The Examined Year: 2021

Sunday, December 26, 2021

What Is It

What happened over the past 12 months that challenged our assumptions and made us think about things in new ways?

  • The Year in Political Insurrection with former co-host and current Stanford Dean Debra Satz 
  • The Year in Space Tourism with Brian Green from Santa Clara University, author of Space Ethics
  • The Year in the Post-Pandemic Workplace with Quill Kukla from Georgetown University, author of City Living: How Urban Spaces and Urban Dwellers Make One Another

...because the un-examined year is not worth reviewing!

Listening Notes

In the last episode of 2021, Josh and Ray look at the philosophical significance of events and ideas from the past year. The philosophers are first joined by Debra Satz, Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University and a former co-host, who speaks about the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol and the threat to American democracy. Josh is skeptical that our current democracy will hold out for much longer, and Debra speaks about why people have been losing faith in institutions. Ray asks about those who feel wrongly disempowered, which Debra thinks is tied to how the news makes it more difficult to grasp real facts. Lastly, Josh, Ray, and Debra discuss the strengths of democracies over dictatorships.

Next, the philosophers welcome Brian Green, Director of Technology Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, to the show to discuss ethical concerns with civilian space flights. Brian mentions how cost and safety measures are both immediate worries, both to individuals and to the industry as a whole. Josh worries about privatizing space travel and space debris, and Brian agrees that rule of law could be weakened if big corporations disrespect space treaties. Plus, space debris could eventually lead to debris rings, which would cut us off from outer space. Ray asks if we should send humans to space at all, and Brian points out that some missions need humans to be present while others do not.  

In the last segment of the show, the co-hosts talk to Quill Kukla, Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, about the post-pandemic workplace. Quill describes how having blurrier boundaries between people’s workspaces and home spaces increases accessibility and awareness of domestic, private lives. Ray asks about people who aren’t able to work from home, and Quill compares the traumatic, extended effects of COVID-19 with those from 9/11. Josh regrets the loss of serendipity that comes with constantly scheduling virtual meetings, but Quill is optimistic that other forms of spontaneous interactions will arise. 

  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:13) → Ian Shoales runs through a long list of the many disasters in 2021.



Josh Landy  
Welcome to Philosophy Talk the program that questions everything...

Ray Briggs  
...except your intelligence. I'm Ray Briggs.

Josh Landy  
And I'm Josh Landy, we're coming to you via the studios of KALW San Francisco Bay Area,

Comments (3)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, November 8, 2021 -- 6:33 AM

The persistent western

The persistent western drought, water shortages, heat dome in the Pacific Northwest, Hurricanes Ida/Henri, the flash flooding in Tennesee, the bootleg and dixie fires, yeah, the environment continues to weigh heavily on my thinking. Environmental destruction, pollution, and habitat reduction continue to be a problem with no real plan for a slow down either.

The disingenuous and political nature of the push back on decided precedent on abortion, kids/families at the border (still an issue), along with the college admissions scandals, as well as the epidemic homelessness, has me thinking about personhood and identity. Brittney Spears makes me think about how I impinge on the lives of young adults who need autonomy (perhaps sooner and more broadly.)

The ethics around work issues, mask-wearing, when and where to get a shot, working from home, keeping work-life boundaries, and reaching out to family and neighbors again, have pushed my thinking.

How we make decisions, gerrymandering, voter rights, ranked voting, the recount in Arizona – both real and cyber ninja'd have me reaching for new ideas for the public process.

Liberty and Justice have been on my mind due to gun violence in my neighborhood – essentially gang-related, and, of course, the attack on the capital. When is it OK to carry a gun?, when is it OK to use it? Kyle Rittenhouse has my mind thinking about vigilantism, if I should up my self-defense, and is it time to Refund the Police. Rethinking police forces has not happened fast enough.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and What's App have me thinking about mis/disinformation. Who can I trust? Not just in the US but the world. The Chinese lockdown of the media, repression in Hong Kong, and pressure on Taiwan have me worried.

The push of Covid biological research to pre-prints, closed public libraries, defunding of general science, and overall poor public access to current research/information and data has me concerned. Science, in general, has been poorly communicated to the masses, causing a lack of trust and confusion.

Emotions research continues to have a philosophical disagreement on whether emotions have physical essence or are constructed. This fundamental philosophical divide is not getting enough thought and has a real impact on our public lives as well as billions of dollars of AI research at stake if we get this wrong.

