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About Me

About Me 2018-05-02T10:52:38+00:00

I am happily married to Jill Gibson and have one son, Søren. This page will give you some background about me, which I suppose you are looking at because you either wonder who is writing these crazy philosophy posts or you are a recruiter who Googled me after looking at LinkedIn.

Philosophy

Education

I earned my B.A. at Biola University in philosophy. My thesis was on Harry Frankfurt’s view of the relation between cares and reasons. My education here was driven by two excellent professors: Gregg Ten Elshof and David Ciocchi. Both of them deserve credit for changing me from a know-it-all to someone who realized how little I knew. They regularly destroyed me in philosophical disputes and were very humble about it all. Patience had to be one of their greatest virtues. At Biola, I was the first to receive the Delbert J. Hanson Outstanding Philosophy Major Award. This went to the student who was thought to be most likely to succeed in the field based on performance in the program. It turns out that many of my undergraduate friends beat me there by a long shot, as they have gone on to teach at very good schools. I did help do a few things at Biola that were cool. First, I helped start the undergraduate philosophy club, which as far as I know still exists. Second, I helped republish Dallas Willard’s work, Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge: A Study in Husserl’s Philosophy. I could not find a single copy of this, used or new, on any of the book sites. So I worked out a deal with the head person at the Biola library to take their clean used copy and republish it through Wipf & Stock, which yielded two new clean copies for the library. Of course, I got approval from Dallas on this, who was happy to see excitement about his book. It is a great book. The money was then used to fund the philosophy club. I recall around 400 copies being sold.

After a few years of being out of school, I returned to Biola’s graduate program, the M.A. in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics program at Talbot Seminary. My philosophical work here was entirely with Garry DeWeese, who I feel as if I had returned to be a thorn in the side of another Biola professor. Other course work was in theology. At the same time, I was auditing coursework at UC Riverside under John Martin Fischer. During undergrad, I had read John’s work and was impressed. So I emailed him with the offer of taking him out to lunch provided he would entertain some philosophical questions. With three other people, one of whom went on to earn his PhD at Riverside working on free will, John agreed and spent three hours with us. We did pay for his lunch, as was appropriate because a deal is a deal. The man is incredibly gracious. Although I did not get the opportunity to work with him (Riverside did not want me, three times in fact), I was fortunate to take courses with him and regularly discuss with him. I left Talbot after one year in order to find a more financially secure program – one that paid graduate students.

That program is the terminal M.A. at Western Michigan University. I spent three years at WMU.  Two years were formal coursework and the third year was auditing courses and working as a lecturer in the topics of logic and the history of philosophy of science. My concentration was Epistemology and Philosophy of Science. As a result, I spent a lot of time studying under Tim McGrew and Marc Alspector-Kelly. This was a formative time for my epistemological views because I leaned toward a safety account of knowledge; Tim is an internalist, and Mark is a sensitivity theorist with a lot of sympathy for Quine.

Under Tim I learned about philosophical issues related to probability, some formal epistemology, and the history of philosophy of science with an emphasis in astronomy. Tim helped me gain logical chops; before studying under him, I was only able to make intuitive judgments about whether inferences were good (aside from basic logical inferences). After studying with him, various formalizations were additional tools in my philosophy box. The most interesting project I worked on under Tim was to determine which account of thought experiments best fit with Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. I also did a directed study with him on the nature of inference to the best explanation. Tim helped me start to become intentional about anything I put into a paper, e.g. every comma, phrase, and sentence. If any sentence was unnecessary for the point of a paragraph, remove it. If there is a way to say the same thing in less words without loss of meaning, use that instead. A. J. Ayer was held as a model of writing well, despite how flawed his views were. In addition, Tim holds several views that are philosophically unpopular (e.g., classical foundationalism, substance dualism, rejecting S5). But the man is incredibly smart, and he is very capable of defending his views, as I learned in challenging them throughout my time there. This taught me to be courageous in defending views, even if unpopular, provided that the defense is intelligent. And where no intelligent defense is possible, admit the need to think about the topic further. He helped me find funding after I had finished coursework so that I could remain in the department while my wife finished her degree in another department. And Tim modeled for me what it is like to be a Christian philosopher working in a department with philosophers who regarded your view as obviously false, bizarre, and in some cases with hostility. This includes not only how to conduct oneself intellectually, but also to do the right thing when it is the unpopular thing, even among colleagues. I profoundly respect Tim and I am glad to have remained friends with him since 2007.

Under Mark I learned about 20th century figures such as Carnap, Ayer, and various topics related to realism, e.g. What is realism and anti-realism? What should one think about realism about mathematical entities or unobservables in scientific theories? Is science aimed at truth? As someone who thinks one goal of philosophy is worldview building, I found working with Mark on these issues to be beneficial. On a personal note, working with him what enjoyable because he could take some jabs and return them as well. I once posted a single-page paper on his office door arguing that the analysis of knowledge was most likely the T of JTB and probably something else. It does not include belief, for reasons related to Williamson’s work. Nor does it include justification, because justification is an internalist concept. But truth was necessary and not sufficient. So K = ?T. I meant this as a joke but Mark decided to spend the first 15 minutes of class arguing why I was wrong about something. Mark is also a vocal defender of naturalism; Noel Saenz and I often debated him on naturalism, which was a lot of fun.

