Today’s New APPS interview is with Eric Winsberg, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida.
Thanks, Eric, for doing this interview with us today. You’re known for philosophy of science and philosophy of physics. Were you bookish, artsy, athletic as a child? Or were you always tech-oriented?
Pretty much. I was born in NYC, but moved to Montreal before I really reached consciousness. I wasn’t particularly bookish, artsy or athletic as a kid. I was mostly into science and technology. If I read, it was mostly science stuff.
Scientific American, Popular Science and Popular Electronics. I was really into Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series, and read his book. And of course as a teenager I loved Gödel, Escher, Bach, and The Emperor’s New Mind. The earliest favorite book of mine that I can remember was A Drop of Blood.
What’s that about? Why did you like it so much?
It’s a little kids book that tells you about your blood, the three kinds of blood cells, and stuff like that. It taught you how to shine a flashlight into your mouth in the dark and see all the blood in your face. I’m not sure why I liked it so much. I was probably 4 or 5 years old. I think I liked that it would creep adults out when they would ask me what I wanted them to read to me and I would say “A drop of blood!”
Yeah, many kids just love that gory stuff! What else about your childhood?
I loved taking apart radios and phones and other bits of technology and divided my time equally between getting into trouble and hanging out in Radio Shack. When the first TRS80 PCs came out in the late 70’s, I begged and pleaded for one until my parents bought me a used Commodore Pet--the one with 4k of memory and the built in cassette tape player, keyboard, and monitor. That was the kind of stuff I was into.
What about high school? Did you know philosophy existed?
I was pretty focused on wanting to do physics when I was in HS. I did have one philosophy class. I really liked the teacher, but the stuff we read was pretty bad. I remember some Mortimer Adler, some George Santayana (“Truth is Beauty”), and maybe some textbook summaries of Kant’s ethics. I liked it better than the normal English classes it was taking the place of (reading 4 pages of the The Grapes of Wrath every day). Still, I thought it was pretty silly.
What brought you around to philosophy then? Was it undergraduate courses?
I went to the University of Chicago. I was pretty much dreading having to do my Humanities requirements when I got there. Partly I thought they would be uninteresting, and partly I thought I had no talent for that stuff, and I knew it would be much more challenging than what I was used to in HS. My first quarter there, I had a “core humanities” philosophy class with Christine Korsgaard. She was amazing. I wasn’t yet hooked on philosophy, but I definitely started to change my opinion of the non-math and science part of the curriculum.
Never underestimate the power of great teachers!
The teacher that had the most influence on me, though, was Robert Richards. At UC, everyone had to take a year of “Western Civ.”, as we called it. One option was to take a class called “Science, Culture and Society in Western Civilization.” Richards got me hooked on HPS. I think I took 4 classes with him before I graduated, and by the time I did, I had switched my major from Physics to something called HiPSS.
History and Philosophy of Science?
Exactly. I went to graduate school at Indiana University in HPS thinking that was what I wanted to do, not so much thinking that I wanted to do Philosophy, per se.
Tell us about IU then. Who were your most influential teachers?
Other than my dissertation co-directors: Michael Friedman and Fred Suppe, the most influential teachers I had at IU were Stephen Kellert and Zeno Switzink. They were recent Arthur Fine and Ian Hacking students, respectively, and they got me hooked on those ways of thinking about philosophy of science. Stephen had written his dissertation on Chaos Theory and talked a lot about how much of the evidence for claims in that field came from computer simulations, rather than actual experiments.
I read his In the Wake of Chaos a while ago. In any case, your recent book is entitled Science in the Age of Computer Simulation (Chicago, 2010), so you’ve been focused here for some time, right?
When I suggested to him that I might want to work on computer simulation as a dissertation topic, he said he thought that would make a “hot topic”. We were a bit early, but I think its safe to say he turned out to be right.
How about guest speakers?
The most important visitor, for me, was Fred Suppe, who visited IU during my last two years. Another inspiring visitor that I remember was Ken Manders. At the time, I was fooling around with ideas about the importance of visual reasoning in computer simulation (ideas that never panned out to much for me, for reasons I’m not entirely sure of) and so I was pretty excited about his talk. More importantly, he spent a good chunk of time talking with me about my project and expressing interest in it. I remember being in a fairly non-productive phase at the time, and he really got my enthusiasm going.
You also can’t ever underestimate these kind of chance encounters changing our affective vectors! Enthusiasm, desire, drive ... In any case, how about your professional career? Where was your first job?
My first real job was at USF, where I still am. Before that, I was a post doc at Northwestern for two years. That was terrific. My teaching load was super light, and the intellectual atmosphere was great. Arthur Fine especially, but also David Hull, were great mentors.
