It seems like my friend Neil deGrasse Tyson  has done it again: he has dismissed philosophy as a useless enterprise, and actually advised bright students to stay away from it. It is not the first time Neil has done this sort of thing, and he is far from being the only scientist to do so. But in his case the offense is particularly egregious, for two reasons: first, because he is a highly visible science communicator; second, because I told him not to, several times.
Contra popular perception, philosophy makes progress, though it does so in a different sense from progress in science. You can think of philosophy as an exploration of conceptual, as opposed to empirical, space, concerning all sorts of questions ranging from ethics to politics, from epistemology to the nature of science. Imagine a highly dimensional landscape of ways of thinking about a given question (such as: do scientific theories describe the world as it is, or should we think of them rather as simply being empirically adequate? ). The philosopher explores that landscape by constructing arguments, entertaining counter-arguments, and either discarding or refining a certain view. The process does not usually lead to one final answer (though it does eliminate a number of bad ones), because conceptual space is much broader than its empirical counterpart, which means that there may be more than one good way of looking at a particular question (but, again, also a number of bad ways). Progress, then, consists in identifying and “climbing” these peaks in c-space. If you’d like, I’ll send you the draft of a book I’m finishing for Chicago Press that expands on this way of looking at philosophy, provides a number of specific examples, and compares and differentiates progress in philosophy from progress in a number of allied disciplines, including science, mathematics and logic.
The well-known New Atheist makes a case for the value of “spirituality,” which he bases on his experiences in meditation.
Gary Gutting: A common basis for atheism is naturalism — the view that only science can give a reliable account of what’s in the world. But in “Waking Up” you say that consciousness resists scientific description, which seems to imply that it’s a reality beyond the grasp of science. Have you moved away from an atheistic view?
Sam Harris: I don’t actually argue that consciousness is “a reality” beyond the grasp of science. I just think that it is conceptually irreducible — that is, I don’t think we can fully understand it in terms of unconscious information processing. Consciousness is “subjective”— not in the pejorative sense of being unscientific, biased or merely personal, but in the sense that it is intrinsically first-person, experiential and qualitative.
The only thing in this universe that suggests the reality of consciousness is consciousness itself. Many philosophers have made this argument in one way or another — Thomas Nagel, John Searle, David Chalmers. And while I don’t agree with everything they say about consciousness, I agree with them on this point.
The primary approach to understanding consciousness in neuroscience entails correlating changes in its contents with changes in the brain. But no matter how reliable these correlations become, they won’t allow us to drop the first-person side of the equation. The experiential character of consciousness is part of the very reality we are studying. Consequently, I think science needs to be extended to include a disciplined approach to introspection.
When scientists dismiss philosophy as an antiquated relic of our pre-scientific past, they are making a very large and dubious assumption.
Morale these days has fallen pretty low along the corridors of philosophy departments. From one side, we get the mockery of the scientists. Freeman Dyson calls philosophy today “a toothless relic of past glories.” According to Neil deGrasse Tyson, majoring in philosophy “can really mess you up.” Stephen Hawking declares that “philosophy is dead.” From another side, we have to cope with the apostasy of our own leading figures. John Searle describes the field as being in “terrible shape.” Peter Unger says that philosophers are “under the impression that they’re saying something new and interesting about how it is about the world, when in fact this is all an illusion.” What’s going on? Has philosophy gone horribly amiss? Or are there broader cultural factors at work, perhaps something to do with a general decline in respect for the humanities?
This month, sci-fi and fantasy magazine Lightspeed features all female authors, as part of an ongoing conversation about what science fiction is, and whether women can write it. (Short answer: Yes!)
This month, science fiction and fantasy magazine Lightspeed interrupted its normal publishing schedule to bring readers a special issue: ""
Edited and written entirely by women, this issue is one part of a long, ongoing conversation about what constitutes "real" science fiction and whether women are inherently any good at writing it. It was conceived in part by Lightspeed assistant editor Christie Yant last year, funded by more than 2,000 backers on , and will be followed up by two other special issues: "Women Destroy Fantasy!" and "Women Destroy Horror!"