Under the late and hilarious Joseph Ellin, I learned about various anti-realist views in ethics, which resulted in me trying to see what was incorrect in writers such as Blackburn and R.M. Hare. When Joe was diagnosed with cancer, as did his wife, my wife and I spent a good deal of time getting to know and care for them up until the end. I spent a good amount of time working in metaphysics with Quentin Smith, who I found to be respectful of me despite my theistic beliefs. (That respect, however, was not widely given to theistic, and especially Christian, students in the department. In general, Quentin had a bias against Christians being in the department, but for whatever reason he did not have a problem with me. He once asked me if I wanted him to write a letter to get into another program like Princeton. I thanked him for the offer but did not take him up on this.) I also gained an interest in early modern philosophers. This includes Hume and Reid, studying under Mike Pritchard, and Descartes, Locke, and Newton, studying under Zvi Biener. Mike introduced me to issues in moral psychology, and he was a wonderful teacher. One of the nicest academics I’ve ever met. Zvi made me see the importance of understanding the historical context in which a philosophical work is written in order to properly reconstruct the author’s arguments.

While at WMU, I also kept up with the literature on free will. WMU eventually hired a lecturer who had published one paper on Frankfurt cases. This opened up more opportunities for conversations about free will and moral responsibility. In my third year, I was fortunate to be invited to Yale to defend Frankfurt-cases against an argument given by one of Derk Pereboom’s students. I also responded to an early draft of Andrew Bailey’s “Incompatibilism and the Past” paper at WMU’s graduate philosophy conference. Finally, related to free will specifically, this was the last time I harassed Tim O’Connor about who is the greatest ping pong player in philosophy. Tim would not take up my challenge because I did not have a PhD. Because I chose to leave academic philosophy, Tim can continue to keep his self-appointed title.

I spent three more years in a doctoral program at UC Irvine before choosing to change careers.  For a variety of reasons, I did not like the program. It probably did not help that I was traveling from San Diego to Orange County between three and five days a week, one and a half hours each way. I was also older, married, had a mortgage, and other students were very young. Many of them drank from the fountain of constructivism without ever reading any serious realists in metaethics. Many were dismissive of metaphysics because “science”. On one occasion, I ridiculed them for throwing around philosophical terms (e.g. “existentialism”) without having the slightest idea of how to explain them. It bothered them that a first-year student (who had four years graduate school by that time) could think someone with more years in the department was a sophist, or worse, say as much. It did not help that I was able to get a paper written during my first year accepted for publication in a top journal. One faculty member who was soon up for tenure review was having a difficult time publishing, having published nothing in several years though he tried. He advised me that I should hold off on submitting anything else for publication because it would “help my [James’] career.” … … … He received tenure…. Fortunately, I did have some friends in the department and I liked many of the faculty. I did have great academic standing in the department, earning the highest award possible for the third year portfolio review and graduating with distinction (4.0 GPA); both of my paper submissions were either published or under review at the time. I enjoyed taking a year of Attic Greek my third and final year at UCI from someone in the Classics department. Despite the many things that made the department dysfunctional at the time (and it might not be now, I don’t know), many of my professors had a big impact on me.

I took several courses from Bonnie Kent, whose combination of interests in medieval philosophy, philosophical theology, and moral psychology drew my attention. Bonnie taught me two very important lessons that I have carried with me as I write and think about other issues. First, for one to write well is to write as if one is teaching. Too many papers and books are written for an audience of specialists; such papers are often filled with jargon and handy-wavy moves. This makes for papers that can be incomprehensible to anyone outside the one or two dozen specialists who might read the paper, and it reduces the number of people to convince or much less care about the topic. Writing as if teaching, by contrast, can reduce uncharitableness among journal reviewers provided they read the paper carefully. The second idea she conveyed like this: “In philosophy, there are lion and jackals. The lions drive new areas of research and structure what the central issues are. The jackals come in after the lions and pick up where the lions left off. They will write the responses to the lions and then another jackal will respond to that jackal on some tiny technical point. Continue to be a lion.” I have tried to implement this in my work in arguing for Calvinism, where I think the unappreciated issues have to do with moral psychology and redemption rather than about issues related to providence and foreknowledge. The second place I have tried to implement this is in developing a novel argument for compatibilism. My view is that by asking how we know whether another acts freely we can see that some versions of compatibilism are more plausible than incompatibilist views, because on the incompatibilist views the central features in virtue of which one acts freely cannot be known by others, but the central features of compatibilist freedom can be known. It may be a surprise to some then that compatibilism turns out to be the most common sense view.

