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 260: The Scream That Never Found a Voice (Murakami's "Sleep")

    May 9th, 2023  |  1 hr 29 mins
    ai, murakami, sleep

    David and Tamler take the first excursion into the work of Haruki Murakami and talk about his short story “Sleep.” A thirty-year-old woman, the wife of a dentist and mother of a young boy, has a terrifying dream and when she wakes up, she no longer needs to sleep. This isn’t insomnia, it’s something else – she has never felt so alive, strong, and awake. She can swim laps for an hour in the afternoon and read Anna Karenina with perfect concentration until dawn. What is this condition? Is it real? What does it tell us about her past, her sense of self, her alienation from friends, family, and her role? This is a banger of a story folks, check it out.

    Plus - if you had to say one word or sentence to distinguish yourself from an AI, what would you say?

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    Episode 259: Losing Time ("Tár" with Paul Bloom)

    April 25th, 2023  |  1 hr 56 mins
    cancel culture, paul bloom, todd fields, tár

    The great Paul Bloom returns to the show to explore the many mysteries of Todd Field’s 2022 film “Tár.” Is it a ghost story? A movie about cancel culture and abuse of power? Guilt? Professional disappointment? The anxiety of getting old, losing touch with youth and reality Reminds me of my freshman year at Smith…

    Plus – Paul gets into trouble on Twitter for saying he’s mildly pro-trigger warnings in certain cases. But is he ignoring the science???

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    Episode 258: Mystic Peeza

    April 11th, 2023  |  1 hr 33 mins
    conceptual analysis, creepiness, meditation, mysticism, religion, william james

    David and Tamler talk about William James’ chapter on mysticism from his book "Varieties of Religious Experience." What defines a mystical experience? Why do they defy expression and yet feel like a state of knowledge, a glimpse into the window of some undiscovered aspect of reality? Is Tamler right that David has a little mystic inside of him just waiting to burst forth from his breast?

    Plus – another edition of VBW does conceptual analysis and we’re sticking with ‘c’ words – this time the definitive theory of ‘creepy.’

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    Episode 257: Aural Fixation

    March 28th, 2023  |  1 hr 39 mins
    algorithms, marshall mcluhan, media, nft, the medium is the message

    David and Tamler deliver a PODCAST episode, one of many that comes from the INTERNET, that you’ll probably listen to through Air Pods or some other kind of WIRELESS HEADPHONES as you go about your day.

    (Incidentally, the topic of the episode is Marshall McLuhan and his ideas about how new forms of media profoundly shape our experience and identity, but in a way that makes us focus on the content of the specific medium and not the medium itself.)

    Plus, can algorithms help to optimize our well-being, and Steven Pinker transforms his ideas into a new asset class of NFTs.

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    Episode 256: The Right to Punish?

    March 14th, 2023  |  1 hr 36 mins
    jeffrie murphy, kant, marx, neuroscience, punishment, rawls, retributivism, utilitarianism

    Here’s an episode with something for both of us – a healthy serving of Kantian rationalism for David with a dollop of Marxist criminology for Tamler. We discuss and then argue about Jeffrie Murphy’s 1971 paper “Marxism and Retribution.” For Murphy, utilitarianism is non-starter as a theory of punishment because it can’t justify the right of the state to inflict suffering on criminals. Retributivism respects the autonomy of individuals so it can justify punishment in principle – but not in practice, at least not in a capitalist system. So it ends up offering a transcendental sanction of the status quo. We debate the merits of Murphy’s attack on Rawls and social contract theory under capitalism, along with the Marxist analysis of the roots of criminal behavior.

    Plus – the headline says it all: Blame The Brain, Not Bolsonaro, For Brazil’s Riots.

