Caturday felid trifecta: Ten fascinating science studies on cats, stray kitten crashes live t.v. news, and why cats like boxes,

From Smithsonian Magazine, we have an easy-to-digest list of ten scientific studies of cats with one-paragraph summaries. Here’s one of them:

Studying the many, many factors that contribute to rampant house cat obesity, feline nutritionists have concluded that human denial is a hefty part of the problem. When 60 German owners of clearly Garfield-esque felines were interviewed, there were “striking” differences between how they perceived their cats and how the scientists saw them. “Only a small percentage readily indicated that their cat was overweight,” according to a 2006 Journal of Nutrition paper. “The majority preferred euphemisms like ‘a little bit too big,’ or did not perceive or admit anything extraordinary about the weight of their cat … some even likened their cats to underweight silhouettes.” Fat cat owners were far more in need of a reality check than the masters of paunchy dogs, perhaps because “cats appear less often in public … where other people might comment.”

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(“He’s just full-furred.” Photo Credit: ESezer / iStock)

And here’s something you didn’t know (not!):

A 2005 paper, “Caregiver Perceptions of What Indoor Cats Do ‘For Fun’,” set out to answer the eternal question: Just what do cats do all day? The authors tracked all available sources of feline amusement, including playing with sponges, “spinning,” sleeping on toasters, helping to cook and looking at a variety of objects, including alpacas, parking lots, snowflakes, window awnings and the sun. But a popular activity was one that many cat owners will find familiar: “Stares at nothing.”

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Here’s a one-minute clip from a Turkish television show, in which a stray kitten crashes a news broadcast. The anchor doesn’t miss a beat though the kitten settles on his laptop, though he does crack a slight smile. The Turks do love their cats!

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Here’s more science of cat behavior: an explanation of why cats like to sit in boxes (or, in the case of Maru, in anything, including mixing bowls and wastebaskets.

Speaking of boxes, here are Maru and Hana in their respective boxes. Maru, as always, opts for the smallest box. His head is about three times that of his friend’s!

h/t: Amy, jsp, Michael

Readers’ wildlife photos

Remember to send in your photos! I have a small backlog, but more is better. Today we have pictures from two regulars, the first being Mark Sturtevant. His captions are indented:

The first picture is an odd little moth that I have probably seen on many occasions, but this one got my attention because it landed near my feet and went into this odd pose by hanging upside down and curling its abdomen up while holding its wings down. It is a Geometrid moth known as the lesser grapevine looperEulithis diversilineata – and its posture probably makes it look more like a bit of dead leaf. [JAC: Don’t forget that mimicry can evolution the evolution of behavior as well as appearance.]

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Next up is a mating pair of basswood leaf miner beetles (Baliosus nervosus). These little beetles are very common, but they are small and very shy, making it hard to get a decent picture. As their name also indicates, their larvae will be found mining inside basswood leaves.

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The next two pictures are not my usual fare. Last Spring I was waiting on the grounds of a local nature center, eagerly waiting for the opening day of their butterfly house. While waiting, I came across this pair of cold mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos). These pictures are the first ‘serious’ pictures taken with a ‘new’ (actually very old and used) 300mm zoom lens that I had bought for myself as a Christmas present. You have already seen some of the pictures that I had taken of the tropical butterflies at that location.

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Finally, one of our giant ichneumons at work. She is Megaryhssa atrata, and here she is using her extraordinary ovipositor to drill up to several inches into wood to parasitize what is probably the larva of a large stingless wasp called a horntail (often Tremex columba). This was yet another good find on my Lucky Tree Stump.

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And from Stephen Barnard in Idaho, who sensed my desperation for pictures in late November (the 22nd, to be exact):

Since you’re desperate, here are some photos from this morning.

Fog in the valley.

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Desi and Lucy (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) warming up in the morning sun after the coldest night of the year so far.

