Book review: Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away

As I sit here and sit here, racking my brain for a place to start this book review, I find I’m at a loss. I should have scribbled some notes as I was going along. But I didn’t, dammit. Perhaps it was because I was too enthralled all the while, each chapter taking me to new and surprising places. And since I’ve finished, it left me with so much to think about all at once, so therefore, I don’t know where to begin…

Well, here’s the gist of it: Plato at the Googleplex, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, is about Plato, his philosophy, his life and times, and his relevance to the world today. The chapters jump back and forth in time: each non-fiction chapter is about Plato’s (and his main influence Socrates’) life and thought, and is interspersed with a fictional one where Plato finds himself in some modern scenario. In each of the latter, he’s involved in dialogue and debate with various figures representative of our time, from an advice-session-turned-discussion with a media escort accompanying Plato in advance of his Authors at Google presentation and a tech geek on lunch break, to a panel discussion on how to raise a perfect child with a tiger-mom-slash-idealist and a Freudian, to an interview with a Bill O’Reilly-like pundit, to an MRI session in a neuroscientist’s research lab.

I’ve read some Plato over the years, a book here, and (mostly) a selection there, and he nearly always felt very removed. His language seemed remote and foreign, his thought experiments (the mythical Republic) seemed outlandish and overly idealistic, and the leading-question and answer style of his Socrates felt contrived, by modern standards of taste. Yet it took this scholar of Plato, who brought to bear her considerable skill as a novelist, to reveal Plato as the thinking, seeking, flesh-and-blood person who, more than just about anyone, got this whole philosophical project going in a big way.

Plato got it all going by showing us how to question everything, and why we should: it’s the only way to make progress. Not progress for its own sake: progress for our own sake, as it’s necessary to make every life better in a practical sense, and more worthwhile in a personal and social sense. Goldstein addresses time and again the objection that philosophy makes no progress, since it’s still asking the same questions. While the ‘same questions’ part might be true, the ‘no progress’ part is not. Some of the questions remain the same because they’re the questions each individual person must answer in regards to their own lives and experiences, no two of which are just alike. Therefore, the answers will be different for each person. Others of these ‘same questions’ are of such magnitude that we must keep asking them in order to slowly fill in the wealth of detail each answer requires if we are ever to get to a satisfactory one. Some remain important but unanswered, not necessarily because they are unanswerable (though many may well be), but because we don’t have the tools or information we need available yet. And so on and so forth.

Yet the most important reason we keep asking so many of these same questions is that the search for answers keeps generating yet more important questions, and yet more answers. And we, intelligent, restless, creative, curious creatures that we are, love love LOVE trying to find things out. I think more than we love knowing, though we love to know some things. And it’s the practice of never taking things for granted, never resting on our epistemological laurels too long, always asking, that Plato teaches us is the best way to learn about the marvelous world around us, and the universe out there, and that within our own minds.

In short: I highly recommend this glorious book. We would all do better to know more about Plato and why he’s so important, and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job of describing why and how this is than Goldstein. But more than that, this book is a celebration of philosophy, the love of wisdom itself. It’s taken its place way up there among my very favorites!
(It’s = Philosophy and this book.)

Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. Pantheon, New York 2014.

Walt Whitman, on Animals

I’ve been revisiting the poems of Walt Whitman lately, listening to them read aloud on Librivox by a skilled reader, enjoying every moment of them in their rich simplicity. This one especially struck me, and I feel compelled to share it with you.

From Song of Myself, Book 3

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d.
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
So they show their relations to me and I accept them,
They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in their possession.


You know me, dear readers, as one who enjoys mentally taking apart things to see how the world works, a little too obsessively at times, perhaps. Yet I am an animal too, just one who does that kind of thing. But it’s good to remember to be the kind of animal that just takes in, and enjoys, simply, sometimes

Sexual Purity: A Dirty Idea

So have you ever heard of a purity ball?

It’s sort of like a prom, but with a twist: daughters are accompanied by their fathers, instead of their boyfriends. There, they enjoy music, eat, drink, and dance… and then these young girls pledge to remain sexually abstinent, or ‘pure’, until their wedding day.

