An Interview with a Philosopher

Speaking of Mike Austin, he was nice enough to do an interview! Mike graduated from the philosophy MA program at Biola in 2000 and went on to do doctorate work at the University of Colorado at Boulder and is currently an associate professor of philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University. Mike does a lot of research in ethics and philosophy of religion. He has authored and co-edited several books and written many articles. Currently, he’s writing a book with Doug Geivett entitled Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life. If you’re interested in reading his work check out his CV. Here’s the interview, enjoy:

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

A philosopher reads, writes, and thinks a lot about sometimes difficult but important issues. A true philosopher, in the Christian sense, then applies his or her insights to everyday life in a variety of ways, including teaching. If fortunate, that philosopher is also able to find someone to pay for all of this work!

One needs discipline, a lot of patience, and a good dose of humility to deal with all of the rejection! For me, and I think for many who are drawn to philosophy, we are uncomfortable when things are “messy”. I’m trying to learn to live with the messiness of a project in progress, and with the messiness of teaching students who likely did little or no reading in preparation for my class that day.

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

I was on staff with Cru (the organization formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ), taking a summer seminary class from JP Moreland in Ft. Collins Colorado. One of the texts we read in the course was Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines. There is a place where he talks about living as Christ would in many different careers and roles. One of those he mentions in the book is “university professor.” At that moment, something clicked in me in a way that I recognized as God leading me in this direction. Though I was a political science major as an undergrad, I loved my philosophy classes and wanted to pursue it as a career. I had also recently read Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and Creation Regained by Albert Wolters which motivated me to pursue this as a vocation and career. I wanted to have the chance to still connect with college students, but to have a broader influence as well on campus and beyond. And being a faculty member with a Ph.D. opens up many doors.
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?

In a way, I’m very comfortable. There are of course things philosophers write that I don’t understand. Sometimes this is because of my own limitations, but other times it is because they are arguing nonsense. I became confident by doing research and taking risks. I started submitting papers to conferences and journals as a grad student, and as I had opportunities to present papers I became more confident. In another way, I’m not comfortable because research is difficult, and it can be frustrating to find someone else who has already made an argument but that’s the way it goes. And getting rejections from journals is always a bummer with respect to my confidence.

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

I have very broad interests, but usually come back to issues in virtue ethics, family ethics, sports ethics, and slices of philosophy of religion. I am not the kind of philosopher who will focus on one issue for his or her entire career, or even one set of related issues. I prefer to work in several areas, as a personal preference. I’ve always been interested in ethics. Lately, I’ve begun to see my work as a form of what CS Lewis called “latent Christianity”. See the first chapter by Talbot alum Paul Gould in the book The Two Tasks of the Christian Scholar for more on this.

 Here’s the Lewis quote:

“We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. We must attack the enemy’s line of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects–with their Christianity latent. You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way round. Our Faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.”
–C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” in God in the Dock, p. 93.

I do some popular work, but I want to do work in ethics and applied ethics that is also a form of latent Christianity in professional journals.

What does creativity in philosophy look like?

Seeing old problems in new ways, seeing new problems, creating arguments for conclusions, and learning to write in a way that is not only clear but maybe even, once in a while, inspiring.

Where does insight in philosophy come from?

When we have a direct insight into the necessary character of reality.  More generally, it comes from work, focus, intelligence, moral and intellectual virtue, and illumination from God—not necessarily in that order. I really have taken to heart the prayer that my work in writing, speaking, and teaching would not be explainable by my talents alone, but rather only by God showing up and doing a work.

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

I like to think about the problem of evil, because this seems to me to be the foremost objection to Christian belief and it is an issue that I struggle with as a follower of Christ. Interestingly, much ground has been gained on this issue in the past 20 years or so.

I like to think about arguments for and against the theistic foundations of ethics. I like to think about moral development and applied virtue ethics, which is really a largely unexplored area.

Give me three reasons why you’re a compatibilist or libertarian
regarding free will

I’m a libertarian because (i) my first person direct acquaintance with my own power of agent causation; (ii) in my view libertarianism is necessary as a sound basis for genuine moral responsibility; (iii) JP said I should be one.

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

Writing précis after précis after précis helped me to learn how to read and write well, which helped prepare me for my Ph.D. More importantly, the environment encouraged a deeper walk with Christ in so many ways helped me to continue my studies.

How has studying philosophy challenged your Christian worldview?

The awareness of how difficult it is to argue for and defend many truth claims sometimes leads me to wonder if my view is true. And coming across some arguments that challenge my beliefs can be difficult to deal with because doubts do arise. But my trust is strengthened by the past record of such experiences. I have a doubt or question, do some study, and find adequate answers—most of the time.

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

I’ve begun to see that the Christian idea of what a truly good and fulfilling life is stands up to philosophical scrutiny. This gives me assurance that it is true.

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

I could have done a better job at this my first year at Talbot. I was so afraid of failure that I spent too much time on my work, but this got better as time went on and I made some different choices.

In my PhD program I rarely did work at night, and still rarely do so. I can’t function that well after dinner anyway. In grad school, our kids were preschool age, and I needed to be there for them and my wife, so I was. This is something that is more important than our work as philosophers. A lot of people can do philosophy, but only you can be the spouse, parent, and friend that those you love need. Philosophy isn’t worth sacrificing those things. It really and truly isn’t worth it.

“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?

You need to know going in that it’s a tight market, and that the better PhD program you get into, the easier in general it will be to get a job when you get out. But I know people from programs not on the “Leiter map” who have gotten jobs—good ones. We need to know it is challenging, but trust that God will make a way.

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

It has provided direction to my work, because the good, the true, and the beautiful are grounded in God. It has set boundaries that I will not cross with respect to certain issues. For example, I know that any argument for ethical egoism or preference utilitarianism is unsound, even if I can’t say why at a given point in time.

I have argued in some of my work for a causal view of parental obligations. Most applied ethicists think we get special obligations only when we accept them, or consent to having them. This is false, and being a Christian gave me the courage and motivation to challenge this notion.

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?

Dawkins has rhetorical skill, but not philosophical chops. His style of atheism arguably “discourages independent thought, it’s divisive, and it’s dangerous.”  Should people of reason say enough is enough here, too? Apart from that, as a community the body of Christ needs to show that what matters is not independent thought, but careful and sound thought. We need to pursue unity as well.

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

I think most people should at least be acquainted with a bit of philosophy, because most people have philosophical beliefs about such issues as God, ethics, and the nature of happiness. It is better to think about these things than to just take on views by cultural osmosis. However, it is more important to be a person of intellectual and moral virtue. Philosophy can help in this, but many other things can as well.

Are zombies metaphysically possible?
It’s been too long since I had philosophy of mind, but I’ll say no.

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

Hang out with my wife and kids, drive my kids around, play and coach soccer, and ride my bicycle.  And listen to U2.

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

Don’t give up, and be willing to use the skills and abilities in a variety of settings including church, other ministries, or wherever God may take you.

I try to see philosophy as my vocation, as the pursuit of wisdom. Don’t get caught up in the fight for status, but rather get caught up in the pursuit of wisdom—when you do that, you discover Christ himself.

What advice can you give to budding Christian philosophers?

Don’t make philosophy your god, but pursue it for the sake of your God. And don’t be obnoxious or abrasive to others in or out of the church. We need humility. And take advantage of your time at Talbot not just for the philosophy, but for the opportunities for other types of spiritual formation as well. I still draw in many ways from my 3 years at Talbot in many aspects of my life. I am so grateful for that time, and I’d encourage you to get and give as much as you can while you are there.


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