Tamler Sommers tells us about his unorthodox philosophy podcast
Tell us about your podcast.
Very Bad Wizards is a collaboration between me, a philosopher at the University of Houston, and David Pizarro, a psychologist at Cornell University. The majority of our 120-plus episodes feature the two of us tackling topics in ethics and moral psychology. We’ve also had some fantastic guests on the podcast, and occasionally we’ll do a deep dive on a philosophically interesting movie. We try to keep the tone loose, funny, and accessible, without sacrificing depth. There are plenty of pop culture references, and as my daughter says in the opening disclaimer, the episodes contain bad words and very inappropriate jokes. You can subscribe to us on iTunes and most of the usual podcast apps. You can also stream or download at our website. There’s a lively discussion of each episode on our Facebook page. We have smart, funny listeners.
How did you start?
Ten years ago or so, I started binge-listening to podcasts, mostly about movies and sports. I loved the informality, the uncensored but sophisticated analysis – and that I could listen to them while doing other things like washing dishes and exercising. For philosophy, I was only familiar at the time with Philosophy Bites and Philosophy Now, and I thought there was a room for a more informal show – one that sounds like how philosophers and psychologists talk in a bar. Dave and I had been running into each other at conferences, we had common interests and similar senses of humour – so I proposed the idea. We thought we’d just do six episodes at first, kind of a mini-series. But we enjoyed it, built an audience, and five years later we’re still at it.
What are the best three episodes you’ve aired so far?
Tough question, we’ve done so many that they blur in my mind – and my judgements often differ from the listeners. So I’ll just give the three categories of our episodes and list a couple of examples of each.
Guests: These are fun, popular, and a lot more work for us. For new listeners, the Paul Bloom episodes might be a good place to start (#24 and #42, six total). We also did a long episode with multiple guests for our 75th episode “A Golden Shower of Guests”. You can see all the guests, with links to episodes, on our website.
Movie Episodes: We have two types of these: deep dives on a single film, and Top 5s (such as Top 5 movies about personal identity, or Top 5 movies with moral dilemmas.) My favourite deep dives are probably Mulholland Drive (ep. 121), Force Majeure (ep. 93), and Unforgiven (ep. 11). Force Majeure, for example, raises a bunch of interesting questions about responsibility for instinctive behaviour. They’re all spoiler heavy, so you have to watch them first!
Topics in Moral Psychology: Most of our episodes fall in this category. We typically start with a light-hearted opening segment on an article or blog post that infuriated us recently. And in the main segment we discuss an article in philosophy or psychology on the episode’s topic. In episode 97, for example, we begin by trashing a silly piece by Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the constitution of his utopia “Rationalia”. In episode 97 (“Dogmatic Slumber Party”), for example, we begin by trashing a silly piece by Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the constitution of his utopia “Rationalia”; and then talk about several papers on motivated moral reasoning on issues like gun control and health care (from both sides of the political spectrum). Other recent favorites include ep. 113 on Pascal’s wager, ep. 109 on moral pluralism, ep. 105 on the reactive attitudes and restorative justice , and ep. 83 on Anthony Greenwald’s “The Totalitarian Ego.” All of our episodes are available on iTunes and the episode page of our website.
Can you recommend one other philosophical podcast and tell us about one good episode?
I get more than enough philosophy in my work life, so I devote almost all my podcast listening time to my other interests. I have listened to a bunch of Philosophy Bites and they’re always solid and informative. Their recent interview with Andy Clark on the extended mind was the inspiration for own episode on the topic. The Partially Examined Life is also good and more informal (I’m a guest on episode 93 on Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment”), and I’ve heard nothing but stellar things about Barry Lam’s Hi-Phi Nation.
Beside straight up philosophy podcasts, could you recommend another podcast?
I can recommend a lot of other podcasts! If you love movies, try Filmspotting; for wide-ranging interviews I like WTF with Marc Maron and The Ezra Klein podcast (a favourite even though I’m not a fan of his website Vox); FiveThirtyEight Politics is my go-to politics podcast; And for sports, I like The Bill Simmons Podcast and Men in Blazers. All available on iTunes.
Tamler Sommers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston. He is the author of Relative Justice, and A Very Bad Wizard. His new book Why Honor Matters comes out in spring 2018.