This is an “Imagined” interview. It is based on a proposal I made to the What Is It Like To Be a Philosopher website created by Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina University), not responded to for whatever reason, but it follows that model. This is what I came up with as I thought through how such an interview might have gone at its best. It is also a potentially good vehicle for reviving this moribund blog. Take this seriously or just as self-indulgence, the thoughts here are intended to be serious:
In this interview, Steven Yates, Ph.D., talks about his background and interests; how he got interested in philosophy; how he gained Christian faith, lost it, then regained it again; how he got into and why he left academia; why he is so disdainful of academic feminism and other movements he associates with political correctness, a phrase he uses openly; why he left the U.S. and settled in a foreign country, Chile; and why he remains devoted to completing a few works of philosophy whether they gain him any personal reward or recognition or not.
What do you mean, a Lost Generation philosopher? What’s the Lost Generation?
There’s more than one “lost generation” now. The first was the generation to graduate with Ph.D.s after the infamous collapse of the academic job market in the early 1970s. For a while there were almost no jobs at all, or so I was told as that was a little before my time. What I was told: those who completed doctorates during those years had no choice but to go into other fields like computer programming or get a job with the government or maybe … well, I encountered a couple of articles about “cab-driving Ph.D.s.” I did my graduate work in the 1980s. By that time, the market was opening up, but not by much. Every tenure-track job opening still fetched hundreds of applications, and a lot of people who wanted to teach settled for anything they could find even if it was just one course at a community college. The market was slightly better in the late 1990s and for part of the 2000 decade but collapsed again when the Great Recession hit and has not recovered. With the direction the universities are going, with tenure being phased out little by little and people hired for starvation wages, I am not sure things are going to get better. There’s little point in taking jobs that don’t pay your basic expenses.
Then you wouldn’t encourage a really good student to go into philosophy?
The academic discipline? Right now, absolutely not! Those good at formal logic, I’d tell them to study computer science and keep philosophy as a hobby. If they like politics, I’d say study political science. I’d avoid fields like history and law. Law is also ridiculously overloaded with graduates who can’t find jobs actually using their JDs. Almost all the “thinking disciplines” are hurting because of poor employment prospects. The U.S. economy is terrible outside of Wall Street and Silicon Valley tech guru territory, and despite what the economics “experts” say about the drop in the unemployment rate, there’s no getting around that.
We’ll get into your thoughts about the future of academic philosophy, but first some basics. Where were you born? What did your parents do?
I was born in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and moved to Atlanta with my parents when I was a child. My dad had bachelor’s degrees in both zoology and chemistry and an MS in chemistry, and my mom was an RN. So I grew up around books on science, encyclopedias, stuff like that. My dad was the first person in my family to go to college. As a World War II Submarine Veteran he attended on the GI Bill. I was aware early on that there were people both well above us on the economic pyramid, but also well below us. We were somewhere in the middle of the middle class. We weren’t hurting, but we had no special privileges. My dad did chemical marketing research and wrote up his findings for an oil company, traveling a lot to get information you could probably pull up online today. He worked his butt off and sometimes came home so tired that he’d fall asleep on the sofa in the evenings while the rest of us watched television. He was crotchety sometimes, and something of an authoritarian, but he took care of us.
One sister, adopted when she was two and a half. Her name was Leigh, and she was very different from me. I loved books and education, but they just bored her. I think it was a given that I’d go to college and she wouldn’t. She barely graduated from high school, but went on to a satisfactory life with two kids of her own, working for Cobb County [Ga.] where she lived until chronic health problems forced her to go on disability. She kept doing volunteer work, though, as much as she could. We lost her just a few weeks ago as I do this interview. Complications following surgery.
Sorry to hear that.
Thanks. All I can do now is wish we’d been closer. I’m just grateful my wife and I traveled up to see her and her husband last summer.
What was on your mind as a kid?
Science. The first thing I remember wanting to be was either an astronaut or an astronomer. One of the first books I read from cover to cover was a book on the planets, back before a lot was known about them. My mom checked the book out of the public library. Then it was dinosaurs and paleontology. Then I got into collecting rocks and minerals — I became a “rockhound” in other words, could have told you the chemistry of every one of them. I ended up as a geology major for a while in college.
What did you do just for fun?
