Suggested reading: Fossils reveal Pterosaur relatives before they evolved wings

by Jack Tamisiea

Few creatures were built to soar like pterosaurs. Tens of millions of years before the earliest birds, these Mesozoic reptiles had pioneered flight with sail-shaped wings and lightweight bones. Eventually pterosaurs the size of small planes would take to the sky, pushing the boundaries of animal aviation.

But the origins of these reptiles have remained murky because of a lack of fossils from the earliest fliers. “The oldest pterosaur we have already had wings and were capable fliers,” said Davide Foffa, a paleontologist at Virginia Tech, which makes it difficult to chart their aerial evolution.

For decades, paleontologists have postulated that the earliest pterosaurs dwelled in trees and experimented with gliding before flying. But Dr. Foffa and his colleagues may have discovered a more ground-bound origin for these ancient aviators. In a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature, the researchers reanalyzed a cache of fossils and concluded that the earliest pterosaur relatives were off to a running start long before they took off. … (continue at The New York Times)

Suggested reading: In India, debunking fake news and running into the authorities

by Suhasini Raj

The two men were unlikely candidates to work in the news business.

Neither had a background in journalism, but both were alarmed with the surge of misinformation in India that followed the rise of Narendra Modi as the Hindu nationalist prime minister. To take on this problem, the men, both engineers, started Alt News in 2017.

Since then, Alt News has become a leading fact checker in India, debunking rumors on social media that often spiral onto television news, including those about child-kidnapping gangs and that Muslims were spreading Covid. Calling out hate speech has also become part of the site’s work as it has taken aim at viral posts that inflame sectarian tensions and that sometimes spur violent mobs to attack innocent people.

Led by its founders, Mohammed Zubair and Pratik Sinha, Alt News has criticized supporters and officials of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party for their statements targeting minorities. … (continue at The New York Times)

Suggested reading: Cicero’s Six Mistakes of Man

by Mike Fontaine

There’s an amazing list all over the internet, and it’s been around a long time. Called “Cicero’s Six Mistakes of Man,” it’s huge with bodybuilders and business types, it’s in books and videos, and it’s incredible. It’s not authentic – more on that in a minute – but when I came across it in a martial-arts book (!) the other day, my jaw dropped.

My jaw dropped because Cicero doesn’t give a list like this anywhere in his works – that I knew – but it seems authentic. Cicero does say these things, if not in these exact words. 

The six points look like a perfect summation of his practical wisdom.

And it’s not a crazy idea. Ancient philosophers did issue lists like this. The one I know best is the “fourfold remedy” by Epicurus: memorize the four tenets and you’ll never freak out. 

So I bought it – hook, line, and sinker.

Who on earth (I wondered) had put it together? It had to be someone with a deep knowledge of Cicero’s philosophical writings. And I mean really deep – much deeper than the average Classics or Latin professor has. The list looked like the product of many years spent reading and reflecting on his various works. 

No, I decided, it had to be someone “out there.” An independent. A mystery man or woman.

I know such people are out there because I’ve met a few.

I was wrong.

In reality, the list was compiled in 1914 by an American businessman named Bernard Meador. I’ll come back to him below, but first, let me explain here why the list seems so Ciceronian. … (continue at Classical Wisdom)

The ancient concept of “virtue” is all but dead. It’s time to revive it

by Massimo Pigliucci

Can we make ourselves into better human beings? Can we help others do the same? And can we get the leaders  of our society — statesmen, generals, businesspeople — to care about the general welfare so that humanity may prosper not just economically and materially but also spiritually? These questions have been asked for over two millennia, and attempting to answer them is crucial if we want to live a better life and contribute to building a more just society.  

