Suggested readings, #144

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

How to not fear your death. Your demise is inevitable. I hope that doesn’t come as too much of a shock. I agree that the brevity of human existence is bothersome. Thankfully, for most of us, this frightful fact usually hovers somewhere beyond the margins of our consciousness: we’re ‘aware’ of our death without constantly fearing it. Inevitably, though, there are moments when the reality of our eventual death strikes us in a new, chillier light. A close call demonstrates the tenuousness of life, or the death of a loved one reminds us that no one is exempt from humanity’s ultimate destination. Even talking about death, as we are now, can be enough to bring on a ruminative contemplation of the end, and with it a shudder of fear about one’s own extinguishment. … (Psyche)

The morality of business and the risk of a dead planet. For Paul Polman, the former CEO of Unilever, the ultimate question for business leaders is this: is the world better off because your business is in it? It’s a simple question, with a straightforward yes-or-no answer. Yet, according to Polman and his co-author Andrew Winston, who just published the book “Net Positive”, it is vital. It defines whether a business should – and will – exist at all in the future. For them, talking about the purpose and morality of business is as natural as talking about growth and profits. In fact, they say, the former should take precedence over the other. “It’s time to wake up from our fifty-year zombielike obsession with profits,” they write. “Shareholder value should be a result, not an objective.” Instead, companies should be “courageous”, and work to have a positive impact on society and the planet. … (London School of Economics Business Review)

The art movement that embraced the monstrous. To be on the internet today is to confront unsettling images—of war, climate change, humanitarian crises. Weird visuals crop up too. A YouTube algorithm provides me, for instance, with videos of a pimple-popping bonanza, or a series of videos in which young men eat glue. If disquieting sensory experiences abound in daily life, why go and seek more out? That question might be put to visitors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Surrealism Beyond Borders” exhibition, a show filled with grotesque representations of political upheaval and private horror, but also with thrillingly odd and beautiful demonstrations of imagination. … (Atlantic)

Do we really need to take 10,000 steps a day for our health? Fitness tracking devices often recommend we take 10,000 steps a day. But the goal of taking 10,000 steps, which many of us believe is rooted in science, in fact rests on coincidence and sticky history rather than research. According to Dr. I-Min Lee, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and an expert on step counts and health, the 10,000-steps target became popular in Japan in the 1960s. A clock maker, hoping to capitalize on interest in fitness after the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, mass-produced a pedometer with a name that, when written in Japanese characters, resembled a walking man. It also translated as “10,000-steps meter,” creating a walking aim that, through the decades, somehow became embedded in our global consciousness — and fitness trackers. … (New York Times)

This paradoxical life. Here is a dilemma you may find familiar. On the one hand, a life well lived requires security, safety and regularity. That might mean a family, a partner, a steady job. On the other hand, a life well lived requires new experiences, risk and authentic independence, in ways incompatible with a family or partner or job. Day to day, it can seem not just challenging to balance these demands, but outright impossible. That’s because, we sense, the demands of a good life are not merely difficult; sometimes, the demands of a good life actually contradict. ‘Human experience,’ wrote the novelist George Eliot in 1876, ‘is usually paradoxical.’ … (Aeon) [I must say that this, in my opinion, is one of the worst essays Aeon has ever published. The daily life examples make no sense, and I challenge you to read it and have any understanding of what paraconsistent logic is actually about.]

