Interview with Joshua Heter

Josh did philosophy at Biola for his undergrad back in 2005 and is presently a graduate student at SLU. He does research in epistemology, philosophy of language and has interests in metaphysics and philosophy of religion. Currently, he’s working on his dissertation: on epistemic modals and practical reasoning.


Q: What exactly does a philosopher do? What are the skills and
temperament required?

JH: Philosophers are challenged with the task of answering the questions that – simply in virtue of being human – everyone either explicitly asks themselves, or just assumes answers to them.  Philosophers ask the most fundamental questions there are to be asked – What is the nature of reality? How do we know what we claim to know?  What is the criteria of right and wrong?

I think a couple of things each philosopher needs are patience and at least a little bit of humility. A philosopher must be patient because he’s dealing with tough questions, and answers may not come quickly.  In fact, people will potentially still be asking the questions he asks himself a few thousand years from now.  Also, a philosopher should be humble at least in part because he needs to be able to consider the many ways in which he may be incorrect.  Whenever anyone considers some interesting thesis they hold, it’s a virtue to be able to ask oneself ‘Okay, what are my assumptions here?  Which of these assumptions if false would make my current thesis false? Which of them if false would make my current thesis unlikely?’  Being able to reflect upon ones own beliefs like this allows for belief revision (i.e. it allows us to abandon a lot of false, or at least unlikely beliefs), but it also leads to clarity and insight for the beliefs that we nevertheless maintain.  From my experience, people that are a bit too prideful have trouble asking themselves these questions.

Q: What persuaded you to study philosophy and when did you know that you
wanted to pursue philosophy academically as a career?

JH: Entering college I had in mind that I might become a history or perhaps a political science major, and I’d end up teaching.  But after taking a couple of philosophy courses, and hanging out with some philosophers, I kind of realized that it was the more philosophical questions that I had all along been interested in asking.  In political science class we were charged with answering the question ‘What does the law say?’ or, ‘What would be a good law here?’ I was more interested in questions such as ‘What is the purpose of our laws in the first place? Why is it that we have a government at all?’  I eventually changed my major to philosophy, but decided I would still like to teach.  Since much of the teaching of philosophy is done at the higher-education level (and since I also enjoy the research side of it too), here I am.

Q: When I first began studying philosophy as an undergrad I felt a void,
lost at sea so to speak, while strangely also feeling a mysterious
sensation and attraction (and occasionally threw books out the
window!). How comfortable are you now in studying philosophy and how
did you become confident in your research?

JH: Doing philosophy is like most other skills.  It takes time and patience for it to be developed, and there will pretty much always be someone who is much better than you.  I am more comfortable and skilled in the disciplined than I was a few years ago (by a lot).  With God’s grace, I’ll be able to make the same claim a few years from now.

Q: What constitutes your philosophical interests, and when did you know
that they were going to be your primary areas of focus?

JH: My main area of interest is epistemology, broadly understood.  Currently, I am writing my dissertation on epistemic possibility.  The rough idea is that for any proposition p, p is epistemically possible if and only if p is not known.  But, whose knowledge is relevant and more generally how that all works is unclear.  That’s what I’m trying to figure out!

I knew epistemology would be my area of focus early on in the 1st year of my Ph.d. program. For some time, I thought I might pursue ethical theory, but I suddenly just realized that the questions that would come to mind on their own when I was driving, or when I was lying awake at night were mostly epistemic.  That’s just where my attention is most naturally drawn, so I decided I wouldn’t fight it.

Q: What does creativity in philosophy look like?

JH: Philosophers think about some weird things – barn facades, being abducted by ‘the society of music lovers’, etc…  I guess the best thing to say here is that philosophers want to know about the essence of things, but while the essence of a thing needn’t apply to the impossible, they do have to apply to the wildly implausible.  Thinking about the wildly implausible takes a lot of creativity. 

Q: What are some of your favorite philosophical problems (dilemmas, etc.)
to think about?

JH: I’m not sure this constitutes a ‘dilemma’ or a ‘problem’, but one issue I keep coming back to is (broadly metaphysical) realism / anti-realism.  A girl at a party once asked me (after having found out that I study philosophy), “Oh, so like, what *are* you?” I gathered that she was looking for a catch all term to describe my philosophical views, much like a painter might be described as an ‘impressionist’ or an ‘abstract expressionist’.  I simply told her ‘Well, I’m a realist’.  Later, after reflecting on the question a bit more, I was fairly pleased with my answer.  There are plenty of philosophical views that seem at least plausible to me for a time – libertarianism, epistemic internalism, psychological egoism – but one of the few positions I really champion, and that I can’t imagine really drifting away from is some broad form of realism. Whatever the way the world is, it is not dependent upon my beliefs or perception.  It isn’t dependent upon any human being’s beliefs or perception (It may be dependent on God’s perception, but that’s as far as I go).  Beyond this, if there is any subject matter that *is* dependent upon my beliefs, or perception it’s not worth talking about.  So, if ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, then beauty is not worth talking about.

Q: How has studying philosophy challenged your Christian worldview?

JH: Thankfully, I think it has challenged me to think more exactly about what my faith is.  It has forced me to ask, what is Christianity *essentially* and what are the parts of my faith that are of my own invention?  What exactly does being a Christian hang on?  In this way, my philosophical education has offered me a fair amount of clarity about my faith.

Q: “What’s the difference between a philosopher and a pizza? A pizza can
feed a family of 5!” I laugh and grieve at this joke. How concerned
should we feel about the philosophy job market?

JH: It depends when you are asking me. Sometimes I worry quite a bit about the job market, but I’m eventually always reminded of the fact that ultimately, I’m not in control of much, and that I’m not in this thing alone.  Honestly, left to my own devices, I would have petered out a long time ago.  Whether or not I get the academic placement I’m looking for, I’m confident that my philosophical training can nevertheless be used.

Q: Richard Dawkins has said that “the time has come for people of reason
to say enough is enough. Religious faith discourages independent
thought, it’s divisive, and it’s dangerous.” What is your opinion
about this?

JH: I’m fairly confident that Richard Dawkins understands a ‘person of reason’ to be ‘someone who agrees with him that religious faith is inherently vicious’.  Since on this criteria, I do not qualify as a reasonable person, I will refrain from sharing my opinion on that matter.

Q: Do you think non-philosophers (those who are less philosophically
inclined) should study philosophy, if so, how serious should they
consider philosophical issues?

JH: Absolutely.  Non-philosophers should study philosophy for at least 2 reasons.  In philosophy we ask some pretty important questions, questions like ‘Does God exists?’ and ‘How should I live my life?’  Getting the wrong answers to these questions would presumably be, well, pretty unfortunate.  So, it seems prudent to approach them with the careful consideration that studying philosophy usually provides.  Beyond this however, there is the perhaps more immediate benefit that studying philosophy really forces one to carefully examine their own beliefs and to articulate those beliefs with a fair amount of precision.  So, studying philosophy often leads to being more careful and precise thinkers, and also to be better communicators.  Those are skills that are useful to everyone.

Q: Where are you in terms of the program?

JH: I just completed my 4th year at St. Louis University and I recently defended my prospectus. So, I am currently ‘ABD’ and I’m planning on finishing my dissertation around the Spring of 2012.

Q: Are zombies metaphysically possible?

JH: Yes. Well, No.  Okay, well, I don’t know. 🙂

Q: What do you like to do when you’re not doing philosophy, other than
listening to Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dog?

JH: Nothing. Dr. Dre and Snoop take up all my free time.  Actually, I’m a fairly avid fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, so I enjoy attending games at Busch Stadium. I also enjoy getting together with friends and playing Texas Hold ‘Em.  In the winter I try to snowboard here and there (but that can be tough when you live in St. Louis).

Q: Do you have any “words of wisdom” for individuals who may be
considering a career in professional philosophy?

JH: First and foremost, philosophy is a social activity.  Surround yourself at least on occasion with fellow believers that are interested in, and adept at asking the truly difficult questions. Those sorts of friends have a way of ingeniously challenging some philosophical thesis you may hold that you initially thought was ‘just obviously true’. To be sure, iron sharpen iron, in more ways than one.

Second, don’t get lost in philosophy.  Be aware of what’s going on in the culture around you (even in regards to things like movies and sports). Be relateable. Don’t allow yourself to be one of the few (but regrettable) philosophers who can only relate and talk to other philosophers.  Your philosophical education should be an asset to your community around you (your friends and family, your church, etc…), and your life will be much more fulfilling if you can build relationships with all sorts of people.

Q: What advice can you give to budding Christian philosophers?

JH: Be able to recognize good and interesting argumentation that challenges you to think deeply about your faith, and also be able to distinguish it from bullying. It’s unfortunate that some philosophers (and some scientists that have begun to ask philosophical questions) really offer nothing but elaborate ad hominem ‘arguments’ against any sort of religious belief. In my brief career I have been fortunate to have many atheist colleagues who were great, thoughtful philosophers that challenged my thinking in really helpful and interesting ways. I very much hope that they can say something similar about me.  Nevertheless, make assets of these sorts of colleagues, and distinguish them from the vocal minority that really just wishes to mock the ideas with which they disagree.


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