Plato’s weekend suggestions

readingsHere it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend (yeah, this time’s a lot of ’em, I had some time to read during my recent vacation…):

According to David Freedman in the Atlantic, there is a war on stupid people. While this may sound like the latest expansion of the political correctness front, it isn’t. The guy makes perfectly valid points about what sort of society we should pursue, and in whose interests.

Over at Dissent Magazine, Matthew Sitman tells a wrenching story of how he grew up conservative in rural Pennsylvania, and why he gradually gave up his political and religious allegiance and embraced a more progressive political outlook.

Long article by Rebecca Reilly-Cooper in Aeon on the politics of transgenderism. While I think she oversimplifies the nature-nurture debate, her analysis is interesting and her conclusions compelling. As soon as I published the link on social media someone accused her of transphobia, of course.

Steven Poole in the Guardian writes about why bad ideas refuse to die, like, you know, flat-earthism! Apparently, the marketplace of ideas does not work as advertised…

Fredrik deBoer asks in Current Affairs when is it that pro-trade, neo-liberal journalists will begin outsourcing themselves, given that that’s what they strongly advice when someone else’s job is at stake.

The OUP blog published a piece by Richard Pettigrew on how people make little and big decisions in their lives, and why that has little to do with the “expected utility” discussed by economists.

Here is a review of a new book about how people have historically not just read, but made use of, books: The Reader in the Book, A Study of Spaces and Traces.

You probably heard that more than 100 Nobel laureates have told Greenpeace to quit making a fuss over GMOs. I would be stunned if Greenpeace actually listened.

Over at Quartz, Olivia Goldhill tells the tale of a man missing most of his brain, who nonetheless appears to lead a functional life. Explain that, current models of consciousness!

Rachel Premack explains in the Washington Post about the accumulating evidence that red meat is both an environmental disaster and not so good for your health.

Remember all those wild claims about fMRI scans showing this or that about how the brain works? Too bad that a recent study has found systemic issues with data analysis of most published research based on brain scans

Physicists are often confident of their understanding of the universe and how it works. Until one of them comes up with a new model that seems to question much received wisdom, of course.

Molly Worthen writes in the New York Times in defense of all fashioned lecturing, as opposed to all those peer-to-peer discussion and grading that has been the fad lately in higher education.

An interesting research paper by Mark Middleton, debunking the apparently widely circulating notion that vegan diets kill more animals than omnivorous ones.

Will Storr explains in the New Yorker why our own biological responses tell us that a eudaimonic life is better than a hedonic one.

The new Star Trek movie is about to come out, followed shortly thereafter by a new television series. So we are reminded of the fact that philosophical quandaries have always been at the heart of the interstellar saga.

Logic evolves!

Speaking of logic, apparently, teaching it does improve students’ logical skills, but only if they have been previously exposed to other courses on logic.

So why is it, exactly, that being middle aged is now a problem, no, make that a crisis?

It looks like there is finally a backlash about the mindless quantification of scientific output by way of “impact” factors. And it was about time, too.

Here’s another thing experts and the public disagree on: what sort of foods are healthy, or not?

Exhaustion has a long cultural history, and is not at all a peculiarly modern malady, according to Anna Katharina Schaffner in Aeon.

What is a public intellectual? Why does it matter? Should it?

Julian Baggini argues that one should not moralize about food, or at the least, not in a prudish Protestant fashion.

Finally, Jonathan Bate provides us in the Guardian with a short guide to Shakespeare’s philosophical background, which includes an appreciation of the ancient Stoics, a skepticism of the Christian idea of providence, and an acceptance of the Epicurean take on life.

81 thoughts on “Plato’s weekend suggestions

  1. Philosopher Eric

    Hi Art H,

    I suspect that you and I happen to be in reasonable agreement given the nature of your queries to Massimo above, though I’d love some specifics. Thus I’ll now plainly state how I see these issues, and you can modify this perspective to your own thinking if you like.

    First off it would seem that Mathew Sitman began with an admittedly very biased perspective towards conservativism, and then converted to biases in the opposite direction which were at least as strong. (Of course he believes that he’s now able to see things clearly!) The passage that you first quoted to Massimo which began with

    This deductive quality of the conservative mind is its most distinctive feature…

    gave us a wonderful demonstration of this. Here the task is to “explain” conservativism so that we’re able to understand why it is that such presumedly flawed reasoning occurs. There is a tremendous market for such partisan explaining on each side, and their purpose should lie in opposition to the quest for critical thought.

    Regarding “natural law,” I’ve found the wiki article provided by Massimo quite informative. Permit me to dissect its first sentence:

    Natural law is a philosophy that certain rights or values are inherent by virtue of human nature and universally cognizable through human reason.

