News Archive

In the Cave: Philosophy and Addiction


NYTimes Opinionator: January 8, 2012

Can Plato's allegory of the cave shed light on the condition of addiction?

Rick Santorum, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, says that only a "phony theology" would require us to be concerned about the survival of the earth and its resources. But a recent article in Philosophy Now suggests that the question is more complicated. As human beings, we are not only responsible for the stewardship of the world of nature; we are an integral part of it.

Plato's Body and Mine

Bill Hayes goes back to Plato's Republic and notices that Plato advises “temperance” not just in eating and drinking, but also in physical training, likening it to learning music and poetry.

Vice-president as Philosopher?

Rep. Paul Ryan, Gov. Romney's running mate, is famously a follower of the philosopher Ayn Rand. Or was, until it became clear that her atheism and theories about the virtue of selfishness might not go over as well with religious conservatives. This op-ed piece from the Los Angeles Times lays out the issues.

What a Slinky Knows

Will we forever be victims between of the time delay between information around us and our capacity to receive it?

(Radiolab - September 10, 2012)

An Aristotelian Approach to Voting

New York Times columnist David Brooks talks about what the concept of moderation might mean in politics today. Is this what Aristotle had in mind when he talked about human virtue or is it something altogether different?

The Way of the Agnostic

by Gary Gutting

Not all adherents of every religious tradition necessarily hold fast to all the dogmas of their religion. In a New York Times blog post, Gutting argues that "We should, then, make room for those who embrace a religion as a source of love and understanding but remain agnostic about the religion’s knowledge claims."

Priests, Rabbis, Ministers, Mullahs

Throughout the history of religion, individuals have always emerged in leadership and service roles within faith communities. Although these so-called "clergy" may appear to be interchangeable, different religions view their "holy men" or "holy women" quite differently, and even within a single religious tradition there can be a lively debate about the nature and role of the religious leader.

Roman Catholicism provides a case in point. In a just-published book, the author Garry Wills argues that the priesthood of the Catholic Church as we know it today is the result of a dramatically wrong turn very early in the history of Christianity. Emphasizing the priest's role in ritual and drawing a very sharp line between the priest and the people he serves, the contemporary priesthood does not represent anything that Jesus appears to have anticipated.

Here are two articles worth reading. One is a review of Garry Wills book. The other is an opinion piece by the popular New York Times columnist Frank Bruni.

Religion and Science are Closer Than You Think

by Max Tegmark

An MIT physicist did a thorough review of the world's religions and determined there's less of a conflict between science and religion than you might think. There's a very cool infographic (yes! another one!) that makes his point beautifully.

The Meaning of Jihad

There is an advertising war being fought here — not over soda or car brands but over the true meaning of the word “jihad.”

The Life of Muhammad

Soon after the bombing of the World Trade Center, in an effort to improve Americans' understanding of and respect for Islam, PBS produced a documentary on the life of Muhammad and the founding of Islam. The website associated with the film includes a very useful interactive timeline to help you wrap your head around the history of this great religious tradition.

Observing Hindu Traditions in Boston

(from The Boston Globe, April 1, 2013)

Clutching fistfuls of blaze-orange and ruby-red powdered paint, Ritesh Chandra stood on his tiptoes, peered above the crowd outside Braj Mandir, a Hindu temple in Holbrook, and spotted his family dentist. Stealthily, Chandra crept up behind Dr. Bidhin Patel, a distinguished-looking man of 50 who was about to tuck into a plate of vegetarian food. Reaching out with both hands, Chandra suddenly smeared the cheeks of the dentist. Technicolor paint dust cascaded onto Patel’s checked shirt and clouded the air. Hardly angry, Patel beamed. “Happy Holi!” shouted Chandra, a 37-year-old from East Bridgewater who works in technology at a local university. “Holi hai” — meaning today is Holi, the Hindu spring festival of colors. Chasing friends read more

New Biography of Muhammad

Lesley Hazletom, THE FIRST MUSLIM:The Story of Muhammad, Riverhead Books.

