Category Archives: Sophia Videos

Sophia video: ontology, materialism, and all that jazz

Dan Kaufman and I have done it again. We have produced another fun (well, to us!) video conversation, this time on the pretty tough philosophical issues surrounding that branch of metaphysics known as ontology, i.e., the study of what is.

After a brief introduction to the general topic, we make a distinction between ontology and epistemology: it’s not just a question of what exists but, just as importantly, of how we know that something exists (or doesn’t). I make the suggestion that it is wise to always keep one’s ontology not too far from one’s epistemology…

But “know” here is yet another tricky word, as there are different theories of knowledge, and I suggest, in response to one of Dan’s excellent questions, that we deploy — sometimes without thinking — different conceptions of truth in different contexts. For instance, when we say that it is true that the Pythagorean theorem holds (yeah, yeah, in Euclidean geometry) we are not saying the same kind of thing as when we say that it is true that Saturn has rings. In the first case we deploy a coherence account of truth, in the second a correspondence account.

We then talk about materialism, and I admit to Dan that while I am a naturalist, I am not really a materialist, at least under certain conceptions of the term. I believe, for instance, that the Stoics virtues exist, but they are not made of matter, they are human concepts, necessary categories we use to talk to each other, tell each other what to do or not to do, and so forth. The same goes for a lot of other things, especially things that have to do with values.

Mind you, I’m not about to deny that every physical object is made of the same stuff (be it quarks, strings, or whatever physicists decide in the end). But I don’t think that an ontology based only on fundamental physics is sufficient to make sense of the world. Which, of course, brought Dan and I to discuss Wilfrid Sellars, the philosopher who introduced the famous distinction between the manifest and the scientific images of the world, and who was the subject of a separate dialogue published previously.

Near the end of the video we even get to re-examine Daniel Dennett’s famous contention that certain things (like consciousness, or the self) are “illusions.” We find that we may agree with Dennett only if we use the word “illusion” in a very specific metaphorical sense, and we are not positive that Dan (Dennett) would agree to be so constrained.

Enjoye the video!


Conversations with Dan: eudaimonia, Stoicism, and “the good life”

Monty Python Meaning of LifeWhat does it mean to live the good life? I’m positive Donald Trump, or Jeff Bezos, would give you very different answers from the one you’d get from me. But they are wrong and I’m right. After all, they are just rich and powerful people, I’m a philosopher…

Okay, kidding aside, “what is the meaning of life?” is the quintessential philosophical question, though one that these days is more likely to be satisfactorily answered by Monty Python than in the halls of a philosophy department (please make sure you get to the very end of the song). That is part of the reason why my friend Dan Kaufman and I do our occasional Sophia video series. The latest installment takes the question on directly by exploring the various meanings of the Ancient Greek word eudaimonia, often translated into English as happiness (which is not, really), or flourishing (close, but not quite). Modern psychologists have apparently given up translating it altogether, using eudaimonia to mean a generally positive and meaningful life.

Dan and I figured that different Hellenistic schools of philosophy could actually be classified according to their own conception of eudaimonia, which in turn informed their specific recipes for the life worth living (see diagram in this post). Our discussion proceeds with an inquiry into who can really claim to have lived a satisfying life, and according to which criteria. We then move to consider the influence the Stoics had on Kant, particularly his emphasis on duty (as distinct from, say, the influence that the Epicureans had on John Stuart Mill, leading him to make his famous distinction between low and high pleasures — in which he compares a satisfied pig with a dissatisfied Socrates).

Dan considers himself a neo-Aristotelian, so we had a lively back and forth about whether a life worth living can be one deprived of external goods, so long as one does the right thing regardless of circumstances (as the Stoics maintained), or whether some external goods are necessary (as Aristotle thought). It will be crystal clear, and hopefully informative, on which side each of us comes down and why.

We then finish with an examination of the extent to which building moral character requires interaction with society (here the Stoics and Aristotelians actually agreed, though with different emphases), and ask ourselves whether modern philosophy is going “corporate” and whether that’s a good thing (the short answers: unfortunately yes, absolutely not). Here is the full video:

“Purpose” in science and morality

IMG_0018A New video in the ongoing Kaufman-Pigliucci series is out, this one on the question of whether teleology, the idea that things have a “purpose” in the strong Aristotelian sense of the word, still makes sense in light of modern science and philosophy.

