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They think, therefore they air

A pair of philosophy professors go deep on their weekly radio show. To wit: 'If Truth is so valuable, why is there so much B.S.?'

July 05, 2008|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Isabella from Berkeley wanted to talk about how everyone -- even vegans -- is complicit in the evils of "factory farming, billions of animals living lives of misery."

Philip from San Francisco called in to chat about whether art is even possible without evil, musing aloud on the early-morning airwaves that "if you don't have evil, Satan with a big tail, you don't have irony."

And Charles e-mailed from his Western Addition apartment that "as someone trained in clinical psychology, I see evil as psychopathology. . . . Why couldn't this explain evil in a way we can more readily understand?"

It was just another Sunday morning for Ken Taylor and John Perry, who dissect life's big mysteries on "Philosophy Talk," believed to be America's only live weekly call-in radio show dedicated to the philosophical.

In this celebrity-soaked era, when Americans seem to spend more time pondering whether Britney Spears' underwear exists than whether God does, these two Stanford philosophy professors take on everything from the weighty to the winsome.

On this June morning in the little broadcast booth at KALW-FM (91.7), "Philosophy Talk" tackled the problem of evil -- or, as Perry put it, quoting Epicurus: "If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?"

They've prodded political correctness, postmodernism and prostitution. They've wondered aloud: "Can science explain consciousness?" "If Truth is so valuable, why is there so much B.S.?" "What are numbers?" "What is a child?"

Rush Limbaugh may be radio royalty, but Taylor and Perry have carved out a small but growing niche and are helping burnish a discipline even adherents say could use a hand.

"Philosophy has, for 2,500 years, had a bit of an image problem," said David E. Schrader, executive director of the American Philosophical Assn. "Ken and John are clearly evangelists for our discipline."

Perry ambles into the studio at Phillip and Sala Burton High School shortly after 9 a.m., central casting's answer for a college professor, all rumpled tweed jacket and essence of pipe tobacco.

He's 65, on the cusp of retirement and deeply influenced by the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, whose central thesis the grandfather of 10 paraphrases as follows: "The world's a big accident, one damn thing after another. . . . When you have to go to lunch, stop thinking about it."

"Philosophy Talk" is Perry's brainchild, and a very old child indeed. Until he met Taylor 15 years ago, he said, "I couldn't get any other suitable partner who didn't think it was a completely loony idea. . . . Unlike me, Ken not only has ideas, but he acts on them."

Which is probably why the two men began working together. They got seed money from Stanford, made two pilots and sent them to KQED, San Francisco's top-shelf public radio station. They were unceremoniously turned down.

But KALW, which a grateful Taylor describes as the Avis of public radio here, bit immediately. With an audience of 135,000 in the greater Bay Area, the station thinks of itself as more nimble and innovative than the bigger, flossier competition.

The show began airing weekly in January 2004 and has since been picked up by Oregon Public Radio, which airs Taylor and Perry statewide. They can be heard on stations in New York, Louisiana, Colorado and British Columbia, and on KUCR in Riverside. Listeners everywhere can tune in online at www.philosophytalk.org.

"We've said that if something is interesting and there are talented people driving it, we're willing to take that risk," said KALW General Manager Matt Martin. "Philosophy Talk" filled the bill; its "improbability was part of the attraction."

Just how improbable is 52 hours a year of programming devoted to the nature of meaning and language and social relations?

The top 10 radio audiences in America today, according to Talkers magazine, largely belong to the likes of Limbaugh, the king of conservative talk radio, and Michael Savage, author of "Liberalism is a Mental Disorder."

But Taylor believes that there are millions of listeners out there looking for something more, and that if he and Perry could offer a thoughtful and reflective hour, they would come. Or as they opined on their 100th program:

Taylor: "I think that our culture, our public discourse especially, is utterly debased. . . . It's meant to manipulate rather than enlighten and inform. . . . It's a disease that we've caught. Philosophy is one elixir, one magical elixir for helping to cure that disease."

Perry: "Ken, I knew Socrates. And you're no Socrates. But we do our best."

Taylor: "Think of our first episode: Bush's doctrine of preemptive self-defense. A doctrine is supposed to be kind of a systematic body of evidence and belief that kind of hangs together. . . . But that so-called doctrine is a bunch of, well . . ."

Perry: "Hooey."

Taylor: "Yeah."

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