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 Has the traditional scientific method become outdated, does it need to be defended against dangerous incursions, or has it always been different from what the canonical view suggests?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)

Recent essays, #2

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:

Surprisingly, you may not be the best judge of your own emotions. It’s beginning to look like I have another (admittedly, self-appointed) job: to counter the opinions of new public philosophy columnist Agnes Callard, who has recently started writing for The point magazine. You may recall that last month I responded to Callard’s first column, where she was loudly wondering whether public philosophy is really a good thing. My short answer was a resounding yes. You can check the more nuanced version here.

Callard’s second column rails against what she calls “the emotion police.” As usual, she does have some good points, but I think her basic position is highly problematic, and has substantial (negative, if adopted) practical implications, so let’s take a closer look. (continue to read)

Television review: Netflix’s Roman Empire. A few weeks ago I published a reviewof a recent theatrical production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. And before that I wrote an essayon how Stoics approach entertainment. And here is my commentary on an ongoing television series on the Roman Empire produced by Netflix. What does any of this have to do with practical philosophy, the alleged theme of Figs in Winter? Well, seems to me that how to spend one’s leisure time is most certainly within the domain of practical concerns. And to approach it philosophically just means that you frame the issue in terms of reasoning about the value of your time, arguably the most precious thing you have. So here we go with my first review of a television series.

Roman Empire is produced by Netflix and available on its streaming service. It is an ongoing series, the first season having been released in 2016, the third one just a few weeks ago. The idea is to focus on specific moments of the history of ancient Rome by using a combination of acting and academic commentary. Much of each episode is taken by the unfolding story as interpreted by actors. However, we also get a peppering of short commentaries by a number of leading academics who help putting things in context. It’s an interesting formula, and it works pretty well, overall. (continue to read)

Rome Stoic School 2019

On July 18-21, 2019 spend three days in Rome studying ancient and modern Stoicism! Join Massimo and a small group of proficientes (students of Stoicism) to dig into Cicero’s writings about the Stoics, learn about practical Stoicism and how to apply it to your life. While there, walk through the Roman Fori or visit the National Roman Museum, and of course enjoy traditional Roman cuisine and local wines (don’t worry, we won’t accuse you of being an Epicurean…)!

RSVP and payment here.

Where: Sala Tirreno of Hotel Mediterraneo, Via Cavour 15
(near Termini train station, Termini subway stops on the A and B lines)

Registration (at this site, required to reserve your spot): $150, covers only expenses for the meeting room. Refundable until 30 days before event.

The two hotels below are just convenient suggestions, it is possible to find cheaper accommodations in Rome, just make sure you can make it to the meeting place.

Hotel Mediterraneo or Hotel Atlantico

Single €100.00 – Double €120.00
Including buffet breakfast, wifi and standard taxes

Room cancellation up to 48hr before
Discount code: Summer Stoic School (for phone or email reservations only). Note that rooms are locked for our use until February 4st, after which it will be first-come first-serve


Delphi Complete Works of Cicero, Delphi Ancient Classics Book 23

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician, by Anthony Everitt, Random House

How to Be a Stoic, by Massimo Pigliucci, Basic Books

A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control, by Massimo Pigliucci & Gregory Lopez, The Experiment


Thursday, July 18

Arrival at the hotels in the afternoon. Suggestion: dinner after the first session, when restaurants will be open and actually serve food…

First session (7-9pm): Introduction to Stoicism. What is it? How did it come about? What is it good for? (Chapter 2 and Appendix of How to Be a Stoic)

Cicero, his time, and his relationship to Stoicism (pretty much all of Everitt’s book)

Friday, July 19

Morning session (9am-1pm, coffee, tea & snacks provided): Cicero’s De Finibus, book III: the argument in favor of Stoicism (Delphi Complete Works of Cicero)

Live like a Stoic: the discipline of desire & aversion (part I of Pigliucci & Lopez)

Lunch in small groups, local eateries (1-3pm)

Afternoon session (3-7pm, coffee, tea & snacks provided): Cicero’s De Finibus, book IV: the argument against Stoicism (Delphi Complete Works of Cicero)

Live like a Stoic: the discipline of action (part II of Pigliucci & Lopez)

Group dinner at a Roman traditional restaurant (optional, cost of dinner not included in School’s fee)

Saturday, July 20

Morning session (9am-1pm, coffee, tea & snacks provided): Cicero’s Stoic Paradoxes (Delphi Complete Works of Cicero)

Live like a Stoic: the discipline of assent (part III of Pigliucci & Lopez)

Lunch in small groups, local eateries (1-3pm)

Afternoon session (3-7pm, coffee, tea & snacks provided): Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations (Delphi Complete Works of Cicero)

Live like a Stoic: putting together your own set of Stoic practices (Epilogue of Pigliucci & Lopez)

Dinner in small groups, local eateries

Sunday, July 21

Morning session (9am-12pm): general discussion about Stoicism as a philosophy of life; advice on how to keep your training going; overview of the next Rome Stoic School

Lunch in small groups, local eateries

Afternoon session (2-5pm): visit to Marcus Aurelius’ statue and Capitoline Museums (optional, cost not included in School’s fee)

The Workshop and the World

On April 23rd, at 7pm, I will have a conversation with my Stony Brook University colleague, Bob Crease, about science and pseudoscience, focused on the release of his new book: The Workshop and the World. It will take place at Book Culture at 536 W 112th St. in New York. Here is a brief description of the book:

When does a scientific discovery become accepted fact? Why have scientific facts become easy to deny? And what can we do about it? In The Workshop and the World, philosopher and science historian Robert P. Crease answers these questions by describing the origins of our scientific infrastructure–the “workshop”–and the role of ten of the world’s greatest thinkers in shaping it. At a time when the Catholic Church assumed total authority, Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, and Ren Descartes were the first to articulate the worldly authority of science, while writers such as Mary Shelley and Auguste Comte told cautionary tales of divorcing science from the humanities. The provocative leaders and thinkers Kemal Atat rk and Hannah Arendt addressed the relationship between the scientific community and the public in in times of deep distrust.