Other than sounding weirdly out-of-date, like bride-prices and trousseaus, anything else bother you about this concept?

What does this concept of ‘purity’ mean?

The idea seems to be that if you’ve never had sex with someone, you’re more virtuous, more worthy, more desirable, more ….clean.

But what does this imply? That if you do have sex with someone, you’ve become, somehow, ‘impure’? That it makes you dirty, less desirable, less worthy, less virtuous, less worthy of respect, maybe even less valuable as a person?
This idea, that engaging in one of the most social, most cooperative, most intimately friendly actions that human beings enjoy with one another can ever make you ‘impure’, has been a bee in my bonnet ever since I began to question what the idea of sexual purity, like the Cult of the Virgin, really stands for. For ages, human belief systems have equated virginity, especially of women, with sacredness. The stories of the birth of Horus, of the Buddha, of many of the Greek gods, of Jesus, all illustrate this obsession many of the world’s cultures, and especially religions, have had with virginity. (The virgin birth of the Buddha seems to be a later addition: early Buddhist texts honor the Buddha’s father, as his natural father, as well.) These gods and heroes are made out to be more special, better than mere ordinary human beings, at least partly because their mothers didn’t create them with the help of another human being. Gods and saints have been more revered, and brides’ dowries have been higher, so long as they or their mothers are virgins.
So what does this say about our attitude towards human beings?
‘How about respect?’ one might ask. ‘How about the idea that we should practice self-control, that we should respect each other’s bodies, and not ‘use’ each other for our own selfish pleasure?’ I answer: this is both an important issue, and an entirely separate one. Sexuality, for human beings, is generally a deeply emotional thing, unlike most other animals (so far as we know). For us, it’s intertwined with the need for closeness, for intimacy, for feeling more alive, for just plain feeling good. In short, it’s one of the most richly sociable activities we engage in. And we can easily hurt each other through sex, when we lie to our partners, when we make promises we don’t keep, when we profess love to get what we want only to show indifference afterwards, and worst of all, when we inflict pain and violate their right to self-determination through rape. We expect each other to practice sexual self-control, and we are right to condemn ‘using’ anyone as a mere tool for our exclusive pleasure.

But sex outside of marriage is more often friendly, affectionate, respectful, mutually exciting, and consensual than not. Most of the time, it’s a good and valuable thing, not only for its own sake, but for what it can teach us about being good partners not only for the evening, but for life. And even when it’s not, when we use our sexuality selfishly, or to harm or deceive others, our bad behavior has no impact at all on their integrity or worth. We may be said to make ourselves ‘impure’ through our disrespect, dishonesty, cruelty, or violence; we may metaphorically be said to sully our own moral characters by wronging anotherYet we don’t have purity balls in which we pledge not to sully ourselves by lying, stealing, cheating, or murdering. There’s no Cult of the Honest Woman, no god or prophet honored by virtue of their mother’s never haven stolen anything. And we don’t ever imply that we can be made impure if others lie to, steal from, or cause harm to us. It’s sex that’s been so widely singled out and associated with the concept of transmissible purity and impurity in so many of the world’s ideologies, cultures, and religions, for reasons that are no longer useful, and no longer morally defensible.

When I look at the belief systems that sacralize virginity, it seems the common denominator is the inheritance of values from tribal, patriarchal cultures, in which life was wrested out of the land with great difficulty, where infant mortality was high and competition for territory was fierce. Keeping tight control over women helped ensure one’s bloodline was unmixed with that of competitors, and worthy of protection by the head of the household and the tribe. The mythology of purity and impurity, of ritual, superstition, and prohibition surrounding human sexuality is perceived as such effective method of social control that they persist in many cultures and belief systems even to this day (though sexual assault statistics over the decades reveal that liberal, secular societies generally have lower rates of sexual assaults than more sexually repressive ones). Over the years, the justifications have changed, but attitudes remain the same.

