Why I occasionally ask for money

[Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels, used with permission]

I can’t believe I feel compelled to write this, but here we go. I have been writing and speaking for the general public about science and philosophy for decades now, since I was still in Italy and wrote for a magazine called “Sapere” (To Know), back in the ’80s. Ever since, I’ve published seven non-technical books in the English language and two in Italian (without counting translations); I have written thousands of blog posts on a variety of platforms; and I have either produced or been a guest on thousands of podcasts.

The overwhelming majority of this output is freely available on the internet. But some of it isn’t. The books, of course, are published by printing presses that will not give them out for free; my Patreon site asks for a monthly donation amounting to less than the cost of a cup of coffee; and if people wish to attend some of my intensive workshops on Stoicism they are asked to contribute an amount that is far less than what organizers of similar events typically charge.

These occasional financial contributions are outweighed, in my view, by the fact that I have spent countless hours talking to people about science and philosophy for free, and that I have published enough freely available essays to arrive at a word count that currently stands at the equivalent of about 40 books.

Nevertheless, for the benefit of the “skeptics” out there, let me list my reasons for occasionally charging for my work:

(i) Philosophy is a profession, and philosophers have been paid for it since antiquity. Yes, yes, Socrates was an exception, but his living expenses in 4th century BCE Athens were pretty low. Besides, I don’t claim to be a Socrates.

(ii) Writing too is a profession, and we really need to move away from this insane notion that “information wants to be free.” Setting aside the metaphysical point that information cannot possibly “want” anything, this attitude is destroying professions from music to journalism. I’m sorry, but if you want good music you’ll have to pay the musician, and if you want good writing you’ll have to pay the writer.

(iii) The ratio of paid / free in my output for the public comes down to >99% of what I have published being available at no charge. That’s a lot of material (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, and here, among other places) you can go through before ever considering shelling a drachma. (More free stuff here, here, and here. Oh, and here.)

(iv) People who complain about “having” to pay for a fraction of my professional services don’t seem to be bothered by the fact that they do pay for my books (unless they pirate them, of course). They also probably wouldn’t think of applying the same “it ought to be free” criterion to any other service they are getting, from their grocery shopping to their visits to the dentist. I wonder why they think writing ought to be an entirely charitable activity.

(v) Needless to say, but do allow me to point out the obvious, there is no compulsion whatsoever to contribute to my Patreon, to buy my books, or to sign up for my workshops. As Marcus Aurelius puts it (Meditations, VIII.50), if the cucumber is bitter, don’t eat it; why do you have to go on and endlessly complain that there are bitter cucumbers in the world?

Thanks for your indulgence. And for your occasional support.

Science Wars, Scientism, and Think Tanks: A Précis of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk

Below is the abstract of a recent paper I have published in the Journal of Cognitive Historiography (full paper here). The paper is a conceptual summary of my book, Nonsense on Stilts (second edition), which deals with the nature of science and pseudoscience.

The present contribution offers a précis of the second edition of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (Pigliucci 2018). The aim of the book is to explore the complex landscape populated by science, pseudoscience, and everything in between, what in philosophy is known as the “demarcation problem”. However, the author maintains that little progress can be done in public understanding and appreciation of science unless we also explore the historical, sociological and psychological motivations that lead people to believe in “nonsense on stilts”. Further, it is incumbent on scientists and science educators to act “virtuously” whenever dealing with pseudo- scientific claims, an effort that may be greatly helped by the adoption of a virtue epistemological approach, analogous to virtue ethics in moral philosophy.

Suggested readings, #84

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Conscious spoons, really? Pushing back against panpsychism. A really nice take down of the latest in pseudo-philosophy. (NeuroBanter)

The death of philosophers. A few choice examples of how philosophers have died through the ages. (thinkPhilosophy)

The radical aristocrat who put kindness on a scientific footing. An article about Peter Kropotkin’s good political intentions and misguided science. Not enough emphasis by the author on the latter. (Aeon Psyche)

Can lab-grown brains become conscious? Fascinating overview of brain organoids and the likelihood we’ll learn something about consciousness by studying their properties. Also a good discussion of the ethical implications of such research. (Nature)

Successful companies live up to this Ancient Greek ideal. An evidence-based argument that – in the long run – commercially successful companies are those that engage in corporate philotimy, that is, cultivate ethical integrity. (Harvard Business Review)

Why Alex Rosenberg – and a number of other philosophers – are wrong just about everything: a commentary on scientistic reductionism

[Alex Rosenberg, thinking]

Here is the abstract of a new paper I published about the general issue of what I call scientistic reductionism in philosophy, focusing on one of its main proponents, Duke University philosopher Alex Rosenberg. You can download the full paper, published in the Journal of Cognitive Historiography, here.