Suggested readings, #143

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

America’s big mistake about science literacy came back to haunt us in 2021. In this day and age, it’s virtually impossible to have sufficient expertise to figure out what the complete, comprehensive, scientifically validated truth surrounding any issue is. Unless you yourself have spent many years studying, researching, and actively participating in furthering the scientific endeavor in a particular field, you can be certain — with an incredibly high degree of confidence — that your non-expertise will fundamentally limit the depth and breadth of your understanding. Put simply, your inexperience, relative to that of bona fide professionals, gives you too many blind spots that you yourself will be unaware of, to be able to distinguish what’s valid and conclusive from what’s not. … (Big Think)

How disgust explains everything. Two distinguished academics walk into a restaurant in Manhattan. It is their first meeting — their first date, in fact — and the year is 2015. The man wears a down jacket against the icy winter evening. The woman has a shock of glossy white hair. The restaurant is on a cozy corner of the West Village and has foie gras on the menu. What the man doesn’t know is that the interior of his down jacket has suffered a structural failure, and the filling has massed along the bottom hem, forming a conspicuous bulge at his waist. As they greet each other, the woman perceives the bulge and asks herself: Is my date wearing a colostomy bag? … (New York Times)

Post-Humans on a sterile promontory: the new myths of Transhumanism and the Dark Mountain. Not too long ago, humans believed that the stars determined their fate. Some still do. It was a belief born of naïveté, misunderstanding the nature of those diamonds in the night sky. But it was also a sign of our hubris, to presume that those lights in the firmament could have any interest in us. Rather than feel controlled by them, we now understand that the stars are not gods or arbiters of fate but places we now aspire to explore. The knowledge of what stars actually are, and how insignificant we are in comparison to the vastness of the cosmos, has humbled us. And yet we are brash eno­ugh to speculate that one day we will be determining the destinies of stars, not the other way around. … (Free Inquiry)

Are new gender beliefs based on science and research? There’s been some strange paradigm shifts among the educated classes of the Western world lately concerning gender. For one thing, in some circles, people are asked to state their gender and give their preferred pronouns. Controversies exist about bathroom assignment. Specialized therapists, speakers, and publications have emerged to encourage the wider public to develop greater sensitivity and new mores and etiquette for emerging genders. … (Skeptical Inquirer)

Introducing the Plato’s Academy Centre. Hello my name is Donald Robertson and I’m the president and founder of the Plato’s Academy Centre, which we’re delighted to announce is now registered in Greece as a civil nonprofit association. So let me tell you a little bit about the project… First of all, how did this begin? Well, over a year ago, I was walking in Plato’s Academy Park, in Athens, where Plato’s original school of philosophy was located. Now it’s a large public park near the city centre, containing some ancient ruins, with a small digital museum nearby, a statue of Plato, and a pleasant square with restaurants and coffee shops. The local Athenians walk their dogs in the park, jog and exercise there, and bring their children to play. Once, though, this was the most important centre for philosophy in the world. Plato’s Academy was the first academic instute in European history, from which all modern academies subseqeuently took their name. Plato would walk in this park, lecturing his students. Socrates and other ancient thinkers also came here to exercise their intellects in rational debate. … (Medium)

Suggested readings, #142

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

Like COVID-19, the Black Death had its own “truther” movement, too. While the COVID-19 pandemic has been an inflection point of modern history, it is nowhere close to being the deadliest pandemic in human history. That dubious distinction belongs to the infamous “Black Death,” a bubonic plague that swept through Europe and the Near East in the mid-14th century. Like COVID-19, the bubonic plague was a terrible way to die, but with very different symptoms. The most notorious were the dreaded buboes (hence ‘bubonic plague’), severe inflammations of the lymph nodes that oozed pus and broke out over the groin, armpits and neck. A victim’s skin and flesh would eventually turn black and rot, although long before this happened they would experience intense nausea, vomiting, fever, headaches and aching joints. Within days — or, at most, a couple weeks — the infected person would die. … (Salon)

The great masquerade of evil. Writing a few short months before his arrest by the Gestapo in April of 1943, the German scholar, theologian, and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrestled with the challenges of living in a context of evil. Bonhoeffer had opposed the Nazi regime from its inception, delivering a critical radio address just two days after Hitler’s rise to power ten years earlier. Deeply at odds with Lutheran leaders who acceded to, and even cooperated with, Nazi influence on the German churches, he helped to found the breakaway Confessing Church movement set against such influence. In 1935 he participated in organizing an underground seminary to train pastors for these new churches, serving as the leader of that residential community until it was disbanded by Hitler’s government in 1937. … (the Raven)

