“Philosophy has novel opportunities to expand its share of the contemporary zeitgeist…”
The following guest post* is by Robert Lawrence Kuhn, the creator and host of Closer to Truth, a public television show which has been helping philosophy expand its share of the zeitgeist for more than 20 years. The show has featured hundreds of philosophers, scientists, and other thinkers in its quest to explore big philosophical questions, and its very well-organized website is a virtual library of interviews well worth checking out. As you’ll see at the end of the post, the show’s team is looking for suggestions for both its exploration of ideas and how it can be of better use to the philosophical community.
UPDATE (9/18/20): Robert Kuhn responds to some of the comments in an update appended to this post, which includes an announcement about their new “Emerging Scholars Initiative.”
Closer to Truth & Philosophers
by Robert Lawrence Kuhn
Closer to Truth, our public television series and web platform, brings philosophy to broad literate audiences in the U.S. and globally by featuring leading philosophers speaking their own words in their own voices. Closer to Truth addresses fundamental questions about existence and the universe, consciousness and minds, meaning, and religion from the perspective of philosophy—philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion. Philosophy, especially analytic philosophy, forms and shapes Closer To Truth’s way of thinking.
Closer To Truth seeks sophistication and subtlety while attracting and engaging non-expert audiences (a non-trivial challenge). That’s why it’s not “Philosophy 101”. In the conversations on the show, we explore topics in-depth, as if colleagues genuinely working through questions or arguments. What emerges, we hope, is the relevance and applicability of philosophical thinking for the big questions of existence and the big-picture conundrums of life.
That Closer To Truth’s not-so-simple, philosophy-founded shows have been broadcast for 20 years, with growing audiences on PBS stations and recently on Closer To Truth’s YouTube channel (which has attracted more than 12 million views and 130 million minutes of watch time in the past year), tracks increasing public interest in philosophical questions. Consider the thousands of comments on CTT’s YouTube channel this year alone. While not always the most thoughtful or courteous, this blizzard of reaction and opinion confirms the growth of philosophical engagement in the public square. It suggests that philosophy has novel opportunities to expand its share of the contemporary zeitgeist.
Directed by award-winning documentary producer Peter Getzels, Closer to Truth takes viewers on a rich and visually compelling journey. Featuring intensive discussions with philosophers and philosophically oriented scientists, the series’ 300 television episodes and 4,000 web videos provide abundant resources for philosophy professors and students, both for research and as supplementary materials in courses and seminars.
Closer to Truth seeks out the philosophical implications of new knowledge or ways of thinking in our categories of cosmos, consciousness, meaning. We do not simply report the latest advances in cosmology; rather, we assess and even speculate about what those latest advances may mean (if anything). Similarly, with respect to questions in philosophy of religion and consciousness studies, we take our task to discern philosophical insights by probing for hidden contradictions or lurking consequences.
“What follows?” is the question Closer To Truth loves to ask—about, say, multiple universes, mind-brain correlations, virtual immortality, and arguments for and against the existence of God. Closer To Truth does not champion any privileged tradition or hobby-horse or any particular view. We work to express and compare multiple views, often contradictory views, as long as each view is (or seems to be) intellectually coherent, thoughtful, meaningful, original or fresh, and perhaps challenging current belief or even disrupting conventional wisdom.
While Closer To Truth’s way of thinking is based broadly in the analytic tradition, we also recognize the value of other philosophical approaches (e.g., phenomenology), as well as religious thought, faith traditions, and other belief systems, and on occasion we explore their contributions to the topics we discuss, all the while aiming for systematic and rigorous inquiry.
Closer to Truth (CTT) tries to ask the kinds of questions that elicit wonder and trigger appreciation of philosophy. Consider Closer to Truth’s (CTT) three categories:
Cosmos. CTT takes a philosophy of science perspective for examining truth, causation, laws/regularities, information, time; philosophy of cosmology for the putative multiverse, beginning/end of our universe, apparent fine-tuning; philosophy of physics for foundations of quantum theory including role of the observer. CTT explores the metaphysics of “why something rather than nothing”, a CTT leitmotif—and throughout stresses critical thinking.
Consciousness. A philosophy of mind perspective for examining mind-body problems, brain/mind identity models, essence of consciousness, personal identity, free will, moral responsibility. CTT explores the subconscious, philosophy of art, life after death, alien intelligences, parapsychology, cosmos-and-consciousness conjectures—and again stresses critical thinking.
