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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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Recent essays, #43

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:

What makes people happy or unhappy — the empirical evidence

This semester I’m teaching an experimental course at the City College of New York: the philosophy and science of happiness. Fun, but not at all straightforward, since the very word, “happiness” has a number of meanings, and much confusion arises by not distinguishing among them. Sounds like a job for a philosopher. Then again, surely we can’t just sit down and decide on the basis of a priori considerations what does or does not make people happy. Sounds like a job for a scientist.

Which is why I have adopted two complementary textbooks for the task: How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy, which I co-edited with Skye Cleary and Dan Kaufman, and Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, by Richard Layard.

To begin with, we need to distinguish between at least two meanings of happiness, although surely they influence each other. On the one hand, happiness is an in-the-moment feeling generated by a pleasurable or meaningful experience. For example, at this moment I’m actually pretty happy of being sitting at my desk, looking over at the Manhattan skyline, engaged in one of my favorite activities: writing.

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Stoic advice: How do I overcome fear?

G. writes: Fear according to the Stoics is related to attachment to externals. Let’s say for instance that someone is shy and wants to ask someone out on a date. According to Epictetus, this person experiences fear if his goal is not totally under his control (get a positive answer). If he changes his goal to an internal one (just ask someone out, and nothing more) the feeling of terror will subside and he will be able to make his move.

Μy problem is that when I face a similar situation, I can calm myself down when I am in solitude, by focusing on an internal goal. As a result, in theory victory depends only on me. But when it’s the time to act and I am with the other person, I feel an enormous irrational fear. Although I try to form the right thoughts in my head, it helps just a little. There is a storm taking place inside me. Somehow, sometimes I manage to make my (clumsy) move with respect to the described situation, but doubts are always coming in my head in an uncontrollable way (is she interested, is she available, is this an awkward ting to do?). 

Very good question, and very common problem. I assume that by “EBT” you meant REBT, rational emotive behavior therapy, a forerunner of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), both of which were initially inspired by Stoicism. I think that the conflict with Stoic advice is more apparent than substantial.

Let’s step back for a minute and talk about how the Stoics see what we call emotions, which is broadly consistent with the findings of modern cognitive science. An emotion, for instance fear, is the result of two components: a raw feeling that something is wrong (the Stoics call it a proto-emotion), and a cognitive judgment that something really is wrong (in your case, failure to get a date).

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Recent essays, #42

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:

“Why do I need a philosophy of life?” Let me tell you

Recently I had a very enjoyable video conversation with my friend John Horgan, an author and Scientific American contributor. The wide-ranging chat was on science, philosophy, and Stoicism. All in about one hour and 13 minutes…

At the end of the session, off the record, John commented on the whole concept of having or adopting a philosophy of life, concluding: “Why do I need a philosophy of life? I don’t like systems, I prefer to go with the flow.” So this is my answer to John and to all those who prefer to “go with the flow.”

In a recent book I co-edited with Skye Cleary and Dan Kaufman, How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy, we define a philosophy of life (or religion, which we take to be a special case) as a system of thought based on the following two elements…

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“I don’t read biased news.” Yes you do, because there is no other kind. And that’s okay

A close relative of mine and I have been having discussions about the Democratic Presidential Primaries of late. She and I both subscribe — generally speaking — to a liberal-progressive view of politics, though of course we disagree in specific instances. One such disagreement emerged recently, after the Sanders-Warren dustup about whether Bernie Sanders did or did not say to Elizabeth Warren (in a private conversation) that he thinks a woman is unelectable in 2020.

I absolutely do not wish to revisit that discussion here. That’s not the point of this post. My concern is much broader than that, and it encompasses nothing else than our very ability to engage in meaningful, rational, evidence-based conversations as a society. Without that ability, seems to me, we are doomed. So this is somewhat important.

But my conversation with my relative furnishes a good example of what I’m concerned with. At some point I sent her an article that I thought contained both pertinent factual information and a reasonable analysis of the episode, asking her to read it and let me know what she thought. To my surprise, she rejected my suggestion on the ground that “I don’t read biased news.” That led to an interesting discussion of what, exactly, constitutes “bias.”

