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 228: Forever Jung

    January 11th, 2022  |  1 hr 33 mins
    archetypes, carl jung, collective unconscious, humor

    David and Tamler confront their shadows and dive into Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious. What are the central differences between Jung and Freud? What did Jung mean by archetypes and what’s his evidence for their centrality in the human psyche? How can we integrate elements of our unconscious and avoid projecting them onto the world? Can Jung’s ideas tell us anything about culture wars and relationships?

    Plus, an fMRI study on offensive humor – I thought you were stronger Batman!

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    Episode 227: A Terrible Master (David Foster Wallace's "This Is Water").

    December 21st, 2021  |  1 hr 38 mins
    ai, david foster wallace, delphi, machine learning, this is water

    David and Tamler dive into David Foster Wallace’s celebrated and surprisingly earnest Kenyon College commencement speech “This is Water”. How can we escape the prison and prism of our (literally) self-centered perspective? Can we choose to adjust our natural default settings, take a break from our running inner monologue, and pay attention to what’s in front of us right now? Is DFW appealing to Buddhist ideas or something more general that you can be found across all spiritual traditions?

    Plus we ask the AI ethics program “Ask Delphi” some tough moral questions (spoiler alert: "just the tip" is "rude"), and almost get into a big fight about the potential of AI ethical robots (but we’re saving that argument for a future episode).

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    Episode 226: Unraveling Time Traveling (with Barry Lam and Christina Hoff Sommers)

    December 7th, 2021  |  1 hr 56 mins
    david lewis, primer, thanksgiving, time traveling

    First, it’s the return of the annual drunken Thanksgiving segment! Tamler and based wicked stepmom Christina Hoff Sommers fight about JFK, systematic racism, corporations, and how to pronounce valium. (We find more common ground than usual though on Covid and Havana Syndrome.) Then podcast auteur Barry Lam joins David and Tamler to talk about David Lewis on time travel, the new season of Barry’s excellent podcast Hi-Phi Nation, and then a deep dive on maybe the best time travel movie of all time - Shane Carruth's mind-melting cult classic "Primer."

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    Episode 225: Forbidden Modules

    November 16th, 2021  |  1 hr 42 mins
    cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology, fodor, modularity, university of austin

    David and Tamler talk about the often rancorous debate among cognitive scientists and evolutionary psychologists over whether the mind is modular -- composed of discrete systems responsible for vision, reasoning, cheater detection, sexual jealousy, and so on. David and Tamler (mostly David) describe the history of the debate, then dive into a recent paper (Pietraszewski & Wertz, 2021) arguing that virtually all the disagreement is the product of a conceptual and methodological confusion – that the two sides are operating with different levels of analysis and talking past each other as a result.

    Plus, we REALLY tried not to talk about the University of Austin thing for the whole opening segment. We had another topic lined up and everything. It just didn’t work out. Cicero would understand. Bari Weiss stans might wanna skip to the main segment.

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    Episode 224: Hurts So Good (With Paul Bloom)

    November 2nd, 2021  |  1 hr 42 mins
    nft, pain, paul bloom, pleasure, the sweet spot

    VBW favorite Paul Bloom joins us to talk about the pleasures of suffering, flow states, Sisyphus, meaning, and dating questions. Check out his new book "The Sweet Spot" which comes out today! Plus what are NFTs and why does every hate them?

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    Episode 223: The Hopeless Dream of Being (Bergman's "Persona")

    October 19th, 2021  |  1 hr 28 mins
    chappelle, ingmar bergman, movie episode, persona, the closer

    David and Tamler dive into Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 masterpiece “Persona”, a film about two (?) women, Elisabet, a famous stage actress who has stopped speaking, and Alma the chatty young nurse assigned to care for her at an island cottage. What happens when the roles we play as parents, spouses, friends, and colleagues start to feel like dishonest performances, an endless series of desperate lies? Can we escape to an inner sanctum of truth and authenticity? Or is that putting on another mask, playing yet another part, telling a different set of lies? We offer some tentative interpretations of this rich and baffling film. Get that boy a normal sized sheet! 

    Plus we share some thoughts about the Chappelle special… 

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    Episode 222: Choosing Sartre for All Mankind

    October 5th, 2021  |  1 hr 37 mins
    discretionary time, existentialism, free time, humanism, sartre

    David and Tamler don black turtlenecks and light up a couple of Gauloises to talk about Jean Paul Sartre's classic essay “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Why are choices so fundamental to our experience? What does Sartre mean when he says that “existence precedes essence”? Why does he try to shoehorn universalizability into a view that’s clearly hostile to it? And how do you pronounce Sartre without sounding like a douche?

    Plus, how much free time is good for you? Is that even the right question?

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    Episode 221: 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!