Meaning. A philosophy of religion perspective for examining perennial questions: existence/non-existence of God, traits/nature of God, theism versus atheism versus agnosticism, problem of evil. CTT explores issues in science and religion and problems in philosophical theology—and especially here stresses critical thinking.
Here are some of our Closer To Truth TV episodes, each featuring 4-6 philosophers (and philosophically inclined scientists):
- What is Truth?
- What is Time?
- Epistemology: How do I Know?
- What would an Infinite Cosmos Mean?
- What Exists?
- Why Anything At All?
- What is Nothing?
- What is Strong Emergence?
- Can Brain Alone Explain Consciousness
- How Does Personal Identity Persist Through Time?
- Big Questions in Free Will
- Free Will for Moral Responsibility?
- Fallacies in Proving God Exists
- Current Arguments for God
- Is God Responsible for Evil?
- How Belief Systems Work
In parallel, Closer To Truth’s “Women in Philosophy” series is offered in three subseries (with links): “Women in Philosophy and Physics/Cosmology”, “Women in Philosophy and Neuro/Cognitive Science”, and “Women in Philosophy of Religion”.
Our quest to get Closer To Truth is real: we try to see the world and the questions it poses objectively and honestly. We like to challenge conventional wisdom, but only in ways that are coherent. We can explore odd ideas, but we’re not comfortable with sloppy arguments. We are determined to keep an open mind—with at least one eye unblinking and skeptical.
Closer To Truth’s tagline is: the greatest thinkers exploring the deepest questions. To date we’ve featured more than 350 philosophers and philosophically oriented scientists. Here’s a partial list:
William Lane Craig
David Bentley Hart
Robin Le Poidevin
Seyyed Hossein Nasr
Varadarajar V. Raman
Holmes Rolston III
Robert John Russell
Bas van Fraassen
Peter van Inwagen
Closer to Truth’s digital library is used as assignable materials in philosophy courses, personalizing complex ideas for students at all levels—introductory undergrads to doctoral candidates.
Suggestions for how we can structure our materials to better support your teaching needs are most welcome. As you look over our materials, if you have ideas for questions or approaches we might take up in addressing our topics, or particular philosophers with whom we should, we’d be happy to hear them.
UDPATE (added 9/18/20). Robert Kuhn responds to some of the comments:
We appreciate everyone’s feedback and suggestions and we will consider how we can improve. Closer To Truth focuses on limited topics in philosophy—skewed to ontological questions in “cosmos, consciousness, meaning”—and when we venture beyond, we want to be careful to maintain our sense and quality. For example, Closer To Truth does not do political or social philosophy and we only touch on ethics in relationship to other issues (e.g., free will)
Closer To Truth has a major, multi-year initiative in “Philosophy of Biology”, a new area for us and we are excited about it—we are in extensive research and planning, engaging as advisors several leading philosophers of biology (we seek diverse contributors with respect to gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation).
Closer To Truth is also continuing to develop “Arts Seeking Understanding”—ten episodes were broadcast recently on PBS stations and will come to Closer To Truth YouTube early next year; more episodes are in planning.
Regarding comments that Closer To Truth lacks diversity in non-Western philosophy of religion, we agree – you are right! – and we seek to remedy this defect. Closer To Truth does need greater representation from non-Western traditions and we are hoping to develop a Global Philosophy of Religion project, focusing on Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam (alphabetical order) (next year, COVID-19 cooperating).
Closer To Truth does have non-Western philosophers and philosophically oriented scientists—see below—but insufficient; we need more.
Closer To Truth has begun an Emerging Scholars Initiative, seeking next-generation leaders in philosophy—especially philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion—and we are prioritizing groups underrepresented in these subfields. Recommendations welcome! (Comment below or email us.)
Closer To Truth Co-Creator, Producer/Director Peter Getzels and I deeply appreciate the feedback and suggestions and we look forward to more. We believe that Closer To Truth can be a resource for the philosophy community—especially as philosophy becomes more relevant broadly in the global marketplace of ideas.
Closer To Truth has a long timeline for our productions. Please have patience with us. We are on it.
And please do keep the suggestions, and the critiques, coming.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn
Creator, Writer, Host
Closer To Truth