philosophy

Philosophy Talk asks: Are some people better than others?

Aug 21, 2015

Should he most gifted among us be held back by the morality of ordinary folk?


What in the world is a Monad? Why does Leibniz care so much about the so-called Principle of Sufficient Reason? And how could he claim that this is the Best of all Possible Worlds? 

Is it just dumb luck that the universe has just the right settings to support life as we know it?

What books should thoughtful people be reading this summer?

Philosophy Talk asks: Should satire have its limits?

Jul 24, 2015

Are there topics we should never satirize? Is there a well-defined line between satire and hate speech? 

We like to think of ourselves as rational agents who exercise conscious control over most of our actions and decisions. Yet in recent years, neuroscientists have claimed to prove that free will is simply an illusion, that our brains decide for us before our conscious minds even become aware.

Should we think of whistleblowers as selfless martyrs, as traitors, or as something else?  Hear John Perry and Ken Taylor's conversation with the world's most famous whistleblower, Edward Snowden.  Tuesday at 12pm.

Are you a tax-raising, soy latte-drinking, Prius-driving, New York Times-reading, Daily Show-watching, corporation-hating liberal? Or a gun-toting, Bible-loving, Walmart-shopping, homophobic, climate-change-denying, immigrant-hating conservative? Why does it seem like all of American politics often boils down to these two absurd positions? Is it because of our particular political system, our culture, or deeper psychological impulses?

Philosophy Talk asks: Can we make sense of Heidegger?

Jun 26, 2015

Best known for his work Being and Time, Martin Heidegger has been hailed by many as the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. He has also been criticized for being both nearly unreadable and a Nazi. Yet there is no disputing his seminal place in the history of Western thought. So what did Heidegger mean when he wrote about world, being, and time?

The ideal of science is objectivity in the service of advancing knowledge. We tend to assume that to be objective, scientists must keep their politics from influencing their work. But time and time again we see that science, even some of our best science, is awash in political influences. Could politics sometimes have a positive effect on objectivity in science? If so, which kinds of politics might have a positive effect and which might not? What criteria could we use to make the distinction? And does 'objectivity' still have meaning in this context?

Philosophy Talks asks: How does Propaganda work?

May 29, 2015

Governments and other political institutions employ propaganda to sway public opinion, instill ideas, and exert a degree of control over people. While totalitarian regimes have been known to do this explicitly, democratic governments often disguise their propaganda with persuasive rhetoric. So what exactly constitutes propaganda and how does it work? Does it always involve lies or falsehoods? Can propaganda ever be morally justified or is it a pernicious form of communication? John and Ken trade slogans with Jason Stanley from Yale University, author of How Propaganda Works. 

Philosophy Talk asks: How does Fiction shape us?

May 22, 2015

A good novel can do many things. It can distract us from the humdrum of daily existence, stimulate our imaginations, and delight us with its creative use of language. But isn’t there something more we gain from engaging with fictional worlds and characters? Do we, for example, use literary texts to morally improve ourselves? Is there some deeper truth we’re supposed to learn from a good novel? Or do we use fiction to fine-tune certain cognitive capacities?

Humans have an amazing capacity to communicate. By uttering sounds we are able to convey meaning to those around us. These noises we make take on properties – they mean certain things, they are true or false, etc. Some animals also use forms of language: bees, for example, use dances and pheromones to communicate with each other. What gives these signals – words and movements – their linguistic meaning? How is it possible to communicate complex propositions simply by making sound?

According to Corinthians 13, “Love is patient, love is kind and envies no one.” But is love always unconditional? Should it be? If unconditional love means that we love no matter what our beloved’s actions or traits are, doesn’t that suggest we should love everyone in this way? If not, how do we select just a few to love unconditionally? Perhaps the feeling we reserve for those we cherish most in the world is better described as selfless rather than unconditional love, in which case we are confronted with another challenge.

Philosophy Talk asks: Why believe in Reincarnation?

May 1, 2015

According to Buddhist tradition, all people must suffer illness, aging, and death. Yet the universe is seen as a vast living entity, in which cycles of individual life and death are repeated without cease. Therefore death is a necessary part of the process of life, making renewal and new growth possible. So what does this view mean about the eternality of the self? Is there a single subject or consciousness that persists through all the cycles of death and rebirth? What are the karmic consequences of one’s moral acts for future lives?

Philosophy Talk asks: Is Economics really a Science?

Apr 21, 2015

With the recent global economic crisis, many people wonder if our economic policies are built on sound principles or on dubious, unscientific claims. What kinds of assumptions does Economics make about markets and the behavior of producers and consumers? What kinds of assumptions does it make about the rationality of individuals? How, if at all, are those claims empirically verified? Or are they just speculative theories proven false by the current crisis?

Philosophy Talk asks: What can non-violence really achieve?

Apr 10, 2015

We all hope for peace. Yet in the face of violence, it often seems the only recourse is more violence. Advocates of non-violence claim it’s not necessary to respond to war in kind, and that responding violently, even in self-defense, just perpetuates the cycle of violence. So how can we practice non-violence under the direct threat of violence? Can non-violent acts be spread to stop aggression and war? And are there times when violence is, in fact, necessary?

