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 244: Thanks for the Memories? (Borges' "Funes the Memorious)

    September 6th, 2022  |  1 hr 51 mins
    10 years!, borges, funes the memorious, memory

    David and Tamler return to Borges land to get lost in the infinite, this time with his legendary and tragic character Funes the memorious. What would it be like to have perfect memory, to have full access to every perceived detail no matter how trivial? Would life be infinitely richer, with present experience and memory merging into a perfect Heraclitan flow? Or is William James correct to say that one condition of remembering is to forget, and that “if we remembered everything, we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing.”?

    Plus, we’re sorry, but after 10 years (!) we thought we had the right to get a little self-indulgent and naval-gazey. We do a bit of reminiscing (“though we have no right to speak that sacred verb..”) in the first segment about how the podcast has changed since 2012, and the impact it has made on our lives. Thanks for the memories!

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    Episode 243: Finding My Religion

    August 16th, 2022  |  1 hr 32 mins
    conspiracy theories, faith, meaning, religion, tolstoy

    David and Tamler continue their discussion of Leo Tolstoy’s 'Confession.' When we left him last time, the famous author had bottomed out just years after writing two of the greatest novels ever written. Our eventual death, Tolstoy thought, strips life of all meaning and purpose – all answers to the question “so what?”. How does he emerge from this state of suicidal depression? What role does faith or “irrational knowledge” play in his account? What’s the meaning of the cryptic dream at the conclusion of the memoir?

    Plus, bombarded with this recommendation, we were going to talk about a certain article that came out in "Qualitative Research" about masturbating to Japanese shota comics – we even had a guest – but had to scrap it. Instead, we discuss a recent study on conspiracy theories that shows that liberals are just as likely to believe in them as conservatives. Mostly we just talk about the conspiracies.

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    Bonus Episode: The Ambulators (A "Deadwood" Podcast)

    August 9th, 2022  |  1 hr 30 mins
    bonus, deadwood

    We have a sneak peek for our listeners--the first episode our new Patreon bonus series on David Milch's brilliant (but short-lived) series "Deadwood." In this inaugural edition of "The Ambulators" (we promise the name makes sense), Tamler and David discuss the pilot episode "Deadwood."

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    Episode 242: Losing My Religion

    August 2nd, 2022  |  1 hr 33 mins
    ai, existential, meaning, tolstoy

    David and Tamler find themselves unable to attach rational meaning to a single act in their entire lives. Let’s say we publish more articles and books. What then? What about our kids? They’re going off to college. Why? What for? We think about the future of the podcast. Let’s say we get bought out by Spotify and become more famous than Joe Rogan, Dolly Parton, and even Yoel Inbar -- more famous than all the podcasters in the world. So what?

    And we can find absolutely no reply.

    Plus, we take a test to determine whether we can we tell an AI apart from an analytic philosopher. When should we start getting scared of what AIs are gonna do to us, or what we’re doing to them?

    *Note: the main segment is on the first half of Tolstoy’s great memoir "A Confession," but you don’t need to be familiar with the text to appreciate the discussion for this one.

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    Episode 241: Very Bad Orgies (Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut")

    July 19th, 2022  |  2 hrs 35 mins
    eyes wide shut, masturbation, sexual satisfaction, stanley kubrick

    David and Tamler mask up and wander through the audio and visual orgy of Stanley Kubrick’s final masterpiece "Eyes Wide Shut". What is this movie really about? Dreams? Wealth and power? Marriage? Jealousy? Female sexuality? Masculinity issues? The Illuminati? Pedophilia? Sex cults? Prostitution, both literal and figurative? Missing out, always on the outside looking in? Why does Tom Cruise repeat everything? Why is Nicole Kidman such a lightweight? Why can’t a successful Upper West Side couple get better weed? We explore all these themes and more in a film that raises so many more questions than it answers.

    Plus, a study on masturbation, gender, and sexual dissatisfaction – right in our wheelhouse, or is it?

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    Episode 240: Evil

    July 5th, 2022  |  1 hr 33 mins

    David and Tamler descend into the dark pits of Hell to look Satan in the eyes and discover the nature of evil. OK…that’s not fully accurate, we just read and talk about a couple of philosophy articles that analyze the concept. What are the features of evil people and acts? Does evil just mean ‘really really really really bad’ or is it categorically different in some way? Can you be evil without ever actually causing harm? Is Tony Soprano evil?

    Plus we take a "moral alignment" quiz (inspired by role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons). We both want to end up as ‘chaotic good’ but does it turn out that way? And what kind of character is a unicorn?

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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.