Sunday, March 30, 2014

Rebecca Goldstein: Why Plato (and Philosophy) Won’t Go Away.
Show for March 30, 2014

Rebecca Goldstein says some of her best friends are “philosophy jeerers,” convinced that anything philosophers can do, scientists can do better. She begs to differ, and offers the grandaddy of Western philosophy as exhibit A. 21st-century America has a surprising amount in common with Athens c. 400 BCE, Rebecca says, and Plato still has a thing or two to teach us moderns. She shows how well the 2,400-year-old-man has aged by transporting him to our own times in her new book Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t go Away. Rebecca and I talked about the world of the ancient Greeks, the death of Socrates, the relevance of Plato and what philosophy is good for. Also the difference between a toga and a chiton.

Plus a bonus segment: just how timely is Plato? Philosophical rapper Dr. Awkward makes the case in rhymes.

Click the Listen arrow above to hear the show, or download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose “Save Target As…”)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Show for Dec 22, 2013. Cognitive Scientist Paul Bloom on the Foundations of Morality.

I’ve spoken to Paul Bloom previously about the precocious moral awareness of infants and the ingenious experiments used to demonstrate it. Now Paul has synthesized those findings in a far-reaching exploration of our ethical capacities and shortcomings.

Topics covered in this interview include: 

  • Are we born with a sense of right and wrong?
  • Gut feelings vs. rational deliberation as a basis for ethical behavior
  • Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments and why it still rocks
  • The roots of racism
  • Mafia morality
  • Modern sitcoms and moral uplift

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Show for Dec 8, 2013. Mathematician Cédric Villani.

Since winning the Fields Medal (the closest thing in mathematics to the Nobel Prize) in 2010, Cédric Villani has become something of a roving ambassador for math and science. He’s well-suited (literally) to the role: a patient explainer and broad-minded thinker, passionate about education and social engagement, with a seemingly limitless range of interests. And just a cool guy.

We talked about Cédric’s emergence as a math whiz, what it’s like to spend years exploring a single equation, his fascination with statistical mechanics and entropy, whether math is “real” in some more-than-conceptual sense, what mathematicians do that computers can’t, his love of comic books, and, yes, his trademark retro look, seen below.

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Show for June 30, 2013. Philosopher Daniel Dennett on Matter, Mind and Meaning.

If you fretted that you were merely a billiard ball on the pool table of life, Dan Dennett says take heart: you’re actually a team of tiny robots. Dennett is often cast as the arch-reductionist, but he’s really more of an emergentist, as you’ll hear in this interview. I’ve been wanting to talk to him again ever since we discussed his religion-as-biology book Breaking the Spell in 2006. We didn’t have time then to get around to what he considers his life’s work on mind, consciousness and free will. So when an opportunity finally came up last week, I did my best to cover all that ground in the hour Dan granted me. 

Click the Play arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Show for Feb 10, 2013. Civil rights leader and educator Bob Moses.

In the early 1960’s Bob Moses risked life and limb as a civil rights organizer in the deep south. In recent decades he’s taken up a new cause, promoting math instruction for educationally disadvantaged kids. He believes quality education is a fundamental right, and math skills are a key to economic opportunity. Bob is soft-spoken and not one to play up his accomplishments, but his story is extraordinary, as you’ll hear in this conversation.

 
Bob Moses in Mississippi in the 1960’s; and now.

 Learn more about the Algebra Project, the educational non-profit Bob Moses founded.

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Show for Sept 2, 2012. Jim Holt on the Mystery of Existence.

Jim Holt is a rarity: a writer who throws light on some of the most daunting problems in physics, philosophy and math in ways that are impressively knowledgeable, artful and entertaining. He’s outdone himself in his latest book, Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story, which confronts the enigma of existence itself, considered from the perspectives of physics, metaphysics and theology. As Kathryn Schulz wrote in the New York Times, “the book is deep, absorbing, associative, challenging, and makes you laugh, unexpectedly and a lot” – much like my experience talking to Jim in this interview.

Click the Play arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)


Today’s topic reminded me of this classic Louis CK routine. The relevant part starts about 1 minute in.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Show for Aug 12, 2012. Errol Morris Confidential, Pt 1 of 2.

Errol Morris’s relentless search for answers – philosophical, psychological, forensic – has led to a vast and ever-growing body of work that includes his celebrated documentaries, dozens of short films, weighty essays and cognitive experiments in the NY Times, books, actual criminal investigations and some pretty fetching commercials (example below). The backstories are often as interesting as the finished products, and Errol shared some of them with me in a very illuminating look at his career, his preoccupations and motivations. Topics discussed in this first of two installments include:

  • His interest in serial killers and his recent re-investigation of a famous murder case.
  • Why he started making movies.
  • His early films and stylistic development.
  • The many projects that haven’t come to fruition – mostly for financial reasons, but in one instance because of brute force.
  • The influence of Werner Herzog and their legendary bet.


