Recent essays, #45

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:

Metaphysics is dead. Long live metaphysics! Assorted musings of a philosopher-scientist

I am a scientist and a philosopher. As such, I have a problem with metaphysics. A serious problem. Apparently, the word “metaphysics” was coined by an anonymous first century editor of Aristotle’s works. The person in question assembled a small number of the philosopher’s writings and called them “ta meta ta phusika,” literally meaning, the stuff that comes after the Physics, the latter being one of Aristotle’s most famous books.

Ever since, metaphysics has been described as the study of what exists, in the most general manner possible. Aristotle did not invent this kind of study, as it was carried out by the Pre-Socratics of the 6th and 5th century BCE. It continued with Plato, Aristotle himself, and a number of other Greco-Roman and Christian philosophers (in the west, then of course we need to mention the Arabic, Judaic, and more far eastern traditions as well).

It ended, as far as I’m concerned, with Descartes. To be more precise: a particular, traditional style of metaphysics ended with the famous French thinker. That style, sometimes referred to as “first philosophy,” and nowadays as analytic metaphysics, hinges fundamentally on the notion that we can discover things about the way the world is by thinking about it, as people do in mathematics or logic. Call it the rationalist approach.

(continue reading on Patreon, Medium)

Gaius Blossius, the revolutionary Stoic

Sometimes you learn new things by way of the most unexpected pathways. For instance, I just found out about an obscure — and yet very important — Stoic philosopher named Gaius Blossius, who lived in the 2nd century BCE, in Republican Rome. I discovered him because he is a minor but significant character in Roma, a long-ranging novel on the first thousand years of Rome’s history, written by Steve Saylor.

I must confess that Saylor has been a regular source of what I refer to as my “Roman porn,” i.e., historical novels I listen to when I go to the gym (because exercising would otherwise be an excruciatingly boring activity). I have read most of his “Roma Sub Rosa” books, which feature a fictional ancient detective, Gordianus the Finder. Those stories are set near the end of Republican Rome, at the time of Cicero, Cato the Younger, Brutus, Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Mark Anthony. 

While Saylor’s novels are well written and enjoyable, I soon discovered that they are also remarkably well researched from a historical perspective. Several times while listening to them I had the suspicion that he was making up a minor character or secondary plot in the story, which of course would have been perfectly normal. But I checked. And every time it turned out that the character in question was, in fact, a historical figure, and that the episode had gone down more or less as Saylor described it — with all due caution about the perils of historical reconstruction, of course.

(continue reading on Patreon, Medium)

Suggested readings, #45

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

Science hasn’t refuted free will. A growing chorus says that science has shown free will to be an illusion. But it actually has offered arguments in its favor. [Kind of, sort of.] (Boston Review)

The Stoicism of Thomas Jefferson. Ten rules to follow in daily life. (Medium)

The dark shadow in the injunction to ‘do what you love’. [A somewhat rambling, long, but nevertheless interesting piece.] (Aeon)

Stoicism and the Military. Did Stoic philosophers go to war? (Medium)

Virgilian afterlives: the classics in question. [A bit self-indulging, but bear with it, it pays off.] (LA Review of Books)

Recent Stoic Meditations, #44

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:

The mind that is free from passions is a citadel, for we have nothing more secure to which we can fly for refuge and repel every attack. (listen here)

“A cucumber is bitter.” Throw it away. “There are briars in the road.” Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, “And why were such things made in the world?” (listen here)

Marcus Aurelius reminds us that just as we do not control other people’s bodies, so we do not control their opinions and judgments. We should, therefore, be concerned chiefly with improving our own. (listen here)

Marcus Aurelius contemplates two possible scenarios for what happens after we die. Neither one of which justifies our fears on the matter. Better to focus instead on the fact that we are alive, here and now. (listen here)

People exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them. (listen here)

Recent essays, #44

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:

Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop: the problem isn’t the patriarchy, it’s the pseudoscience

Feminism, as is well known, is the radical notion that women are human beings, endowed with the same faculties, and owed the same dignity and respect, as men. By that definition, I am most surely a feminist — together with any other reasonable person on the planet.

The problem is that some self-appointed feminists draw the line at any criticism of any woman, regardless of whether the criticism is warranted or not. One such case appears to be a recently published editorial in the New York Times, entitled “Who’s Afraid of Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop?,” and authored by Elisa Albert, a writer working on a novel and a “wellness” polemic, and Jennifer Block, author of “Everything Below the Waist: Why Health Care Needs a Feminist Revolution.”

