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RS109 - Rebecca Newberger Goldstein on Plato at the Googleplex

Release date: June 1, 2014

Rebecca Newberger GoldsteinRebecca Newberger Goldstein -- philosopher, author, and Genius-grant recipient -- returns to the Rationally Speaking podcast to discuss her latest book, "Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away." Rebecca, Julia and Massimo argue over the value of philosophy in modern science, and whether it makes sense to designate "experts" in ethical reasoning.

Rebecca's pick: "The Mathematician's Shiva: A Novel"

References (5)

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Reader Comments (4)

Another possible reason that scientists do not care much about philosophy could be the curriculums. In all my years of physics studies (undergraduate, graduate and doctoral studies) I was never asked to take a mandatory course in philosophy or history of science. Instead I learned a lot of math and physics. The ever increasing amount of technical knowledge seems to take over the curriculums on account of philosophy studies. Today's scientists are not guided to think about the underlying philosophy of what they are doing.

June 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

I believe that in the social sciences, most people do learn some philosophy of science. The key to me is no necessarily take a course on the subject, but to teach students in their regular classes that everything they do is rooted in philosophy. For example, deciding to use p-value is a philosophical question. Any assumption about samples or study design are influenced by philosophical questions.

June 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGil

Thank you to Rebecca, Julia, and Massimo, I enjoyed the podcast. Now for my rather targeted criticism, the couple times the needle skipped on the record of an otherwise agreeable tune.

Rebecca said, “I want to see if what I actually saw with animal rights which is it starting with a very abstract argument by a philosopher, Peter Singer…” (38:15) and “… about thirty, thirty-five years ago when Peter Singer started making these arguments…” (44:50)

Sorry, but Peter Singer did not start the animal rights philosophical argument. No way.

Sure, as a philosopher by title, Singer did make an argument for animal consideration (that never quite achieves rights) within a utilitarian framework that did become popular in modern Western circles, but he didn’t “start” the argument, not even for the modern audience.

I’m pro-philosophy (perhaps in-between Julia’s mild skepticism and Massimo’s enthusiasm), but I’ll relate my objection above to another devils-advocate criticism. The co-opting ideas as originated by philosophers where the concepts have existed and been expressed elsewhere. Perhaps without a structured philosophical framework, but that’s not always necessary. In Singer’s case, it can get in the way. If one doesn’t accept utilitarianism in the first place, it’s that much easier to dismiss the overall argument for animal rights. Often, people argue against Singer is on his framework and not on the book’s thesis.

There were certainly (proto) vegetarians and vegans around with robust concepts about what they thought they were doing who didn’t declare themselves as utilitarian or philosophers, long before Singer wrote his book. I’m confident he would be the first to acknowledge that.

I’ll offer someone who is certainly not the first animal rights philosopher, but my personal favorite and a better candidate for providing a coherent secular structured argument for animal rights: Henry Stephens Salt. In particular his book Animals' Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress (1894) and his other book done in Socratic dialog, The Logic of Vegetarianism (1899). Both available online for free if you do a cursory search.

For an overview of the history of (Western) thinking on animal ethics, there are a few books out there, but I recommend Tristram Stuart’s The Bloodless Revolution due to his impeccable scholarship on the subject.

I would absolutely love to get both Julia’s and Massimo’s take on those two pieces by Salt. There are other pioneers on the subject of animal rights, but Salt’s writings are very fresh and surprisingly relevant for a modern reader; he’s plenty witty too.

That a philosopher would claim that Singer started the animal rights argument adds to this notion that philosophy (as a monolithic institution) is somewhat myopic to culture and history around it because if a “famous” philosopher didn’t write it in specific philosophical language, then it didn’t happen. It’s on par with Julia’s contention in the podcast that “philosophy is defending its relevance by defining things as philosophy that would have happened without the discipline of philosophy.” (21:15)

Also, it parallel’s the contention discussed in the podcast where certain scientists make claims about science knowledge while failing to recognize the philosophical origins.

Anyway, I don’t mean to come down as harsh. All I’m suggesting is that if Rebecca wants to offhandedly reference animal rights as an example of philosophical contribution I encourage her to dig a little deeper than popular surface knowledge. I eagerly welcome more thinkers of her (and Julia’s and Massimo’s) caliber to do the same because I’d like to think that the arguments (besides Singer) are persuasive and (mostly) rational.

June 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGaps In The MInd

Thanks for the post Gaps. I wondered about that claim. I'm also glad Julia raised some of the points she did, because, as you both point out, I'm not so sure philosophy really does regularly do much more than bolster the strength of already existing cultural movements. On the other hand, I'm reading Plato at the Googleplex right now and it might be one of my favorite books of all time. It's simply a masterpiece.

June 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChance Lacina

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