A Science Thanksgiving

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

The pistol shrimp (Image credit: Wired)

It’s Thanksgiving weekend here in the U.S., and there’s an informal tradition on Thanksgiving to give thanks for all kinds of things in our lives. Certainly there’s plenty to be thankful for this year, especially for those of us whose lives and livelihoods haven’t been personally devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. But I thought I would do something different this year. Instead of being thankful for life’s usual blessings, how about being thankful for some specific facts of nature and the universe that are responsible for our very existence and make it wondrous? Being employed and healthy and surrounded by family and friends is excellent, but none of that would be possible without the amazing unity and diversity of life and the universe. So without further ado and in no particular order, I present an entirely personal selection of ten favorites for which I am eternally thankful.

I am thankful for the value of the resonance level energy of the excited state of carbon-12: carbon-12 which is the basis of all organic life on earth is formed in stars through the reaction of beryllium-8 with helium-4. The difference in energies between the starting materials (beryllium + helium) and carbon is only about 4%. If this difference had been even slightly higher, the unstable beryllium-8 would have disappeared long before it had transmuted into carbon-12, making life impossible. Read more »

Life Is hard. Can Philosophy Help?

by Dwight Furrow

Does philosophy have anything to tell us about problems we face in everyday life? Many ancient philosophers thought so. To them, philosophy was not merely an academic discipline but a way of life that provided distinctive reasons and motivations for living well. Some contemporary philosophers have been inspired by these ancient sources giving new life to this question about philosophy’s practical import.

The problem with the contemporary discussion about philosophy as a way of life is that answers to questions about how to live are too often drawn directly from these ancient sources. Aristotle, the Stoics, or Epicurus are treated as sages bestowing wisdom on us blinkered moderns. While there is no doubt great wisdom in this ancient literature, one might question the relevance of their commentary. We live in vastly different circumstances confronting problems of which they never dreamed. Furthermore, there has been a flood of philosophical water flowing under the bridge during the past 2000 years. Is that just so much effluent to be drawn off while we contemplate the Stoic logos or Plato’s forms?

This literature needs input from contemporary philosophers who can apply their considerable analytic skills to problems in living as they emerge in modern society without being freighted with ancient ideologies. Hence the import of Kieran Setiya’s new book, Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way. It is a paradigm of what is needed in current discussions about philosophy as way of life. Read more »

Privacy as a Common Good in the Age of Big Data

by Josie Roux and Fabio Tollon

Do we need to rethink the role (or conception) of privacy in a highly digitised world? The widespread collection of online user data has generated substantial interest in the various ways in which our right to privacy has been violated. Additionally, worries about our privacy being undermined are also linked to the coercive or manipulative power that digital technologies have over our lives. The concern, then, is that the widespread gathering and use of massive amounts of private information by Big Data barons might undermine individual autonomy. Moreover, if we consider that citizen autonomy is a crucial element of democracy, it becomes clear that the problem of privacy invasions of widespread data collection goes beyond its effect on individual users.

Here we would like to suggest that this situation demands that we reassess the way that we value privacy in liberal democracies.  Traditionally, privacy has been valued as an individual good; it is valued instrumentally for the individual goods it protects such as intimacy, creativity, self-expression, and personhood. In general, privacy is viewed as a right afforded to individuals that protects them from incursions from society. However, if we value privacy for its essential role in the protection of democracy, then it becomes clear that privacy is not only important for individuals but for society as a whole, and is not just an individual good but a common good. Read more »

Skepticism as A Way of Life

by Dwight Furrow

Today “skepticism” has two related meanings. In ordinary language it is a behavioral disposition to withhold assent to a claim until sufficient evidence is available to judge the claim true or false. This skeptical disposition is central to scientific inquiry, although financial incentives and the attractions of prestige render it inconsistently realized. In a world increasingly afflicted with misinformation, disinformation, and outright lies we could use more skepticism of this sort.