Yet most of the world’s population has long since left that harsh ancestral world behind, and we are in an age in which personal liberty and individual human worth and dignity are valued like never before. Murder, theft, assault, and sexual coercion and violence are vilified and illegal, and most societies now go out of their way to ensure individuals can express their personalities and pursue their own goals as much as possible, in safety and security. We also care to understand how and why our social institutions and practices can enrich and beautify human life, and to celebrate them, from conversation, humor, and storytelling, to music and fine arts, to dining with friends, family, and allies, to sex itself, as countless scholarly volumes, scientific studies, and works of art and literature attest.

I argue that this view of human nature, in which human beings are understood as both individually valuable and thoroughgoingly social, doesn’t have room for this concept of sexual purity and impurity. In fact, to say sex with another human being can ever make you impure is just about the most personally insulting and antisocial idea one can express: the claim that the touch of another human being can make you dirty is an attack on human dignity itself.

It undermines the concept of personal responsibility, in which we are morally accountable for what we do and not for what a person does to us. It treats sex as a thing that is corrupt and evil outside of a narrow context, in a way totally divorced from what we’ve discovered about the history, evolutionary biology, and psychology of human sexuality. It reveals a deep scorn for human nature, in which sexuality is as basic a component as rationality, language, the need to survive, to feel pleasure, to matter, and to find love and companionship. And it implies that human beings are innately corrupt, dirty, wicked things, redeemed only through distancing themselves from their own humanity.

Just as I reject all of these, so I reject the idea of sexual purity. And I think you should, too, if you believe that human beings are valuable and worthy of respect for their own sake.

* Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

* Also published at The Dance of Reason, Sac State’s philosophy blog

Science and Philosophy, a Beautiful Friendship: A Response to Michael Shermer

There’s been some very public dig-taking between the science and philosophy camps lately. Lawrence KraussNeil DeGrasse TysonStephen Hawking, and other scientists are saying philosophy’s become irrelevant, little more than an esoteric old boy’s club. On the other hand, philosophers, theologians, politicians, and others criticize ‘scientism‘, the conviction that science, and only science, can and should be the ultimate source for all human knowledge; that all truth claims, that all ethical, metaphysical, and political beliefs, should not only be informed by or founded on, but entirely determined by, empirical evidence.

Michael Shermer’s article ‘A Moral Starting Point: How Science Can Inform Ethics‘ (Scientific American, February 2015) doesn’t dismiss philosophy so directly. He includes philosophy in a list of three other arenas of human thought, with religion and political theory, as those to which most people turn for answers in matters of right and wrong, good and evil. Science can, Shermer says, provide those answers, and goes on to explain why he believes ethics has no better source for them. The history of the human race is rife with slavery, torture, theft, and discrimination, yet all diminish human flourishing. Much of this harmful behavior consists of the group abusing certain of its members for the sake of others. But since it’s individual beings that ‘perceive, emote, respond, love, feel, and suffer’, Shermer says, it’s individual beings that are the ‘fundamental units’ of nature (evidenced by the fact they’re what natural selection targets). The primary purpose of ethics, then, is to promote the flourishing of individual beings, and to denounce all that doesn’t.

Yet as I read Shermer’s article several times, satisfied as I am that he places high value on the importance of empirical evidence, I find I have some objections. He doesn’t discuss how easy it is to jump to conclusions, inferring the ‘ought’ too quickly from the ‘is’. David Hume is the philosopher most famous for describing how tricky it really is to derive the ‘is’ directly from the ‘ought’, or in other words, the problems with assuming that just because something is a certain way, that means it should be that way. For example, how do we go about deciding that one fact, or one ‘is’, is more important than another fact when determining what ought’ to be done?

I also worry his argument helps perpetuate a certain myth, widely maintained by those who feel the need to erect walls around their respective fields of inquiry. In some cases, like Krauss’s, this whole debate appears to devolve into some sort of intellectual pissing contest. The myth is the claim that there’s a sharp dividing line between each field of inquiry, just as the committed political libertarian perceives the divide between the one and the many, the individual and the group. When Shermer includes philosophy in the list of alternate sources for ethics, and, implicitly, dismisses it as the best candidate, I think that he hints, wrongly, that philosophy is in competition with science generally.