Philosophy Talk asks: What is Wilderness?

Apr 5, 2015

Nowadays we think of wilderness as a fully natural environment that contrasts sharply with the designed and constructed environments in which we normally move. But does that vision of wilderness really exist anymore? What is natural and what is artificial about wilderness? Should humans be understood as a part of nature or distinct from it? And how should we approach conservation efforts so that we balance the needs of a growing world population with the need to preserve some aspect of the wild in our lives?

Belief in God is thought by many to be the only possible source of morality, such that without a God, “everything is permitted.” Yet godlessness is on the rise in the West, with figures like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Lawrence Krauss leading the “New Atheism” movement. But if atheism is defined by its lack of belief, where do these non-believers find guiding principles? Are there any positive beliefs or values that atheists have in common? If so, are they based on a rational, scientific framework, or must non-believers, like believers, ultimately rely on faith?

Democratic systems of government are supposed to reflect the interests of ordinary citizens, and not some shadowy political elite. But more and more, we see the influence of big money and special interest groups in so-called democratic politics, while income inequality and voter suppression grow. With millions convinced that politicians don’t speak for them, is there a "crisis of representation" in the US? Are these problems a result of political decay in our institutions, or is democracy in trouble everywhere?

Philosophy Talk asks: Should hurtful words be forbidden?

Mar 14, 2015

Some words, like n****r, ch*nk, and c*nt, are so forbidden that we won't even spell them out here. Decent people simply don't use these words to refer to others; they are intrinsically disrespectful. But aren't words just strings of sounds or letters? Words have life because they express ideas. But in a free society, how can we prohibit the expression of ideas? How can we forbid words? Where does the strange power of curses, epithets, and scatological terms come from?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is the primary reference catalog for mental health illnesses. But whereas a medical textbook will show you the picture of a broken bone or a tumor, leaf through the DSM and you will find just one thing: lists of symptoms. Who creates these lists, and based on what criteria? Do such lists really capture the nature of a mental illness? What does it mean to be a disease of the mind versus a disease of the body? Does our classification system construct mental illness, or does it reveal underlying facts from genetics or neuroscience?

Albert Camus is most famous for his existential works of fiction including The Stranger as well as his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus. He led the French resistance press during Nazi Occupation and became one of the youngest Nobel laureates in literature. His contemporary, Hannah Arendt, described him as “head and shoulders above the other intellectuals.” How does Camus' philosophy of Absurdism compare and contrast with Sartre’s popular existentialism, especially in their conceptions of freedom?

Whether it's making donations and signing petitions online, or using social media to highlight political causes, cyber-activism has never been easier. With a few clicks, we can make our voices heard around the globe. But who's listening, and is anything actually changing? Does cyber-activism mobilize real-world action on the ground, or does it reduce political engagement to simple mouse-clicking and ultimately threaten the subversive nature of change?

Whether it's making donations and signing petitions online, or using social media to highlight political causes, cyber-activism has never been easier. With a few clicks, we can make our voices heard around the globe. But who's listening, and is anything actually changing? Does cyber-activism mobilize real-world action on the ground, or does it reduce political engagement to simple mouse-clicking and ultimately threaten the subversive nature of change?

Philosophy Talk asks: Who (else) has a right to your body?

Feb 6, 2015

Most countries allow their citizens to smoke cigarettes, get intoxicated, and eat unhealthy food – despite the harms that such behaviors may bring to the individual's health and to the social and economic interests of the state. Yet taking certain narcotics, selling one's organs, and driving without a seat-belt are often prohibited by law. Is this an arbitrary distinction, or is there a principled reason for these diverging attitudes? What can government legitimately prohibit its citizens from doing to their own bodies -- and what can it legitimately compel them to do?

The number of chronically hungry people in the world is over 800 million, yet developed countries are facing health challenges from rising rates of obesity. The growing problems of food security and water scarcity seem an issue of distribution rather than availability. But other factors also influence the status of food and water security worldwide. So where does the problem with food and water security lie? Do developed countries – or any other entities or individuals – have any moral obligations to ensure a global network of water and food security?

Philosophy Talk asks: Why be moral?

Jan 16, 2015

Morality tells us how we ought to behave, if we want to do the right thing. But is there a reason why we ought to be moral in the first place? Both Plato and Kant believed that morality is dictated by reason and so a fully rational person is automatically a moral person too. But how can we derive morality from reason? Isn’t it possible to be a rational but amoral or even immoral person?

Philosophy Talk asks: Why (not) believe in an afterlife?

Jan 9, 2015

The question of what happens to us after we die remains as mysterious now as it always was. Some think that death amounts to total annihilation of the self; others adhere to certain religious traditions, which teach that the immaterial soul (and, in some traditions, the resurrected body) can ultimately survive death. So how are we to judge between these radically different views of what happens to us in death? What would it mean for the self to persist beyond the destruction of the body? Is there room in a scientific account of the mind for the existence of an immaterial soul?

The unexamined year is not worth reviewing:

The Year in Race and Justice with Chris Lebron, Professor of African-American Studies at Yale University and author of The Color Of Our Shame: Race and Justice In Our Time

The Year in Academic Freedom with Katherine Franke, Professor of Law at Columbia University and Director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law

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