Within the Western tradition, with which this book is concerned, the issue of becoming a better human being has often been understood in terms of “virtue.” Before we can sensibly ask whether and how virtue can be taught, then, we need to discuss what exactly virtue is and why we should care about it. These days the word has acquired a rather old-fashioned connotation, as our thoughts are likely to wander toward Christian conceptions of virtues such as purity and chastity. The term has, accordingly, fallen into disuse. Google Ngram shows a pretty steady decline from 1800 on, plateauing for the past half century or so.  … (continue at Big Think)

Suggested reading: Seeing and somethingness

by Nicholas Humphrey

The cover of New Scientist magazine 50 years ago showed a picture of a rhesus monkey, with the headline ‘A Blind Monkey That Sees Everything’. The monkey, named Helen, was part of a study into the neuropsychology of vision, led by Lawrence (Larry) Weiskrantz in the psychology laboratory at the University of Cambridge. In 1965, he had surgically removed the primary visual cortex at the back of Helen’s brain. Following the operation, Helen appeared to be quite blind. When, as a PhD student, I met her a year later, it seemed nothing had changed.

But something puzzled me. In mammals, there are two main pathways from the eye to the brain: an evolutionarily ancient one – the descendant of the visual system used by fish, frogs and reptiles – that goes to the optic tectum in the mid-brain, and a newer one that goes up to the cortex. In Helen, the older visual system was still intact. If a frog can see using the optic tectum, why not Helen?

While Weiskrantz was away at a conference, I took the chance to investigate further. I sat with Helen and played with her, offering her treats for any attempt to engage with me by sight. To my delight, she began to respond. Within a few hours, I had her reaching out to take pieces of apple from my hand; within a week, she was reaching out to touch a small flashing light… Seven years later (as shown in the video below), she was running round a complex arena, deftly avoiding obstacles, picking up peanuts from the floor. … (continue at Aeon)

Five questions with yours truly

[Original story at Five Questions.]

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His academic work covers evolutionary biology, philosophy of science, the nature of pseudoscience, and practical philosophy–he’s a true Renaissance man. He deploys his lambent prose as a professor, blogger, podcaster and author. Our short interview with this towering figure is for us a “very good get.”

His books for the general public (lucky us!) include “How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life” and “Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk.” His latest and some would say greatest is “The Quest for Character: What the Story of Socrates and Alcibiades Teaches Us about Our Search for Good Leaders.”  Get it now!

Massimo’s home on the web. And don’t forget to subscribe to his Substack!

1. What inspired you to write your latest book, “The Quest for Character”?

The original idea came because of my fascination with the character of Alcibiades, who was a friend and student of Socrates. He was a brilliant man, impossibly handsome, ultra-rich, brave, dashing. He wanted to become a leader in Athens, but his character was deeply flawed.

Socrates tells him to stay away from politics because of that, but Alcibiades ignores his advice. Sure enough, disaster ensues, and Alcibiades eventually is at least partially responsible for the disastrous outcome of the Peloponnesian War, as far as Athens is concerned.

The story made me think about the importance of character in general, especially when it comes to politicians and statesmen. And I also started to think about the relationship between philosophy and politics. So the book eventually became an exploration of the concept of character and how we can improve it, as well as an inquiry into what happens when ethics and politics intersect.

The gist is that we can—and certainly should—work on improving our character. But also that we unfortunately let ourselves be guided by many who have no business being in politics and public service in the first place. And the reason we do that is that we don’t pay enough attention to character.

2. Why do Classical figures and Classical wisdom still resonate with us today?

Great question! The reason is that those people—Socrates, Cicero, the Stoic Epictetus, and others—had very good intuitions about human nature and psychology. And those are two things that haven’t changed much in the intervening millennia.

I mean, our science and technology has certainly improved. It would be ridiculous to look at Aristotle nowadays if you wanted to be a physicist or a biologist. Nor does Roman engineering have much to teach us, regardless of how brilliant it was in its day.

But when it comes to how to live our life, the Greco-Romans are still pretty much unsurpassed. (In the western tradition, of course; there are also eastern and other traditions that are just as valuable.) That’s because we still pretty much want the same things (love, respect, wealth) and are afraid of the same things (sickness, pain, death). The Greco-Romans understood these issues very well and came up with a number of effective strategies to cope with them. It’s not by chance that one of the most effective modern psychotherapies, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is founded on the work of the Stoics.

3. What first drew you to Stoicism?

A midlife crisis, and the conviction that practical philosophy is the best way to deal with life in general. I was going through some standard things, like my father’s death and an unexpected divorce. I was also at the same time studying philosophy professionally, and I figured that philosophy ought to provide help with life issues, otherwise people like Socrates were profoundly mistaken.