In the New York Times, on Sunday April 8, 2013, Hari Kunzru reviews the brand new biography of the Prophet. In part, he says, "For many believers [this book] is already — even before it is read, if it is read at all — an object of suspicion, something to be defended against, in case it should turn out to be yet another insult, another cruel parody of a story such an author has no business telling. To others, of course, this book offers a welcome chance to read that life story in a more familiar and accessible form than the Islamic sources, a window into the parallel world where it is worth killing and dying to preserve the Prophet’s aura of holiness. Bigots looking to confirm their prejudices will, by and large, find “The First Muslim” a disappointment: Hazleton approaches her subject with scrupulous respect. Read more...

Americans' View of Islam Unchanged by Marathon Bombing?

Americans are showing a pleasantly surprising level of empathy for the situation of Muslims in the US. According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, despite heightened interest around radical Islam's connection to the Boston attacks, Americans' view of whether Islam is more likely than other religions to support violence remains close to what it has been for the past decade. The survey also found that Americans view Muslims as the group that's most discriminated against when compared to gays and lesbians, African Americans, Hispanics and women." Read more at

Religion and Money

A high school senior writes about Buddhism, Hinduism, and money.. You might assume these spiritual traditions take a dim view of money, but not so fast....

Women in Philosophy

Historically, professional philosophy has been dominated by men...and it shows! This series of New York Time blog posts from female philosophers explores the issue.

One of dozens of attempts readers of Plato's Republic have made to draw the cave described in Book VII of the work. How do YOU picture it?

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Why do people cheat?

It's long been thought that people cheat when it is to their benefit to do so. But new research suggests that there may be another reason we're tempted to cheat: Many people actually get an emotional charge from doing so. A recent opinion piece in the New York Times summarizes the theory and gives examples.If the theory turns out to be true, then maybe our emotions are not the best guide when it comes to making moral decisions. Or else, maybe cheating is ok. What do you think? How would you argue for position.Welcome to the "second room" of the house that reason built. Here we are asking the question: "What ought I to do?"

Dogs are People Too?

Just how "special" are human beings, as compared with other animals? One neuroeconomist has conducted research that might challenge some of your assumptions about the differences between us and our canine companions.

Buddah Older than You Thought?

At a temple in Nepal that contains a pillar documenting a homage at the Buddha’s birthplace, researchers determined that lower structures were erected as early as the sixth century B.C.

Conflicted About Your Religion?

Many people feel a strong attachment to the faith of their birth, but are conflicted about certain elements of it. The New York Times columnist David Brooks explores this phenomenon and suggests that there is much beauty and value simply in the quest.

Sacred Time - Seasons of the Year in Christianity

Every great religion has its unique way of marking time. The chart above shows how many of the Christian churches mark time over the course of a calendar year. Striking, isn't it, that most of the year is spent in "ordinary time!"

Is Atheism Rational?

For most of the semester, we'll be exploring the world's religious beliefs and asking whether one can be a believer with intellectual honesty. But atheism too must face this question. This interview with the great American philosopher Alvin Plantinga asks whether the belief in God's non-existence is any more or less rational than the belief in God's existence.

A Muslim Tradition in a New Light

Follow-up on Faith Without Fear

A few weeks ago, we saw Irshad Manjii's interview with Ayann Hirsi, a Somali member of the Dutch parliament who has criticized the violence in Islamic fundamentalism. She was to be honored by Brandeis this week, but the local university abruptly withdrew its invitation. Read about it here. What do you think?

Brandeis withdraws honor from critic of Islam

Ayaan Hirsi Ali criticizes Brandeis University for its action

Pew Study Reveals Diversity of Muslims in the US

Should We Teach Plato in Gym?

Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, writes in the New York Times that philosophy--far from being irrelevant in contemporary culture--might just be a necessary corrective to the imbalanced view of the human person that prevails in so many sectors of American culture.

 Many animals in Aristotle's prose, like the cuttlefish, live in the sea. Credit A 19th-century lithograph, from "The Lagoon"

This semester, we are focusing primarily on Aristotle's ethics, but Aristotle's scientific writings are far more voluminous than his ethical ones. Was Aristotle a bad scientist whose mistakes about the world of nature were not corrected until the Renaissance? Or was he really the first great scientist, who used observation and reason to build of comprehensive theory of how the world works? Read this book review to learn more.

Manhez Afridi, Muslim Scholar

In this week's On Religion column in The New York Times, Samuel Freedman writes about this brave scholar at Manhattan College, a devout Muslim who has also made it her aim to increase mutual understanding between Jews who remember the Holocaust and Muslims who remember the Nakba--the massive dispossession of their homes by Palestinians that came with the creation of the state of Israel. Read what it might look like to increase mutual understanding between different religious and political groups.

"Early in the summer of 2007, a doctoral student named Mehnaz M. Afridi traveled from her California home to a conference in southern Germany. Her official role was to deliver a paper on anti-Semitism in Egyptian literature, a rather loaded subject for a Muslim scholar. Seventy miles away, she had another appointment, and an even riskier agenda. . ." Read more.

Islam Keeps on Growing

Demographers predict that, spreading at its current rate, Islam will be the religion of more people than Christianity by the year 2070. See where this growth is taking place and what it might mean in this summary of research from the Pew Research Center.

Empowering Muslim Women in LA

Sarah Parvini of the Los Angeles Times reports, "While many mosques continue to follow a tradition of separating women from male congregants, the downtown Los Angeles mosque forbids men from attending." What's the story behind the story?

Women in Religion

Organized religions in the West have historically been patriarchal organizations, where male voices tend to drown out female ones, and the official roles of leadership--priest, Imam, bishop, rabbi--have been reserved to men. Here are three stories about women in religion that move away from a sexist or exclusionary view of God and the spiritual life. Click on each photo to learn more. Pay close attention to these stories; they will be the basis for our next mini-paper.

About those Sacred Cows

In class we made it clear that Hindus do not worship cows, but they definitely treat them as sacred. But in modern Indian culture, there is a debate as to whether the eating of beef should be allowed. This opinion piece from the New York Times explores the topic.

Not What is Philosophy, but Where is Philosophy?

This provocative opinion piece from the New York Times asks if there's such a thing as a distinctively urban philosophy. For the ancient Greeks, philosophy took place not in the ivory towers of the university, but in the lively and sometimes contentious atmosphere of the city square. What's the best place to do philosophy today?

Invent your own Religion

From Huffington Post this week:

"If you could start a new religion that would change the world for the better, what would it look like? If some ideas are bubbling to the surface, then now is the perfect time to sit down and write an outline. Jewish nonprofit and cultural center 92nd Street Y, in partnership with radio podcast and website On Being, is offering cash prizes for people who can come up with a compelling proposal"

Click here to read the full story.

Historic Meeting of Pope and Russian Orthodox Patriarch

For the first time since the Great Schism in 1054, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church and the head of the largest Eastern Orthodox Church met on Friday, February 12, in Cuba. Read more about this historic meeting in the New York Times.

The Pope at the Synagogue

Francis became the third pontiff to visit Rome's main synagogue, after popes John Paul and Benedict.The temple is just across the Tiber River from the Vatican, and is rich with symbolism of the past persecution of Jews, who for nearly 300 years until the mid-19th century were forced to live in the adjoining quarter still known as The Ghetto and make compulsory payments to the popes....Read more.....

