Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 90

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Nobody ever wrote a best selling novel about Raphael, and yet…

Don’t believe in God? Try UFOs instead.

Monopoly was actually invented to demonstrate the evils of capitalism.

Take a cold shower, it’s a really good idea (but ignore what the author says about Stoicism, he’s got it wrong, as usual).

What cultural taste for chili peppers tells us about the evolution of social norms.

Umberto Eco and the 14 defining characteristics of fascism. See how many you can spot in the current Republican leader.

Want to be happy? Buy whatever makes you save time.

The problem of meaningless academic language.

Parenthood not recommended.


Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Thanks!

85 thoughts on “Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 90

  1. Massimo Post author


    “I do think there is something irrational about how Christians justify their acceptance of God”

    For sure. But no more irrational than the beliefs held by a number of atheists. Besides, I’m not talking about just Christians. Is a Deist belief really that irrational, for instance?

    “I really do find Platinga & William Lane Craig to be unbearable”

    Agreed, though I think Craig is far worse than Plantinga. I debated him twice years ago, what an experience!

    As for Krauss, I think you are being too charitable to the guy. He wrote for a general public, which certainly wasn’t about to make the subtle distinction between nothing and nothingness. Indeed, he openly admitted in an interview with The Atlantic, that the title was simply a ruse for selling books. He did that immediately after pontificating on the necessity of intellectual integrity by authors.


  2. synred

    Dennett doesn’t deny that you have consciousness. He just thinks that you have illusions as to its nature.

    Well I don’t recall Dennett consciousness. It would seem odd to try to explain it otherwise.

    That we don’t understand it is pretty obvious, but what does he mean by the pejorative word illusion.

    Does he perhaps mean hat lot’s of people think they have direct perception of reality? I’d call that a mistaken not an illusion.

    Or did Dennett even say this?


  3. brodix

    I found the article on cold showers quite enjoyable.

    For one thing, it very much illustrates a point I keep making endlessly; That good and bad are not some cosmic duel between the forces of righteousness and evil, but the basic biological binary of attraction and repulsion. Even protozoa have likes and dislikes. If humanity could ever realize the point this article makes, that our sense of good and bad are not ultimate controls, but elementary tools of survival and existence, we could learn to manage them, more than they manage us.

    While like and dislike are the primal conscious impulses, they are still not the ultimate source of consciousness and so it is our consciousness which is the final arbiter. We have many desires, but one will.

    As for actual cold showers, I was recently separated at the time my parents estate was settled and ended up with the rambling old farmhouse I and my 5 siblings were raised in. Which I could not afford to pay to heat, so a wood furnace provides both heat and hot water. Consequently, in the summer, unless the girlfriend has recently taken it upon herself to start the furnace, I take cold showers. First and foremost, the body is a thermodynamic system and very quickly adapts. What seems frigid quickly becomes merely chilly. Stick your head under first and the pores close that much quicker. Though the girlfriend insists that if you are really grubby, you want the pores open to clean them out. Fortunately she mostly works noon till 9 and so takes a shower shortly before lunch, leaving the water slightly warm by the time I get around to taking one.


  4. saphsin


    “For sure. But no more irrational than the beliefs held by a number of atheists. Besides, I’m not talking about just Christians. Is a Deist belief really that irrational, for instance?”

    I honestly don’t think there is that much of a difference between Deism & Theism. Maybe there was a noticeable difference in terms of motive to suspect the possibility of Deism during the Age of Enlightenment, but not in this point in time in intellectual thought.

    “As for Krauss, I think you are being too charitable to the guy. He wrote for a general public, which certainly wasn’t about to make the subtle distinction between nothing and nothingness.”

    Okay, though I thought I made it clear in my previous comment that this was what I meant. My point was that he supported a position that in literal terms, isn’t as crazy as some philosophers made it out to be, even if accidentally. I think the distinction between nothing and nothingness makes sense.