I then devoted some time to the exploration of a number of practical philosophies, beginning with Buddhism and continuing with Aristotelianism and Epicureanism. They were all very interesting, but none really clicked with me.

Then I read the early second century Stoic Epictetus and I distinctly heard the click in my head, metaphorically speaking. This guy was talking in a straightforward manner, no nonsense, and not just theory. He was about life as it actually happens, and he knew about adversity. He started out at the bottom of society, as a slave; eventually was freed and started teaching philosophy; but he spoke truth to power and power—in the form of the emperor Domitian—sent him into exile. Whereby Epictetus rebuilt his school and become the most sought after teacher in the entire Mediterranean area.

Plus, his sense of humor is devastating! I learned a lot from him, particularly what he called the fundamental rule of life: some things are up to us, while others are not. And a good life is the result of focusing on the first category and develop an attitude of equanimity toward the second one.

4. At one point you expressed some ambivalence about Stoicism. How would you describe your relationship with Stoicism now?

Stoicism is a philosophy that was developed over two millennia ago. Just like other similar philosophies (Buddhism, for instance) and religions (Christianity), it needs to be updated to the 21st century. Some such updates are rather straightforward, others a bit more delicate.

For instance, the Stoics believed that the universe was a sentient living organism. Modern science doesn’t support that notion, so it needs to be discarded. Unfortunately, however, that sort of metaphysics is directly linked to Stoic ethics, because it is from the existence of a living cosmos that the Stoics get their concept of Providence. If the former goes, so does the latter.

Perhaps more importantly, Stoicism never has been interested in structural political change. For a Stoic any political system we happen to live under is “indifferent,” not in the sense that we don’t care, but in the specific sense that it makes no difference to the most important thing of them all: our character. This is true, but we still need to work on changing systems that are not conducive to human flourishing, like autocratic ones, for instance.

So these days I take inspiration from the Roman advocate, statesman, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero. He appreciated Stoicism and took a lot from it, but considered himself a Skeptic, that is someone who is free to change his mind if new arguments or facts come to light that demand new attitudes and strategies for living. Interestingly, he said of his friend Cato the Younger, a stern Stoic:

“As for our friend Cato, you do not love him more than I do: but after all, with the very best intentions and the most absolute honesty, he sometimes does harm to the Republic. He speaks and votes as though he were in the Republic of Plato, not in the scum of Romulus.”

Indeed, we live in the scum of Romulus, not in an ideal utopia. And we need to act accordingly.

5. When was the last time you screamed your lungs out for any reason?

Many, many years ago. And I’d like to keep it that way. A lot of people have this bizarre notion that it is dangerous to keep one’s emotions “bottled up” and that we need to vent them out from time to time. Nonsense. There is no empirical evidence for this Freudian “hydraulic” theory of emotions. In fact, Freudianism is nowadays considered a pseudoscience.

That said, if you feel like screaming your lungs out and it makes you feel better, by all means do it. But it makes me feel stupid, so I’d rather reason with other people and with myself and arrive at a calm resolution of issues.

Bonus question: What should we have asked you, and what’s the answer?

Oh, so many possibilities! But of course we all have limited time. Perhaps this: “What’s your next project?” The answer is: a book on Skepticism using Cicero as my guide. The idea is to explore fundamental issues in life, from friendship and politics to aging and death, on the basis of the best combination of science and philosophy that is available to us. 

You know, as in using reason and evidence instead of wishful thinking to tackle our problems. The idea has been around for two and a half millennia, but so many of us haven’t quite mastered it yet!

Suggested reading: What the journey from Star Trek to Siri says about our culture

by Liz W Faber

In the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) – the one with the whales – the crew of the USS Enterprise travels back in time and, of course, hilarity ensues as the familiar faces from the future try to blend in with the San Francisco of the 1980s. At one point, Scotty sits down to a (then state-of-the-art) Macintosh computer and tries to figure out how to get it to work. Frustrated, he picks up the mouse and holds it to his mouth like a communicator device, sassily asking: ‘Hello, computer?’ This is one of the funniest moments of the movie, solely because we the viewers know that the future world of Star Trek holds such fabulous technology as talking computers, while the 1980s of the film’s production held boxy, expensive machines that could barely run a word processor, let alone a whole spaceship.