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Recent essays, #41

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:

Martha Nussbaum on cosmopolitanism — and why I once again disagree with her

Martha Nussbaum is one of the most influential contemporary public philosophers. Her books, from Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities to The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, are must read for anyone who is interested in modern political philosophy, philosophy of justice, and their ancient Greco-Roman roots.

But she is persistently, surprisingly, wrong about some aspects of virtue ethics, and in particular Stoicism. I have already written an in-depth rebuttal of her general take on Stoicism, but more recently she has written about cosmopolitanism, a topic that is close to my heart not just as a Stoic, but as a fellow progressive liberal. So I’d like to take her criticisms of the cosmopolitan stance seriously, and explore what we can learn from them.

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Book review: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

In The Art of Living (see multi-part commentary here, here, here, and here), John Sellars argues that the ancient curriculum in practical philosophy included three components:

(i) Literature concerned with action: biographies and anecdotal material. E.g., Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers.

(ii) Literature concerned with arguments and doctrines: theoretical treatises and commentaries. E.g., Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Chrysippus’ On Logic, Simplicius’ commentary on the Enchiridion.

(iii) Literature concerned with practical (“spiritual”) exercises: either guides to practice or examples of practice. E.g., Epictetus’ Enchiridion, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

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Liliana Segre: Holocaust survivor, natural Stoic

I recently read an interview with Liliana Segre, an Italian Holocaust survivor, in which she comes across as what I would call a natural Stoic. While telling her story of survival at Auschwitz to a group of students in Milan, Segre commented: “Il mio corpo è stato prigioniero, ma la mia mente ha sempre volato. Quella non avevano potuto tenerla prigioniera: io ho sempre pensato con la mia testa.” Which translates to: My body was imprisoned, but my mind has always been free. They could not imprison it: I have always thought with my own head.”

This immediately reminded me of Epictetus:

“‘I will throw you into prison.’ ‘Correction – it is my body you will throw there.’” (Discourses I, 1.24)

I say “natural Stoic” because I have no idea whether Segre actually embraces the philosophy, and almost surely she didn’t when she was sent to Auschwitz as a kid. She was expelled from school in 1938, at age 8, because of the newly passed “racial laws” in fascist Italy. Ironically, her family was secular, and she discovered her Jewish heritage only when she was kicked out of school. Her father, Alberto, hid Liliana at a friend’s house, providing her with false identification. 

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Recent essays, #40

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:

Stoicism and Buddhism: a comparison

Whether we realize it or not, we all have a philosophy of life. That’s the premise of a new book that I co-edited with my colleagues and friends Skye Cleary and Dan Kaufman: How to Live a Good Life — A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy. The book presents an overview of 15 philosophies or religions, as seen and experienced by the 15 contributing authors. Why include religions? Because we argue that a philosophy of life, at a minimum, is made of two components: a metaphysics, i.e., an account of how the world hangs together, so to speak; and an ethics, i.e., an account of how we ought to live in the world. If that account includes transcendental entities, gods, and so forth, then we have a religion; if it doesn’t, then we have a philosophy. Either way, what counts the most is the ethics.

I am taking advantage of the publication of the book to begin a short series comparing Stoicism with some of the other philosophies covered in How to Live a Good Life, particularly the three big eastern ones: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism, covered respectively by Owen Flanagan, Bryan W. Van Norden, and Robin R. Wang. Let me start with Buddhism, though I have already commented on its similarities and differences with Stoicism. In the rest of this essay I will follow Flanagan’s outline of Buddhism and comment from a Stoic perspective whenever appropriate.

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Is philosophy helpful when tragedy strikes?

Recently, a friend of a close friend of mine committed suicide. His partner is, understandably, distraught. My friend called me up asking if I had written anything philosophical that could be of consolation. I replied that yes, I had, but it would only help if the person in question had adopted a philosophical outlook on life. She had not.

This episode disturbed me, at two levels. At an immediate one, I would have liked to be helpful to my friend’s friend, a fellow human being in distress. At a broader level, I like to think that philosophy is useful in life, both when good things happen, and when tragedy strikes. In this case, it clearly wasn’t.

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Recent essays, #39

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.

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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.)

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