Mar 4 • 1HR 27M

Jim Holt On Philosophy, Humor, Hitchens

Andrew's old friend from the TNR days tackles some big questions and takes the piss out of Andrew.

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Unafraid conversations about anything

Jim is the author of Why Does the World Exist?, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes, and his latest, When Einstein Walked with Gödel. Andrew tees up the episode:

I’ve known Jim forever, and he’s rather hard to introduce, but he’s one of the liveliest and rudest conversationalists I’ve ever known, so I thought he’d be a great podcast guest. It’s a bit of a break from the deadly seriousness of the past few weeks. Jim goes at me over “The Bell Curve,” performs a rant desanctifying Hitchens, and discusses quantum mechanics and its current travails. A bit philosophical at first, the whole chat was a trip.

You can listen to it right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app,” which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. For two clips of Andrew and Jim’s convo — reflecting on their early days of being gay in the big city, and how their mutual friend Hitch got some big things wrong — pop over to our YouTube page.

A decade ago on the Dish blog, Jim joined our Ask Anything series — and since then, the following clip has racked up nearly 50,000 views:

Keeping things in the philosophical realm, a reader just got around to listening to our episode with Steven Pinker on rationality:

I’m a 40-year-old German living in the wonderful city of Rio de Janeiro, and I have been a great admirer of Andrew for the last five years. I do not always agree with him, but by and large I find that he’s able to put into words what I can only feel abstractly. I especially enjoyed his conversation with Steven Pinker and his defense of rationality. Pinker is a wonderful thinker and responds to most of Andrew’s questions with not one, but three or four well-argued points. Quite amazing.

However, I found that Andrew could have pushed Pinker harder on some points that I think he would not entirely agree with, especially the two moments when Pinker talked about the tension between “truth” (in a dry, empirical sense) and “tact,” which I found rather unconvincing. This is exactly where a purely “rational” worldview hits a wall. I’m reminded of a 2004 debate between philosopher Jürgen Habermas and future pope Joseph Ratzinger, in which they pretty much agreed that the liberal-democratic order is built upon a fundament of values that antedate it: the traditional Judeo-Christian values of love, compassion, solidarity, and the fundamental dignity of every person. These values, in my opinion, cannot be truly acquired by just being “rational.”

Here’s Pinker on what he thinks is the most damaging delusion among Americans today — “the Myside Bias”:

Another reader delves into natural law — and sodomy:

I am Catholic-raised university student, currently struggling to understand the physiological, psychological, social, and religious aspects of outercourse (oral and anal sex). Some studies in the past two decades have found a correlation between oral sex and fewer complications during pregnancy and fewer miscarriages.

The authors suggest immunological factors at play. The probability of an embryo implanting in the uterus is largely determined by immune-compatibility. Thus, by oral ingestion of paternal antigens in seminal fluid, gradual tolerance might be achieved in the mother. Similarly, since rectal absorption is also possible, anal sex might be relevant too in this regard.

If this were indeed true, this might undermine the Church’s stance on sodomy — that it can’t be derived from the natural law and has no teleology. This would mean that these acts serve to prepare a woman’s body to successfully carry the child of their long-term partner. Now given the high rate of miscarriages (estimated to be 50% of pregnancies), this would reduce the large number of spontaneous abortions that arise naturally in traditional, procreative marriages.

This fact would theologically not necessarily reconcile homosexuality and Catholic doctrine. However, it would shed new light on the issue of sexuality and the Church. It might open up discourse about the theology of homosexuality as well. It would be an existential blow to the Magisterium, because this correlation between oral sex and miscarriages could not have been discovered before the 20th century, where pregnancy tests were available. So it would largely be a fruit of science.


If you missed our announcement on the main Dish this week, here’s the first full transcript of the Dishcast — Andrew’s long conversation with John Mearsheimer. We will be doing a lot more of those soon. Below is a new clip from the popular episode (our third-most downloaded thus far) on how Russia and the West have been playing by two different playbooks over the past few decades, leading to the current crisis:

On the Dish’s continued coverage of the war in Ukraine, a reader writes:

I read Thomas Friedman’s recent piece on NATO expansion after the fall of the USSR, and I now read Andrew’s piece that references Friedman’s work. It was more educational to read Andrew’s broader view, but I came away from both with one big thought — namely, I don’t believe that any of the Eastern European countries that joined NATO were forced to do so. Could it be that decades of domination by the Soviets gave them experiential reason to seek the protection of NATO, as opposed to there being some kind of naked expansion by NATO, as Friedman suggests? And isn’t it equally plausible that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is proof of their reason for fear, as opposed to a reaction by Russia to NATO expansion?

