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 239: Lose Yourself

    June 21st, 2022  |  1 hr 23 mins
    flow, mihaly csikszentmihalyi, substack

    David and Tamler lose themselves in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (pr. ‘chick sent me high’) classic paper on the concept of flow. We talk about the features of flow activities – loss of ego, the merging of your awareness with the activity, and autotelic (not what you think) enjoyment. What makes flow activities so rewarding? Do you need to develop skills over many years to experience them? Do easy and natural social interactions count as flow?

    Plus as men of pure virtue, we call an audible and choose not to make fun of a recent paper (with a student as lead author). Instead we pilot a not fully formed idea: “Substack Starters." Now that the economy is tanking, do we have any heterodox beliefs that might lead to profitable Substacks?

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    Episode 238: I Am Not Ivan Ilyich...Am I?

    June 7th, 2022  |  1 hr 58 mins
    academia, the death of ivan ilyich, tolstoy

    Ivan Ilyich is a man. All men are mortal. So Ivan Ilyich is mortal. Sure absolutely, that’s true for Ivan Ilyich and for all men. But we’re not Ivan Ilyich and we’re not ‘all men’- so what does this have to do with us? Right? David and Tamler confront their mortality as they discuss Leo Tolstoy’s brilliant and chilling short story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.”

    Plus the ‘Why I am leaving academia’ essay has become its own genre. But is this profession really that much worse relative to others?

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    Episode 237: Glitches Ain't Shit

    May 24th, 2022  |  1 hr 43 mins
    a glitch in the matrix, cringe, rodney ascher, simulation theory

    David and Tamler explore the many variations of simulation theory, the view that our universe is just a computer generated model created by an advanced civilization that has reached “technological maturity.” What does the growing popularity of simulation theories reveal about contemporary life? Are any of the arguments for simulation theory compelling or are they just post-hoc ways of justifying what you already believe on faith? If we are living in a simulation, does that mean we can go around killing people? Would it change anything about how we should live? Rodney Ascher’s (Room 237, The Nightmare) excellent documentary "A Glitch in the Matrix" gets the discussion going.

    Plus the return of the VBW does conceptual analysis segment - a careful, rigorous, systematic inquiry into the concept “cringe.”*

    *Note: if you think the opening segment is itself cringe, that’s because we’re doing seventh dimensional Zoomer meta shit and you just didn’t get it.

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    Episode 236: Your Outie Is Skilled at Lovemaking (With Paul Bloom)

    May 3rd, 2022  |  2 hrs 10 mins
    evolutionary psychology, orgasms, paul bloom, severance

    We welcome Paul Bloom to talk about the first season of "Severance," the new mind-bending and mind-splitting TV series on Apple TV+. What happens when you separate your home life from your work life? Do you create a completely different person? Is it a form of self-slavery? How important is autobiographical memory to your identity? And what’s the deal with the break room… and the goats?

    Plus, what happens when you combine the obsessions of evolutionary psychology with the methodological problems of social psychology? You (finally) get an explanation for the female orgasm.

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    Episode 235: Animated Objects

    April 19th, 2022  |  1 hr 51 mins
    animism, dehumanization, forgiveness, philosophy of mind, revenge

    We didn’t get river spirits and mischievous sootballs from panpsychism, so this time we go straight to the source - a defense of animism, and in a top 10 analytic philosophy journal. Could a failed argument for the existence of God establish the existence of trees and mountains with “interiority” and “social characteristics”? Tamler wants to believe, but can this argument push him over the edge? 

    Plus – speaking of top journals, a doozy of social psych article: Can forgiveness rehumanize the self? How many pins would you stick into a voodoo doll of yourself? Do these questions make any sense? Tamler is delighted by David’s reaction to this one. 

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    Episode 234: Like A Dog (Kafka's "The Trial" Pt. 2)

    April 5th, 2022  |  1 hr 53 mins
    chris rock, kafka, oscars, the trial, will smith

    David and Tamler conclude their discussion of "The Trial," Franz Kafka's darkly comic vision of an opaque and impenetrable bureaucracy that comes for us all in the end. Plus we interrupt our previously scheduled opening segment because apparently something happened at the Oscars last week.

