As I mentioned before, I’ve been thinking about Vincent Hendricks and John Symons’ five questions about Formal Philosophy. This seems like as good a place as any to answer them. So, today, I’ll have a crack at the most autobiographical of the questions:
I suppose the natural way to interpret this question is something like “why do formal methods rather than anything else in philosophy” but in my case I’d rather answer the related question “why, given that you’re interested in formal methods, apply them in philosophy rather than elsewhere.” I started off my academic life as an undergraduate student in mathematics, because I was good at mathematics and studying it more seemed like a good idea at the time.
I enjoyed mathematics a great deal. At the University of Queensland, where I was studying, there was a special cohort of “Honours” students right from the first year. You were taught more research-oriented and rigourous subjects than were provided for the “Pass” students. This meant that we had a small cohort of students, who knew each other pretty well, studied together and learned a lot. I could see myself making an academic career in mathematics. (I surely couldn’t see myself doing anything other than an academic career. Being around the university was too much fun.)
However, there was a fly in the ointment. I was doing well in my studies, but I was losing the feel for a great deal of the mathematics I was doing. Applied mathematics went first, and analysis soon after. I could do the work, but I didn’t understand it. I wrote assignments by matching patterns from what I had written in my lecture notes, or what was in the text with what we were asked. In exams, I just bashed away at the problem, sometimes when asked in an exam to prove that A = B, I’d work at A from the top of a page and keep manipulating it until I’d got stuck. Then I’d work backwards from B, hoping to meet at somewhere rather like where I’d got stuck. If I was honest, I’d write “I don’t know how to get from here to there”. If I was dishonest, I’d just leave the transition unexplained. Knowing what I know now about marking assignments, it doesn’t suprise me that I did very well…
The areas where intuition and understanding lasted the longest (and which were most fun) were topology, probability theory, combinatorics, set theory and logic. There were so few honours subjects I really wanted to do that in my last year I struck a deal with the mathematics department that I could do a reading course in logic with the newly arrived professor in the Philosophy Department. The professor was Graham Priest, and the reading course was my introduction to philosophical logic.
At the very same time as I was wondering how to continue with academic life, I was very involved in Christian student things: in the little group I was in, I ran study groups, I organised meetings, I wrote publicity material, and I did a bucketload of reading. In particular, while trying to figure out what I believed about things (about a lot of things), I read a lot of philosophy of religion and other philosophy written by Christians. I found the philosophy more interesting, more rigourous and more accessible than a great deal of the theology I had been reading. This piqued my interest in doing more philosophy for myself. I hadn’t done much philosophy as an undergraduate (just two subjects), but I started trying to figure out how to do a major in Philosophy quickly, so that I could go on to postgraduate work in that field, rather than in mathematics.
It turned out that my work with Graham Priest went so well that I didn’t need to do more undergraduate study in Philosophy to start postgraduate work. (That semester course resulted in this paper, my first genuine academic publication.) I was offered a place in the Ph.D. program on the strength of my background in mathematics. I was free to pursue my interest in philosophy, and logic was the bridge. This meant that I could use the formal, mathematical skills that I had learned, on topics that interested me, and that I understood. The mathematics was simple and manageable, it was applied to interesting issues, and I got to hang around with philosophers, who are interesting people.