How to pray to a dead God. On an evening in 1851, a mutton-chopped 28-year-old English poet and critic looked out at the English Channel with his new bride. Walking along the white chalk cliffs of Dover, jagged and streaked black with flint as if the coast had just been ripped from the Continent, he would recall that:

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast, the light
Gleams, and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. … (Aeon)

The gender wars and academic freedom. Philosophical arguments regarding academic freedom can sometimes appear removed from the real conflicts playing out in contemporary universities. This article focusses on a set of issues at the front line of these conflicts, namely, questions regarding sex, gender and gender identity. As a philosopher and a sociologist, we aim to elucidate the costs of curtailing discussion on fundamental demographic and conceptual categories. We argue that these costs are educational in the broadest sense: constricting the possibility of shared learning and knowledge production, which in turn are vital to a functioning democracy. (The Philosophers’ Magazine)

How leftist theory stopped making sense. There exists a strand of social thought, stretching from Georg Hegel in the 19th century through to Max Weber in the early 20th and Juergen Habermas in the postwar era, that insists that a hallmark of modernity is the differentiation of forms of human knowledge. The sophistication of culture is defined in part by the autonomy of science, morality, and art from religion, and their mutual incommensurability. Any undoing of this development, according to these thinkers, would mean regression to a less sophisticated form of culture. … (Foreign Policy)

Suggested readings, #141

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

Spiritualism and the birth of abstract art. Georgiana Houghton’s only major showing of her drawings in her lifetime was not a success. It was an elaborate affair at the New British Gallery in London organized at her own expense, but of the 155 pieces produced over a ten-year period, she sold only one. Nor was the critical reception particularly warm. According to a recent account, “most of the critics were surprised and alienated, dismissive, malicious, or amused.” … (Skeptical Inquirer)

A good life is painful. Can we live a good life without suffering? Notice that I used the word “good” and not “happy.” It doesn’t make any sense to ask whether we can suffer and be happy at the same time, but can we live a full and meaningful life without certain kinds of suffering? That’s a much harder question. … (Vox)

A massive 8-year effort finds that much cancer research can’t be replicated. After eight years, a project that tried to reproduce the results of key cancer biology studies has finally concluded. And its findings suggest that like research in the social sciences, cancer research has a replication problem. Researchers with the Reproducibility Project: Cancer Biology aimed to replicate 193 experiments from 53 top cancer papers published from 2010 to 2012. But only a quarter of those experiments were able to be reproduced, the team reports in two papers published December 7 in eLife. … (Science News)

Justifying cancel culture. Let’s, for the sake of argument, take “cancellation” to involve the attempt to deprive a person of the ability to make a political and cultural difference through their words and actions. This might be achieved variously by pressurising a university to withdraw an invitation to give a talk at a prestigious event (no-platforming); or persuading a publisher to cancel a book contract; or lobbying a social media company to terminate an account; or getting a potential employer to withdraw a job offer; or persuading a current employer to terminate a position of employment. The idea of cancellation is to neuter the target, to strip them of their ability to bring about certain kinds of perlocutionary effect – informing, influencing, persuading, inciting, and so on. If cancellation also functions as punishment, then so much the better. Not all cancellations are successful, of course, and some go spectacularly wrong, but for our purposes, it is the attempt that counts. … (The Philosophers’ Magazine)

Better living through Stoicism, from Seneca to modern interpreters. A six-story building is going up catty-corner to where I live, and from 7 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. every weekday a torrent of robust and erratic noise is transmitted through the thin walls of my apartment. Specifically, there is a great deal of screaming — not screams of pain (thank God), but screams as a form of communication: about moving an object from one place to another, or telling someone to get out of the way of the moving object, or coordinating the arrival or departure of a vehicle containing more objects to move. … (New York Times)

Suggested readings, #140

Vintage engraving of The Bench, by William Hogarth. 1758, depicts four judges listening to a case in the Court of Common Pleas.

