In this interview, John Bickle, Professor of Philosophy and Head of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Mississippi State University, talks about his childhood in Texas, how he got into UCLA, how he realized he didn't like doing experiments, slam dancing and mechanistic explanations of human behavior, working at restaurants and learning to cook, taking classes on psychobiology and realizing its relevance to philosophy (a few years before Paul and Pat Churchland made it cool), being a deadhead, taking classes with Richard Healey, Alonzo Church, Kit Fine and a bunch of fantastic neuroscientists, putting together a survivalist cookbook, the unique challenges of being the chair of a department, why he thinks the South gets a bad rap, the reason Carnap is underrated and misunderstood, his interest in political philosophy, especially libertarianism, his favorite politicians and who he’d vote for in 2016, why he thinks Republicans deserve Donald Trump, studying living organisms at the speed of light, why he likes Westerns, his favorite comedian (it isn’t Jon Stewart), and his favorite curse word.
What was your family like?
I grew up mainly in north central and east Texas, mostly north of Dallas--which was not quite the megalopolis back then that it is now. My Dad was a first-generation college student in both my Mom and Dad's families, in fact the only one, and I can remember from the time I was a little kid that not going to college wasn't going to be an option! My Mom came from a family of Czech immigrants who wound up in Dallas. My maternal great-grandfather (grandmother's father) had come to America after the end of the First World War. He landed in Galveston and worked his way up to Dallas, working Czech and German farms on his way up. Then he sent for his wife (my maternal great-grandmother) and then-two daughters, the younger being my grandmother who (I think) had been born just before he left western Czechoslovakia. He was a saddle-maker by trade, and settled into the growing (and thriving) Czech immigrant community in Dallas as a cobbler and shoemaker. His old saddle-maker harness sits in our living room! Coming from such a background on my Mom's maternal side, we were a lot closer to them than to other sides of our family. I didn't know my Mom's paternal side well. They also were Czech immigrants, but lived in South Texas. My maternal grandfather had made his way up to Dallas learning the skills of a machinery mechanic.
On my Dad's side, I knew may maternal grandmother well, but was less close to my Dad's brother or cousins on that side though my older cousin on that side was quite the high school football star, playing linebacker at New Boston High in east Texas, in the same conference as fabled Oklahoma and then Detroit Lions running back, Billy Sims, who played for New Boston's rival, Hooks High. As I recall, the two faced each other twice, before Sims went on to football stardom and my cousin Jim Bickle went on to join the Air Force. I spent some time out in New Boston, where my paternal grandmother lived for many years. I knew my Dad's paternal side of the family not at all--virtually no memories beyond remembering a handful of photos.
Speaking of my immediate family, I've got my younger brother, who now lives out in Arizona (in Mesa, around Phoenix). Both of my parents are still alive, and thriving in their late- and mid-70s (they live in Sun City, a retirement community near Georgetown, Texas, 40 miles north of Austin).
What were you interested in as a kid?
As far as interests go, I was mostly into sports. I played baseball through high school and tried my hand at golf (although I couldn't compete with my younger brother at the latter, who quickly got really good, and still is to this day). I was an okay-student in high school, mostly due to lack of effort! I did make it through AP-Biology (got a 3 on that Test, in the old way of scoring it out of 5, with 3 getting you some college credit) and was one of two Chemistry TAs (so to speak) as a senior, so interest in science was always there (if not the effort I'd put into it later!), and AP-English (also got a 3 on that), but I was by no means a stellar student then! But I graduated and got accepted at UCLA, which was my first choice in colleges. There was a standing joke in my family for years about that. A work acquaintance of my Dad's had been a UCLA grad, and wrote a letter of recommendation for me when he learned that I wanted to go to UCLA. The joke in my family was that "must have been a heck of a letter." As you might guess from this, my Mom and especially my Dad didn't think I tried hard enough at my studies in high school!
What drew you to UCLA?
I wanted to live in southern California. I envisioned living on the beach, doing all that cool stuff. And UCLA had always had an allure with me, even though I actually didn't know much about the university or the campus, except what one saw on TV.
In retrospect, it was one of the best choices I ever made. The education, in both neuroscience and philosophy, was great, and the extra-curricular activities (ahem!) were a blast. I started listening to and following the good ole Grateful Dead, and kept that up all through the 1980s. I was out in southern California when the punk revolution took root there, and I saw a lot of those legendary bands in their earliest incarnations--but from up in the stands, not down in the pits with the punk slam dancers. Maybe my long-term interests in mechanistic explanations of human behavior can be traced back to those experiences with some of the excesses of it?