A famous example of leaping too quickly from the ‘is’ to the ‘ought’, or in other words, deriving an ethical system too quickly from a scientific discovery, is eugenics. Many were so enthusiastic about the thrilling new scientific theory of natural selection, derived from observations in nature, that they thought it could be applied to all explanatory theories. Just as it is a fact that nature selects against certain individuals based on the ability to thrive in its environment, so it is that human beings should emulate nature and act as rational arbiters of fitness. In other words, we should select select against those individuals we think ‘degrade’ society by their existence and by their capacity to pass on their ‘undesirable’ qualities.
Scientists widely thought, from the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, that the human species could be more efficiently ‘perfected’ through the judicious selection of traits to pass on to future generations.

Here, philosophy and science (and yes, even religion) could have done a much better job at working together: arguably, these eugenic ethicists could have used a lot more Hume, philosopher, and a little less Cesare Lombroso, physician and criminologist who thought all bad human traits were physically inherited. It’s not that the physical sciences should not contribute to ethics, not in the least. It’s that more checks and balances between fields of inquiry could have kept so many over-eager scientists from over-applying their discoveries where there are good arguments to show they did not belong. If eugenicist scientists had paid more heed to Hume’s warning that we can’t so readily derive the ‘ought’ (what we should do) from the ‘is’ (the actual state of affairs in the world), perhaps they may have more carefully considered all of the evidence, including human moral instinct and logical arguments in favor of human equality, done a better job of including all available scientific data in their social theories, and restrained themselves from unleashing such a destructive ideology on the world.

But shouldn’t ethics be informed by facts about the world? If it isn’t, doesn’t that make ethics too arbitrary, or too abstract, to be applied to the lives of actual, living human beings, as members of a society as well as individuals? I agree with Shermer that it should. But I also think that facts about the world aren’t enough, on their own, to fully determine what we ought to do. In fact, these facts can’t be enough, all on their own. That’s because, for one thing, there are so many ‘is’s’ to consider, many of which indicate an opposite course of action would be best. To return to one of the many problems with eugenics: its promoters considered the ‘is’ of natural selection against ‘unfit’ members as the most important fact to consider in deciding which lives society ‘ought’ to consider worth living. After all, it’s selection against weak and ecologically ‘unfit’ individuals which made their surviving descendants ‘superior’. But there are other ‘is’s’: human beings are naturally disposed to empathize with those who are suffering to help them out, even if they are sickly, disabled, or otherwise more susceptible to an early death. This disposition, this instinct, is itself an evolved trait. It’s also a fact that the same cooperative set of instincts that compel us help the ‘unfit’ survive is the same that drives us, as a species, to help each other live happier, healthier, wealthier, and therefore ‘fitter’ lives in the long run, as individuals as well as members of society.
Shermer considers the well-being of individuals the primary goal of ethics, and for scientific reasons. He explains: ‘The singular and separate organism is to biology and society what the atom is to physics—a fundamental unit of nature. The first principle of the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is grounded in the biological fact that it is the discrete organism that is the main target of natural selection and social evolution, not the group. We are a social species, but we are first and foremost individuals within social groups and therefore ought not to be subservient to the collective.’ It’s clear that he, like all rational, well informed thinkers, doesn’t ascribe to the principles of eugenics, now considered not science, but pseudoscience. But it’s not so clear how he’s justified, based on scientifically confirmed facts alone, in saying that because natural selection works on the individual, it’s the individual whose interests should be protected first, and society second. After all, natural selection also works against individuals, culling some for the benefit of the group. So, one could just as well argue that the evidence shows it’s better for individuals, as well as for society, if those who are sickly or more likely to pass on disease and disability to others, should at least be allowed to die off as nature, without our intervention, would have it. Shermer needs more than just an array of facts to show why some, and not others, should inform ethics.
It’s true that, historically, far too much death and destruction have been wrought on individuals when they are perceived as ‘subservient’ to the group. In this, Shermer has much evidence on his side. But it’s also true that much harm results from placing too much emphasis on the rights of individuals over the wellbeing of society. Lax gun regulations make it easy on gun enthusiasts to enjoy their hobby while also making it easy for the murderously criminal and mentally ill to obtain guns too; lax labor laws make is easy for employers to exploit and abuse their workers to the point of disabling injury and death; lax financial regulation allow a few speculators plunge economies into ruin and populations into a state of want; ‘personal belief’ exemptions allow parents not to vaccinate their children, resulting in epidemics of disease and even death; the list goes on and on. Great harm, generally, comes from the attempt to separate individuals and society into two competing camps, or to, as Margaret Thatcher would have it, from acting on the belief that the group, or ‘society’, doesn’t really exist at all.