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    Episode 233: Keeping It Surreal (Kafka's "The Trial" Pt. 1)

    March 22nd, 2022  |  1 hr 53 mins
    franz kafka, putin, social psychology, the trial, ukraine

    David and Tamler wander through the bewildering dream-like world of Franz Kafka’s "The Trial." In part one of a two-part discussion we discuss the circumstances of its publication, the various interpretative approaches that can be taken to the novel, and all the ways that Kafka’s prose gets under your skin, making you feel what’s happening even if you don’t fully understand it. Recorded in the decidedly un-Kafka-esque location of Nosara, Costa Rica – thanks to the Harmony Hotel for having us back!

    Plus – Social Psychologists for Peace send an open letter to Vladimir Putin urging him to reverse course on the tragic invasion of Ukraine. Putin seems intent on toppling the Ukranian government but has he considered Sherif et al (1961), Tajfel (1977), Festinger (1954), and Brewer (1991)?

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    Episode 232: Mind Over Matter

    March 8th, 2022  |  1 hr 39 mins
    consciousness, daniel dennett, david chalmers, galen strawson, listener-selected episode, panpsychism, philosophy of mind

    It’s the topic voted on by our beloved Patreon patrons, panpsychism! David and Tamler delve into the resurgent debate over whether consciousness is the fundamental stuff that makes up the universe. We hoped we might be entering Miyazaki land - river spirits, benevolent radishes, a universal mind. But is this just the same old philosophy of mind debate with different words? Are there any stakes to this debate or is it purely terminological? Plus – we answer some last-minute questions from listeners on dissertations, Ukraine, pseudoscience, and the music from "The Shield."

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    Episode 231: Ideal Critics (Hume's "Of the Standard of Taste")

    February 22nd, 2022  |  1 hr 50 mins
    aesthetics, hume, legal age, of fthe standard of taste

    Many of us think that art is subjective, but at the same time it seems like some artistic judgments are better than others. Do you think "Crash" deserved to receive an award for Best Picture? Did you like Season 2 of "Ted Lasso"? Well you’re wrong. So how do we reconcile these two conflicting attitudes about art? David and Tamler turn to David Hume’s classic essay "Of the Standard of Taste" (link in notes) for help. Will Pizarro finally see the error of his ways on "Straw Dogs"?

    Plus a doozy of a medical ethics paper – should we allow people to change their legal age if it doesn’t match their "biological" and "emotional" age?

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    Episode 230: Be Happy (Lars von Trier's "Melancholia")

    February 8th, 2022  |  1 hr 49 mins
    baby brains, free speech, lars von trier, m&ms, melancholia, neuroscience, rogan, spotify, whoopi goldberg

    David and Tamler sink deeper and deeper into Melancholia, Lars von Trier’s harrowing and stunningly beautiful depiction of depression, anxiety, and a wedding reception that just won’t end. They bring Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” into the conversation and confront the question: what if the depressed and anxious people are right?

    Plus Whoopi, M&Ms, baby brain waves, Rogan – we empty out the opening segment Slack. 

    Note: We recorded the opening segment before the latest development in the Joe Rogan story, but we briefly address that in the promo segment right after the break.

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    Episode 229: Skin Deep?

    January 25th, 2022  |  1 hr 39 mins
    beauty, listener-selected episodes, lookism, ted chiang

    We think racism is wrong but what about “lookism” – a bias that favors attractive people over unattractive ones? If it’s wrong to judge people by the color of their skin, what about judging people for something that is only skin deep? We talk about two pieces today, a forthcoming philosophy article by William D’Allesandro “Is it Bad to Prefer Attractive Partners” and the Ted Chiang story “Liking What You See: A Documentary.”

    Plus we select the topic finalists for our beloved Patreon listener-selected episode. Interesting list this time around!

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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?