Hi-Phi Nation

Storytelling Podcasts

Hi-Phi Nation is philosophy in story-form, integrating narrative journalism with big ideas. We look at stories from everyday life, law, science, popular culture, and strange corners of human experiences that raise thought-provoking questions about things like justice, knowledge, the self, morality, and existence. We then seek answers with the help of academics and philosophers. The show is produced and hosted by Barry Lam of Vassar College.


Poughkeepsie, NY


Hi-Phi Nation is philosophy in story-form, integrating narrative journalism with big ideas. We look at stories from everyday life, law, science, popular culture, and strange corners of human experiences that raise thought-provoking questions about things like justice, knowledge, the self, morality, and existence. We then seek answers with the help of academics and philosophers. The show is produced and hosted by Barry Lam of Vassar College.







In our final episode on monsters, we investigate why people who eat people are the funkiest people in the afterlife. We talk to a man who has actually eaten parts of other people, many times, about why he thinks consuming human flesh should be normalized. We then consider the age-old question of how God is supposed to resurrect a cannibal and all of his victims when most of the flesh of the victims would also be a part of the cannibal. Some of the best minds in Western philosophy and...



The second in a three-part series on monsters in philosophy. We trace the cultural history of zombies from voodoo folklore, George Romero films, and the zombies used in philosophical thought experiments. Folklore, film and philosophy seem to converge on the idea that consciousness above all else is what a creature needs to have to be worthy of moral concern, something a zombie lacks. But we have no idea when something crosses over from being a zombie to being conscious, particularly current...



The first in a three-part series on monsters in philosophy. We trace the cultural history of vampires from Eastern European folklore to Twilight, and even look at the practices of real vampires, people who seek out and consume blood or psychic energy. The vampire went from demon to attractive monster in the course of a few centuries and raises a deep question for us about how different we can be, the limits of human imagination, and whether we can ever reasonably choose to have a...



When tragedy strikes an individual, a nation, or an entire people, artists and architects are tasked with designing a public display that memorializes the event and its victims. But how do you do that? In this episode, art historian and podcaster Tamar Avishai examines the Denkmal Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, the Vietnam War Memorial in DC, and others to look at how respecting and remembering loss collides with the demands of history and politics. We look at why...


Life, Edited

The first two gene-edited species meant to be introduced into the wild are currently in their final stages of approval, with trials already underway for the Oxitec mosquito, and the ESF American Chestnut. In this episode, we examine what these gene-edited species are, what they do, and how they are the beginnings of bio-engineering in the era of massive anthropocentric ecological change. We then look at the ethics of bioengineered wild species and whether they can be the solution to an...


Hi-Phi Nation Presents: Decoder Ring, The Alberta Rat War

Barry invites Willa Paskin of Slate's Decoder Ring podcast to talk about their recent episode, The Alberta Rat War, as a set up to next week's Hi-Phi Nation episode on genetic engineering. We then proceed to that episode. Rats live wherever people live, with one exception: the Canadian province of Alberta. A rat sighting in Alberta is a major event that mobilizes the local government to identify and eliminate any hint of infestation. Rat sightings makes the local news. Alberta prides itself...


The Selfless Kidney Donor

Penny Lane gave up months of wages and weeks of her life to have her kidney cut out and given to someone she never knew, and who may never thank her. She is one of about 200 people in the US a year who give up a kidney altruistically. What motivates someone to do that? Evolutionary psychologist Michael McCullough believes that not only is there true altruism amongst the human species, but that it is a unique trait, an emerging and spreading trait, and it is selected for by evolution, even...


The Man of Many Worlds IV

David Lewis steps off a plane from Australia in 2000 and falls seriously ill. In the final year of his life, he decides to take on Christianity, but does not live long enough to write a paper, leaving only his notes. His longtime friend Philip Kitcher turns the notes into Lewis' final piece on the evil of the Christian God. In our final episode of the series, we look at the philosophy of religion and examine the lasting legacy of David Lewis. Guest voices include Steffi Lewis, Ellen Lewis,...


The Man of Many Worlds III

In 1968, David Lewis decides that one truth can unify every theory he's had about the nature of the universe. It is the truth that every possible world is equally real. Lewis not only argues for this view, but devises a distinctive way of arguing for it, a method of doing philosophy that is as influential as his views. Meanwhile, a soon-to-be colleague and rival, Saul Kripke, reads Lewis' paper and fires off eight objections, and on the other side of the world, an entire continent becomes...