    It’s surprising that “rights” and “values” have been joined here, and given how different these ideas happen to be. Thus recognizing legitimacy in full for “natural law” does seem ambitious. While I certainly can make a case for “natural values,” I’m quite unable to do so for “natural rights.”

    “Rights” seem extremely useful to define in as a social concept in their entirety. For example, my society defines the gender, age, and specie that I’m allowed to marry. Nature cannot provide me with a right to marry a sheep, though my society theoretically could. Of course the founding fathers of America were big on natural rights, which apparently provided some tremendously effective propaganda. (Sitman made it clear that he succumbed to such propaganda in his youth).

    Moving now to “values” however, this does seem effective to define as a natural concept. I consider it to be entirely based upon utility, which is to say that all sentient subjects possess values. Conversely, what values might exist for a computer, or perhaps for a tree? But regarding a given sentient subject, whether personal or social, the theory is that value is represented by its aggregate utility over a given period of time.


  2. Robin Herbert

    I just read the Will Storr story. It seems a little weird that they didn’t canvas the obvious explanation – that people with certain health problems are less likely to experience eudaimonia. It may be that they have covered this in the research, but it seems strange not to mention why they think that this is not the case.

    Studies would probably show that there is a large correlation between being rich and owning an expensive car, but this does not mean that buying an expensive car is a good way to get rich.

    In any case, even if living a eudaimonic lifestyle did have health benefits, I don’t see it working for me. Seeking meaning and connectedness as a way of improving my own health outcomes seems to me to be a rather meaningless and unconnected goal.


  3. Robin Herbert

    Why is being middle aged a crisis? Well put it this way. I am two years younger than my Mum was when she died, and 15 years younger than my Dad was when he died, 13 younger than the last time he had any sort of decent lifestyle.

    If there is stuff I want to do then I had better get a move on – that is the crisis.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thomas Jones

    Philosopher Eric, it’s okay by me if you and Art Historian want to use Sitman’s piece as a point of departure for discussing other points of interest. But why not at least take into account the author’s own explanation of his intent? Let me quote him:

    “I wanted to share with Commonweal readers an essay of mine, “Leaving Consevatism [sic] Behind,” just published in the summer issue of Dissent. The title indicates the general subject matter—the way my political views have changed over the last decade or so—but the essay really is about class, and how I’ve come to understand it. As such, it’s the most personal writing I’ve ever done, because what I call my belated class consciousness really comes from my adult self looking back at how and where I was raised.”

    You can find the above quote here under the “Late to Class” header:


  5. michaelfugate

    Since these discussions always touch on ethics/morality and even though at times this piece seems simplistic, I thought it brought up an intriguing idea “what if there are many other forms of consciousness in nature and what if their ethics are very different than ours?”


  6. Art Historian

    Thomas: Yes, I am not challenging Sitman’s own view of his conversion. I was simply responding to one particular passage in his article which I found to be typical of natural law reasoning more generally. And I have found that type of reasoning to be gaining ground in certain segments of the right–and not just the religious right, but among secular conservatives who think that nature can somehow reveal moral truths. So when I asked Massimo about his view, I was surprised that to hear his agreement. But on closer look, it turns out they do not agree. Whew!

    The natural lawyers argue using “first principles” about nature’s teleology. As Massimo points out, this is not supported by empirical evidence. But the natural lawyers would argue that their views are accessible purely through “right reason” and that those first principles are largely self-evident to any rational creature who uses reason correctly. It seems that to them empirical evidence is somehow more “corrupt” than pure reason used “correctly.” Everything hinges on nature and how we take it to be that we can know fundamental things about it. The natural lawyers make very strong claims about our knowledge of nature–and its teleological basis. Natural law today is a strange world, and my point in bringing it up was simply to point out its unacknowledged prevalence in intellectual conservatism (and to get Massimo’s take).

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Massimo Post author


    Good way to summarize the difference between my take, which is definitely empirically informed, and the a priori notions you are referring to, and which rightly bother you!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. brodix

    For any debates on cosmology I suppose I should wait until that big radio telescope in SA and Australia, as well as the James Webb space telescope, are up and working. I suspect the data will upend quite a few theories.


  9. brodix

    To dig into my store of links on the topic, I’ll just add these two:

    “The team then exploited the fact that HD 140283 is in a phase of its life cycle in which it is exhausting the hydrogen at its core. In this phase, the star’s slowly dimming luminosity is a highly sensitive indicator of its age, says Bond. His team calculates that the star is 13.9 billion years old, give or take 700 million years. Taking into account that experimental error, the age does not conflict with the age of the Universe, 13.77 billion years.”
    “The very first generation of stars coalesced from primordial gas, which did not contain appreciable amounts of elements heavier than helium, he notes. That means that as old as HD 140283 is, its chemical composition — which includes a low but non-zero abundance of heavy elements — shows that the star must have formed after the first stellar generation.”

