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 132: Emotional Willpower (with David DeSteno)

    January 23rd, 2018  |  1 hr 35 mins
    compassion, dave desteno, emotional success, emotions, gratitude, pride, utilitarianism

    What's the best way to build self-control, patience, productivity, and delayed marshmallow eating? For decades psychologists and economists have told us to develop traits like willpower and grit. But psychologist David DeSteno describes a better, easier, and more effective path--the emotions. We talk to David about his new (not-self-help) book "Emotional Success," which argues that the emotions of gratitude, pride, and compassion can help us fulfill long-term goals and (as a special bonus) make us happier and better people.

    Plus, David and Tamler take a quiz that measures how utilitarian they are, and you won't believe the results!!! (Actually, you will.)

  • Episode 131: I Have No Genitals and I Must Scream

    January 9th, 2018  |  1 hr 39 mins
    black mirror, charlie brooker, lying

    David and Tamler break down two episodes (with full spoilers) from the new season of Charlie Brooker's bleaker-than-bleak Netflix series Black Mirror. First up, "The USS Callister," a Star Trek parody that becomes a meditation on fandom, humiliation, and cowardly revenge. Next we talk about "Black Museum" - could it be the final episode of Black Mirror? Should it be? After four seasons of indicting humanity, has Charlie Brooker turned his critical lens on himself?

    Plus, you thought it was bad for children to tell lies, but it turns out that it's good!

  • Episode 130: Dehumanization and Disintegration (with Paul Bloom)

    December 26th, 2017  |  1 hr 32 mins
    dehumanization, empathy, paul bloom, star trek transporters

    In this Very Special Boxing Day edition of the podcast, Tamler and David welcome back honorary Third Wizard Paul Bloom to discuss his latest article in the New Yorker about dehumanization and cruelty. Is it really the case that we dehumanize in order to harm others? Or does most violence actually require us to view others as fundamentally human, agentic, and capable of true suffering? But first, we discuss the stages of Star Trek transporter cognition, whether Paul and David are closet-dualists, and whether the process of choosing a Dalai Lama suffers from p-hacking concerns. (And between segments we give our brief, spoiler-free thoughts on Season 3 of Mr. Robot). Happy Chanukah, Kwanzaa, New Year, and Merry Christmas to all!

  • Episode 129: Dystopias

    December 12th, 2017  |  1 hr 45 mins
    dystopias, trolley problem

    David and Tamler assert their autonomy as individuals by discussing their favorite dystopian works of art. Rebelling against a repressive regime, they refuse to sacrifice their privacy, uniqueness, and reproductive freedom. Through sheer force of will - the human spirit - they triumph over the pressures to ... wait what? You want me to take that pill? Okay, can't hurt. Aaahhhhh. So happy... So content... Must keep order. When the individual feels, the community reels. I am you, and you are I. I am you, and you are I.

    Plus, a real-life trolley problem! (Or is it?)

  • Episode 128: Fragmented Values and Sex Panics (with Christina Hoff Sommers)

    November 28th, 2017  |  1 hr 50 mins
    christina hoff sommers, louis ck, thomas nagel, value

    David and Tamler keep their Nagel streak alive, discussing the essay "The Fragmention of Value" from his collection "Mortal Questions." How should we address our fragmented moral landscape, with multiple sources of value that can't be reduced or systematically ordered? Does this make all of our moral decisions arbitrary? Plus, we talk about Louis CK and in a Thanksgiving tradition special guest Christina Hoff Sommers rejoins the podcast in a moderately drunken debate with Tamler about a possible sex panic.

  • Episode 127: Moral Luck

    November 14th, 2017  |  1 hr 24 mins
    blame, free will, moral luck, moral responsibility, mortal questions, thomas nagel

    David and Tamler dip back into the Thomas Nagel well, and discuss the problem of "moral luck." Why do we blame drunk drivers who hit someone more than drunk drivers who make it home OK? Why do we judge people for things that are beyond their control (when we have strong intuitions that uncontrollable acts don't deserve blame)? Does moral luck ultimately swallow all of our behavior? Can we truly embrace the view that "actions are events and people are things" or are we stuck with another unsolvable clash of competing perspectives (just like the problem of absurdity)?

    Plus, Dave exposes himself on the Partially Examined Life, Tamler self-censors, and somehow we discuss Hollywood harassment and stand-up comedy without mentioning Louis CK. (But only because we recorded this episode about five hours before the NY Times story broke.)

  • Episode 126: The Absurd

    October 24th, 2017  |  1 hr 32 mins
    albert camus, rick and morty, the absurd, the meaning of life, thomas nagel

    Is life meaningless? Are we just glorified dung beetles, pushing around our piles of poop with no greater purpose? What would it take for life to actually be meaningful? In this episode, Tamler and David discuss Thomas Nagel’s essay on the sense of meaninglessness and absurdity that can so easily creep into human existence (with a special emphasis on the work of Camus and the philosophy of Rick and Morty). But first we tackle even more important questions about the human condition such as, why is it easier to detect the size of a hole with your tongue than with your little finger? And which moral "dilemmas" are actually moral no-brainers? (In the process, we even solve the problem of free speech on campus. You’re welcome.)

  • Episode 125: Can You Feel It?