Is Judaism a religion? a cultural identity? an ethnicity? The Socialist candidate for President Bernie Sanders comes from Jewish parentage, but doesn't seem to identify closely with his Jewish heritage. This article from the New York Times explores the question in some detail. It is a reminder that there are many ways to be Jewish, and that there is a time-honored place for secular Judaism which emphasizes the social justice of the Hebrew scriptures over religious observance.

Sex and Christianity:

Not as Simple as You Think

In class, a question was raised about the origin of marriage, and the connection between Christianity and marriage as we think about it today. In this article from Huffington Post, religion writer Carol Kuruvilla makes a persuasive case that the history of Christianity's view of sex and marriage is more complicated than we might think. Far from being invented by the church, marriage was once actively opposed by the church. As we've said many times: diversity and pluralism are in the DNA of Christianity--and this includes the way Christians think about marriage and human sexuality.

Happy Birthday, Aristotle, who would be 2400 years old!

This just in from The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (aka UNESCO):

"UNESCO General Conference proclaimed 2016 the Aristotle Anniversary Year. The decision was taken during the 38th session of the Conference, which was held in Paris at the suggestion of the Greek National Commission. The main reason is that the coming year will mark 2400 years since the birth of the ancient Greek philosopher. The anniversary will be celebrated with an international conference, which will be organized by the Interdisciplinary Centre for Aristotle Studies at THE Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in May. It is expected that the forum will bring to Greece the world elite of the modern philosophical thought. Leading Aristotle researchers will present studies on his work, not only at the university that is named after him but also in ancient Stagira of Halkidiki, where he was born in the year 384 BC as well as in ancient Mieza, where he taught Alexander the Great. ...Read more

A Cool Tool to Explore Population Trends in World Religions

How many Buddhists are there in the world? Which religion will have the most followers by 2030? Is Christianity on the decline? Which country has the most Jews?

These and other questions find answers in a the site from the Pew Research Center.Check it out today and get yourself familiar with its interactive tools.

In memoriam: Hilary Putnam

Hilary Putnam, a leading contemporary philosopher who made his home nearby in Arlington and taught at Harvard, has died. Read his obituary here to learn more about his contributions to philosophy.

The contemporary ethicist Martha Nussbaum wrote this of Putnam in a blog post on Huffington Post:

In all of these areas, too, he shared with Aristotle a deep concern: that the messy matter of human life should not be distorted to fit the demands of an excessively simple theory, that what Putnam called “the whole hurly-burly of human actions” should be the context within which philosophical theory does its work.That commitment led him to oppose many fads of his time: for philosophy is prone to simplifying and reductive fads, from logical positivism to a later fad for computer modeling of philosophical problems. Putnam knew physics like virtually nobody else in the field, and so he also knew that it was fatal to reduce philosophy to physics: philosophy is a humanistic discipline. (I remember a marvelous and profoundly countercultural course he taught at Harvard, in the days when logical positivism was just beginning to wane, entitled “Non-Scientific Knowledge.” It covered ethical knowledge, aesthetic knowledge, and religious knowledge, and Putnam showed the folly of imagining that physical reductionism could replace those normative subjects.) His independence from fads also led him to take a keen interest in the thought of the ancient Greeks, who looked stupid to the positivists but who actually had a few good ideas! He learned ancient Greek in order to work seriously on Aristotle, and he argued that Aristotle had important insights about the mind-body relationship that contemporary thinkers ought to take up.

In a complete life

When we discussed Aristotle's Virtue Theory in class, we made much of the fact that his definition of happiness includes the words "in a complete life." This is to say that happiness is not really a description of our mood at this or that moment but the achievement of an entire life span: At the time of our death, have we ultimately become the people we wanted to be? that we were capable of being? An essay in the New York Times by the columnist Roger Cohen provides an especially poignant reflection on the same theme.

A friend once told me about going to see her father shortly before he died. He had advanced Alzheimer’s and peered at her blankly. Then he said: “You are home.”

“Yes, Dad,” she said. “I’m your daughter.”

He said, “I had you too much under my thumb.”