In our intensely social, emotive, thinking human species, the incredible degree of individualness that individuals can achieve is due at least as much to the contributions of the group, over time, as to the individual’s own efforts. Human beings make art, tell stories, travel, enjoy romance and friendship, build buildings and erect monuments, and create such rich and complex products of thought as history, myth, religion, politics, literature, science, and to my mind the greatest, philosophy (since it overarches and unifies all other systems of thought), precisely because of the level of sociability we have evolved. The rugged, self-reliant individual of American mythology, for example, is precisely that: a myth. No human being could get very far if they didn’t have a society, to help feed, clothe, and equip them with the tools and technology they need to perform their wonderful individual feats, and to restore them to health and pass on their story afterwards. Humans flourish when individuals efforts are promoted and when they’re not allowed to infringe too much on the interests of the group.

The human species, as a whole, flourishes so well because of this two-way dependence between the individual and the group: you can’t have one without the other. The incredible diversity of its individual members should be encouraged and protected because they make our species among the most adaptable, and therefore among the most resilient on earth. When we oppress individuals, when we seek to crush expression of personality, or system of belief, or ability to pursue personal goals and professions, we wrong both the individual and the human species, by undermining individual potential while making the species that much less diverse and therefore, less adaptable. When we undermine the flourishing of society by allowing individuals to pursue purely self-interested whims and goals to the detriment of all, we wrong the individual too. Short-sighted, self-centric market choices leading to mass pollution and climate change, widespread cell phone use while driving, ideologues who keep their children out of the public schools to indoctrinate them in one world view, and one only… when the individual is allowed, by the group, to pursue their own myopic interests to the detriment of all, individuals suffer too.

In all other areas of biological science, it’s essential to understand a species as a whole if you want to fully understand any individual. When you look at an individual being, you see a set of characteristics that could just as well be quirks as traits; when you look at the species as a whole, you recognize which of those characteristics all have in common, and which are necessary for all members of a given species to survive and flourish. Even when it comes to solitary animals, most cats, for example, we consider each one as members of the species cat as well as a particular furry, comfort-loving, furniture-ravaging, mouse-chasing, charmingly mischievous, producer-of-the-cutest-offspring-on-earth-namely-kittens animal. If we didn’t perceive them dualistically in this way, we wouldn’t understand much about any one cat, let alone all cats. If we were to encounter an individual animal with all those traits, and had never encountered or learned about others, we wouldn’t know what to feed them, how we might need to protect the furniture, or why we should keep a video camera handy when they’re around. If we need this dualistic perception of cat as one furry animal and one of many cats in order to understand it, how much more so for a highly social species, such as humans, whose interests and fates are so intertwined. I see no reason, scientific or otherwise, to look at the human species any differently in this regard.
This cat example might seem so illustrate such an obvious point as to be silly, but I think we need to remind ourselves of it every time an intellectual tries to divorce fields of inquiry from one another in the general human project of truth-seeking, or an ethicist, politician, or anyone else tries to completely separate the interests of the individual from that of the group. I think both are mistakes that Shermer comes too close to making in this article.
This whole discussion of how easy it is to draw wrong conclusions from scientific evidence can also serve to buttress Shermer’s initial point about ethics, even if it doesn’t support his overemphasis on the divide between the individual and the group. I agree that scientifically verifiable facts about human beings should inform our ethics; the best system of ethics, to my mind, is a naturalistic system. Here’s where we arrive at what Shermer mostly gets right. Looking outwards at the world provides the raw material for any system of thought, as his title ‘A Moral Starting Point’ more than suggests. After all, all knowledge begins with the information we receive through our senses, as Aristotle, Hume, and the other empiricist philosophers point out. There is no reason to think we could think at all if we have never heard, seen, felt, tasted, or smelled anything to think about. And it’s thinking that gets us to do more than just sensing the world as a microbe, a plant, or a clam does, reacting without reflection. Philosophy is the human species’ way of taking the art of thinking as far as it can go: we examine what the information we receive might mean in a larger context. We question, we look for answers restlessly not only because we want to solve problems: we love to do so. Philosophy, after all, literally means ‘love of knowledge/wisdom’, translated from the Greek. And as we ask and as we look, in the interplay between the input of our senses and the organization of information through thought, science affords reality the opportunity ‘to answer us back’, as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein so puts it so well (Plato, p. 34).Philosophy not only provides the impetus and the direction for the inquiry of science: once we find out the facts, it helps us figure out what to make of them. In every step of the way, the formulation of scientific theories relies heavily on philosophy, from the application of the rules of logic to the justification of why we should value or emphasize one set of facts over another. In fact, until very recently, science was a branch of philosophy (natural philosophy) until that general branch of inquiry about the natural world became so large it specialized and branched off, then branched off again into physics, biology, chemistry, and so forth. Those areas of philosophy that didn’t branch off into the sciences and into theology, came to be identified with the arcane varieties of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and so on, pursued largely behind the walls of academia today.