As a freshman, did you have any idea what you were going to major in?
I started at UCLA as pre-med. Took the standard litany of science courses my freshman year. That didn't last long. See the above paragraph--my grades for my first year-and-a-half weren't stellar (to put it mildly!). Fortunately by winter quarter of my sophomore year I turned things around (cut down my marijuana smoking considerably!) and started doing well in class (pretty much a 4.0 from then on).
So, wait a minute, you're telling me drugs don't help one do well in school?
Well, I won’t speak for anybody but myself, but marijuana certainly saps my motivation!
Were there any other controlled substances on the menu back then?
Well, I partook a bit in psychedelics. Got into the Dead for a lot of the ‘80s but fortunately never got too much into trippin’. Strictly recreational. Drank a lot of beer back in the day, which I’ve since replaced with good straight Kentucky bourbon, and in far less quantities.
My students think I must do a lot of drugs when we start talking about skepticism. Do you think altered states can give you insights philosophically, or are they merely fun?
For me they were merely fun, as you put it. I don’t recall getting any specific insights when high. (Do notice that I said “don’t recall” there, though!) Even when I was a Deadhead, I was definitely of the “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll” part of that community rather than the mystical folks. Motivations for frames of mind, like philosophers’ willingness to suspend part answers and play around with basic assumptions, can be hard to suss out, though—both scientifically and introspectively. Who knows how much my previous drug use contributed to that?
So, how did you get into philosophy?
Having really liked the introduction to the brain in my freshman biology classes, I turned to the Psychobiology major at UCLA, then in the Psychology department. I also took a lower division Introduction to Philosophy of Mind course, taught by the philosopher of physics Richard Healey (of course I didn't know he was a philosopher of physics back then). That spurred my interest in philosophy and I started ruminating about the relationship well before Paul and Pat Churchland convinced people that there was something complementary about these two disciplines! Eventually I double-majored, in Psychobiology and Philosophy. I also took some new courses in molecular biology and the brain, which was an emerging field at UCLA at that time. Interesting stage setting for what was to come!
Any other favorite teachers at the time?
By far the one who stands out most in my memory was Alonzo Church. He was already in his 80s back then, and his courses had only 5-10 students in them, but you knew you were in the room with sheer genius, even as a naïve undergraduate. As soon as he got to class he picked up the chalkboard eraser--yes, it was still the days of chalkboards in old Dodd Hall--and started erasing. Any mark on the board that might mistakenly be confused as a logical symbol (or part thereof) was erased. And this took some time--he was in his 80s! I was able to take his philosophy of language course--Mill, Frege, and Russell--his metalogic course--taught out of his own textbook, Introduction to Metamathematics, Part I (as far as I know, Part II was never published), and a seminar he taught on Russell's theory of types.
I also had the opportunity to take modal logic from a young Kit Fine, out of a draft of a textbook on the subject that I'm not sure he ever published. (I still have it, laying around my office somewhere.) That was my first real introduction to serious model theory. On the neuroscience side, the course with Floyd Bloom as the lead lecturer was the one I remember most. It was basically an introduction to the molecular biology of the neuron. I also spent a good deal of time working in a psychopharmacology lab.
What did you do when you weren’t partying or studying?
I also learned to cook, working in a variety of restaurants, both on campus and in the surrounds. Got pretty good at it, too--in fact, if grad school in philosophy or neuroscience didn't pan out, cooking school was my plan B.
When did you realize you wanted to go to grad school?
Grad school, in either philosophy or neuroscience, had been in my plans at least since I got things together in the classroom by the middle of my sophomore year. Philosophy rose to the top mainly because it became clear to me that my mechanical skills and interests were going to make it difficult for me to be a great lab scientist. Not to mention that I'd probably die by age 40 of a heart attack if I went that route! I It frustrated me to no end when I'd spent hours getting an experiment set up, and then something would break--or the animal wouldn't behave as expected--or you got the results back later and clearly something had gone wrong. I was a lot more impatient back them than I am now--and I know that's saying a lot!
