Understanding Hume on Miracles (Audio Essay)

This audio essay is an Easter special. It focuses on David Hume's famous argument about miracles. First written over 250 years, Hume's essay 'Of Miracles' purports to provide an "everlasting check" against all kinds of "superstitious delusion". But is this true? Does Hume give us good reason to reject the testimonial proof provided on behalf of historical miracles? Maybe not, but he certainly provides a valuable framework for thinking critically about this issue.

You can download the audio here or listen below. You can also subscribe on Apple, Stitcher and a variety of other podcatching services (the RSS feed is here).

This audio essay is based on an earlier written essay (available here). If you are interested in further reading about the topic, I recommend the following essays:

#57 – Sorgner on Nietzschean Transhumanism

Stefan Lorenz Sorgner

In this episode I talk Stefan Lorenz Sorgner. Stefan teaches philosophy at John Cabot University in Rome. He is director and co-founder of the Beyond Humanism Network, Fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), Research Fellow at the Ewha Institute for the Humanities at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, and Visting Fellow at the Ethics Centre of the Friedrich-Schiller-University in Jena. His main fields of research are Nietzsche, the philosophy of music, bioethics and meta-, post- and transhumanism. We talk about his case for a Nietzschean form of transhumanism.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and a variety of other podcasting apps (the RSS feed is here).

Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 2:12 - Recent commentary on Stefan's book Ubermensch
  • 3:41 - Understanding transhumanism - getting away from the "humanism on steroids" ideal
  • 10:33 - Transhumanism as an attitude of experimentation and not a destination?
  • 13:34 - Have we always been transhumanists?
  • 16:51 - Understanding Nietzsche
  • 22:30 - The Will to Power in Nietzschean philosophy
  • 26:41 - How to understand "power" in Nietzschean terms
  • 30:40 - The importance of perspectivalism and the abandonment of universal truth
  • 36:40 - Is it possible for a Nietzschean to consistently deny absolute truth?
  • 39:55 - The idea of the Ubermensch (Overhuman)
  • 45:48 - Making the case for a Nietzschean form of transhumanism
  • 51:00 - What about the negative associations of Nietzsche?
  • 1:02:17 - The problem of moral relativism for transhumanists

Relevant Links

#56 – Turner on Rules for Robots

Jacob Turner

In this episode I talk to Jacob Turner. Jacob is a barrister and author. We chat about his new book, Robot Rules: Regulating Artificial Intelligence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), which discusses how to address legal responsibility, rights and ethics for AI.

You can download here or listen below. You can also subscribe to the show on iTunes, Stitcher and a variety of other services (the RSS feed is here).

Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 1:33 - Why did Jacob write Robot Rules?
  • 2:47 - Do we need special legal rules for AI?
  • 6:34 - The responsibility 'gap' problem
  • 11:50 - Private law vs criminal law: why it's important to remember the distinction
  • 14:08 - Is is easy to plug the responsibility gap in private law?
  • 23:07 - Do we need to think about the criminal law responsibility gap?
  • 26:14 - Is it absurd to hold AI criminally responsible?
  • 30:24 - The problem with holding proximate humans responsible
  • 36:40 - The positive side of responsibility: lessons from the Monkey selfie case
  • 41:50 - What is legal personhood and what would it mean to grant it to an AI?
  • 48:57 - Pragmatic reasons for granting an AI legal personhood
  • 51:48 - Is this a slippery slope?
  • 56:00 - Explainability and AI: Why is this important?
  • 1:02:38 - Is there are right to explanation under EU law?
  • 1:06:16 - Is explainability something that requires a technical solution not a legal solution?
  • 1:08:32 - The danger of fetishising explainability

Relevant Links

The Optimist’s Guide to Schopenhauer’s Pessimism (Audio Essay)

Schopenhauer was a profoundly pessimistic man. He argued that all life was suffering. Was he right or is there room for optimism? This audio essay tries to answer that question. It is based on an earlier written essay. You can listen below or download here.