At issue is a new Netflix show hosted by actress Gwyneth Paltrow, and in particular the various unsubstantiated, or downright debunked, health claims Paltrow makes when selling her “Goop” products on the show and elsewhere. So far as I know, Paltrow, Albert, and Block have no background in science, either biomedical or at least biological, yet somehow the first one gets a platform on a premier streaming service and the latter two get it on a major newspaper. We truly do live in the era of anti-expertise.

(continue reading on Patreon, Medium)

A Stoic guide to your Valentine Day

Here we go again, Valentine Day is coming! And we are all preparing for a night of going to overprices restaurants, eating mediocre food accompanied by so-so wine, and going home with the vague sensation that someone, somewhere, has manipulated the whole country into this kind of thing just to make money. And that’s if it goes well, of course. And if you are lucky enough to have a Valentine this year.

Fear not, Stoic advice is here to help. First, some preliminaries, beginning with the historical background. Valentine Day was established by Pope Gelasius I back in 496 CE, to celebrate the Christian martyr Saint Valentine of Rome, who was killed in 269. Not exactly a romantic beginning. In fact, V-Day was not associated with romanticism until the time of Geoffrey Chaucer (14th century), and it began to look like the modern ritual of lovers exchanging flowers, sweets, and cards, in 18th century England. The mass production of Valentine cards began in the 19th century, which pretty much brings us to the situation as we know it today.

(I’m sorry to say, incidentally, that there is no historical connection between Valentine and the ancient Roman festival of lupercalia. Too bad, that one must have been fun.)

(continue reading on Patreon, Medium)

Suggested readings, #44

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

What’s wrong with physics. A physicist slams hype about multiverses, string theory, and quantum computers and calls for more diversity in his field. (Scientific American)

The Stoicism of Benjamin Franklin. Was the Founding Father influenced by Stoic philosophy? (Medium)

What do we owe the dead? The dust-up over a Washington Post reporter’s tweets about Kobe Bryant raises a moral question and a cultural taboo. (New York Times)

Philosophical life coaching — 4 key take-home messages. (Medium)

Gender differences in toy use: boys play with boy toys, girls with girl toys. (Why Evolution is True)

Let Plato plan your wedding! Wedding plans from Plato’s advice on romance and parties in the Republic, Laws, Symposium, & Phaedrus. (Philosophy Now)

An existential crisis in neuroscience. We’re mapping the brain in amazing detail — but our brain can’t understand the picture. (Nautilus)

On panpsychism, an exchange

I recently ended a fascinating discussion with philosopher Philip Goff, on the topic of the science and philosophy of panpsychism. (You can find the 8 letters we exchanged here.) Panpsychism is the notion that consciousness, somehow, is elemental in the universe, i.e., it is a basic property of matter.

As Goff readily admitted, there is no, and there cannot be any, empirical evidence in support of his theory. Indeed, if there were, we would already know that the theory is false, as explained by physicist Sabine Hossenfelder here.

You would think that would be the end of the discussion, but Goff subscribes to what I suggest is an outmoded approach to metaphysics, believing that simply producing logically coherent accounts of things one actually advances knowledge and understanding.

My opinion is that that way of doing metaphysics died with Descartes (not coincidentally, that’s also when modern science got started — Descartes was a contemporary of Galileo). A far better way to conceive of the whole project of metaphysics nowadays is as being in the business of making unified sense of the highly fractured picture of the world emerging from the special sciences, since scientists themselves are simply, by necessity, too close to their subject matter to be able to afford a bird’s eye view of things (see here for an example).

In the end, my sense is that what Goff and others (for instance, most famously, David Chalmers) are doing got the best response from David Hume back in the 18th century:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1777)

"How to Live a Good life," on the Wright Show

Fun conversation among Skye Cleary, Bob Wright, and myself on the topic of philosophies of life, occasioned by the publication of How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy (Vintage/Random House).

The vide is below. Naturally, we talk about the book, but also about the relationship between Existentialism and Stoicism, how Skye encountered Existentialism while attending business school (of all places), and Sartre and de Beauvoir’s famous attempt to live a life of freedom.

We ask whether philosophers are a bunch of hypocrites, explore the difference between personal authenticity and social convention, and explain why Stoicism doesn’t mean passive acceptance.

Near the end of the video, Bob wonders what other philosophies (other than our chosen ones of Existentialism and Stoicism) we would find attractive enough to consider practicing them. We conclude, somewhat unusually, by exploring how Wittgenstein would view our book.