    “Indeed, he openly admitted in an interview with The Atlantic, that the title was simply a ruse for selling books.”

    Honestly, I can’t tell if what he said at that time was actually just bullshit to avoid criticism when he really did believe that in the whole Universe Comes from Nothing (/Nothingness) thesis of his book.


  5. saphsin

    I will say one thing about Krauss though. I’m with you all the way about his anti-intellectualism that he shares with the rest of the New Atheists, but I look upon him a little more softly now because politically, I think he’s far ahead of the rest of them (including Dennett) His 2 1/2 hour talk with Chomsky was excellent and he’s also a member of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a scientist involved political organization I really respect.


  6. Alan White


    Great links! Just a couple observations, since I used up some of my comment cred trying to expostulate about stuff I know little about in the last thread. . .

    William Lane Craig is insufferable because he’s the embodiment of James Dobson (Focus on the Family) but with a 130 IQ–just smart enough to make him irritatingly evasive about how his writings are all in service to Biblical literalism. E.g., his defense of Presentism allows him to deny that dinosaurs really existed so long ago and yet gives God complete providence over the present and the un-real future–all according to God’s plans.

    And I must say I loved the Robinson piece on academic language. One thing I struggled with in my twenties into my thirties was the result of doing an MA and PhD at Tennessee on the author of the title of this blog–Whitehead. Reading him, especially in his post-1924 move to Harvard and his metaphysical writing, becomes extremely difficult due his increasing penchant for neologism. Here’s a sample from Process and Reality, The Categorical Scheme (early in the book):

    Each actual entity is analysable in an indefinite number of ways. In
    some modes of analysis the component elements are more abstract than
    in other modes of analysis. The analysis of an actual entity into ‘pre-
    hensions’ is that mode of analysis which exhibits the most concrete ele-
    ments in the nature of actual entities. This mode of analysis will be termed
    the ‘division’ of the actual entity in question. Each actual entity is ‘divis-
    ible’ in an indefinite number of ways, and each way of ‘division’ yields its
    definite quota of prehensions. A prehension reproduces in itself the general
    characteristics of an actual entitv: it is referent to an external world, and
    in this sense will be said to have a ‘vector character’; it involves emotion,
    and purpose, and valuation, and causation. In fact, any characteristic of
    an actual entity is reproduced in a prehension. It might have been a
    complete actuality; but, by reason of a certain incomplete partiality, a pre-
    hension is only a subordinate element in an actual entity. A reference to
    the complete actuality is required to give the reason why such a prehension
    is what it is in respect to its subjective form. This subjective form is
    determined by the subjective aim at further integration, so as to obtain
    the ‘satisfaction’ of the completed subject. In other words, final causation
    and atomism are interconnected philosophical principles.

    But with real effort, some of what he has to say is intelligible, though plunging into these dark realms of linguistic molasses has the same drawback as many doing so-called “Continental-style” research and writing cited by Robinson–you end up inadvertently writing in the same ways for better or worse. For me it was worse. Thankfully, Analysis became one of my favorite journals, which really does favor clear and succinct argument, and while trying to publish in it (I did eventually, twice), I went through about 4 dozen drafts of a 3-page article that the editor finally declared “clear and punchy”, but only after 4 previous submissions. That was an education. Think clearly first–then just write what you think. Don’t write thinking that you’ll find out what you think–at least not for academic publication (I won’t say that for writing fiction or poetry, however).

    I’m sure many readers here know George Boolos’ famous rendering of Godel’s theorem in words of one syllable:

    And I’d like synred’s analysis of this:

    These are instructive exercises. A quick search found no such renderings for “Continental Philosophy”.


  7. SocraticGadfly

    Actually, if one does not wave Wittgenstein’s flag too firmly in a Western dual-omni definition of the word “god,” something like Deism is NOT that irrational.

    Or some version of polytheism; see the original Star Trek episode where the Enterprise eventually meets “Apollo” on another planet.


