Monday, January 11, 2016

Do we choose our religion?

This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "What does Buddhism Offer an African-American Woman?” with guest Jan Willis. Click here to listen to the episode.  

Why do we believe what we believe? Why do some religions compel us and others feel like fairy tales? Why do we hold to some values, even if we fail to realize them, and reject others as not even worthy of pursuing? These are profound questions that overlap philosophy, psychology, anthropology, history, and sociology. Religion and belief are not simple.

We know, for example, that most Americans will be raised Christian, and as the recent season has shown us, even if they do not consider themselves believers, they will find solace and joy in holidays like Christmas. Yet there are others who choose to convert to Islam or Buddhism; the Grand Forks synagogue is full of former Christians who became Jews, and North Dakota is a pretty Christian place. If we could map this out, would we discover that belief is just an accident of birth? Is it the resolution to our various neuroses and insecurities or simply free will, a perfect illustration of what choice is supposed to mean?

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Why? Radio is live this Sunday at 5p.m. central: "What does Buddhism Offer an African-American Woman?" with Guest: Jan Willis

Why? Radio is live this Sunday at 5p.m. central.
Send us your comments now or during the show.

"What does Buddhism Offer an African-American Woman?”

Guest: Jan Willis

Sunday, January 10 at 5 p.m. central.

Listen live from anywhere in the world at and in North Dakota at 89.3 (Grand Forks), 91.9 (Fargo), 90.5 (Bismarck), and on Prairie Public radio stations across the state.

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Friday, January 1, 2016

Top posts (and top neglected posts) of 2015

For the record, I have no idea what is happening in this picture.

In the spirit of the season (and as a result of significant peer pressure), I thought it might be of interest to list the best posts of the past year. Of course, it is unclear what “best” means in this context. Should I link to the posts with the most comments? The most page views? The most shares? These are complicated measures, in part because a significant amount of blog-based conversation takes place off site and a surprising number of people respond to the question in the title without actually reading the post. Also, all of those measures indicate popularity, not quality, and I’d like to think that good is more important than popular. I'd like to think that my own judgment is also a factor in determining whether a post ended up being good or not.

So, the links below are posts that I determine to be the most “successful”: a mixture of interesting topic, good responses, and writing that I like. They are all posts that engaged people’s imagination, if not ire, and in at least once case, significant praise. So, without further ado, here are the “Top PQED posts of 2015”:

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Won’t someone please think of the parents?!?! Star Wars and the other victims of mass shootings.

This column discusses major plot-points of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It has major spoilers.  

George Lucas’s Star Wars was mythological. His characters were stand-ins for archetypes. Any one of us could imagine being Han, Luke, or Leia, the hero who rises to the moral challenge. But J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars is Shakespearean. His story is of specific families. His characters are particular people whose histories matter. Audiences participate in Lucas’s epic, but Abrams asks us to be voyeurs.

It should not be surprising then, that the most intimate moments in The Force Awakens are the ones we want to brush past quickly, the conversation between broken parents and the love a father feels for his lost son. Lucas would have paused during these moments. He would have allowed us to contemplate with his characters, as when Luke sought his future in the double suns of Tatooine. But Abrams will have none of that. Things happen fast in the latest installment because free will is a luxury for Stormtroopers, not Skywalkers.

Monday, December 14, 2015

How did poetry reveal the limits of philosophy?

This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "Metaphors We Live By: A classic revisited" with guests George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Click here to listen to the episode. 

Words matter. We all know it. If we sometimes forget, we are reminded when someone calls us something that misdescribes us. Maybe we are referred to as Mrs. instead of Ms. or Ms. instead of Dr. Maybe we are called Black instead of African American or disabled instead of someone with disabilities. These words can sting, even if the speaker has only the best intentions.

Words also make us uncomfortable, which is why we have euphemisms. Our loved ones pass away or leave us, but they don’t “die” until long after the rawness of their passing has faded. And, of course, many feel the need to avoid direct references to the body. We make love and we use the restroom—plumbers talk about removing “lady products” from clogged pipes. Our words reveal our intimacies, our economic classes, and our insecurities.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Are we hypocrites (or bigots) if we care more about Paris than Beirut?