In philosophy, “skepticism” refers to the theoretical position that no claim satisfies the requirements for genuine knowledge. It is a move in the long-standing debate about the nature of knowledge and justification. However, this modern, theoretical use of the term harkens back to an ancient philosophical tradition that viewed skepticism, not solely as a theoretical position, but as a way of life. As the debate about philosophy as a way of life has emerged in the past several decades, this ancient view of skepticism has received some discussion. It’s worth considering what it can contribute to that debate.

Is skepticism a coherent way of life?

Most of the discussion makes use of the argument provided by Sextus Empiricus, who lived in the second or third century CE somewhere in the Mediterranean region and whose works have survived largely intact. The basic argument is this:

A good life should be as free from psychological disturbance as possible. Thus, a good life is a life of tranquility. Philosophical argument is the means through which we can achieve tranquility.

If you have attended seminars in philosophy, you might question this claim but bear with me. Read more »

God Help us all: Fending off an American Theocracy

by Mark Harvey

The Crusades

The trouble with theocracies is that they generally lead to crusades. And the trouble with crusades is that if you’re not of the right sect or denomination, you’ll end up crucified. Theocracies lead nowhere, bring great suffering on peoples, stifle creative thought, and have women covered or in the kitchen. They do anything but lead to paradise on earth. But they do give people a taste of hell.

Whether it’s the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Isis caliphate in Iraq and Syria, or The Islamic State of Iran, theocracies are inherently oppressive, and regressive. They subscribe to the idea that there is only one God, he is to be obeyed without question, and that those ruling in a theocratic government have some sort of manifest connection with that God.

James Madison

To some degree, Americans have been spared the ravages of theocracies. We are perhaps most indebted to James Madison for that. Madison, sometimes called the father of the Constitution, understood well in advance of 1789 when the framers met in Philadelphia, that the new nation being formed needed to be free and clear of the factionalism so often created by religious zealots. In letters to his close friend Thomas Jefferson, Madison wrote, “When Indeed Religion is kindled into enthusiasm, its force like that of other passions is increased by the sympathy of a multitude….Even in its coolest state, it has been much oftener a motive to oppression than a restraint from it.”

I have no issues with religion per se. I think it genuinely helps some people navigate their lives and having a faith strong enough to maintain an unswerving optimism in the face of life’s hardships is even enviable. For the truly dispossessed and bereaved, a belief in God may be the last thing to cling to. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our great writers and a transcendentalist, called the religious sentiment “mountain air” and “the embalmer of the world.”

“It makes the sky and the hills sublime, and the silent song of the hills is it,” he said. Read more »

Epicurus and the Ethics of Pleasure

by Dwight Furrow

If philosophy is not only an academic, theoretical discipline but a way of life, as many Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers thought, one way of evaluating a philosophy is in terms of the kind of life it entails.

On that score, if we’re playing the game of choose your favorite ancient philosopher, I would say I’m most inspired by the vision of Epicurus. This is not because he had compelling arguments for his views. The fragments of original texts that we have, and the unreliability of many of the commentaries of his contemporaries, leave us with little knowledge of his actual arguments. What is attractive about Epicurus is the vision of a good life that emerges from his work and life.

Unlike Plato and Aristotle at their academies or Stoic sages who populated the ruling class (or endured crushing hardship from the wrong side of that boot), Epicurus presided over “The Garden.” In that tranquil private space outside Athens, he and his followers gathered to enact a humble life of modest pleasure enjoying the bounty of the harvest with friends in conversation. The ideal was that even people of limited means could live a life of contentment and ease if they thought clearly about the nature of pleasure, grasped the need for moderation, and rejected superstitious religious and political beliefs that caused psychological turmoil. Read more »

Acting Machines

by Fabio Tollon

Fritzchens Fritz / Better Images of AI / GPU shot etched 1 / CC-BY 4.0

Machines can do lots of things. Robotic arms can help make our cars, autonomous cars can drive us around, and robotic vacuums can clean our floors. In all of these cases it seems natural to think that these machines are doing something. Of course, a ‘doing’ is a kind of happening: when something is done, usually something happens, namely, an event. Brushing my teeth, going for a walk, and turning on the light are all things that I do, and when I do them, something happens (events). We might think the same thing about robotic arms, autonomous vehicles, and robotic vacuum cleaners. All these systems seem to be doing something, which then leads to an event occurring.  However, in the case of humans, we often think of what we do in terms of agency: when we do perform an action things are not just happening (in a passive sense). Rather, we are acting, we are exercising our agency, we are agents. Can machines be agents? Is there something like artificial agency? Well, as with most things in philosophy, it depends.

