Tell us about your podcast.
Brain in a Vat is a philosophy smorgasbord. We interview experts about ethics, aesthetics, and epistemology. Our gimmick is that we start each episode with a thought experiment. Our guests have wondered if it would be permissible to eat a clone of Marilyn Monroe; whether God could rewrite history to remove the bad bits; and how Nietzsche would make sense of the trolley problem. The show is co-hosted by Mark Oppenheimer (a human rights lawyer) and Jason Werbeloff (a science fiction author with a philosophy PhD). A weekly episode is delivered via YouTube as a video, and Anchor as a podcast.
Why did you start doing a podcast?
We had floated the idea of a philosophy discussion show for years, but we were ultimately propelled into action by the pandemic. We suddenly faced the great moral problem of our generation: should governments introduce lockdowns to save lives? Our first episodes focused on Covid-19, but as time marched on we expanded our range of topics and we’ve created more than 40 episodes over the last year. What started as a way to pass the time in a period of extreme isolation has become a serious undertaking, giving us access to some of the greatest minds alive.
What are the best three episodes you’ve aired so far, in your opinion?
Our favourite episodes have been about life’s biggest questions. We asked Graham Oppy if an all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful God can exist in a world filled with suffering? While Oppy is an atheist, he argues that there is no killer argument that definitively settles the debate between theists and non-believers.
David Benatar spoke to us about the meaning of life by starting with the myth of Sisyphus, who was punished by the gods by being forced to roll a rock up a hill. When he got it to the top, it would just roll down, and he would once again have to roll it to the top. He was doomed to perform this boring and repetitive task endlessly for the rest of eternity. He ponders a twist in the story – namely that the gods show mercy and implant in Sisyphus a desire to endlessly roll rocks. The question is what this would do to his predicament? Would it relieve it entirely? Would it mitigate it somewhat? Would it make no difference? Benatar argues that life on a pale blue dot in a vast and uncaring universe cannot have cosmic meaning and that it would be better for all of us never to have been born. We counter that a meaningful life is one that engages in creative pursuits, attains knowledge, and uplifts the lives of others.
Raja Halwani tackles the hardest problem of all. Love. We wonder if love is everlasting or fleeting. We discuss the ascendance of polyamorous relationships and question the assumption that love is always exclusive. We worry that we choose our lovers for the wrong reasons; instead of being with those that are kind and sane we choose people that are alluring and tempestuous.
We will be releasing a series of books based on these episodes later this year.
Can you recommend one other philosophical podcast and tell us about one good episode?
Spencer Case runs the show Micro-digressions. He recently interviewed Oliver Traldi about cancel culture. They both champion the right to free speech and warn that universities will be imperilled if they do not tolerate views that are unpopular, unsavoury and wrongheaded. Since we are fallible, we cannot know with certainty that a particular opinion is false. When we suppress opinions that are believed to be wrong, we risk missing out on the truth. By stifling beliefs that are different from our own we lose the opportunity to challenge, reconsider and perhaps reaffirm our own views. Ultimately, we need a safe place for dangerous ideas.
Besides straight up philosophy podcasts, could you recommend another podcast?
It’s almost impossible to recommend just one – there are a host of superb podcasts on the web. Our favourites include Radio Lab and Science Vs [science], Freakonomics and No Stupid Questions [economics], The Truth [Fiction], and Where Should we Begin? with Esther Perel [Psychology]. If you enjoy the art of storytelling and want to listen to something saucier than The Moth, then listen to Risk!, but be warned, it’s not for the faint hearted.
All of these podcasts have been running for multiple seasons and are extremely professionally produced. You can hear the hosts’ love for podcasting in their material.