How to Live a Good Life — Two Examples

Below is the abstract of a paper I co-wrote with my friend Skye Cleary about the value of philosophies of life. We present two examples in some depth: Stoicism and Existentialism. The full paper can be downloaded here. More on philosophies of life in the book that inspired this essay: How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy of Life, ed. by Massimo Pigliucci, Skye Cleary & Daniel Kaufman (Vintage, 2020).

What is a philosophy of life? And why should people examine both their own and those of others? We present an operational definition of philosophies of life as constituted of three components: (i) a metaphysics, i.e., a view of how the world works; (ii) an ethics, i.e., a view of how we should behave in the world; and (iii) a set of practices. We also argue that examining and comparing philosophies of life is conducive to more tolerance of others and to a more fulfilling life path for oneself. We then present two examples of life philosophies—Greco-Roman Stoicism and contemporary existential- ism—as case studies.

Is indigenous science actually pseudoscience? Yup

Below are the first couple of paragraphs of two papers I have written about the ongoing problem (in Canada) of “indigenizing” the university, i.e., of introducing so-called indigenous science into standard science courses. Spoiler alert: with all due respect to indigenous people and what they have suffered, I think this is a terrible idea. You can download the two full papers here and here. The full book can be obtained here.

First paper: Is Indigenous Science Pseudoscience? A Response to Gorelick

There has been much debate of late about alternative ways of doing science, particularly within the delicate context of Indigenous practices in Canada, Australia, and other countries around the world. Some authors have called for the integration of what they refer to as traditional ecological knowledge into university science education curricula (Snively and Corsiglia 2000); others have made an even broader call pertinent to science in general (Michie 2002). Some have suggested that not just science education, but science proper, will benefit from the integration of Indigenous methods, especially when it comes to practical applications (Johnson et al. 2016).

The debate is often understandably emotional, as it is set against the background of the lingering aftermath of colonialism (Williams and Chrisman 2013), and within the broader issue of multiculturalism (Race 2015) and the productive coexistence of different traditions within a given society. It is also often framed in terms of pseudoscience (Pigliucci and Boudry 2013), with (some) critics of Indigenous approaches dismissively labelling the latter as pseudoscientific, and defenders of such approaches striving to show that they represent legitimate alternatives to what is often characterized as “Western” science. …

Second paper: Is Indigenous Science Pseudoscience? A Further Response to Gorelick

I wish to thank Root Gorelick for his kind words about me at the beginning of his response, though I would hardly recommend anyone to “revere” me! That said, his second piece is a bit all over the place, which makes it hard to pinpoint crucial aspects to respond to in a short follow-up. Nevertheless, I will highlight what I think are Gorelick’s major points and offer a counter- commentary.

He begins with an apology: “I am defending Indigenous ways of knowing despite being a naïve white person. There is nothing Indigenous about my carpet-bagger heritage.” This (in my view unnecessary) bit of self-deprecation is then followed, later on in the essay, by criticizing me as the white man who has not checked his privilege. For instance: “‘Hypocrisy is the greatest luxury,’ a luxury that we have as professors, being in a place of privilege [implying that I am a hypocritical individual who is unaware of his privilege, since Gorelick has just checked his own publicly] … Modern proponents of Indigenous ways of knowing strive for inclusivity, not usurpation nor conquest [implying that I am on the side of usurpation and conquest].” …

Stoicism, Friendship, and Grief

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova from Pexels

Below are the first couple of paragraphs of a paper I have written about how Stoicism deals with friendship and grief. It is a response to a friendly-critical commentary by my Fordham University colleague and friend Brian Johnson, the author of The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life. You can download the full paper here.

Brian Johnson, in his commentary on my effort to update Stoicism, provides a cogent critique of ancient Stoicism and a reasonable suggestion for my attempt to define modern Stoicism. I do not (much) disagree with him in terms of his conclusions, which he applies to the specific cases of friendship and grief, but which also hold for all of the Stoic “preferred indifferents.” I do, however, want to push back on two points: (1) the path he takes to arrive at those conclusions, and (2) the notion that all ancient Stoics would have proposed the same approach to friendship and grief that Epictetus takes.