    So we have a star right next door, that is as old as the universe and it isn’t even a first generation.

    “The astronomers modeled all of the various options and combinations to explain their data. They rule our that the sources are simply dusty, because then they should have been seen in other galaxy surveys. The most likely explanation so far is that these galaxies are red for a combination of three reasons: they are far enough away that their light has been traveling for more than about 12.3 billion years, they harbor a substantial amount of star formation, and they contain a significant number of old, evolved stars. While one or another of these conditions has been seen in galaxies before, this is the first time they have all been found to jointly contribute substantively.”

    A point will come when the blinkers will have to come off.


  10. Philosopher Eric

    Hi Thomas,

    It’s pretty clear to me that Sitman’s views have remained consistently biased from either side of the debate, and even from what you’ve presented. Apparently his “intent” is to do whatever he can to promote his own perceived interests, just as the rest of us do. It would seem that he now fights on the left given his current circumstances, while those on the right fight in that direction given theirs. I’d love it if we had larger principals from which to function, rather than standard political rhetoric, but that would require the development of a basic accepted ideology.

    As far as that business goes however, I wonder if you agree with me that “happiness” is all that matters to any given subject, or rather you believe that something else remains to be of utmost importance?


  11. Thomas Jones

    No, Philosopher Eric, I do not agree with your statement; nor do I care to indulge in conversations where I presume to comment on what is of “utmost importance” to others. The sole lesson I’ve learned after 70 years was stated by Eliot in one of his Four Quartets (I don’t remember which) and that is that humility is endless.


  12. brodix

    On the essay about hedonic versus eudaemonic happiness, I thought this might have some vague tie in;

    It is about the nature of money. I’ve made the argument that money functions as a contract, in that monetary assets have to be backed by debts, but that we treat it as a commodity and consequently our financial system requires creating enormous debt to back up the enormous amount of notational value it presumes to create.
    Yet throughout western civilization, we have treated it as a commodity to be manufactured, mined, etc, from the Roman salaria, to bitcoin. With the presumption that it functions as an abstract commodification to replace barter, but the history is often different, as this link points out, in which it does function in many civil systems, as a contract.
    The reason I’m associating it with eudaemonic happiness has to do with various of the examples given. For instance;

    ” Potlatch societies of the indigenous Americans had it that the person that gave away the most was revered the most. This was in contrast to the European way of doing things and there were some tremendous disasters because of this. But anthropologists that study barter cultures note that it’s seldom if ever exact, and in fact more often than not one person is always trying to outdo the other in being generous. The most extreme case is an ancient Greek record of a Celtic society where feudal leaders would give each other great gives trying to outdo each other, and this maybe out of kindness or it might be a way of intimidating somebody you don’t actually like, because they now had to respond with an even larger gift and if somebody had given you a gift so great you could never repay it your only choice was to kill yourself.”

    Now this isn’t so much about happiness, per se, but how people’s sense of worth/meaning was/is based on their connection with the larger community and not just individual gratification. I think that in our increasingly atomized culture, with money and media as the primary connections, that we lose sight of the fact that we are fundamentally social organisms, which our constant need to quantify and qualify doesn’t quite get.


  13. Art Historian

    Thanks, Massimo. Yes, it bothers me a lot because I see these types of arguments gaining ground. Now, one might say, ‘well, the conservatives who marshal those arguments are a very small group and have closed themselves off from engagement with the broader community of thinkers.’ It’s true they are a small minority in the academy, but its seems increasingly evident to me that they have much greater numbers, and tremendous influence, in policy outlets (major think-tanks on the right), in some law circles (for instance, the Federalist Society, the work of Robert P. George of Princeton and Hadley Arkes of Amherst, among others, and in the views of Thomas and formerly Scalia), and elsewhere in the broader culture (often through religious outlets like First Things, but other secular places, too).


  14. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    Really? Because that’s not at all the impression I got. Do you have empirical data to support it, like a survey of physicists?

    No polls, sorry, but really the idea of a singularity in the Big Bang is not the majority opinion, never mind “received wisdom”. For one discussion see Matt Strassler’s blog post Did The Universe Really Begin With a Singularity?.