The mind/brain debate has been stalled. However, the issues of where our consciousness resides in our bodies still take much of my time reading and thinking about the impacts of all the above problems, and impact my thought about identity and artificial intelligence.

Finally, property rights are an issue for me on an intellectual, personal, and civic front. Loss of IP to China and Russia has cut our ability to protect our business and human rights in the world at large. The trash in our streets, houseless encampments, and property crimes as a form of political speech are hard to fathom, but I face and think about these pretty much every day in my experience.

All this is is just the positive stuff. I'm saving the more depressing thoughts for others to chime in.

All kidding aside, I'm pretty happy working from home. My family life is different but better overall. If we could lock down some positives for all citizens, it could make for a very interesting 2022. Extending Justice, liberty, and equity will go a long way to bridging climate, business, and political concerns.

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Daniel's picture


Wednesday, December 22, 2021 -- 3:05 PM

Initial responses to 2021

Initial responses to 2021 topic suggestions: First topic: The attempted coup in January was a dramatic example of enlisting the victims of corporate power to shelter the ability of multinational wealth to destroy the lives of working people. Second topic: As the "space program" constitutes little more than a militarization of earth's orbit with a tiny bi-product left over for pure science, so called "space tourism" constitutes a clear effort to shift national security interests away from the state sector into the private sector, and is therefore a danger to international stability and public interest in general. Third topic: The post-pandemic workplace is modeled best on the pandemic workplace, at least with regard to whose lap the historical apple of real power has fallen into: the International Union of Essential Workers.

These outline prominent current events regarding which all or most readers will be familiar. Perhaps our business here is asking "what is philosophical here?"; or better, "can philosophy offer any assistance in analyzing them clearly?" In this regard I've decided to offer a brief review of some of the questions and discussions around the shows topics and related forums and then revisit the above topic suggestions in view of the foregoing.

The year of participation in the general discussion began for me in September of 2020 with the show on Skepticism, where it became clear that the true skeptic is one who believes in pretty much everything, that is, everything which is easily and habitually self-confirmable. The fact that I'm wearing shoes when taking a walk, for example, is one of many such beliefs. But where such ready confirmability is lacking, and an external authority has to be appealed to instead, there is legitimate cause for skeptical interrogation. The popular claim that there exists human footprints on the earth's only lunar satellite, for example, is one such claim. To accept such an extraordinary claim on authority alone is therefore not scientific but cultural in character, sharing this characteristic with other purely cultural beliefs such as those attested to by a priest or a shaman. From this the paradoxical result was reached that a culture of science constitutes in fact a danger to independent scientific work, since it discourages skepticism regarding the more popular claims of scientific authority.

Next the Arts for All episode was aired in November of 2020. Given that the objects being discussed there are unique in the sense that although they are practically useless they are nevertheless zealously preserved, three questions are asked: Should access to these objects be considered a human right? Does their producer have an obligation to distribute these objects? And, does the value-claim about such objects devalue the possible aesthetic response generated by mundane, but practically useful, objects, and worse, constitute a mere apology for their manufacturer's refusal to produce anything of real use?

The first question is dismissed by its very low priority. Other human rights come first, like the right for a suspect in a criminal investigation to be free from torture. The second is precluded by the fact that the producer is often unaware of the value of the work. That's for the consumer, or more particularly the curator, to decide. The third is really where the action is. Why should such objects have any special value at all? The answer to this must be found in an analysis of Preference; and human beings by and large prefer to be free, even if many are unable to fully accommodate the responsibility that comes with being at liberty before various choices of one effect over another. It is precisely because these objects are practically useless that another kind of preferential element is permitted space for association. There's certainly more to say about this, but it should suffice here to say that to translate their value into one of mere market exchange is tantamount to destroying the object itself, and constitutes by that a kind of spiritual vandalism.

Then arrived the voting issues episode of January 17, 2021, which brought up, either directly or by default, whether or not the vote as an institution is the best way to determine democratic outcomes. If you can't decide who's Captain of the ship, just rotate the job equally among the crew. No need for any summary here, since the model I suggested was read on the air at 26:10, but rather only to say that a constitutional amendment would be required, in a similar way to what advocates of abolition of corporate personhood suggest with regards to overcoming court precedent.

The program on misinformation and democracy which aired in May 2021 struck me as an especially pertinent topic for philosophy. I was however very skeptical about the idea that "alternative facts" could in time override the real ones. The reason for this is that real facts have a history. They're like events in the mind which have lost their memory but still have their history. Alternate facts are invented and therefore have no history. Now as the sum total of facts we're aware of can be called "the world", any change in the world must entail a change in the history of the facts of which it is composed. In my opinion, no collection of alternate facts could accomplish this. While the problem of alternate facticity then constitutes a genuine problem for philosophy, it poses by itself little threat to democratic institutions.

