A Māori scholar/musician explains mātauranga Māori

August 14, 2022 • 11:15 am

A Kiwi sent me this just-posted “Shape of Dialogue” video, which, although quite long for me (2 hours!), has an explanation of mātauranga Māori (MM) by a part-Māori scholar and musician, Charles Royal.  Royal’s webpage shows that he’s not only an expert in “indigenous knowledge”, but also “Advise[s] and Lead[s] Projects and People, particularly to do with the ‘creative potential’ of the indigenous Māori dimension of Aotearoa-New Zealand.”

My correspondent recommended this interview with Royal as “a very good resource for those seeking to understand mātauranga Māori. Charles is very smart, reasonable and balanced, and I’d encourage you to have a listen.” The correspondent adds, “You will see that they go back and forth on the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science, but there’s no doubt that Charles is pro-science.”

The podcast is also here if you want to download it.

I listened to the whole thing, and you’re welcome to do it, but unless you’re interested in a lot of NZ history, I’d concentrate on three segments. And if you’re interested in the relationship between MM—”indigenous science”—and modern science, just listen from 1:24:40 to the end (see below).

Here are three relevant bits.

25:25-about 35 minutes.  Royal’s definition of MM. The term “mātauranga Māori” doesn’t seem to have been used in New Zealand before 1980, but it did exist as a “fragmented, incomplete, and disorganized” body of traditional knowledge held by the indigenous people, though parts of this “way of knowing” are more organized than others. Royal discusses where the repositories of this knowledge are to be found. As we’ve learned in earlier posts, Royal affirms that it’s largely “practical knowledge”: things like how to fish or harvest plants.

1:06:58-to about 1:15:00 Royal’s definition of “indigeneity”.

1:24:40 to the end of the podcast. The discussion turns to the relationship between MM and science—the fracas started with a letter to “The Listener” by seven professors at the University of Auckland.  Royal does see MM as a “kind of science,” , and “intergenerational body of knowledge” (“efficacious knowledge”), but not equivalent to modern science.  He adds that MM is not a mature science but a “way to live in the world”. but it might have become a mature science had it not been suppressed by colonization. I don’t agree with him, especially because he claims it’s not really the same as modern science, nor does it aspire to be.

Note: at 1:44:30: Royal discusses whether MM should be taught in science classes as coequal to modern science—per recent national curriculum guidelines. Royal can’t answer that question, and says that “there isn’t the research” to address it.  But I think that we already know enough, based on the non-empirical nature of much of MM, its concentration on practicality rather than theory, and its addition of theology, morality, and legend, to say that while teaching MM is necessary and valuable in New Zealand to educate the citizens in the sociology, history, and anthropology of the country, it should not be taught in science class as the Maori alternative to modern science.

I’d recommend, then, that if you’re interested in the compatibility of MM and modern science as forms of science teachable in school, listen from 1:24:40 to the end of the podcast—about 42 minutes.

UK Humanists podcast

December 3, 2021 • 1:15 pm

Reader David called my attention to the fact that the UK Humanists (an organization far better than the American Humanist Association, which is becoming terminally woke) has a podcast that has featured a number of good people. The podcast in question is called “What I Believe”, and can be accessed by clicking on the screenshot below.  The latest “What I Believe” is from Steve Pinker, but you can see the list of luminaries below.

Their information:

In this podcast, Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson speaks to humanists in the public eye about what they believe, to understand more about their worldview and the values, convictions, and opinions they live by.

Inspired by the What I Believe essays of two humanist greats, philosopher Bertrand Russell and the novelist E M Forster, this podcast shines a light on different humanist perspectives, encouraging listeners to think about their own philosophies for living.

There’s a new episode every Thursday, which you can find right here on our website or by following on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Subscribe using the links above!





I couldn’t make it through the new Sullivan/Harris podcast

November 1, 2020 • 11:45 am

I am not a good listener to podcasts, as my attention tends to wander; I find myself trying to listen while doing other stuff at the same time, which distracts me (my view is that you can’t listen to podcasts and do anything else at the same time except driving); and, mainly, I can read much faster than I can listen. I could, for instance, just scan a transcript of a podcast and decide immediately if it was worth my while—and then I’d read the transcript. But you can’t “scan” a podcast, as you might miss something.

Also, many podcasts are long: longer than an hour, and up to three or more! That’s just too long, at least for me.

But I tried, I really did. I thought that if any podcast would absorb my attention, it would be a conversation between two people I find smart and interesting: Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan. And so I vowed to listen to at least an hour of their latest conversation, the first on Sullivan’s new Weekly Dish. You can listen to part of it at Sam’s site for free (or the whole thing if you subscribe), and all of it for free at Andrew’s site, but only if you subscribe.