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    Episode 255: Beloved Child of the House (Susanna Clarke's "Piranesi")

    February 28th, 2023  |  1 hr 43 mins
    ai, bing, personal identity, piranesi, susanna clarke, sydney

    David and Tamler get lost in the world of Susanna Clarke’s "Piranesi," a hauntingly beautiful and thrilling novel with echoes of Borges, Plato, C.S. Lewis, and even Parfit. The first part of our conversation is spoiler-free so you can listen to that section if you haven’t read it yet. (But seriously read this book! We both read it in a few days.)

    Plus, watch out ladies - Sydney the Bing chatbot is coming to steal your man.

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    Episode 254: Nobody's Parfit

    February 14th, 2023  |  1 hr 19 mins
    aphantasia, derek parfit, personal identity

    Tamler’s earlier self committed to doing an episode on Parfit, and David holds his current self to that promise, which shows how unconvinced David was by Parfit’s skepticism about personal identity. Or something like that. We argue about the value of Parfit’s sci-fi thought experiments and the implications of believing there’s no clear sense of “me.” Plus, we talk about a recent article on aphantasia – the inability to conjure images in your mind – and the question that pops into everyone’s head when they hear about this condition.

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    Episode 253: Tarkovsky's Starchild

    January 31st, 2023  |  2 hrs 8 mins
    movie, penis, social psychology, sports car, stalker, tarkovsky

    It’s the episode that Tamler has been waiting for – a long deep dive into Andrei Tarkovsky’s mysterious masterpiece "Stalker." A writer and professor are led by their guide (Stalker) into a cordoned off “zone” that may have been visited by a meteorite (or aliens) a couple of decades earlier. Their destination – a room in the zone that according to legend grants people their deepest desire, the one that has made them suffer the most. We gush over Tarkovsky’s filmmaking, his use of sound and music, and the richness of the questions this movie raises about meaning, art, delusion, desire, science, and faith.

    Plus, does having a small penis make you want to buy a sports car? Pre-crisis social psychology is back!

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    Episode 252: Yes We Sene-can

    January 10th, 2023  |  1 hr 34 mins
    guilty confessions, new year's resolutions, seneca, stoicism

    David and Tamler dive into Seneca’s “On the Happy Life” and stoicism, the topic selected by our beloved patreon supporters. Why is stoicism so popular today? What does Seneca actually think about Epicureanism? Can Seneca's philosophy be reconciled with his life as a wealthy Roman aristocrat? Are stoics too cold and detached or is that an unfair caricature? And why can’t David and Tamler fully embrace this undeniably wise approach to life?

    Plus the return of… GUILTY CONFESSIONS and some favorite things from 2022.

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    Episode 251: First Order, Then Chaos

    December 20th, 2022  |  1 hr 34 mins
    ai, borges, chatgpt, the immortal

    David and Tamler wind their way through another Borges story - "The Immortal"- about a Roman soldier who seeks the secret of immortality and, much to his horror, finds it. Plus some thoughts on the utterly shameless ChatGPT.

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    Episode 250: Metaphors All the Way Down

    December 6th, 2022  |  1 hr 30 mins
    cancel culture, george lakoff, metaphors

    We often think of metaphors as poetic flourishes, a nice way to punctuate your ideas and make them more relatable. But what if metaphors aren’t simply tools of language but part of thought itself? David and Tamler “dive into” George Lakoff’s theory of metaphors and “explore” the implications of his view that metaphors shape and constrain the ways we conceptualize our experience of the world. Plus if we’re really living in cancel culture, we might as well do some cancelling. Say goodbye to "Singing in the Rain," Latinx, and punny academic titles among other things.

    Oh and it’s our 250th episode! It’s been quite a journey. Have we come a long way or are we just spinning our wheels? And for a fun detour, check out our bonus podcast series “The Ambulators” on the great TV series Deadwood.