Home, and what constitutes it, is the most potent of memories. It’s not excess of love we regret at death’s door, it’s excess of severity. If we lived every day as the last day of our lives, the only quandary would be how to find the time to shower love on enough people. We live distracted and die with too much knowledge to bear.

December has come, the last month of an awful year, and I am sure I am not alone in saying good riddance to 2016. It’s been the worst of years, one of those periodic reminders that the raging beast in humankind always lurks.

continue reading . . .

Dangerous Professors

A group of concerned students has created a watch list of teachers from colleges and universities across the country who, they feel, pose a danger to students because of the opinions they hold. This essay by a philosophy professor at Emory University explores what a list like this says about the state of American political culture and social discourse. What do you think?

Black Philosophy Matters

This comment by President Trump at the start of Black History Month seems to suggest he's not quite sure who Frederick Douglass is.

Many commentators on the recent election note that Trump's victory was powered in part by economically disadvantaged white folk who feel alienated from the political system. Black Americans, however, opposed his election overwhelmingly. What accounts for this gap, when in many cases the two groups share the same economic interests in common?

This essay by Emory University philosopher George Yancy proposes that Black History Month can be an occasion for white people "to engage in a shared form of vulnerability and mourning, a collective recognition, with a fearless countenance, of how white racist complicity and black suffering were historically linked and are currently intertwined." What do you think?

The Enlightenment:

Three Hundred Years Later and Still an Important Milestone in the History of Thought

We've spent so much time in class discussing the European Enlightenment--and referring to its greatest thinker Immanuel Kant--and how it establishes reason as the basis for science and a pluralistic culture. But recently, on everything from global client change to childhood vaccination, conspiracy theorists, political ideologues, and religious fundamentalists have been trying to chip away at rational, evidence-based thinking. This recent article from the Washington Post features the new head of Harvard's Medical School talking about what's at stake.

George Q. Daley, the new head of Harvard Medical School, knows what it's like when presidential politics collides with science. Daley was a leading stem cell scientist back in 2001 when President George W. Bush suddenly barred federal funding for research on new embryonic stem cells — a gesture to Republican antiabortion backers that, many believe, put a chill on one of the most cutting-edge areas of biology.The move turned many scientists, unexpectedly, into activists. The diplomatic Daley helped Harvard create an institute in 2004 to work around the federal funding restrictions; California bucked the Bush administration by devoting its own state funds to the research. President Barack Obama eventually reversed the executive order in 2009, allowing federal funds to be used; today, embryonic stem cell based therapies are being tested in clinical trials, and studying them has helped unleash a wave of new medical insights.As of Jan. 1, Daley occupies one of the highest-profile jobs in American medicine, a de facto spokesman both for research and medical practice. And he arrives at a moment when the entire field is nervous about what the Trump administration has in store. The White House seems not only indifferent to research, but also actively hostile to some strains of science...continue reading

And here's a link to a great opinion piece from the New York Times on Tuesday, February 28, 2017, where David Brooks describes the cycles of Enlightenment vs Anti-Enlightenment thinking that have marked the political and cultural history of the globe since Kant:

Being around a college classroom can really expand your perspective. For example, last week we were finishing off a seminar in grand strategy when one of my Yale colleagues, Charles Hill, drew a diagram on the board that put today’s events in a sweeping historical perspective.

Running through the center of the diagram was the long line of Enlightenment thought. The Enlightenment included thinkers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant who argued that people should stop deferring blindly to authority for how to live. Instead, they should think things through from the ground up, respect facts and skeptically re-examine their own assumptions and convictions.

Enlightenment thinkers turned their skeptical ideas into skeptical institutions, notably the U.S. Constitution. America’s founders didn’t trust the people or themselves, so they built a system of rules, providing checks and balances to pit interest against interest....continue reading

What is consciousness?

How is human consciousness different from the consciousness of other animals?

