Elucidations

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Episode 65: Julian Savulescu discusses doping in sports

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6/11/2020

Episode 126 - Listener Q&A with Agnes Callard and Ben Callard

Ep. 126
Three philosophers. Eight head-scratchers. 50 minutes. In this episode, Agnes Callard, Ben Callard and I respond to the world's most awesome listener-recorded questions.A lot of people have the impression that philosophy is, first and foremost, an enterprise in which college professor types read books that no one can understand, then issue a response in the form of more books that no one can understand. It's not. Don't get me wrong—I love books. I'm constantly trying to talk friends and acquaintances who don't like reading books into giving them another shot, if only for the simple reason that reading is basically guaranteed to improve your life. It's just that the existence of philosophy books doesn't make philosophy the art of book writing any more than the existence of bodybuilding books makes bodybuilding the art of book writing.Philosophy is about fearlessly posing questions. Our everyday lives are interwoven with foundational mysteries, some of which turn out to be trivial, others of which prove challenging to resolve. While we can't confront all of them, simultaneously, 100% of the time, philosophy is what happens when you formally give yourself permission to confront some of them head on, at least some of the time. Which is a superior alternative to sticking your fingers in your ears and pretending they aren't there. Or so I would allege.The point of departure for this episode is what the show's listeners are wondering about. Not journal citations. Not name-dropping over miniature bagels at a conference. Not some incomprehensible jargon that cleverly avoids ever getting defined over hundreds of pages. The real stuff. Why is blahbityblah the case? That's quite surprising, because of such and such. What the heck is going on? Etc. There's nothing I enjoy more than working through conceptual difficulties in the form of a conversation.In this episode, we end up talking about property rights, the best gateway drugs for getting into philosophy, how to prove ‘ought’ statements, whether the past is real, looseness in how we interpret speed limit regulations, who counts as a philosopher, whether those of us in the first world are shirking our moral responsibilities towards everyone else, and why we never seem to listen to extraordinary claims, even when they are backed by extraordinary evidence. Join us as you, listeners, supply us with things to be surprised about, and Agnes Callard, Ben Callard, and I set out in search of strategies for coping with those surprises.Matt Teichman
4/17/2020

Episode 125: James Koppel discusses counterfactual inference and automated explanation

Ep. 125
Episode link here.In this episode, James Koppel (MIT, James Koppel Coaching) joins me and Dominick Reo to talk about how we can write software to help identify the causes of disasters.These days, there's often a tendency to think of software primarily as a venue for frivolous pleasures. Maybe there's a new app that's really good at hooking me up with videos of alpacas on skateboards, or making my mom look like a hot dog when she's video chatting with me, or helping me decide what flavor of cupcake I want delivered to my home—because gosh, I just am just way too stressed right now to be able to figure that out. Have you seen how few Retweets I'm getting? If we followed the lead of a lot of the popular rhetoric about the software industry, we might very well come away with the impression that tech exists solely to facilitate precious, self-involved time wasting. And if that's right, then if it doesn't work from time to time, who really cares?But in fact, software correctness is frequently a life or death matter. Computer software controls our medical life support systems, it manages our health care records, it navigates our airplanes, and it keeps track of our bank account balances. If the author of the software used in any of those systems messed something up, it can and often will lead to planes crashing into mountains, or life support systems malfunctioning for no particular reason, or some other tragedy.James Koppel is here to tell us that software can do better. It can be designed ‘preventatively’ to avoid large classes of bugs in advance, and there are diagnostic techniques that can help pinpoint those bugs that cannot be ruled out in advance. In this episode, Koppel discusses some work he started in 2015 as a follow-up to Stanford's Cooperative Bug Isolation project, which provided a way to gather detailed diagnostics about the conditions under which programs fail or crash. But the problem he kept running into was that the diagnostic information was too much correlation and not enough causation. If the analysis you did tells you that your app crashes whenever it tries to load a large image, that's ok, but it doesn't tell you what about the large image causes the crash, or what other kinds of large images would also cause a crash, or whether the crash even is a result of largeness or something more specific. Correlation information is a great start, but ultimately, it's of limited use when it comes to directly fixing the problem.To deal with this, in his more recent work, Koppel and his colleagues have turned to the analysis of counterfactuals and causation, which is an interesting point of collaboration between philosophers and computer scientists. Using a recent paradigm called probabilistic programming, they have identified a way to have a computer program run the clock back and simulate what would have happened, had some condition been different, to determine whether that condition is the cause of a bug. The project is still in its initial stages, but if it works, it promises to deliver major dividends in making the technology we rely on more reliable.Tune in to hear more about this exciting new area of research!Matt Teichman
3/21/2020

Elucidations Episode 124: Graham Priest discusses Buddhist political philosophy

Ep. 124
Episode link here:https://elucidations.now.sh/posts/episode-124/In this episode, Graham Priest returns to discuss Buddhist political philosophy with me and Henry Curtis.(Last month, we talked with him about Buddhist metaphysics.)Last month, we discussed the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism: that suffering happens, that this suffering is (partially) caused by emotional attachment, that you can deal with it by changing your headspace, and that you can change your headspace by understanding the world, understanding your mind and body, and treating other people well.In this episode, our guest adds something to that list, which he calls the '0-th noble truth'.This is the idea that suffering is bad.That idea appears as a foundational premise across many different Buddhist philosophical traditions, and he suspects that it can be used as the basis for political philosophy.You might remember last month's episode when we talked about 'anatman', which is the Sanskrit word for the Buddhist principle that there is no self.Priest makes the interesting proposal that the 0-th Noble Truth plus 'anatman' gives us the view that we should care about suffering equally no matter who is suffering.We should just try to reduce the global amount of suffering anywhere in the world.Graham Priest then argues that industrial capitalism is the cause of a lot of the suffering in today's world.Countless numbers of people are compelled by circumstance to work in exploitative jobs that overwork and underpay them, while others reap the profit from their work.If that further claim is correct, then it would seem to lead to the conclusion that a political philosophy based on Buddhist ethics would have to propose some alternative to industrial capitalism.Would a political system based Buddhist principles then have to look like socialism, or communism, or anarchism?Maybe, but the question turns out to be a bit complicated.Tune in to find out!Would a political system based Buddhist principles then have to look like socialism, or communism, or anarchism?Maybe, but it's a bit complicated.Tune in to find out!