They think, therefore they air
Isabella from Berkeley wanted to talk about how everyone -- even vegans -- is complicit in the evils of “factory farming, billions of animals living lives of misery.”
Philip from San Francisco called in to chat about whether art is even possible without evil, musing aloud on the early-morning airwaves that “if you don’t have evil, Satan with a big tail, you don’t have irony.”
And Charles e-mailed from his Western Addition apartment that “as someone trained in clinical psychology, I see evil as psychopathology. . . . Why couldn’t this explain evil in a way we can more readily understand?”
It was just another Sunday morning for Ken Taylor and John Perry, who dissect life’s big mysteries on “Philosophy Talk,” believed to be America’s only live weekly call-in radio show dedicated to the philosophical.
In this celebrity-soaked era, when Americans seem to spend more time pondering whether Britney Spears’ underwear exists than whether God does, these two Stanford philosophy professors take on everything from the weighty to the winsome.
On this June morning in the little broadcast booth at KALW-FM (91.7), “Philosophy Talk” tackled the problem of evil -- or, as Perry put it, quoting Epicurus: “If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?”
They’ve prodded political correctness, postmodernism and prostitution. They’ve wondered aloud: “Can science explain consciousness?” “If Truth is so valuable, why is there so much B.S.?” “What are numbers?” “What is a child?”
Rush Limbaugh may be radio royalty, but Taylor and Perry have carved out a small but growing niche and are helping burnish a discipline even adherents say could use a hand.
“Philosophy has, for 2,500 years, had a bit of an image problem,” said David E. Schrader, executive director of the American Philosophical Assn. “Ken and John are clearly evangelists for our discipline.”
Perry ambles into the studio at Phillip and Sala Burton High School shortly after 9 a.m., central casting’s answer for a college professor, all rumpled tweed jacket and essence of pipe tobacco.
He’s 65, on the cusp of retirement and deeply influenced by the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, whose central thesis the grandfather of 10 paraphrases as follows: “The world’s a big accident, one damn thing after another. . . . When you have to go to lunch, stop thinking about it.”
“Philosophy Talk” is Perry’s brainchild, and a very old child indeed. Until he met Taylor 15 years ago, he said, “I couldn’t get any other suitable partner who didn’t think it was a completely loony idea. . . . Unlike me, Ken not only has ideas, but he acts on them.”
Which is probably why the two men began working together. They got seed money from Stanford, made two pilots and sent them to KQED, San Francisco’s top-shelf public radio station. They were unceremoniously turned down.
But KALW, which a grateful Taylor describes as the Avis of public radio here, bit immediately. With an audience of 135,000 in the greater Bay Area, the station thinks of itself as more nimble and innovative than the bigger, flossier competition.
The show began airing weekly in January 2004 and has since been picked up by Oregon Public Radio, which airs Taylor and Perry statewide. They can be heard on stations in New York, Louisiana, Colorado and British Columbia, and on KUCR in Riverside. Listeners everywhere can tune in online at www.philosophytalk.org.
“We’ve said that if something is interesting and there are talented people driving it, we’re willing to take that risk,” said KALW General Manager Matt Martin. “Philosophy Talk” filled the bill; its “improbability was part of the attraction.”
Just how improbable is 52 hours a year of programming devoted to the nature of meaning and language and social relations?
The top 10 radio audiences in America today, according to Talkers magazine, largely belong to the likes of Limbaugh, the king of conservative talk radio, and Michael Savage, author of “Liberalism is a Mental Disorder.”
But Taylor believes that there are millions of listeners out there looking for something more, and that if he and Perry could offer a thoughtful and reflective hour, they would come. Or as they opined on their 100th program:
Taylor: “I think that our culture, our public discourse especially, is utterly debased. . . . It’s meant to manipulate rather than enlighten and inform. . . . It’s a disease that we’ve caught. Philosophy is one elixir, one magical elixir for helping to cure that disease.”
Perry: “Ken, I knew Socrates. And you’re no Socrates. But we do our best.”
Taylor: “Think of our first episode: Bush’s doctrine of preemptive self-defense. A doctrine is supposed to be kind of a systematic body of evidence and belief that kind of hangs together. . . . But that so-called doctrine is a bunch of, well . . .”
Though “hooey,” of course, is a technical term, one saving grace about Taylor and Perry’s Sunday morning synthesis is that there aren’t too many of those.
“Philosophy Talk” is generally as accessible as it is thoughtful, save for the occasional dense episode like “The Strange World of Quantum Reality.”
That accessibility is what drew Isabella from Berkeley -- a.k.a. Isabella La Rocca -- to the program from the get-go. A multimedia art instructor at Berkeley City College, the 48-year-old says she doesn’t have “the discipline to actually read much philosophy.”
But she’s curious, she said, and the two philosophers “break things down. They make it understandable. I’ve tried to slog through Nietzsche, and I have a hard time.”
La Rocca is the kind of person Taylor and Perry have in mind when they describe their audience, and philosophers in general: people who, as sixth-graders, sat in the classroom pondering pint-size versions of Life’s Big Questions. Does my teacher have a mind? What’s it like to be a doorknob?
“In sixth grade, I remember asking my teacher what holds everything together,” La Rocca recounted. “Why don’t all the molecules of the desk fall apart? She couldn’t answer. Everything was blown for me.”
It was La Rocca’s query about animals and the evil they endure that led to the most spirited exchange among Taylor, Perry and their guest this day, University of Colorado philosophy professor Michael Tooley.
Tooley: “If [God] created a being that’s capable of suffering and then put it in a sort of hellish world where it would suffer almost all the time, it would seem to me to be morally wrong . . . “
Perry: “Maybe God created us to be the kings and queens of creation, but do we really want to worship a God who created so much suffering among animals? . . . “
Taylor: “There’s two different possible conclusions: One is, there isn’t a God. At least there isn’t a benevolent, all-knowing, all-perfect God. And one is, even if there is a God, it is not worth our worshiping him . . . So Michael, which is it?”
The short answer? There is no short answer.
Taylor, 53, is chairman of Stanford’s philosophy department. But with his round face and tan windbreaker, he looks more like the engineer he thought he’d be when he entered college, before he became one of the first members of his working-class black family to actually finish.
These days, he’s a fervent believer that “philosophy is deeply, culturally, socially important. . . . Philosophy and the clarification of ideas and the firming up of ideas and the criticizing of ideas is an important thing.”
On this Sunday morning, after nearly an hour spent hashing out the problem of evil, he and his co-host end up diametrically opposed. Perry is on nature’s side: God doesn’t need our worship; the earth does. Taylor is on God’s (that is, if God exists): Worship because the universe -- and its creator -- inspires awe.
With a little luck, and a few more program directors willing to take a leap of faith, Taylor envisions “Philosophy Talk” in the big leagues: a slot on 600 public radio stations across the country.
But for today, it’s a wrap at tiny KALW, on “the program that questions everything . . . except your intelligence.”
Taylor: “Thank you for listening.”
Perry: “And thank you for thinking.”