These audio essays are released as part of the Philosophical Disquisitions podcast. You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Player FM, Podbay, Podbean, Castbox, Overcast and more. Full details available here.

#55 – Baum on the Long-Term Future of Human Civilisation


In this episode I talk to Seth Baum. Seth is an interdisciplinary researcher working across a wide range of fields in natural and social science, engineering, philosophy, and policy. His primary research focus is global catastrophic risk. He also works in astrobiology. He is the Co-Founder (with Tony Barrett) and Executive Director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute. He is also a Research Affiliate of the University of Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. We talk about the importance of studying the long-term future of human civilisation, and map out four possible trajectories for the long-term future.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe on a variety of different platforms, including iTunes, Stitcher, Overcast, Podbay, Player FM and more. The RSS feed is available here.

Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 1:39 - Why did Seth write about the long-term future of human civilisation?
  • 5:15 - Why should we care about the long-term future? What is the long-term future?
  • 13:12 - How can we scientifically and ethically study the long-term future?
  • 16:04 - Is it all too speculative?
  • 20:48 - Four possible futures, briefly sketched: (i) status quo; (ii) catastrophe; (iii) technological transformation; and (iv) astronomical
  • 23:08 - The Status Quo Trajectory - Keeping things as they are
  • 28:45 - Should we want to maintain the status quo?
  • 33:50 - The Catastrophe Trajectory - Awaiting the likely collapse of civilisation
  • 38:58 - How could we restore civilisation post-collapse? Should we be working on this now?
  • 44:00 - Are we under-investing in research into post-collapse restoration?
  • 49:00 - The Technological Transformation Trajectory - Radical change through technology
  • 52:35 - How desirable is radical technological change?
  • 56:00 - The Astronomical Trajectory - Colonising the solar system and beyond
  • 58:40 - Is the colonisation of space the best hope for humankind?
  • 1:07:22 - How should the study of the long-term future proceed from here?

Relevant Links


The Moral Problem of Accelerating Change (Audio Essay)

(Subscribe here)

This is an experiment. For a number of years, people have been asking me to provide audio versions of the essays that I post on the blog. I've been reluctant to do this up until now, but I have recently become a fan of the audio format and I appreciate its conveniences. Also, I watched an interview with Michael Lewis (the best-selling non-fiction author in the world) just this week where he suggested that audio essays might be the future of the essay format. So, in an effort to jump ahead of the curve (or at least jump onto the curve before it pulls away from me), I'm going to post a few audio essays over the coming months.

They will all be based on stuff I've previously published on the blog, with a few minor edits and updates. I'll send them out on the regular podcast feed (which you can subscribe to in various formats here). I'm learning as I go. The quality and style will probably evolve over time, and I'm quite keen on getting feedback from listeners too. Do you like this kind of thing or would you prefer I didn't do it?

This first audio essay is based on something I previously wrote on the moral problem of accelerating change. You can find the original essay here. You can listen below or download at this link.

Episode #54 – Sebo on the Moral Problem of Other Minds

Jeff Sebo

In this episode I talk to Jeff Sebo. Jeff is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Affiliated Professor of Bioethics, Medical Ethics, and Philosophy, and Director of the Animal Studies M.A. Program at New York University.  Jeff’s research focuses on bioethics, animal ethics, and environmental ethics. He has two co-authored books Chimpanzee Rights and Food, Animals, and the Environment. We talk about something Jeff calls the 'moral problem of other minds', which is roughly the problem of what we should to if we aren't sure whether another being is sentient or not.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe to the show on iTunes and Stitcher (the RSS feed is here).

Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 1:38 - What inspired Jeff to think about the moral problem of other minds?
  • 7:55 - The importance of sentience and our uncertainty about it
  • 12:32 - The three possible responses to the moral problem of other minds: (i) the incautionary principle; (ii) the precautionary principle and (iii) the expected value principle
  • 15:26 - Understanding the Incautionary Principle
  • 20:09 - Problems with the Incautionary Principle
  • 23:14 - Understanding the Precautionary Principle: More plausible than the incautionary principle?
  • 29:20 - Is morality a zero-sum game? Is there a limit to how much we can care about other beings?
  • 35:02 - The problem of demandingness in moral theory
  • 37:06 - Other problems with the precautionary principle
  • 41:41 - The Utilitarian Version of the Expected Value Principle
  • 47:36 - The problem of anthropocentrism in moral reasoning
  • 53:22 - The Kantian Version of the Expected Value Principle
  • 59:08 - Problems with the Kantian principle
  • 1:03:54 - How does the moral problem of other minds transfer over to other cases, e.g. abortion and uncertainty about the moral status of the foetus?

Relevant Links


Episode #53 – Christin on How Algorithms Actually Impact Workers

In this episode I talk to Angèle Christin. Angèle is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Stanford University, where she is also affiliated with the Sociology Department and Program in Science, Technology, and Society. Her research focuses on how algorithms and analytics transform professional values, expertise, and work practices. She is currently working on a book on the use of audience metrics in web journalism and a project on the use of risk assessment algorithms in criminal justice. We talk about both.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe to the show on iTunes or Stitcher (the RSS feed is here).

Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 1:30 - What's missing from the current debate about algorithmic governance? What does Angèle's ethnographic perspective add?
  • 5:10 - How does ethnography work? What does an ethnographer do?
  • 8:30 - What are the limitations of ethnographic studies?
  • 12:33 - Why did Angèle focus on the use of algorithms in criminal justice and web journalism?
  • 23:06 - What were Angèle's two key research findings? Decoupling and Buffering
  • 24:40 - What is 'decoupling' and how does it happen?
  • 30:00 - Different attitudes to algorithmic tools in the US and France (French journalists, perhaps surprisingly, more obsessed with real time analytics than their American counterparts)
  • 39:20 - What explains the ambivalent attitude to metrics in different professions?
  • 44:42 - What is 'buffering' and how does it arise?
  • 54:30 - How people who worry about algorithms might misunderstand the practical realities of criminal justice
  • 57:47 - Does the resistance/acceptance of an algorithmic tool depend on the nature of the tool and the nature of the workplace? What might the relevant variables be?

Relevant Links


Episode #52 – Devlin on Sex Robots and Moral Panics

Kate Devlin.001.jpeg 

In this episode I talk to Kate Devlin. Kate is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Digital Humanities at King's College London. Kate's research is in the fields of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), investigating how people interact with and react to technology in order to understand how emerging and future technologies will affect us and the society in which we live. Kate has become a driving force in the field of intimacy and technology, running the UK's first sex tech hackathon in 2016. She has also become the face of sex robots – quite literally in the case of one mis-captioned tabloid photograph. We talk about her recent, excellent book Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots, which covers the past, present and future of sex technology.

You download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher (the RSS feed is here).

Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 2:08 - Why did Kate talk about sex robots in the House of Lords?
  • 3:01 - How did Kate become the face of sex robots?
  • 5:34 - Are sex robots really a thing? Should academics be researching them?
  • 11:10 - The important link between archaeology and sex technology
  • 15:00 - The myth of hysteria and the origin of the vibrator
  • 17:36 - What was the most interesting thing Kate learned while researching this book? (Ans: owners of sex dolls are not creepy isolationists)
  • 23:03 - Is there are moral panic about sex robots? And are we talking about robots or dolls?
  • 30:41 - What are the arguments made by defenders of the 'moral panic' view?
  • 38:05 - What could be the social benefits of sex robots? Do men and women want different things from sex tech?
  • 47:57 - Why is Kate so interested in 'non-anthropomorphic' sex robots?
  • 55:15 - Is the media fascination with this topic destructive or helpful?
  • 57:32 - What question does Kate get asked most often and what does she say in response?

Relevant Links

  • Laodamia - Owner of the world's first sex doll?