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.


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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…

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    Episode 205: Making Your Nervous System Your Ally (William James on "Habit")

    January 26th, 2021  |  1 hr 32 mins
    habit, neuroscience, news, willliam james

    Ever wonder why you’re still listening to VBW all of these years? Or why you check your phone 50 times a day? Or why you put on your pants the same way every morning? (If you still wear pants these days.) David and Tamler talk about William James’ essay on habits, why they’re so powerful, and how you can make your nervous system your ally instead of your enemy. Plus, a shocking new neuroscience study reveals that we remember and share funny stories more than boring ones.

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    Episode 204: Happy Freedom Day! (with Lauren Anderson)

    January 12th, 2021  |  1 hr 36 mins
    atlanta, bean dad, capitol riot, donald glover, juneteenth, race

    The legendary Houston Ballet dancer Lauren Anderson joins us to talk about the Atlanta Episode “Juneteenth” (Season 1, Episode 9), a hilarious exploration of race, class, identity, and carrying around your sister’s underwear. But first David and Tamler share some thoughts on the topic on everyone’s mind right now…Bean Dad. Oh yeah and the Capitol riot. Pour yourself a Hennessy or some Emancipation Eggnog and enjoy.

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    Episode 203: Gorgias, Tell Me Something I Don't Know (with Agnes Callard)

    December 22nd, 2020  |  1 hr 34 mins
    agnes callard, dialogues, gorgias, greeks, plato, reasoning, victimhood

    Philosopher Agnes Callard joins us to talk about Plato and his dialogue the Gorgias. Why did Plato write dialogues – are they the best way of presenting arguments? Is Plato cheating when characters contradict themselves by making dumb concessions, or is this part of his method - inviting readers to participate in the debates? Why does the Gorgias end on such a sour note, with Socrates giving long speeches after saying that long speeches shouldn’t be allowed? Plus we talk about Agnes’ recent op-ed in the New York Times, and David and Tamler tackle a new construct: The Tendency for Interpersonal Victimhood.

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    Episode 202: Not as It Ought to Be (H.P. Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space")

    December 8th, 2020  |  1 hr 31 mins
    hp lovecraft, measurement, mindfulness meditation, religious superiority, the colour out of space

    A phosphorescence casts a pale sickly glow on David and Tamler as talk only in verbs and pronouns about H.P. Lovecraft’s 1927 story “The Colour Out of Space.” What is this creature or substance that has color only by analogy, that spreads through earth and water driving man, animal, and vegetation into a madness, not as they ought to be…? What gives the story its terrifying power and its avenues for endless interpretation? Plus, does meditation make you a spiritual narcissist? We talk about a new social psychology article that even David can’t defend.