  8. SocraticGadfly

    OK, on to another item, as Massimo likes us to mix it up! 😉 The “be happy” piece.

    It’s based on privilege, and no, Dan and people who look even more askance than Massimo at SJWs, not all privilege is race, gender, etc. Some of it is good old class issues, which IMO stand behind that issue.

    Poor people can’t afford to pay maids to clean their apartments, or the slumlord houses that are the only non-apartment places they have to rent. They’re often working multiple jobs to boot, and most in need of more free time.

    On top of the income inequality and hypercapitalism of America, add in the “good old Protestant work ethic” as another compounder of this problem.

    If we had a $12-$15 hr min wage, a 35-hour work week, the min wage indexed to inflation, etc.? People would have more free time naturally.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Robin Herbert

    The thing that annoyed me about Krauss’s claim is that he implied that philosophers would be naive on this question, which is not the case, and has never been the case to my knowledge.


  10. brodix

    “That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. In our time, when the old “proletarians” are becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.”

    If anything, the “lumpen” are being cast as Trump believers. Remember Hillary’s “deplorable” comment.

    “Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one.”

    The military, industrial complex is using the Russia obsession, not Trump and family.

    I suspect, looking at the political dynamic, real totalitarianism is brewing in the reaction to Trump and he will be used as the fall guy.

    More Yeltsin, than Putin.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Markk

    “The less religious participants were, we found, the less they perceived their lives as meaningful.”

    I think this is spot on – and I don’t think this is just a problem for atheists and agnostics. Many religious believers themselves find it difficult to believe strongly in an increasingly secular society.

    This demonstrates itself in a variety of ways. UFO belief is an interesting one. Another is in the euthanasia debate – euthanasia being the topic of a proposed law here in Victoria, Australia.

    Many want euthanasia to be legalised to end the suffering of the terminally ill. But I’ve read before that much of the time, physical suffering is only part of the motivation here. Among the terminally ill, it’s those who are lonely or depressed who want to die, regardless of the level of suffering involved.

    People are able to endure much suffering if they can see a good reason for doing so, but since the less religious are less likely to have such a reason, there is more demand for legal euthanasia.

    The lack of a sense of meaning must also mean that it’s hard to see any point in living whenever it gets difficult.


  12. Schlafly

    Calling Trump a fascist is just a way of saying that you have no legitimate argument against him. Fascism is not well-defined, and Trump is no more fascist than Obama and others.

    I looked this supposed Krauss admission that his book title was chosen to attract sales. He says: “If I’d just titled the book “A Marvelous Universe,” not as many people would have been attracted to it. But it’s hard to know.”

    Is that it? Did you want him to put the word “quantum” in the title? Or maybe you prefer “vacuum” instead of “nothing”? Are there any philosophers who actually read the book, or just the title?


  13. Coel

    Hi synred,

    Does ‘illusion’ mean something different to Philospher Dennett [a] than it does to me?

    Oxford English Dictionary: “illusion”: “An instance of a wrong or misinterpreted perception of a sensory experience”. Dennett is arguing that we misinterpret consciousness, he is not arguing that we are not conscious and not experiencing anything. The latter is so obviously, ludicrously wrong that isn’t it obvious that that’s not what Dennett means? (We don’t use the word “illusion” when we mean “doesn’t exist at all”; for example we don’t say that unicorns “are illusions” we say they don’t exist.)

    I’m rapidly concluding that much of the disagreement on this blog comes from simply misinterpreting each other’s intent. To go with the Dennett/illusion example, here are some other examples, all from recent threads (I’m not trying to re-hash any of these, but am simply making a meta point about miscommunication):

    Example 2) Alex Rosenberg’s “nihilism” is a rejection of objective moral values, yet others (such as Baggini and Massimo) interpret it as a rejection of all moral values, subjective or objective. (Again, the idea that humans don’t have subjective values is so obviously, ludicrously wrong that isn’t it obvious that that’s not what Rosenberg means?)