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A hen mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and her two suitors:

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Saturday: Hili dialogue

It’s December 3, and 1-2 inches of snow is predicted this week for Chicago. I am sorry to inform you that it is National Peppermint Latte Day, just one more step in the ongoing conversion of coffee to a confection.  (That happened years ago with granola bars.) I have never had one of those vile flavored lattes, and hope I never will. (Apologies to those of you who like them.) It’s also United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

On this day in 1910, modern fluorescent lighting was first demonstrated—at the Paris Motor show. In 1960, the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot, with many great songs (“If ever I would leave you”, etc.), opened on Broadway, later lending an informal name to the Kennedy administration. The replacement of Robert Goulet on Broadway with Franco Nero in the movie and Julie Andrews with Vanessa Redgrave, makes the original cast album far superior to the movie. In 1979, Iran officially became a dictatorial theocracy as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was named the country’s first “supreme leader.”  And on this day in 1984, a leak of methyl isocyanate from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India killed at least 6000 people and injured more than 100,000.

Notables born on this day include Sven Nykvist, famed cinematographer for Ingmar Bergman (1922), Ozzy Osbourne (1948), Daryl Hannah (1960,♥), and Katarina Witt (1965, ♥). Those who died on this day include Oswald Mosley (1980) and Lewis Thomas (1993).  Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is decrying the human condition, or rather the condition of humans:

Hili: According to my feline reasoning humans have lost any common sense.
A: You might be right, but why do you assume that they ever had common sense?
Hili: Your answer might be showing a fallacy in my reasoning.

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 In Polish:
Hili: Na mój koci rozum ludzie stracili zdrowy rozsądek.
Ja: Możesz mieć rację, ale dlaczego sądzisz, że kiedyś go mieli?
Hili: Być może twoje pytanie wskazuje na pewien błąd w moim rozumowaniu.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: What we must boycott in the Trump era

Almost everyone over the age of 40 must know of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the greatest players in basketball history. I began following him when he was setting high school records in New York  (he was named Lew Alcindor then), and then at UCLA, and then in the NBA.  Since retiring he’s made a career of acting, activism, and writing, showing that being a great athlete is not incommensurate with being a penetrating thinker.

Abdul-Jabbar’s activism and thoughtfulness are on tap in his new article in the Washington Post, “How boycotts could help sway Trump.” The article isn’t just about boycotts, though: it’s a broad platform for the anti-Trump activism that many of us foresee in our future. The day Trump was elected, when I was in Hong Kong, I thought, “What are we going to do?” My first notion was that, since the Congress was Republican as well, we’d have to engage in mass political protest, perhaps along the lines of the civil disobedience we practiced in the Sixties. I’m older now, but I hope the fire is still there, and I could see hitting the streets if Trump (as I fear) will do something as outrageous as supporting the Vietnam War or ignoring the segregation we protested in my youth.

After laying out a persuasive case that we shouldn’t expect much good from the Trump administration—look at whom Trump chose for his Cabinet!—Abdul-Jabbar suggests five lines of action against the upcoming malfeasance, which I summarize along with my take.

  • Civil disobedience, such as blocking Trump advisor Stephen Bannon from entering the White House. (Confusingly, Abdul-Jabbar adds lobbying against the Muslim ban or for NASA to continue climate research, items that aren’t really civil disobedience.) This is what I envisioned, but stuff like blocking Bannon is too narrow, and doesn’t have the moral suasion to appeal to many people. I can see, for instance, action to prevent the deportation of immigrants, action that would rise to the level of civil disobedience. Would America be moved by this like it was against the fire hoses and dogs turned on civil-rights protestors? I doubt it, for the morality of integration is more clear-cut than that of fighting to allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. Still, you can’t persuade everyone, no matter what your cause.
  • Donate money to organizations like the ACLU and NAACP to fight Trump’s violation of civil liberties and civil rights. This sounds good to me.
  • Lobby the legislators who support policies of Trump that are unconstitutional. This also sounds good, but most of those legislators will be Republicans, unlikely to be scared by threats of being voted out of office.
  • Boycott Trump’s businesses. This seems to me an eminently workable tactic. If all opponents of Trump stopped patronizing his casinos and hotels, it would have a big effect, and Trump would notice. There’s nothing like a reduction in cash flow to scare a Republican.
  • Boycott right-wing sites like Breitbart by not patronizing its advertisers. Unless this is well organized, and those advertisers publicized, this won’t work. Besides, there are lots of right-wing websites like Breitbart, and that one, though on the odious extreme right-wing, deals with issues other than Trump; and should we really be trying to shut down a site we oppose? There are free speech issues.