Errol Morris’s latest mini-doc for ESPN.

Click the Play arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Show for July 8, 2012: Does Culture Drive Language?

It’s been about 50 years since Noam Chomsky conclusively established that the basic structures of human language are stamped in our brains, not gleaned from experience. Or… maybe he didn’t. Chomsky’s notion of an innate “universal grammar” fashioned by evolution has been hugely influential and has helped fuel the “cognitive revolution,” but there have always been doubters. While several generations of theoretical linguists have been diligently expanding the Chomskian program, another faction says there’s little or no evidence for UG and it’s time to scale back or even scrap the theory. Former innatist Daniel Everett is now part of the opposition. On last week’s show, I aired a 2007 interview with Dan talking about his adventures as a missionary-turned-Amazonian-linguist, and how he lost faith, first in Christianity and then in Chomskianism. This time, a new interview with Dan discussing his latest book, Language: The Cultural Tool. In it, he advances the idea that grammars and other aspects of particular languages are shaped by culture.


Dan Everett visiting a Pirahã village in the Amazon.

Click the Play arrow above to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Show for June 17, 2012. Jonathan Gottschall on the Storytelling Instinct.

I’ve been nipping at the edges of this subject for a while, and in a recent show I mentioned that I was seeking someone who could tackle it head-on. Well, I found him: Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Jonathan and I discussed the central place of narrative not only in art and entertainment, but in our deep understanding of the world and ourselves. With us humans, it’s story time all the time, or at least much of the time. Jonathan and I talked about storytelling’s pervasive influence, possible evolutionary explanations, its hazards and if/how we ever escape its constraints.

Bonus points to listeners who caught Jonathan’s passing reference (“ignorant armies clash by night”) to Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. Substitute the notion of “story” for “love” in the last stanza, and the poem nicely captures some of the Jonathan’s thoughts on the psychological necessity of storytelling.

Click the Play arrow above to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Show for March 25, 2012. Philosophy Fights Back.

In the age of science, what’s a philosopher to do? As physics, biology and other hard sciences advance, is philosophy left with only a few increasingly recherché questions? Nope, says philosopher Colin McGinn. McGinn argues that philosophy is a kind of science (though it could use some rebranding to that effect), and those other sciences would do well to pay it some mind. A dose of philosophy could help clear up many scientific confusions and save theorists from a mess of conceptual errors (homuncular fallacy, anyone?). Colin McGinn and I talk science vs. philosophy, different kinds of knowledge, the nature of objectivity, problems with the scientific study of consciousness, and his Campaign to Rename Philosophy (CRP), which he wrote about recently in the New York Times.

Click the Play arrow above to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Show for Nov. 6, 2011: Peter Singer on Ethics in Theory and Practice

Peter Singer may be the world’s best-known ethicist. He’s regarded as the intellectual father of the animal liberation movement and has staked out prominent positions on euthanasia, abortion, the use of military force and economic inequality. We talked about those and other sticky moral questions, as well as Peter’s brand of utilitarianism, which aims to provide a single logical framework for all ethical decision making. Originally broadcast in 2006.

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Show for Aug 7, 2011. How Pleasure Works.


In this re-run from June 2010, psychologist Paul Bloom describes the meaning of pleasure and the pleasure of meaning. More here.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Show for May 8, 2011. Nora Bateson on the Philosopher Gregory Bateson; Actresses Rivera Sun Cook and Robin Aronson on Getting into Character

Part 1: The late philosopher, anthropologist and environmentalist Gregory Bateson wanted to change the way we think, attending less to things in themselves and more to the connections between them. I talked to his daughter Nora Bateson, whose new documentary An Ecology of Mind offers her perspective on her father’s work. The film screens Saturday, May 14 at the Santa Cruz Film Festival. More on Gregory Bateson at edge.org.

Part 2: I’ve long been curious how stories and characters enter the heads of authors and actors. A new trio of plays from Rivera Sun Cook gave me a chance to inquire further. Rivera plays all 30 roles—characters young, old, black, white, Asian and Latino. I spoke to her and Robin Aronson, the plays’ director and an actress herself. More on the performance and showtimes.

Click the “play” arrow above to listen to the interview, or download the MP3 here.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Show for Sept. 5, 2010. It’s Not All In Our Heads: Alva Noë on Consciousness.

Philosopher Alva Noë says neuroscientists are looking for consciousness in all the wrong places: it’s not in our brains after all.

Click the arrow above to listen to the show. If you don’t have Flash player or have other playback problems, click this link for the MP3.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Show for Aug 22, 2010. Planetwalker: The Pilgrimage of John Francis

For two decades, environmental activist John Francis wandered America on foot while keeping a vow of silence. Along the way, he got to know a side of himself and this country that few experience. An extraordinary travel story and a remarkable person. Interview originally broadcast August, 2009.

Click the arrow above to listen to the show. If you don’t have Flash player or have other playback problems, click this link for the MP3.