In her opening editorial, Yant quotes a famous speech given by author Pat Murphy back in 1991. "A persistent rumbling that I have heard echoing through science fiction ... says, in essence, that women don't write science fiction. Put a little more rudely, this rumbling says: 'Those damn women are ruining science fiction.' They are doing it by writing stuff that isn't 'real' science fiction; they are writing 'soft' science fiction and fantasy."
Murphy gave this speech over 20 years ago, and yet you can still hear that same rumbling today. The perception that the science fiction that women write isn't "real" isn't as pervasive as it was in the 1960s, but it's just as ridiculous. If you need proof to back up that assertion, all you need do is read this issue of Lightspeed Magazine.
It's more than just an extra-large and particularly great issue of an already good magazine. It's a master class on all the ways in which women are writing — and have written — some of the best science fiction available. Many of the concepts these stories explore are what purists would expect from the SF label: In "Cuts Both Ways" by Heather Clitheroe, cyborg implants create perfect memory recall; Tananarive Due's "Like Daughter" deals with what happens when humans have access to easy cloning; "The Unfathomable Sisterhood of Ick" by Charlie Jane Anders takes place in a future where augmenting and messing with brain chemistry is as common as taking vitamin supplements is now.
Barbara Smoker probes why there is something rather than nothing.
Why is there something rather than nothing?” This question is often pressed by modern Christian theologians – especially, in my experience, the Dominicans – although it was a secular mathematician, Leibniz, who first framed it, three centuries ago.
If you reply “Why not?”, the theologian will insist that if something is not self-explanatory – that is, if it exists but does not have to exist – it is natural to ask why it exists, and there should be an answer. Probably so, you counter – but that is within the system of cause and effect in which we find ourselves, and it cannot apply to the cosmos itself. After all, what the question is apparently demanding is an explanation for the whole of existence, although explanation means finding causal relationships between one event and another, and, you may counter, there is nothing known beside the universe (by the usual definition) to which to relate it.
“Not known in the experiential sense,” agrees the theologian, “but known by inference: unless the incipient universe somehow came into existence from nothing, we are forced to assume the existence of an eternal necessary being – God – independent of the universe, and in a causal relationship with it.”
This is the old cosmological argument – one of the five arguments for the existence of God advanced by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, and still the main argument underlying much God-belief (though usually less philosophically expressed). However, it does not allow for the possibility that something other than God (the cosmos itself, for instance) has always existed. Nor does it address the question, since a God would be something.
Cognitive performance enhancers promise to deliver a better version of ourselves: smarter, more alert and more mentally agile. But what if such enhancement was no longer a personal choice but a socially and legally enforced responsibility? In the final instalment of Biology and Blame, Nicole A Vincent and Emma A. Jane explore the risks of normalising this emerging trend.
Ever wonder how famous philosophers from the past spent their many hours of tedium between paradigm-smashing epiphanies? I do. And I have learned much from the biographical morsels on “Daily Routines,” a blog about “How writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days.” (The blog has also now yielded a book.) While there is much fascinating variety to be found among these descriptions of the quotidian habits of celebrity humanists, one quote found on the site from V.S. Pritchett stands out: “Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.” But I urge you, be not depressed. In these précis of the mundane lives of philosophers and artists, we find no small amount of meditative leisure occupying every day. Read these tiny biographies and be edified. The contemplative life requires discipline and hard work, for sure. But it also seems to require some time indulging carnal pleasures and much more time lost in thought.
Are you satisfied with your life? How are you feeling? Does either question tell us what we really want to know?
I would suggest that when we talk about happiness, we are actually referring, much of the time, to a complex emotional phenomenon. Call it emotional well-being. Happiness as emotional well-being concerns your emotions and moods, more broadly your emotional condition as a whole. To be happy is to inhabit a favorable emotional state.