Click on the screenshots below to go to either one:

On Sam’s site:

On Sullivan’s site:

Sadly, I made it through only 70 minutes before I had to give up. That’s because I wasn’t hearing anything new: just two really smart and eloquent guys beefing about Trump’s pathological narcissism and mental illness, his abysmal failure to assure us that the transfer of power in the next election, if needed, would be peaceful, how he’s lied repeatedly, and so on. In other words, I heard only stuff that wasn’t new to me. And I’m not particularly immersed in politics.

I was momentarily energized, around the hour mark, by Sullivan’s brief harangue of the mainstream media for its bias and failure to print alternative (i.e., conservative) views, as well as his argument that the extreme left’s accusation that every white is a race supremacist carrying a load of bias has driven people towards Trump. At an earlier point, both men agreed that Trump should not have been viewed as a cure for Woke-ism, because his activities simply exacerbated it.

But I believed these things already; it was just good to hear them echoed by people I respect. But, after 70 minutes, if you asked me what I learned, what I was intrigued by, or what I changed my mind about, I’d have to say, “Bupkes.”

Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s just that this wasn’t a sterling podcast to hear. But I’m not that interested in hearing more—from anyone. I’m certainly not damning them all, as many of my friends swear by the podcast and in fact deign to read books our article by the very people who create the audio. Maybe you can listen intensely by doing other things. And certainly, they’re more popular than websites, as all the cool kids seem to have turned to audio rather than writing. Right now I have no data contradicting the theory that “It’s just me.”

John McWhorter talks to Sam Harris

September 19, 2020 • 1:15 pm

It’s supposed to be my day off, so I’ll save the braining for other days. But here’s a nice listen if you have an hour to spare.

If you click on the screenshot below, you’ll get to hear an hour and eleven minutes of linguist and writer John McWhorter chatting with Sam Harris on Harris’s podcast “Making Sense.”  McWhorter’s topic is, as the title indicates, “The New Religion of Anti-Racism,” which I believe is the subject of his next book. You don’t get to listen to the entire conversation (I’m not sure how long the whole thing is) unless you subscribe to Sam’s podcast series.

Here are Sam’s notes on the podcast:

In this episode of the podcast, Sam Harris speaks with John McWhorter about race, racism, and “anti-racism” in America.

They discuss:

    • how conceptions of racism have changed
    • the ubiquitous threat of being branded a “racist”
    • the contradictions within identity politics
    • recent echoes of the OJ verdict
    • willingness among progressives to lose the 2020 election
    • racism as the all-purpose explanation of racial disparities in the U.S.
    • double standards for the black community
    • the war on drugs
    • the lure of identity politics
    • police violence
    • the enduring riddle of affirmative action
    • the politics of “black face” and other topics

I’ve listened to all but the last ten minutes or so, as I fell asleep—not because it was boring, but because I was exhausted from lack of sleep.

If you’ve read or hear McWhorter, or read about him on this site, you’ll know he doesn’t take the Black Lives Matter party line, even though he’s black. In fact, he’s highly critical of that line, which he calls “the Critical Race Theory-infused way of looking at things”, assuming a “nation of identities”.  McWhorter’s call is a strong one: telling us that the whole dialogue with BLM/CRT advocates “is something that enlightened people have to learn to stand down” (he loves that last phrase). In other words, don’t engage with these people; just “work around them.”

Normally I’m not an “ignore the other side” person, but, as McWhorter says, “don’t engage the woke,” as “they can’t be reasoned with”: something that we’ve all learned through experience. It’s like trying to engage any zealot convinced that they’ve got the absolute truth. Although Sam tends to bang on a bit too long in a conversation that should highlight the guest, it’s not too obtrusive, and McWhorter does get his say in.

I’m also not a podcast kind of guy, as I can read much faster than I can listen, but I think you’ll enjoy this 71 minutes. Click just below (not on the photo):


Glenn Loury: A Quillette piece and a Quillette podcast

June 10, 2020 • 9:00 am

Yesterday I featured a provocative blogginheads.tv discussion with Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, both of whom issued some opinions that would be condemned as racist if coming from white people.

But one opinion, which is not that controversial but does have its critics, is that the violence and looting accompanying the George Floyd protests should be loudly and unequivocally condemned. Some like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar don’t approve of the violence, but find it “understandable” in a way that comes close to excusing it. Others—some on this website—have said that the violent incidents are few and overplayed in a way that overshadows the peaceful protests. We should, they imply, simply ignore the violence. Others argue that all the looting and physical assaults were not committed by “real” protestors, but by white supremacists, Antifa-ites, or simply greedy people.  I don’t accept that claim.

Now I’m not sure how many incidents of violence or looting or arson really took place, but minimizing them as infrequent (which they may well be) misses an important point: even if they are few, they will be seized on by the Right and even by the Middle as a way to condemn the Black Lives Matter movement. Even worse, they could, as Glenn Loury says in the Quillette article below and the podcast below that (click on screenshots to hear both), move people into the “Vote for Trump” column.  Perhaps you’ll say that that should not be the way it is, but it happens to be the way it is, and sociological research supports that.