A person who lived next door to me during my early days in grad school was the consummate experimental scientist. His passion was playing with the equipment (he was a physical chemist who worked with lasers.) If serious work got done in the meantime, great! But for him, playing with the laser was his interest. Not surprisingly, he went on to a great career at a military research institute then Cal Tech. that kind of dedication to lab equipment and its function just wasn't in my bones, and fortunately I learned that also as an undergraduate at UCLA.
But neuroscience, especially what I had learned about the emerging molecular paradigm at UCLA, was still at the front of my interests. Fortunately UC Irvine Philosophy admitted me as a Ph.D. student, in Fall 1983 and promised me I could study neuroscience at the graduate level as well as philosophy of science. Do note that this was one year before the Churchlands moved to UC San Diego, just down the 405 freeway. Had they moved a year or two earlier, I might have applied there. But the Irvine offer seemed to be just what I was looking for, and in Fall 1983 I started there. Once again, in retrospect, it was one of the best choices of my life. Pretty lucky for a naïve kid, huh?
So, who did you work with at UC Irvine? I imagine this was an exciting time to be there.
In philosophy, Brian Skyrms, Joe Lambert, Peter Woodruff, and David Woodruff Smith. This was before the official break between Philosophy and Logic and Philosophy of Science, although de facto that break was already in place during the entire 6 years I was there (1983-1989). After 1985 I spent some time tooling down the 405 Freeway, after the Churchlands had set up shop at UCSD.
Neurobiologically I worked mostly with Norm Weinberger. Norm had actually been a philosophy major as an undergraduate, so he didn’t think it was so weird that a philosopher wanted to learn real neurobiology. Norm was really smart and put up with absolutely no B.S., scientifically or philosophically. Arguing with him was great training. I also worked some with a really good young cognitive neuroscientist at the time, Mary Louise Kean, who went on to be an administrator at UC Irvine. I also had the opportunity to see Gary Lynch in action, only a few years after he found the key evidence that LTP is a post-synaptic effect in mammals. Lynch had the remarkable ability, within a single conversation or lecture, to take you from the details of neurochemistry and molecular biology up to circuits and behavior, absolutely seamlessly and with crystal clarity at each step of the trek. Remarkable. I remember thinking back then, wow, it sure would be cool to be able to do that someday.
What did you write your dissertation on? Who was your dissertation director?
It was titled Toward a Scientific Reformulation of the Mind-Body Problem. Chapter One was the Churchland’s “intertheoretic reduction” reformulation of the mind-body problem and Cliff Hooker’s detailed work on intertheoretic reduction which grounded that. Chapter 2 was some criticism of that view. I wound up denying that folk psychology was a theory in the specific sense the account required. Chapter 3 was Sellars exegesis—his concept off an image, his stereoscope metaphor, and his scientific realism. Not surprisingly, Paul Churchland recommended that to me, but both Skyrms and Peter Woodruff were Pitt Ph.D.s, so they knew their Sellars, too. Chapter Four was neurobiology treated in Sellars’ terms, and the clash of that “image” with folk psychology’s. David Woodruff Smith chaired my committee. Joe Lambert, Brian Skyrms, and Peter Woodruff were on it from philosophy. Norm Weinberger and Mary-Louise Kean were on it from neurobiology.
Was this an easy process?
I don’t remember it being that difficult. I do remember having trouble getting started on the actual writing of my dissertation. I remember lots of false starts. But once the project got rolling I don’t remember too many blocks or obstacles.
Did you get a chance to teach?
Definitely. Lightly in my first year in graduate school (I had a fellowship that only required meto TA one quarter during my first year), then more heavily in years 2, 3 and 4. I was the UC Irvine Salzburg exchange fellow in my 5th year, and had a dissertation fellowship for my sixth, to finish up.
Did you enjoy it?
I did. I’ve done considerably less teaching over the past fifteen years of being department head (9 years in Cincinnati, now 6 years here at State). But I like to teach, both philosophy and neuroscience, and consider myself a good teacher. I put a lot of effort into preparing for class, even intro classes, and I think I’m pretty good at explaining things. (Trying to explain detailed neurobiology to philosophers and cognitive scientists has helped me there, I think!)
Any room for love in grad school?
I got married in 1987, toward the end of my fourth year in graduate school. That marriage didn’t work out in the end—it ended in the mid-1990s—but graduate school wasn’t to blame for that!
What did you do in your spare time?