    October 10th, 2017  |  1 hr 32 mins
    emotions, lisa feldman barrett, robert solomon, star trek

    What do we mean when we say someone is angry? Can we identify anger (or any other emotion) via facial expressions, physiological changes, or neural markers? Is anger simply a feeling, something that happens to us, or does it involve a judgment? How much control do we have over our emotions, and can we be responsible for them? We talk about the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett and Bob Solomon. Plus, Tamler engages in conceptual analysis on Star Trek transporter beliefs (yes you read that right) and David is too stunned to argue.

  • Episode 124: Dr. Strawson or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Episodic Life

    September 26th, 2017  |  1 hr 21 mins
    anthropomorphic animals, character, galen strawson, identity, narrative, self

    Do you think of your life as a story? Does your life have a narrative structure or form? Do you identify with your past selves and your future selves? If not, can you live a good life, a moral life, an authentic life? Can you feel guilt, regret, and resentment? Plus, speaking of stories, we talk about a new study suggesting that books with anthropomorphic animals can't teach moral lessons to kids.

  • Episode 123: What Chilling Effect? (Intelligence Pt. 2)

    September 12th, 2017  |  1 hr 27 mins
    hurricane harvey, intelligence, iq, neuroscience, race

    It’s Part 2 of the Patreon listener selected episode! David and Tamler continue their discussion on intelligence from our last episode by tackling the radioactive topic of group differences and IQ. Are there reliable differences in IQ across races? Given that IQ is strongly heritable, and that racial categories are based (in part) on biological differences, does it follow that group differences in IQ are due to biological differences across racial groups? (Could only a politically motivated science-denier conclude otherwise?) David argues that biological explanations for racial differences in IQ are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of genetics and race. It’s a complex argument, so if you start listening, please finish! (Oh and @VBW_No_Context on Twitter, take a vacation, you’ve earned it!). Plus, more on neuroscientific explanations, and Tamler relates his experience of Hurricane Harvey.

  • Episode 122: Nothing but a "G" Thing (Intelligence Pt. 1)

    August 29th, 2017  |  1 hr 40 mins
    cognitive neuroscience, dogs, fmri, intelligence, iq

    David and Tamler do their best to talk frankly about intelligence and IQ research. (It's our Patreon listener-selected topic! We probably would never have chosen this one on our own...). Is intelligence a meaningful, definable concept? Can we reliably test for it? How much of the variability in IQ across individuals is due to heritable factors? Are people with higher IQ happier, wealthier, or healthier than people with lower IQ? And why is this topic so controversial anyhow? Plus in the intro segment Tamler and David discuss why you probably don't need fMRI to know what your dog wants, and why cognitive neuroscience seems to confuse otherwise intelligent folks. (Note: This is Part 1 of our discussion on intelligence. In Part 2 will delve into the slightly more controversial topics of IQ, race, and gender).

  • Episode 121: The Beauty of Illusion - David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive"

    August 15th, 2017  |  1 hr 29 mins
    david lynch, mulholland drive

    Guest Yoel Inbar joins David and Tamler to break down David Lynch’s dreamy masterpiece Mulholland Drive. (FULL SPOILERS – watch before you listen!) What’s real and what’s illusion? What happens when our illusions unravel? How do expectations affect our experience? How can artists use our expectations to manipulate our emotions? Come for the questions, stay for the answers – or at least for more questions.

  • Episode 120: Clap Your Hand for Robert Wright

    July 25th, 2017  |  1 hr 47 mins
    buddhism, evolutionary psychology, robert wright

    Special guest Robert Wright joins the podcast to discuss his latest book "Why Buddhism is True." What is the Buddhist conception of not-self? When we become aware that the boundaries between us and the world are fluid, what is the “we” that arrives at this insight? Can daily meditation make you less of a dick? How does evolutionary psychology bear on these questions? Plus, Dave horrifies Tamler with his new hipster habit.

  • Episode 119: A Brief History of Values

    July 11th, 2017  |  1 hr 26 mins
    debunking arguments, porn, values

    What happens when we discover why we believe the things we believe? What if we discover that our values are the product of our cultural tradition, or personal experience, or natural selection? Should we be more skeptical of our values once we learn their history? Plus, data on Google porn searches reveal that you're all a bunch of sick fucks.

  • Episode 118: We Don't Love Them Hoax

    June 27th, 2017  |  1 hr 12 mins
    campus politics, conceptual penis hoax, james lindsay

    David and Tamler try to put the topic of campus politics to bed once and for all – with limited success. First, we get into a big fight about the prevalence and danger of political correctness in American universities. We junked that recording, and tried to distill our best points into a new one. (Trust us – it was for the best.) We also narrow down all the topic recommendations from our beloved Patreon supporters to five finalists. In the second segment, James Lindsay (co-author of the "Conceptual Penis" hoax) joins us to talk about why he thinks the hoax was more successful in exposing gender studies than some of their critics (including us) have suggested.

  • Episode 117: Extended Minds, Extended Foreskins

    June 13th, 2017  |  1 hr 11 mins
    distributed cognition, extended mind, male circumcision

    David and Tamler break down a recent classic in the philosophy of mind: "The Extended Mind" by Andy Clark and David Chalmers. What is
    boundary of your mind? Is it contained with your body, or does it extend to the external environment--to your laptop, notebook,
    smartphone and more? Is this a purely terminological question, or one with practical and moral significance? And what is the role of
    intuition in providing an answer? Plus, Dave shares an email alerting him to the psychological trauma of male circumcision along
    with an exciting all-natural method for restoring the foreskin (that was stolen from us as infants).