During the peaceful marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 or the lunchcounter sit-ins—forms of peaceful civil disobedience (that’s a redundancy) that had an enormous salutary effect on securing civil rights—I can’t remember a single incident of violence by those following Dr. King’s program. True, there was violence by other wings of the civil-rights movement, but it was the purely peaceful nature of the publicized protests, and the violent police response to them, that gave America a shove in the right direction. Even one or two instances of publicized protestor violence could have set that movement back a lot.

Perhaps you’ll say that the media simply shouldn’t be broadcasting the violent events. But they are, after all, news, and we know the media’s mantra of “If it bleeds, it leads.” In view of that, it seems to me, as it seems to Loury, that we need to condemn the violence at the same time we promote the cause of anti-racism and equality. You can do both, you know.  And you don’t have to go along with the “defund the police” movement, either—not until it becomes clear exactly what is meant by “defund.” So yes, I stand with the peaceful protestors of racism that are marching in America. But I condemn the violence, and I want to see what the protestors intend to do about radically changing the police.  I’ll give a few quotes from Loury below the screenshot:

(From Quillette): A worker cleans up the front of a damaged bank in the aftermath of rioting near the White House in Washington, D.C. on June 1st, 2020. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images.)


Loury, and I agree with this completely:

We have been here too many times before in recent years, and many of us have had quite enough. Crowds of angry Americans from every racial group and all walks of life have spilled into the streets, vociferously protesting this instance of racial injustice and police brutality. The protests are not merely the legitimate exercise of constitutional rights to assemble and to petition our government—they are essential for sustaining the moral health of our democracy. Protestors—the vast majority of whom have gathered peacefully to make their voices heard—render a vital public service with their insistent demands for change. Their anger is fully justified. Their impatience is entirely understandable. They must not be ignored.

But not all protests have been peaceful and not every protestor has behaved righteously. In cities across our country we have witnessed, often in real time, violent attacks on the police, looting of commercial outlets, and torching of the property of innocent bystanders. That is, some of the protests have descended into riots. This rioting is also contemptible, and it, too, demands our unreserved condemnation.

. . . To condemn the rioting—which I believe to be a moral and political imperative—is not at all the same thing as opposing the protests. Many observers have been reluctant to do the former because they wish to avoid the latter. I maintain that this is a grave mistake. On the contrary, sympathy for the protesters’ reform agenda would seem to require condemning the nefarious deeds of looters and arsonists. For the rioting plays right into the hands of those political forces that are least sympathetic to the interests of poor communities of color. Mark my words: The violence from these protests will, if it persists, provoke a vicious backlash. It will discourage people from viewing the plight of the minority poor with compassion and understanding.

. . . Americans are in a very dangerous situation now. We stand on the brink of a widespread epidemic of civil unrest whose ultimate consequences are difficult to reckon. All it may take is just one political assassination; one mistaken shot fired by a nervous, frightened young National Guardsman confronting a raucous mob; one enraged immigrant shopkeeper who guns down a black youngster trying to loot his store; for all hell to break loose. The dry tinder lies at hand, needing only a spark to start a conflagration. There are opportunists in our midst who would hope this might be so. Which is why I insist that progressive intellectuals who make excuses for street violence, even in the face of the awful killing of George Floyd, are making a monumental moral and political error.



Below is a sixteen-minute Quillette podcast in which Loury is interviewed by Quillette editor Jonathan Kay (there’s an ad for Magic Spoon cereal in the middle). The topics are wide ranging, and overlap considerably with those on yesterday’s podcast. They include the “birding while black” incident in Central Park, and Loury (and McWhorter’s) conception of antiracism as a “religion”.

Loury once again strongly opposes big changes in police departments that would reduce their ability to fight crime, saying that that is imposing a system on people that “denudes them of protection from the police.” He said that the defunding doesn’t solve the problem of maintaining order, for the wealthy will simply hire their own police-equivalents, and others will take matters into their own hands—vigilante justice. As Loury says, “It’s madness.”

Loury discusses how antifa’s interests are orthogonal to those of black protestors, and that, as he argues above, looting and rioting “solve Trump’s reelection problem for him.” He’s not sure if the violence will be enough to push Trump to victory, but thinks, as do I, that it gives it a strong shove. In fact, despite Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic, his “strong man” stand on protestors seems to be a pivotal factor affecting his support.

As Loury notes, he held his nose and watched Tucker Carlson on FOX news, saying that Carlson showed an hourlong montage of black kids looting during the protests and mobs beating store owners with two by fours.  Without agreeing with this characterization, Loury says many Americans will be thinking, when they see these videos, that “this is barbarism”.  He says that many Americans simply don’t understand that “this is a conservative country.”

Finally, the discussion finishes off with Tom Cotton’s New York Times editorial calling for bringing the military into U.S. cities to monitor the protests and control any rioting. Loury mocks the NYT staff for opposing the editorial’s publication, claiming that they felt “personally unsafe” by its publication. Loury avers that the staffers were acting as if this were 1933 or 1938. And he mocks the 1619 project in passing.