No one knows how many kinds of nothings there are, also there are many kinds of knowing and also many kinds of one, yes, and many kinds of no, and many kinds of things, obviously there are many kinds of nothings, also many kinds of kinds.
Tools like Lumosity promise to stimulate your mind, though researchers question how much they improve cognitive performance.
For a $14.95 monthly membership, the website Lumosity promises to “train” your brain with games designed to stave off mental decline. Users view a quick succession of bird images and numbers to test attention span, for instance, or match increasingly complex tile patterns to challenge memory.
While Lumosity is perhaps the best known of the brain-game websites, with 50 million subscribers in 180 countries, the cognitive training business is booming. Happy Neuron of Mountain View, Calif., promises “brain fitness for life.” Cogmed, owned by the British education company Pearson, says its training program will give students “improved attention and capacity for learning.” The Israeli firm Neuronix is developing a brain stimulation and cognitive training program that the company calls a “new hope for Alzheimer’s disease.”
And last month, in a move that could significantly improve the financial prospects for brain-game developers, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services began seeking comments on a proposal that would, in some cases, reimburse the cost of “memory fitness activities.”
An interview with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex
At a time when advances in science and technology have changed our understanding of our mental and physical selves, it is easy for some to dismiss the discipline of philosophy as obsolete. Stephen Hawking, boldly, argues that philosophy is dead.
Not according to Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Goldstein, a philosopher and novelist, studied philosophy at Barnard and then earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Princeton University. She has written several books, won a MacArthur “Genius Award” in 1996, and taught at several universities, including Barnard, Columbia, Rutgers, and Brandeis.
Goldstein’s forthcoming book, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, offers insight into the significant—and often invisible—progress that philosophy has made. I spoke with Goldstein about her take on the science vs. philosophy debates, how we can measure philosophy’s advances, and why an understanding of philosophy is critical to our lives today.
True beauty pleases the eye and the mind – but can it help us to become better people?
Schiller thinks of human nature as an arena in which two powerful psychological drives are at work. On the one hand, there is the ‘sense’ drive which lives in the moment and seeks immediate gratification. It craves contact and possession. It can be coarse, as when one yearns to swig great draughts of beer; but it can also be elevated. Schiller associated the sense drive with his friend Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who longed to see things with his own eyes. Goethe was a direct observer, a natural empiricist who immersed himself in practical detail.
The second drive identified by Schiller was the ‘form’ drive: the inner demand for coherence over time, for abstract understanding and rational order. This drive, thought Schiller, seeks to leave behind the peculiarities of one’s own experience and discover universal principles. It is at the heart of justice – which is not about getting what you want for yourself – and is animated by principle. When we think that a person is entitled to a fair trial, we are motivated, Schiller says, by the rational ‘form’ drive. We are loyal to the abstract, general ideal of due process.
What he’s calling the sense drive and the form drive are powerful impulses in us. But they are often in conflict. The demands of the short term are at odds with the hopes of the longer view. Comfort and ease struggle against a sense of duty and responsibility. The allure of freedom clashes with the longing to be steadfast and rooted in existing commitments.
Perhaps you are familiar with the following passage from Bertrand Russell:
“Observation versus Authority: To modern educated people, it seems obvious that matters of fact are to be ascertained by observation, not by consulting ancient authorities. But this is an entirely modern conception, which hardly existed before the seventeenth century. Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths.” 
This criticism of Aristotle is often repeated and unreflectively accepted due to the reputation of Bertrand Russell. Edward de Bono embroidered upon this theme:
“Finally there was Aristotle, with his word-based inclusion/exclusion logic. Aristotle believed that men had more teeth than did women. Although he was married twice, he never actually counted the teeth of either wife. He did not need to. With horses, the stallion had more teeth than the mare; so he “knew” that the male of the species has more teeth than the female. Aristotle derived his categories from the past and then argued whether something did or did not fit into a particular category.” 