It’s premature to ponder what we’ll have to do, as we don’t know what will happen, but it’s not premature to think about the possibilities. Of the above, I see civil disobedience, donations, letters to legislators and newspapers, and boycotting Trump’s businesses as the most effective tactics. But what can we do when Trump nominates, as he undoubtedly will, a horrible conservative for Scalia’s vacant Supreme Court post?

If you have other ideas, weigh in below.

h/t: Diane G.

Charlie Hebdo starts a German edition

Today the much-maligned, sometimes tasteless, but always brave (and Leftist) magazine Charlie Hebdo started publishing an edition auf Deutsch. As the Guardian reports,

The initial 16-page edition – with a print run of 200,000 – features a sober four-page graphic travel reportage by cartoonist and publisher Laurent Sourisseau, better known by his artist’s name Riss, which portrays people he met and their reflections on their national identity, Germany’s refugee influx and other social issues. [JAC: Riss was wounded in the Muslim attack on the magazine’s headquarters in January of last year.]

. . . Charlie Hebdo is now produced in a secret location, a legacy of the massacre at its former offices that claimed 12 lives, including some of France’s best-known cartoonists.

The German version will be edited from France by a 33-year-old from Berlin who on the advice of her colleagues uses a pseudonym, Minka Schneider.

Schneider told Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily that the “Je suis Charlie” solidarity movement was especially strong in Germany, where the magazine sold 70,000 copies of its “survivors’ edition” one week after the shootings.

Here are two images from today’s edition, with translations by Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus):

“VW stands behind Merkel.” The VW mechanic, giving the broken-down Merkel an inspection, says, “Just a new exhaust system, and it’ll go four more years.”  Not hard to figure out this one.

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Merkel on the john: “Charlie Hebdo acts to free you. And now also in German.”

Typical of their over-the-top cartoons. screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-8-07-06-am

House science committee endorses climate-denialism article

As I noted in Faith Versus Fact, an important science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives is loaded with climate-change denialists—and that was before Trump was elected. Get a load of some of the statements that have come from Republican (of course) members of that committee (this is from FvF, pp. 249-250):

And even when not motivated by religion, climate-change denialists still make palpably false claims resembling those used by advocates of alien abduction or Holocaust denialism. Climate denialists have, for example, claimed that scientists on a climate-change panel of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, whose report implicated fossil fuels in global warming, actually profited financially from their efforts (not true: they don’t get a penny for such work). Other arguments are that climate-change scientists don’t base their conclusions on “real scientific facts”; that the “real” evidence shows no trend of global warming, which is “one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated out of the scientific community . . . there is no scientific consensus”; and that climate-change concern is “a massive international scientific fraud.” Amazingly, all of these quotations come from Republican members of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, the committee responsible for formulating U.S. policy on such issues. Fully 72 percent of the Committee members are outright climate-change denialists or have voted against bills to alleviate global warming.

The beat goes on: as Motherboard reported, the Committee’s official twitter feed issued this, endorsing a Breitbart article saying that land temperatures have “plunged” 1°C this year, calling such drops “the final death rattle of the global warming scare.”  Motherboard adds,

“The Breitbart News story aggregates a Daily Mail article that insinuates global warming is a byproduct of El Niño. (It’s not.)

. . . Breitbart and Daily Mail based their stories on a statistically incomplete infographic that appears to have been created by the latter publication. It cites climate data from 1998 to 2016 without proper context, and for a specific reason.

“This is the portion that people usually show if they want to avoid showing the large increase in temperature over the forty previous years. If you look at the longer temperature record, there’s a clear upward trend,” Daniel Walton, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Center for Climate Science, told me.

“Both 2015 and early 2016 were very warm periods. Often El Niños are followed by La Niñas, which could bring cold anomalies. Just because one year has especially high or low temperatures doesn’t contradict idea of a long-term trend because we expect there to be considerable interannual variability,” he added.