Watched science fiction TV programs and movies, and read sci-fi books. Really got into a program called The Outer Limits even though it sometimes scared the bejesus out of me. I was only in the third grade. I’m sometimes surprised my parents let me watch that stuff.
Favorite books from back then?
Hmmm, when I was a kid there was a series called Tom Swift, which was juvenile sci-fi. There were maybe 30 of those books, a new one coming out every few months, and I tried to collect as many as I could find. It was a mixture of sci-fi and political intrigue, the U.S. against a country called “Brungaria” obviously modeled on the Soviet Union. Later, in high school, I discovered 2001: A Space Odyssey, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, Frank Herbert’s Dune, more Arthur C. Clarke books especially Childhood’s End and later his Rendezvous With Rama — I was a senior in high school when that came out. Robert A. Heinlein, especially his short stories that involved paradoxes or excursions into other dimensions like “He Built a Crooked House …” Roger Zelanzy’s fantasy novels about Amber, “the one true world,” and his other things.
You were a teenager in the 1970’s … what music were you listening to?
Progressive rock, mostly, some classical. Bands like Emerson, Lake, & Palmer; Yes; Focus; Pink Floyd; Moody Blues; Genesis; those were my favorites. Brian Eno became one of my musical idols after I got to college. I still collect his releases, just got The Ship through international mail a few weeks ago. Also got into a Hungarian band no one else I knew had ever heard of, Omega. Very big in their own country. They could have been famous in the English-speaking world if they’d gotten any airplay, which they didn’t. I also listened to German electronic stuff like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. I enjoyed anything dominated by keyboards, be it pianos and organs, or synthesizers and mellotrons, anything that stretched the limits. Sometimes I couldn’t get enough! I think I had a lot of Maslovian “peak experiences” just from listening to what I thought was incredible music!
A lot of those guys are getting older now.
Brian Eno is 68. David Bowie who’d collaborated with him, just died at age 70. He had cancer. No one knew. He kept it a secret till the last minute. Chris Squire, of Yes, died of leukemia about a year ago. Rick Wright of Pink Floyd died of cancer several years ago. Keith Emerson, of ELP, committed suicide a few months back. Sad. He was 71, and had nerve problems in one of his hands. He was probably the best rock keyboardist ever, except that he could also play jazz, classical, honky-tonk, and probably more. Not just an incredible musician but an absolute perfectionist who couldn’t stand the thought of something like that hurting his live performances. Edgar Froese, who founded Tangerine Dream, died early in 2015 from a pulmonary embolism. He was 70. I mentioned losing my sister and I’ve lost several other people I was close to over the past couple of years. Makes you think about your mortality. You know something Froese was quoted as saying? “There is no death, there is just a change in our cosmic address.” I don’t know what his religious beliefs were, but I love that!
Are you religious? What role has religion played in your life?
We generally went to church when I was growing up. I don’t remember thinking about it much when I was a kid, but I became a Christian at a youth retreat between 9th and 10th grades, and then saw the tensions between science and religion in a new light. That was about the time I became conscious of the reality of worldviews, of the fact that different people and different communities bring entirely different basic beliefs, frames of reference, conceptual systems, there’s many things you can call them, to their experience. I also became conscious of things that didn’t fit into the dominant theories in the sciences and wondered what they meant.
What about in college, and more recently?
I thought of myself as an agnostic most of the way through college, graduate school, and for quite a while later. Just as well. I doubt I would have been able to complete a graduate program in philosophy as an outspoken Christian. It just doesn’t happen. Later, slowly, I came back to belief. No eureka experience I can put my finger on, but I realized that with the way some ideas are protected at the expense of others in academia as I’d experienced first-hand, the materialist view of the universe being one of them, many reasons for nonbelief no longer seemed to hold up to scrutiny.
Are you a churchgoer now?
A fundamentalist, or evangelist?
I don’t like to characterize myself in those terms. I leave exact Biblical interpretations to others. I read a lot of “end times” stuff when I was in high school, and none of it happened. I don’t agree with premillennial dispensationalism even if I think Western civilization is in all kinds of trouble.
What is premillennial dispensationalism?
