On Robert M. Pirsig’s philosophical, autobiographical novel from 1974. What’s the relationship between science and values? Pirsig thinks that modern rationality, by insisting on the fundamental distinction between objects (matter) and subjects (people), labels value judgments as irrational. Society therefore largely ignores aesthetic considerations in the buildings and machines that litter our landscape. With guest David Buchanan.
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Discussing Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975), parts 1, 2 and section 3 of part 3. Are we really free? Kings no longer exert absolute and arbitrary power over us, but Foucault’s picture of the evolution from torture and public executions to rehabilitative, medical-style incarceration is not so much a triumph of liberty but a shift to more subtle but more pervasive exertions of power. With guest Katie McIntyre.
Discussing Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s “Primacy of Perception” (1946) and The World of Perception (1948). What is the relation of perception to knowledge? In M-P’s phenomenology, perception is primary: even our knowledge of mathematical truths is in some way conditioned by and dependent on the fact that we are creatures with bodies and senses that work the way they do. Science is great, but it doesn’t discover the truth of things hiding behind perception: it is an abstraction from certain kinds of perceptions. Other modes of approaching things, e.g. art, can equally well give us knowledge, though of a different kind.
Discussing Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Transcendence of the Ego (written in 1934). What is consciousness, and does it necessarily involve an “I” who is conscious of things? Sartre says no: typical experience is consciousness of some object and doesn’t involve the experience of myself as someone having this consciousness. It’s only when we reflect on our own conscious experiences that we posit this “I.” The ego is our own creation, or more precisely a social creation. This means that far from being some primordial structure of all experience, this transparent thing inside us that we have more immediate knowledge of than anything else, the ego is an object: it has parts we don’t see, and we can be wrong when we make judgments about it. Other people might even know us better than we know ourselves.
Discussing Plato’s Euthyphro. Does morality have to be based on religion? Are good things good just because God says so, or (if there is a God) does God choose to approve of the things He does because he recognizes those things to be already good? Plato thinks the latter: if morality is to be truly non-arbitrary, then, like the laws of logic, it can’t just be a contingent matter of what the gods happen to approve of (i.e. what some particular religious text happens to say). With guest Matt Evans.
Discussing parts of David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1740) and Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).
Where do we get our moral ideas? Hume and Smith both thought that we get them by reflecting on our own moral judgments and on how we and others (including imaginary, hypothesized others) in turn judge those judgments. We lay out the differences between these two gents and discuss whether their views constitute an actual moral theory or just a descriptive enterprise. With guest Getty Lustila.
Discussing selections from Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel C. Dennett.
Should we be religious, or is religion just a bunch of superstitious nonsense that it’s past time for us to outgrow? Does faith lead to ceding to authority and potential violence? Can a reasonable person be religious? We say lots of rude things about these authors, and at times about their targets in this listener-requested episode.
Discussing the arguments by Descartes, St. Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, William Paley, Kant, and others, as analyzed in J.L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism: Arguments For and Against the Existence of God (1983), chapters 1-3, 5-6, 8, and 11. With guest Robert Scott.
Discussing Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopian novel Herland (1915) and psychologist Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice (1983). How does human nature, and specifically moral psychology, vary by sex? Charlotte Perkins Gilman claims that when philosophers have described human nature as violent and selfish, they have in mind solely male nature. Females, left to themselves in an isolated society, would be supremely peaceful, rational, and cooperative. With guest Azzurra Crispino.
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.
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.