There is a pernicious tendency these days among some philosophers to engage in a “nothing but” attitude about important questions. According to this attitude, consciousness, volition, reason, and morality are “illusions”, “nothing but” the epiphenomena of specific neural processes. Alex Rosenberg is a particularly good (though by no means the only) illustration of this problem, which is why his work is presented and analyzed in some detail in this contribution. The general attitude displayed by Rosenberg et al. falls squarely under the rubric of “scientism”, the notion that science (however vaguely and very broadly defined) is the only reliable source of knowledge and understanding, and that all other disciplines (especially the humanistic ones) ought to bow to its dictates. The results are, predictably, incoherent and pernicious, as it is illustrated here via a number of examples.

Suggested readings, #83

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Psychedelics can’t be tested using conventional clinical trials. Research on psychedelics is all the rage, but it turns out to be much more difficult to carry out than one might have assumed. (Aeon)

The neurology of flow states. Why time vanishes when you’re jamming. Ever been in a state of flow? Here is what it looks like inside your brain, and why it matters. (Nautilus)

Why physics can’t tell us what life is. The origin of life can’t be explained by first principles. Biology is not just more complex physics, I keep telling my friends in the Physics Department. (Nautilus)

The dangers of moral talk: on Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke’s “Grandstanding.” Although there is a danger that these authors themselves indulge in moral grandstanding, they have a point. And it cuts across the political divide. (LA Review of Books)

Mini-review: The Changeling, by Kenzaburo Oe

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Kenzaburo Oe is a Nobel winning writer whose novels often touch on political and philosophical issues, and whose writing style is influenced by French and American literature, as well as by literary criticism. Generally, I’d consider those influences (especially the latter) unwelcome in a Japanese writer, but Oe pulls off a fascinating existential novel in The Changeling.

It’s the story of a life-long friendship between an aging writer, Kogito (loosely based on Oe himself) and his brother in law, Goro, a successful movie director. (Kogito is obviously not a Japanese name, it’s a reference to Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum). Goro has made a habit of sending tapes containing his reflections on their relationship to Kogito. In one of these tapes Goro says: “I’m going to head over to the Other Side now. But don’t worry, I’m not going to stop communicating with you.” Kogito hears a loud thud and later finds out that Goro has jumped to his death from his apartment.

This is the beginning of The Changeling, which then develops as a quest by Kogito to figure out why his friend committed suicide. A quest that brings Kogito to Berlin and in the woods of southern Japan, reflecting on early dramatic episodes of his life with Goro, as well as on developments stemming from those episodes and that unfolded over decades of their existence. Absolutely recommended.

Suggested readings, #82

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Cognition all the way down. Biologists like to think of themselves as properly scientific behaviourists, explaining and predicting the ways that proteins, organelles, cells, plants, animals and whole biota behave under various conditions, thanks to the smaller parts of which they are composed. They identify causal mechanisms that reliably execute various functions such as copying DNA, attacking antigens, photosynthesising, discerning temperature gradients, capturing prey, finding their way back to their nests and so forth, but they don’t think that this acknowledgment of functions implicates them in any discredited teleology or imputation of reasons and purposes or understanding to the cells and other parts of the mechanisms they investigate. … (Aeon) [With all due respect to Dan Dennett and his co-author, no. While I appreciate their logic, this sort of “intentional” language is way too anthropomorphic, and prone to wild misunderstandings especially when exported to the general public.]

A more political science. For years we have heard warnings about the “politicization of science” and the need to “restore science to its rightful place.” Likewise, we hear that more and more politicians and members of the public are “anti-science.” This is a way of talking about science as a monolithic body that issues in unitary conclusions about what actions we should take — as if we could gaze deep into the fabric of the cosmos and find the answer to whether our society should solve climate change by adopting a carbon tax, converting our electricity grid to nuclear power, or relinquishing fossil fuels. … (New Atlantis) [Actually, very good points, as much as many scientists will instinctively recoil from the implications.]