Basically, a fifty-dollar term for the idea that Jesus is going to “rapture” all believers away from this world any day now, and then Jesus’s thousand-year (millennial) reign will begin. If someone asks me, I tell them nobody knows God’s timetable. Come to think of it, I tend to think both Pascal and Kierkegaard were right about God’s basic incomprehensibility beyond what He’s specifically revealed about Himself. I guess I would call myself a Kantian-Kierkegaardian Christian. Kant showed that our minds are designed to work in three-dimensional space plus time, and what transcends the categories of the human mind is simply a mystery. Kierkegaard basically destroyed the teleological argument that moves from the apparent design in nature to the idea that nature’s designer is necessarily the Christian God. Hume got there first, I know, but Hume wasn’t a believer and Kierkegaard was.
The leap of faith?
He never uses that phrase, he just calls it a “leap.” I prefer to think of it as trust — that we are better off trusting in the existence of God than not. Trust is not proof, of course. I can’t satisfy those who say, “There’s no proof,” and I usually don’t try. I think a more recent philosophical theologian, Cornelius Van Til of the Reformed School, had the basic idea when he described theism and atheism as incommensurable. I think he actually used that term.
Sounds like a long intellectual journey.
It was. Needless to say, I didn’t get much help from my atheist colleagues who in retrospect seemed arrogant and authoritarian even when they tried not to be. Part of my argument is that materialism, as I use that term a worldview which has dominated the intellectual and economic landscape for the past hundred years now in one form or another (communism yesterday, neoliberal capitalism today), has been a political, moral, and cultural disaster. We’ve set up our own massive empire based on money and power, ruined our culture with sexual hedonism and the worship of celebrities, the entertainment culture generally. Ruined our health with junk food. Wrecked the family unit. Our political system is close to dysfunction and our financial system is verging on bankruptcy. All the while we’ve been laying waste to other nations in the name of extracting resources we believed we were entitled to, making enemies of peoples with more traditional worldviews, and possibly threatening the ecosystem itself. Modernity may have given us all manner of technological advances and creature comforts, but they’ve come with a pretty steep price we’re probably just beginning to pay. It certainly hasn’t delivered on its Enlightenment promises. It’s true that a lot of wars have been fought over religion, but irreligious secularism looks to be just as hopeless at delivering world peace, and possibly a lot more dangerous since religion never served up weapons capable of reducing entire cities to ashes in a matter of seconds.
Do you think man-made climate change is real?
I think we have no choice but to take the idea seriously. There seems to be a pretty solid consensus that’s coming out of all the hard sciences, and if you study what’s being said on its own terms, it’s the same kind of consensus you find for nearly every other major theory in any science, like the Big Bang, or evolution, or continental drift.
Would you say you got disillusioned with the scientific outlook?
I’d say I learned that there were a lot of problems the scientific outlook couldn’t solve, and a lot of areas of human life where it didn’t seem to apply.
And this got you interested in philosophy?
As I noted a few minutes ago, I got fascinated by things that didn’t fit into anybody’s favorite theories. I wanted to know what they meant, and what to do with them.
Give us an example.
I could give you several dozen because I kept a journal on them years ago, but one will do. It’s fairly representative. Back in 2000 in London there was a display of anomalous artifacts — a rare event, by the way — and one of them was a hammer, clearly of human design, found buried in solid rock geologists had dated as from the Cretaceous period. It was part wood and part petrified; radiocarbon tests on the wood were inconclusive. I read one attempt by a geologist to explain this, saying something along the lines of, older minerals can dissolve and then harden around a recent object dropped on the ground that falls into a crevasse in rock. I could be wrong, I never finished that geology degree, but that sounds very strained to me. If that was the only such object found in solid rock or in a coal vein supposedly millions of years old, I’d be satisfied with the idea that we’re fooling ourselves somehow, or that it’s a hoax some joker dreamed up. But there are dozens of such objects. There are obviously human footprints found in rock of equivalent age. We know these aren’t hoaxes because the sediment around them is compressed in ways compatible with the weight a human foot would make in sand or mud. If they were carvings made to look like human footprints, the sediment wouldn’t be compressed.
What about the supposed Paluxy River findings? Those were shown to be fakes.
