Suggested reading: How To Write History While It’s Happening, Lessons From Tacitus

[Part of an occasional series of articles I come across and that strike me as being of general interest. Suggestions welcome, using the Contact form on this site.]

by Richard Cohen

He has been called Rome’s greatest historian, the most acute analyst of the autocratic rule of its emperors. His actual last name means “silent,” yet Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a formidable and highly articulate orator and an outspoken author of several books. Born around AD 56 somewhere in the northern provinces, he was a boy in the time of Nero and spent his early career in public affairs. His father was probably an equestrian official and chief financial officer of Belgic Gaul, thus near the top of Roman society, although not an aristocrat. The equestrian order was like a club, entry to which was tied to personal wealth. Its members had many special privileges, although these were not quite as extensive as those of the senatorial class.

Tacitus himself was a praetor by the time he was thirty, was promoted to the Senate, then, after four years away from Rome with his new wife, the daughter of a consul, became consul. He was thus one of the two leading magistrates in the city, commanding the army and presiding over the Senate. He achieved particular celebrity in AD 100, when, working alongside his friend Pliny the Younger he successfully prosecuted a proconsul under Nero for bribery and extortion. … (continue at Literary Hub)

Suggested reading: The mental life of mountains

[Part of an occasional series of articles I come across and that strike me as being of general interest. Suggestions welcome, using the Contact form on this site.]

by Keith Frankish

Panpsychism is the doctrine that everything has a mind, or at least a mental aspect. It says that there is no sharp division between us, with our rich mental lives, and the rest of the world. Our minds are just complex forms of something that is present everywhere, and the whole universe – mountains, clouds, asteroids, dust – is infused with mental life. It is a beguiling view, which has appealed not only to poets and mystics but also to those seeking to understand the place of mind in the natural world. Many philosophers, from ancient times through to the early 20th century, have endorsed a version of it.

The view fell out of fashion in the mid-20th century as philosophers increasingly adopted a materialist outlook, which identifies minds with functioning brains. In recent years, however, panpsychism has undergone a philosophical renaissance, and it is now presented at major conferences and debated in mainstream journals. The contemporary form is somewhat different from older versions. It concerns only one aspect of the mind – consciousness – and it focuses on the presence of this aspect at the fundamental physical level. … (continue at New Humanist)

Profiles in pseudoscience: Rupert Sheldrake

An unabashed purveyor of nonsense keeps getting invited to international conference on science and philosophy

by Massimo Pigliucci

“Sheldrake’s book [A New Science of Life] is a splendid illustration of the widespread public misconception of what science is about. In reality, Sheldrake’s argument is in no sense a scientific argument but an exercise in pseudo-science.” (John Maddox, then editor of Nature magazine)

Next week I will once again take part in the “How the Light Gets In” festival, a gathering of philosophers, scientists, poets, and musicians, to celebrate human knowledge and understanding. The upcoming version will take place in Hay (Wales), but the event is also sometimes held in London.

I’m very much looking forward to give a talk on “How to be a skeptic,” and to participate as a panelist in two discussions, one on “Getting Everything, Losing Everything” (about Zuckerberg-style virtual reality) and the second on “The Good and the Evil” (on whether these moral categories make sense, or are useful).

Unfortunately, I’m not looking forward to another regular feature of the HTLGI events: running into pseudoscience purveyor Rupert Sheldrake, who keeps being invited year after year by the organizers for perverse reasons that are beyond my understanding. I’m sure he will take this essay as yet more evidence that there is a worldwide conspiracy of scientists against him, because Sheldrake is not just the source of wide-ranging nonsense, he is also paranoid. … (continue at Medium)

Paper: Scientism and liberal naturalism

by Massimo Pigliucci

[Part of an occasional series presenting academic papers I have published but that may be of general interest. Full list with links here.]