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

The philosopher and pain: the case of Rorty and Dennett. A couple of weeks ago, on the pages of this website, some critical comments on Richard Rorty’s general argumentative style were made, and, sympathetic to these comments, this inspired me to join the discussion with some criticism of Rorty of my own and, while I am at it, throw in some criticism of Daniel Dennett, for, as will be seen, they both have some mindboggling and implausible things to say about the experience of pain. This, in my view, stems from one of the things they have in common despite their many and substantial differences, namely, their deep animosity to anything Cartesian. … (3QuarksDaily)

We know how time will end, but not how it started. Take a movie of an everyday scene and play it backwards to an audience. People are sure to notice: rivers flowing uphill, broken eggs reassembling themselves, footprints washed into existence by the retreating tide… In daily life we have no trouble telling past from future, so it’s easy to spot the deception when sequences are reversed. The directionality inherent in natural phenomena is dubbed ‘the arrow of time.’ It is such a familiar part of experience that it often comes as a shock to learn that its origin is shrouded in mystery. … (IAI News)

Does law exist to provide moral order? In 1959, as a response to what was commonly known as the Wolfenden Report, Lord Devlin, an English judge, delivered the Maccabaean Lecture in Jurisprudence at the British Academy. The lecture that would later be published as The Enforcement of Morals. The Wolfenden Report was more correctly called the Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. Two years before Devlin’s lecture, the Committee had recommended by a majority of 12 to 1 that, in Britain, “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a crime.” Devlin’s objections to this recommendation would spark a passionate public debate between himself and H. L. A. Hart, Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford University. … (JSTOR Daily)

Our innate ideas prevent us seeing what is innate in human nature. Remy, the Harvard Humanities cat, has an orange coat, a focused agenda, and a strong scholarly mission. He spends his mornings in the library, his afternoons at the physics lab, and he pulls all-nighters at the law school. No, Remy doesn’t investigate particle physics, or worry about free will and legal responsibility. Remy was born a cat, and this biological fact predestines him to see the world through the inborn prism of his feline cognition. Certain notions come to him naturally. Remy can reckon the trajectory of his chipmunk victims with exquisite precision. But it is doubtful he will ever show remorse for their misfortunes. … (Psyche)

The Republican axis reversing the rights revolution. The great divergence is rapidly expanding—and President Joe Biden’s window to reverse it is narrowing. Since the 1960s, Congress and federal courts have acted mostly to strengthen the floor of basic civil rights available to citizens in all 50 states, a pattern visible on issues from the dismantling of Jim Crow racial segregation to the right to abortion to the authorization of same-sex marriage. But now, offensives by red-state governments and GOP-appointed federal judges are poised to retrench those common standards across an array of issues. The result through the 2020s could be a dramatic erosion of common national rights and a widening gulf—a “great divergence”—between the liberties of Americans in blue states and those in red states. … (The Atlantic)

Suggested readings, #139

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

Yes, the Great Books make us better people. Roosevelt Montás came to the United States from the Dominican Republic as a child, got his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. from Columbia and ultimately came to run its Core Curriculum program. This is a slate of courses required of all Columbia undergraduates that includes a major component on what is commonly referred to as the Great Books. Now, he’s written a combination memoir and call to arms. … (New York Times)

Calculate but don’t shut up. Physics is important. We rely on it to provide us with valid conceptions of the nature of the physical world and how it works, conceptions that underpin almost every aspect of our technologically advanced society. At root, physics as a discipline relies on foundational theories of space and time, and of matter and light. For the most part, physicists are content to make use of foundational theories that have remained broadly unchanged for centuries. These are good enough for most practical purposes. But as they explore the physics of the very fast, or of the very small, or as they ponder the large-scale structure of the Universe, they reach for younger theories that were established only a century ago. These are quantum mechanics and Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity. … (Aeon)