But philosophy is not limited to an arcane, highly abstract field of inquiry, as fascinating and valuable as that can be. It’s that approach to life as a perceiving, emoting, responding, loving, feeling, suffering, and thinking being, that every person partakes in, to one level or another. Philosophy, from its very beginnings, originates in the public square. It’s welcoming into ones’ self the whole world of things to sense and to imagine with a curious, critical, and interdisciplinary approach, and engaging in that way of thinking with others. I want to know why, and how, and who, and so on, and not only to know what is, but why I care about it and why others should too. Science is a big part of this. Yet philosophy is prior to, and necessary for, the former. In fact, it was my love of philosophy that led to my fascination with science, to question and replace some of the ideas I was taught in my youth (creationism, the doctrine of original sin, the sacralization of virginity, and so on) with a more naturalist system of inquiry. To separate philosophy from science is as unhelpful as divorcing the individual from the species: one does not function without the other.When it comes to understanding the universe, in fact, there is no such thing as ‘nonoverlapping magisteria’ of thought (as Steven Jay Gould put it when he tries, to my mind unsuccessfully, to justify the separation of theology and science). I think it’s a mistake to engage in the kind of intellectual turf war that science, philosophy, and other fields of inquiry are sometimes engaged in, not only because it sets up mental road blocks to incorporating the full range of evidence and ideas available, it sets a bad example for critical thinking. Shermer does well to remind philosophers, many of whom are sadly remiss in this, that they need science to keep them honest, so that subtle errors in logic, mistakes in self-justification, or over-weddedness to a particular tradition of thought can’t lead them too far astray.

But ‘philosophy-jeerers’, as Newberger Goldstein calls them, make a mistake when forgetting how much science owes philosophy, and how heavily they actually depend on it. For example, at the beginning of the article, Shermer refers to rights theory in philosophy as a popular source of ethics, as a contrast to a scientific view. Yet later on in the same piece, he refers to ‘natural rights’ as a scientific ethical principle. Yet rights theory has always been derived, even if indirectly at times, from the application of reason to observed facts about human beings: that they are rational and feeling creatures, that they are capable of autonomous will, that they seek to live ‘the good life’, and so on. To intimate that rights theory is, or has ever been, an alternative to an empirical view of ethics is either to ignore or to misunderstand what rights theory is and always has been.
Darwin's Ghost be Rebecca Stott, Photo Credit: Goodreads
Remember Aristotle, philosopher extraordinaire, one of the earliest and most famous founders of two (among many) of the most influential fields of philosophy: ethics and natural philosophy (better known today as science). As so delightfully described in Rebecca Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts, Aristotle didn’t remain in his armchair (did they have armchairs in ancient Greece?), spinning abstract theories straight out of his head, arguing tedious points of logic with his fellow philosophers. He looked to the world to provide the raw material with which to craft his theories on the origins and nature of life, diving for specimens of sea flora and fauna, following animals around and recording their behavior. It was his philosophical mind that drove him to ask the questions and look for answers, and it was nature that provided the predicates, the subjects, of his reasoning.