    Example 3) When such as Pinker, Krauss et al defend “scientism” they get interpreted (e.g. by Baggini, Massimo) as adopting a view of science as narrowly about empirical evidence only, whereas their intention is a much broader conception of science that includes reason and concepts.

    Example 4) What counts as “reductionism”, and the various methods of inquiry that a reductionist outlook would lead to or allow, seems to be interpreted very differently from those who regard themselves as reductionists versus those who reject and criticise reductionism.

    Example 5) There have been extensive discussions here about whether morality is “objective”. I’m now concluding that the disagreement derives from a lack of agreement over what the very word “objective” means and what it means for something to be “objective”. Without common understanding on that point, the disputants talk past each other.

    A couple more points: it is natural and inevitable that somebody reading someone they are largely in agreement with will read them sympathetically, and so will likely be best placed to discern their intent. Someone who largely disagrees with someone is more likely to misinterpret them, doing so partly (and subconsciously) as a means of making their position easier to reject.

    Conclusion: much apparent disagreement is instead miscommunication and recognising that would reduce unprofitable exchanges; different people’s positions are often closer to each other than it might appear.


  14. Coel

    Re Krauss and “nothing”.

    People are being unfair to him. The theme of the book was that there is a range of meanings of “nothing” and a range of degrees of “nothingness”, and he was seeing to what extent he could strip down to absolute nothingness.

    … it turned out he really didn’t mean “nothing” by “nothing.” He meant a pre-existing quantum field.

    First response. Are you suggesting that a quantum field is ontological? I know that ontology gets pretty weird at the particle physics level, but regarding a quantum field as ontological seems one of the least attractive options, since it is such an abstract mathematical concept. It may be that a “quantum field” is a useful mathematical fiction for doing calculations, but that “things” (particles) really do appear from (absolutely) nothing. Criticising Krauss by just assuming that a quantum field is ontological seems to me just as naive as people are accusing Krauss of being.

    Second response. Krauss did address this in the book. The point is that if a quantum field really is ontological and so “exists”, then it is a property of space itself. Then, given that a quantum gravity fluctuation would create space as well as particles, then the quantum fields, along with space, would be created in the quantum-gravity fluctuation, and thus a fluctuation really could arise from absolutely nothing. (This of course is speculative, since we don’t have a working theory of quantum gravity, but is a valid path to pursue.)

    As for the title, it seems a fair enough encapsulation of the theme that the book discusses.


  15. davidlduffy

    Via Brad DeLong
    “Hard neoliberals: Mont Pelerin—the market giveth, the market taketh away, blessed be the name of the market!
    “Soft neoliberals: Washington Monthly—harness market means to attainable social democratic redistributive ends where those can be accomplished at low cost, and otherwise to focus on growth to lift all boats.
    “Cultural neoliberals: New Republic—we don’t like Blacks, especially young Blacks, and extra especially Jesse Jackson. We don’t like women much when they move out of their place. We think unions are yucky. We think Arabs are bad.”


  16. Robin Herbert

    Hi saphsin

    A distinction I’ve heard is between nothing (physical absence of “something”) and nothing”ness” (non-being, an incoherent concept) and that although it’s counterintuitive, a pre-quantum field that’s at a minimal state of energy IS physically nothing, it’s just not nothing”ness” and that perhaps the old chestnut “Is there something rather than nothing” is just an incoherent & nonsensical philosophical question in the first place.

    Are you aware of any philosopher having asked the question?

    Some people seem to think that this is something philosophers have pondered through the centuries, but I have found precious little evidence of people doing so.

    I have searched for the original of this, and the closest that I can find is from Leibniz, who asked something like “Why is there something rather than nothing or, given that there must be something, why is it the way it is rather than some other way?”. This question is only asked as a step in an argument about something else, he doesn’t dwell on it and the only point is to say that there is a reason, not to ask what the reason is.