Those might be. I honestly don’t know. That case got publicity, but I didn’t pay it any special attention, more than these others. I’d have to say that if the dozens of cases that have been catalogued are all hoaxes, then the hoaxers must have been a really, really busy bunch, and very clever to be able to get these things inside solid rock or coal beds well underground — not knowing they’d even be found! What these things seem to me to mean is that either our ideas about the age of the human race are wrong or our ideas about the age of the Earth and when these layers of rock and coal were formed are wrong. Declaring that something “isn’t real” or “they’re all hoaxes” because they don’t fit the dominant theories is too easy. Besides, why would religious believers fake these things when all they really accomplish is setting themselves up for public ridicule?
Such cases are part of what made me shift my emphasis from science to its metaphysical assumptions and epistemological foundations — and there I was, in philosophy.
Is this why you wanted to study the philosophy of science?
I had a world history class where one day the professor started in on Thomas S. Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and I realized I wasn’t the first person to wonder about this kind of thing, or about the status of scientific theories: knowledge? belief? or something else? I suppose I was a goner from that day forward — especially as the professor was clearly hostile to Kuhn’s ideas. That made me all the more curious. Why the hostility? So I picked up the book and read as much of it as I could on my own. It struck me as the most intelligent and rational depiction of science I’d ever run across. I started to suspect that academics were hostile to claims or ideas that threatened beliefs of their own that gave them a sense of security in the world — things they couldn’t incorporate into what they were absolutely certain the truth must be. I’m not all that happy with psychologistic explanations but I don’t think there’s a better one, for those who can’t believe in God but make Science their religion. A lot of secondary literature on Kuhn is dreadful. Most of his critics not only didn’t understand him, I don’t think they wanted to understand him. What they seemed to find offensive was his idea that paradigm change couldn’t be shoehorned into this view that science is a purely rational, i.e., logical enterprise, in the sense formal logic can be used to reconstruct, and that scientists don’t always deal logically with findings that conflict with favored theories. It clearly has a sociological and psychological dimension, possibly even an economic one. I could have become a postmodernist back then, but it never occurred to me to doubt that sometimes we do reach bona fide truth about the world. I assumed that authority and authority-driven institutions got in the way of truth-seeking, not that they in some sense defined what truth is for the populations they have power over, which is the way I read philosophers like Michel Foucault.
When did you start thinking about power in society?
Somewhere around the mid-1990s it struck me, almost out of the blue one day: the fundamental unsolved problem of social organization, and therefore political philosophy, is how to contain power. Every population has a minority in its midst that is fascinated with power, however we characterize them, whatever label we pin on them, whatever their worldview is. A few people, many of them philosophers, gave us comprehensive visions of the Perfect Society which, if you really study them, are almost invariably totalitarian when power-seekers use them, like Plato’s or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s almost certainly were. As with the scientific anomalies they can’t figure out what to do with what doesn’t fit the plan. That’s another minority, those of us fascinated with freedom, who want to be free, can’t stand to be constrained, think we’re all better off when we have total freedom — whether we are or not. Most of the rest of the population, those we call the masses, are interested only in what affects them directly. They tend to seek security rather than freedom or power — perhaps just enough freedom or just enough power to have security. If they have to choose between freedom and security, they’ll choose security every time. I remember, I’d reached that conclusion as an advanced doctoral student thinking that the masses, including the masses of scientists, should be scientific or “naïve” realists, although we philosophers knew better.
Kind of an elitism of your own.
You could look at it that way, I suppose. I never accepted the Wittgensteinian and positivist view that there was no knowledge unique to philosophy, that philosophy was a method only, of clarifying language say, although obviously it involves a lot of that.
You used to think of yourself as a Libertarian, right?
I’m probably more conservative these days. The masses need tradition, convention, structure. That’s just to say that Hobbes and Hume were right: in the last analysis we’re not creatures of pure reason. We’re far more creatures of habit they we like to admit. Rationalists hate this, but none of their basic ideas have ever caught on with the general, nonintellectual population. Given what the political mainstream keeps coming up with, the Libertarian Party should have been able to clean house by now, or at least win a state-level election here and there. Creating conditions for freedom is still a problem, for the reasons just stated: the masses probably aren’t reachable on the rationalist terms Libertarians want. The contest is between whoever leads the masses: those who can create benevolent conditions for liberty, or those who want power.
Who’s winning these days?
I don’t think it’s the Libertarians, although they’re still out there.
END OF PART ONE. PART TWO IN THREE DAYS