Kenny Easwaran is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Texas A&M University who specializes in using mathematical tools to study philosophical questions (check out his website). Other interests of his are traveling and getting an understanding of different places – he told me that one perk of being a professional philosopher is that you go to many conferences in different cities around the world, and when he’s there he tries to imagine what it would be like to live there. I interviewed him in the summer of 2018; here is an edited version of our transcript.
Ben: Do you think your path geared you towards philosophy?
Kenny: Early on, my interest was in math and music – that was where I thought I was going to go when I went to college, even though in high school I had taken part of a philosophy club where we read a few things by Nietzsche and Descartes, which seemed interesting to me. In college, when I took a philosophy of science class in my first term, I realized that the impression I had of philosophy was very different from what it actually involved but I really enjoyed what I learned in the classes. I realized that there were much more precise and specific questions, like: what is a scientific theory? What is the nature of evidence? I also realized that we can try to analyze some of these questions using logic and not just by giving your opinions, and that philosophy can address questions about science. In our educational system we often classify math and science as very different from the humanities and philosophy, but I think they are much more closely connected than that classification tends to suggest. Or, at least, they can be depending on what questions you want to focus on.
Ben: The words ‘logic’ and ‘philosophy’ are used in different contexts. What is philosophy for you? Have you heard the term misused?
Kenny: The way I think about philosophy is that it’s taking some concept that we work with in our every day life and asking why it matters, and why it means what we think it means. That can be any sort of thing, like: what is color? What does it mean to see color? Why do we care about color? Or it can be: what is science? What do we mean when we talk about science? Why do we care about science? Does it matter whether something is science or art or something else? Where does that value come from?
These sorts of questions can be applied to broad categories of human endeavors and also can be applied to very specific things. We talk about lunch versus dinner as two different types of meal. We might think of different types of food as the kind of food we eat at lunch or that we eat at dinner, and there’s a question: why do we do that? Is this a tradition that we have that’s part of the culture? Or is there some reason that an individual might care beyond that?
I think asking these wide questions, and trying to understand what are the terms that we’re reasoning with, and when they matter and when they don’t can be useful in many sorts of cases.
As to whether I’ve heard the term misused, I’ve heard the term used in many different ways. I know that people talk about “having a philosophy of teaching” or of “life” or of something. I’m never quite sure if what they mean there is the same as I do, but I think it is connected to this question of what do you think the point is of what we’re doing here.
Ben: What is logic?
Kenny: I think of logic as the study of what is true and false, what does that mean, and which sorts of things could be true and false together. That involves analyzing meanings both of ordinary language and understanding meanings of precise language (such as mathematics). The idea is that we want to use tools to talk about meaning that we might develop initially in the context of a very precise sort of meaning (like in mathematics) and try to understand when and how it can clarify other sorts of reasoning we might do in our every day life. Again, this often suggests that when we’re talking about concepts of broad interests, we have to recognize that different people use the same word to mean different things and even one person often uses the same word to mean subtly different things in different points in their lives and conversations.
Ben: What specifically do you study?
Kenny: The main sort of topics that I work on are questions that involve using mathematics to understand ideas of belief, evidence, reasoning, and decision-making. In particular, I use a branch of mathematics called probability theory to think about these things. So, if you think about when a friend tells you something and you’re unsure about whether or not to trust them, or how much to trust them, I’m interested in the question of “what does it mean to trust one person or one source more or less than another?” and “what are the sorts of reasons one might have for putting this greater or lesser degree of trust?”
Also, I’m particularly interested in how this works in contexts such as science where we have more mathematical tools at hand. Once we’re dealing with theories that talk about numbers you start having infinitely many options that are subtly different from each other. For example, if your question is “how much carbon emissions is being produced by a given country at a given time?” any number is a possible answer, and some of those numbers are more plausible than others.
Also, the importance and impact of those numbers is uncertain, but again can be quantified in infinitely many different precise ways and we want to know how should this uncertainty guide our behavior and policy making.
Ben: What does your day-to-day look like?
