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.

Mini-review: Socrates – A Man of Our Time

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Socrates is the quintessential philosopher in the etymological sense of “lover of wisdom,” as well as, of course, one of the first martyrs to the cause of wisdom. Socrates – A Man of Our Time, by Paul Johnson brings the Athenian sage vividly to life, and endeavors to explain why he is still so much relevant today.

Johnson does a good job, as much as it is possible to do, at distinguishing Socrates himself from what he calls “the ventriloquist’s doll,” meaning the Socrates-Plato that characterizes the later Platonic dialogues. We are then treated to the life and philosophy of Socrates, from his relentless acting as the self-appointment “gadfly” of Athens during the city’s optimistic times at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War through his perhaps inevitable trial once things had turned dark for his fellow Athenians and he had accumulated enough ill will among both the powerful and the everyday man.

Johnson has a somewhat annoying tendency to use parallels with British history, which at times makes the book feel a bit parochial, in stark opposition with the cosmopolitanism taught by Socrates. But don’t let those occasional diversions irritate you too much. The book is certainly worth reading if you are interested in philosophy as a way of life. And why wouldn’t you?

Suggested readings, #86

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Examine everything: the heuristic philosophy of Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn. Book review of Ars Vitae — The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living, in which Lasch-Quinn argues for a return to the inner life in order to combat the maladies of the 21st century. (LA Review of Books)

How Japanese people stay fit for life, without ever visiting a gym. One of my occasional picks paying homage to Japanese culture. In this case, the answer is: walking, everywhere. (Medium)

How to fall out of love. Ancient philosophy and the cure of lovesickness. Long read by Don Robertson on how to cure yourself of mad love by following the advice of the poets Lucretius and Ovid. (Medium)

Why are politicians suddenly talking about their ‘lived experience’? A must read by Anthony Appiah about the perils of relying on one’s own “lived experience” in order to make points allegedly representative of large groups (based on ethnicity, gender, etc.). (Guardian)

Object lessons. A stimulating piece on Henry James’ novels and the problem of objectifying other people. I think it goes awry in places where the author doesn’t seem to appreciate enough the distinctions between human beings and art objects. Still, worth reading. (ArtNews)

Mini-review: Happiness – Lessons from a New Science

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Who doesn’t want to be happy? Pretty much by definition, happiness, whatever we may mean by that term, is the ultimate intrinsic good. It doesn’t make much sense to ask “why would you want to be happy?”

Richard Layard is an economist who has decided to take a hard empirical look at the question of what makes us happy (and what doesn’t). The result is an interesting, thought provoking book, full of statistical tables and graphs to chew on. Some of the empirical results are more robust than others, of course, as is always the case in social science.

We learn, for instance, that money really doesn’t make you happy, as there is no correlation between the increase in real per capita income and degree of self-reported happiness. We also learn that seven factors account for the overwhelming majority of the degree of happiness perceived by individuals: family relationships, overall financial situation (as in: one has enough money to have shelter and put food on the table), work (as in job security), community and friends, health, personal freedom (as in how oppressive your government is), and personal values (as in: do you have them and hold on to them?).

Layard is at his weakest in the second part of the book, entitled “What can be done?,” because there he switches from social scientist to wannabe philosopher, and it clearly shows that he is out of his depth. Still, definitely a good, even if now increasingly dated, entry in your happiness library.

Suggested readings, #85

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Carlo Rovelli on what we can learn from the octopus mind. Do octopuses hold the key to understanding consciousness? I’m not as optimistic as Rovelli and my colleague Peter Godfrey-Smith, but it’s an intriguing idea. (BBC Science Focus)

Anxiety isn’t a pathology. It drives us to push back the unknown. I’m increasingly less convinced by articles published in Psyche, the new Aeon outlet. Still, food for thought. (Psyche / Aeon)

Will the universe remember us after we’re gone? Despite the potentially New Age title, John Horgan doesn’t take the path of nonsense. Must-read article. (Scientific American)

What America owes to the Greeks and Romans. A lot, as it turns out, though the Founding Fathers would definitely look with dismay on what American has now become. (New York Times)

Means to an end. Aristotle’s metaphysics of nature. A valiant attempt to bring back a Tomistic version of Aristotle’s metaphysics for modern science. Doomed to fail, in my opinion. (Times Literary Supplement)

Why I occasionally ask for money

[Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels, used with permission]

I can’t believe I feel compelled to write this, but here we go. I have been writing and speaking for the general public about science and philosophy for decades now, since I was still in Italy and wrote for a magazine called “Sapere” (To Know), back in the ’80s. Ever since, I’ve published seven non-technical books in the English language and two in Italian (without counting translations); I have written thousands of blog posts on a variety of platforms; and I have either produced or been a guest on thousands of podcasts.