Click to listen:

McWhorter and Loury on The Glenn Show: cops and race

June 9, 2020 • 11:00 am

Here’s the latest episode of The Glenn Show on bloggingheads.tv, featuring Glenn Loury, a professor of economics at Brown University, talking to  John Whorter, a professor of English and linguistics at Columbia University. The subject is “Cops and Race”, and they voice some sentiments that wouldn’t be tolerated if mouthed by white people. Yet both are liberals and Democrats, though Loury used to be a conservative.

The topics are wide ranging, beginning with what McWhorter sees as an unconscionable suspension of food writer Alison Roman from the New York Times because she criticized Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo. Apparentlyl because these two were people of color, they were apparently immune to the paper’s criticism. McWhorter was so exercised by this that he says his next book will be a “manifesto about antiracism as a religion.”

Moving on to the meat of the discussion, racial conflict in America, both Loury and McWhorter—but mostly McWhorter—ask the taboo question, “Were George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery killed just because they were black?” That question may be answered in at least the trial of Arbery’s killer, but Loury suggests that even if race played an important role, it may not be the only role.

Loury goes on to say something else taboo: that perhaps disproportionately more blacks than whites are killed by police because the crime rate is higher among blacks. Both men argue that while this is true, it’s politically inconvenient to say it, and it also plays into the hands of white supremacists.

As for defunding or eliminating the police, Loury gets quite emphatic, asserting that “black people need cops” because their main source of violence comes from other blacks. He argues, “We need the cops. Cultivating a sensibility in our people of distrust and contempt for the cops is self destructive. It’s wrongheaded.”

Loury maintains that rioting among the George Floyd demonstrators is “contemptible”, and there’s simply no justification for it. McWhorter disagrees to some extent, citing a more or less deterministic argument. Young black people who commit violence during protests, he says, are asserting their sense of self that is absorbed from their environment. Though McWhorter doesn’t condone violence, he says that “young people learn a conception of blackness based on a message of oppression” and that conception mandates that, during protests, you get back at society and at white people because those people deserve it. As McWhorter says of a hypothetical rioter named Omar, “Is he really such a moral reprobate, or is he just deeply ignorant, through no fault of his own?” I can sympathize with his determinism, though I think that we still need to criticize violent protestors and arrest them for the three reasons I’ve emphasized before (sequestration, deterrence, and reformation).

More taboo stuff from McWhorter: most cases of blacks killed by whites, even including George Floyd, are more complicated than we know, and we should reserve judgment until all the facts are in.  Finally, both men deplore the teaching of young black people to “play victims” and adhere to a scenario of victimhood that requires them to attribute every unpleasant incident to “racism”.

They wind up casting some aspersions on Joe Biden, whose antiracism is seen as performative, virtue-signaling, and pandering to blacks. Loury is particularly incensed about Biden’s promise to appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court (1:00:28).  Finally, Loury declares why he’s not a big fan of Stacey Abrams.

I’m not presenting my own views here, but simply summarizing what I see as the salient points of the discussion; and many of these seem to be taboo in Leftist discourse. Judge for yourself.

Here’s the YouTube summary and landmarks to parts of the discussion:

Stacy Abrams: Loury is not a big fan.
The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis 2:54
Is crime a moral failing? 10:50
Glenn: “Black people in poor cities need the cops” 17:59
The Central Park birder incident 36:30
Meditating on the tears of Eddie Glaude 43:30
Glenn decries Biden’s racial pandering 56:57
ohn: The problem is with cops and with guns, not racism 1:01:48


h/t: cesar

Are podcasts and audio entertainment the “new normal”, while reading fades away?

May 26, 2020 • 11:00 am

Posting will be lighter this week, as duck duties are consuming an inordinate amount of time, especially protecting the brood (and Honey) from people chasing or disturbing them and from marauding drakes with lovin’ on their minds. Bear with me.

In her New York Times op-ed this week, Bari Weiss ponders the increasing popularity of podcasts, particularly those of Joe Rogan, and floats the idea that podcasts are “eating the lunch” of print media. Now I’ve never listened to Joe Rogan, but several of my friends have been on his show, and I know he has fans everywhere—and wields enormous social-media power. I wanted to discuss two issues, but first read the article:


First, I am curious about what readers think about podcasts versus print.  While pondering the future of this website—and believe me, I’m not thinking about ending it and taking up podcasting—I do see that many people who formerly ran websites or wrote books, people like Sam Harris and Lawrence Krauss, are taking to podcasting. In fact, that is now Sam’s main way to disseminate his views and stay relevant.  Why? According to Weiss, two reasons. First, podcasts are convenient—unlike reading, you can absorb them while doing other stuff:

Reading or watching the news is no longer immersive, as it was when you sat down with a bunch of papers or in front of a living room TV. Now it is a fragmented experience, usually done on a cellphone.