How we make moral decisions. Imagine that one day you’re riding the train and decide to hop the turnstile to avoid paying the fare. It probably won’t have a big impact on the financial well-being of your local transportation system. But now ask yourself, “What if everyone did that?” The outcome is much different — the system would likely go bankrupt and no one would be able to ride the train anymore. Moral philosophers have long believed this type of reasoning, known as universalization, is the best way to make moral decisions. But do ordinary people spontaneously use this kind of moral judgment in their everyday lives? … (MIT News) [Fascinating research, though the really big question, as the article points out at the end, is why people sometimes fail to make moral decisions.]

The problem with philanthropy. Charitable giving is one of the few things in the world that seems to be wholly good. Philanthropy, often characterised as private action for the public good, appears to earn the original meaning of the term: love of humanity. What could be a better example of virtue? There’s no question that individuals giving to worthy causes provides important relief from states’ failures to promote justice and wellbeing. Philanthropy can also provide key support to resistance movements. Yet since wealthy foundations such as the Gates Foundation and Gates Trust hold assets that surpass many countries, there is reason to be concerned about the political significance of large-scale philanthropy. … (New Statesman) [If you think billionaire philanthropy is a good idea, think again.]

Fake news, Stoicism, and the stiff upper lip. Fake news is not a recent phenomenon. Nor is its propagation limited to Russian bots or extreme right-wing media outlets. In this article my aim is to dispel a long-standing and pernicious myth about Stoicism, the ancient philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE which is currently enjoying something of a resurgence. The “fake news” claims that Stoicism is a dour, grim philosophy advocating the repression of emotions — the “stiff upper lip.” The truth about Stoicism is very different. Stoicism is in fact a positive, constructive life philosophy advocating active, virtuous engagement with the world. In this article I will first provide theoretical reasons to challenge the stiff upper lip view of Stoicism and then share recent empirical evidence about Stoicism that I hope will reduce the plausibility of the notion that Stoicism should be equated with a “stiff upper lip”. … (Medium) [If you think of Stoics has sporting a stiff upper lip the data flatly contradict you.]

Mini-review: Philosophy in the Islamic World, by Peter Adamson

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Philosophy in the Islamic World, by Peter Adamson, is another entry in the author’s ongoing series, “History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps,” in turn based on his successful, and also ongoing, podcast. I’ve read, and highly recommend, two earlier volumes in this series, Classical Philosophy and Philosophy In The Hellenistic And Roman Worlds. And I fully intend to read the next two installments that are already available: Medieval Philosophy and Classical Indian Philosophy.

The volume on Islamic (and medieval Jewish) philosophy is particularly hefty, in part because that happens to be Adamson’s own specialty. But it is fascinating because it will dispel a number of myth and misconceptions about philosophy in the Islamic world, as well as elucidate several intricate connections between it and the resurgence of Western philosophy in the late Middle Ages.

The book is divided into three parts: the so-called “formative period,” which includes discussions of the gigantic influence of Aristotle on Islamic philosophy; “Andalusia,” which features, among others, the philosophies of Averroes and Maimonides; and “the later traditions,” with chapters on Illuminationism, debates on Avicenna’s metaphysics, and — surprisingly and very interestingly — philosophy and science in the Mongol age.

While I don’t usually react very well to that part of philosophy that is essentially theological in nature — and a lot of Islamic philosophy of the period covered by Adamson falls into that category — Philosophy in the Islamic World is highly readable, peppered by Adamson’s usual humorous references to giraffes and Buster Keaton, and more importantly represents a must have entry in your library, on penalty of developing some serious gaps in your understanding of philosophy.

Mini-review: Nemesis, Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Nemesis, by David Stuttard, is the story of Alcibiades, the dashing, powerful, and rich Athenian statesman who was partially responsible for the disastrous expedition against Syracuse that helped change the tide of the Peloponnesian War, ultimately leading to the defeat of Athens. Alcibiades was brilliant, and had all the makings of a great politician and general, like his predecessor, Pericles (by whom he was adopted), and yet squandered the whole thing away, defecting from Athens to Sparta and then to the Persians, before being hunted down and killed by Spartan agents.