Agency, in its human form, is usually about our mental states. It therefore seems natural to think that in order for something or other to be an agent, it should at least in principle have something like mental states (in the form of, for example, beliefs and desires). More than this, in order for an action to be properly attributable to an agent we might insist that the action they perform be caused by their mental states. Thus, we might say that for an entity to be considered an agent it should be possible to explain their behaviour by referring to their mental states. Read more »

Robots, Emotions, and Relational Capacities

by Fabio Tollon

The Talon Bomb Disposal Robot is used by U.S. Army Special Forces teams for remote-controlled explosive ordnance disposal.

I take it as relatively uncontroversial that you, dear reader, experience emotions. There are times when you feel sad, happy, relieved, overjoyed, pessimistic, or hopeful. Often it is difficult to know exactly which emotion we are feeling at a particular point in time, but, for the most part, we can be fairly confident that we are experiencing some kind of emotion. Now we might ask, how do you know that others are experiencing emotions? While, straightforwardly enough, they could tell you. But, more often than not, we read into their body language, tone, and overall behaviour in order to figure out what might be going on inside their heads. Now, we might ask, what is stopping a machine from doing all of these things? Can a robot have emotions? I’m not really convinced that this question makes sense, given the kinds of things that robots are. However, I have the sense whether or not robots can really have emotions is independent of whether we will treat as if they have emotions. So, the metaphysics seems to be a bit messy, so I’m going to do something naughty and bracket the metaphysics. Let’s take the as if seriously, and consider social robots.

Taking this pragmatic approach means we don’t need to have a refined theory of what emotions are, or whether agents “really” have them or not. Instead, we can ask questions about how likely it is that humans will attribute emotions or agency to robots. Turns out, we do this all the time! Human beings seem to have a natural propensity to attribute consciousness and agency (phenomena that are often closely linked to the ability to have emotions) to entities that look and behave as if they have those properties. This kind of tendency seems to be a product of our pattern tracking abilities: if things behave in a certain way, we put them in a certain category, and this helps us keep track of and make sense of the world around us.

While this kind of strategy makes little sense if we are trying to explain and understand the inner workings of a system, it makes a great deal of sense if all we are interested in is trying to predict how an entity might behave or respond. Consider the famous case of bomb-defusing robots, which are modelled on stick insects. Read more »

Stoicism: Is it Therapy or Philosophy?

by Dwight Furrow

One of the more remarkable developments in popular philosophy over the past 20 years is the rebirth of stoicism. Stoicism was an ancient Greek and Roman philosophy founded around 300 BCE by the merchant Zeno of Citium, in what is now Cyprus. Although, contemporary professional philosophers occasionally discuss Stoicism as a form of virtue ethics, most consider it to be a minor philosophical movement in the history of philosophy with limited influence. Yet it has captured the attention of the non-professional philosophical world with many websites and online communities devoted to its practice. Some estimate membership in these communities at about 100,000 participants. Stoicism has also played a seminal role in the development of cognitive/behavioral therapy in psychology.

The puzzle is why Stoicism is now having its moment—because it is genuinely weird.