Americans don’t like to acknowledge it, but history matters. Our feelings don’t develop out of nowhere. They have reasons and more often than not, they make sense. This doesn’t mean that our emotions are always appropriate, nor does it mean that we shouldn’t sometimes change how we react to things, but it does mean that our responses can be rational even when they are not ideal.

Much has been made of the fact that people on Facebook are expressing more grief over the attacks on Paris than the suicide bombings in Beirut. The subtext (and sometimes the super text) is that those who express solidarity with Paris are hypocrites or bigots because there is no meaningful difference between the two. Both assaults were horrible and both killed innocent civilians, so, the argument goes, our reaction should be the same. Advocates insist there should be as many Lebanese flags on our Facebook profiles as French ones. I disagree.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Yes, the attacks in Paris were about religion. Stop saying they weren’t.

I always tell my students that there is no such thing as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, that there are only Judaisms, Christinaities, and Islams. For example, I am a Reform Jew and while my tradition overlaps quite significantly with Hasidism, we have many fundamentally different beliefs. Any religion I commit to has to treat men and women equally. It has to welcome both gay and straight marriages, and respect modern scientific discoveries. It has to be tolerant and celebrate mixed-faith relationships. Hasidism does none of these things. It is mystical. It is messianic. It is reactionary. It makes no sense to me and when push comes to shove, besides our common historical roots, the religion I practice has much more in common with that of modernist Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians than it has with Hasidic Judaism. Many Hasids feel the same. It is not infrequent for ultra-Orthodox Jews to publicly assert that people like me are not really Jews at all.

All religions share this same tension. There are liberal Catholics who do not believe the Pope is infallible, who are pro-Choice, and who believe that all-religions are equally divine. Yet, there are many pre-Vatican II Catholics who think that the Church is the only path to redemption and that the Pope has absolute moral authority. There are Protestants who reject Martin Luther’s antisemitism and others who welcome climate change because they long for the apocalypse. Many from each group have been quoted as stating that the others are not “real Christians,” and from their own perspective, they are correct. Their religions have an internal logic. There are standards that have to be met.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Should we take Plato seriously? (Or, Should we be Attracted to our Professors?)

Danae, by Coraggio

This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "What is courage?" with guest Ryan Balot. Click here to listen to the episode. 

Many years ago, when I was in graduate school, I took a class in which we discussed Plato’s account of the desire to learn. The Greek word for desire is eros, so philosophy for Plato is, literally, erotic, and so is the relationship between teacher and student. In response, someone in the class presented a paper asking whether he himself had ever felt any erotic attraction to his own teachers. He said that he didn’t and concluded that Plato was wrong; philosophy and eros had nothing to do with each other.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Are fonts art?

This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "“Text as image, image as text: How one artist uses language to combine art and literature" with guest Alexandra Grant. Click here to listen to the episode. 

There is a wonderful documentary called Helvetica which is about, as you may have already guessed, the font by the same name. It goes into detail about how Helvetica was designed and gives example after example of how it has become the most commonly used font in the world. You would think that a movie about a typeface would be miserably boring. It’s not. It’s fascinating and it gives all of us a chance to think about letters the way that font designers do—as tiny little pieces of art that are designed with forethought and care.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Announcing the Why? Radio 2015-2016 season

Why? Radio is pleased to announce its 2015-2016 season.
We look forward to your thoughts and comments during the shows.

All episodes are broadcast 5 pm central time on the date listed. Listen live from anywhere in the world at and in North Dakota at 89.3 (Grand Forks), 91.9 (Fargo), 90.5 (Bismarck), and on Prairie Public radio stations across the state.

View this schedule online at:

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Why? Radio is live this Sunday at 5p.m. central. "Are we morally obligated to live in a racially integrated society?" with guest Elizabeth Anderson.

Why? Radio is live this Sunday at 5 p.m. central.
Send us your comments now or during the show.
"Are we morally obligated to live in a racially integrated society?"

Guest: Elizabeth Anderson
Sunday, September 13 at 5 p.m. central.