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    Episode 249: Phlegm and Carelessness (Hume's "The Sceptic")

    November 22nd, 2022  |  1 hr 25 mins
    happiness, hume, social psychology, the sceptic, twitter

    David and Tamler gild and stain David Hume’s essay “The Sceptic” with their sentiments. If nothing is inherently valuable or despicable, desirable or hateful, then what do philosophers have to offer when it comes to happiness? If reason is powerless, does it all come down to our emotions and “humours”? Or does the study of philosophy and liberal arts naturally lead to a fulfilling and virtuous life? Plus we look at a new non-traditional social psych paper on how we always imagine that things could be better, and tip our caps to the queen of handling Twitter pile-ons (and former VBW guest) – Candy Mom.

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    Episode 248: Checkmate, Grasshopper

    November 1st, 2022  |  1 hr 23 mins
    analytic philosophy, chess, games

    In this podcast we examine a recent argument for the view that chess is not, in fact, a game. We discuss the Grasshopper’s claim that all games must have a prelusory goal, as well as Skepticus’ objection to the giant Grasshopper concerning chess. We then turn to a broader analysis of the Suitsian account of games. Does the existence of illusory checkmates offer Grasshopper an avenue for replying to Skepticus? Should we bite the bullet and agree that chess is not a game? What is a lusory attitude? Is Tamler losing his mind? Why is David so giddy?

    Plus – how should Arthur C. Clarke’s novel "2001: A Space Odyssey" affect our understanding of Kubrick’s movie? And a little more on Kanye.

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    Episode 247: Open the Pod, Dave (with Sam Harris)

    October 18th, 2022  |  2 hrs 34 mins
    2001: a space odyssey, anti-semitism, kanye west, richard rorty, sam harris, stanley kubrick

    David and Tamler welcome Sam Harris back to the show for a deep dive into Stanley Kubrick’s confounding 1968 masterpiece "2001: A Space Odyssey." How long is the Dawn of Man? What does the second monolith do exactly? Why are the humans so banal and expressionless? What are HAL’S motivations? Has he planned his mutiny from the start, or does the Council’s deception make him manlfunction? Or something else? Who is the Council anyway? Was HAL meant to go through the stargate? What is the final leap forward in consciousness? The hotel room, the starchild, all the rectangles, rectangles everywhere, the music – what does it all mean????

    Plus Sam has some thoughts about our Rorty episode and David tries to rile Tamler up about Kanye’s antisemitism.

    Note: there's a bit of an abrupt transition between our brief opening and Sam telling a story about Rorty in around the 9 minute mark... couldn't be helped.

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    Episode 246: Existential Poker-Face (David Foster Wallace's "E Unibus Pluram")

    October 4th, 2022  |  1 hr 46 mins
    culture wars, david foster wallace, dei, e unibus pluram, irony, spsp, television

    We dive into David Foster Wallace’s sprawling 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” How do TV and new forms of media keep their hold on us when we know at some level that they’re reinforcing our loneliness and passivity? That’s easy, Wallace says, post-modern cool. Flatter me, let me think we’re all in the joke together, give me “an ironic permission-slip to do what I do best whenever I feel confused and guilty: assume, inside, a sort of fetal position, a pose of passive reception to comfort, escape, reassurance.” But in the years since this essay, the TV landscape has completely transformed. Has it transcended its function as a surrogate companion for lonely people, or has it just found new ways to keep us isolated and passive?

    Plus, we talk about the recent new SPSP guidelines and Jon Haidt’s recent essay on why he’s resigning from the organization. (Sorry, Jon!)

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    Episode 245: Pragmatically Speaking

    September 20th, 2022  |  1 hr 31 mins
    listener selected topics, pragmatism, relativism, richard rorty, the little mermaid, truth

    David and Tamler take their first real look at pragmatism via Richard Rorty’s “Solidarity or Objectivity.” Can we discover facts about the world as it “really is,” independent of our own culturally influenced methods of inquiry? If not, does that make us relativists? Is David right about pragamatism being an ass-backward approach to scientific truth, or is he just a pragmatist who’s not ready to admit that to himself? Plus, does "The Little Mermaid" have to be white? What about Clark Kent? And we select the topic finalists for our Patreon listener selected episode.