“The problem,” he told me, “is that the cellphone also has YouTube videos of the craziest things ever — babies landing on cats and animal attacks and naked people.”

Why would you read a 2,000-word story about the collapse of health care in Venezuela when you can zone out with some TikToks?

“Nobody ever thought: We need to gear our entertainment, our media, to people who cook, who jog, who hike, people who drive. Even books on tape can require too much thinking.” But a podcast, he said, “doesn’t require that much thinking at all. You get captivated by the conversation. One of the things about this medium in general is that it’s really easy to listen to while you do other stuff.”

I do. While I cook dinner I’m likely listening to Rogan, Sam Harris, “The Portal” or “Red Scare.” I go for morning walks and listen to “The Daily.” You can’t cook or walk while reading.

Journalism is one thing that podcasters are competing with: Why read a profile of Elon Musk with staid quotes when you can listen to him get high and riff for two hours in Rogan’s studio? Television is another.

I have to confess that I’m immune to podcasts. When I want to occupy myself, I read print on paper (I’m now enjoying the hell out of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories), and when I want diversion when I’m cooking or cleaning, it would be listening to music or having television on in the background, just for the sound.  This is probably a character flaw of some sort: I am able to absorb information almost entirely through reading, and don’t really enjoy hearing discussions, even when they’re by smart people on intriguing subjects. (That said, I do watch the evening news and am not immune to discussions like the one I recently posted between Ricky Gervais and Richard Dawkins.) I can’t even read stuff online: virtually everything I want to read carefully, or post about, I have to copy and paste into a Word document and then print out. Maybe it’s my age—brought up in an era without Internet. (I even remember rotary-dial phones!)

The second reason, and one explanation of why Rogan just sold his show to Spotify for about $100 million, is that podcasts aren’t afraid to take on controversial subjects, and haven’t bowed to what Weiss calls the increased delicacy of the “prestige press” (which presumably includes the New York Times). Good podcasts, unlike the liberal media, don’t have to frame their stories so they don’t get “backlash on Twitter”.  (The NYT, probably to Weiss’s distress, has become more and more a version of HuffPost, catering to the sensibilities of the Authoritarian Left. See here for one example).  As Weiss says:

The timing of Rogan’s rise and the Old Guard’s disintegration is not coincidental. His success was made possible, at least in part, by legacy media’s blind spots.

While GQ puts Pharrell gowned in a yellow sleeping bag on the cover of its “new masculinity” issue (introduced by the editor explaining that the men’s magazine “isn’t really trying to be exclusively for or about men at all”), Joe Rogan swings kettlebells and bow-hunts elk. Men are hungry. He’s serving steak, rare. Condé Nast, GQ’s publisher, has laid off some 100 employees since the pandemic began. Meantime, “The Joe Rogan Experience” has 190 million downloads a month.

Here’s that cover, which I well remember, touting the vices of toxic masculinity and the virtues of androgynous men:


Weiss continues:

. . . Indeed, you can rely on Rogan to talk about just about anything at all.

Take the minefield of gender identity. When he talks about the sensitive topic — one that has become nearly untouchable inside the institutional world — there is none of the throat-clearing I’ve become used to.

“There is no balanced perspective to say: Be free! Change your pronouns, change your name, be whoever you want,” Rogan said. “On the Fox News side they want to say ‘This is left-wing lunacy and everyone’s losing their mind.’”

At the same time, on the left, “there’s an aggressive, progressive doctrine that has to be followed, and followed with full compliance and no room for debate,” he said. “When it comes to competition, especially combat sports, with transwomen fighting biological women, people are so progressive they let that slide, to the point that biological women are getting pushed over.”

“Nobody wants to touch it because nobody wants the blowback.”

In other words, and I emphasize again that I haven’t listened to a single Rogan show, he seems to appeal to those who don’t want a heavy dose of social-justice warriorism: to people like Bill Maher, Bret Weinstein, Bari Weiss—or me.

Other reasons Weiss floats for Rogan’s popularity include his strong anti-censorship stand, even for commercial venues like YouTube that don’t have to follow the First Amendment. As Rogan says, “What has made society better today than it was hundreds of years ago is not just our prosperity. It’s the evolution of ideas. Anything that wants to limit discussion is dangerous to the evolution of ideas.” And I agree with him. 

To Weiss, who seems to fear for the future of not just journalism but also her own job (“Every day it seems another blue check mark with a degree from the right college hangs up her pixelated-shingle, while the rest of us avert our eyes, hoping we won’t be next.”), Rogan’s popularity is evidence against the idea that “the elite left controls the culture.”

So, here are my discussion questions for readers. First, do you think podcasting is the future of news and discussion, and will increasingly replace reading, either from a screen or from a paper page? Do you listen to podcasts more than you used to? If so, why? (I, for one, worry that podcasts will replace novels and nonfiction books, even though those kinds of books—including both of my trade books— are on audio discs or download-able.) Do you read a lot less on paper or Kindle than you used to?