Mark Fiocco was the metaphysician under whom I studied. Mark taught me the importance of being able to summarize the main point and argument of a paper very quickly. That is, almost every paper starts with a simple idea, which then gets dressed up with details. If you can identify the simple idea, you can understand the moves in the paper more quickly. He also helped me see that paper titles matter. Not always, of course. But knowing the title can clue you in to what the author thinks. (If you are a professor reading this, try this experiment: assign some paper to be read before the next class; then before you begin to discuss the paper, ask the students to write down the title of the paper. Based on my experience, you will be surprised at how few know it.)  Mark helped me gain confidence that not every metaphysician today has bought into reducing metaphysics to determining what our quantifiers range over. There are still people who think Aristotle was onto something more interesting than Quine. For once it was nice having a metaphysician under whom I could study and not disagree with more than half of the things that were said. (As an aside: while I was at UCI, Mark was engaged and soon to be married. Once I found out his wedding date was soon arriving, I printed a copy of Dan Moller’s “An Argument Against Marriage” and stuck it in his mailbox. I am not quite sure, but I think Mark found that to be funny.)

Sven Bernecker was the epistemologist I studied under. Sven is an analytic philosopher as much as any. He taught contemporary epistemology courses, which I took. But he also taught a course on the German Idealists, starting from Kant, and covering Fichte, Schelling, and others. It was eye opening that once you can get past the post-Kantian jargon, you can see that their issues are very much the same as 20th century writers. To what extent, if at all, can we know about the external world? Is knowledge by acquaintance possible or is all knowledge discursive? To what extent should our theories comport with common sense? I had written on Hegel’s concept of sense certainty, which is about some of these issues, as well as whether foundationalism is a defensible view of the structure of justification.

Casey Perin taught me to love the ancients. Although Casey’s specialty is Pyrrhonian skepticism, his courses on Plato and Aristotle helped me see that you can do analytic philosophy with these authors. My work under Casey was on a puzzle about Aristotle’s view of courage, which resulted in me coming up with a new line on a section of the Nicomachean Ethics. I was able to use my view on this section when I was invited to comment on a good paper at the first ancient philosophy conference at UC Riverside, which is run annually by Josef Muller. I also worked on Plato’s view of mereology as found in the Parmenides, which is one of the more difficult Platonic texts. What I like about Casey is that he can do ancient philosophy with an eye toward contemporary philosophical issues. Moreover, ancient philosophy for him does not reduce to the interpretive challenge of proving a historical author to be almost inerrant. The other issue Casey raised my interest in is the meaning of life. At a certain point in our careers, we should pause and ask, “What is the point of it all?” Casey asked this question. This was a pretty candid question to hear as a graduate student from a professor who appeared to have it together as much as any other successful person (which is not to say he does not have it together!). It helped me see my professors as having the same sorts of concerns as the rest of us, just at a different stage in life. Casey was a strong advocate for me and was always enjoyable in my conversations with him. I appreciated his mentorship very much and miss our conversations.

Penelope Maddy is a philosopher whose knowledge is encyclopedic. I took a course from her on conceptual analysis in the 20th century (plus Frege). Pen’s teaching style was to proceed with caution and care. She showed no interest in showing off. She wanted to get to the nuts and bolts of what an author was saying before even bothering with raising objections. I was impressed with this attitude and have tried to follow her approach to understanding a view with patience than to gain a little victory or misrepresent an author. I have not been perfect at this, but we can’t all be Pen Maddy. We should still try.

The last professor at UC Irvine who had a big impact on me was Nicholas Jolley. Nick was perhaps one of the funniest professors I ever had. I took two courses with him: one on Spinoza’s Ethics and another on political philosophy in the modern period. This covered Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. I do not think I took more notes in a course than with him (something near 100 pages). Nick is one of those guys who not only knows the interesting historical details and how that impacted what an author would say, but his lectures illuminate topics of interest to contemporary analytic writers. Nick is the person responsible for getting me to begin to think deeply about politics. Nick was also very personable. During that time I was (mis)diagnosed with cancer. Nick took an interest in drawing me to a conversation about that while I attempted to divert him back to philosophy. Upon reflection, it was a time where I was still an immature graduate student more concerned about my conveying an image of someone doing serious philosophy around the clock at the cost of having healthy relationships.

When I left UCI to pursue a career in software engineering, I left pretty abruptly. I had written one professor a half-truth explanation for why I was leaving the program. I texted another to say I was leaving and did not take him up to meet about it (he had the bad habit of condescending to students, and in my mid 30s I did not need his advice to make an informed decision). And the third I told after I had filed the forms only because he was my dissertation committee advisor. It was a stressful time and I did a bad job at explaining where I was at. I wish I conveyed the value each of them contributed to my education and my formation as a thinker. Hopefully some of them can find this.

Influences

This section will note who have been my greatest influences, which is not to say that I agree with the views of these people.

Epistemology: Duncan Pritchard, William Alston, Michael Williams, Thomas Reid, Tim McGrew, Gregg Ten Elshof, and Karsten Steuber.

Metaphysics: E. J. Lowe, John Martin Fischer, Crawford Elder, Tomis Kapitan, Alvin Plantinga, and Peter van Inwagen.

Software Engineering

Forthcoming