In the words of Humphrey Bogart, we can see, from accounts of her birth, ‘the beginning of a beautiful friendship’ between Science and her parent, Philosophy. The most intimate kind of friendship, where the dialogue is open and honest and each supports the other, guiding one another away from the pitfalls and wrong turns the other doesn’t see.

So from the very beginning, philosophy has always been there to keep science honest, supplying the discipline of logic and helping it avoid methodological errors. It makes it clear to why there are relatively few direct or easy links from the ‘is’ to the ‘ought’ when formulating principles of ethics. It shows science that finding out how things work doesn’t readily indicate how we should apply that information in our daily lives, that even the best scientist is prone to bias, misunderstanding, and underestimation of that which we don’t yet know, and how science can be used to help and not harm.

There is no honest philosophy without science, and there is no science at all without philosophy.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes
* A version of this piece is published in Philosophy Now
*Also published in Darrow

Sources and inspiration:

Anderson, Ross. ‘Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?’ The Atlantic. Apr 23, 2012

Burnett, Thomas. ‘What is Scientism?’ American Association for the Advancement of Science website.

‘Cesare Lombroso.’ In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Fagan, Andrew. ‘Human Rights’. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Gould, Stephen Jay. “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16-22

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III: Of Morals. 1739.
Nerdist Podcast: ‘Neil Degrasse Tyson Returns Again’. March 17th, 2014

Newberger Goldstein, Rebecca: Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. 
New York, 2014

Shermer, Michael: ‘A Moral Starting Point: How Science Can Inform Ethics.’ Scientific American, 
February 2015., Rebecca. Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. Random House, New York 2012.

Thatcher, Margaret. Quote from interview with Women’s Own magazine, Oct 31st 1987.

Warman, Matt. ‘Stephen Hawking Tells Google “Philosophy is Dead”‘. The Telegraph, May 17th, 2011

Is Feminism Passe? No! Cries A Distinct Lack of Statuary

Many say that the idea of ‘feminism’ is outmoded: it smacks of reverse sexism, and the women’s rights movement has pretty much accomplished its goals anyway, at least in the free world.

Why flog a dead horse, ladies?

In my last travel blog series, following in the footsteps of great thinkers who changed the world, I explored New York City. I found statue after statue, monument after monument, portrait after portrait, of important men in American history: there were Lincolns, Jeffersons, Clintons, and Hamiltons galore, and speaking of horses, a multitude of Washingtons, often astride one. Yet search as I might, in this city that birthed and nurtured so many of the greatest American intellectual and reform movements, I was hard pressed to find such tributes to their female counterparts. Wait! there’s one: Eleanor Roosevelt, great humanitarian… and oh yes, wife and cousin to two American presidents.

Of course, Eleanor should be honored with this beautiful monument for the great things she did. But would she have been if it weren’t for the famous men in her life? Hmmm. It’s not that statues, monuments, and other public works of honorary art are necessary to show how important anyone’s achievements are, so long as we remember them and pass on their ideas. But they do provide a window into the values and interests of the people. Initiatives, petitions, and referendums are submitted, committees form, public collections are taken up, and wealthy people grant commissions to create these public works.

In short, these monuments go up when enough people care enough to publicly show how much they care.

So how can it be that great women like Mary Wollstonecraft, Ernestine Rose, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Margaret Sanger are commemorated so modestly or so seldom? (A little plaque or a sign on a street corner here, a dusty little cabinet display there.) When their efforts, arguably, liberated more people than anyone else? After all, women make up more than half of the human race, and prior to their life’s work, most women in the world lived almost completely under the subjugation of men, most with restricted education, all denied the full range of rights and opportunities accorded to men.

I feel a free woman, myself, in most ways. I read, think, work, play, procreate (or not!), travel, dress, and so forth, as I decide for myself. Thanks, brilliant, fearless, principled women of history! But their work is not done so long as great women are not honored equally as great men, and working women as much as working men, and women who need health care as much as men need health care, and so on.

Is feminism over? I’ll believe it when I see it. In marble, granite, brass… or in the office of the President of the United States. Maybe then.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes