The Quest for Character, audio excerpt

Enjoy this audio excerpt from my forthcoming book (out next week!), The Quest for Character: What the Story of Socrates and Alcibiades Teaches Us about Our Search for Good Leaders.

What Socrates’s greatest failure reveals about an ancient question: Can we teach our leaders to be better people?

Is good character something that can be taught? In 430 BCE, Socrates set out to teach the vain, power-seeking Athenian statesman Alcibiades how to be a good person—and failed spectacularly. Alcibiades went on to beguile his city into a hopeless war with Syracuse, and all of Athens paid the price.

In The Quest for Character, philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci tells this famous story and asks what we can learn from it. He blends ancient sources with modern interpretations to give a full picture of the philosophy and cultivation of character, virtue, and personal excellence—what the Greeks called arete. At heart, The Quest for Character isn’t simply about what makes a good leader. Drawing on Socrates as well as his followers among the Stoics, this book gives us lessons perhaps even more crucial: how we can each lead an excellent life.

Available September 27, 2022 from Hachette Audio as a digital download, and in Print and Ebook from Basic Books.

[get the book here; listen to the audio reading by Alan Carlson here]

Is it true that you can’t derive an ought from an is?

by Massimo Pigliucci

Here is one of the most momentous short paragraphs ever written in the history of philosophy:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it’s necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

It was written by David Hume, and it appears in book III, part I, section I of his A Treatise of Human Nature, published in 1739. It is often interpreted as saying that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” or—to put it differently—that there is an unbridgeable gap between values and facts.

If this interpretation of Hume were right, it would follow that moral statements can only be of two kinds: either they refer to a different category of “facts,” somehow entirely separate from facts like “Saturn has rings,” or there simply are no such things as moral facts at all. … (continue at Substack)

Podcast: Ten years of Modern Stoicism

In this episode of the Philosophy as a Way of Life podcast Rob and Massimo talk to Tim LeBon and John Sellars, two of the leading scholars behind the Modern Stoicism group, about the tenth anniversary of the organization that brings you Stoicon, Stoic Week, and much more. Modern Stoicism is a non-profit limited company, registered in the UK and run by a multidisciplinary team of volunteers. Its aims are to research and publish information on the application of Stoic philosophy to modern living for the benefit of the general public.

Tim is a psychotherapist in the NHS and private practice and a lecturer and life coach. He has many years of experience in teaching courses in Positive Psychology and putting them into practice in his work with clients. He is the author of the forthcoming 365 Ways to be More Stoic: A day-by-day guide to practical stoicism. John is a Reader in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, and a Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London, where he is affiliated to the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle project. He is also a member of Wolfson College, Oxford, where he held a Junior Research Fellowship. He is the author most recently of The Pocket Epicurean. (listen at Anchor)

On the steps of Marcus Aurelius: visiting Carnuntum

by Massimo Pigliucci

Some people go to Mecca. Others to see the Pope in St. Peter’s Square. I go to sites that are connected to ancient Greco-Roman history, especially to philosophers, and more often than not in particular to Stoicism.

I call these episodes my “secular pilgrimages,” as they serve a function similar to what—I assume—is the function of a pilgrimage for a religious person. My dictionary provides the following helpful definition:

Pilgrimage: a journey to a place associated with someone or something well known or respected.

Mecca, officially known as Makkah al-Mukarramah, is one such important place because it was where the Prophet Muhammad was born around 570 CE. St. Peter’s Square, in the Vatican City, is where the Christian Pope regularly appears to the faithful to deliver messages of hope and charity. And Carnuntum is a location on the Danube River, between Vienna and Bratislava, where the emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius spent several years fighting the Marcomanni and other German tribes while writing parts of his Meditations. … (continue at Substack)

Suggested reading: The trouble with “The Big Bang”

[Articles I come across that strike me as being of general interest. Suggestions welcome, using the Contact form on this site.]

by Sabine Hossenfelder

Did the Big Bang happen? Has the James Webb Space Telescope found evidence against the Big Bang? If astrophysicists are sure the Big Bang happened, why do they also think the universe was born from a quantum fluctuation? And what does this have to do with dark matter?

I can’t blame readers for being confused by recent news stories about the Big Bang. The articlethat kicked them off, “The Big Bang Didn’t Happen,” is bad enough. But some of the rebuttals also don’t get it right. The problem is that writers conflate ideas in astrophysics and use the term “Big Bang” incorrectly. Let me set the record straight.

Let’s call Big Bang #1 the beginning of the universe. It’s what most people think the expression means. This Big Bang is what we find in the mathematics of Einstein’s general relativity if we extrapolate the current expansion of the universe back in time. The equations say that matter and energy in the universe becomes denser and hotter until, eventually, about 13.7 billion years in the past, both density and temperature become infinite. We cannot extrapolate any further back in time, so it’s fair to say that this event, if it happened, would be the beginning of the universe. … (continue at Nautilus)

The axiom of futility

by Massimo Pigliucci

Axiom of Futility. Agents are required not to make direct attempts to do (or be) something that is logically, theoretically, or practically impossible. (L. Becker, A New Stoicism, ch. 4)

A few days ago I was at the 19th European Skeptics Congress, where I had the honor to deliver a keynote address on skepticism as a philosophy of life. One of the discussion sessions highlighted what I have come to think of as a persistent issue not just with skepticism, but with any kind of activism to make the world a better place: people, unwittingly, are often in violation of Larry Becker’s Axiom of Futility, i.e., they try to do something that is logically, theoretically, or practically impossible. And then, of course, they become frustrated and more likely to give up.