To begin with, Johnson points out that, for the Stoics, only virtue is good (agathos), while everything else is either worthy (axia) of choice or to be rejected. Hence the famous Stoic distinction between virtue, on the one hand, and preferred and dispreferred “indifferents” (i.e., everything else), on the other hand. However jarring the word “indifferent” may sound to modern ears, we need to be clear about what it means on the Stoic view. Things like wealth, health, education, friendship, love, and so forth are indifferents in the specific sense that they do not make us morally better or worse persons.

Toward the Fifth Stoa: The Return of Virtue Ethics

Stoa at Ephesus, photo by the Author

Below are the first two paragraph of a paper I have written about the modern come back of virtue ethics, especially in the form of Stoicism. In the paper I discuss what virtue ethics is and why it came back, address the specific advantages of Stoicism, and propose the outline of a modernized Stoicism for the 21st century (something on which I greatly expand in my most recent book). You can download the full paper here.

Stoicism is back. After a hiatus of about eighteen centuries (if one does not count the brief interval of Neo-Stoicism instigated by Justus Lipsius during the Renaissance1), the Greco-Roman philosophy often (wrongly) associated with suppressing emotions and going through life with a stiff upper lip is back in the news. Literally. Major national and international newspapers and media outlets, including but not limited to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, the BBC, Der Standard, El Mundo, El Pais, and even Marie Claire, are suddenly talking about Stoicism. The major online community of people interested in the philosophy, on Facebook, counts over 40,000 members.

It is easy and tempting for professional philosophers to scoff at this phenomenon, but it would be unwise. I suggest that what is known as modern Stoicism is to be situated within a broader renaissance of virtue ethics in both technical philosophy and popular culture. I will also argue that this is a clear benefit (despite some caveats) for professional philosophy, for general education, and arguably for society at large. Philosophers should therefore take notice, understand, and insofar as it is possible, contribute to the increasing interest in practical philosophy, of which modern Stoicism is but one manifestation.

What Is and Is Not in Our Power: A Response to Christian Coseru

Below is the first paragraph of a paper I published on the Stoic concept of the dichotomy of control. The paper was written in response to a critical analysis of the dichotomy, as well as of the Stoic principle that we should “live in accordance with nature,” authored by my colleague Christian Coseru. You can download the full paper here.

The ancient Stoics were known for putting forth a number of “paradoxes,” so much so that Cicero wrote a whole treatise to explore them, aptly entitled Paradoxa Stoicorum. Of course, the term “paradox,” in that context, did not have anything to do with logical contradictions, but rather with para doxan, that is, uncommon opinions. Certainly, two of the most uncommon opinions put forth by the Stoics are that we should live “according to nature” and that things in general can neatly be divided into those that are “up to us” and those that are “not up to us.” In my previous article for this two-part symposium, I proposed that these are two cardinal pillars of both ancient and modern Stoicism.

More than provocative, less than scientific: A commentary on the editorial decision to publish Cofnas (2020)

image from Wikimedia Commons

Below are the first two paragraphs of a paper I co-authored with several colleagues in the journal Philosophical Psychology. It’s an unusual entry in my list of publications, because it’s a pointed criticism of the editorial decision by the journal to publish a paper defending “scientific” race theory, a position that is ideologically motivated and flatly contradicted by the actual scientific evidence. You can judge the merits of our argument for yourself by downloading the full paper.

We are addressing this letter to the editors of Philosophical Psychology after reading an article they decided to publish in the recent Volume 33, Issue 1. The article is by Nathan Cofnas and is entitled “Research on group differences in intelligence: A defense of free inquiry” (2020). The purpose of our letter is not to invite Cofnas’s contribution into a broader dialogue, but to respectfully voice our concerns about the decision to publish the manuscript, which, in our opinion, fails to meet a range of academic quality standards usually expected of academic publications.

As we read it, Cofnas’s article is a defense of the pursuit of the hereditarian scientific program that explores the alleged genomic differences in IQ between “racially” defined populations (e.g., “blacks” vs. “whites”), claiming that there is a strong and unfortunate tendency among researchers to ignore this line of research due to moral reservations. Cofnas argues that racial classifications, insofar as these may have discrete genetic correlates, could one day partially explain the differences measured in IQ between various populations; ignoring this hypothesis, Cofnas holds, could have potentially harmful consequences.