The rise of postdocs has pluses and minuses for the profession as a whole, but it sounds like you had a very positive experience!
Definitely. This was a “real” postdoc. Not a visiting adjunct position masquerading as a postdoc. Mathias Frisch was a very junior Assistant Prof there at the time. He was much more professionalized than I was coming out of graduate school, and he taught me a lot too.
So what were your first publications? Is there one that stands out as your breakout piece?
I was pretty lucky in that my very first publication was kind of a breakout piece itself. It was my paper “Sanctioning Models: The epistemology of simulation” (Science in Context 12.2 ). I think it just celebrated its 100th citation!
101 as of this morning! I’m afraid to really research the work on mode, median, and mean of citations, but I know that 100 is many standard deviations on the right hand side of the graph! So I take this came out of your dissertation?
My early research was very seamless with my dissertation. The first paper came out first, and so it was more or less a chapter. Other stuff came later, but I don’t think I published anything that wasn’t on the same topic as my dissertation until 4 years after I graduated.
How has life at USF been for you in terms of department support?
I am a bit of an outlier in my department at USF, since it’s mostly a historically oriented department, and the graduate students are mostly interested in either historical topics or in recent continental thought. But given that, my department has always supported my research very well. I think they all respect serious work, no matter the area in which it is done. And my chair has always been good about accommodating me when various research opportunities have come up that required me to be away from the school.
How about tenure?
Tenure for me was pretty low stress. The chair at the time suggested I come up a year early, since I had been a postdoc for two years. And I knew if things were looking bad, I could always pull out and try again the next year.
Speaking of tenure, let’s consider the institutional and professional side of things. The relation of continental and analytic philosophy has been fraught with tension for many years. How do you negotiate this conflict?
I’d like to approach this question from a slightly different angle.
I know the New APPS blog is fairly focused on the “analytic/continental” divide. But I’m not sure this is the only “us/them” divide that folks in philosophy have to negotiate.
Indeed. One of the things we criticize about the CP / AP divide is that it obscures all sorts of other interesting divisions.
For me, a much more important divide is one that lives in philosophy of science: let’s say between those who focus on scientific practice and methodology, and those who focus on foundations and metaphysics. I do some work in both of these areas.
Though I’m best known for my work on simulation, which is definitely in the first camp, I also work on stuff in statistical mechanics and the direction of time. I mostly just think people should work on whatever interests them. Obviously, we live in a discipline in which resources are very scarce, so there are bound to be turf battles when those resources are up for grabs. And probably nothing can be done about that. But otherwise, I think we should all just read what we want to read, and try to keep our comments about things we don’t know much about to a minimum, especially in public.
Amen! You mention scarce resources for philosophy departments. What role can the APA play in fighting this?
I think its pretty much a truism nowadays that the APA is a disaster. If you mosey over to philosophysmoker.blogspot.com, it is fairly obvious that most philosophers under the age of 30 or 35 would like nothing more than for the APA to just go away and never come back.
Well, there is self-selection going on with who comments there, but there’s a kernel of truth there for sure. Especially concerning dissatisfaction with the website and the JFP!
I certainly take the point about self-selection. But I’m pretty sure even the young folks who are doing relatively well on the job market find the APA at best irrelevant and behind the times. This is not a sustainable state of affairs. These are the philosophers of the future. (Cue the Simpsons song: “the children are the future.”) I think the APA has five years, maybe ten at the most, to get its act together or something else will replace it. I’ve heard rumors that influential people are trying to tackle the problem, and I’m cautiously optimistic.
Yes, there are a number of task forces at work AFAICT. Let’s conclude by coming back to your individual situation. Where are you now? What are you looking forward to doing next?
I’m pretty much focusing my efforts in two areas these days. My simulation book is out, so that stuff is kind of on hold, and has more or less migrated into an interest in climate science and climate simulation.
What’s your angle there?
I’m particularly interested in how the large degree of uncertainty associated with climate projections can be handled when it comes to communicating results to policy makers. And I’m interested in the role that values play in the process. I have a very new paper on this that people can check out here: http://tinyurl.com/7zqeb6z
What else are you up to?
The other area that I am still working on is statistical mechanics and the direction of time. The statmech project, though, is not entirely disconnected from my other projects.
I’m particularly interested in what we can learn about the nature of laws in general – and about what Nancy Cartwright has called “fundamentalism” – from attempts to underwrite the temporal asymmetry of our experiences in the laws of physics. I’m hoping to some day turn that into a book length project.
I guess should make some joke here about the arrow of time making us have to wait for that book, but instead let me just say thanks for the interview!