    The next closest is the principle “From nothing, nothing can come” which has been used by some philosophers from time to time. Aristotle addresses this and says that, in a sense, something can come from nothing, if by “nothing” you mean something undifferentiated, then differentiations can arise and thus at a fundamental level, something really can come from nothing. This appears to be not too different to what Krauss was saying.

    Aristotle also held that the concept of absolute nothingness was incoherent and this was the reason that he felt that any movement that occurred must occur through a medium.


  17. Massimo Post author


    I have plenty of arguments against Trump. A truckload, in fact. That doesn’t change the fact that he does encapsulates several aspects of fascism.

    As for Krauss, yes, that’s the bit. What makes him intellectually dishonest is not that he chose a title that would sell, everyone does that. But that he got seriously upset (up to and including pressuring Neil deGrasse Tyson into disinviting Albert from an official American Museum of Natural History event at the Planetarium) when someone pointed out that the content of his book did not reflect the title. He argued he does. So, which one is it? Is the title just a matter of convenience, or does it reflect the content? It can’t be both, in this case.


    I’m not going to argue point-by-point with your latest because we’ve done it plenty of time. I will only note that you seem to be turning Wittgensteinian on us, trying to reduce all disagreement to a matter of cross-understanding.

    But both you and Wittgenstein are wrong here. There are substantive disagreements, and if they seem “only” questions of semantics to you is because many on the scientistic side engage in precisely the sort of game that Alan Sokal called the postmodernists one: shifting between two meanings of whatever they say; the first being true but trivial (consciousness is an illusion in the sense that it isn’t what it appears to be), the second interesting but clearly false (consciousness really is an illusion, in the pejorative sense of the term).

    I will not allow further comments on this particular topic, by the way, on the grounds that it has been beaten to death, and then some.


  18. SocraticGadfly

    Gee, Schlafly, I am shocked that you’re so kindly disposed toward Trump. You actually missed the best counterargument to Massimo, and that is that Trump is too disorganized mentally to be a real fascist.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. saphsin

    Robin Herbert

    Maybe it hasn’t come up for questioning in major texts in those exact terms but the Cosmological Argument is well known and shows up in introductory books for philosophy, because it’s a matter most philosophers and those interested in the field have wondered about and taken seriously at one point. So far, most of the responses to it has been on the basis of there being something wrong about the answer rather than the question behind it. My guess it that people have some intuitive feeling that there’s something wrong with the question, but don’t really break down what the problem actually is. If anyone else here had different observations, I’d be happy to hear it.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. ejwinner

    I am considering Trump in light of Umberto Eco’s article outlining the defining features of Fascism (and Eco was a child in Mussolini’s Italy and has some direct experience in the matter). And the question here is only whether Trumps meets any or all of the criteria Eco suggests – enough to allow one to call Trump a fascist. I think that clearly the case. As Massimo remarks, there are of course many arguments one can make against Trump, more appropriate in another time and place.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Alessio Persichetti

    Not be polemical, but often — even tough not always — are continental philosophers (and who is ispired by them) who write in a bad prose, within the humanities.

    Philosophy has already the problem of not having a common vocabulary; to this one are added those thinkers persuaded by the idea of elaborate writing as a “deeper” and more significant way to express concepts. For istance Deleuze, Derrida, Agamben but also Judith Butler quoted in the article. Moreover, I remember the well-known joke of the randomly-generated paper submitted to and accepted by Bordieu Studies journal. This is one of the trends, in my opinion, which is damaging philosophy’s reputation as meticulous research field, among public audience.

    In this case, it is quite difficult to not agree with Wittgenstein, when he underlined that most part of our misunderstandings rise from a bad use of language: if you know something, then you are as well capable of expound it clearly — at least it what analytic philosophy (and my father, when I used to write highschool papers!) taught to me.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. saphsin

    Alessio Persichetti

    Deleuze is actually capable of writing in perfectly readable prose. His secondary literature scholarship on Nietzsche & Spinoza are written just fine actually and are recommended. It’s his own primary work that reads like complete gibberish.

