An Interview with a Philosopher

Joshua Rasmussen did his MA in philosophy at Biola University and graduated with highest honors in 2004 and went on to do doctorate work at the University of Notre Dame where he recently successfully defended his dissertation: “What Propositions Correspond To and How They Do It.” Josh primarily works in metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of religion. He has published in philosophy journals such as Philosophical Studies, Australasion Journal of Philosophy, Philosophy Compass, and is currently working on a monograph entitled “Between Truth and Reality: A Defense of the Correspondence Theory of Truth” that is under review with Cambridge University Press. Check out all his current work here, and enjoy the interview below!

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

I think of philosophers as wisdom chasers. Their chief goal, as I see it, is to gain and promote understanding about things that matter to people–and not just to professional philosophers!. Too much philosophy these days is focused on discussing arguments and ideas just because they come from famous philosopher X or just because they are clever or just because that’s what other philosophers are discussing. Our purpose is so much higher than that.

I’d say that to be a really good philosopher, you should exercise humility and charity in conversations with others. Passion is also key. As for skills, I used to prize creativity and depth of insight as among the most important. But I now think that clarity of thought is more important. To make progress in philosophy, we need to slow down and get ideas clear before criticizing or building upon them. One way to improve on this is to talk about philosophy with non-philosophers and to teach philosophy. Another way is to write as if writing to educated laypeople.

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

I’ve always been fascinated philosophical-type questions, but I didn’t know that people worked on such questions professionally until I took a metaphysics class in college. That class drew me into the world of philosophy. Then at Talbot, I discovered real live people who had a similar passion as myself for investigating the most fundamental aspects of reality, and I was hooked. I was now a philosopher, and I “knew” I wanted to do this professionally. I probably went a little overboard at the time: I did philosophy 24/7–even to the point of skipping classes to work on my own philosophy papers. I remember more than one girl asking me, “is this all you do?” I denied it at the time, but seriously, going to the gym while thinking about causation doesn’t count as a break. Basically Talbot’s philosophy program ignited the fire in me to pursue a career in philosophy.

 
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?
As a computer science undergrad, I would steal away to the library to read books on cosmological arguments. I never feared what I might discover from philosophical investigation; I was just curious to know more.  Curiosity inspired my research, and practicing philosophy led to greater confidence. I tend to become more confident in my research as I discuss ideas with others with an eagerness to learn more. I should also admit that I felt a certain confidence right from the beginning, which was due in part to arrogance — a tempting vice for philosophers.

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

Early in graduate school, I became intrigued by the basic categories of reality, including “category” itself (and sets, complexes, substances, etc). I’m presently investigating the nature of propositions and their properties (including truth). I also like to think a lot about cosmological type arguments for a necessary being. My interest in cosmological arguments was in many ways what led me into the world of philosophy.
What does creativity in philosophy look like?

 

Writing on an original topic (like the “ontology of music”); coming up with a completely new argument for an important position; developing a theory on a topic before having read any of the literature on that topic 🙂  Here’s a way to not be so creative: give an “original” critique of famous philosopher x’s reply to famous philosopher’s y’s argument.
Where does insight in philosophy come from?

 

A virtuous mind and heart. I’ve also found that worshiping God and then asking Him questions can result in some new angles and ideas.

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

The problem of non-self-exemplification (and related paradoxes); under what conditions do things compose something?; what am I aware of when I’m dreaming? (a question I’ve asked myself during many dreams in which I knew I was dreaming); how is my belief in the external world justified/warranted; …

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

I’ve taught a class on free will, yet I confess that I’d like to be clearer about what is meant by “free will” and by “determinism” before giving reasons for a position.

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

The professors modeled a love for truth that seemed to be explanatory prior to their particular religious beliefs. This helped strengthen my conviction that Christian thinkers need not simply start with their religious viewpoint and then simply find evidence to support what they already believe. They are free to be truth-seekers, seeking to wisely follow the evidence wherever it leads them.  I believe that when theists love their beliefs more than the truth, this actually promotes religious skepticism. But when theists are humble truth-seekers, this is an attractive aroma to everyone, and it attracts people to look for God with humble hearts.

How has studying philosophy challenged your Christian worldview?
To be honest, it hasn’t. It was philosophy that brought me from a state of agnosticism back to belief in God. I don’t fight against arguments that seem to go against my Christian beliefs. I investigate them and with an open heart and mind. This process of investigation has led me to revise and expand many of my beliefs about God. I’m so easily mistaken about things! Yet, the investigation has also given me deeper insights into broad-stroke Christian theism. For me, belief in a loving God isn’t a leap of faith.

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

Early on, it helped me to break apart the Christian “package”. An argument against biblical inerrancy, for example, isn’t thereby an argument against the existence of God or the resurrection of Jesus. Second, it was through philosophy that I first came to think that there is a necessarily existing thing that is infinite and maximal with respect to all its “degreed” attributes (including power, knowledge, and goodness). Third, philosophy helps me to explore/investigate options and theories concerning such things as the nature of the atonement, soteriology, and divine providence. But strangely, although philosophy has provided me with reasons to have assurance of my relationship with God, sometimes (especially at night), I worry that when I die, I’ll in fact be no more–that I was in fact mistaken about an everlasting relationship with God. I’m honestly not sure if sound theistic arguments alone can cure me of that worry.

“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?

Depends. I know someone from a top school who had 5 publications in top-tier places but who didn’t receive even one first-round interview. On the other hand, I know of people with no publication record with job offers from Ivy League schools. I won’t rehearse difference-making factors here. I could tell you to avoid publishing in philosophy of religion, but I’m not going to do that. You should follow your heart (or God’s heart!) All you really need to get the right job for you at the right time is enduring passion.

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

It seems to give me more motivation to seek truth about topics that matter to people. On Christian theism, people have intrinsic worth and will exist everlastingly. It strikes me, then, that the wisdom I gain or impart to others can make difference to people not only in this life, but in ages to come. And knowing that motivates me. (That isn’t to say that I’d have no motivation to seek the truth if I weren’t a Christian; I’d just have less.)

 
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?
I strongly suspect that what Mr. Dawkins has in mind by “religious faith” is blind belief, unwavering dogmatism, and other such intellectual vices. And if that’s so, then I agree with him. However, I don’t believe the problem is with religion per se; it’s with the lack of a virtuous mind that many religious people (and non-religious people) have. I’ve read of many studies that indicate that certain spiritual disciplines (including worshiping God) is healthy to do, and certainly religion doesn’t have to be divisive. Indeed, I’d say that “true” religion is “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). That’s not divisive. But rather than take issue with Dawkins, I’d rather give him a hug, and say, “yes, we should seek to have a virtuous mind, and religious people who don’t do that would do well to listen to you.”

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

At Notre Dame, every student must take some philosophy. I think that’s a good idea. 🙂  It’s not so much so that they should know the “hot” topics of philosophy. It’s that they should know how to think more clearly about their own interests–at least by learning some logic and some strategies for analyzing and critiqueing arguments. I would especially recommend analytic philosophy courses to scientists. If it were up to me, I’d make every scientist take at least a course in philosophy of science and in epistemology.

Where are you in terms of the program?

I finished; I’m on post-doc fellowship.
Are zombies metaphysically possible?

Yes, so it seems.

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

3D computer programming; hanging out with my wife! 🙂

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

1. Resist pride.
2. Don’t follow trends for trends sake.
3. If non-philosophers don’t understand your ideas, then you probably don’t either.
4. You’ll make faster progress in philosophy if you seek to thoroughly understand a person’s viewpoint before objecting to it; you’ll also make more friends.
5. Do you love philosophy? If so, then go for it. Otherwise, do something else. 🙂

What advice can you give to budding Christian philosophers?

1. You’ll soon be able to out-argue many of your atheist friends. Resist the temptation to conquer with arguments. It’s better to show love and seek understanding.

2. Be humble.

3. Be humble.

4. Read Al Plantinga’s, “Advice to Christian Philosophers” (if you haven’t already).

~Josh

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