Cooking has stuck with me. I get great enjoyment out of cooking for large groups, and day-to-day meals. Many people don’t know this, but for about 10 years now I’ve been amassing a database of recipes from regional American cookbooks, mostly from the 1950s-1970s. I call it the Big Food Manual and Survivalist Flourishing Guide. It contains some of my award-wining chili, gumbo, and barbecue recipes, plus a bunch of old recipes from my grandmother and other maternal relatives who immigrated to Texas from Czechoslovakia right after Word War II and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
That’s awesome. When you finished up, what was the market like?
It was tough, but not anything like it got later, and seems to be remaining. There just didn’t seem to be as many people looking for jobs as there are now.
Were you confident you were going to get a job?
I suppose I was. I had a lot of APA interviews my first time out (December 1988, when I was all but done). Got one of the Ole Miss jobs that year. Was still looking around after that and had numerous other interviews, both APA and campus, before I got the East Carolina job. Stayed put there when that one came along, until leaving for the department head position at Cincinnati.
Moving around, have you managed to keep in touch with folks?
I kept in touch with Paul Graves for awhile. He’s a philosopher of language, formalistically oriented, who was chair for awhile at Oakland University up by Detroit. Lost touch with Paul Schweizer, a logician, who last I heard was part of the very good Cognitive Science program at U Edinburgh in Scotland. I saw Clotilde Calabi when I was in Italy a couple of years ago—she’s now at the University in Milan. Nobody else, though. I still keep up with Valerie Hardcastle, who I first met when she was a grad student at UCSD, and had kept up with Bill Ramsey, who I also met way back in my travels down to UCSD while I was finishing up at Irvine. Haven’t kept up with Bill since he moved to UNLV, though. I still see Bob Westmoreland, just up the road from me now at Ole Miss. We were colleagues at Ole Miss back in the day (1989-1991). I’ve lost touch with my old East Carolina crowd, too: Nick Georgalis, Umit Yalcin, George Bailey. Time marches on. I do still keep up with some of my Cincinnati colleagues, Tom Polger in particular, and my former Ph.D. students there—all of whom are working!
How did you meet your wife?
A nontraditional student showed up in my Honors Introduction to Philosophy class back in Spring of 1994 at East Carolina University. On occasions she brought one of her daughters to class. I learned over the course of the semester that she had earned a Bachelor’s degree in Biology previously, and was now back in school to get her teaching certificate and to pick upa second undergraduate degree in Philosophy. She learned quickly that I fancied myself as knowing some neuroscience, so many class meetings became attempts by her to “stump the professor.” After all, what could some philosopher know about neurobiology?
Obviously we didn’t start dating then. But both of us were wrapping up divorces to our first spouses and a couple of semesters later, when Marica was a graduate M.S. student in the Biology department at ECU, we started dating. And the rest is history.
Sometimes it seems like being chair of a department can be unforgiving. What are the biggest challenges being a chair, you think?
I find scheduling to be the most onerous, especially here at Mississippi State. At Cincinnati scheduling was easier since the curriculum was up to date and I could count on my colleagues to choose a pretty regular set of class rotations. One of the first things we had to do when I got to Mississippi State was update the curriculum. That’s pretty much done now, so scheduling has now become just a twice-a-year chore.
One thing I count my lucky stars about is that at both of the departments I’ve headed, I’ve had outstanding business managers. An incompetent business manager truly would be death to a department chair.
There was the added challenge here at Mississippi State that the department was in more serious trouble when I arrived than what I was told when I was interviewing for the job. The Arts and Sciences Dean really had gone out on a limb to keep the department from being disbanded before they went looking externally for a new department head. That, coupled with the financial crisis at the time (Fall 2009, early 2010) made for some stressful early days here.
One thing that a Philosophy Head or Chair has to bear in mind continuously is “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.” I’ve always made it a point to tell higher administrators about the many accomplishments of Philosophy faculty—probably to the point of annoying them somewhat. But there’s simply no substitute for self-promotion with administrators who often don’t think of the Philosophy department right off the bat.
Also, heads and chairs have to learn where the available money is on campus. Is it in a center or institute? Is it from Distance Learning? It doesn’t take a lot of money to run a Philosophy Department, but a visiting speaker series is a must, and so is more travel money than what’s in your department travel budget line from the College or university. And every place I’ve been, I’ve found such money available for the getting, somewhere. You’ve got to seek it out, and where it is can differ from university to university. That alone will provide a real boost to faculty morale.