For further refutation of that Breitbart claim, see yesterday’s article in The Washington Post.

Here’s the long term data on land-temperature “anomalies” (year round as well as October) since 1880; as you can see, the long-term trend is definitely upward: ice caps and glaciers are melting, coral reefs are dying, and all the climate-change accords in the world don’t seem to be helping.

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Here’s the tw**t from the House Committee:

Now this is just one posting on Twi**er, but remember that this is the official site for the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Note the word “science”, which seems out of place. If our legislature is giving tacit approval to a bogus claim like this, it can only get worse under the next administration.

I’m really glad I won’t be around in 150 years to see the icecaps and polar bears gone, and the Great Barrier Reef bleached to death.

h/t: Michael F.

My talk at NUS in Singapore on the nature of and evidence for evolution

When the local Humanist Society invited me to talk in Singapore, I proposed to talk about the relationship between science and religion. That made the organizers nervous, because offending religious sentiments is against the law in that country. But it’s easy to give such a talk without saying anything that would violate the law, and, after all, it was the Humanist Society.  Still, they counter-proposed that I talk about Halloween, telling me that I could apply skepticism to issues like ghosts and witches. I refused, for the issue of ghosts, goblins and the like is far less pressing than that of religious malfeasance.

In the end we compromised: I’d give a general evolution talk to the students and faculty at the National University of Singapore (NUS), and then talk about science and religion in a discussion at the Yale-NUS consortium (a self-contained educational unit run jointly by NUS and Yale University).

I’ve put the first talk below, and it’s similar to many other talks I’ve given on the evidence for evolution, so it won’t be new to many of you. If you’re new here, and need a refresher, go ahead. (As usual, I can’t bear to listen to my own talks.) I’m told that there’s a wonky bit for 20 sec or so around 1:07:00, but that it’ll be fixed. Go to the original Vimeo site to see it full screen.

The Q&A bit starts about 1 hour and 13 minutes in and lasts for 15 minutes.

My thanks to the Singapore Humanists, NUS, and the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum for sponsoring my talk and providing excellent hospitality (and good noms).

Readers’ wildlife photos


Send in your photos soon if you got ’em, please!

Reader Joe Dickinson, to complement the elephant photos he sent earlier, now gives us lions and zebras from Tanzania. His notes are indented.

Here is the first of several sets of photos from a recent trip to Tanzania.  We first visited one of the less well known parks, Tarangire. We were at the expected end of the dry season but the rains were late and Tarangire is centered on a river and a swamp that provide reliable water, so the concentration of game was impressive.

First, lots of zebras (Equus quagga) headed toward the swamp (green line) with cape buffalo [Syncerus caffer] and/or wildebeest (Connochaetes sp., dark line) in between.
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Then, some closer shots of zebras.
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And now, not for the squeamish, a lioness (Panthera leo) at a fairly fresh zebra kill:
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Another member of the pride:
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And zebra survivors keeping an eye on the pride.
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Friday: Hili dialogue

It’s now the second of December, 2016, and the days are getting shorter as we head toward the winter solstice. In the U.S., it’s National Fritters Day, and while a good corn fritter would hit the spot, there’s small chance of finding one these days. In Cuba, as Castro’s ashes wend their way around his country, it’s also Armed Forces Day, celebrating the transport of rebel fighters (including the Castro brothers and Che Guevara) from Mexico to Cuba on the yacht Granma in 1956. It was the nominal (and inauspicious) beginning of the revolution that would overthrow Batista.

On this day in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of the French in Notre Dame cathedral. On this day in 1942, about a block away from where am sitting just now, Enrico Fermi created the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in the “Chicago Pile“. It was to culminate, less than three years later, in the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. In 1954, Joe McCarthy was censured by the United States Senate for his odious anti-Communist smearings, and seven years later Castro announced on December 2 that Cuba was going to be a Communist nation.

Notables born on this day include Maria Callas (1923) and Lucy Liu (1968). Those who died on this day include Hernán Cortés, (1547), the Marquis de Sade (1814), and Aaron Copland (1990). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili uses the ear muscles which we humans share, but only in vestigial form:

A: What are you doing?
Hili: I’m pricking up my ears.
A: And?
Hili: All quiet in the outer space.
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In Polish:
Ja: Co robisz?
Hili: Nadstawiam ucha.
Ja: I co?
Hili: W kosmosie bez zmian.

