Ed Yong - Suicidal Wasps, Zombie Roaches & Other Parasite Tales

By its very nature, philosophy is an iconoclastic discipline, dedicated to questioning and dissecting the basic assumptions we use to make sense of our experience, in order to get a better understanding of reality and of the human condition. It was the ancient Greeks who first posed the question about whether the nature of determinism and fate might preclude the possibility of free choice. The answer to this question, in my mind at least, cannot be completely answered either by philosophy or by science alone, but by a cross-disciplinary collaboration of the two, so that the empirical evidence discovered by the natural and social sciences can be properly interpreted in light of philosophical concepts, theories and arguments that cannot be settled scientifically (things like consciousness, intentionality, whether reasons can count as causes, etc.).

One of my favorite tags in this blog is the one on Mind Control. There's just something morbidly fascinating and interesting about the prospect that, at least some of the time, we may be little more than automatons or zombies blindly doing the bidding of forces that we might not even be aware of, and which may actually go against our own personal and collective interests. And as one of my favorite science journalists, Ed Young, argues in the following TEDTalk presentation, biologists are continuing to find instances of parasitic mind control that will make you want to put yourself under a microscope...




Bow down to our parasitic overlords...

Lawrence Lessig - We the People, and the Republic We Must Reclaim

The grand Enlightenment experiment in political self-rule and representative democracy that the United States was supposed to embody was dealt a potentially fatal blow some years ago with the Citizens United decision. Despite the rhetoric about free speech and the gross equivocation between free expression and money, the decision is one that essentially legitimized the bribing of political candidates so that, once elected, they could do the bidding of their corporate and capitalist overlords.

In the following TEDTalk presentation, Professor Lawrence Lessig explains and puts in context what this means for democracy, offers some insights into some possible solutions out of this political nightmare, and makes a powerful case for our moral obligation to overturn the corrosive power of money in politics, even if it feels futile sometimes.





Diotima's Ladder - From Lust to Morality

Just about everyone has some idea about what platonic love is: a spiritual form of love in which what one loves is the essential nature and moral character of another human being qua person, irrespective of such accidental features as physical attractiveness, wealth, skin complexion, youth, body type or even sex or gender.

In Plato's famous dialogue Symposium, Socrates claims that one of the deepest lesson he ever learned on the nature of love he learned from the wise Diotima, who argued that our infatuation with physical beauty, if approached properly, could represent the first step in a process that could lead to some of the most important revelations about the relationship between the beautiful, the good and the true.

I highly recommend you read the Symposium, but just to whet your appetite about this theme, here's a little animated introduction to some of these ideas, thanks to a great and recent collaboration between the BBC and the Open University.



Now, in the Symposium there are various memorable speeches about love, quite heavy on symbolism sometimes, and some of which presuppose some previous understanding and familiarity with Plato's theory of the Forms. If you want a nice, thoughtful introduction to many of those ideas, and to how they all fit in with Plato's larger metaphysical account, the following interview from Entitled Opinions, should be pure intellectual delight:



Dropping a Bowling Ball and a Feather Inside a Vacuum Chamber

One of the ways in which Galileo revolutionized the world of physics was by challenging the Aristotelian notion that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. One apocryphal story claims he accomplished this by dropping various objects of different masses and densities from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and measuring how long that took, afterward arguing that any differences could be explained by air resistance.

During the Apollo 15 expedition to the moon, one of the astronauts dropped a hammer and a feather at the same time and, without any air resistance on the moon surface, they both fell at the same speed. But the footage was a bit grainy. Luckily, video resolution has gotten a lot better over time, as well as our ability to create large vacuum chambers where we can recreate this famous experiment in a much more dramatic and impressive manner, and without having to travel to the moon surface. Oh, and now we also have Brian Cox to guide us through some of the scientific significance of this simple demonstration.




Steven Pinker - Linguistics as a Window to Understand the Brain

One of the things I first enjoyed when I was introduced to philosophy was its recursive nature: we could use thought to investigate the nature, the rules, the structure and the limits of thought itself (and what that could tell us about the human mind). For a very similar reason I have a certain appreciation and fondness for linguistics. Most of our communication takes place through language, and linguists are hard at work trying to understand what they can about human cognition, nature and culture, by paying close attention to the way in which we use language.

In the following lecture, Steven Pinker provides a fascinating introduction to questions such as how syntax (the study of linguistic structure), phonology (the study of sound), semantics (the study of meaning) and pragmatics (the study of the social and cultural role and context of language), all help us to understand how language works. He also provides a lesson on the nature of the various rules of grammar and sound production, how language is first acquired, how it's processed and how it's encoded in the brain, the difference between language and thought, the ambiguity inherent in our use of language and the interesting and humorous consequences to which it can lead, and why it is so difficult for computers to understand language while it seems so easy and automatic for us.