How physics can help COVID-proof everyday life. The emergence of a new variant of the coronavirus has put a constellation of researchers – virologists, immunologists and epidemiologists chief among them – in the hot seat as political leaders and public health experts seek answers to questions about how transmissible it is and whether it erodes pre-existing immunity. But while attention for the moment is on the life sciences, physicists also have a role to play in stopping the virus that causes COVID-19. Indeed, in the longer term, insights from physics could drastically reduce transmission of other respiratory pathogens, too. … (Physics World) [Maybe, but I’m not at all convinced by the first experiment mentioned. See if you can spot the potential issue.]

What it’s like to learn you’re going to die. Nessa Coyle calls it the “existential slap”—that moment when a dying person first comprehends, on a gut level, that death is close. For many, the realization comes suddenly: “The usual habit of allowing thoughts of death to remain in the background is now impossible,” Coyle, a nurse and palliative-care pioneer, has written. “Death can no longer be denied.” I don’t know exactly when my mother, who eventually died of metastatic breast cancer, encountered her existential crisis. But I have a guess: My parents waited a day after her initial diagnosis before calling my brother, my sister, and me. They reached me first. My father is not a terribly calm man, but he said, very calmly, something to this effect: “Your mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer.” … (the Atlantic)

Stay mad: on Myisha Cherry’s “The Case for Rage.” “KEEP CALM AND carry on,” the cliché insists. But in the face of racism, it’s the wrong approach. In her new book, The Case for Rage: Why Anger Is Essential to Anti-Racist Struggle, Myisha Cherry urges instead, “Get angry!” The Stoic philosopher Seneca famously saw anger as a madness, “hideous and wild […] raging with an utterly inhuman lust for arms, blood, and tortures.” He assumed angry people behave badly — but Seneca’s assumption says more about him than it does about anger. … (LA Review of Books) [With all due respect to my friend Skye, I think Seneca was right and Cherry off the mark.]

Suggested readings, #138

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

The hidden ‘replication crisis’ of finance. It may sound like a low-budget Blade Runner rip-off, but over the past decade the scientific world has been gripped by a “replication crisis” — the findings of many seminal studies cannot be repeated, with huge implications. Is investing suffering from something similar? That is the incendiary argument of Campbell Harvey, professor of finance at Duke university. He reckons that at least half of the 400 supposedly market-beating strategies identified in top financial journals over the years are bogus. Worse, he worries that many fellow academics are in denial about this. … (Financial Times)

Surveillance, companionship, and entertainment: the ancient history of intelligent machines. Robots have histories that extend far back into the past. Artificial servants, autonomous killing machines, surveillance systems, and sex robots all find expression from the human imagination in works and contexts beyond Ovid (43 BCE to 17 CE) and the story of Pygmalion in cultures across Eurasia and North Africa. This long history of our human-machine relationships also reminds us that our aspirations, fears, and fantasies about emergent technologies are not new, even as the circumstances in which they appear differ widely. Situating these objects, and the desires that create them, within deeper and broader contexts of time and space reveals continuities and divergences that, in turn, provide opportunities to critique and question contemporary ideas and desires about robots and artificial intelligence. … (MIT Press Reader)

Being in a building. The 16th-century Tempietto designed by Donato Bramante in Rome stands at the heart of Western architectural history. Its iconic bull’s eye plan, with concentric circles radiating outward from a single point, coincides perfectly with the central status assumed within the architectural canon by this ‘little temple’. Architectural historians often argue that the Tempietto functions as a compelling geometrical metaphor for Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’ (1490) – his study of the body’s proportions – where both of these designs exalt the human form by placing it firmly at the centre of a perfectly ordered universe. … (Aeon) [Please ignore the last three paragraphs, which are suddenly affected by an unnecessary hyper-wokeness.]