And we have three non-Hili readers’ cats today. The first comes Dan B., who noticed my post on the lovely Singapura cat the other day:

I was struck by how much the Singapura picture you posted resembled our Burmese cat.  I went looking around the internet and found an article that said a study done on cat genetics had found that some breeds were not distinguishable genetically.  Burmese and Singapura were one of the examples.
Bunny (our Burmese) is 4 years old now and weighs 6 1/2 pounds.  When we first got her at a year old she was 5 1/2 pounds.  The cattery that we got her from had an adult breeding female that was more petite than Bunny at the time.  That cat was probably the friendliest and most affectionate cat I have ever met.  Bunny looks and acts more kittenish than our other cats.  She spends much more time playing.
Heeeere’s Bunny!:
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Out in snowy Winnipeg, reader Taskin has noticed that Gus’s nose can serve as a kind of thermometer, for it gets deeper red in colder temperatures, undoubtedly due to more blood flow to the exposed bits of the cat:

Pink nose! I judge it to be about -3°C.

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Finally, reader Laurie from London sent a picture of neighborhood cat whom they’ve named Jerry Coyne, visiting their own cat Theo. (There are now five cats named after me).

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Nigel Warburton: Best philosophy books of 2016

Sophie Roell of Five Books interviewed freelance philosopher Nigel Warburton  (bio here) on his choices for the best popular philosophy books of 2016. The choices are interesting, and I’ll read at least two of them—probably the first two. I’ll show the books and then summarize a few of Warburton’s comments (indented)

An intro:

Over the last decade there has been a huge growth in popular philosophy. The result is that you’re not just getting general introductions to philosophy, but some significant books that deal with important philosophical questions. They’re written by philosophers, but pitched at a general public, so don’t use highly technical language or too many footnotes. This year has been a good year for this sort of book.

The books:

This is the best philosophy book that I’ve read this year. It is exceptional. Sarah Bakewell wrote a brilliant book about Montaigne, several years ago, which won a number of prizes. I think, in some ways, this book is even better. She explains the philosophy and situates it in the time, but she does this with a very light touch.

What she’s managed to do is combine the story of predominantly French existentialism (focusing on Sartre and de Beauvoir as well as Merleau-Ponty) with digressions about Heidegger and others. She’s combined that with some autobiographical elements and a real passion for the subject.

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My selection of books is quite idiosyncratic. It’s the five best books that I’ve read in philosophy this year — but I’ve excluded more technical, academic monographs because I think it’s appropriate that we should focus on books that a general reader would find interesting.

For me, Peter Singer is one of the best stylists alive in philosophy. Very few people realise this. People rarely remark on his writing style, but he is the most lucid of writers. He writes about complex matters very succinctly, very calmly, so that his writing is almost transparent to what he is saying. It is not flamboyant. It is almost invisible. He manages, in these essays, to address really deep questions in just two or three pages — often saying more than other people say in a whole book.

. . . Many thousands of people have been converted to vegetarianism and veganism by his arguments. Many people have also been convinced by his arguments about effective uses of charitable donations. They have led people to give up promising academic careers and go and work in the City in order to generate more income, which they can then distribute charitably. He’s triggered some extremely rich people to make very significant donations to medical research and to medical-based charities. He’s had a big effect on the world. I would be hard-pressed to think of another philosopher who’s made a comparable impact for good in the world.

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This book gives us a glimpse of the world of the early Enlightenment period, when many prominent philosophers risked excommunication, exile, or even execution for their views. These were people who were writing, knowing very well that their views were considered heretical by the church, threatening by monarchs, and possibly even sacrilegious by the general public. Many of them were hounded from country to country. I’m thinking particularly of Rousseau—he wasn’t safe anywhere he went—but there are a number of philosophers in this book whose lives were seriously disrupted by threats from the church and the powers that be.