Recent advances in neuroscience have revealed that certain neurological disorders, like a brain tumor, can cause an otherwise normal person to behave in criminally deviant ways. Would knowing that an underlying neurological condition had caused criminal behavior change the way we assign moral responsibility and mete out justice? Should it? Is committing a crime with a "normal" biology fundamentally different from doing so with an identifiable brain disorder? John and Ken ask how the law should respond to the findings of neuroscience with David Eagleman, author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Philosophy Talk with John Perry and Ken Taylor ~ Sunday, 9/07 at 10 am and Tuesday, 9/09 at 12 noon.
Lesbians and gay men have long campaigned alongside each other. But are they wrongly bracketed together, asks Julie Bindel.
"We have absolutely nothing in common with gay men," says Eda, a young lesbian, "so I have no idea why we are lumped in together."
Not everyone agrees. Since the late 1980s, lesbians and gay men have been treated almost as one generic group. In recent years, other sexual minorities and preferences have joined them.
The term LGBT, representing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, has been in widespread use since the early 1990s. Recent additions - queer, "questioning" and intersex - have seen the term expand to LGBTQQI in many places. But do lesbians and gay men, let alone the others on the list, share the same issues, values and goals?
Anthony Lorenzo, a young gay journalist, says the list has become so long, "We've had to start using Sanskrit because we've run out of letters."
Bisexuals have argued that they are disliked and mistrusted by both straight and gay people. Trans people say they should be included because they experience hatred and discrimination, and thereby are campaigning along similar lines as the gay community for equality.
The second book to emerge from the podcast series Philosophy Bites is a stimulating introduction to thinkers and themes for students and general readers alike, writes PD Smith
This is the second book to emerge from the immensely popular podcast series Philosophy Bites, and features 27 interviews with academics on some of the greatest minds in the history of western thought.Highlights include Angie Hobbs on Plato's idea of erotic love ("Love stems from lack"), Peter Millican on Hume ("We should accept that we're just clever animals"), Melissa Lane on Rousseau's critique of modern society ("We're all going to be miserable"), Aaron Ridley on Nietzsche's view of art and truth ("What are we? We're just the froth on a maelstrom of waves breaking for no reason on to nothing"), and Mary Warnock on Sartre's existentialism ("We all make our own lives by the choices that we make"). Venturing on to another interviewee's territory, Warnock also dismisses Derrida as "unreadable, and meant to be so". As Edmonds and Warburton say in their introduction, the interviews form "an intellectual tasting menu". But like all tasters, they tend to leave you wanting more. Nevertheless, this is a stimulating introduction to thinkers and themes for students and general readers alike.
Darrin Belousek considers different ethical perspectives on drugs in sport.
The Liberty View
Unqualified libertarian ethics would unequivocally favor permitting performance-enhancing drug use, without any regulations or restrictions.
According to libertarian ethics, such as that espoused by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty (1859), the individual is by nature sole owner of his own body; and each person’s natural right of self-ownership entails the liberty of each person to do with their own body as they want, even to their own harm, as long as this stops short of harming others. Respecting the individual’s right of self-ownership requires allowing the maximum liberty for each person compatible with an equal liberty for others. So from the libertarian perspective, banning performance-enhancing drug use, or even requiring drug use to be moderated or monitored, would infringe individual liberty and thus violate self-ownership. Respecting each player’s natural right of self-ownership, therefore, requires that each player be free to choose for himself whether to use performance-enhancing drugs or not. As long as no player is forced or coerced to use (or not use) performance-enhancing drugs, and as long as no fraud is committed in using performance-enhancing drug (say, by dishonesty in contract negotiations), then no one’s liberty would be infringed and everyone’s natural right of self-ownership would be respected.
