An Interview with Russell DiSilvestro

Russell finished his graduate work in philosophy at Talbot in 2001 and is currently an assistant professor at Sacramento State. He works at the intersection between metaphysics and ethics, specifically as it relates to contemporary bioethical issues involving the nature and moral status of human beings. In July lat year he published a book through Springer’s Philosophy and Medicine series entitled Human Capacities and Moral Status.

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

RD: I think philosophers sometimes have a reputation for being rebels, or dreamers, or something wild and unconventional.  But I’d say they work hard, and carefully, to “think things through” (here I’m borrowing a phrase from Alvin Plantinga, who borrowed it from Hegel, I think) in creative ways, sometimes challenging and sometimes confirming the common assumptions people make in life.  I typically tell my classes the first day that doing philosophy well in a group setting requires considerable patience and discipline in hearing what others are saying, and considerable charity and humility in evaluating the positions of others.

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

RD: I entered college rather enthusiastic about the chance to “go deep” on the “big questions” like the meaning of life, how to know right from wrong, how to choose one’s religion, and how to love well.  My first introduction to philosophy class as a freshman at Indiana University had a great professor in Karen Hanson, and a great graduate student teaching assistant in Matt Pamental.  I think that class fanned into flame the interest I had already seen sparked by the events of ordinary life, and it was key in me declaring philosophy as my undergrad major.  It wasn’t until I was in my first summer as a Master’s Student (at Talbot) that I really began to crystallize my goal of pursuing philosophy as a career.  That happened in large part as a result of taking a Bioethics class with Scott Rae.

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?

RD: I’m very comfortable now, though there’s always something of a tension between wanting to read and learn in new directions and wanting to go deeper in a certain direction and even have something to contribute to that direction.  I became confident in my research by bits and pieces, one grain of sand at a time as it were.  Over time the grain became a heap.

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

RD: I work mostly on the overlap between metaphysics and ethics, especially as it relates to contemporary bioethical issues involving the nature and moral status of human beings.  Although these issues became fascinating to me as a sophomore in college, when I took a class exposing me to some of the work of Peter Singer, Jonathan Glover, and Michael Tooley, it was primarily at Talbot that I first knew that these were going to be my primary foci as a graduate student and beyond.

Q: What philosophers have inspired you the most?

RD: Probably those who I’ve studied under, know personally, and/or read closely: Tim O’Connor (at Indiana University), all my Talbot philosophy professors, R. G. Frey (at Bowling Green State University), Loren Lomasky (now at University of Virginia), Fred Miller (at BGSU), Michael Tooley (at University of Colorado), and Dallas Willard (at University of Southern California).

Q: What does creativity in philosophy look like?

RD: It looks like many things, I think.  Sometimes it’s questioning a common assumption that many people make about an issue.  Sometimes it’s drawing out the unrecognized implications of an idea that people take for granted.  Sometimes it’s proposing a totally new idea that flies in the face of tradition.  Sometimes it’s defending a traditional idea that flies in the face of what everybody now believes to be the case.

Q: Where does insight in philosophy come from?

RD: Again, many sources.  The better informed one is about the history of ideas, the more insightful one can be.  A common experience for me is thinking ‘I’ve got a new insight!’ and then discovering that people have long considered and debated that idea.  Another source is the contours of one’s own experience—sometimes a theory will ignore, or fit uneasily with, or flatly contradict, what one knows to be true in their own life.

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

RD: I like the Euthyphro Dilemma.  I like Pascal’s Wager.  I also like the literature on Personal Identity, whether it’s John Locke or Derek Parfit or whoever.

Q: Give me three reasons why you’re a compatibilist or libertarian
regarding free will (unless, like Peter Van Inwagen you think it is
blasphemy to use these terms :))

RD: I’m tempted to say that I’m a libertarian because I’m determined to be one.  But that’s humorously vague—so let me just say I think libertarianism makes better sense of my intuitions, of Scripture, and of the debate itself than compatibilism.

Q: How did the Biola/Talbot philosophy program help prepare you to study
philosophy as a Christian?

RD: Countless ways, but let me name two that might seem to pull in different directions.  First, it helped me to see the diversity within the set of broadly Biblical positions on various philosophical topics.  Second, though, it helped me see that, even among the broadly Biblical options, there are sometimes good philosophical arguments for favoring one position over another.