To be sure, Stoic ethics gives some good advice. One central tenet is that we place far too much value on external things such as wealth, popularity, or prestige at the expense of moral virtue. In an age of celebrity worship, groveling for likes on social media, and a mad dash for cash, none of which does much to promote happiness, we could surely use more focus on what really matters in life. But this sort of advice isn’t unique to Stoicism. It is hard to imagine any mainstream ethical theory not condemning our fascination with bling, careerism, and greed. Nevertheless, the Stoic reasoning on these ethical matters is distinctive and important because it deeply shapes the practical advice that has made it so popular. Read more »

Nudging, Big Data, and Well-being

by Fabio Tollon

Pexels by Tyler Hendy

We often make bad choices. We eat sugary foods too often, we don’t save enough for retirement, and we don’t get enough exercise. Helpfully, the modern world presents us with a plethora of ways to overcome these weaknesses of our will. We can use calorie tracking applications to monitor our sugar intake, we can automatically have funds taken from our account to fund retirement schemes, and we can use our phones and smartwatches to make us feel bad if we haven’t exercised in a while. All of these might seem innocuous and relatively unproblematic: what is wrong with using technology to try and be a better, healthier, version of yourself?

Well, let’s first take a step back. In all of these cases what are we trying to achieve? Intuitively, the story might go something like this: we want to be better and healthier, and we know we often struggle to do so. We are weak when faced with the Snickers bar, and we can’t be bothered to exercise when we could be binging The Office for the third time this month. What seems to be happening is that our desire to do what all things considered we think is best is rendered moot by the temptation in front of us. Therefore, we try to introduce changes to our behaviour that might help us overcome these temptations. We might always eat before going shopping, reducing the chances that we are tempted by chocolate, or we could exercise first thing in the morning, before our brains have time to process what a godawful idea that might be. These solutions are based on the idea that we sometimes, predictably, act in ways that are against our own self-interest. That is to say, we are sometimes irrational, and these “solutions” are ways of getting our present selves to do what we determine is in the best interests of future selves. Key to this, though, is we as individuals get to intentionally determine the scope and content of these interventions. What happens when third parties, such as governments and corporations, try to do something similar?

Attempts at this kind of intervention are often collected under the label “nudging”, which is a term used to pick out a particular kind of behavioural modification program. The term was popularized by the now famous book, Nudge, in which Thaler and Sunstein argue in favour of “libertarian-paternalism”. Read more »

Forgetting Aristotle

by Dwight Furrow

For many of the ancient philosophers that we still read today, philosophy was not only an intellectual pursuit but a way of life, a rigorous pursuit of wisdom that can guide us through the difficult decisions and battle for self-control that characterize a human life. That view of philosophy as a practical guide faded throughout much of modern history as the idea of a “way of life” was deemed a matter of personal preference and philosophical ethics became a study of how we justify right action. But with the recognition that philosophy might speak to broader concerns than those that get a hearing in academia, this idea of philosophy as a way of life has been revived in recent years.

However, if philosophy is to be successfully conceptualized as a way of life, it will have to overcome that legacy of modern moral philosophy which has little to say about life as lived. You can sift through the works of Hume, Kant, Mill, and their heirs without discovering much that is practically useful. Of all the mainstream views in ethics, one has to return to the ancient philosophers, most notably Aristotle, and their modern interpreters to find discussions of the nature of human flourishing, practical wisdom, and the qualities of character required to achieve it. But alas, it seems to me, even that return to Aristotle is not sufficient to make the argument for philosophy as a way of life. Despite Aristotle’s laudable sensitivity to practical concerns, his work is afflicted with idealizations that limit its value for everyday moral reflection. Read more »

The ‘Soft’ Impacts of Emerging Technology

by Fabio Tollon

Getting a handle on the various ways that technology influences us is as important as it is difficult. The media is awash with claims of how this or that technology will either save us or doom us. And in some cases, it does seem as though we have a concrete grasp on the various costs and benefits that a technology provides. We know that CO2 emissions from large-scale animal agriculture are very damaging for the environment, notwithstanding the increases in food production we have seen over the years. However, such a ‘balanced’ perspective usually emerges after some time has passed and the technology has become ‘stable’, in the sense that its uses and effects are relatively well understood. We now understand, better than we did in the 1920s, for example, the disastrous effects of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions. We can see that the technology at some point provided a benefit, but that now the costs outweigh those benefits. For emerging technologies, however, such a ‘cost-benefit’ approach might not be possible in practice.

