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Philosophers surrounded by question marks

Advancing Big Questions

Supporting inquisitive minds

Do right and wrong hold any importance to the universe, or only to humanity? Can we really ever know such a thing with absolute certainty? These and other considerations interest philosophers at UC Santa Barbara—and for such a small department, they’re asking some very big questions.

“Philosophical questions may be difficult to resolve definitively,” says professor and UC Santa Barbara alumnus Joshua May. “But their difficulty is what makes it so valuable to exercise your mind on them.”

Professor May likens these mental workouts to time spent at the gym: you train with heavy weights so that the light weights come easily. Teaching philosophy, he says, trains students to think critically and endows them with transferable skills that they can take into any career. “In the end, more and more jobs will be taken out by computers and robots. What’s the one thing robots can’t do?” The answer: critically think.

May is part of a larger community of graduate students who benefitted from the Steven Humphrey Fund for Excellence in Philosophy, a fund established to provide support for the Department of Philosophy. By financing conferences, symposia, graduate student support and visiting scholars, the Humphrey Fund has significantly elevated the philosophy department’s profile. In fact, those visiting scholars are no minor names and include the likes of Sir Roger Penrose from the University of Oxford, Hilary Putnam from Harvard University, and Saul Kripke from Princeton University.

“It is hard to overstate how much having excellent scholars travel to UC Santa Barbara to present their work contributes to the intellectual community of the department,” says full-time instructor and Humphrey Fellow Timothy Butzer. “The number of talks that are given and the quality of the speakers is rare for a department of our size and it would be impossible without Professor Humphrey’s contributions.”

The benefactor of importance is a philosopher in his own right. Dr. Steven Humphrey obtained his PhD in Philosophy from Ohio State University and has been teaching ever since. As a UCLA undergraduate student, Humphrey befriended longtime colleague and friend, Nathan Salmon, a current UCSB philosophy professor. The two bonded over a shared appreciation for their undergraduate logic class. “[Steven] is mostly interested in the philosophy of science—space and time, and the nature of scientific theorizing and method,” Salmon reflects. Their lunchtime chats frequently involve topics such as black holes, the origin of the Universe and cosmology. “[He’s] very well read and knows a lot of physics.”

Humphrey’s interest in the philosophy of science translates into his enthusiasm for sharing such knowledge. Each winter quarter, he returns to Santa Barbara with his wife Sue Grafton, renowned mystery writer, to teach an upper division philosophy course; this year, he’s teaching the Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics. “[Humphrey] is a terrific teacher,” says Philosophy Chair Tom Holden. “[He’s] completely in command of his subject matter and avidly keeps up with the latest discussions in the field.”

Attention to contemporary discussions is at the forefront of these philosophers’ minds. Making philosophy relevant to the modern world helps ensure philosophy departments are kept “alive” in an age where the popularity of humanities majors is on the decline.  “It’s important for the general public to have this kind of thinking in their lives,” says May. “It’s on us—the people in the discipline—to be able to communicate it well, translate it well, and get other people excited about it.”

Indeed, Humphrey’s excitement for philosophy has manifested into tremendous generosity, as he continues to make gifts and donate his teaching salary right back to UC Santa Barbara.  That kind of support has helped to sustain the University’s inquisitive community, enabling philosophers to forge ongoing intellectual connections.

 Life’s big questions continue today and their value, as described by philosopher Bertrand Russell, persist now as they did centuries before: “However slight may be the hope of discovering an answer, it is part of the business of philosophy to continue the consideration of such questions, to make us aware of their importance, to examine all the approaches to them, and to keep alive that speculative interest in the universe which is apt to be killed by confining ourselves to definitely ascertainable knowledge.”