that sound alike but have different meanings: the pigs were a squeal (if you'll forgive the pun). As a verb, to pun is to make a joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word: his first puzzle punned on composers, with answers like “Handel with care” and “Haydn...

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