I’m pretty sparing in my YouTube subscriptions, aiming to cultivate a list of content creators with consistently high-quality, analytical, and entertaining videos. One channel that I added to that list late last year is THUNK, a sequence of videos on philosophy, science, and mathematics written and delivered by Josh Pelton. Pelton is an amiable educator and a natural entertainer; what his channel lacks in terms of the huge production costs of the big YouTube education channels is more than made up by his unflagging dedication to thorough research, humble presentation, and sincerity. Whether you’re reading this because of your interest in Josh Pelton’s THUNK, your interest in analytic philosophy, or your interest in making an educational YouTube channel of your own, there is some entertaining insight into Pelton’s persona, process, and personal philosophy below.
Hey, Josh. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions today. Your content covers a broad range, with everything from purely rational philosophy to purely empirical science. Yet you never seem to be straying from your topic. So, while there is a sense of this in some of your videos, what would you say is the relationship between philosophy and science?
JP: It’s funny you should ask that; my most recent video is about the Bill Nye kerfuffle, & how scientists & philosophers are supposedly mortal enemies ever since the medical schools of Ancient Greece.
I think the dichotomy is very much overemphasized – positing new hypotheses is a philosophical endeavor in many ways, & good philosophy should take scientific discoveries into account whenever possible. I see the same supposed split (rational & empirical) in just about every discipline, but while your personal inclinations can certainly affect how you approach certain beliefs or decisions, I think it’s important to view them as two necessary parts of the same process.
I completely agree with you about the overlap, and a common note in this series has been my contention that philosophers ought to study more science, and scientists ought to study more philosophy.
JP: Absolutely! Some of the most incredible inventions & discoveries have happened because of cross-pollination between fields (analytic philosophy, anyone?), & I’d wager it’s a causal thing. Too bad we don’t all have absurd amounts of wealth, creativity & free time like those Renaissance blokes to spend our lives learning everything.
To what degree does this relationship play a role in your life and career outside of your channel?
JP: I’m a mechanical design engineer for a living. (My philosophy profs told me that I should “grab onto that & hold on,” lest I be sucked into academic philosophy proper.) I’ve always loved the rubber-meets-the-road intersection of pure thought & application, so it probably makes sense that I’d want the physicists & the philosophers to shake hands & play nice. After all, until you’re actually standing under something that you’ve built, it’s all just “thought,” isn’t it?
Since you mention some academic background in philosophy, I think this question is fair game: who are some of your favorite philosophers (any era), and why?
JP: David Hume is my main man. Every time I go looking for a solid foundation to think about just about anything, I almost always find Hume laying down the law in an irascible Scottish brogue. (There’s a reason about half of the THUNK episodes feature his ideas prominently.) I also quite like Russell & Ayer…I think I have a thing for sassy Brits. I find some more modern stuff (Chalmers, Nussbaum, etc.) interesting & helpful, but I tend to prefer desert landscapes, & I’m always raising eyebrows at anyone who’s trying to build something rather than knock things down.
On your channel, you put a lot of focus on facilitating discussion—for instance, when you end each video by asking specific questions for commenters to consider. Does this communal emphasis reflect any aspect of your own philosophy, or is it just (Socratic) pedagogical prudence?
JP: THUNK started because I think everyone should be able to discuss cerebral topics if they find them interesting, & because those conversations are always more productive if everyone involved knows some of the “basics.”
I’m sure your readers have experienced the horror that is small talk at some point. I’m also pretty sure they’ve encountered cases where, in order to have a meaningful conversation, one party has to instill a whole framework of facts & existing concepts in the other. My videos are meant to remedy both of these issues, & the questions I ask are usually meant as jumping-off points for viewers to discuss the topics themselves. (Although I’m certainly guilty of Socratic browbeating at times.)
Similar to your emphasis on discussion is your emphasis on a neutral attitude. Nevertheless, long before I had watched all of your work, I already had a fair conception of your position on some of the big questions in philosophy. But you have never seemed combative or self-assured; in your role as an instructor, how do you find the balance between a neutral point-of-view and your own voice?
JP: Wow, thank you! It really means a lot to me that I manage to come off relatively evenhanded. I certainly have my inclinations, but there are a couple points I try to bear in mind while I’m writing scripts.
First, there are always people who know a lot more than I do & hold differing beliefs. I’m aware of the volumes of stuff I’d have to read, reread, understand, analyze, & discuss before I could make even tentative statements of certainty on anything. Ph.D.’s take time to get for a reason!
Second, I do make purely persuasive videos, but there’s good evidence to show that trashing someone’s ideas isn’t likely to convince them of anything. I try to be sympathetic, even to those who believe things that I consider ludicrous – this stuff isn’t worth discussing because it’s self-evident, & being open & inviting will net more minds changed than an eight-minute rant.
Are there any philosophical positions that you find either so flawed or so compelling that you know you will never be able to teach them neutrally?
JP: I try my best to sanitize my stuff, but as you say, my bias is pretty easy to spot. The only things that get me riled to the point of rhetoric are unqualified self-contradiction & lack of due skepticism – if you’re going to assert that your position is superior, your ducks had better be well & truly lined up. Just about anything else is tolerable.
For internet logicians, there are plenty of possible outlets, from article sites (like The Gemsbok) to online journals (academic and otherwise) to conventional blogging platforms (like free Wordpress and Tumblr blogs). What is it about video as a medium, and in particular YouTube, that feels like the right fit for you and your style?
JP: My hair. I mean, look at it. You can’t convey this magnitude of hair in text. @:) See? It just doesn’t work.