The Man of Many Worlds II

What was David Lewis like as a person? The consensus is that he did not know how to converse. At Swarthmore, David Lewis discovers he has a knack for philosophy and none at all with women, leading to a lifelong examination of the norms for conversation. By the time he reaches Harvard, he is ready to meet the love of his life, but almost fails out of the program in the process. By the end of his Harvard days, an entire continent on the other side of the Earth is abuzz about a rising star....


The Man of Many Worlds I

David Lewis was one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, who few outside of academia know much about. By the time of his death in 2001, he was the greatest systematic thinker in metaphysics since the Enlightenment. In Part 1 of a four-part series, we follow his journey from sick little boy in Oberlin, Ohio to teenager learning about free will from Iris Murdoch. We accompany the story of his early life with his theory of time, time travel, and the self. Guest voices include R. Jay...


Hi-Phi Nation Presents: Into the Zone (When We Were Cyber)

Barry updates listeners on what to expect in Season 5 of the show, currently in production. In the meantime, he introduces you to Into the Zone, a Pushkin podcast by writer Hari Kunzru. This episode is about the time Hari was in philosophy graduate school in the 90s and attended an early conference about cyberculture that leads him to visit philosopher Manuel DeLanda. Subscribe to Into the Zone on Apple podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit...


Justice and Retribution

A woman spends 40 years in and out of prison for shoplifting and finally gets a break from a judge in her late 50s. She uses the opportunity to abolish a jail and transform her city. This week we look at prison abolition and the arguments for eliminating all punishment from the system. From the denial that we have free will, to the view that perpetuating injustice disqualifies the state from punishing, we look at whether any of us have the right to punish anyone else, and question the very...


The Loophole

Two men committed a double murder in rural Maine in 1990. Only one pulled the trigger. The state prosecutor decided to try them separately, but that was a mistake, and both were acquitted. Then the Feds came in, and sentenced one man to life in prison for a crime he was already acquitted of doing. How is this possible in America? The answer is a loophole in criminal law. Today we examine that loophole by looking at the Thanksgiving Day murders in Maine, and the constitutional challenges this...


Punishment without End

A teen-aged girl gets caught with a suitcase stuffed with powdered cocaine, and she comes before a federal judge. That judge learns that a felony conviction carries punishments for life for her. He embarks on a mission to get all other judges to shorten prison sentences in light of this. Meanwhile, a researcher learns of a pervasive but secretive practice where prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges skirt the truth to protect defendants from unjust harsh punishments imposed on them from...


Redemption in the DDU

Erick Williams tells the story of how one bad night in the chow hall got him into solitary confinement at Walpole. The path out of solitary, and eventually out of prison, took another decade. On this episode, we look at the unique power of the Department of Corrections to do with prisoners what they will at their discretion. Philosopher Lisa Guenther tells the history of solitary in America, and the conceptions of the self that drive its continued use. We end with an examination of what the...


Gender Justice

On this episode, we look at feminist and progressive prosecution; how does a prosecutor balance the aims of prosecuting more gender-based crimes while also being sensitive to the problems of mass incarceration? We look at the story of one Maine prosecutor who is winning victories in sexual assault cases that were once deemed unwinnable, and whether this lowers the bar of burden of proof to unjust levels for gender crimes. Finally, we look at how one study in 1984 started a 40-year trend in...


The Informant

This week we go inside investigative operations in NYPD internal affairs and in the war and drugs to look at the police use of discretion to selectively break laws in order to pursue the bad guys. One former FBI special agent turned political philosopher argues that local and federal law enforcement are the biggest threat to the rule of law in their ongoing use of discretion to secure informant deals, perform sting operations, and otherwise break laws in order to enforce them. Guest voices...


Police Discretion

Is a mobile home a home or a car? Is a car parked inside a home part of the home? The answer to these stoner philosophical questions determine the scope of police power. Over the last 100 years, the Supreme Court has presided over the expansion of police discretionary powers to stop, search, and arrest people through litigation over automobiles. This week, we look at the stories of those decisions, including Carroll, Ross, and Whren, We then turn to the political morality of police...


Hi-Phi Nation Plus: Mens Rea versus Moral Luck

In this Slate Plus segment, Barry is joined by Sarah Lustbader to discuss the issues raised in Episode 1: Criminal Minds. Sarah expresses skepticism about the significance of mens rea in ordinary prosecution of street crimes, Barry uses the opportunity to discuss the issue of moral luck as an explanation of why egregiousness of outcome seems to be the driving factor for prosecution rather than mens rea. The two end with a discussion of why the deontological/consequentialist distinction is so...