Ever miss Cincinnati? Or East Carolina?
I parted company with the department at Cincinnati on good terms. Everybody knew I was looking to buy farm land and looking to move back to the south. And that department has thrived since I left. Valerie Hardcastle in her final year or so as Dean gave them the opportunity to hire, and they hired really well. I still hang out with Tom Polger, Valerie, and Koffi Maglo whenever I see them at conferences, and I wish I had a chance to see Bob Richardson more often than I do. I definitely miss working with graduate students. I’m really pleased that all my former neurophilosophy graduate students now have jobs. My new position in neurobiology at the University of Mississippi Medical center hopefully will help some with this, and my new philosophy of neuroscience pre-doctoral fellowship (now in its second year) helps, too.
Unfortunately I’ve lost touch with my old friends and colleagues at ECU. And that’s too bad. Nick Georgalis and Umit Yalcin made for excellent colleagues early in my career. And I have to say that I learned a lot about how to run an academic department effectively by watching George Bailey run the ECU Philosophy department. Tempus fugit, alas.
What are the biggest differences between working and living in Cincinnati and Starkville?
Well, Cincinnati is an underrated city nationally speaking. And it is a real city. Starkville is a college town in the south. However, having now been in Starkville—and even more rural, at our farm in Webster county, Mississippi 40 miles to the west—I can honestly say that there’s nothing I miss about urban living. The country kid from east and north central Texas that I once was has re-emerged. And I also like being a part of SEC football!
Do you think the south gets a bad rap?
Most definitely. Some of it is still deserved, but most of it is based on perceptions and memories from the past that have long since changed. The state is socially conservative and Christian religious, but so are a number of states, and many regions—and not just in the south—still to this day. One of the biggest kicks I get out of our visiting speakers program here at MSU is showing people the campus. We’re the only Carnegie Research 1 institute in the state, and only 1 of 108 such universities nationwide. Plus ours is a beautiful campus. And then I love taking people out to our farm, 40 miles to the west. And I always recommend that first-time academic visitors to the state go see Oxford and Ole Miss. Oxford is truly a unique place. Of course, for contrast, a drive down the Blues Highway in the Delta region is a real eye-opener, too. You can be in little towns and burgs when you have to remind yourself you’re in the United States. But in Mississippi’s defense, the delta regions across the river in Arkansas and Louisiana are equally desolate.
What do you do for fun nowadays?
Still cooking a lot—gumbos, chilies, tamales, barbecues. Just did about 120 servings of two gumbos, a duck-wild goose-wild quail-sausage and a crabmeat-shrimp, for the first Arts and Science tailgate for the State home opener against LSU this part Saturday. Still getting down to the coast to fish whenever we can. And workin’ on the farm. I’ll be cutting out there until early-to mid-November.
High point of your career?
The opportunity to work with Alcino Silva at UCLA has certainly been a highlight. I really like that last book, and it finally seems to be getting the attention of young neuroscientists that we hoped it would. Two chances to lecture at Cold Spring Harbor National Labs has been cool. Giving invited lectures now in 21 foreign countries (although I’ve seriously cut back on my travel of late). Getting the head position at Cincinnati before I had turned 40 was cool. The opportunity to give a trio of keynote lectures at the European Graduate Workshop on Reductionism back in 2009 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Lots of highlights.
This is going to sound kinda childish, but not getting one of those MacDonnell Neurophilosophy grants back in the late 1990s, before I left East Carolina University for U Cincinnati, frankly still stings a bit. I mean, I helped Kathleen Akins when she was writing up the grant proposal, then wrote what I thoughtwas a pretty good proposal for one of them, based on some compartmental modeling work in computational neuroscience I was pursuing way back then. Got turned down. Oh, well. I think my position in the development of the philosophy of neuroscience has since been secured.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice when you were at UC Irvine, what would it be?
Make the choice you actually made. Write up that dissertation in philosophy of neuroscience instead of neurobiology. But go ahead and do the necessary stuff to complete the graduate degree requirements for at least the M.S, degree in neurobiology, too.
I get the impression that the fundamentals of your philosophical views haven't changed. Is there anything you believe now that a younger version of yourself would be surprised you believe now?
