Video conversation: objectivity and realism

Is there a difference between something being “objective” and it being “real”? What do we mean by those terms, anyway? That’s the topic of a new conversation I’ve had with my friend and colleague Dan Kaufman.

We actually started by exploring a side path, when Dan wanted to know whether human beings are really as social as the Stoics thought (I think so, particularly on the strength of evidence from comparative anthropology and primatology). Then we plunged into the title question, and went on to discuss the difference between distinct philosophical meanings of “real.”

Dan argued that it doesn’t make any difference whether or not our values are objective, because that’s not what motivates people to action. I replied that people are moved to act by a number of social and biological forces, but that arguments to the soundness of certain values certainly play a role.

Near the end of the show we talk about what Dan’s calls my solution to the so-called omnivore dilemma (shouldn’t we all just be vegetarians, or even vegans, given what we know about animal cruelty and the environment?), which obviously very much has to do with the alleged objectivity of certain values informing our choice of diet.

Finally, I explain why values are never really separate from facts (in part because even our choices of what counts as a “fact” are value-laden). This may seem to be a problem if one seeks “the facts, just the facts,” but appreciation of this, ahem, fact turns out to be important and consequential. Here is the video:

Video conversation: consciousness, panpsychism, and illusionism

Here is another friendly conversation with my colleague Dan Kaufman of Missouri State University, editor of the excellent online magazine, The Electric Agora. This time the theme is consciousness, and particularly two diametrically different approaches to understanding it: panpsychism (the notion that consciousness is somehow an elemental property of matter) and so-called “illusionism” (the idea that, on the contrary, in some important sense consciousness is an illusion). Dan and I disagree with both camps, and try to articulate why their respective supporters are making the same mistake.

After a brief chat about the ongoing pandemic and when it may end, we get right to it, by laying out the so-called “hard” problem of consciousness as articulated by David Chalmers, and which I think is actually a category mistake. We then talk about why panpsychism is not a solution to the hard problem, even admitting there were such a thing.

Since this brings us to talk about the nature of science, Dan and I get into a bit of a side conversation on the currently ongoing battle for the soul of fundamental physics, based on the acceptance or rejection of so-called “post-empirical” science (in my opinion, an oxymoron).

We then go back to our main theme, by way of metaphysics, and specifically the contrast between physicalism and idealism. Trust me, it’s very pertinent. I introduce two different views of metaphysics, so-called “first philosophy,” which goes back to the pre-Socratics, and “scientific metaphysics” a la James Ladyman and Don Ross. (More on that particular topic here. And here are two more related posts I published recently.)

Dan and I then move to Daniel Dennett’s inspired “illusionism.” There too we arrive at the conclusion that this is no solution to the problem of consciousness, though in several respects it gets things much closer to reality than panpsychism. We end by talking about the difference between misrepresentations and useful representations, attempting to improve on Dennett’s view of consciousness. Here is the video:

“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.

How to live a Stoic life, in Spanish

Below is an interview I conducted with the prestigious Spanish newspaper El Pais. It covers the basics of Stoicism, how I got into it, and why it is a very useful philosophy of life for the 21st century.

From the description of the video:

What is stoicism and how can it help us manage a life crisis? A doctor and professor of philosophy, Massimo Pigliucci faced a critical juncture with the death of his father and undergoing a divorce. He looked to the ancient philosophers for answers and discovered “virtue ethics,” an approach to life that advances human improvement through the development of values.

“Stoicism tries to eliminate destructive emotions as much as possible while cultivating the positive ones. The Stoics concluded that a good human life is that in which we apply reason in order to improve society. If we improve as people, we will be improving society; and if we work to improve society, we will automatically be improving ourselves,” the professor explains.


Wide ranging conversation with Hardy Haberland

Below is a video (a bit more than an hour) of a recent conversation I’ve had with Hardy Haberland, as a guest on his show. Mostly, we talked about Stoicism and how it changed my life, as well as that of others. But Hardy also asked me a number of other questions, including: What are the three books that influenced your life the most? What are your three most favorite movies? What’s the most useful product or service you’ve bought in recent memory? What’s the most important realization you’ve made in the last couple of years? And what would you tell your 20 year old self? I hope you’ll enjoy!

After Darwin?

The Institute of Arts and Ideas has just released a 46′ video on “After Darwin,” featuring a conversation among philosopher of biology Tim Lewens, psychologist Zanna Clay, and myself, on the topic of the status and limits of Darwinian theories in evolutionary biology. The event was moderated by David Malone.

Questions we explored include: what is wrong (if anything) with the current theory of evolution? Are heritable non-genetic elements significant to current theories of evolution? Is evolutionary theory reductionist?

Here is the full video. Enjoy!

CUNY podcasts: the modern Stoic

Massimo Piguliucci

My home institution, the City University of New York, has recently put out a 25-minute podcast about my practice of Stoic philosophy. Here is the description from the web site:

“Life have you stressed out? Weary of the endless news cycle? City College philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci has an idea–one that goes back 18 centuries. He’s a leader of a modern movement that’s popularizing the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism. Outcomes are not under your control, he says. What is under your control are your intentions, your decisions and your actions.

Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at City College. Born in Liberia and raised in Rome, he holds three doctoral degrees: in genetics from the University of Ferrara in Italy, biology from the University of Connecticut and philosophy of science from the University of Tennessee.  He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the author or editor of 10 books.”

Enjoy the show here!

Are philosophers experts?

My friend Dan Kaufman and I engaged in yet another conversation, this time on the somewhat weird — in my opinion — question of whether there is such thing as philosophical expertise, and what it consists of.

We begin by responding to the obvious objection: “But Socrates didn’t have a PhD!” (no kidding, Sherlock), moving on to explain why I just hate it when teachers say that they learn “just as much” from their students as the other way around. If they do, I submit, they are incompetent teachers.

We then get a bit more in depth on the topic, exploring, for instance, the similarities between doing philosophy and doing mathematics, as well as what exactly philosophers of science can teach scientists.

We also cover research showing a disappointing degree of personal morality in professional moral philosophers, talk about why Dan’s grandmother’s was a good person without having studied any philosophy, and contrast her example with the Socratic dictum about examining one’s life. Enjoy the video!