Also, do you listen to Rogan, and if so, do you like the show? If so, why? Do you think his success rests on his flouting the guidelines for the “elite media”?

Joe Rogan, from Man of Many


Another interview with Titania McGrath

January 13, 2020 • 12:00 pm

Titania McGrath, who is actually comedian Andrew Doyle, goes on Fox News—who else would have him?—to talk for 26 minutes about Titania McGrath, Her Wokeness. You can hear the show by clicking on the screenshot below

Some of the stuff you might know from the talk by Doyle I posted before, but there’s also new stuff here, too.  One is Doyle’s reaction to Ricky Gervais’s “comedy” monologue at the Golden Globes, where he was host. I’ve put the monologue below, which didn’t go down well at all with the privileged audience who took themselves quite seriously.

Another is that Titania is writing another book—for children! Have a listen.

Gervais’s comedy was really biting, and I pretty much liked it, as did Doyle. You can see why.  My favorite line is this: “If you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg.”

He also goes after Apple, Amazon, and other corporations. You can be sure that he won’t be hosting this, or any other similar show, in the future.



Podcast: Dan Dennett and Sean Carroll on illusions, consciousness, free will, and other stuff

January 13, 2020 • 10:15 am

Reader Paul called my attention to a new episode of Sean Carroll’s Mindscape podcast. It’s two hours long, so of course I don’t have the patience to listen to it (you can by clicking on the screenshot below), but fortunately there’s a transcript you can get by clicking on “Click to show episode transcript” near the bottom.

Everyone seems to be hosting podcasts these days, and I’m not sure why. My best guess is that most people would prefer to listen to discussion than to read a website post or even a transcript, as they can do other things while listening—especially driving. (I read faster than I can listen, and so prefer the printed page, even for discussions.) Also, it’s only on podcasts where you get a spontaneous give-and-take between two people, and when they’re both of the caliber of the physicist Sean Carroll and philosopher Dan Dennett, you get some fascinating listening—or in my case, reading. Oh, and if you’re being interviewed by a savvy person like Sean, you can get your ideas out there in extended form without having to write them down, but they’re preserved on the Internet.

I did quickly read through the transcript, and wanted to say a few words on free will. Dennett and Carroll are both determinists, but underplay that by simply saying there are “no miracles” in one’s actions or decisions. To me that is an overly quick acknowledgment of a problem far more important than simply confecting a definition of free will that comports with how most people conceive it. (Actually, when people are asked for their understanding of free will, most espouse a dualist, libertarian view, one in which one really could have chosen or behaved otherwise through changing one’s will.) But people like Sean and Dan, and other colleagues like Steve Pinker and Richard Dawkins, seem to prefer to comport a definition of free will with what they conceive of as how most people regard it. They’re wrong about how most people regard it, but that doesn’t necessarily overturn their project, for philosophers can make us think about those concepts.

As readers here know, I don’t much care about the semantic games involved in philosophical compatibilism, especially because every philosopher has his or her favorite definition of “free will”—and the compatibilist definitions are incompatible with each other! So what is free will? I prefer to think of it as people always have (except for a few Sophisticated Philosophers): the illusion that we are able to control our actions by force of will alone, i.e., libertarian free will). I also prefer to concentrate on determinism (which Sophisticated Philosophers don’t deal with much) than on the semantic games of compatibilism.

But I digress; here’s the podcast:

The part on free will starts at 1:41:03, and I want to deal with one issue: the social consequences of doing away with the idea of free will (or of telling people that their behaviors are all determined by the laws of physics). Dan and Sean seem to think that people like me and Sam Harris are engaged in “anti-social behavior” and “cognitive vandalism”, and we should just shut up about determinism.

But first, both Dan and Sean aver that they are genuine determinists. Just for the record:

1:41:03 SC: So would we take the same angle on free will, that there’s an aspect of it that’s real, aspect which is an illusion?

1:41:12 DD: Yes and no, of course.

1:41:15 SC: That’s a philosopher’s favorite answer to everything.

1:41:16 DD: Yes, yes. The traditional idea of free will where somehow our bodies or our brains are shielded from causation, that’s crap. It’s just gotta be false.

1:41:36 SC: We’re not laws unto ourselves.

1:41:36 DD: We’re not laws unto… There’s no miracles happening like that. So if that’s what you think free will has to be, if you think free will is incompatible with, say, determinism, then there’s no free will. Then free will isn’t real. It’s an illusion. But I would prefer to say free will is perfectly real, it just isn’t what you think it is.

And that’s the end of the admission that our behaviors are determined. Pity that, because the implications of determinism for behavior are, to me, profound—far more profound than confecting conceptions of compatibilistic free will. Why don’t philosophers like Dan discuss the consequences of what they’ve just admitted? Are they not interesting? (Yes, some philosophers like Alex Rosenberg do talk about that stuff.)