There was one big change. I started out a committed Churchland-type scientific realist. My first book was clearly written in that vein. Then before I left East Carolina University for University of Cincinnati, back in Spring 1999 or Fall 1999, I taught an undergraduate seminar on Carnap. I was amazed at what I had missed (having read him in graduate school, as part of learning the development of analytic philosophy and its morphing into scientific philosophy in the 20th century). I was doubly amazed at what I had learned about the standard analytic/scientific philosophy story about his views, and what became of them. So much of what Quine gets credit for, Carnap anticipated … and I mean explicitly! That chunks of scientific assertions stand to empirical test? It’s explicit in Carnap’s Unity of Science monograph from 1934. That ineliminable “pragmatic” considerations go into our choice of observation language? Explicit in “Testability and Meaning” from 1936/37. How it ever came to be accepted that Quine’s dismantling of the analytic/synthetic distinction likewise dismantles Carnap’s “internal existence question/external existence question” distinction is beyond puzzling, since the only mention of “analytic” and “synthetic” in Carnap’s 1950 “Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology” essay is in a footnote. He’s got at least four arguments in that paper for treating external existence questions as pragmatic and not one of them presupposes anything like the analytic/synthetic distinction. Scandalous!
What do you think explains that misunderstanding of Carnap?
For this I blame Putnam, though Carnap helped him out. Carnap’s 1956 essay on scientific terms was actually a narrowly-focused essay. Unfortunately, it can be read more generally, and it seems to take back many of the developments of Carnap’s own philosophy over the previous 25 years. Putnam told everybody that the 1956 essay was the statement of Carnap’s matured general views. It wasn’t. By that time Carnap was engaged in trying to develop an inductive logic and didn’t really have much concern for more general issues in philosophy of science, especially given the metaphysical turn of then-dominant scientific realism. If only his 1950 essay could have stayed his “mature “ view, in the eyes of the discipline, we might tell a very different story about Carnap’s continuing role in philosophy of science, and I like to think that it would be one very much like the purely descriptive metascience I advocate doing. Anyway, that’s the theme I picked up on in my 2003 book. Couple that change in philosophy with my new interest in molecular neuroscience (which came about with my move to Cincinnati and my new faculty position in the Neuroscience Graduate Program there, and the research which dominated that program), and you’ve got: purely descriptive metascience and “ruthless reductionism”—the concerns that have occupied my work for the past decade and a half. It’s quite different, in both its philosophical and scientific orientation, than my first decade of Churchland-inspired work.
Did you ever have any interest in, or consider pursuing, other areas of philosophy, like ethics?
I’ve been interested in political philosophy for a long time, and for me that’s grounded in ethics. I’ve been a political libertarian for some time now, but can’t make sense of natural rights, the ethical basis on which so many political libertarians base their views. If any ethical concept was “nonsense on stilts,” as Bentham quipped, it’s a natural right. And despite the pretty widespread dislike of Mackie’s old “queerness” argument among ethicists nowadays, it sure seems to me that if any ethical kind is susceptible to that challenge, it’s natural rights. And so since I have no truck with political philosophy as “freestanding” away from grounding in ethics, I need some kind of story on which to ground it.
This next claim strikes some people as hopeless, but I’m convinced we can tell a scientifically plausible story about virtue ethics, pretty much in the Aristotle tradition minus Aristotle’s biology, and that this approach can ground political libertarianism. The ethical virtue of self-reliance, construed as an Aristotelian mean, is the key, along with some of the other “big” virtues (courage, integrity) which Aristotle admired so much. It’s a long story, and I don’t pretend to have told it yet—not even to myself, to my own satisfaction—but it do think it’s tellable.
Of course, in the end, it might end up sounding more like Nietzsche than Aristotle. But if that’s the case, so be it. Just because a bunch of German National Socialists found inspiration in Nietzsche doesn’t mean they got him right!
What sparked your interest in ethics and politics?
Thinking back, my interest in both politics and political philosophy was most spurred by one of my colleagues at my first job out of graduate school, Bob Westmoreland at Ole Miss. We both started there fresh out of grad school in 1989, he from UNC Chapel Hill and me from UC Irvine. Up until them I was pretty much a tepid academic leftist. Bob’s a social conservative who grounds his politics in his philosophy of religion. Needless to say, it was eye-opening to me. Bob’s also really good at ferreting out inconsistencies in other people’s political views, so mine at that time were pretty easy prey for him. It got me thinking a lot. I learned from a lot of arguing with him, and reflection, that it was my commitment to individual liberty that was paramount, and that up to that point I really only had standard academic leftist political rhetoric to express it. I started dabbling in the libertarian literature and found a new political voice.