Take a simple example: imagine a private company is accused of polluting a river due to chemical runoff from a new machine they have installed (unfortunately this probably does not require much imagination and can be achieved by looking outside, depending on where you live). In order to determine whether the company is guilty or not we would investigate the effects of their activities. We could take water samples from the river and attempt to show that the chemicals used in the company’s manufacturing process are indeed present in the water. Further, we could make an argument where we show how there is a causal relationship between the presence of these chemicals and certain detrimental effects that might be observed in the area, such as loss of biodiversity, the pollution of drinking water, or an increase in diseases associated with the chemical in question. Read more »

Virtue Ethics, Technology, and the Situationist Challenge

by Fabio Tollon

In a previous article I argued that, when it comes to our moral appraisal of emerging technologies, the best normative framework to use is that of virtue ethics. The reasons for this were that virtue ethics succeeds in ways that consequentialist or deontological theories fail. Specifically, these other theories posit fixed principles that seem incapable of accommodating the unpredictable effects that emerging technologies will have not only on how we view ourselves, but also on the ways in which they will interact with our current social and cultural practices

However, while virtue ethics might be superior in the sense that it is able to be context sensitive in way that these other theories are not, it is not without problems of its own. The most significant of these is what is known as the ‘situationist challenge’, which targets the heart of virtue ethics, and argues that situational influences trump dispositional ones. In this article I will defend virtue ethics from this objection and in the process show that it remains our best means for assessing the moral effects of emerging technologies.

So, what exactly is the situationist challenge contesting? In order for any fleshed-out theory of virtue to make sense, it must be the case that something like ‘virtues’ exist and are attainable by human beings, and that they are reliably expressed by agents. For example, traits such as generosity, arrogance, and bravery are dispositions to react in particular ways to certain trait-eliciting circumstances. If agents do not react reliably in these circumstances, it makes little sense to traffic in the language of the virtues. Calling someone ‘generous’ makes no sense if they only acted the way that they did out of habit or because someone happened to be watching them. Read more »

The Value of Metaphysics

by Dwight Furrow

Among the ideas in the history of philosophy most worthy of an eye-roll is Aristotle’s claim that the study of metaphysics is the highest form of eudaimonia (variously translated as “happiness” or “flourishing”) of which human beings are capable. The metaphysician is allegedly happier than even the philosopher who makes a well-lived life the sole focus of inquiry. “Arrogant,” self-serving,” and “implausible” come immediately to mind as a first response to the argument. It’s not at all obvious that philosophers, let alone metaphysicians, are happier than anyone else nor is it obvious why the investigation of metaphysical matters is more joyful or conducive to flourishing than the investigation of other subjects.

Is there an insight here to be salvaged? Can this implausible argument about the glorious lives of metaphysicians be separated from the rest of Aristotle’s argument that philosophy is not only a way of life but the quintessentially superior way of life?

Aristotle argued that the activity of all beings is governed by their characteristic function which drives developmental processes. Reason is the characteristic function of human beings, and it’s the perfection of our capacity to reason so that we come to know the truth about a subject matter that constitutes flourishing. All human activity is directed toward this goal of flourishing although most human beings haven’t grasped its true nature or lack the necessary habits and self-control to achieve it. Thus, our pursuit of it is confused. Read more »

Virtue Ethics and Emerging Technologies

by Fabio Tollon

In 2007 Wesley Autrey noticed a young man, Cameron Hollopeter, having a seizure on a subway station in Manhattan. Autrey borrowed a pen and used it to keep Hollopeter’s jaw open. After the seizure, Hollopeter stumbled and fell from the platform onto the tracks. As Hollopeter lay there, Autry noticed the lights from an oncoming train, and so he jumped in after him. However, after getting to the tracks, he realized there would not be enough time to get Hollopeter out of harm’s way. Instead, he protected Hollopeter by moving him to a drainage trench between the tracks, throwing his body over Hollopeter’s. Both of them narrowly avoided being hit by the train, and the call was close enough that Autrey had grease on his hat afterwards. For this Autrey was awarded the Bronze Medallion, New York City’s highest award for exceptional citizenship and outstanding achievement.

In 2011, Karl-Theodore zu Guttenberg, a member of the Bundestag, was found guilty of plagiarism after a month-long public outcry.  He had plagiarized large parts of his doctoral dissertation, where it was found that he had copied whole sections of work from newspapers, undergraduate papers, speeches, and even from his supervisor. About half of his entire dissertation was stuffed with uncited work. Thousands of doctoral students and professors in Germany signed a letter lambasting then-chancellor Angela Merkel’s weak response, and eventually his degree was revoked, and he ended up resigning from the Bundestag.

Now we might ask: what explains this variation in human behaviour? Why did Guttenberg plagiarize his PhD, and why did Autrey put his life in danger to save a stranger? Read more »

Wine, Art, and the Language of Representation

by Dwight Furrow

Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, Pablo Picasso

Many works of art seem to be about something. Even if they don’t convey a clear message, they nevertheless invite thought about a subject matter and thus can be said to represent an object, process, or state-of-affairs. Does this language of representation help clarify the sense in which some wines can be considered works of art? In what sense does a wine represent something?

The obvious candidate for the subject matter of a wine is its terroir—the soil, climate, weather, and other geographical and geological features of the place in which the grapes are grown. Wine presents a subject matter—the nature of its terroir—and invites us to explore it via the flavors, aromas, and textures of the wine, just as a painting presents a subject matter and invites us to explore it via line, shape, and color. Thus, wine has the “aboutness” relationship that is generally regarded as a necessary condition for representation.

But how does wine present a subject matter? What is the nature of this “aboutness” relationship? Read more »

Does AI Need Free Will to be held Responsible?

by Fabio Tollon

We have always been a technological species. From the use of basic tools to advanced new forms of social media, we are creatures who do not just live in the world but actively seek to change it. However, we now live in a time where many believe that modern technology, especially advances driven by artificial intelligence (AI), will come to challenge our responsibility practices. Digital nudges can remind you of your mother’s birthday, ToneCheck can make sure you only write nice emails to your boss, and your smart fridge can tell you when you’ve run out of milk. The point is that our lives have always been enmeshed with technology, but our current predicament seems categorically different from anything that has come before. The technologies at our disposal today are not merely tools to various ends, but rather come to bear on our characters by importantly influencing many of our morally laden decisions and actions.

One way in which this might happen is when sufficiently autonomous technology “acts” in such a way as to challenge our usual practices of ascribing responsibility. When an AI system performs an action that results in some event that has moral significance (and where we would normally deem it appropriate to attribute moral responsibility to human agents) it seems natural that people would still have emotional responses in these situations. This is especially true if the AI is perceived as having agential characteristics. If a self-driving car harms a human being, it would be quite natural for bystanders to feel anger at the cause of the harm. However, it seems incoherent to feel angry at a chunk of metal, no matter how autonomous it might be.

Thus, we seem to have two questions here: the first is whether our responses are fitting, given the situation. The second is an empirical question of whether in fact people will behave in this way when confronted with such autonomous systems. Naturally, as a philosopher, I will try not to speculate too much with respect to the second question, and thus what I say here is mostly concerned with the first. Read more »

Philosophy of Right: Hegel in the 21st Century

by Chris Horner

Among the books of the nineteenth century that have something important to say to us now Hegel’s  Elements of the Philosophy of Right  (1820) deserves a prominent place. It’s not the obvious contender for a popular read in the 21st century. He doesn’t make it easy for himself, if getting readers was the aim as his  ‘grotesque and rocky melody’ (Marx) takes some getting used to, and one has to work a bit to to grasp his arguments. So its not a surprise that is more written about than actually read. This is a pity, as it is right up there with Plato’s Republic and Hobbes’ Leviathan as one of the great works of ethical and political philosophy, with arguably even more direct and relevant things to tell us about our society than those other two classics.  It’s a text that has been seriously misunderstood and misrepresented – most notoriously by those who represent him as having announced ‘the end of history’.  It is true that something, for Hegel, is coming to an end in our time, but it isn’t exactly history.  Hegel gives us an acute and pressingly relevant diagnosis of both the promise of modernity, and the contradictions that threaten it. Citizens in the age of Trump, Johnson, Xi Jinping and Biden would do well to attend to what he has to say in these pages. 

It is a troubling text for liberals, not because it is anti liberal in the sense of being opposed to the values liberals hold dear (dignity of the individual, freedom of conscience, rights and so on) but rather because its author regards the insights of liberals as dangerously limited. Liberalism, with its focus on the freedom of the individual, sees the function of the state as guarantor of the freedom of the individual, in the context of a civil society and free market. But for Hegel, genuine freedom means more than this. Read more »

A Neoliberal COP-out

by Fabio Tollon

From a heat dome in North America, people drowning in their basements in New York, and a climate famine in Madagascar, you would think we would have started to take the climate crisis seriously. This is to say nothing of the volumes of scientific evidence that support the theory that we are teetering on the edge of catastrophe and are in the middle of an extinction event. With this backdrop, you would be forgiven for thinking that an event with the purpose of addressing this crisis would propose significant changes to our current production and consumption patterns. As luck would have it, we seem to inhabit the worst of all possible worlds, where such a common-sense expectation is not met.

The 26th Conference of the Parties (or, COP26) promised much but delivered little. Before the event, there was a genuine sense that this might be a turning point in the fight against climate catastrophe: maybe world leaders could come to together and, for once, put the long-term welfare of our planet and those who inhabit it over short-term profit. Unfortunately, what emerged from COP26 was not very much of anything. Although the so-called Glasgow Climate Pact, agreed to at COP26, “moves the needle” it is nowhere near enough to stop global warming from exceeding the critical threshold of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (our current pathway is for an increase of  2.4°C).

What remains clear (and what was reinforced at COP) is that there remains a gigantic disconnect between what is needed to get a handle on the climate crisis and what is being proposed. Talks of $100bn in aid from the developed to the developing world fall far short of what is actually required. John Kerry, the chief American negotiator, echoed this point by claiming that it is not billions that we need, but trillions (between $2.6tn and $4.6tn, per year). Read more »

The Scandal of Philosophy

by Dwight Furrow

Philosophy, as we teach it in the U.S. and Europe, originated in Ancient Greece, specifically in the person of Socrates who wandered the marketplace tormenting fellow citizens with incessant questions and losing his life for his efforts. For Socrates, there was one overriding question that not only defined philosophy and distinguished it from other inquiries but was a question all human beings should urgently and persistently ask. What is the best life for human beings? His answer was that only a life in pursuit of wisdom regarding what is good could be fully satisfying and complete. The implication was that philosophy was not only a way of life but the best form of life possible since it was uniquely the job of philosophy to discover wisdom.

Today, few philosophers believe philosophy is a way of life, let alone the fullest and most complete way of life. Or if they do believe it, they won’t admit it in public. Only a handful of scholars, those studying ancient Greek ethics, have much to say about wisdom. Few think the question of the best human life has an answer, and if philosophy is a way of life, it consists of trolling rivals at department meetings and writing journal articles for an audience of ten specialists.

The scandal is not that modern life has moved on from issues the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers thought were important. Surely, the question of how one ought to live remains a pertinent question for anyone to ask. The scandal is that philosophy no longer thinks of itself as providing a guide to life and seems unconcerned about this. The question we fear most coming from non-academics is “What is your philosophy of life?” In public, the question is met with embarrassed silence. In private, it is a source of mirth and derision that someone is so jejune as to think such a thing is something philosophers ought to have. Read more »