Kenny: These days, now that I’m a tenured professor, I have several administrative responsibilities. I’m the director of the graduate program at Texas A&M in Philosophy and so a lot of my day-to-day involves various meetings related to this administrative work. For example, I had some meetings with the faculty committee, some meetings with individual students, I had an independent study with undergraduates who are interested in learning more about logic, I spent some time editing a paper, and some time doing reading of other papers reviewing for a journal where I’m an editor. A lot of my time these days is spent either working on my computer reading my own work or reading other people’s work to give feedback or to learn what they’ve been thinking, and then I often have meetings.
The parts I find most exciting about the job are when I go to a conference, or when someone is delivering a lecture, and I get to actually talk with people in person about material that I find so interesting that brought me into this field. Having these daily conversations actually about the subject matter is maybe not as common as I thought it would be when I went into it, but it’s still the most exciting part about the job.
Ben: Do you think high school students can have these sorts of ‘philosophical’ conversations?
Kenny: Oh, definitely! So, I think that if you find some topic that you’ve been thinking about that you find interesting, and if you can find some way to explain to someone else why there’s something puzzling or unexpected about this topic, you can ask each other questions that you might not have thought of about, whatever this topic is. Thinking together, asking questions of each other and learning from those questions as you come up with answers can be engaging at any stage in your education.
Ben: What are some of your most interesting discoveries?
Kenny: Not sure if “discovery” is the way I would put some of these things. I think that in many of the cases it’s really more of coming up with some analogy and realizing how that analogy can be useful and interesting for the topic you’re thinking about. For instance, thinking of belief or knowledge in terms of probability is one sort of analogy. Another one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the ways in which a group can have thoughts and make decisions like an individual, and conversely also how an individual often functions a lot like a group. We tend to think that I as an individual have one thought and one desire and one decision that I make at a time to achieve those things, but often I find that there’s actually many conflicting beliefs inside of my head, and many conflicting desires, and often these ‘different people’ within me, in a sense, are working together to come up with some collective decision, the way in which we as a society also work. And, I think that thinking about this analogy about the group and the individual has been really useful and illuminating for me.
Ben: Do you think it should be taught in high school?
Kenny: One thing that I, and also many of my friends in mathematics, have thought is that the traditional math curriculum (as taught both in high school and college) does not seem necessarily to be the most useful way of approaching mathematics. In this curriculum, it seems that it’s taught with calculus as this pinnacle of mathematics that everything else is building up to; that all your work in algebra, geometry, trigonometry classes are all just to give a foundation for calculus. And for a lot of work in the sciences, calculus is really important. But, for a general well-educated person in society who may not be doing physics or engineering, many other ways of mathematical reasoning would be just as useful, if not more useful, and I think in particular logic and probability. Having a high school mathematics curriculum that focuses more on logic and probability, and I think that could be done in a way that that ties with philosophical topics.
As for whether philosophy itself should be taught. I think that would be great, but I haven’t thought about how the high school curriculum as a whole works, and adding it as a subject matter means taking something else out. While I think there would be great value adding philosophy to the high school curriculum, it is not clear to me what should be removed. Perhaps, there are way to better structure the curriculum so that people get this training in thinking philosophically about why we’re studying what we’re studying, and not just be told “here are the facts” about one subject. Maybe we could bring philosophy in many different subjects rather than a subject of its own.
Ben: If you had to tell one thing to people that haven’t had any exposure to philosophy, what would it be?
Kenny: I think that the thing is that philosophy involves both questioning assumptions and coming up with your own answers, and also giving reasons for why your answer might be a better one than someone else’s. Even though, of course, all of our different opinions have value, what has even more value is understanding the reasons someone has for the opinions that they have. And, given the reasons you have for believing something, understanding how those reasons agree with other people who might superficially have different views from you. But, it might turn out that the reasons for their view are very closely connected to your reasons. Or, people who have apparently the same view as you may hold it for very different reasons than you. Understanding why they do have these reasons can help you question your own assumptions and come up with ideas of your own.
The important thing is to think about why you believe the thing that you do, and not just that you believe this thing.