Very Bad Wizards

a philosopher and a psychologist ponder human morality

About the show

Very Bad Wizards is a podcast featuring a philosopher (Tamler Sommers) and a psychologist (David Pizarro), who share a love for ethics, pop culture, and cognitive science, and who have a marked inability to distinguish sacred from profane. Each podcast includes discussions of moral philosophy, recent work on moral psychology and neuroscience, and the overlap between the two.

Episodes

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    Episode 222: Granite Cocks vs Robot Overlords

    September 21st, 2021  |  1 hr 50 mins
    moloch, norm macdonald, scott alexander, slatestarcodex, transhumanism

    David and Tamler wind their way through the long-requested “Meditations on Moloch” by Scott Alexander, a comprehensive account of the coordination problems (personified by Allan Ginsberg’s demon-entity Moloch) that lead to human misery and values tossed out the window. Does Alexander’s rationalist conception of human nature ignore the work of VBW favorites like Joe Henrich and Robert Frank? Is he a little too friendly to the neo-social Darwinism view of some guy named Nick Land? And oh no, why does he have to go transhumanist at the end?! Plus, we talk about the unique comic vision of Norm Macdonald and why we loved him.

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    Episode 220: On Your Marx

    September 7th, 2021  |  1 hr 50 mins
    alienation, ariely, communist manifesto, estranged labor, fraud, marx

    In honor of Labor Day, David and Tamler dive into two works by Karl Marx - "The Communist Manifesto" and "Estranged Labor." What is Marx's theory of historical change? Why does capitalism produce an alienated workforce? What role does philosophy play in maintaining the status quo? Plus, fraudulent data in a famous study about dishonesty and former guest Dan Ariely is under investigation.

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    Episode 219: Multiplied by Mirrors

    August 17th, 2021  |  1 hr 45 mins
    borges, borges and i, eating, emma zuni, sex, short story, social psychology

    It’s a Borges bonanza! David and Tamler dive into two stories: “Emma Zunz” and “Borges and I.” The first seems like a straightforward daughter revenge story (Tamler’s favorite genre), but Borges being Borges there are layers of doubt and fuzziness about what exactly is going on. “Borges and I” may be less than a page, but it has us questioning our identity, the relationship between private and public selves, and what happens to when you release a work out into the world.

    Plus, back to social psychology. Are you a picky eater? Then people think you suck at sex. We are not sure who is recording this podcast.

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    Episode 218: ...But You Can't Hide (Michael Haneke's "Caché")

    August 3rd, 2021  |  1 hr 59 mins
    caché, conceptual analysis, corny, movies

    David and Tamler go deep on Michael Haneke’s unnerving psychological thriller Caché. An upper middle class French intellectual couple receives mysterious videotapes of the exterior of their house, forcing them to confront their past and present. Can we run from our history? Or will it always find a way to break through? And who’s sending the tapes? Plus, VBW does conceptual analysis - what does it mean to be “corny”?

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    Episode 217: Dropping Paradigms (Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions")

    July 20th, 2021  |  2 hrs 5 mins
    death, deathbed wisdom, paradigms, patreon listener-selected episode, the structure of scientific revolutions, thomas kuhn

    David and Tamler hit the books and cram for their beloved Patreon listener-selected episode – this time on Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” David thinks Kuhn is a great sociologist of science but recoils at the relativistic tenor of the final chapters. Tamler loves anything that makes David recoil.

    Plus, should we give more weight to the advice of people on their deathbed? Or should we nod politely and get back to working for that promotion…

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    Episode 216: Oral Judgments

    July 6th, 2021  |  1 hr 40 mins
    apologies, evolutionary psychology, infidelity, oral sex

    We’ve promised you for years that we would do an episode on apologies and never got to it until today. So we both want to say from the bottom of our hearts: we’re sorry. We recognize we’ve let so many of our listeners down, and we feel just awful if you were offended by the delay. We hope this episode will be just one small step towards regaining your trust.

    Plus, of all the evo-psych articles in the world, this one might be the evo-psychiest: “Oral Sex as Infidelity Detection.”

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    Episode 215: Touch My Pink Monkey

    June 22nd, 2021  |  1 hr 37 mins
    critical race theory, crt, l.a. paul, transformative experience

    David and Tamler argue about the philosopher L.A. Paul’s ideas on “transformative experiences” – big life decisions that will change you and your values so much that our normal decision-making models break down. Tamler is fully on board and hopeful for philosophy, but David sees Paul’s view as a threat to his precious rationality. Plus, we tackle the greatest existential threat to human civilization history: critical race theory. Why are people on all sides so intent on misunderstanding it?

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    Episode 214: You Shouldn't Feel Bad (Except You Should)

    June 8th, 2021  |  1 hr 20 mins
    algorithms, character, faces, moral emotions, political orientation

    Tamler welcomes social psychologist David Pizarro of Cornell University to the podcast to talk about his recent article (along with Raj Anderson, Shaun Nichols, and Rachana Kamtekar) on “false-positive emotions.” When agents commit accidental harms, we typically tell them they shouldn’t feel too guilty, it’s not their fault, it was out of their control, and so forth. At the same time, we don’t want them to let themselves off the hook right away either. They shouldn’t feel guilty, but also they…should. What’s behind these mixed messages and attitudes? Are we looking for information about their character? What kind?

    Plus, a new algorithm can predict someone’s political orientation with 72% accuracy based on one profile photo (either from Facebook or a dating app). Is Big Brother around the corner?