We begin our discussion by examining various meanings of “purpose” in science and in morality, and then by exploring Aristotle’s take on the subject. I argue that “what is it for?”, i.e., looking for functions, makes perfect sense in evolutionary biology, but not in other sciences, such as chemistry or geology. That’s because of the special role of natural selection in evolution. Accordingly, we explore the relationship between form and function and how the two reciprocally shape each other in living organisms.

We then move to ethics, exploring the idea of moral laws. From there, we discuss the different paths to human flourishing and how they relate to the concept of meaning and purpose. Finally, I explain once again what Sam Harris gets wrong about the relationship between science and ethics. But you can skip that bit if you are (understandably) tired of that particular dead horse… (or you can read my original critique here).

Here is the full video:

The most important philosopher you never heard of

The latest video in the Sophia “Dan & Massimo” series covered a philosopher you likely never heard of, and yet you should. We talked about Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989), who had a big influence on Dan and who I discovered only relatively recently, to my delight.

Sellars is perhaps most famous for his distinction between what he called the “scientific image” and the “manifest image” of the world, meaning our understanding of how things are from, respectively, the scientific and the commonsense standpoints.

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Can evolution explain ethics?

ethicsThe latest conversation with my friend and colleague Dan Kaufman (he of The Electric Agora) was on what, exactly, science can tell us about morality, meaning not the trivially misguided notion that somehow ethics can be reduced to neuroscience, or evolutionary biology, or whatever, but rather the more nuanced question of whether and how science can inform philosophizing about ethics.

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Ancient vs modern philosophy

Ancient vs Modern

Did the ancients get it right? Indeed, better than the moderns? No, this conversation between Dan Kaufman and I is not about mystical insights or the secret scientific knowledge of the people who built the pyramids. Rather, it’s about what, if anything, ancient philosophers understood about the human condition that was then lost by the philosophy that developed during and after the Scientific Revolution.

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Philosophers who influenced us: David Hume & Arthur Danto

Recently Dan Kaufman and I have had another of our recurrent conversations, this time a second installment of an occasional series that we might call “philosophers who influenced us” (the previous one featured Bertrand Russell, on my part, and Gilbert Ryle for Dan).

This time I picked David Hume, the empiricist and skeptic who famously awoke Kant from his “dogmatic slumber,” and who — I think — is still not appreciated as much as he should be for his impact not just on subsequent philosophy (including epistemology, ethics and aesthetics), but on science as well. Dan’s pick was the philosopher of aesthetic and highly impactful critic of art Arthur Danto, who developed one of the most recent and compelling theories of art to date.

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The Nature of Philosophy video series

As readers may remember, this past Spring we went through a long series of posts (27, to be exact) that presented in serialized form my book, The Nature of Philosophy: How Philosophy Makes Progress and Why It Matters.

Over the past few months, Dan Kaufman and yours truly have taped a series of video conversations that present the main ideas of the book to a broader public, and the series is now completed and available for viewing or downloading at my YouTube channel (as well as on the Sofia channel at

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Conversations with Dan: the ethics of eating

Food ethicsDan Kaufman and I have been at it again: we have taped a video conversation on the ethics (or lack thereof) of eating.

As usual, the two of us differ enough — and yet listen sufficiently carefully to each other — that the ensuing conversation provides, I think, plenty of food for thought (so to speak) for anyone interested in the topic. Which, really, should be anyone who eats anything at all…

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Conversations with Dan: social vs natural science

nature of scienceHere is another of my occasional conversations with my friend and colleague Dan Kaufman, this time on the nature of explanation in social vs natural science (i.e., psychology, sociology and economics on one side; biology, chemistry, physics and the like on the other).

We begin by discussing what constitutes an explanation in the natural sciences, and the role causality plays in it. We then look for (and, in my mind, do not find) categorical differences between social and natural sciences — which of course does not mean that there are no interesting differences at all.

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