Listen live from anywhere in the world at and in North Dakota at 89.3 (Grand Forks), 91.9 (Fargo), 90.5 (Bismarck), and on Prairie Public radio stations across the state.

Send your comments to

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Why don't people believe science?

This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “Why don't people believe science?" with guest Dan. M. Kahan. You can hear the episode here

For most of human history, people have believed that if we could only reveal the truth about things, agreement would quickly follow. This has been the case for religion; Paul on the road to Damascus, Mohammad in the Cave of Hira, and Moses on Mount Sinai all believed that everyone should and would be moved by revelation. But this has also been true for what used to be called natural philosophy, what we now call science. This kind of knowledge was supposed to replace superstition with fact, it was supposed to improve everyone, regardless of who they were or what they believed.

Nature—physis, in Greek (as in the word 'physics')—is the object science seeks to uncover. By discovering the principles that govern matter and energy, the laws of motion that move the stars and planets, and the innumerable forces that direct agriculture, natural scientists aimed to expose the reality behind the curtain of everyday experience. This, they argued, would allow us to predict and harness nature, and to cultivate health and goodness. It would make humans a stronger, healthier, dominant, and more ethical race. If we only followed the dictates of discovery, we would finally be in control of our own destiny because we would understand how the universe actually operated. It is not a coincidence that both Buddha and Kant wanted people to reach enlightenment. Unfortunately, human history had other plans.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Why? Radio is live this Sunday: "Why don’t people believe in science?" with guest Dan M. Kahan

Why? Radio is live this Sunday at 5 p.m. central.
Send us your comments now or during the show.

"Why don’t people believe in science?"

Guest: Dan M. Kahan
Sunday, August 9 at 5 p.m. central.

Listen live from anywhere in the world at and in North Dakota at 89.3 (Grand Forks), 91.9 (Fargo), 90.5 (Bismarck), and on Prairie Public radio stations across the state.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Are college students adults?

A few years ago, I complained to a friend who worked in the Dean of Students office because there were bounce houses at the university’s opening weekend celebration. They were the most notable attraction in an elaborate fair designed to occupy the new students during their first few days in the dorm. His response: “we are doing everything we can to stop them from drinking.”

Helping to curb self-destructive behavior isn’t a bad thing, but infantilizing people to do it only makes matter worse. These are 18-year olds at a university. If they can’t fend for themselves, they could be doing college-related things: getting tours, taking orientation courses, learning the basics of cooking and financial management (our students do not know how to balance a checkbook, let alone how to make a simple pasta sauce), reading an important essay and discussing it en masse, participating in mock archeological digs, getting etiquette lessons and dressing up for a formal welcome banquet, visiting an observatory or a laboratory, write something and publish it using old-fashioned printing press, perhaps even exploring the campus by doing some public service. These kind of events would have set a tone of maturity for the coming year. They would have announced that college is a place for work, study, self-exploration, and social commitment, and that growing-up involves expanding the pastimes one should find interesting and enjoyable. Instead, the wants university to portray itself as “fun” and puts on a carnival. The fact is, most students never recover. They never grasp that learning can be pleasurable and that taking responsibility for their own actions is the prerequisite for freedom. At least if they do, they don’t do it while enrolled at UND.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road is a very very bad movie. (And what makes a good movie plot anyway?) [A philosopher goes to the movies]

People are going to tell you that Mad Max: Fury Road is a non-stop adrenaline thrill-ride with strong female characters and an excellent reboot of a beloved franchise whose time has come again. They are going to exclaim that it is an action-movie game changer that gives filmmakers permission to revel in the art of car chases and non-CGI stunts. They are wrong. It is a video game disguised as a movie, a terrible, terrible movie that doesn’t meet the minimal standards of science fiction. The female characters are neither strong nor feminist, and the story makes no sense, even on its own terms.

There is an important difference between good and popular, and while I can’t argue that this film won’t make lots of money, I can explore its lack of quality. Ultimately then, what I offer here is a meditation on what makes a defensible movie plot. I’m going to focus on four criteria: the plot must serve its purpose in the genre, be consistent in the world in sets up, be well-crafted, and respect its characters. These are not the only requirements for a good movie, of course—acting and cinematography are tremendously important, too—but plot is complicated enough of a subject for one blog post.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Does our religion reflect what we want to be or what we don’t want to be?

