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'Philosophy Talk' tackles the big questions (not engine trouble)

Whereas Click and Clack, the onomatopoeically styled hosts of National Public Radio's "Car Talk," are mostly interested in solving callers' automotive conundrums, philosophy professors Kenneth Taylor and John Perry are out to tackle bigger questions.

What is justice? Can machines be programmed to think? Is free will an illusion? Or in the case of the upcoming pilot of their radio show, "Philosophy Talk," is lying always bad?

The program is set to air from 1 to 2 p.m. PDT Aug. 20 on KALW (91.7 FM) San Francisco. As they work to raise money for more broadcasts -- at least $200,000 is needed to produce 40 installments, according to Perry -- they're hoping "Philosophy Talk" will be picked up by other public radio stations. "Nothing breeds success like success," Taylor said.

So far, the program has received backing from the Office of the Provost and Office of Public Affairs, as well as support from the Humanities Center and the American Philosophical Association.

Over cups of coffee one recent morning at the Humanities Center, Perry, the Henry Waldgrave Stuart Professor of Philosophy, and Taylor, an associate professor who joined the Philosophy Department in 1995, sat down to talk about their inspiration and goals for the radio program.

Both said they are fed up with what they describe as the mindless, manipulative chatter on programs such as "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News or "Hardball with Chris Matthews" on MSNBC, which, although perhaps rich in facts and opinion, are weak on reflection and analysis, Perry said. "When they get to the philosophical issues, they'll punt," he said.

Perry and Taylor said they want to explore the fundamental beliefs that generally go unexamined during media discussions of current events and public issues. And the target audience? "People who are neurotically obsessed with minutiae," Perry quipped.

"I'd like to say thoughtful, reflective people who really want to be engaged," Taylor said.

"That's what I meant," Perry said. "This is Stanford's response to Fox."

"Our tag line is 'Philosophy Talk -- a program that questions everything except your intelligence,'" Taylor said.

Several years ago, Perry came up with the idea for the radio program, which he conceived of as a "Car Talk" about philosophy. "Like most of my ideas, it just rattled around in my head," he explained. "Then I told Ken, and he took it seriously, which was quite a shock."

The duo have assembled a list of possible themes and topics among others, What is happiness? Is there a soul? When is it acceptable or even rational to hate? What is beauty? Is gender equality a political fiction or a moral ideal? that would make great fodder for late-night, dorm-room bull sessions, the kind which always produce more questions than answers. Indeed, Perry and Taylor are hoping to attract a large student audience, and they plan to court college-licensed public radio stations across the country.

"We don't claim to be experts on everything, we just claim to be expert clear thinkers and arguers, and we'll do our homework on the topics," Taylor said.

Radio program managers for Oregon Public Broadcasting were impressed with the "Philosophy Talk" demo recordings (on the subjects of artificial intelligence and terrorism) and will tune in to the Aug. 20 pilot, Taylor said. "They want to know if we can be as good live," he explained.

Each installment of the program will feature interviews with experts and call-in questions, including a segment called "Conundrum," during which the two philosophers try to solve a caller's ethical or metaphysical dilemma, or some dilemma to that effect. (In one of the demos, they respond to a caller's moral uncertainty about giving money to a panhandler.)

For the pilot, which is devoted to the subject of lying, Taylor and Perry will interview Paul Ekman, a psychology professor at the University of California-San Francisco who researches the physiological expression of emotion and deception, and Tamar Schapiro, an assistant professor of philosophy at Stanford and expert on Kantian ethical theory.

"People usually think lying is a bad thing," Perry said.

"The question is, would you want a president who never lied?" Taylor said.

"The question is, would you want a president who ever told the truth?" Perry said.

Laughter ensued, then Perry continued: "I mean, [President] Carter claimed never to lie, and most people don't think he was a very good president. I think he did lie sometimes and was a pretty good president."

"He was a pretty honest politician," Taylor said.

"Of course, if lying means deliberately telling what you know or believe to be false, it's not clear that George Bush is a liar. Or that Reagan lied," Perry said.

For more information about the program or to make a contribution, contact Perry at 723-1619 or; or Taylor at 723-1840 or


By John Sanford

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