Tone. There’s something I find much more compelling & accurate about someone verbally describing their ideas. Text is great for pinpoint accuracy & unassailable fortresses of rigorous thought (delicious for internet logicians), but for media aiming at fostering discourse, a light, more conversational tone is better. Also, some of my less neutral scripts have the potential to tread on some toes – I like to make it clear thru intonation that I’m not bashing anyone.
Flow. Many of the concepts I discuss have massive structures of thought undergirding their claims. In text, the audience has time to pick apart each general point as they reach it & get flustered about any lack of explication. In a YouTube video, I can shove 4-8 minutes of a concept directly into your face, so you can process its general shape & flavor all at once. If it’s of interest, you can go & read the mountains of related text. If not, that’s fine, here’s something else.
Hair, tone, and flow, eh? Why do I feel like I’ve seen that in a commercial for something?
JP: NEW FROM VIDAL SASSOON: THUNK. Make your head tingle.
Ha, well anyway, as someone who went the written route, I sympathize completely with your comment about tone. However fairly I try to phrase something, I never know exactly what sort of voice will be in the reader’s head when they read it. But I digress. You’ve certainly got a penchant for presentation; if your audience grew to the huge numbers that your content deserves, would you ever consider working on THUNK full-time? Or are you happier keeping it as a side project?
JP: That’s quite flattering, thank you! Several THUNKers have pestered me to put up a Patreon page or something, but I live in fear of any change that might make me care about mass appeal. I can only get away with covering esoteric topics because I don’t have to worry about what “most people” might think – if my bank account balance started spiraling around in my head while I was writing scripts, I can’t guarantee I’ve the character to not make clickbait, intentionally or otherwise.
Maybe someday I’ll go be a professor & teach cool stuff for a living, but for now, I’m quite happy to make cool stuff and give it away.
On a lighter note, are there any things that you’ve learned that you would like to pass along to any would-be YouTube content creators? (Anything that you wish you had known beforehand?)
JP: You say “lighter note,” which makes me think I was supposed to take those last questions a little more seriously. For this one, you’re basically asking me to consider all my life choices regarding THUNK & ask “What could I have done better?” Which is SO MUCH FUN! <laughter choked by sobbing>
Iteration is exponentially more useful than planning. As soon as you sit down in front of a camera (any camera) and record something (anything), you suddenly have a template for comparison. (“Lighting sucks, audio sucks, I blink a lot, I sound like a jerk, god do I actually sound like that…”)
There’s a secret recording hidden away on my hard drive of the “pilot” episode of THUNK that’s so bad I’m not even going to put it in a blooper reel, but it was more useful than fifty script edits.
In contrast, some topics are deep wells of important context, so it definitely pays to do the reading & know more than you plan to say. My first episode on analytic philosophy is chock full of terrible misrepresentations. It’s easy to get excited about something interesting & go off half-cocked, but if you don’t at least know & understand the first layer of Wikipedia pages related to your topic, you’re probably going to miss something important. (I have several patient friends who happen to be experts in various fields, that certainly helps!)
Which reminds me: that train wreck is one of my most-viewed episodes. There’s no telling what the internet will like, so make something that you enjoy.
And finally, if at all possible, get a copilot with an eye for editing. My amazing unicorn of a girlfriend reads thru each of my scripts & watches every episode before I upload it. She’s not blinded by authorial intent like I am, so she can make the heartbreaking edits that I can’t. (“Those four paragraphs that you think are really important aren’t. Lose them.”)
A lot of good info there! Call me sadistic, but I would love to watch that pilot episode. Haha. For your last question, give the people something to watch. Since you mention attention flowing into an episode about which your feelings are mixed, what are a few of your favorite THUNK episodes for people that want to start exploring your stuff?
JP: You’re sadistic. And trust me, it’s right up there with the Star Wars Christmas Special for cringe.
I’m very proud of episode 42, “The Meaning of Life.” The more discerning of your audience might nitpick the way it blasts thru existentialism without qualification (after that comment about neutrality!), but it was a very important epiphany for me, and a younger Josh would have cried tears of joy at the message. (An older Josh cries because of the camera focus, but it’s still worth a watch!)
Episode 70 may be some of my best work, probably of particular interest to your readers. I managed to cover the rise & collapse of logical positivism, from Hume to Quine, & many of the important ideas contained therein, in 8 minutes. With jokes.
Episode 86 is a rehashing of the same damned thing I’ve covered at least twice before: rigor in thought. It’s also the best version, an important idea, and I’d scream the URL from the rooftops if I thought it’d do any good.
And, to get that multidisciplinary thing we were discussing going, I’d watch episode 64 (“The Argumentative Theory of Human Reason”), 45 (“You Should be Making”), & for pure science-y goodness, 85 (“Evolution & the Purple Sock”).
You can watch all of them, of course; there’s a “THUNK – From the Beginning” playlist on the YouTube page. Just…they get better, I promise.
I can certainly attest to that. Josh Pelton, thank you so much for your time. And don’t stop thunking.
About the Interviewee:
Josh Pelton is a mechanical engineering graduate from California with a love of learning and polymathic aspirations. His bi-weekly educational YouTube series, THUNK, covers a broad range of subject matter, including mathematics, philosophy, culture, language, science, and technology. Professionally, he works as a product design engineer on Long Island in New York. His other hobbies include VR, board, and puzzle games; trumpet; and manually making cool stuff, from computers to coffee tables. The subreddit for Josh Pelton’s THUNK can be found here. Its Twitter account can be found here. Its Google+ page can be found here.
Interview with Josh Pelton,