Another reader responds to a tweet from Andrew linking to Mearsheimer’s new interview with Isaac Chotiner:

My former teacher, Mearsheimer, is wrong. The evidence is overwhelming that Putin’s foreign policy got hyper-aggressive after the Arab Spring in 2011, not after the NATO conference in 2008. As you might recall, Putin responded to Obama’s “abandonment” of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 by doubling down his support of the minority Alawite regime in Syria — and the rest in history: the flattening of Allepo; the Garisimov doctrine that codified electoral interference in Italy, France, the UK, and the US; interference in Ukraine’s 2014 Maiden revolution; and overturning an election loss of an ally in Belarus in 2020.

Very few of these acts of political warfare had anything to do with what NATO did in 2008. They had everything to do with a Bonapartist whose military, political, and business elites helped execute a blueprint of expanded warfare that enabled a second-rate economic power to punch well above its weight in the pursuit of its imperial and superpower nostalgia. Professor Mearsheimer’s reductionist theories of Great Power politics do not fit the facts of Vladimir Putin’s Napoleonic ambition that were not properly deterred.

While the war is going relatively well for Ukraine so far, this next reader is paradoxically worried that the early success will breed disaster:

The sanctions appear to be just, but the mood right now is one of moral euphoria, which scares me. The idea of a no-fly zone — which is basically war with Russia — has become more mainstream at an alarming pace. I see intelligent friends who have never had an iota of interest in international relations or Eastern Europe posting extremely strong opinions based on their seven days of reading news reports about Ukraine.

It feels like the mood after George Floyd’s shooting or during Covid — the sense that people are so desperate for meaning that they will latch on to any large, socially deep (or seemingly socially deep) morally charged cause. (You have made the Weimar comparison before, and it continues to seem apt.) That this particular cause is mostly righteous makes the fervor more alarming, not less. It is genuinely a mob mentality, with people seemingly savoring the impoverishment of Russia’s people or the killing of its troops with the moral frisson of a witch-burning.

The most alarming possibility, to me, is that the war will escalate in brutality, and thus Americans — and Westerners more generally — will not be able to sit by and let it happen. Large-scale Russian war crimes, Western outrage and horror, the euphemistic fallacy that an no-fly zone is something short of war …. that is how this situation would continue to escalate, and it has already done so remarkably quickly.

The last few populist, moralist moments — BLM, Covid — were checked by the fact that half the country was against them. If we take a more aggressive turn in Russia, I doubt as many as half of Americans would oppose it, and by the time we realized a more aggressive policy was a disaster, catastrophic damage might have already occurred. 

Should the US offer assurances that Ukraine will not join NATO? Has that ship already sailed? Is there an off-ramp strategically? Or is Putin such a peculiar sort of menace, and his breach of the post-WW2 order sufficiently egregious, that we should celebrate the moral fervor, lean into the extremely punitive sanctions and “lethal aid,” but hope our elite will keep us out of a war? It seems we need a credible voice that can see the moral nuance in these issues, firmly insist that Putin is still in the wrong, yet temper the American mob. I don’t know who that voice would be.

But I agree with your observation on Twitter that Mearsheimer’s voice — most recently expressed to Isaac Chotiner — offers “clarity.” His insistence on describing what IS in great-power politics, rather than what OUGHT to be, is immensely refreshing. I also enjoyed reading the essay by Jack Matlock, former US Ambassador to the USSR, which continued to help me understand why Putin sees NATO expansion — and NATO militarism in general — as an existential threat.

At the same time, I genuinely believe Russia is breaking an extraordinary norm that we have maintained for 80 year, that countries do not conduct land grabs. For all the US’s mistakes, no NATO country has attempted to permanently annex the territory of an occupied country, as Russia did with Crimea. Ukraine and Iraq seem to more similar than the American hawks would admit, but more dissimilar than the biggest detractors of the hawks (Glenn Greenwald being the most persuasive) would admit. 