This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “How do Muslims, Christians and Jews see each other?” with guest David Nirenberg. To listen, click here. It is worth noting that while this monologue does not address the main question of the episode, it is preparatory. We can’t see how others see us if we don’t explore how we see ourselves. We must all explore how each of us committed to what we believe.

There’s an old adage that everyone in New York is a little bit Jewish. Anyone who lives there understands this. With the ubiquity of Yiddish phrases, deli cuisine, and wise-cracking argument, sometimes it seems like the whole city is just one big Beastie Boys video.

But if it’s true that everyone is a little bit Jewish, then it must also be true that the Jews who live there have to work harder to distinguish themselves from the crowd. When being Jewish is no big deal, it’s also no effort, and it isn’t until Jews leave the city that they understand exactly what is and isn’t theirs.

Monday, July 13, 2015

If we have free speech, how come it's okay to punish us for what we say? [Ask a Philosopher]

Last week, the following letter to the editor appeared in the Grand Forks Herald, my local newspaper:

Is free speech still 'free' if it can be punished?

     I'm in need of a philosopher/ethicist. The Constitution guarantees "free speech." It is an extraordinarily important right that promotes diversity of opinion and is an antidote to dictatorship. 
     Having said that, how is it that whenever someone says something outre or unpopular, say Donald Trump for example, individuals are "allowed" to disenfranchise from him?
     If "free speech" which is allowable, is also allowed to be punished, how does this differ from not having "free speech"? 
     How does withdrawing from a golf tournament either support free speech or do other than implicitly condone punishing it?
     It is easy to make what is technically called "the error of assumed essence"; if a person is, say, "gay," this error happens when everything they do is tied to this "gayness."
     Thank heavens Trump doesn't have a children's charity from which critics can withdraw because of his new "taint."
     Ross Hartsough
     Grand Forks

Seeing as the author asked for a response from a philosopher/ethicist, I felt an obligation to write back. Here is my answer. It was published this morning under the headline "Reactions give free speech its meaning and power."

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Why? Radio is live this Sunday. "How do Muslims, Christians, and Jews see each other?"

Why? Radio is live this Sunday! Listen and participate during the show!

"How do Muslims, Christians, and Jews see each other?"
Guest: David Nirenberg

Sunday, July 12 at 5 p.m. central.

Listen live from anywhere in the world at and in North Dakota at 89.3 (Grand Forks), 91.9 (Fargo), 90.5 (Bismarck), and on Prairie Public radio stations across the state.

Send you comments to

Friday, July 3, 2015

New symposium on Adam Smith's Pluralism, the most recent book by PQED author Jack Russell Weinstein

The new issue of the philosophy journal Cosmos + Taxis features a full-length symposium on Adam Smith’s Pluralism, PQED’s author Jack Russell Weinstein’s most recent book. It contains six essays inspired by the book and Jack’s response.

The issue will be of more interest to philosophy professionals, but some of the essays, especially the introduction and Jack’s response are suitable for non-academic audiences.

The issue is free and can be downloaded here. The contents are as follows:

Friday, June 26, 2015

Many Weddings and a Funeral: How to be an American on June 26, 2015

Today is a day of many emotions in the United States. We celebrate the recognition of gay marriage as we mourn the loss of nine innocent murder victims. Being jubilant for one feels disrespectful to the other, and being despondent in the name of grief seems to eradicate the deserved victory of those who have earned their day in the sun. How should we feel about it all? What should we say? What should we do?

Americans are used to crying different tears out of each eye. In this country, weeping with joy is almost always accompanied by lamentation. Equality is a road of violence, bigotry, and exclusion. Movement towards justice rarely comes fast enough and it always seems slowest to the people whom the injustices back into a corner. A good American recognizes that we are each members of multiple communities, each with as much right to exist as the other. Sometimes we look towards the government to help, sometimes we look towards the population as a whole, and sometimes we go to ground, surrounding ourselves with the people whom we are most like, who understand better than anyone else what we need, how we feel, and how to surround and protect us.