Some of you may say that there’s no real consequences of realizing that all our behaviors are determined by physical laws, but I’d say you’re dead wrong. It’s wrong because the law already takes into account that there are legal mitigations of behavior if you have no libertarian free will. Now just extend that to all criminal acts. No criminal behavior is a free choice. And that means that there are mitigations that have to be considered in every case: what made you do the act? If you think there are no consequences of that musing, you’re doubly wrong. I’m not saying, of course, that we should dispense with punishment, incarceration, or the idea of responsibility, but we need to fix the system of judgment and punishment.

Then Dan offers two different definitions of free will that comport with his (and Sean’s and some other people’s) notion of free will. The first is if you’re coerced into something, then you don’t have free will:

1:42:17 DD: Not just an explanatory role, it plays a huge role in people’s lives, as I was saying before. Since our society has the concept of free will, when I signed the mortgage papers for this house I was asked if I was signing this of my own free will. I said yes, yes I am, yes.

1:42:44 SC: Did the agent have any idea who he was talking to or who she was talking to?

1:42:46 DD: Well, the notary was reading this off a piece of paper and I was only too happy to answer. But some people don’t have free will. Some people are incapacitated. Some people aren’t in control. So there’s a very real difference, and it makes a huge difference in life. . .

What does it mean, though, to be “in control”? It surely doesn’t mean that you can, by your will, control whether or not you sign a mortgage. What it must mean is that your brain is wired in such a way, through both evolution and experience, that it conforms to society’s expectations of your behavior—you appear calm and controlled. And what is “free” about “lack of external coercion”? Maybe you’re signing the mortgage because your spouse or kids want you to have that house, but you don’t. Or you don’t want to commit that kind of money. Is that “free”? Is that “you being in control”? I don’t think so. There are different things that coerce people into doing different things, but none of them are “choices”.  There are just different degrees of weighing up things that make you decide one way or another. All of it can be seen as neural coercion.

Which brings us to Dan’s second definition of free will: that it’s the behavioral outcomes of a complex and evolved brain that neurologically “weighs” different outcomes and then spits out a decision. This is the view he takes in his latest book on free will (I believe it’s Elbow Room), and is instantiated here:

1:43:36 DD: Empirically, we have millions of degrees of freedom, and we’re not in anybody’s control but our own. Or we can try to control people. Parents. I like the idea that parents eventually have to launch their children, and once they’ve launched them, they’re no longer guided missiles. They’re now autonomous. And how do we dare let people do this? We dare let people do this, because we trust that people will have done their best to turn their offspring into self controlled responsible agents.

But what does “self control” mean here? Surely it’s not that we are able to override our neurons and control our behavior when we could have behaved otherwise! No, it cannot be that, for that’s the libertarian free will that Sean and Dan eschew. What Dan means is that some people have brains that make them behave in a way society expects if we’re to operate harmoniously. But whether we do that or not is a function of our genes and environment. The very term “self controlled responsible agents” even implies libertarianism.

As I’ve said before, yes we are responsible for our decisions, but only in the sense that society must hold us accountable if society is to run smoothly. We are not, however,  morally responsible for our decisions, as that implies libertarian free will. Indeed, most people who are asked whether determinism makes people morally responsible will say “no.”

Dan and Sean then decry the idea, which I’ve broached, that many people promote compatibilistic free will because it makes us seem less like puppets, and that’s good for both us and society. And indeed, there is a tradition of trying to find definitions of free will that are compatible with determinism for purely philosophical reasons. I’m just not sure that, at least for Dan, he’s free of the “do-it-for-the-good-of-society” motivation. Here he and Sean reject any of these motivations:

1:45:04 SC: And I know that you said things, I wanna take this opportunity to clarify as much as we can, you’ve sort of hinted at the idea that even though we sophisticated scientists and philosophers know that there are laws of physics and we all obey them we should let the people have their free will in some sense. Because it makes them act more morally. That may or may not be true for me personally, that fact has nothing to do with why I think that it’s sensible to talk about free will. My reason for talking about free will is just the answer you just gave, which is that it does play this role in helping to explain what goes on.

1:45:39 DD: Yeah. Well I think… I don’t think that the idea that we have free will is a sort of holy myth that we should preserve for the good of hoi polloi. No, no, no, we all need it. I think it’s extremely paternalistic, patronizing to say, “Well I don’t need the illusion of free will, but everyday folks they need it.” No, I think that’s… First of all I think that’s just obnoxious.

1:46:15 SC: Right.

But Dan has also said this:

If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do.  Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.

Well, I disagree vehemently with jettisoning the idea of holding people to account, but I’ve explained that a gazillion times. And it’s a deliberate exaggeration to say that abjuring moral responsibility means emptying out prisons and abolishing mortgages. You can be held responsible, and jailed, without being held morally responsible.