Liberal naturalism as understood within the context of this volume is an approach that attempts to strike a reasonable balance between a philosophy that is simply a handmaiden to the natural sciences and one that rejects them. While relatively new on the modern philosophical stage, liberal naturalism builds on a long tradition in philosophy, one that loosely connects Aristotle, Spinoza, Hume, Kant and Quine, among others, without necessarily agreeing in full with any of the views put forth by those thinkers.2 As such, liberal naturalism squarely puts itself at odds with the emerging phenomenon of scientism, to which this chapter is dedicated.

Here I will (1) discuss what scientism is, (2) provide a few examples of it, (3) explore some excesses on the other side of the debate, where “scientism” is used as a generic (and unwarranted) trump card to defend irrational or antirational views; (4) connect scientism to our conceptions of what science itself is and then (5) adopt a more organic view of the relationship between science and the humanities, with particular reference to philosophy, based on the much underappreciated framework proposed in mid-twentieth century by Wilfrid Sellars and his “stereoscopic” view of what he called the scientific and the manifest images of the world. I will suggest that, just as Sellars himself envisioned (and contra some of his own disciples, both those of the so-called “right wing” and those of the so-called “left-wing”), it is a major and crucial task of philosophy to continually monitor and negotiate our conceptualization of the relationship between the two images. …

[From: Mario De Caro & David Macarthur (eds.) (2022) The Routledge Handbook of Liberal Naturalism, Routledge. Read the full paper here.]

Suggested reading: Should we get rid of the scientific paper?

[Part of an occasional series of articles I come across and that strike me as being of general interest. Suggestions welcome, using the Contact form on this site.]

by Stuart Ritchie

When was the last time you saw a scientific paper? A physical one, I mean. An older academic in my previous university department used to keep all his scientific journals in recycled cornflakes boxes. On entering his office, you’d be greeted by a wall of Kellogg’s roosters, occupying shelf upon shelf, on packets containing various issues of Journal of Experimental Psychology, Psychophysiology, Journal of Neuropsychology, and the like. It was an odd sight, but there was method to it: if you didn’t keep your journals organised, how could you be expected to find the particular paper you were looking for?

The time for cornflakes boxes has passed: now we have the internet. Having been printed on paper since the very first scientific journal was inaugurated in 1665, the overwhelming majority of research is now submitted, reviewed and read online. During the pandemic, it was often devoured on social media, an essential part of the unfolding story of Covid-19. Hard copies of journals are increasingly viewed as curiosities – or not viewed at all. … (continue at The Guardian)

Paper: Prosoche as Stoic mindfulness

by Massimo Pigliucci

[Part of an occasional series presenting academic papers I have published but that may be of general interest. Full list with links here.]

Despite a widespread opinion that meditation is largely a practice developed in Eastern traditions, the West has produced a number of techniques that can reasonably be classified under the broad umbrella of meditative. For instance, Ignatius of Loyola – the founder of the Jesuit order – developed a set of spiritual exercises for Christian monks. His exercises were actually based on Epictetus’s Enchiridion, one of the fundamental texts in ancient Stoicism.

Modern Stoics, as well as cognitive behavioral therapists, have built on early Stoic techniques to develop a panoply of meditative practices based on a range of evidence-based techniques, including philosophical journaling and visualization exercises. Moreover, Epictetus himself devotes a chapter of his Discourses to the concept of prosochê, literally translated as ‘attention’ and often referred to as Stoic mindfulness. While its import in ancient Stoicism is still being debated by modern scholars, the idea is found also in Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, and has more recently been recovered and fleshed out by Chris Fisher (2015), Pierre Hadot (1995, 2001, 2004), and Donald Robertson (2019a, 2019b), among others. This essay examines prosochê, its purpose, and how it fits in the broader scheme of Stoic practical philosophy. …

[From: Rick Repetti (ed.) (2022) “Routledge Handbook on the Philosophy of Meditation,” Routledge. Read the full paper here.]

The Inner Citadel: The philosophy of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius

A detailed summary of Pierre Hadot’s classic book, which helped put Stoicism and ancient Greco-Roman philosophy back on the map

by Massimo Pigliucci

My Philosophy as Way of Life (PWOL) series of essays has now being going on since July 2018, and has produced 388 articles and counting. Naturally, people have a tendency to focus on the latest entries, but — if I may be forgiven for saying so — some of the early ones are worth reading as well. Which is why I am proposing this occasional series meant to highlight early PWOL entries grouped by interesting themes.

Today we are going to revisit a whopping nine essays I wrote about a highly impactful book authored by French scholar Pierre Hadot and entitled The Inner Citadel: the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Despite the subtitle, the book is just as much about the famous emperor-philosopher as it is about the major Stoic teacher who influenced him: Epictetus. Hadot’s book has been instrumental in putting not only Stoicism, but practical Hellenistic philosophy, back on the map, and you will hardly gain a better understanding of either Marcus or Epictetus by reading anything else about them. … (continue at Medium)

On Pigeon Chess and Debating

by Massimo Pigliucci

“Debating creationists on the topic of evolution is rather like trying to play chess with a pigeon—it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory.”

This famous quote is by Scott D. Weitzenhoffer, who wrote it as an review for Eugenie Scott’s book Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction. It raises an important question: When and how should we debate people who hold to opinions that we consider entirely unscientific and either ideologically or religiously motivated?

When I first encountered the notion of creationism, as a young assistant professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee in the mid-1990s, I was astounded that there were creationists around so close to the end of the twentieth century. The mythical year 2000 was looming over the horizon. Not only were the much-promised flying cars nowhere to be seen, but now I had to deal with these nutcases! … (continue at Skeptical Inquirer)

Suggested reading: After Derrida

[Part of an occasional series of articles I come across and that strike me as being of general interest. Suggestions welcome, using the Contact form on this site.]

by Peter Salmon

On 2 October 2020, the French president Emmanuel Macron gave a two-hour speech entitled ‘The Fight Against Separatism – The Republic in Action’ at Les Mureaux, a north-western suburb of Paris. In it, Macron described Islam as ‘a religion that is in crisis all over the world today’ due to ‘an extreme hardening of positions’. While acknowledging that France was partly responsible for the ‘ghettoisation’ of large numbers of Muslim residents (‘initially with the best intentions in the world’), and that it had failed to confront its colonial past including the Algerian war, Macron insisted that radical Islam was organising a counter-society that was ‘initially separatist, but whose ultimate goal is to take over completely.’

Against this, Macron proposed a ‘republican reawakening’, including legislation that would defend the values of laïcité, enshrined in Article 1 of the French Constitution, which separates Church and state, and mandates France’s neutrality on religion – ‘Secularism,’ stated Macron, ‘is the neutrality of the state.’ One is invited to join this neutrality – an individual’s adherence to ‘the Republic’s universal principles’ gives one claim to citizenship of France. ‘We are not,’ he said, ‘a society of individuals. We’re a nation of citizens. That changes everything.’ … (continue at Aeon)

Cicero’s political philosophy — IV — Social duties and personal virtues

Duties toward others are deeply intertwined with the cultivation of personal virtues in our attempt to live in agreement with nature

by Massimo Pigliucci

“And Socrates properly persisted in condemning that man who first separated the useful from the right, for that, he charged, was the source of all moral disorder.” (Cicero, Legibus I. 33–34)

It is a common assumption, even and perhaps especially nowadays, that what is right is often in tension with what is expedient, that is, useful for us personally. Apparently, the problem goes all the way back to Socrates, and Cicero wrote an entire book, On Duties, to deal with it.

The surprising and counterintuitive answer that Socrates sketches and Cicero elaborates in detail is that any perceived conflict between ethics and utility is just that, perceived, apparent, not real. Once we properly understand what is actually useful to us then we see that it coincides with the right thing to do. … (continue at Medium)