Importantly, Pinker also touches on the major influence that Noam Chomsky has had on the field, especially his hypothesis of an innate, hard-wired universal grammar as an explanation for language acquisition in children, the open-ended creativity inherent in language, and the nature of syntax as separate from content and meaning, all of which can provide a window to understand certain key aspects of the human mind and human nature more generally.





Don't forget to check out a fascinating and delightful meditation on language by Stephen Fry.

Plato - Apology

In ancient Greece, when visitors went to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the very first thing they encountered there was an inscription chiseled on the entrance: "know thyself." While many people today think of this as an invitation to meditative self-reflection, this was simply a warning for humans to know their place, to understand that they are mortal, and that any pretension to wisdom, power or hubris would be swiftly punished by the gods.

Perhaps one of the contributing factors to the more introspective meaning of this phrase comes from the fact that Socrates argued, most famously in Plato's celebrated dialogue Apology, that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Human beings have the unique ability of contemplating their beliefs, values and choices, and of questioning the established order and trying to come up with novel solutions and alternatives to the reality and the tragedy of existence. Taking this maxim seriously, however, is no easy task. As you can hear in the wonderful dramatization of Plato's Apology below, when Socrates admonished his fellow citizens to wake up from their dogmatic slumber (to borrow a phrase from Kant), they decided it would be easier to kill him than to start thinking for themselves...



Will you dare to know yourself? To live the examined life? To question the status quo and risk ridicule, threat and loneliness?

Beyond Freakonomics: Musings on the Economics of Everyday Life

For most of its history, economics has been an esoteric discipline concerned with abstract concepts and trends about which only highly-trained experts could (or wanted to) discuss. But then in 2003, Stephen Dubner, from the New York Times, published a profile of Steven Levitt, a rising star in economics who was using the analytic tools of economics to answer strange questions, many of them having nothing to do with economics per se.

The profile was something of a sensation, and it led to a collaboration between Dubner and Levitt. Together they wrote Freakonomics, and the rest, as they say, is history. In the following highly entertaining presentation, Levitt discusses some of his background, his work, and a series of hilarious anecdotes, including one regarding his professional and embarrassing relationship with a prostitute, which eventually inspired one of the chapters of SuperFreakonomics.




Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies!

With unprecedented access to the vast accumulation of knowledge of the world at our fingertips, it is disappointing to see that even though we are living in the midst of the information age, this is not an age of wisdom.

We seem to be surrounded by pseudo-scientific reasoning and even increasingly anti-scientific attitudes; by irrational and self-serving ideologies, whether political, religious or economic; by the exploitation and manipulation of our naturally occurring cognitive biases on behalf of corporate interests that distort our values, perceptions, attitudes and preferences; and by bullshit-peddling quacks and charlatans bent on making an easy buck at our expense.

And with our growing celebrity culture and our ever-growing need for instant gratification (and our deteriorating work ethic), it is an uphill battle to improve the level of discourse in which we engage. But one of the weapons at our disposal is the ability to think critically and analyze the quality of the ideas that confront us daily. Having the proper background information to argue intelligently on a given topic is great, but even without that knowledge, with the following short introduction to some of the most prominent logical fallacies and reasoning mistakes people make, you can at least spot and identify claims and arguments that may seem reasonable on the surface but that are ultimately dubious once you start thinking about them a little more deeply.



And if you want a meatier treatment of fallacies (with lots of hilarious examples to guide you along), you might want to check out our previous introduction to logical fallacies.

Pawel Kuczynski's Thought-Provoking Illustrations

As you've seen in this fascinating lecture by Slavoj Žižek, the logic of the reigning corporatist hegemony requires that people become mindless, selfish, individualistic consumers and automata in a zero-sum game rather than thoughtful citizens who question the status quo, and who work to make the world a better, more just and equitable place in which everyone contributes to create the conditions under which everyone can flourish.

Of course, to the extent that they can distract you with mind-numbing and petty entertainment, and to the extent that they can appeal to your basest and most shallow instincts, they have the upper hand. Luckily, though, there are people like artist Pawel Kuczynski, who manage to peer beneath the surface and expose, in powerfully visual ways, the cultural, institutional and structural framework under which this entire system operates and the basic hidden presuppositions that fuel its exploitative success.

How many of the following drawings reflect your life, your culture, your world?

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I bet complacency doesn't look all that comfortable now...
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