Dan also said this, in his Erasmus Prize lecture:

We don’t want our children to become puppets! If neuroscientists are saying that it is no use—that we are already puppets, controlled by the environment, they are making a big, and potentially harmful, mistake. . . We [Dennett and Erasmus] both share the doctrine that free will is an illusion is likely to have profoundly unfortunate social consequences if not rebutted forcefully.”

That sounds an awful lot to me like the view that rebutting the “puppet” view is important because the spread of that view would harm society. (It won’t, by the way: I know of no hard determinist who has harmed society.)

And then Dan takes off the gloves and punches down at me, and punches on the level at Sam Harris as well, for these statements are clearly aimed at us (my emphasis):

1:46:18 DD: We all go through life, gauging our opportunities, making choices taking them as seriously as we do, which is sometimes not seriously enough and sometimes…

1:46:33 SC: In trying to persuade others.

1:46:34 DD: And sometimes too serious, in trying to persuade others. It’s no secret that this pattern of activity including mental activity, including hamlet-like thinking and mulling and musing and worrying, no secret why it exists, it’s what makes civilization possible. And I for one would rather live in a civilized world.

1:47:07 SC: But so, that’s a very crucial distinction I think that has the danger of slipping by there, it’s not that we need to tell people they have free will to make them civilized. It’s that we have to appreciate that we have free will so that we create civilization.

1:47:22 DD: Yes, absolutely right, yes.

1:47:24 SC: Got it. Okay, that’s very good.

1:47:25 DD: But then that does mean that the free will skeptics, including some heavy hitting scientists.

1:47:34 SC: Some of our best friends. Yeah.

1:47:36 DD: Yeah, some of my best friends. They’re really engaging in a sort of an anti-social behavior, it’s a sort of cognitive vandalism. I try to shock them with that term. . .

I object strongly to this characterization of people like Sam and me as engaging in anti-social behavior and cognitive vandalism. It’s almost an ad hominem argument. The truth of what I talk about—of determinism, which happens to be true for behavior—is independent of its consequences for ourselves or society. (I happen to think that grasping those consequences is in fact good for us and society.) I could respond by saying that compatibilism is a form of cognitive displacement, of sweeping the really important and socially consequential problems under the rug. But I won’t.

Dan tries to land one more punch. Here he’s talking about the experiment in which neuroscientists tell someone they’ve implanted a device in someone’s head that controls their behavior, and won’t let them do bad stuff, but it’s a lie. And then the person goes ahead and does bad stuff expecting to be controlled. What that has to do with free will defies me, because the person’s behavior in that circumstance is still determined—controlled by the environmental input that the neuroscientists have lied to him.

And here’s Dan’s attempted roundhouse (my emphasis):

1:49:19 DD: Okay, so I wonder if Black Mirror has the sequel that I have… So this fellow goes off and reassured that he’s got this safety net, he becomes a little bit slovenly in his decision making and he makes some bad decisions, pretty soon he ends up in court. And the judge confronts him and asks him, “What about this?” He says, “Well, no. I don’t have any free will.” “You know I’m controlled… “

1:49:49 SC: Just obeying the laws of physics.

1:49:52 DD: I just obey the laws of physics. And the neurosurgeons, you know they are… They’re… I’m their puppet.” And the judge calls in the neurosurgeon says, “Did you tell this man that when you put this device in that henceforth that he would be a sort of electronically controlled puppet.” And she said, “Yeah, yeah we did.” He says, “It’s not true, is it?” She says, “No, of course not. We’re just messing with his brain.” Now, she did something evil. Well, if she in her white coat, her scientist white coat is doing something evil for that guy, what about you folks out there in science land who are going around telling everybody that free will is an illusion, that they don’t, that they’re all really just puppets? Why isn’t that the same sort of anti-social behavior that this neurosurgeon, this imaginary neurosurgeon is engaged in?

That’s sort of nasty, and offends me. If we are puppets in the sense that our neurons pull our strings and we can’t affect that by some numinous will, well, that’s an important truth—not “anti-social behavior.” In the end, although Dan denies being motivated in his compatibilism by fear that the notion of pure determinism will harm society, it looks an awful lot to me like that idea imbues much of what he says about free will.

The truth of a proposition is not determined by how it makes people feel. If determinism leads to a bleak world view (I don’t think it does), so be it; but there are real social benefits that come from grasping determinism.  If I’m an antisocial person, and have influenced any readers here to behave badly by promulgating determinism, by all means let me know in the comments! Not that it will stop me, as the laws of physics have made me a determinist!


100th Infinite Monkey Cage episode is now video to the world:

July 15, 2018 • 3:30 pm

The other day I put up the podcast link to the hundredth episode of the BBC comedy/science show “The Infinite Monkey Cage”, starring Robin Ince and physicist Brian Cox. Now the video is available to everyone, not just UK residents, and you can see go to its site by clicking  on the screenshot below.

Spot the geneticist! Matthew Cobb is a VIP guest sitting in the front row.