    What has bothered me about these p0m0 writers isn’t just the what or how they go about their work, but why. I know people who personally write in readable prose but highly appreciate these philosophers, and they were never able to give a good reason why these books are written the way they do. I often hear something along the lines of the complaints being exaggerated when there’s a lot of Analytic Philosophy that’s difficult to read & interpret too, and people just didn”t make enough effort to understand what they dismiss at first hand. That might be true to a certain extent but I always find the denials of obscurity bizarre.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. saphsin

    Oh and also, there are plenty of Continental Philosophers, both historical and contemporary, who are not p0m0 and are much easier to read with some effort. I’ve seen some batching them all up together in the comments above and those characterizations are just completely inaccurate.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. synred

    >Poor people can’t afford to pay maids to clean their apartments

    We once say an example of what the right was calling welfare cheating in Chicago. When our daughter was born, Margaret took her into down show her off, to her colleagues at Northwester Law School library. She went in on the train from Hinsdale (a very repub town).

    On the way into the station early in the morning, we got stuck behind a long line of Caddy’s and Mercedes – they were picking up black ladies coming out from the City.

    They were welfare cheaters trying to make ends meet. Welfare was a subsidy for maids for the rich of Hinsdale.


  25. synred

    >“The less religious participants were, we found, the less they perceived their lives as meaningful.”

    Maybe so, but that’s just the way things are. Their sense of ‘meaning’ is based on a delusion.


  26. Robin Herbert

    Hi saphsin

    Maybe it hasn’t come up for questioning in major texts in those exact terms but the Cosmological Argument is well known and shows up in introductory books for philosophy, because it’s a matter most philosophers and those interested in the field have wondered about and taken seriously at one point.

    Again, I see no evidence that most philosophers have either wondered about this or taken it seriously.

    Plato didn’t wonder about this, as far as I am aware. Aristotle, as I said, pointed out that there was something wrong with the question and thought the idea of absolute nothing was incoherent (isn’t Aristotle normally considered to have been somewhat influential?) Did Kant ever wonder about this? I know that none of the Logical Positivists or their fellow travellers ever did. Does any modern philosopher who is not a religious apologist ask it?

    Are you basing your opinion about this on any research?


  27. synred

    Coel, the connotation of illusion is ‘does not really exist’. Now you might reasonably say the ‘content’ of consciousness is an illusion, but to say consciousness is an illusion is self-contradictory even if the content is illusory.

    In science we depend on there being some underlying relation or correlation with and underlying reality even though we know that our conscious perceptions our not direct but constructed.


  28. Robin Herbert

    Hi saphsin

    My guess it that people have some intuitive feeling that there’s something wrong with the question, but don’t really break down what the problem actually is. If anyone else here had different observations, I’d be happy to hear it.

    As I said, Aristotle went into quite a bit of detail in Physics about what was wrong with “From nothing, nothing can come”. He said that it depends on what you mean by “nothing” and gave examples of the kinds of nothing from which something can come.

    But as I said, I have looked and have found very few philosophers who have addressed it since in any terms. It seems to be pretty much a fringe issue outside the apologists.


  29. synred

    Particles are more like wave’s than particles. They are excitations in quantum fields. It’s the fields that are waving.

    If the fields don’t exist, one is in effect adopting Tegmark’s (or DM) mathematical universe.

    This has problems for science. If the equations of the Fridman Universe can take on values that allow for a near flat universe like ours, you have no need to look for inflation to explain why it’s so flat. A flat Fridman universe will ‘exist’ mere because it’s mathematically possible — there’s no need to explain it (or the uncountable infinity of minor variations).


  30. synred

    Hard neoliberals: Mont Pelerin—the market giveth, the market taketh away, blessed be the name of the market!

    Of course you can raise mean income and still lower median. Bill Gates walks into a bar.

    Water is a poor metaphor for the economy.


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