. . . This was a world when it really was dangerous to think. Kant described the Enlightenment as an age where people dared to think. The word ‘dare’ is important. It wasn’t just that they were being audacious in thinking for themselves, there was a real risk attached to it. To be a philosopher in that period—to be an original philosopher prepared to follow the arguments through like Spinoza did, for example—was an extremely brave thing to do, in the same sense that Socrates’s standing in Athens expressing views which his compatriots thought were heretical, was a brave thing to do, and resulted in his death.

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This is a really interesting book. Martha Nussbaum began as a classical philosopher and has immersed herself in ancient philosophy. She has read very widely in literature. She is politically engaged and she travels widely – often to India. She has a huge range of experience and understanding through life and books that she brings into this book.

Lurking behind it is Seneca: the Roman philosopher who talked about anger being a useless emotion. What Nussbaum argues in the book is that there is something confused about what we think we will get from our emotion of anger. We feel anger, anger is often used in political contexts, and anger is often praised: we feel that we should feel angry about how people have been treated, the injustice. She argues that we should get beyond anger, and the associated desire for payback, and that it usually exacerbates the evil in a situation rather than removing it. It is often more about getting a good feeling from expressing the anger than it is about bringing about beneficial results of the kind that we claim to want to bring about.

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The Path is very interesting because it’s written for a popular audience. It’s a very easy read, but it makes Chinese philosophy quite fresh. It’s written by a Harvard academic, who put on a course in Chinese philosophy that was incredibly popular with students. So he’s worked out ways to draw people into the subject. The big focus is on how you should live. That is the basic question in philosophy, the question Socrates was asking. It is not a trivial question, nor an easy one to answer.

What he does in the book is run through a number of answers given by Chinese philosophers in a way that makes them seem, to me at least, part of the same activity as the greats of western philosophy. He talks, in particular, about the philosopher Mencius, who was working in a Confucian tradition. Mencius made some important points about the cultivation of virtue, starting with the family and how important it was to recognise your place within the family before you try to extend the circle wider and include other people.

So Chinese philosophers are addressing the kinds of questions that Peter Singer addresses, for example, about how much care we should give to people beyond our nearest circle. But they do it in very interesting ways.

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Warburton on the value of philosophy:

There are some popular philosophy writers around at the moment whose books could just as easily sit in the self-help sections of bookshops as under philosophy. Some have their source in Roman philosophy, which put a big emphasis on studying philosophy to improve how you live. The problem with that for me is not so much that people are writing these books, but rather that they give the impression that this is what philosophy essentially is – a set of psychological techniques gleaned from great thinkers of the past that will make things go better for individuals. In contrast, I see philosophy as enquiry: you can’t prejudge the outcome. It is an on-going enquiry into the way things are, and how best to cope with them; but you can’t know in advance that following that enquiry—thinking about the nature of reality, the limits of your knowledge and how best to live—will actually improve your life or make you happier than you would otherwise have been. It might make things worse. You might get a glimpse of the abyss and find life unbearable.

There are some popular philosophy writers around at the moment whose books could just as easily sit in the self-help sections of bookshops as under philosophy. Some have their source in Roman philosophy, which put a big emphasis on studying philosophy to improve how you live. The problem with that for me is not so much that people are writing these books, but rather that they give the impression that this is what philosophy essentially is – a set of psychological techniques gleaned from great thinkers of the past that will make things go better for individuals. In contrast, I see philosophy as enquiry: you can’t prejudge the outcome. It is an on-going enquiry into the way things are, and how best to cope with them; but you can’t know in advance that following that enquiry—thinking about the nature of reality, the limits of your knowledge and how best to live—will actually improve your life or make you happier than you would otherwise have been. It might make things worse. You might get a glimpse of the abyss and find life unbearable.

. . . Philosophy aims to give a clearer picture of how things are, and how we might live better. It may or may not achieve those things. It’s an on-going conversation aiming to reduce our ignorance, a subject with a 2,500 year history. It is not a subject of neat little answers that will, if applied to your love life, bring amazing outcomes. If that’s what you want, I recommend studying empirically-tested psychology. Philosophy is still a wonderful subject, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to put anyone off exploring it. But we should recognise it for what it is.