As today’s politicians and government officials increasingly accuse scientists of dishonesty, conspiracy, and even hoaxes, engaged citizens can’t help but wonder how we got to this level of distrust and how we can emerge from it. This book tells dramatic stories of individuals who confronted fierce opposition–and sometimes risked their lives–in describing the proper authority of science, and it examines how ignorance and misuse of science constitute the preeminent threat to human life and culture. An essential, timely exploration of what it means to practice science for the common good as well as the danger of political action divorced from science, The Workshop and the World helps us understand both the origins of our current moment of great anti-science rhetoric and what we can do to help keep the modern world from falling apart.

Robert P. Crease is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Stony Brook University, New York, and former chairman of the department. He has written, translated, or edited over a dozen books on history and philosophy of science. Crease is Co-Editor-in-Chief of Physics in Perspective, and writes a monthly column, “Critical Point,” for Physics World magazine, on the philosophy and history of science. His articles and reviews have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsday and elsewhere.

Suggested readings, #2

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

John Malkovich to star in a new movie as Stoic philosopher Seneca. (Screen Daily)

Are we witnessing the end of satire? The toxic disinformation of social media has rendered traditional forms of humor quaint and futile. (New York Times)

Will the link between space and time as told by modern physics ever be intuitive? I doubt it, but this article is more optimistic. (Nautilus)

Facebook offers UK users a whopping 71 options for their gender. A bit too much, perhaps? (The Telegraph) This is closer to my own thinking. (Aeon)

Oxford philosopher’s new hypothesis predicts the rise of super villains. Maybe. Or perhaps this is the sort of thing that gives philosophy a bad reputation. (TNW)

Stoic Camp 2019

On August 22-25, 2019, join Greg (founder and organizer of the NYC Stoics) and Massimo (professor of philosophy at CUNY and founder and organizer of The Stoic School of Life), co-authors of A Handbook for New Stoics, for an intensive introduction to the theory and practice of Stoicism at Stoic Camp NY 2019!

Over the course of 4 days and 3 nights, attendees will be guided through the philosophy of Stoicism. We will use ancient texts almost exclusively as our starting point. From there, we will discuss how the ancient philosophy of Stoicism can be updated and practiced in the modern world.

Since this is an intensive introduction, it will be suitable for complete beginners. But given the intensive nature of the retreat, people familiar with Stoicism will also get quite a bit out of it (fate permitting). This year will feature a new curriculum, introducing Stoicism mostly through the lens of the three ancient Stoic topics of physics, ethics, and logic, and using the writings of Marcus Aurelius.

Limited spots are available, so be sure to sign up as soon as you are able!

The meetup is being run at cost. Greg and Massimo are not receiving remuneration from the event fees, although their expenses are being covered; all registration funds are going to room, board, and possibly transaction fees (see below).


RSVPing here will put you on the list for a double room (for single rooms, click here). You can RSVP with a +1, who will be assumed to be your roommate. Unfortunately, we cannot control the demographics of attendees, so if you have strong roommate preferences, we suggest registering with someone you know who you’d be comfortable rooming with.

If you register without a roommate, we’ll ask if you have any preferences concerning your roommate, and will do our best to accommodate you given who registers. But unless you bring someone with you (i.e. register with a +1 ), we unfortunately cannot make any guarantees to meet your preferences. If we cannot satisfy your roommate preferences, then you may lose your spot, and you’ll receive a full refund. If you do register with someone, you’ll be able to share a double together with no issue.

However, your RSVP does not guarantee you a spot. Your spot will be guaranteed only after payment.

The cost for the camp with a roommate is $350. However, if you choose to pay via a method that has fees (e.g. credit card), your cost will be higher to account for the fees (probably around $380). Methods that don’t have fees include PayPal if you have a PayPal balance or your bank is connected to it, Venmo, Google Wallet, and more. When you register, I’ll ask how you would like to pay and the contact you to work out the details. If payment is not received 7 days after you register, your spot may be lost. If this presents a financial burden to you, payment plans can be arranged.

Registration costs covers a 3-night stay at the Stony Point Center in a double room (i.e. with a roommate) as well as 3 meals a day provided by the center, and transaction fees if applicable.

Should you need to cancel, we may be able to refund some of the money. If someone fills your spot, you will be refunded 50% what you paid minus any additional transaction fees. However, if there is no one who can take your spot, we unfortunately cannot offer a refund, as we are paying Stony Point Center in advance.

Check-in is from 4PM-6PM on Thursday, August 22nd. Dinner is at 6PM, followed by the first session at 7PM. Check-out is 2PM on Sunday, August 25th.

Around July, we will be sending you the Stoic Camp 2019 Handbook, which will have more info concerning Camp and all the required readings (so no need to purchase any books). It is strongly suggested that you complete all the reading before attending camp, but there will be time for review and catch-up if you are unable to finish. You are also responsible for your own transportation to Stony Point Center, which is easily accessible via public transportation from New York City plus a free shuttle pickup. However, once everybody registers, we may be able to arrange carpools or travel together. Stay tuned for details once you register.

If we’re at capacity and you really want to come, RSVPing here will add you to the waitlist for a double room. You will be contacted should a spot open up.

If you have any other questions or concerns, feel free to contact Massimo through the “Contact” form on this site.