Diets, detox, and other delusions. We’re in the midst of a pandemic! No, not that pandemic. I’m referring to the rapidly increasing worldwide prevalence of obesity, defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a condition of abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health. Obesity is a serious problem. At the last assessment in 2016, obesity afflicted 650 million adults and 14 million children, worldwide. The condition increases the risk of numerous comorbidities, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and several cancers. In 2014, the global economic impact of obesity was estimated at $2.0 trillion, which is 2.8 percent of the global gross domestic product. What’s more, obesity is increasing at a devastating pace; it is predicted to affect more than half the U.S. population by 2030. More than half! … (Skeptical Inquirer)

Does democracy exist? We tend to think of democracy as a set of governmental institutions. We see it as a political order characterized by open elections, constitutional constraints, the rule of law, freedom of speech, a free press, an independent judiciary, and so on. This makes good sense. These institutions indeed loom large in our political lives. However, political institutions differ considerably from one purportedly democratic society to the next. Voting procedures, representation schemes, conceptions of free speech, and judicial arrangements are not uniform across societies that are widely regarded as democratic. In some of these countries, voting is required by law and military service is mandatory. In others, these acts are voluntary. Some democratic countries have distinct speech restrictions, others have different and blurrier boundaries. And the ancient Athenians appointed their representatives to the Boule by lot, instead of by vote. Given these variations, how can these societies all be democracies? … (3QuarksDaily)

 

Suggested readings, #137

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

We can’t ignore the role mental health plays in conspiracy theory beliefs. When Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified for four hours before Congress last month, she shared a fleeting detail about who’s exposed to the most misinformation that should fundamentally shift how we tackle the spread of conspiracy theories online. Based on internal data Haugen viewed as a former product manager, she described how physically and emotionally isolated users, including people who are divorced, recently widowed, or newly relocated, consume misinformation on the platform at staggering rates. … (Mashable)

What the data say about police brutality and racial bias — and which reforms might work. For 9 minutes and 29 seconds, Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the neck of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. This deadly use of force by the now-former Minneapolis police officer has reinvigorated a very public debate about police brutality and racism. As protests have spread around the globe, the pressure is on police departments and politicians, particularly in the United States, to do something — from reforming law-enforcement tactics to defunding or even abolishing police departments. … (Nature)

A third way to explain fine tuning. What do the Higgs mass and Earth’s orbit ellipticity have in common? Both have values that are orders of magnitude smaller than theoretical estimates would suggest. These quantities appear to result from an extremely fine-tuned cancellation of two much larger quantities—a fact that many physicists find implausible (Fig. 1). These and other “fine tunings,” however, might only be apparent, and their explanation may hold the key for paradigmatic changes in our understanding of nature. Particle physics features two of the most intriguing fine-tuning puzzles: the Higgs boson mass and the cosmological constant. … (Physics)

The radical promise of human history. The standard history of humanity goes something like this. Roughly 300,000 to 200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens first evolved somewhere on the African continent. Over the next 100,000 to 150,000 years, this sturdy, adaptable species moved into new regions, first on its home continent and then into other parts of the globe. These early humans shaped flint and other stones into cutting blades of increasing complexity and used their tools to hunt the mega-fauna of the Pleistocene era. Sometimes, they immortalized these hunts—carved on rock faces or painted in glorious murals across the walls and ceilings of caves in places like Sulawesi, Chauvet, and Lascaux. … (Boston Review)

The power of utopia. In the public debate, the climate emergency has broadly given rise to two opposing reactions: either resignation, grief, and depression in the face of the Anthropocene’s most devastating impacts; or a self-assured, hubristic faith in the miraculous capacity of science and technology to save our species from itself. But, as Donna Haraway forcefully asserts, neither of these reactions, relatable as they are, will get us very far. What is called for instead is a sober reckoning with the existential obstacles lying ahead; a reckoning that still leaves space for the “educated hope” that our planetary future is not yet foreordained. To accomplish these twin goals, utopian thinking and acting are paramount. … (IAI News)