My interest in Alcibiades lies in the fact that he was also Socrates’ friend and pupil (and wannabe lover, though the philosopher had different ideas). In one of the Platonic dialogues (the Alcibiades Major), Socrates warns his student of the disaster to come, telling him that he (and politicians in general) just don’t have the right character for what they want to do:

“Then alas, Alcibiades, what a condition you suffer from! I hesitate to name it, but, since we two are alone, it must be said. You are wedded to stupidity, best of men, of the most extreme sort, as the argument accuses you and you accuse yourself. So this is why you are leaping into the affairs of the city before you have been educated. You are not the only one to suffer from this; most of those who manage the affairs of the city are the same way, except a few—perhaps including your guardian, Pericles.”

I’m currently writing a book, tentatively entitled The General and the Philosopher, to explore this historically and philosophically fascinating relationship, and more generally the theme of the interface between philosophy and politics. Stay tuned.

Suggested readings, #81

man making a decision honesty vs dishonesty

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Adam Smith warned us about sympathising with the elites. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adam Smith developed a theory of psychology based on ‘sympathy’ and outlined a way of living based on ‘reason and philosophy’. These ideas not only banish the (already disappearing) stereotype of Smith as a pioneer of free-market policies, but challenge some of our most cherished ideas about the sources of happiness. Published 17 years before The Wealth of Nations (1776), Moral Sentiments begins by rejecting the idea that people are basically self-interested. ‘How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others,’ Smith declares. We are often motivated, and indeed dominated, by our emotional involvement with our ideas about other people, which Smith calls ‘sympathy’. … (Aeon-Psyche) [This is a must read for anyone with only a superficial acquaintance with Smith. Which is most people. You’ll be surprised.]

What’s good about lying? Do you teach children to lie? I do. All the time. And you do, too! If you’re like most American parents, you point to presents under the Christmas tree and claim that a man named Santa Claus put them there. But your deliberate deceptions probably go beyond Santa, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny. How many of us tell our kids (or students) that everything is fine when, in fact, everything is totally wrong, in order to preserve their sense of security? Have you been honest about everything having to do with, say, your love life, or what happens at work? Do you praise drawings they bring home from school that you actually think are terrible? … (Greater Good) [On the difference between prosocial and antisocial lying, only one of which is really bad.]

The COVID-19 free market experiment. My last column for Skeptical Inquirer landed me on a conservative Chicago-area talk radio program. I think something about the title, “COVID-19 and the Tyranny of Now,” caught the eye of one of the show’s hosts, so they invited me on to discuss the article in the morning drive slot. The conversation was polite, and although I tried to find as many points of agreement as possible, it soon became clear we actually had less in common than the host must have imagined. In preparation for my appearance, I listened to the show for a few hours, and the hosts and callers spent much of their time complaining about the coronavirus health policies, such as the closing of restaurants, bars, and schools, imposed by the Illinois governor and Chicago mayor (both Democrats). On the morning of my interview, they were pointing to the increased number of “deaths of despair” during the stay-at-home period, in particular the rise in drug overdoses in the Chicago area. … (Skeptical Inquirer) [Another must read, this time if you think that government imposed restrictions on businesses are what is driving the economy down. Think again.]

Why you should love a Japanese breakfast. I was born in the U.S. and spent my formative years there, so, naturally, I developed the sense that a normal breakfast should look something like pancakes, cereal, buttered toast, bacon, or sausages. It’s what was served to me when I went to friends’ houses for sleepovers and it’s what was advertised to me when I watched television. These are breakfast foods: The things that we should be eating in the morning to start our day. But when my family would return to Japan for the summer, my idea of breakfast was challenged. Instead of the usual toast or cereal that I was used to, my grandmother would prepare rice, fish, pickles, miso soup, and some vegetables for us every morning. As a child, I would stare down at these foods in the morning and silently protest: These are not breakfast foods. … (Medium) [The Japanese got a lot of things right, we should consider imitating them.]

The great philosopher-emperor you’ve never heard of. In June 363 a demoralised and tired Roman army was marching deep in the territory of the enemy Sassanid Empire in what is now modern Iraq. The retreating army was dangerously low on supplies in the sweltering heat of a Mesopotamian summer. Soldiers burdened by a slow-moving baggage train were under constant harassment from mounted Sassanian raiders, picking them off with missiles. The column was heading north along the bank of the Tigris to the safety of Roman territory, having given up besieging the Sassanian capital Ctesiphon and losing their campaign objective. The Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus, better known to us as Julian, leading the column, was told of another attack on the rear guard. … (Medium) [Julian so-called the Apostate, the last great pagan Roman emperor.]