Recent essays, #4

Most of my original writings now appear over at Figs In Winter, my Patreon site devoted to practical philosophy. The most recent posts are behind a paywall (monthly subscription levels at $1, $3, and $5), but the majority of the material is free to read. Here are some of the most recent entries:

Book Review: John Sellars’ Stoicism, a no-nonsense guide to the ancient philosophy. Pretty much the only thing to object to in John Sellars’ Stoicismis the cover (over which, likely, he had little say). It features “pseudo-Seneca” instead of the actual Seneca. Other than that, it’s one of the best, most clear and concise introductions to ancient Stoicism currently available. Originally published in 2006 and consisting of little above 200 pages, it is organized around six chapters. The first one is, unfortunately, simply titled “Introduction,” and so it is likely to be skipped by several readers. Do yourself a favor and read it. It includes a concise definition of Stoicism, a brief history of the philosophy from Zeno of Citium to Marcus Aurelius, and a section on the kind of historical sources from which we actually know about Stoicism, including Cicero, Plutarch, and Galen. (continue to read)

David Brooks and the five lies culture tells us. Readers who have followed several incarnations of my blogs (like this one, and this one, and this one) will have easily figured out that, politically speaking, I lean left, though with a number of qualifications and caveats. But I make a point of reading conservative authors and columnists, for a couple of reasons: first, to keep up with what they say and how they think (so to sharpen my own opinions and arguments), and second because they too, at least some of the times, have something interesting or constructive to say. A recent example is David Brooks, a regular New York Times columnist, who is defined by Wikipedia as a Canadian-born American conservative political and cultural commentator who writes for The New York Times. On April 15, he has published a column for said newspaper entitled “Five lies our culture tells us.” I’d like to examine each of the lies in turn, in order to stimulate a discussion that may help us all see why such lies contribute to (or even, as Brooks argues, are at the root of) our political problems. (continue to read)

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Suggested readings, #4

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

David Brooks thinks our culture tells us five crucial lies. He may be onto something. (New York Times)

A critical but friendly commentary on Lee Smolin’s new book: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution. In case you wanted more about the current mess in fundamental physics. (NPR)

Epictetus and the problem of philosophical progress. (3 Quarks Daily)

Socrates’ philosophy shows why moral posturing on social media is so darn annoying. (QZ)

A long and somewhat rambling article on why bioethicists are not doing enough to stem the new eugenics. Several good points, a recurring bad argument. See if you can spot it. (New Atlantis)

Recent Stoic Meditations, #3

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:

Seneca says that it is natural for us to be virtuous. Modern scientists say that it is natural for us to be prosocial. Either way, it is reason that allows us to expand our instinctive circles of ethical concern. (listen here)

Cicero uses a metaphor involving ship pilots and their cargo to remind us that a more or less valuable “cargo” doesn’t make us better or worse “pilots.” It is our skills, that is our virtue, that make the difference. (listen here)

Seneca, differing from Epictetus in a metaphysical sense, says that the universe is – as we would put it – morally neutral to us. What matters, then, is how we handle so-called “good” and “bad” things. (listen here)

Seneca uses a colorful analogy between life and a journey. Sure, we’d like to live longer, but when the journey is longer a number of unpleasant things are bound to happen, like rain and mud. Just bring good gear with you for the trip. (listen here)

Seneca uses an interesting economic analogy to remind us that the privilege of being alive comes with the tax of suffering setbacks and losses. Understanding this helps us to cope with problems and even to look forward to them as further exercises in virtue. (listen here)

Recent essays, #3

Most of my original writings now appear over at Figs In Winter, my Patreon site devoted to practical philosophy. The most recent posts are behind a paywall (monthly subscription levels at $1, $3, and $5), but the majority of the material is free to read. Here are some of the most recent entries:

Some of my most loved relatives are sexists and racists. Now what? When I was growing up in Rome I went to a high school whose student and teaching bodies leaned heavily toward the left of the political spectrum. The outside wall still bore the mark of police bullets fired during an anti-Vietnam student protest that took place a couple of years before I began attending the school. I was actually considered a moderate by my schoolmates, and only very occasionally participated in street demonstrations, during one of which I saw some of my friends being charged and beaten by the police. (continue to read)

Silicon Valley style Stoicism. Nellie Bowles, over at the New York Times, has recently published yet another harsh criticism of Stoicism. This time taking inspiration from the creation of something called “the Cicero Institute,” which is attracting Silicon Valley types by promising the usual cocktail of “life hacks” to become rich and famous. Bowles is half right, and I think it’s important to distinguish between the part she does get right and the one she gets distinctly wrong. (continue to read)

Marcus Aurelius – the Unemotional Stoic? Happy 1,898th birthday, Marcus! Here is a short essay to explain why the famous philosopher-king was not an unemotional robot. And why Stoics in general don’t actually spend their time trying to suppress emotions and go through life with a stiff upper lip. (continue to read)

Suggested readings, #3

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

Why is simpler better? Ockham’s Razor says that simplicity is a scientific virtue, but justifying this philosophically is strangely elusive, says my colleague Elliott Sober. (Aeon)

Sabine Hossenfelder discusses the current chaotic state of fundamental physics, showing why “beauty” gets in the way of science. To be read in tandem with the above linked article by Sober. (Nautilus)

I had no idea what “ethical interilimity” is. Now that I’ve found out from this article by Sam Ben-Meir, I doubt it’s a particular useful or coherent concept. But I could be wrong. (Blitz)

I’ve explained before why Jordan Peterson ain’t no Stoic (he doesn’t claim to be, but some people think he is). This article actually by Jennifer Baker argues (correctly) that is an anti-Stoic. (Psychology Today)

One more on Peterson, this time a commentary on his recent inane debate with the equally embarrassing Slavoj Žižek. “Enjoy.”

Why trust a theory? Epistemology of fundamental physics

Cambridge University Press has recently published a volume edited by Radin Dardashti, Richard Dawid, and Karim Thebault entitled Why Trust a Theory? Epistemology of Fundamental Physics. I have contributed a chapter to the effort, on “Philosophy of science and the string wars: a view from the outside,” which is available as free download here.

This is the description of the book: Do we need to reconsider scientific methodology in light of modern physics? Has the traditional scientific method become outdated, does it need to be defended against dangerous incursions, or has it always been different from what the canonical view suggests? To what extent should we accept non-empirical strategies for scientific theory assessment?

Many core aspects of contemporary fundamental physics are far from empirically well-confirmed. There is controversy on the epistemic status of the corresponding theories, in particular cosmic inflation, the multiverse, and string theory. This collection of essays is based on the high profile workshop ‘Why Trust a Theory?’ and provides interdisciplinary perspectives on empirical testing in fundamental physics from leading physicists, philosophers and historians of science. Integrating different contemporary and historical positions, it will be of interest to philosophers of science and physicists, as well as anyone interested in the foundations of contemporary science.

Recent Stoic Meditations, #2

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:

Seneca tells us something that may appear to be a no-brainer, and yet is difficult to apply: never believe that you can be happy through the unhappiness of another. (listen here)

Seneca writes words about the foolishness of war that were surprisingly modern for his time, and unfortunately very much still pertinent to us today. (listen here)

Continuing his criticism of the state’s war machine, Seneca exhorts us to prosecute our politicians and generals for the crimes they commit in our own name. (listen here)

Seneca echoes the advice of Musonius Rufus when he says that we don’t need to pay for extravagant meals with ingredients brought from all over the world. Every time we sit at the table to eat we have a chance to exercise temperance. (listen here)

Marcus Aurelius reminds us that we spend far too much time trying to change other people, which is outside of our control, and too little time attempting to improve ourselves, which we certainly have the power to do. (listen here)