The overwhelming majority of this output is freely available on the internet. But some of it isn’t. The books, of course, are published by printing presses that will not give them out for free; my Patreon site asks for a monthly donation amounting to less than the cost of a cup of coffee; and if people wish to attend some of my intensive workshops on Stoicism they are asked to contribute an amount that is far less than what organizers of similar events typically charge.

These occasional financial contributions are outweighed, in my view, by the fact that I have spent countless hours talking to people about science and philosophy for free, and that I have published enough freely available essays to arrive at a word count that currently stands at the equivalent of about 40 books.

Nevertheless, for the benefit of the “skeptics” out there, let me list my reasons for occasionally charging for my work:

(i) Philosophy is a profession, and philosophers have been paid for it since antiquity. Yes, yes, Socrates was an exception, but his living expenses in 4th century BCE Athens were pretty low. Besides, I don’t claim to be a Socrates.

(ii) Writing too is a profession, and we really need to move away from this insane notion that “information wants to be free.” Setting aside the metaphysical point that information cannot possibly “want” anything, this attitude is destroying professions from music to journalism. I’m sorry, but if you want good music you’ll have to pay the musician, and if you want good writing you’ll have to pay the writer.

(iii) The ratio of paid / free in my output for the public comes down to >99% of what I have published being available at no charge. That’s a lot of material (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, and here, among other places) you can go through before ever considering shelling a drachma. (More free stuff here, here, and here. Oh, and here.)

(iv) People who complain about “having” to pay for a fraction of my professional services don’t seem to be bothered by the fact that they do pay for my books (unless they pirate them, of course). They also probably wouldn’t think of applying the same “it ought to be free” criterion to any other service they are getting, from their grocery shopping to their visits to the dentist. I wonder why they think writing ought to be an entirely charitable activity.

(v) Needless to say, but do allow me to point out the obvious, there is no compulsion whatsoever to contribute to my Patreon, to buy my books, or to sign up for my workshops. As Marcus Aurelius puts it (Meditations, VIII.50), if the cucumber is bitter, don’t eat it; why do you have to go on and endlessly complain that there are bitter cucumbers in the world?

Thanks for your indulgence. And for your occasional support.

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.

Suggested readings, #84

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Conscious spoons, really? Pushing back against panpsychism. A really nice take down of the latest in pseudo-philosophy. (NeuroBanter)

The death of philosophers. A few choice examples of how philosophers have died through the ages. (thinkPhilosophy)

The radical aristocrat who put kindness on a scientific footing. An article about Peter Kropotkin’s good political intentions and misguided science. Not enough emphasis by the author on the latter. (Aeon Psyche)

Can lab-grown brains become conscious? Fascinating overview of brain organoids and the likelihood we’ll learn something about consciousness by studying their properties. Also a good discussion of the ethical implications of such research. (Nature)

Successful companies live up to this Ancient Greek ideal. An evidence-based argument that – in the long run – commercially successful companies are those that engage in corporate philotimy, that is, cultivate ethical integrity. (Harvard Business Review)

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.

Suggested readings, #83

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Psychedelics can’t be tested using conventional clinical trials. Research on psychedelics is all the rage, but it turns out to be much more difficult to carry out than one might have assumed. (Aeon)

The neurology of flow states. Why time vanishes when you’re jamming. Ever been in a state of flow? Here is what it looks like inside your brain, and why it matters. (Nautilus)

Why physics can’t tell us what life is. The origin of life can’t be explained by first principles. Biology is not just more complex physics, I keep telling my friends in the Physics Department. (Nautilus)

The dangers of moral talk: on Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke’s “Grandstanding.” Although there is a danger that these authors themselves indulge in moral grandstanding, they have a point. And it cuts across the political divide. (LA Review of Books)