In Praise of Sean Carroll’s Mindscape

Confession: for a guy who hosts a podcast, I don’t listen to all that many of them. I used to enjoy 99% Invisible, and I still recommend it. But for me, it doesn’t go into quite the depth I prefer for the medium. Others do go into quite a bit of depth, but get bogged down by (often political) dogmatism and pettiness from the host (I’m looking at you, Waking Up). The Joe Rogan Experience is sometimes cool but is often too chatty and too much of Joe spitting his by now boring opinions.

I’ve recently become enamored of the physicist Sean Carroll. He works primarily in cosmology and is known, among other things, for being a strong proponent of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. However, he’s also a generally curious guy with broad intellectual interests. (To give credit where it’s due, I discovered him through Rogan.)

Carroll recently started a podcast, Mindscape, and it may be my favorite I’ve found so far. He tackles a wide variety of topics, always interesting, always fairly in-depth. He’s reasonable, smart, and not into politically-minded shit-talk. His most recent interview is with none other than my boss(ish), Tyler Cowen. But he’s also done some very cool interviews on the science of aging (and how we might go about indefinitely postponing aging), cryptocurrencystring theory, and other cool stuff.

Since I’m a philosophy, I especially loved his brilliant solo episode on why there’s something rather than nothing. I love this question (particularly Derek Parfit’s exploration of it).…

Continue Reading →

Jody Azzouni: Ontology without Borders | Who Shaves the Barber? #50

Download this episode / Watch on YouTube / RSS Feed / iTunes

Jody Azzouni

An old problem: I say, “Santa Claus is fat”. I am saying something true about Santa Claus. But (content warning) Santa Claus doesn’t exist. So what is it that I am correctly saying is fat? And what – if not its ostensive subject – makes the sentence true?

This problem is at the center of ontology. The most influential approach in the 20th century was offered by W. V. O. Quine, who argued that we’re committedto the existence of any object that we must quantify over in order to state the truths of physics in first-order logic. At first, this seems rather arbitrary. Why first-order logic? What makes quantifiers so special? Why physics? And what does what we’re “committed to” tell us about what actually exists? For roughly the first half of this interview, philosopher Jody Azzouni unpacks the thinking behind Quine’s famous criterion. In the second half, he expounds his own view: he rejects Quine’s criterion, and so sees no problem with referring to that which doesn’t exist. This leaves Azzouni open to embrace a radical nominalism, in which almost none of the objects we typically think of as existing really do. This is because, as Azzouni explains, “ontological borders” are projected. There is nothing “out there” that separates one object from another. The fact that our language is built around distinct objects tells us plenty about our psychology, but nothing about the world itself, which comes with “features” but not individual objects.…

Continue Reading →

Michael Hicks: Fiction-Directed Thought | Who Shaves the Barber? #49

Download this episode / Watch on YouTube / RSS Feed / iTunes

This is a fictional pipe.

I have a (true) thought that Sherlock Holmes lives on Baker Street. But what is this thought about? Is it about Sherlock Holmes? If so, is it about something that doesn’t exist? Can we really have thoughts about non-existent objects? What makes those thoughts true or false, if there is no object for the thought’s content to correspond to?

Philosopher Michael Hicks distinguishes fiction-directed thought from world-directed thought. A fiction-directed thought is knowingly about fiction; it is a kind of pretense. It is crucial that thoughts about fictional entities be fiction-directed. If if I think my “thought” about Sherlock Holmes is about a real person – in other words, if it is world-directed – then I don’t have a thought at all, because the ostensive object of my thought does not exist. According to Hicks, world-directed thought is “environment dependent”. It takes the intentional state and the object of the intentional state to make a thought. If the latter is missing, then there is no thought. Thoughts about fictional entities, as well as about hallucinations and other non-existent objects, must be fiction-directed in order to qualify as thoughts. Put another way, thought about fiction only successfully happens when we play a game of pretense set up by the author.

Be sure to listen to part 1 of this interview first.

If you’re interested in the metaphysics of thought, I discuss higher-order thoughts in this interview with David Rosenthal.…

Continue Reading →