The show on the Vienna Circle of May 2021 raised a question which to my mind I still am unable to answer. It derives from the Guest's (Professor Edmonds) book on page 154: Does a statement's means of verification condition its potential meaning; (does the horse of verifiability pull the cart of intelligibility), as Carnap says? Or does a statement's meaning determine the only place you can find verifiability; (does the horse of intelligibility pull the only kind of cart, among the many that can be pulled, that verifiability can travel in), as Wittgenstein argues? Although I tend to favor the latter solution, my view thereof is by no means decided. Perhaps another participant may offer some assistance.

The broadcast on Advaita philosophy of June 2021 raised the question for me of how to fit the products of human design into a world described as a singular non-duality. If you don't keep nature (described by determination by continuous causal processes), and human design (described by determination by discrete causal processes), apart, how could one still distinguish compatibility from hostility with and to human design in comportment towards and regarding natural processes? It occurred to me that the question was asking about what the place of humans in nature is, which in turn brought up the solvability or insolubility of crises of the natural environment, and whether their relation to human social institutions is an informative one. The problem for me of classical non-duality is it reflects an individualism characteristic of centralized organizations. The Parmenidean One, for example, is as an apology for the dualism of Being and Not-being, the latter not non-existent, but "disappearing", i.e. adding to or increasing the original appearance, and as such is always the same beginning. As more than a casual semantic relation, the Greek word "archon", mayor, is derived from "arche", meaning both "beginning" and "chief governor". The implication is that if you cut out the distinction between natural and human design, you hand over the solving of environmental problems to whoever is in power at the moment, with the practical valence being that under current conditions that looks ill-advised.

For a clearer picture of non-duality a modification of Putman's famous thought experiment of a brain in a tank was suggested on the program page: If you take the brain out of the tank but leave the thinker, does it change anything? If yes, the relation to the brain is accidental. Without knowing what the relation is, we know there is one. If no, then the relation to the brain is incidental, and no relation can be found. But note that even in this latter case the tank itself still can't think, only the totality of its contents. It is the consistent failure of non-duality to establish itself which I suggest is a consistent philosophical component in the regular historical failure of collective interests to override individual ambition. That's just to say that insofar as analysis of Singularity is concerned, philosophical monism is consistent with political non-duality.

The show on literature and the brain aired in July of 2021, and suggested the question of whether reading fiction was an escape from the world or a preparation for the proper emotional responses to it, as Aristotle suggests regarding music at the end of the Politics. This I found mentionable for the reason that fiction must be about something real because the reader's responses to it are involuntary, (laughter, tears, etc.). So what's real in it, the reader or the story, (the argument being that if they were both real, it would be non-fiction)? If it's the reader, then it's defined as a literary Nominalism of arbitrary story-stimuli by varied yet essential responses. If the story by contrast is what truly exists, then it's defined as a literary Realism of a varied and non-essential series of accidental effects of the same identical story independent of the reader. The introduction of the distinction between logical Nominalism and ontological Realism may inform the topics suggested at the beginning.

The July 25, 2021 program on Ken Taylor's posthumously published book Referring to the World posed the question of how, if the assumption of at least some genuine reference contents is made, the reference itself is not permanently stuck in a self-reference loop; with all reference-contents therefore being like windows through which one sees another window, the objects referred to constituted by the mere cumulative shape of the frame, glare, or one's own diaphanous reflection. The way out of such a dilemma was offered in the form of the lyrical contents of Rupert Holmes' famous Pena Colada song, where an object is sought in or by a set of preferences thought by the seeker to be different from an object included in the set which is referred to as something the seeker prefers to get away from. And as it turns out, this latter object is quantitatively identical with the sought object, indicated by the pleasant discovery that all the other preferences in the set are shared by it. The incorrect reference was simply absorbed by the sheer volume of the correct ones, which I took to be the point of the analogy. The occasional failure of objective reference due to overbearing subjective contribution does not abolish the general reliability of common reference-claims.

The program on Microaggressions of August 15, 2021 is closely related to issues of class. If an upper class person compliments a lower class person on how "upper class" he/she looks, it's microaggressive in the case that the lower class person likes being lower class. I think many problems that are often described as intractable can be much more easily managed by reducing the conflicts within them to conflicts of class, independent from the various masks that distinction may put on.

