Suggested readings, #40

Here are some interesting articles I’ve come across recently, for your consideration:

Nobel winner retracts paper from Science. [This is not good, and not an isolated case either.] (Retraction Watch)

Getting to the Good Place. [About the philosophy-informed television show.] (Killing the Buddha)

Why historical analogy matters. (New York Review of Books)

If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich? Turns out it’s just chance. The most successful people are not the most talented, just the luckiest, a new computer model of wealth creation confirms. [And it applies to science funding strategies as well.] (MIT Technology Review)

On Stoic transcendence. Stoic transcendence is an active exercise that takes us to a new level of understanding about the world. (The Side View)

How to live a Stoic life, in Spanish

Below is an interview I conducted with the prestigious Spanish newspaper El Pais. It covers the basics of Stoicism, how I got into it, and why it is a very useful philosophy of life for the 21st century.

From the description of the video:

What is stoicism and how can it help us manage a life crisis? A doctor and professor of philosophy, Massimo Pigliucci faced a critical juncture with the death of his father and undergoing a divorce. He looked to the ancient philosophers for answers and discovered “virtue ethics,” an approach to life that advances human improvement through the development of values.

“Stoicism tries to eliminate destructive emotions as much as possible while cultivating the positive ones. The Stoics concluded that a good human life is that in which we apply reason in order to improve society. If we improve as people, we will be improving society; and if we work to improve society, we will automatically be improving ourselves,” the professor explains.


Recent Stoic Meditations, #38

When Fortuna allows, I publish a short morning meditation based on a short quote from a Stoic writer, seeking to apply that ancient wisdom to life in the 21st century. Here are the most recent entries:

What sets aside human beings from the rest of the animal world is our ability to reason and our propensity to be pro-social. So let’s reason well, and be helpful to fellow humans. (listen here)

If someone gets the habit of writing ungrammatically, their art is bound to be destroyed and perish. In the same way the person of honor keeps their character by honest acts and loses it by dishonest. (listen here)

According to Epictetus, the root of our problems is that we don’t know, or refuse to acknowledge, how the world works. As opposed as to how we wished it worked. (listen here)

A student asks Epictetus whether we should really bother to learn logic. “Would you like me to provide you with an argument?” Yes. “How would you know if my argument is a good one, if you don’t understand logic?” QED. (listen here)

Nobody wants to do what is bad for them. So when the thief steals, he is under the wrong impression about what is and is not good for him. We should therefore pity him, and help him understand, if possible. (listen here)

Recent essays, #38

Most of my original writings now appear over at Patreon and Medium. Many are free, but the recent ones are behind a paywall (monthly subscription at $3 for Patreon, $5 for Medium, but the latter comes with access to additional authors as well). Here are some of the most recent entries:

Should we learn morals from AI?

In a fascinating article published at 3QuarksDaily, moral philosopher Michael Klenk raises the possibility that we could improve the rather obviously sorry state of human moral decision making by turning to Artificial Intelligence. He envisions two types of “moral apps” that may be developed in the future to help us navigate our ethical thickets: ethically aligned artificial advisors and ethically insightful artificial advisors. Klenk wisely concludes by the end of the article that “both ethically aligned and ethically informed artificial advisors are a long shot away from expertise on morality,” and that they both present significant problems of implementation. Still, he seems generally favorable to the notion. I’m not, and here is why.

Let’s begin with the simplest type of moral app envisioned by Klenk, what he calls ethically aligned artificial advisors. The idea is simple and, at first glance, obviously on the mark: just like we are now used to asking advice to apps residing on our “smart” (really: fast data processing) phones about, say, where to go for dinner, or what movie to watch, so we should be able to ask a moral advisor where, for instance, is the nearest vegetarian restaurant, assuming we decided for ethical reasons that we want to eat vegetarian.

(continue reading on Patreon, Medium)

How to make up philosophical problems and then “solve” them

I am not a big fan of Ludwig Wittgenstein. But I have to admit that he had a couple of good points. One was that a lot of philosophical problems (he said all, he was mistaken there) are a matter of unclear or ambiguous language. If we write clearly (which he certainly didn’t!), then we can “show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle,” that is, dissolve, rather than solve, such problems (Philosophical Investigations, 309).

One of my favorite examples of artificially constructed fly-bottle comes from philosophy of mind, in the form of the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. The problem was invented by David Chalmers, who has since made a career out of it. (Before you ask, no I don’t think for a moment that Chalmers is in bad faith. I just think he’s mistaken.)

(continue reading on Patreon, Medium)

Suggested readings, #39

Here are some interesting articles I’ve come across recently, for your consideration:

Kant, the champion of equality under the law and individual freedom, was a sexist. And for most of his life, he was also a racist. How do we deal with these facts in modern times, RUG philosopher Pauline Kleingeld wonders. ‘You can’t just cut out the bad parts.’ [Hint: you need to reinterpret his whole philosophy.] (Ukrant)

Stoicism versus Jordan Peterson. [A lengthy and well done analysis by Don Robertson.] (Medium)

Where is my mind? The rise and fall of the claustrum epitomizes the hunt for consciousness in the brain. (Nautilus)

Self-help, The Classics: No 1, Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness. (Medium)

Science Fiction’s wonderful mistakes. The great novels of the 1960s remain enjoyable because they got everything wrong. (New Republic)

Was Socrates anti-democratic? [It’s complicated, in interesting ways…] (3QuarksDaily)

Stoa Nova event: the open door policy – the Stoics on suicide

Suicide is an obviously delicate topic, and one — for instance — about which Stoics and Epicureans disagreed vehemently. Let’s take a look at what the Stoics think about taking one’s life, under what circumstances it is permissible, and what should your friends do to dissuade or assist you.

Suggested reading here.

When: Tuesday, 14 January 2020, at 6pm.

RSVP here.

Interview on Skepticism, Science, Pseudoscience, Cultural Evolution, Stoicism, and more!

Here is part one of a very wide-ranging interview I did with Scott Jacobsen over at In-Sight, covering my interests in scientific skepticism, the science-pseudoscience demarcation problem, biological vs cultural evolution, and of course, Stoicism. Here is the beginning (continue reading part I, part II is here, Part III here):

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Of course, you are a very prominent skeptic and new stoic, and so on. Let us maybe, do a brief touching on early life and education to provide a context of what you are doing today. What were some early pivotal moments in terms of becoming more skeptical?

Dr. Massimo Pigliucci: Those are different questions. My attitude and interest toward science started very early, as far as I can remember. I was a kid, my family tells me, when I decided to become a scientist.

I wanted to become an astronomer and then switched to a biologist, which is what, in fact, I ended up doing. It is hard to tell where, exactly, that came from [Laughing] because I was so young. I was watching the Apollo 11 landing.

I am sure that had an impact on a five-year-old. My adoptive grandfather fostered this interest through buying me books on science, and eventually my first telescope. It helped in providing a nurturing environment.

The interest in skepticism came later. That is connected to a very specific episode in my life. After my post-doc at Brown University, I took my first academic position as a full-time faculty at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Knoxville is in the middle of the Bible belt.

I was surrounded by creationists.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pigliucci: My neighbours were creationists. Some of my students were creationists. One of them, in particular, told his fellow students not to listen to what I was saying because, otherwise, they would end up in hell.

This brought to my attention the idea of science and pseudoscience, and attitudes such as creationism. I started doing some outreach. I organized one of the first Darwin Days at the University of Tennessee In 1997 with Douglas Joel Futuyma as a guest speaker.

He later became one of my colleagues at Stony Brook. As I started doing outreach, I was approached by a local skeptic group in Knoxville. They said, “Hey, there are a lot of other people out here trying to do the same thing. Maybe, you want to do stuff together.”

That is how it started. It is still going. I started writing for the Skeptical Inquirer. I wrote two books on the topic. One, specifically on creationism, called Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science. Another one called Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk.