Meditations on (First) Philosophy and (Then) Paleontology

Update (10 January 2017)

Given that I'd prefer not to clog our "Thoughts" section with my twice-weekly musings, we've opened a new section for Journals. Please join me there!

Prologue (09 January 2017)

Some years ago I was struck by how many people falsely believed that I should grow up to become a paleontologist, and by how doubtful were their responses to my actual job description. I realized that if I were to establish any true distinction between the science and the philosophy of paleontology, I needed—just once in my life—to start from the foundations of the former as well as the latter. It seemed an enormous task and so I waited until I was old enough to be sure that nothing could be gained from putting it off any longer. [1]

Well, that’s how it works out in my mind, anyway.

Tomorrow I join the University of Oregon’s Department of Earth Sciences Masters degree program in paleontology. The move is part of my broad professional goal of opening interdisciplinary dialogue between philosophers of science and paleontologists. I’m seeing some early success, too: philosophers and paleontologists alike are making skeptical faces and asking me why.

It’s admittedly a good question. I already found the pot of gold at the end of academia’s rainbow. I won’t lose my claim to the pot if I don’t get a degree in paleontology: my viability as a professor of philosophy doesn’t depend on any credentials other than the one I already have. But I also don’t intend to use this new degree to find any new pots: the last thing I want to do is jump into the academic job market again, and if I do it won’t be for a position that requires applications for NSF grants in Donald Trump’s America. So what’s the point?

Folks, it's time to talk about Impostor Syndrome. Professional scholars spend their lives at the limits of their expertise. We can be more consciously aware of what we don’t know than we are of what we do know, if only because our research is always by its nature a confrontation of the former. This is not the sort of activity that instills self-confidence. We can feel like impostors because others praise our expertise while we dwell on our own ignorance.

That’s bad enough when you study one field, but it’s compounded by interdisciplinary study. And when you call yourself a philosopher of science, but none of your official paperwork makes any reference to science, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that you actually are the impostor you always feared yourself to be.

Of course, the contributors to this blog have all done a damn good job in using their expertise in one field to educate themselves in another so that they can justifiably speak with authority in both. It isn’t impossible to be self-taught. I’m an educator by trade, so why not educate myself?

As I get ready for my paleontology classes, I’m also working on syllabi for the philosophy courses I’ll be teaching this spring semester. Preparing a syllabus is an exercise in value judgment: the material I include is the material I judge to be most valuable to the topic of study. In this way an instructor is like a personal trainer, helping students to get into intellectual shape by keeping the students focused on the exercises that experience has shown to work. I suppose that I could whip myself into shape in paleontology, but I have enough respect for expertise to see the value of a trainer. 

Finally, let's stop beating around the bush: the next time a friend or family member describes me as a paleontologist, I don't want to have to correct them.

And so at last I will devote myself, sincerely and without reservation, to studying paleontology itself. I'll be updating this journal after each class session, starting with tomorrow's first meeting of Earth and Environmental Data Analysis. Feel free to leave comments, suggestions, and observations--I'm here to learn, after all.

It's going to be an interesting and informative couple of years and I'm indescribably excited about it. I hope you'll join me! [2]

Notes

[1] With apologies to Descartes.

[2] An old classmate of mine recently posted on social media our second grade class picture, calling to mind a personal point that I'd like to make as I start this journal. Second grade was around the time that my interest in paleontology metastasized into a defining characteristic. It's right around the age that a child's initial love of dinosaurs starts to wane into passing interest. Obviously that didn't happen to me. My second grade teacher, Susan Brooks--a dinophile herself--encouraged my passion for paleontology and made clear that it was something about which I shouldn't feel shy. She was an early influence on my intellectual development (such as it is for a seven-year-old), and so I was devastated when she passed away four years later. For whatever it's worth, I dedicate this blog in her memory and with thanks to supportive educators everywhere.