Rene Descartes and the Search for Certain Knowledge

Rene Descartes MeditationsWe all hold innumerable beliefs with varying degrees of certainty, but few of us have challenged the veracity of those beliefs to the degree that Rene Descartes did in the Meditations on First Philosophy. Descartes wrote:

“Some years ago I was struck by how many false things I had believed, and by how doubtful was the structure of beliefs that I had based on them. I realized that if I wanted to establish anything in the sciences that was stable and likely to last, I needed – just once in my life – to demolish everything completely and start again from the foundations…I am here quite alone, and at last I will devote myself, sincerely and without holding back, to demolishing my opinions.”

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Francis Bacon’s Idols of the Mind and How to Overcome Them

Francis Bacon Major WorksFrancis Bacon, often referred to as the father of empiricism, was an English philosopher, scientist, and early proponent of the scientific method, arguing for the advancement of scientific knowledge based on inductive reasoning and careful observation.

In the preface to his 1620 masterwork, the Novum Organon, Bacon wrote:

“Those who have taken upon them to lay down the law of nature as a thing already searched out and understood, whether they have spoken in simple assurance or professional affectation, have therein done philosophy and the sciences great injury. For as they have been successful in inducing belief, so they have been effective in quenching and stopping inquiry; and have done more harm by spoiling and putting an end to other men’s efforts than good by their own.”

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Adam Smith, Interchangeable Perspectives, and the Origin of Moral Problems

Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam SmithWhen considering the foundations of morality, the place to start, which is often overlooked, is in answering the following question: why do moral problems present themselves to us in the first place? Other animals don’t seem to ponder the moral implications of their actions, but humans do. Why is this?

To answer this question, a useful place to start is with theory of mind, which is the ability to mentally switch perspectives and to imagine the beliefs, needs, feelings, and desires of others. Children develop this capacity around the age of 4, and you can test for it by using the false-belief task. Here’s an example of how the test might go:

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A Short Guide to the Practice of Stoicism

Stoa_of_AttalosIn the spirit of both Plato and Aristotle, Stoicism is a version of eudaimonic virtue ethics that asserts that the practice of virtue is both necessary and sufficient to achieve happiness and contentment.

Founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in 300 BCE, Stoicism has a rich history and several prominent historical adherents (including Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius), making Stoicism an eminently practical philosophy, concerned primarily with ethics, proper conduct, and emotional mastery.

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What David Hume Can Still Teach Us About Skepticism

David Hume Enquiry Concerning Human UnderstandingThe upcoming movie Breakthrough tells the story of a teenager who, while playing with friends, fell through the ice and nearly drowned, resulting in a coma and subsequent “miraculous” recovery through divine intervention (for starters, if god did intervene, one might wonder why an all-powerful being didn’t do so before the boy fell in the ice, but we’ll get to that later).

These stories are not new; they crop up from time to time with the same inane storylines (remember Heaven is For Real, the one where the author admitted the whole story was fabricated?). It’s easy to just dismiss these stories outright, but I think it’s worthwhile to revisit the specifics of the faulty logic underlying these narratives.

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Yuval Noah Harari on the Three Major Challenges of the 21st Century

21 Lessons for the 21st CenturyHumanity faces unprecedented global challenges in the 21st century: climate change, the threat of nuclear war, growing inequality, artificial intelligence and automation, job loss and worker irrelevance, and a growing sense of disillusionment with liberalism that is driving humanity to embrace the counter-enlightenment values of nationalism and religion.

Yuval Noah Harari spends much of his latest book outlining these problems, placing them in historical perspective, and providing philosophical insight into their possible solutions. In this sense, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a brilliant primer on current affairs from a wider angle, presented by a historian that can transcend the parochialism of political debate and define the problems from a historically-informed and rational position. As Harari has said elsewhere, he prefers to think in centuries rather than in hours, days, or months.

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The Best Atheism Quotes Through the Ages

The Atheist's Bible book coverAtheism is not a recent phenomenon; despite the tendency before Darwin and modern science to believe in supernatural forces and a creator—not to mention the penalties for challenging the doctrine of the Church—freethinkers throughout history have noticed the circularity of the god argument. (god created the universe because the universe can’t exist without god)

The irony of invoking an uncaused being to explain the fact that everything requires a cause was not lost of many thinkers, who noticed that if everything requires a cause, then by definition god also requires a cause. And if god does not require a cause, then you might as well save a step in the process and accept the possibility that the universe is itself uncaused or has else always existed.

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Plato on the Four Cardinal Virtues and How to Achieve Happiness

Plato Complete WorksTo understand Plato’s ethics, you must first disregard modern conceptions of ethics as natural duties or utilitarian calculations. To Plato, the act of calculating the greatest good or living by the dictates of supernatural authority would have been entirely beside the point: ethics, to Plato, is instead a more personal matter of living according to universal virtues that lead directly to eudaimonia (human happiness, well-being, or flourishing), to a state of inward welfare and contentment.

To Plato, there is no distinction between virtue and knowledge, under the assumption that goodness is not merely a relative term, but a term that refers to something universal and unchanging, otherwise it could not be an object of knowledge. The task of the philosopher (and for all of us), is to determine what goodness is, and then to practice it for its own sake.

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Review of When Death Becomes Life by Joshua D. Mezrich

When Death Becomes Life Book CoverIt is an underappreciated fact that today a surgeon can, if needed, rip open your chest, remove your heart, replace it with another one, and if all goes well, have you discharged in 10 days. This amazing feat of modern medicine, one we may rarely think about, was at one point thought to be nothing more than a science fiction fantasy—and rightly so.

The number of hurdles standing in the way of successful transplantation was enormous. These included figuring out how to suture together blood vessels without leakage or damage to the inner lining, how to keep patients alive by temporarily taking over the function of failed organs (dialysis for kidneys and cardiopulmonary bypass for the heart and lungs), and developing anti-rejection medication to prevent the host immune system from attacking the donated organ. Throw in the ethical and logistical issues associated with procuring and coordinating donated organs and recipient transplant lists and you have one of the most complex and daunting issues in the history of medicine.

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Top 3 Ideas from Plato’s Apology of Socrates

Plato Five DialoguesThe Apology of Socrates is an early dialogue by Plato that presents Socrates’ speech of self-defense at his trial for impiety and corrupting the youth. Socrates presents his defense and addresses the charges, but is ultimately convicted. After being found guilty, Socrates was allowed, as was the custom, to propose a less severe penalty, which the court could consider in lieu of death. In this Socrates antagonizes the court by suggesting not a penalty, but a reward, after which he is promptly and unsurprisingly sentenced to death.

Contained within Socrates’ defense speech are three key ideas that outline the revolutionary nature of his teachings, defining the ideals of philosophy and redefining how we should think about wisdom.

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