    In brief, if you extrapolate back using General Relativity alone you would predict a singularity. But GR works only on the large scale, whereas at around the (very, very small) Planck scale quantum gravity effects are expected to dominate. Since we don’t have a good theory of quantum gravity, we have a “known unknown” and thus we should not extrapolate back from the Planck scale to a “singularity” using physics that won’t work in that regime.

    Quantum mechanics really can’t do a singularity. Quantum fluctuations have spatial scale. Things as basic to QM as the uncertainty principle mandate a spatial size. Even wavefunctions have spatial extent.

    Of course this “known unknown” then leaves the field open for theorists to dream up all sorts of schemes, of which the one you linked to is one of many.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Coel

    Hi michael,

    I thought it brought up an intriguing idea “what if there are many other forms of consciousness in nature and what if their ethics are very different than ours?”

    Other social mammals will also be conscious (as far as we can tell) and have ethical systems, and since they have evolved into different ecological niches from us their ethical systems will be rather different from ours.

    [More widely, I’d have a hard time envisioning consciousness and ethical systems that are not the product of this sort of evolution.]


  16. Robin Herbert

    Ethics is not just acting according to our natures, our instincts, desires etc, it begins when we question such instinctive behaviors, question our desires. I doubt that any other animal questions its nature, instincts and desires, or even knows that it has a nature, instincts or desires.


  17. brodix


    On the intersection of GR and QM, if it is a smaller space, would the energy of this fluctuation be compressed? Much as in ideal gas laws, the same energy in a smaller volume has a higher temperature.
    Or would it be the same level of fluctuation, so as space expands, more quantum fluctuation is being created?

    If it is the later, you start off with an infinity small point of infinite energy and as it expands, the energy disperses. Which would seem to be equivalent to a BB singularity.

    On the other hand, if the fluctuation occurs as an effect of the space expanding, why couldn’t it be a singularity, as you would start with a point of zero space and zero energy and they both grow together?

    The gist of your argument would seem to be that quantum energy cannot be totally compressed, so it would seem to be the former, though that would seem to imply an expansion in space, not of space, as it is the same amount of energy being dispersed over a wider area and so neither are actually being created.


  18. brodix

    It does seem some combination though, with he initial singularity as a compressed fluctuation and dark energy emerging with he expansion of space.
    The problem I keep having, as I’ve mentioned before, is that as a constant speed of light and thus vacuum, is implicit in the premise of redshift being explained by light taking longer to cross this space, it is all based on a pre-existing space.


  19. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    Ethics is not just acting according to our natures, our instincts, desires etc, it begins when we question such instinctive behaviors, question our desires.

    I guess you can define it that way if you wish, but more basically I’d say that one can use the term “ethics” as soon as a social species evolves such that members have feelings and opinions about how conspecifics act towards each other.

    Some other apes do have expectations and feelings about the sharing of food (for example), and that can be regarded as an ethical system (though much more rudimentary than ours, of course).

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Coel


    From previous experience there is little point in my trying to correct your misunderstandings of cosmology, since they are far too rampant, but just as one pointer:

    … is implicit in the premise of redshift being explained by light taking longer to cross this space …

    No, redshift is not explained by light taking longer to cross space. [As I have indeed told you several times before; what’s the point of you posting on this stuff if you’re not interested in learning?]


  21. Philosopher Eric

    As far as this “war on stupid people” goes, just because this does seem to be and expansion of the PC culture, does not mandate an invalid premise. All such causes, from “trigger warnings” on up, should have at least some merits to them. Is my own kind more repressed than it used to be? Perhaps. I will not, however, be joining any rallies!


  22. brodix


    Ok, taking longer to cross between galaxies, as space expands.

    I just have this infernal habit that when it waddles like a duck, quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, of assuming it is a duck, even though it keeps telling me that it really is a goose.

    I guess I really should get with the program.


  23. brodix

    The duck, er goose being that the doppler effect is not due to galaxies moving away in space, but the space between galaxies expanding.

    Even if the speed of light does not remain constant to the distance.


  24. Philosopher Eric

    Regarding the association between eating meat and global warming, this does seem reasonable to me. But would this information, even if it were widely accepted, convince billions of people to become vegetarians? Of course not — meat is far too tasty! So perhaps the best solution would be to develop other foods which are both economical, as well as quite tasty (not that this isn’t being attempted). And given the massive stakes, the opposite end should be explored as well, and even though neuroscience does seem quite primitive today (as displayed by the fMRI article).

    Will social opprobrium against meat eating, perhaps heightened in 50 years, do very much to curb such consumption? I’ve learned to never say never regarding social beliefs, though I doubt it.


  25. Coel


    Ok, taking longer to cross between galaxies, as space expands.

    Nope, still wrong. That is not the cause of the cosmological redshift either.


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