Public Reasoning About the Good Life

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.]

We all want to live a “good life,” yet relatively few people pause to critically ponder what that might mean in the first place. This is interesting because it implies that we tend not to think too much about the very thing that is arguably the most important for us.

A common way to frame the question is: what makes us happy? Everyone agrees that they want to be happy, and entire industries – from movies to cosmetics, from exercise to diets – are geared toward making us happy, or at the very least selling us a particular conception of happiness. Indeed, a moment’s reflection will convince us that while it is sensible to ask why we want to pursue this or that project in life, it doesn’t make much sense to ask why we want to be happy. Happiness is taken to be the ultimate goal, something that has value in and of itself.

The problem with happiness, though, is twofold: first, the word is rather amorphous and means different things in different contexts and to different people. Second, when researchers have tried to measure happiness, adopting one operational definition or another, they have discovered that (i) people in many countries haven’t gotten happier over the span of the past several decades, and (ii) most people don’t seem to be aware of what would actually make them happy and instead pursue a number of other things that, empirically speaking, don’t.

[From: A Companion to Public Philosophy, edited by Lee McIntyre, Nancy McHugh, and Ian Olasov Wiley Blackwell, 2022.]

Paper: Consciousness, a biologist’s perspective

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.]

“Philosophy is dead’, proclaimed the great Stephen Hawking. The ‘scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge’. This judgement will resonate with a lot of people. Philosophy is often seen as the science of the past, the abstract speculation we engaged in before we knew what we were doing. If you’re privileged enough to study philosophy, that’s great, but don’t be confused: it doesn’t make progress.

Our guide for this chapter is the philosopher and scientist Massimo Pigliucci, one of the most prolific, insightful and accessible thinkers of the modern day. According to Pigliucci, philosophy isn’t dead. The art of living, the forging of life’s purpose and the study of good reasoning are just as important as they’ve always been. Moreover, Massimo points out that science itself is rooted in the progress of philosophy. Psychology, chemistry, physics, biology – these disciplines are proof of the progress philosophy can make. However, there is a certain type of philosophy that is dead: armchair metaphysics.

In this essay, Pigliucci unleashes a sweeping attack on three of the biggest ideas in philosophy of mind: Mary the neuroscientist, philosophical zombies and panpsychism. Massimo cuts through to the heart of the debate. Speculative philosophy of mind, he says, is never going to solve the problem of consciousness. If we want to solve the mystery, science must lead the way. ….

[From: Philosophers on Consciousness – Talking About the Mind, edited by Jack Symes, Bloomsbury, 2022. You can ask for a free reprint by using this Contact Form.]

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: The Routledge Handbook of Liberal Naturalism, edited by Mario De Caro & David Macarthur, Routledge, 2022. You can ask for a free reprint by using this Contact Form.]

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: Routledge Handbook on the Philosophy of Meditation, edited by Rick Repetti, Routledge, 2022. You can ask for a free reprint by using this Contact Form.]

Paper: Stoic therapy for today’s troubles

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.]

Why would anyone want to resurrect ancient Stoicism as a way to tackle today’s troubles? Isn’t it all about going through life with a stiff upper lip while doing one’s best to suppress emotions? It may have been good for Roman legionnaires, but hardly suitable to the uber-technologic society of the twenty-first century, with its fast-paced life, recurring economic upheavals, and possible environmental catastrophe.

Also, wasn’t Stoicism a man’s thing? After all, the very Latin root of that crucial word, “virtue” [vir] means “man.” And we know that women in ancient Roman and Greek societies were confined to very restrictive roles, not really citizens in any meaningful way of the word. How is that going to square after three waves of feminism, the #metoo (fourth wave) movement, and the increasing, if still painfully slow, undoing of the patriarchy? …

[From: The Routledge Handbook of Hellenistic Philosophy, edited by Kelly Arenson, Routledge, 2020. You can ask for a free reprint by using this Contact Form.]