Q: How has studying philosophy challenged your Christian worldview?

RD: While studying philosophy has consistently confirmed my Christian worldview, there are indeed various ways it has challenged it.  One is sociological—you meet and read many smart, sincere non-Christians who disagree with your Christian convictions, and you naturally wonder whether they know something you don’t know.  Of course, this sociological sword cuts both ways, and it cuts both ways for the believer and the non-believer.

Q: How has studying philosophy helped you understand your Christian
worldview and given you assurance in your relationship with God?

RD: Wow.  Great question.  Two quick thoughts, both dealing with doubts.  Philosophy helped me realize that doubts about a subject are a normal part of thinking carefully about the subject, and so doubts about this or that element of the Christian worldview were a normal part of thinking carefully about it.  But philosophy also gave me a cluster of methods for approaching doubts, answering them, putting them in their place, so to speak—and this carries over to various areas of Christian living, even apart from the propositional aspects of worldview formation.

Q: How do you organize and balance your work and home schedule (when do
you read/write/spend time with friends/family)?

RD: Carefully and deliberately.  And constantly.  There is always pressure, no matter what stage one is at, to put more time into reading and less time into relationships.  I decided as an MA student at Talbot that I would try to begin then making family and friends a priority (and in that order), rather than wait until I was finished with my graduate studies.  I’m so glad I started early, because the habits I developed then have helped me to this day—and the pressure to read more has only increased.  My recent pattern, ever since my PhD studies, has been to aim to limit myself to a 40-hour work week, with occasional allowances for less or more for special seasons.

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?

RD: Very concerned, in my opinion.  But only if we take “the philosophy job market” in the restricted sense where it covers “what appears in publications like Jobs for Philosophers.”  In a broader sense, philosophy training—even or especially at the graduate level—can equip a person to perform above the norm in law, in ministry (especially campus ministry), in missions, and in virtually any profession that requires higher levels of analytic thinking.  By the way, this quote has special meaning for me, since I finished my PhD and got my job the year my fifth child was born…

Q: How has being a Christian influenced and guided you in your philosophical work?

RD: It helps me target which claims are worthy of attention and defense.  It helps me conduct my work in a manner and spirit that is different than I would conduct it otherwise, whether I’m reading, writing, speaking, or teaching.

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?

RD: Let me strike a conciliatory note here.  I think that what Dawkins says here is sometimes true, and sometimes it’s true even among those who claim to follow Jesus.  Taken this way, what Dawkins is pointing out is nothing new.  As Paul and an ancient Proverb both recognize in different contexts, it is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.

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

RD: Yes.  But they should only study the serious philosophical issues seriously.  The not-so-serious philosophical issues they can safely ignore.

Q: Are zombies metaphysically possible?

RD: I do not think so.  But someone should write a book titled “Modality and Mortality” to investigate it.

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

RD: Methinks that’s a “loaded question” like “have you stopped beating your wife?”  Indeed, yours is a doubly loaded question, since it assumes that I stop doing philosophy, and that I listen to those artists when I stop.  My answer to your doubly loaded question is that I’m loving my wife.  And that’s an activity that I haven’t stopped doing for a long time…

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

RD: No matter how talented you think you are, seriously plan out what you will do if you do not land a job as a professional philosopher.  And yet…no matter how bad the job market is, seriously consider what God can do with you if He is calling you to be a professional philosopher.

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

RD: Continually avail yourself of the treasure of other budding Christian philosophers, as well as the treasure of those Christian philosophers who have already blossomed.  I still consider myself a budding one, and a smallish bud at that.  But I’ve noticed a tendency in myself to slip into an avoidable mistake—the mistake of thinking of oneself as all alone facing the world.  I see this mistake in others occasionally—even Elijah made it at least once—so I guess there’s even a kind of back-door solidarity here, the solidarity of those who think themselves alone.  Still, it’s always better to have solidarity based on truth.

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2 thoughts on “An Interview with Russell DiSilvestro

  1. Very good advice on focusing on relationships and allotting time for reading. The pressure to learn more and sacrifice relationships is very real and I think most of us have given in to a certain extent. It’s a constant battle. Thanks for this.

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