An Interview with a Philosopher

Andrew Bailey did his undergrad in philosophy at Biola and went on to do his doctorate work at Notre Dame and is currently a postdoctoral fellow there. Most of his research interests are in metaphysics and epistemology, but all of that can be found out here. He was nice enough to do an interview with me, check it out!

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

One helpful account of the various academic disciplines construes them as attempts to answer certain big questions given certain bracketed evidential bases (narrowly physical data, provable results in math, statistical data, lab results, etc.). Philosophy isn’t like this: we’re interested in *all* the big questions and in what answers we should give to them given our *total* evidence. This is one reason why philosophy is so hard and why philosophical progress can seem so elusive.

One central philosophical skill (perhaps the central one) is the ability to move efficiently between various levels of abstraction (e.g., from specific cases to general principles, and back to cases, then to classes of cases, then to even more general principles). This is one of the more valuable assets philosophers can bring to conversation with folks from other fields. (This answer is not original; the middle Plato seemed to think that something like “moving efficiently between various levels of abstraction” was a characteristically philosophical skill)

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

Through seven years of competing in high school and college debate, I was often impressed at the pervasiveness of philosophical questions. They struck me as lying at the heart of just about any legal or political disagreement—and perhaps at the heart of all other disagreements too. So naturally, I found them interesting.

But my plan as an undergraduate was always to be a lawyer, even after missing two LSAT exam dates. I don’t know exactly how, but I became less and less happy with that plan as time went by. And somewhere between my junior and senior years of college, I decided to build a career in academic philosophy instead. I realized that many of my moments of real intellectual joy and clarity involved doing philosophy; that was when I most felt I was doing what I was made to do. Tom Crisp’s arrival at Biola that Fall helped seal the deal for me; I knew that I’d need some guidance in putting together a decent writing sample, and Tom generously agreed to provide it.

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?

Many professional philosophers seem disposed to think of philosophical ability as something one is born with or gifted in, say, early childhood. But this is a mistake. First, it’s false; philosophy is a set of skills that can be honed through practice and study (especially through rigorous conversation with others). Second, it’s harmful; it engenders laziness in those who “have it” and despair in those who do not. The more I internalize thoughts along these two lines, the more comfortable I am in doing philosophy. Even when I feel adrift in a sea of confusion, I know that clarity can come in time, provided that I’m willing to work for it.

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

My interests span all the central topics of Metaphysics and Epistemology. I knew these would be my primary areas of focus when I found myself thinking about them in my free time and without external prompting.

What does creativity in philosophy look like?

Here are three kinds of philosophical creativity:

1. Finding new ways to defend familiar answers to interesting but familiar questions

2. Finding new answers to interesting but familiar questions

3. Finding new and interesting questions

There are virtues in each approach.

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

I endorse incompatibilism about free will and determinism, but I’m not confident we have free will. So I’m neither a compatibilist nor a libertarian. That said, I do endorse compatiblism about moral responsibility and determinism; here I follow John Martin Fischer’s excellent work. Here are three (gestures at) reasons supporting this package of views:

1. The Consequence Argument is sound. So free will—the ability to do things one does not in fact do—is incompatible with determinism.

2. God exists and is essentially omniscient; and if such a God exists, we probably don’t have free will. So we probably don’t have free will.

3. The most plausible account of moral responsibility (Fischer and Ravizza’s) implies that moral responsibility is compatible with determinism. Further, the best arguments for incompatibilism about moral responsibility and determinism fall prey to Frankfurt’s attack.

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

Perhaps the most important thing I got from my experience at Biola was a model of how to be an excellent teacher of philosophy.

The undergraduate Biola philosophy professors (at the time: Ciocchi, Crisp, and Ten Elshof) were exemplars of gracious philosophical disagreement. They were also excellent mentors, taking an almost pastoral role in my life. They regularly met with me to discuss my academic work, but also to pray with me, to offer counsel, and to extend kindness and friendship. They invested in me as a person and not just as a student.

Someday, I hope to do the same for my own students.

How has studying philosophy challenged your Christian worldview?

Studying philosophy has given me some tools to better understand what the Christian worldview might be—and perhaps more importantly, what it is not.

Someone has said that the essence of being human is not being able to understand the opposite sex. Do you have a better answer than this?

Who said this? This is a terrible answer. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man; he thus has any property essential to humans. Is he unable to understand women? I hope not.

A better answer would, I suppose, be Aristotle’s: to be a human is to be a rational animal. This answer requires some Chisholming (perhaps it’s possible that there be Vulcans—rational animals who are not human), but it seems to be on the right track.

“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?

I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, many (perhaps most) people who try to become academic philosophers do not succeed. This is true even for those of us who don’t aspire to take one of the coveted research-oriented jobs; even the community college job market is tough these days. Everyone should think long and hard about these sober truths before dedicating years to, say, graduate study in philosophy. On the other hand, the academic life is a good one, and well worth pursuit. Teaching philosophy can be very rewarding and very fun. I’m willing to take some risks for the chance to do so. If you’re like me in this respect (and especially if you are, like me, unmarried and relatively young), it may well be worth it to take these risks.

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?

My opinion is this: the time has come for people of reason to say enough is enough. New Atheism discourages independent thought, it’s divisive, and it’s dangerous.

To put my point more explicitly: rhetoric is cheap. It’s the arguments that count, and I can’t see that Dawkins’ have ever been very good.

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

I don’t think that most of what goes on in professional philosophy journals should be studied by non-philosophers. But much of what goes on in professional philosophy journals probably shouldn’t be studied by professional philosophers either.

That said, everyone has some stake in the big philosophical questions (or their answers, at any rate), whether we like it or not. It’s a curious thing, but even to adopt a strongly anti-philosophical view is to adopt a philosophical view!

So we—philosophers and non-philosophers alike—may as well approach these questions with some care and patience. Sometimes (but not always) this means using distinctively philosophical skills and tools.

Where are you in terms of the program?

I just finished a dissertation on human nature and will defend in a few weeks.

Are zombies metaphysically possible?

Yes.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing philosophy?

I enjoy making music (I play keyboards at my church) and reading fiction (when I get the chance).

What advice can you give to budding Christian philosophers?

1. Stay involved with your local church.

2. Critically read: Plantinga’s “Advice to Christian Philosophers”, the various replies to it by Stump, van Inwagen, et. al., and van Inwagen’s “Quam Dilecta”.

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