Suggested readings, #136

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

Reality is what you make of it. I open my eyes and a world appears. I’m sitting on a plastic chair on the deck of a tumbledown wooden house, high in a cypress forest a few miles north of Santa Cruz, Calif. It’s early morning. Looking straight out, I can see tall trees still wreathed in the cool ocean fog that rolls in every night, sending the temperature plummeting. I can’t see the ground, so the deck and the trees all seem to be floating together with me in the mist. There are some other plastic chairs, a table, and a tray arranged with coffee and bread. I can hear birdsong, some rustling around in the back — the people I’m staying with — and a distant murmur from something I can’t identify. Not every morning is like this; this is a good morning. I have to persuade myself, not for the first time, that this extraordinary world is a construction of my brain, a kind of “controlled hallucination.” … (Boston Globe)

‘Moral molecules’ – a new theory of what goodness is made of. Plato argued that there were four virtues: temperance, courage, wisdom and justice. Aristotle said that there were 14 – including generosity, magnanimity, friendliness, honesty and modesty. The ancient Egyptians promised to refrain from the 42 sins of Maat. Judaism distilled 613 commandments into the famous 10, including prohibitions against murder, adultery, stealing and lying. Christianity added faith, hope and charity to Plato’s list to make seven heavenly virtues (along with seven corresponding deadly sins). Confucianism endorses virtues such as filial piety, trustworthiness and wisdom. The 20 laws of Aberewa, a spirit figure of the Akan of Ghana, encourage paying your debts and accepting requests for help, and discourage disobeying chiefs and ‘carrying firewood in bundles into town’. The philosopher W D Ross identified seven prima facie moral duties: fidelity, reparation, gratitude, non-maleficence, beneficence, self-improvement and justice. More recently, psychologists have argued that there are variously three (community, autonomy, divinity), or four (unity, respect, equality, proportionality) or five to six (care, fairness, loyalty, authority, purity and perhaps liberty) basic moral principles. … (Psyche)

Why philosophy needs myth. In 1872, at the age of 28, Friedrich Nietzsche announced himself to the world with The Birth of Tragedy, an elegiac account of the alienation of Western culture from its spiritual foundations. According to Nietzsche, the ancient Greeks had once mastered a healthy cultural balance between the ‘Apollonian’ impulse toward rational control and the ‘Dionysian’ desire for ecstatic surrender. From the 5th century BCE onward, however, Western intellectual culture has consistently skewed in favour of Apollonian rationalism to the neglect of the Dionysian – an imbalance from which it has never recovered. … (Aeon)

The failure of American secularism. Long before New Atheists stalked the earth, the cause of secularism possessed a peculiar missionary zeal. In part, this was thanks to the broader mood of social uplift that accompanied the rise of modern skepticism: Loosing the surly bonds of superstition and myth was, by the lights of rationalist dogma, all but certain to deliver humanity into a golden age of liberty, equality, and sober self-improvement. With this sort of serene confidence propelling the great cause of secularism, it’s little wonder that its apostles cribbed a pronounced millennial fervor and evangelical certitude from their Christian foes. … (New Republic)

Where demons come from. Halloween brings a familiar array of spooky characters: ghosts, witches, zombies, goblins, and demons. But what is a demon, anyway? Christians today often describe them as fallen angels, minions of the most famous ex-angel of all, Satan. But New Testament scholar Dale Basil Martin writes that there was no such connection in ancient Jewish thought, or even among the first Christians. According to Martin, the ancient Greeks used the word daimon to refer to gods, especially minor gods or intermediate supernatural beings, as well as the souls of the dead. A daimon might also be a supernatural entity that causes disease, or the disease itself. Daimons could possess humans, causing madness. But philosophers generally saw daimons as exclusively good. And even regular people viewed them not as evil incarnate but as capricious creatures who needed sacrifices to mollify them. … (JSTOR Daily)

