Please Expand

by Ahilleas Rokni

Please Expand is a podcast where I discuss non-fiction books with their authors. But Please Expand is not just about summaries; it's about conversations. I go into every episode having read each book in great detail and having reflected on the fundamental assumptions, foundations and questions with which the book grapples. If you, like me, have finished a book with burning questions that only the author could answer, then Pleas ...   ...  Read more

Podcast episodes

  • Season 3

  • How Religion Evolved with Robin Dunbar


    How Religion Evolved with Robin Dunbar


    In this episode we look at Robin Dunbar's particular thesis that religion is not just an unexpected outcome of evolution but is, in fact, a mode of engaging with the world that confers substantial benefits on its adherents. We look at the importance of group bonding and the important role that religion plays in this. We talk about why religion is the most effective mode of bonding people in large groups, paying special attention to the role that endorphin release plays in this. Indeed, the emotional background to religion raises interesting questions about the futility of arguing about religious beliefs or trying to reason against religious belief. A big consequence of Dunbar's reading is that one is religious, not for reasons, but because of the emotional pull that religion has over people. Finally, we discuss the role of religion in our increasingly secular societies. If religion is as important to group bonding as Dunbar would argue, then what does this mean for the decline of religion that we are witnessing across the Western world? We discuss all this, and more, in our thought-provoking interview with Robin Dunbar.

  • The Knowledge Machine with Michael Strevens

    The Knowledge Machine with Michael Strevens

    I talk with Michael Strevens about the scientific enterprise. Does science get at objective truth or is it limited by subjective world-views? We begin by discussing the roles of Kuhn and Popper in the "Great Method Debate", before going on to discuss developments in the sociology of science, by figures such as Bruno Latour, who showed that there is actually quite a bit of subjectivity in everyday scientific activities. We then go on to discuss Michael's contribution to this debate and we examine the "Iron Rule of Explanation". We look at the constellation of ideas that buttress the Iron Rule of Explanation and examine their suitability to the scientific enterprise. Finally, we consider the role that beauty can play in science.

  • The Aristocracy of Talent with Adrian Wooldridge

    The Aristocracy of Talent with Adrian Wooldridge

    In this episode we talk about meritocracy and whether it is still a viable system for social organisation. We begin by dissecting the concept of merit by analysing the role that talent or IQ play in assessing whether someone deserves something or not. We discuss the historical relationship between the fight for equality and the growth of the meritocratic ideal. We talk about the importance of education in the construction of a meritocracy; we wonder whether tests are sufficiently fine-grained to tell us whether somebody is deserving of something or not, and we think about the applicability of exam results to job roles that involve value-judgments. Finally, we interrogate the relationship between meritocracy and capitalism and wonder whether meritocracy is made worse by capitalism, or whether capitalism is made worse by meritocracy.

  • Season 2

  • The Decline of Magic with Michael Hunter

    The Decline of Magic with Michael Hunter

    In this episode, Giulia Luvisotto and I interview Michael Hunter on The Decline of Magic. Taking its cue from Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic, Hunter goes into the details of why magic declined in the late 17th century. Hunter introduces us to the world of the orthodox thinkers and the free-thinkers (or the Wits!) and the intellectual battlefield on which they exchanged withering treatises about the existence of supernatural phenomena and natural causation. We talk about the rise of the New Science, the struggle of Baconianism against the rising star of Newtonianism, and how the ultimate triumph of Newtonianism played a role in the decline of magic. We also look at the role played by doctors and the way that Cartesianism paved the way for the claim that superstitious beliefs were merely an ailment of the mind that could be cured. Finally, we take stock of what we have discussed and look back to Religion and Decline of Magic and consider Michael Hunter's contribution to the discussion on the decline of magic. Ultimately, it was neither the cold scepticism of the Wits or the dogmatic method of the New Science that rung the death knell for magic, rather it was a growing feeling of optimism about our problem-solving capacities that gave people the confidence with which to object to magic that dealt the fatal blow.

  • Princes of the Renaissance with Mary Hollingsworth

    Princes of the Renaissance with Mary Hollingsworth

    In this episode, I interview Mary Hollingsworth on her new book, Princes of the Renaissance. We begin by talking about just what exactly the Renaissance was and how it developed differently across the Italian peninsula. Then, we discuss the ideal character of an Italian Prince, of their engagement in war but, more importantly, their role as patron of the arts and how they were the focal point for the development of the Renaissance within their particular city-state. We go from talking about the not-so-salacious Borgias, to the mysterious Venetians in their all black robes, to the humbly virtuous dynasty of the Este's of Ferrara. We look at how they garnered prestige and reputation through the arts, and how the fierce rivalry between Francis I and Philip V. At the end of the episode, Giulia and I talk about the creation of identity through art, similarities between the role of art in the Renaissance and the present, and an obscure Vietnamese emperor who could have been a Renaissance man.