Whether or not performance-enhancing drug use by players would increase the profits of owners, enhance the enjoyment of fans, promote the good of the game, or even benefit the players themselves, are matters of moral indifference to libertarian theory. Players should be free to pursue those ends, or free to ignore those ends, for it is freedom of choice that promotes what ultimately matters on this theory – self-ownership.
Buddhist philosophy is full of contradictions. Now modern logic is learning why that might be a good thing.
Western philosophers have not, on the whole, regarded Buddhist thought with much enthusiasm. As a colleague once said to me: ‘It’s all just mysticism.’ This attitude is due, in part, to ignorance. But it is also due to incomprehension. When Western philosophers look East, they find things they do not understand – not least the fact that the Asian traditions seem to accept, and even endorse, contradictions. Thus we find the great second-century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna saying: The nature of things is to have no nature; it is their non-nature that is their nature. For they have only one nature: no-nature.
An abhorrence of contradiction has been high orthodoxy in the West for more than 2,000 years. Statements such as Nagarjuna’s are therefore wont to produce looks of blank incomprehension, or worse. As Avicenna, the father of Medieval Aristotelianism, declared: Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.
One can hear similar sentiments, expressed with comparable ferocity, in many faculty common rooms today. Yet Western philosophers are slowly learning to outgrow their parochialism. And help is coming from a most unexpected direction: modern mathematical logic, not a field that is renowned for its tolerance of obscurity.
Reza Negarestani “What Philosophy Does to the Mind” Tuesday, April 22, 7–9pm
By approaching the game of truths—that is, making sense of what is true and making it true—as a rule-based game of navigation, philosophy opens up a new evolutionary vista for the mind’s development. Within this evolutionary landscape, the mind is understood as a set of activities or practices required to navigate a terrain which lacks a given map and a given compass—a desert bereft of natural landmarks, with a perpetually shifting scenery and furnished with transitory mirages. The mind is forced to adapt to an environment where generic trajectories replace specific trajectories, and where the consequences of making one single move unfold as future ramifying paths that not only uproot the current position in the landscape but also fundamentally change the travel history and the address of the past itinerary. It is within this environment that philosophy instigates an epochal development of yet unexplored possibilities. By simulating the truth of the mind and forcing it to interact with its own navigational horizon, philosophy sets out the conditions for the emancipation of the mind from its contingently posited settings and limits of constructability. In liberating itself from its illusions of uniqueness and ineffability, and by conceiving itself as an upgradable armamentarium of practices or abilities, the mind self-realizes itself as an expanding, constructible edifice that effectuates a mind-only system. But this is a system that is no longer comprehensible within the traditional ambit of idealism, for it involves “mind” not as a theoretical object but rather as a practical project of socio-historical wisdom.
Throughout this presentation, we will lay out the minimal characteristics and procedures of the game of navigation by drawing on the works of Gilles Châtelet (the construction of a horizon), Guerino Mazzola (a dynamic theory of addresses), and Robert Brandom (the procedural system of commitments). We will subsequently unpack the consequences of playing this game in terms of the transition from self-conception to self-transformation of the mind, as outlined by the New Confucian philosophers Xiong Shili and Mou Zongsan.
Philosophy of cosmology, philosophy of physics, philosophy of science, metaphysics, philosophy of mathematics, University of Oxford.
Philosophy of cosmology is an expanding discipline, directed to the conceptual foundations of cosmology and the philosophical contemplation of the universe as a totality. It draws on the fundamental theories of physics — thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, and special and general relativity — and on several branches of philosophy -- philosophy of physics, philosophy of science, metaphysics, philosophy of mathematics, and epistemology.
Central questions concern limits to explanation, physical infinity, laws, especially laws, if any, of initial conditions, selection effects and the anthropic principle, objective probability, the nature of space, time, and spacetime, the arrow of time, the measurement problem of quantum mechanics, dark energy and quantum fluctuations, scale, the origins of structure formation, the origins and fate of the universe, and the place of life and intelligence within it.