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 138: Memory, Pain, and Relationships (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)

    April 24th, 2018  |  1 hr 45 mins
    eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, memory, michel gondry, relationships

    Award-winning screenwriter and medieval philosophy scholar Yoel Inbar joins us for a deep dive on the Charlie Kaufman/Michel GondREY masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. When relationships go bad is it better to believe they never happened? What is the nature of memory, how is it constructed, and is it possible to zap them out existence with an Apple IIe? Will Tamler have a more optimistic take on the ending of the movie than David? (Hint: yes)

    Also--only two more weeks to preorder Why Honor Matters and get your free bonus episode! Upload your receipt here

  • Episode 137: Are Buddhists Afraid to Die? (with Shaun Nichols)

    April 10th, 2018  |  1 hr 19 mins
    buddhism, death, shaun nichols

    Why are we always attracted to people who mock us, resist our advances, and play hard to get? Maybe because it’s extra satisfying when you finally get them to… appear on your podcast. In our first live episode (recorded in San Antonio), the philosopher Shaun Nichols joins us to discuss his recent article “Death and the Self”. You might think that Buddhist conceptions of the self as illusory would reduce their fear of death (after all, if there’s no real self, why worry about it ceasing to exist?). But the evidence collected by Shaun and colleagues suggests exactly the opposite. Why would that be?

    Plus, David and Tamler choose six finalists for the Patreon listener selected episode (did Jordan Peterson make the list?), and we announce a special bonus for people who pre-order Tamler’s forthcoming book "Why Honor Matters."

  • Episode 136: The Good Life (with Laurie Santos)

    March 27th, 2018  |  1 hr 32 mins
    happiness, the good life, yale

    From Very Bad Wizards to Megyn Kelly Today back to Very Bad Wizards, Laurie Santos has traveled the typical trajectory of the celebrity academic. Laurie joins us to talk about her cult status after creating the most popular course in Yale University history: Psychology and the Good Life. The course explores questions like: Why are we so bad at predicting what will make us happy? What makes it so hard to do the things we know are good for us? Why young are people more stressed, anxious, and overworked than they used to be? And how can we nudge ourselves into living better lives?

  • Episode 135: Utilitarianism and Moral Identity

    March 13th, 2018  |  1 hr 16 mins
    bernard williams, christina hoff sommers, lewis and clark, utilitarianism, woke

    David and Tamler take a break from complaining about psychological studies that measure utilitarianism to complain about the moral theory itself. We talk about one of the most famous critiques of utilitarianism from Bernard Williams. Does utilitarianism annihilate our integrity--our unity--as people? Would trying to maximize well-being fracture our identities, and swallow up our projects, motivations, and moral convictions--the same convictions that make utilitarianism seem appealing in the first place? Is it ultimately self-defeating as a moral theory?
    Plus, we talk about the adventures of Tamler's based step-mom Christina Hoff Sommers' at Lewis and Clark law school. Will David stay woke?

  • Episode 134: Digital Outrage (with Molly Crockett)

    February 27th, 2018  |  1 hr 51 mins
    evolutionary psychology, internet, moral outrage, trolleyology, twitter

    It's been 5 years since Molly Crockett has been guest on VBW. During that time she's completed a post-doc at University College, London and become a professor at Yale University. And we're...well, we're still doing the podcast. Today Molly joins us to talk about moral outrage in the age of social media. Has the outrage changed now that we express so much of it online? Does it contribute to polarization and social division, or give a voice to the less powerful? How can we harness the benefits of online outrage while minimizing the costs? Plus, Dave and Tamler perform an exorcism on the unholy offspring of evolutionary psychology and trolleyology.

  • Episode 133: Death and Dreams

    February 6th, 2018  |  1 hr 15 mins
    death, it was all a dream, thomas nagel

    David and Tamler talk about the nature of death. Is being dead a bad thing? If so, what makes it bad? How can anything be bad for a subject that no longer exists? We didn't have a problem with oblivion for the thirteen billion years before we were born, why fear it now?

    Plus, a discussion about the "it was all a dream" trope in TV and film. Why is it so infuriating in some works but not others?

  • 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.