Is coffee much deeper than it appears? David Robson meets a philosopher who certainly thinks so – he's attempting to use the drink to probe the human mind.
It’s like I’m drinking the dying embers of a log-fire – smoky and tinged with the tang of creosote. As I concentrate harder, I notice its smooth, viscous texture that seems to mask a sharper undertone – like a blade cloaked in velvet.
’ve never paid so much attention to a cup of coffee in my life. I’m not sure I’ve grasped its secrets just yet. But if I do, I’m told it might just offer me a glimpse of some of the big questions in life.
My guide on this journey is David Berman at Trinity College Dublin – a philosopher who has spent many hours studying the intricacies of the mind’s inner working and the senses. Now he’s turned his attention to his favourite drink, and the profound answers that might be lurking at the bottom of our coffee cup. The result will be a new book, The Philosophy of Coffee-tasting.
Armed with a strong Americano – and an open mind – I ask him to lead me through some of his thoughts. The conversation that follows will explore the values of introspection and why coffee and tea drinkers are fundamentally different people.
Can instruments and experiments (or pure reason and theoretical models) ever reveal the ultimate nature of reality? Does the modern triumph of physics make philosophy obsolete? What philosophy, if any, could modern theoretical physicists be said to possess? Stenger and his co-authors introduce and address all these profound questions in this thoughtful essay and seek to mend the growing schism between these two great schools of thought. When physicists make claims about the universe, Stenger writes, they are also engaging in a grand philosophical tradition that dates back thousands of years. Inescapably, physicists are philosophers, too. This article, Stenger’s last, appears in full below.
Something in the human mind, or heart, seems to need a word of praise for all that humanity hasn’t contaminated, and for us that word now is “natural.” Such an ideal can be put to all sorts of rhetorical uses. Among the antivaccination crowd, for example, it’s not uncommon to read about the superiority of something called “natural immunity,” brought about by exposure to the pathogen in question rather than to the deactivated (and therefore harmless) version of it made by humans in laboratories. “When you inject a vaccine into the body,” reads a post on an antivaxxer website, Campaign for Truth in Medicine, “you’re actually performing an unnatural act.” This, of course, is the very same term once used to decry homosexuality and, more recently, same-sex marriage, which the Family Research Council has taken to comparing unfavorably to what it calls “natural marriage.”
I argue that Heidegger’s account of technology as “enframing” is a helpful lens through which to understand the possible effects and dangers of transhumanism. Without resorting to nebulous concepts such as “dignity,” Heidegger’s analysis can help us understand how new technologies employed to modify the body, brain, and consciousness will enframe our own bodies and identities as something akin to “standing reserve.” Under transhumanism, the body is enframed as an external, technologically modifiable product. I indicate some of the problems that might arise when our own bodies no longer appear as central to our identity as embodied beings. Further, I argue that, by treating aspects of our own consciousness as technologically modifiable, we will be driven into a commodified and inauthentic relation to our identities. By examining the work of prominent transhumanists – including Brad Allenby, Daniel Sarewitz, and Andy Clark – I show how the threat that technology poses can be hidden when the essence of technology is not uncovered in a primordial way. I argue that by threatening to obscure death as a foundational possibility for Dasein, transhumanism poses the danger of hiding the need to develop a free and authentic relation to technology, Truth, and ultimately to Dasein itself.
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.
The chef Richard McGeown has faced bigger culinary challenges in his distinguished career than frying a meat patty in a little sunflower oil and butter. But this time the eyes and cameras of hundreds of journalists in the room were fixed on the 5oz (140g) pink disc sizzling in his pan, one that had been five years and €250,000 in the making. This was the world’s first proper portion of cultured meat, a beef burger created by Mark Post, professor of physiology, and his team at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
Post (which rhymes with ‘lost’, not ‘ghost’) has been working on in vitro meat (IVM) since 2009. On 5 August this year he presented his cultured beef burger to the world as a ‘proof of concept’. Having shown that the technology works, Post believes that in a decade or so we could see commercial production of meat that has been grown in a lab rather than reared and slaughtered. The comforting illusion that supermarket trays of plastic-wrapped steaks are not
IN 1890, the American psychologist William James famously likened our conscious experience to the flow of a stream. “A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described,” he wrote. “In talking of it hereafter, let’s call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life.”
While there is no disputing the aptness of this metaphor in capturing our subjective experience of the world, recent research has shown that the “stream” of consciousness is, in fact, an illusion. We actually perceive the world in rhythmic pulses rather than as a continuous flow.
The romanticized version of what it's like to be a philosopher must be one of the most appealing careers possible: read great thinkers, think deep thoughts, and while away the days in a beautiful office, surrounded by books, an Emeralite lamp, a hot mug of coffee, and perhaps a cat curled up by your feet. For the very few, your profound thoughts could revolutionize whole fields, herald new political ages, and inspire generations.
Of course, for many, academic philosophy proves a disappointment—an endless slog to publish, the tedium and heartache of departmental politics, and a dismal job market that tends to people to far-flung college towns, far away from family and friends.
So what is a budding philosopher to do?
An informative series of posts by Helen De Cruz of New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science features interviews with seven philosophy Ph.D.s who have left academia for the private sector. There's a software engineer, a television comedy writer, a statistical researcher, a consultant, a network-security engineer, and a search-engine developer. None of them are what would traditionally be thought of as a "philosopher."
Critics give three main reasons; safety; creating babies with three parents; and the danger of opening the door to more genetic engineering. None of these objections provides a convincing reason against trying to treat what are often lethal diseases.
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.
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