Where did it come from?

The Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennet has been writing on these questions for years. An article in this week's New Yorker by Joshua Rothman describes the state of the question today. An excerpt appears below. Click on the link to read the essay in its entirety.

Four billion years ago, Earth was a lifeless place. Nothing struggled, thought, or wanted. Slowly, that changed. Seawater leached chemicals from rocks; near thermal vents, those chemicals jostled and combined. Some hit upon the trick of making copies of themselves that, in turn, made more copies. The replicating chains were caught in oily bubbles, which protected them and made replication easier; eventually, they began to venture out into the open sea. A new level of order had been achieved on Earth. Life had begun.... continue reading

A Website to Explore Feelings

In the New York Times (5/7/16) there is news of a map of human emotions commissioned by the world Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama. Click here to learn more about this project, which is intended to help humanity explore the wide range of our inner states and ultimately find our way to enlightenment. The Atlas of Human Emotions is live right now.

Each of the world's great religions speaks in the language of symbol and art. The symbols above, for example, are often used to represent each of these traditions.

Christians in the U.S. more racially and ethnically diverse than ever

While nearly 70 percent of Americans identify as Christain, white Christians, once predominant in the country’s religious life, now comprise 43 percent of the population, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI, a polling organization based in Washington. Four decades ago, about eight in 10 Americans were white Christians. Read more.....

Why Muhammad Ali Converted to Islam

One of the iconic figures in American sport is the boxer Muhammad Ali. He was outspoken on a variety of social, political, and religious issues. An essay he wrote in 1964 recently became public when his wife Belinda shared it with one of his biographers and it was given to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The essay sheds light on why he became Muslim. This article from the Washington Post tells the story.

Three New Books Exploring the Nature of Religion

It's timely that three new books--one by an atheist, one by a sociologist, and one by a Christian believer--explore the topic we've been discussing this semester. Each, in its own way, endeavors to answer the question:What is religion? Check out this article from the 10/22/2017 New York Times discussing the three books.

Thumbnail images of each book are below. All are available on Amazon.

Can Muslims and Buddhists Get Along?

An another recent article in the New York Times, a much different story--of how a marriage between a young Muslim man and a Buddhist women--has broken up families and communities. What is this about? Why is it that religion often divides rather than unites people? Read the full story here.

Can Christians and Muslims Get Along?

An article in the New York Times tells the story of a Protestant church and a Muslim mosque situated across the street from each other in the Indonesian city of Jakarta. Far from fanning the flames of mutual distrust and prejudice, the leaders and members of both congregations have developed a shared community of faith and love. Read more about it here.

The "Science'" of Race

In class we discussed the intersection of ethics and epistemology: How scientists (who, theoretically, are in pursuit of knowledge) are sometimes influenced by their biases (an ethical consideration). In a recent article from the NYTimes, Eric Herschthal recounts how the great Frederick Douglas called BS on some scientists of the 1870s, when he observed that they were allowing their own biases to influence their gathering and assessment of data in support of an theory of white racial superiority. Scientists, he wrote, sometimes "sacrifice what is true to what is popular." Read about it here. Given Douglas' 200th birthday and the rise of white supremacy as a ideology in the U.S. it's timely!

The Ethics of Climate Change

In class we also discussed how many of the debates about humanity's role in global climate change are driven less by evidence and more by the need to support a pre-determined conclusion. This feature in a recent edition of the NYTimes profiles six climate change skeptics and how compelling evidence changed their minds.

A Different Kind of Addiction

Who knew there was such a thing, but Tristan Harris is a "tech design ethicist," formerly of Google, who now runs a non-profit to raise awareness on the issue of addiction to the internet and to tech devices (think iPhones, video games, Twitter). Listen to this interview on NPR or read the transcript. What do you think? Can a person be addicted to their technology? Does Plato's Allegory of the Cave shed light on this problem? Or maybe it's not even a problem?