How to behave virtuously in an irrational world

Below is the abstract of a paper (download here) that I published in the journal Disputatio. It is about virtue epistemology, an approach to knowledge acquisition and communication that might just be helpful in public discourse about science and pseudoscience.

It is no secret that we inhabit an increasingly irrational world, plagued by rampant pseudoscience, science denialism, post–truths and fake news. Or perhaps, human nature being what it is, we have always lived in such a world and we are now simply more keenly aware of it because of easy and widespread access to social media. Moreover, the stakes are higher, as pseudoscience in the form of the anti–vax movement imperils the lives of many, while climate change denialism literally risks a collapse of the human ecosystem. So how do we deal with the problem? How do we talk to otherwise perfectly reasonable and functional people who nevertheless espouse all sorts of nonsense — and vote accordingly? In this paper I will explore a couple of real life conversations among many that I have had with believers in pseudoscience, and then present and discuss virtue epistemology as one approach to ameliorate the problem. No silver bullets are available, unfortunately, but it is our intellectual and moral duty to keep, as Carl Sagan famously put it, the candle of reason lit even when surrounded by the darkness of unreason.

Star Trek as philosophy: Spock as Stoic sage

Below is the abstract of a paper (download here) I published in The Palgrave Handbook of Popular Culture as Philosophy, edited by my friend and colleague David Kyle Johnson. It presents an unusual argument that the figure of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock can be interpreted as telling the story of how one embarks on the path of Stoic sagehood.

It has been suggested that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the original Star Trek series (TOS), more or less consciously built the equivalent of a philosophical argument in favor of Stoic philosophy by centering his story lines on the interacting and exquisitely complementary characters of Mr. Spock, Captain Kirk, and Doctor McCoy. Spock in particular was apparently purposefully meant by Roddenberry to represent Stoicism as he understood it. Modern prac- titioners of Stoicism, however, tend to see Spock as a “stoic” (lower-s) in the vernacular sense of the term: going through life constantly sporting a stiff upper lip and suppressing his emotions. I argue in this essay that, on the contrary, the evolution of Spock from the young officer serving on the Enterprise NCC-1701 to ambassador to the Romulans in the last movie based on TOS can be understood as the story of someone entering the path to sagehood in the Stoic sense. And yes, Stoicism definitely is about far more than stiff lips and the suppression of emotions.

Science Wars, Scientism, and Think Tanks: A Précis of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk

Below is the abstract of a recent paper I have published in the Journal of Cognitive Historiography (full paper here). The paper is a conceptual summary of my book, Nonsense on Stilts (second edition), which deals with the nature of science and pseudoscience.

The present contribution offers a précis of the second edition of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (Pigliucci 2018). The aim of the book is to explore the complex landscape populated by science, pseudoscience, and everything in between, what in philosophy is known as the “demarcation problem”. However, the author maintains that little progress can be done in public understanding and appreciation of science unless we also explore the historical, sociological and psychological motivations that lead people to believe in “nonsense on stilts”. Further, it is incumbent on scientists and science educators to act “virtuously” whenever dealing with pseudo- scientific claims, an effort that may be greatly helped by the adoption of a virtue epistemological approach, analogous to virtue ethics in moral philosophy.

Why Alex Rosenberg – and a number of other philosophers – are wrong just about everything

[Alex Rosenberg, thinking]

Here is the abstract of a new paper I published about the general issue of what I call scientistic reductionism in philosophy, focusing on one of its main proponents, Duke University philosopher Alex Rosenberg. You can download the full paper, published in the Journal of Cognitive Historiography, here.

There is a pernicious tendency these days among some philosophers to engage in a “nothing but” attitude about important questions. According to this attitude, consciousness, volition, reason, and morality are “illusions”, “nothing but” the epiphenomena of specific neural processes. Alex Rosenberg is a particularly good (though by no means the only) illustration of this problem, which is why his work is presented and analyzed in some detail in this contribution. The general attitude displayed by Rosenberg et al. falls squarely under the rubric of “scientism”, the notion that science (however vaguely and very broadly defined) is the only reliable source of knowledge and understanding, and that all other disciplines (especially the humanistic ones) ought to bow to its dictates. The results are, predictably, incoherent and pernicious, as it is illustrated here via a number of examples.