This next reader, a native-born Ukrainian, believes the war could have been prevented if the West had been serious about protecting and arming Ukraine:

Thank you for covering this topic over the last few weeks. You and your guests — Mearsheimer, Applebaum, Luttwak — have approached this terrible crisis from various angles, which was very interesting to hear. This topic is close to my heart. I was born in Donetsk, Ukraine but haven’t been there since the coup in 2014. My friends from back home fight on both sides of the barricade — which is truly heartbreaking. I appreciate that I may sound like an armchair general here, and I cannot claim to know more about this conflict than some of your speakers. But I want to expand on an observation that you briefly touched on in your latest column.

Specifically, it really frustrates me that across most of Western media, the narrative is all about Putin’s war crimes and no real coverage or debate of the fact that the “Western alliance” hugely overpromised and massively underdelivered for the Ukrainian people. It was in 2008 that the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO was first discussed and made public. We are in 2022 now. 14 years! NATO had 14 years to integrate Ukraine into the alliance, if it was serious. It did not. It wasn’t for the lack of enthusiasm from Ukraine, I can tell you that.

I can only conclude that it wasn’t a serious commitment to begin with. This dishonest and — as we can now see — harmful act is truly unforgivable. A lie.

Just over the past few weeks, the US and Britain publicly doubled down on their commitment to protecting Ukraine and made as much clear in their response to Putin’s written demands. And? What did Ukraine get, other than being in Biden’s prayers when the invasion happened? A couple of anti-tank missiles? In contrast, the US left $80 billion worth of military equipment in Afghanistan.

American intelligence knew that this invasion was coming way ahead of time. Why not proactively protect Ukraine? Send a couple of warships to Odessa’s ports ahead of the invasion. Send a couple of NATO battalions to Lviv and Kiev. That could have been enough to deter Putin. Enough to change the calculus. It would have shown real intent.

Another reader worries not about Biden’s age, but Putin’s:

Putin is a Cold War revanchist. His life-force is bent on overturning the verdict of 1989. He’s patient, but he’s getting old, and it’s all moving too slowly — grabbing bits of Georgia, grabbing Crimea — and he hears time at his heels. A free and easy Ukraine is the biggest thorn in the bear’s paw.

Putin’s worldview is rooted in the Soviet Union’s collapse as the great calamity of modern times. He is from the class of Soviet military and espionage leaders who saw the world going their way (they owned us in espionage) and who believed the USSR would win a nuclear war — simply by surviving it when America didn’t.

And now here’s Putin, an old uncertain man, but Russia’s savior, suddenly staring down Afghanistan II, looking at 1989 over again, losing to the same America — the recurrence of his nightmare. At which point he becomes the dead-hand switch of the Soviets.

Cheery. This next reader is less apocalyptic, ending his note with “Know hope”:

It seems clear that Putin is delusional. Attempting to manage an immiserated Ukraine over the next several years and the blowback from the West in reaction to his invasion will not end well for him and Russia. Modern warfare has a really, really bad impact on modern societies — a fact we have been learning and relearning for more than a century.

You have wondered whether the invasion of Ukraine will affect China’s designs on Taiwan. Yet, I suspect this overreach is the beginning of the end for Putin. It may take a while, but the world is watching — much more closely than was ever before possible. China will not be encouraged by the devastation that Putin is bringing to Ukraine. Neither will the Russian people, who will also suffer.

Lastly, a reader reminds us of other suffering in the region:

While I feel for the people of Ukraine, last year Turkey and Azerbaijan launched an unprovoked war against Armenians living in their ancestral homeland in Nagorno-Karabakh, where war crimes and atrocities were committed. In many ways, it was a continuation of the Armenian Genocide. Time and again, we have failed to learn from history.

Strongmen like Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan all share a disrespect for the rule of law. Had the world done more for Armenians and not stayed silent last year (or for that matter during the Armenian Genocide in 1915), then maybe that would have sent a stronger message to autocrats like Putin who feel that they can get away with anything and prevent the situation the world finds itself in. What’s happening to Ukrainians is very similar to what’s happening to Armenians. These are not mutually exclusive events.

But for some reason, there’s more attention being paid to Ukraine than what was given to Armenians. Is a Ukrainian life more valuable than an Armenian one?