The show on "awesomeness and ethics" of August 29. 2021 stresses linguistic superlatives. It's not a descriptive word in the sense that it adds something to its reference more than most others. Rather it is primarily prescriptive. It tells you how to look at something. The question arises, then, how important is that to the object? Do some objects need to be called awesome in order to be awesome? I would suggest that's the case. That further suggests that it's primarily up to the caller of the name, rather than the object the name belongs to, which determines its reality or genuine existence. I suppose it's a question of philosophical anthropology whether and how the relatively small class of awesome objects is limited. It is certainly however a matter of choice to some considerable degree.

The program of Akan philosophy and personhood of October 24, 2021 led to an analysis of the concept of personhood on the program page which is worth reviewing. The central question with regards to personhood is, "what is a person?", which indicates the search for a definition. Three attempts at a definition are made:
1) Personhood is a plant with two roots: Right to self-determination, and agency independence of the self-determiner, (to wit: liberty of instrumentality). The example of a spider sitting in its web clearly has the first but not the second. It's got a right to its own web but it's not free not to spin a web. Still, a homeowner can treat it as a person simply by respecting its rights as a person in the first sense. So the definition is inadequate.
2) Second attempt: Personhood is time-friendly. The perception of time is added as fundamental, described phenomenologically by memory and anticipation, with the result that any pre-condition by location in space is precluded. This solves the problem of how a spider can be respected as a person, (as remembering and anticipating the web it's got a right to), without being one, (as limited by a location in space: the center of its web). But that's a somewhat negative result, so that a third attempt is required.
3) Third attempt: The factor of memory and anticipation is expanded to accommodate subsequent respect for the common phenomenological form, the substance or "matter", if you will, for which is a shared object in the future voluntarily determinable individually. That is to say, under conditions of memory and anticipation a mutual respect obtains for the other's capacity for voluntary determination of such shared objects which are, admittedly, a bit ontologically odd in that they don't exist. Self-determination of ends, liberty of choice of means, and perception of time in the form of memory and anticipation, therefore, are all absorbed into mutual respect for fellow self-determiners of non-existing, collective or shared, objects. It is this characteristic which I'm willing to argue prevails in the differing descriptions between cultural expressions, and is therefore describable as a generic property of human beings and a strong explanatory factor in constructive collective behaviors.

Although the program on Professor John Perry's book, Frege's Detour, of November 2021, had far too many fascinating aspects to touch here on even a few, I thought the mention of Russel's paradox, sometimes called the "barber's paradox", was a virtuously bold move, as this paradox is often claimed to have undermined Frege's project of making mathematics a branch of logic. I'm however quite skeptical of this assertion, as the paradox seems to me not to do what it says it does. The bare bones version runs: If the set of all sets which aren't members of themselves is a member of itself, then it is and it isn't. The problem here as I see it is that, in order to make sense, this set of sets has to be distinguished from another set of sets: those which are members of themselves. By definition however only one set of such a kind is possible. Saying it's a member of itself is analogous to saying "Ceasar crossing the Rubicon is a member of all sets of Ceasars crossing Rubicons". Russel has created the paradox on the basis of an identity-statement masked linguistically as one of set membership. By this I draw the implication that Frege's project is rehabilitatable.

Does the foregoing assist in any way in helping to adequately approach the questions and puzzles brought up by the three suggested topics at the beginning? It's not obvious to me that a credible application is not possible. The task however is arguably left to a future time, perhaps in the approaching new year.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, January 27, 2022 -- 6:19 AM

The wheels of progress were

The wheels of progress were turning in 2021. Or, maybe better-stated, the circuits were firing. Here, in our fair state, plans were taking shape to cut a big deal. A multi-billion dollar corporation will build a manufacturing facility near the state capital. This is the biggest venture to be landed here in decades.
There is pushback from neighbors whose nominally idyllic lives will change. I wrote a letter to the local newspaper, something I have done several times in the past twenty years. Got a reply: something that has not happened often. They are planning to publish it. Well, more or less I guess.
Such letters often are dissected beyond recognition. The newspaper is, of course, ardently pro-business. Most are. Advertising supplies the bulk of their economic bread-and-butter. I will be surprised by publication of any part of my rant, editorializing notwithstanding. My thinking is it will not be the only such missive they receive. Those neighbors are understandably worried. Big money generally gets what it wants here. And everywhere else it plans to spend billions.

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