For instance, there was much talk at the Congress about the need to teach critical thinking in schools, to overcome people’s superstitions, to convince politicians to act rationally in the interest of society at large, and so forth. All of these are, without a question, highly commendable goals of the skeptic movement. All of which we have been pursuing for decades (or, depending on how you look at it, centuries…). All of which we have failed to accomplish, despite some gain (and some losses) here and there. … (continue at Substack)

A Different Take on E.O. Wilson

by Massimo Pigliucci

Here is a Roman joke: Two old friends who haven’t seen each other in a while happen to meet in the street. One says to the other: “Oh, hi! I thought you were dead!”

“What on earth makes you say so?”

“Well, all of a sudden people were speaking well of you …”

That joke came to my mind when I read three short tributes to biologist E.O. Wilson in Skeptical Inquirer (May/June 2022). Wilson passed away on December 26, 2021, at age ninety-two. The tributes are by evolutionary biologist and science popularizer Richard Dawkins, evolutionary developmental biologist Sean B. Carroll, and cognitive linguist Steven Pinker. Predictably, all three portraits are very positive. Just as predictably, they are somewhat flawed.

Let me first acknowledge where I agree with Dawkins, Carroll, and Pinker. Wilson, whom I’ve met a few times during my career as an evolutionary biologist first and a philosopher of science later, was indubitably one of the towering figures in late-twentieth-century biology. His expertise on social insects, and ants in particular, was unparalleled. As a science writer, he won two Pulitzer Prizes. Right there that’s more than enough to enshrine him in the history of biology, which is no small thing. For more (well justified) praise, see Ken Frazier’s in-depth biographical essay in the May/June 2022 SI (Frazier 2022).

That said, some of his scientific ideas were questionable, and some of his personal ethics were borderline despicable; this ought to be acknowledged as well. After all, as skeptics we are presumably interested in the truth about the man, not in mythologizing him. … (continue at Skeptical Inquirer)

Plato’s mistake

by Massimo Pigliucci

What is your take on metaphysics? Mine is not particularly positive. At least, I am deeply suspicious, and largely reject, the whole approach to the field known as “analytic” metaphysics, which has been dominant since the beginning of the 20th century. (I am increasingly skeptical of the value of all analytic philosophy, but that’s a story for another time. And no, I’m no friend of the continental tradition either!)

My favorite whipping boy is a leading analytic metaphysician, David Chalmers, who initially became famous for his notions about consciousness and philosophical zombies, and has more recently embraced equally problematic notions like panpsychism. Chalmers and his colleagues proposed their “theories” on the basis of their intuitions and of what they find “conceivable,” regardless of whether there is any empirical evidence for their speculation. Indeed, they tend to be contemptuous of empirical evidence, dismissing it as the result of a “reductionist” approach to understanding things. … (continue at Substack)

Paper: Presenting philosophy, what science has taught me about it

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.]

Science and philosophy are two areas of human endeavor that currently have, shall we say, a complex relationship. Arguably, the scientific approach to understanding the world was invented by the Pre-Socratic philosophers — folks like Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and the others — when they took the crucial step of rejecting mythical “explanations” of phenomena and realized that true understanding begins only when we look for natural causality (Waterfield, 2009). So was born natural philosophy, a branch of philosophy separate from metaphysics, ethics, logic, aesthetics, and so forth.

Jump forward to the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries (Shapin, 2018) and we begin to discern clear elements of what we nowadays refer to as science, fundamentally distinct from philosophy. Even though the word “scientist” wasn’t introduced until 1833 by philosopher and historian of science William Whewell (Cahan, 2003), and even though Galileo, Newton, and Boyle considered themselves natural philosophers, the irreversible divergence of science from philosophy had clearly started. It continued with a series of new scientific fields sequentially spinning off natural philosophy: physics, with Galileo and Newton; chemistry, with Boyle; biology, with Darwin; and psychology, with James. The process is still ongoing, with the classic field of philosophy of mind (Heil, 2019) increasingly turning into cognitive and neuro-science (Bermúdez, 2020). …

[From: Human Affairs, 15 October 2021. You can ask for a free reprint by using this Contact Form.]

Suggested reading: Two stories, Anton Chekhov and Jo Ann Beard

[Articles I come across that strike me as being of general interest. Suggestions welcome, using the Contact form on this site.]

by Mary Gaitskill

These are beautiful stories about death. Much of their beauty comes from the authors’ matter-of-fact gentleness regarding the subject, the way they come to it with humility rather than horror or even much drama. Although Chekhov was ambivalent about traditional spirituality and Beard is an atheist, both stories quietly revere life and celebrate its phenomena, even when it is absurd, painful and starkly impersonal at the end.

Gusev was written in 1890. It is named after it’s main character, a poor, deeply ignorant soldier sick with consumption, on his way back to Russia in the hold of a ship with other dying men. Much of the story is taken up by his comically cross-purpose dialogue with another poor but educated man from a higher class. Although the style is realistic, the story blends mundane events and memories with literal dreams and fanciful images as the solid, understandable structures that create human meaning and sentiment (family, work) begin to internally break apart in inchoate pieces dominated by a powerful, implacable image wreathed in smoke. The story opens with Gusev musing about a boat “running over” a fish so big it destroys the boat, introducing the element of fantasy that, by the end, will have given way to a real fish situation. I won’t say more now in case you (hopefully) want to read the story before going further—it’s only 13 pages! … (continue at Substack)