I do have to say that my “libertarianism” in the end probably gives way to my “localism.” I had some good conversations with Matt Welch, one of the editors-in-chief of Reason magazine, when we had him down to Mississippi State back in 2011, that seemed to bring my localist commitments to the fore. That’s why I’ve always been intrigued by Part II of Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. It’s the closest I know of a work that brings the localist-libertarian conflict front and center (mainly due to Nozick’s inability to reconcile the two as easily as he thinks he does).
Who are you voting for in 2016, if anyone?
In terms of realpolitik, I’m a fan of two politicians, both now retired from politics: Ron Paul and Gary Johnson. We don’t have Ron Paul anymore, or Gary Johnson, and that’s a drag. By the way, I saw a great video interview of Gary Johnson a couple of months ago by Reason Magazine editor Nick Gillespie. He’s now CEO of a marijuana company in Colorado and has no intentions of returning to politics. More power to him!
I’ll wait to see who the Libertarian party nominates. If he or she is a real Libertarian, that’s my man or woman.If I can’t stomach their nominee, I just won’t vote for that office. And also by the way, I’m having no end of delights watching the Republican party self-destruct. The Democrats are hopelessly Big Government; the Republicans add hypocrisy to that. They deserve The Donald.
Any interesting projects on the horizon?
A bunch. One of more former Ph.D. students at Cincinnati, Aaron Kostko, and I have a paper coming out in an MIT Press volume comparing the account of causal-mechanistic explanation on offer in the Silva, Landreth, and Bickle book to Jim Woodward’s interventionist account, which remains the dominant account of casual explanation (and admittedly rightly so) in philosophy of science to this day. We’re also working on a more focused paper on that very topic, arguing with the help of a great, detailed example of recent neuroscience, that there are at least two practices in contemporary cellular and molecular neuroscience which the SLB account handles easily and naturally, but for which Woodward’s account needs an ad hoc add-on to handle. And then there’s optogenetics as a new experimental tool in neurobiology. Unprecedented control over the activation or quieting of selected individual neurons in the living, behaving animal at the speed of light. Scientific and philosophical implications galore there (though if you want to hear about them you’ll have to invite me out to give a talk!). That’s one great thing about focusing one’s philosophical attention on cellular and molecular neuroscience. One really doesn’t know what’s coming down the pike next.
How do you see the future of philosophy? Does it come to an end or does it go on and on forever and ever?
I don’t see it coming to an end. I think more and more of it merges with the relevant science, but people will never quit asking critical questions about what we’re doing trying to push forward knowledge and push back ignorance. Think of a pair of scientists, one “philosophical,” the other not. Conversation which with one is more fun? More invigorating? More intellectually enlightening? The answer is obvious. Philosophy as I’m coming to realize is really more of an intellectual attitude rather than an academic discipline. So long as people continue to strive to flourish intellectually (and morally), the philosophical attitude isn’t going away any time soon—despite the best efforts of the Corporate State to squash it out.
What are your favorite movies?
Still a big fan of westerns, especially ones from the 40s through the 70s. Portraits of the moral virtue of self-reliance.
Other than college football and baseball come playoff time, not much. I do sometimes watch The Marty Stuart show for 30 minutes of pretty interesting music (sometimes). I did watch the first couple of years of Big Bang Theory, when the science jokes outnumbered the silly sexual shenanigans. And there’s always King of the Hill reruns—truly some of TV’s finer moments. Mike Judge is a contemporary comic genius. It’s amazing that hacks like Seth McFarlane and John Stewart command the attention they do, as predictable as they are, while someone like Judge just keeps on poking real fun at everything—even silly liberal policies.
I agree about Judge. Brilliant guy! Favorite curse word?
Still saying “fucking” too much, especially in private company.
Changes day by day. Going fishing down at the Alabama coast this weekend so am going to gorge on Gulf seafood. But one thing’s for sure—whatever it is that suits my fancy on that fateful day, I hope I’m the one who gets to cook it.
I think we’re all done here. Thanks John!
Great fun, Cliff. Thanks for including me in this.