Now, almost 40 years later, as I sit here writing this article, I have just asked my own version of the Enterprise computer to play that movie for me. Thank you, Siri. … (continue at Psyche)

The best books on How to Be Good

Nigel Warburton interviews Massimo Pigliucci

Before we get to your choice of books, we’re talking about practical ethics in the sense of how to be a good person morally, is that right?

Yes, that’s one way to look at it. You can be good at all sorts of things: you can be a good athlete, a good musician etc. This is about the moral dimension of how to be good. However, that said, my take on this is the same as the ancient Greco-Romans. They thought of ethics or morality—they use the words interchangeably—as about becoming the best person you can be. So it’s much broader than just making sure you’re doing the right thing in specific circumstances. It also has to do with your goals in life, your priorities, who you want to be. It’s a very broad topic.

So the ancient sense of ethics was more like self-development than our conception of ethics. It’s not just about how to be altruistic or make the right decisions about a trolley problem, or whether you should eat animals or not. 

Yes, exactly. So my modest view, which I think is rather unpopular among modern philosophers, is that moral philosophy made a couple of wrong turns with Kant and Mill. It did start to be focused on these specific questions of ‘Is this right or wrong? Is this action right or wrong?’ The answers that both utilitarians and deontologists tend to give are universal. So there is Kant’s categorical imperative, there is Mill’s idea that you need to maximize one quantity, people’s happiness, or minimize one quantity, people’s pain. … (continue at Five Books)

Suggested reading: Nuclear power still doesn’t make much sense

by Farhad Manjoo

Whenever I write about the plummeting costs and growing capabilities of wind power, solar power and batteries, I’m usually met with a barrage of radioactive responses from the internet’s overheated nuclear reactors — social-media-savvy environmental activists who insist that nuclear power should play a leading role in the world’s transition away from fossil fuels.

The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, they point out, but nuclear power plants produce carbon-free energy day and night, rain or shine. Their argument that nuclear power is unfairly maligned has been bolstered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; Germany, which shut down many of its nuclear plants in the past decade while building natural gas pipelines to Russia, now faces a deep energy crunch. It has had to burn more coal to keep the lights on.

I’m not a never-nuke, but I’ve had my doubts about atomic power. Still, I wanted to keep an open mind. So last week I flew to London to attend the World Nuclear Symposium, an annual conference put on by the nuclear industry’s global trade group, the World Nuclear Association. I heard an earful from industry executives, analysts, lobbyists and government officials who are giddy about nuclear power’s prospects for powering the world of tomorrow. … (continue at The New York Times)

Suggested reading: Why think for yourself?

by Jonathan Matheson

Several years ago, a collection of scholars from Princeton, Harvard, and Yale banded together to write an open letter of advice to incoming students. In brief, the message was this: think for yourself. This advice echoes the motto of the enlightenment: Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own understanding. The letter warned of the vice of conformism and the problems related to groupthink and echo chambers. It’s the advice most educators would offer their students. We want to develop autonomous thinkers that are able to adapt to new information, new challenges, and to be life-long learners. We want our students to be intellectually autonomous.

But we also want our students to believe the truth. In fact, the authors mentioned above cite the love for truth as a reason to think for yourself. Thinking for yourself offers a way to sort through distorting factors that occlude the truth, such as “the tyranny of public opinion.” The point of taking on an inquiry is to discover the answer. So, a love of the truth is a guiding value to our intellectual lives.

However, the values of intellectual autonomy and a love of truth sometimes pull in different directions. For nearly anything you want to think about, there is someone else who is better positioned to determine the truth than you. Even if you are an expert about some things, for most topics there are people who are more informed or more skilled than you. So, for most questions that we want to answer, the best available route to the truth is not thinking about it for ourselves. Rather, a love of truth seems to call for deference to the relevant experts. … (continue at The Philosophers’ Magazine)