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    Episode 213: What Is It Like To Be a Robot Fish Man? (with Ted Chiang)

    May 25th, 2021  |  1 hr 57 mins
    bullshit, evolutionary psychology, soma, ted chiang, video game

    We’ve done deep dives on three of his stories, and now THE MAN HIMSELF, multi-award winning science fiction author Ted Chiang, joins us to explore the post-apocalyptic world of the video-game SOMA. You play Simon Jarrett, a man who goes for a brain scan in Toronto and wakes up a 100 years later in an underwater research facility, the last remaining hope to preserve human consciousness from extinction. Pizarro confronts his worst nightmare, a first-person experience of
    stepping into a transporter-style scenario. We talk about how video games can make philosophical problems come alive, what “fission-cases” tell us about personal identity (Tamler’s note: this really should count as our Parfit episode), what it’s like to be conscious without a body, the problem with thought experiments, and lots more.

    Plus, a new evo-psych study on why bullshitting is adaptive – convince people you’re smart and save energy while you do it!

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    Episode 212: Follow Your Nose (with Yoel Inbar)

    May 11th, 2021  |  1 hr 45 mins
    gogol, journal of controversial ideas, russia, the nose, yoel inbar

    Canada’s leading Russian literature scholar Yoel Inbar joins us to try to make sense of Gogol’s 1836 short story “The Nose.” A nose goes missing from a Russian official’s face and winds up in the barber’s loaf of bread. A few hours later, the nose has rocketed up the social hierarchy and denies his connection to the official. What’s going on? Is Madame Alexandra Grigorievna up to something?

    Plus we can’t say how but we got access to submitted abstracts for the new Journal of Controversial Ideas. We read a few of them in the opening segment, and let’s just say this journal is living up to its name.

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    Episode 211: To Live and Die in Kurosawa's "Ikiru"

    April 20th, 2021  |  1 hr 46 mins
    akira kurosawa, death anxiety, dog jealousy, ikiru, japan, movie episode

    "Sometimes I think of my death," Akira Kurosawa said, "I think of ceasing to be...and it is from these thoughts that Ikiru came.” David and Tamler explore what it means to truly live in Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece about a bureaucrat in postwar Japan who learns that he will die from stomach cancer within six months. Plus a new study provides evidence for what every pet owner knows: dogs get jealous. And a shocking revelation about Harvard legends Kohlberg, Rawls, and Nozick.

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    Episode 210: The Priming of the American Mind (with Jesse Singal)

    April 6th, 2021  |  2 hrs 1 min
    epistemology, ghosts, jesse singal, replication crisis, social psychology, supernatural, twitter

    Journalist, podcaster, and rapper Jesse Singal joins us to talk about his new book The Quick Fix, positive psychology (scam?), cancel culture in the media and academia (overblown?), Substack incentives, and lots more. Plus David and Tamler argue about the epistemology of ghosts.

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    Episode 209: Basic Instincts (with Paul Bloom)

    March 23rd, 2021  |  1 hr 36 mins
    dawkins, empiricism, instinct, mediation, nativism, orgasm, paul bloom, william james

    VBW favorite Paul Bloom joins us to talk about William James’ account of instinct and its parallels to the nativism/empiricism debates in developmental psychology today. Also discussed: Richard Dawkins trolling philosophy, the ghost in Tamler’s kitchen, and why William James’ 130 year-old writings make psychologists sad about the present state of their field. PLUS - do you wish you were closer to your non-romantic partners?  Well, strap on your gloves, grab a washcloth, it’s time for exactly 15 minutes of orgasmic meditation.

    Note: we had to use backup audio for Tamler and Paul in the second segment. The sound quality isn't as good as normal, sorry about that.

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    Episode 208: Dream Theater

    March 9th, 2021  |  1 hr 42 mins
    art, dr. seuss, dreams, entertainment, potato head

    We’ve always had nothing but praise for neuroscientists and their work, and today is no exception. We talk about a fantastically rich and ambitious essay by Erik Hoel that offers a theory of dreams and connects it to storytelling, the self, and the importance of maintaining a distinction between art and entertainment. So eat shit MCU - Martin Scorsese was right! [ed. note: this statement not endorsed by David]. Plus another first segment wasted on Twitter culture war nonsense. Does adapting an MLK quote trivialize the civil rights movement? And it’s Adam and Eve, not gender fluid Potato Head and another gender fluid Potato Head. Or something. We don’t fucking know.

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    Episode 207: Sometimes a Paper Tray is Just a Paper Tray

    February 23rd, 2021  |  1 hr 28 mins
    documentaries, rodney ascher, room 237, stanley kubrick, texas

    David and Tamler wander through the maze of Room 237, the great documentary by Rodney Ascher about five people and their views about what Stanley Kubrick’s "The Shining" is really about. When do interpretations become conspiracy theories? Why does Ascher never show us the faces of the interpreters? What is about Kubrick that invites obsessive and confident theorizing on the meaning of his movies? Sometimes a paper tray is just a paper tray. Or is it? Plus Tamler vents about the winter storm and mass power outages in Texas last week…

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    Episode 206: Angel Chasing (Ted Chiang's "Hell is the Absence of God")

    February 9th, 2021  |  1 hr 37 mins
    consciousness, hell is the absence of god, religion, short story, ted chiang, the hard problem

    David and Tamler return to the TCU (Ted Chiang Universe) to talk about his short story “Hell is the Absence of God." How would we behave if we had unequivocal proof of God, heaven, hell, and angels? Would that answer our questions about meaning and purpose and justice? Or would those same questions reappear in a different guise? Plus, the hard problem of breakfast, Jewish Space Lasers, and more…