Suggested readings, #135

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

Eve, Pandora and Plato: how Greek myth shaped the first Christian woman. More than any other biblical text, the book of Genesis has had a fundamental influence on ideas concerning gender roles in Western Christianity. Social attitudes regarding how men and women should relate to each other have stemmed from interpretations of Genesis 2-3. The story of how Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden has been a lens through which debates on gender have been filtered. The subordinate position of women throughout western history has thus been viewed as emanating from these chapters — influencing perspectives on women’s inferiority, the nature of woman’s creation, and the alleged ‘curse’ of Genesis 3:16. … (The Collector)

How do you know? You can’t be wrong on purpose. To see this, try one of my favourite philosophical parlour tricks. Right now, believe something you think is false: that the Sun is just a big lightbulb, for instance. Don’t imagine you believe it – really believe it. Become so confident in it that you’d bet good money that it’s true. When I try this, I feel a funny cognitive block, as if there’s a built-in aversion to believing on command, especially anything I already think is wrong. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean it’s easy to believe only truths. If learning and thinking were as easy as deciding to let nothing but the facts in, we would never make mistakes. And yet we stumble into falsehood all the time. We can all think of times we were convinced of something that turned out to be wrong, and we all have our favourite perceptual illusions, ambiguous images and pictures of impossible scenes, which drive it home that things aren’t always how they seem. … (Aeon)

Libertarianism as a programmatically incoherent social philosophy. The status of libertarianism is perhaps best captured by philosopher Jonathan Wolff, who noted its dichotomous appreciation in the academy and amongst the public. In commenting on the classic philosophical rivalry between Harvard University colleagues John Rawls, a social liberal, and Robert Nozick, a libertarian, Wolff writes “unlike Rawls, Nozick has won few followers among academic political philosophers. Nevertheless, in practical political terms we have… seen a [societal] move away from left-wing welfarism defended by Rawls. It is Nozick who seems closer to the political spirit of the present age.” To be sure, recent national elections in the United States support this depiction, with the Libertarian Party consistently growing and standing as the most successful third party outside the Republican and Democratic Party duopoly. The academy’s general neglect of libertarianism is perhaps socially irresponsible given the growth of this social philosophy amongst the citizenry. … (Epoche Magazine)

Making meaning without a maker: secular consciousness through narrative and cultural practice. Drawing on fieldwork and in-depth interviews, this study examines the ways affirmatively secular individuals construct moral frameworks, navigate hardship, and create meaningful selves. Based on an inductive, thematic analysis of the data, we show that secular individuals’ identities and interpretations of everyday experience and important life events are made meaningful through personal narratives and shared social spaces where cultural values are practiced, imbuing secular worldviews with a sense of legitimacy. Through participants’ responses to questions of “ultimate concern” including life’s purpose, and the meaning of happiness, hardship, and death, we argue that a sense of otherness, appeals to normative values, and the reframing of existential questions in secular terms plays an essential role in the lives of a segment of the growing, increasingly diverse nonreligious community. Our findings have implications for scholars of secularity, including the role of ambiguity in secular beliefs and the impor- tance of narrative in worldview formation. … (Sociology of Religion)

Who else besides Hadot? One area I work in as a professional philosopher is Stoic philosophy. Up to this point, I’ve published relatively little in traditional academic formats about Stoicism, but I regularly write, speak, and produce content about Stoicism in more popular and public settings. I also edit an important forum for modern interpretations, discussion, and application of Stoic philosophy, Stoicism Today. Though I’m not an orthodox Stoic, but rather an avowed eclectic, I draw upon and apply Stoic insights, practices, and techniques, not only in my own life, but also with clients in my philosophical counseling practice. … (Medium)