Suggested readings, #82

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

Cognition all the way down. Biologists like to think of themselves as properly scientific behaviourists, explaining and predicting the ways that proteins, organelles, cells, plants, animals and whole biota behave under various conditions, thanks to the smaller parts of which they are composed. They identify causal mechanisms that reliably execute various functions such as copying DNA, attacking antigens, photosynthesising, discerning temperature gradients, capturing prey, finding their way back to their nests and so forth, but they don’t think that this acknowledgment of functions implicates them in any discredited teleology or imputation of reasons and purposes or understanding to the cells and other parts of the mechanisms they investigate. … (Aeon) [With all due respect to Dan Dennett and his co-author, no. While I appreciate their logic, this sort of “intentional” language is way too anthropomorphic, and prone to wild misunderstandings especially when exported to the general public.]

A more political science. For years we have heard warnings about the “politicization of science” and the need to “restore science to its rightful place.” Likewise, we hear that more and more politicians and members of the public are “anti-science.” This is a way of talking about science as a monolithic body that issues in unitary conclusions about what actions we should take — as if we could gaze deep into the fabric of the cosmos and find the answer to whether our society should solve climate change by adopting a carbon tax, converting our electricity grid to nuclear power, or relinquishing fossil fuels. … (New Atlantis) [Actually, very good points, as much as many scientists will instinctively recoil from the implications.]

How we make moral decisions. Imagine that one day you’re riding the train and decide to hop the turnstile to avoid paying the fare. It probably won’t have a big impact on the financial well-being of your local transportation system. But now ask yourself, “What if everyone did that?” The outcome is much different — the system would likely go bankrupt and no one would be able to ride the train anymore. Moral philosophers have long believed this type of reasoning, known as universalization, is the best way to make moral decisions. But do ordinary people spontaneously use this kind of moral judgment in their everyday lives? … (MIT News) [Fascinating research, though the really big question, as the article points out at the end, is why people sometimes fail to make moral decisions.]

The problem with philanthropy. Charitable giving is one of the few things in the world that seems to be wholly good. Philanthropy, often characterised as private action for the public good, appears to earn the original meaning of the term: love of humanity. What could be a better example of virtue? There’s no question that individuals giving to worthy causes provides important relief from states’ failures to promote justice and wellbeing. Philanthropy can also provide key support to resistance movements. Yet since wealthy foundations such as the Gates Foundation and Gates Trust hold assets that surpass many countries, there is reason to be concerned about the political significance of large-scale philanthropy. … (New Statesman) [If you think billionaire philanthropy is a good idea, think again.]

Fake news, Stoicism, and the stiff upper lip. Fake news is not a recent phenomenon. Nor is its propagation limited to Russian bots or extreme right-wing media outlets. In this article my aim is to dispel a long-standing and pernicious myth about Stoicism, the ancient philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE which is currently enjoying something of a resurgence. The “fake news” claims that Stoicism is a dour, grim philosophy advocating the repression of emotions — the “stiff upper lip.” The truth about Stoicism is very different. Stoicism is in fact a positive, constructive life philosophy advocating active, virtuous engagement with the world. In this article I will first provide theoretical reasons to challenge the stiff upper lip view of Stoicism and then share recent empirical evidence about Stoicism that I hope will reduce the plausibility of the notion that Stoicism should be equated with a “stiff upper lip”. … (Medium) [If you think of Stoics has sporting a stiff upper lip the data flatly contradict you.]

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Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

One thought on “Suggested readings, #82”

  1. David Rieff wrote a whole book about the problems in modern philanthropy “bigfooting” things in the developing world. It kind of ties, as well, to your New Atlantis piece. What if, similar to the old saying by H.L. Mencken, the Gates Foundation has an idea for say, agriculture in Zambia, that is brilliant, simple …. and wrong?

    The New Atlantis piece was good, otherwise. I think of environmental science and its interaction with politics. Do we try to protect endangered subspecies as well as species, especially since controversy still exists about what a species is and how defined?

    On cells, Massimo? Per “Dapper Dan,” it’s all about the algorithms, isn’t it? What? Dennett didn’t write about the cells having algorithms?

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