Patricia Churchland on her new book Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality. We also discussed David Hume’s ethics as foundational to her work, reading his Treatise on Human Nature (1739), Book III, Part I and his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), Section V, Parts I and II.
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Discussing The Republic by Plato, primarily books 1 and 2. What is justice? What is the ideal type of government? In the dialogue, Socrates argues that justice is real (not just a fiction the strong make up) and that it’s not relative to who you are (in the sense that it would always be just to help your friends and hurt your enemies). Justice ends up being a matter of balancing your soul so the rational part is in control over the rest of you.
Discussing Friedrich Schleiermacher’s “On Religion; Speeches to its Cultured Despisers” (1799, with notes added 1821), first and second speeches. Does religion necessarily conflict with science? Schleiermacher says no: the essence of religion is an emotional response to life; it doesn’t give knowledge or even tell us what to do exactly. Moreover, this attitude is a necessary to fully enter into life, to be a whole and fulfilled person. Yes, he’s of the “romantic” school, but his approach can still be seen today in liberal Protestant churches. With guest Daniel Horne.
Discussing Russell’s Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy (1919), ch. 1-3 and 13-18. How do mathematical concepts like number relate to the real world? Russell wants to derive math from logic, and identifies a number as a set of similar sets of objects, e.g. “3” just IS the set of all trios. Hilarity then ensues. With guest Josh Pelton.
Discussing John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1690).
What makes political power legitimate? Like Hobbes, Locke thinks that things are less than ideal without a society to keep people from killing us, so we implicitly sign a social contract giving power to the state. But for Locke, nature’s not as bad, so the state is given less power. But how much less? And what does Locke think about tea partying, kids, women, acorns, foreign travelers, and calling dibs? The part of Wes is played by guest podcaster Sabrina Weiss.
Part 2 of our discussion of G.F.W. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, covering sections 178-230 within section B, “Self-Consciousness.”
First, Hegel’s famous “master and slave” parable, whereby we only become fully self-conscious by meeting up with another person, who (at least in primordial times, or maybe this happens to everyone as they grow up, or maybe this is all just happening in one person’s head… who the hell knows given the wacky way Hegel talks)? Then the story leads into stoicism, skepticism, and the “unhappy consciousness” (i.e. Christianity).
Discussing G.F.W. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Part B (aka Ch. 4), “Self-Consciousness,” plus recapping the three chapters before that (Part A. “Consciousness”).
We discuss Hegel’s weird dialectical method and what it says about his metaphysics, in particular about ourselves: not static, pre-formed balls of self-interest, but something that needs to be actively formed through reflection, which in turn is only possible because of our interactions with other people. Featuring guest podcaster Tom McDonald.
On Gottlob Frege’s “Sense and Reference,” “Concept and Object” (both from 1892) and “The Thought” (1918). With guest Matt Teichman.
What is it about sentences that make them true or false? Frege, the father of analytic philosophy who invented modern symbolic logic, attempted to codify language in a way that would make this obvious, which would ground mathematics and science. Applying his symbolic system to natural language forced him to invent strange entities like “thoughts” and “senses” that are neither physical nor psychological, and we pretty much spend this episode kvetching about the metaphysical implications of this and the fact that Frege didn’t care about them.
Discussing Michel de Montaigne’s Essays: “That to Philosophize is to Learn to Die,” “Of Experience,” “Of Cannibals,” “Of the Education of Children,” and “Of Solitude” (all from around 1580) with some discussion of “Apology for Raymond Sebond.”
Renaissance man Montaigne tells us all how to live, how to die, how to raise our kids, that we don’t know anything, and a million Latin quotations. Montaigne put the skeptical fire under Descartes and both draws upon and mocks a great deal of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. Plus, he’s actually fun to read.
Discussing Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), mostly the intro and ch. 1 and 2 of Part 1.
When philosophers try to figure out what really exists (God? matter? numbers?), Heidegger thinks they’ve forgotten a question that really should come first: what is it to exist? He thinks that instead of asking “What is Being?” we ask, as in a scientific context, “what is this thing?” This approach then poisons our ability to understand ourselves or the world that we as human beings actually inhabit, as opposed to the abstraction that science makes out of this.
Discussing Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations (1931).
How can we analyze our experience? Husserl thinks that Descartes was right about the need to ground science from the standpoint of our own experience, but wrong about everything else. Husserl recommends we “bracket” the question of whether the external world exists and just focus on the contents of our consciousness (the “cogito”). He thinks that with good, theory-free observations (meaning very difficult, unnatural language), we can give an account of the essential structures of experience, which will include truth, certainty, and objectivity (intersubjective verifiability): all that science needs. We’ll find that we don’t need to ground the existence of objects in space and other minds, because our entire experience presupposes them; they’re already indubitable.
Discussing Arthur Schopenhauer’s On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, published in 1847 (as an expansion of his doctoral thesis from 1813). What kinds of explanations are legitimate? S. thought that causal and logical explanations are often confused, resulting in philosophical errors. In laying out the four types of explanation — the four versions of the principle of sufficient reason — he clearly elaborates his modernized Kantian epistemology.
Discussing Soren Kierkegaard’s “The Sickness Unto Death” (1849). What is the self? or K. we are a tension between opposites: necessity and possibility, the finite and the infinite, soul and body. With guest Daniel Horne.
Primarily discussing “Reasoning: The Sixty Stanzas” and “Emptiness: The Seventy Stanzas,” by the 2nd century Indian Buddhist Nagarjuna. Is the world of our experience ultimately real? If not, does it have something metaphysically basic underlying it? For Nagarjuna, the answers are “no” and “no… well… not that we can talk about.” With guest Erik Douglas.
Discussing Civilization and its Discontents (1930). How can we live happily in society when happiness as a matter of fulfillment of pent-up desires?
Discussing Books II through V of the Ethics. What is the relation between mind and body? How do we know things? What are the emotions? Is there an ethical ideal for us to shoot for? What is our relationship to God?
Discussing Spinoza’s Ethics (1677), books 1 and 2. God is everything, therefore the world is God as apprehended through some particular attributes, namely insofar as one of his aspects is infinite space (extension, i.e. matter) and insofar as one of his aspects is mind (our minds being chunks or “modes” of the big God mind).
Discussing Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse in Inequality (1754) and book 1 of The Social Contract (1762). What’s the relationship between culture and nature? Rousseau engages in some wild speculation about the development of humanity from the savage to the modern, miserable wretch.
On William James’s “The Will to Believe,” and continuing our discussion on James’s conception of truth as described in his books Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth. Does pragmatism give ground for religious belief, like if it feels good for me to believe in God, can that justify belief? Is belief in science or rationality itself a form of faith?