We have to start this profile with some sad news: There are no big, juicy paychecks for writing books about philosophy. There are no big, juicy paychecks for writing books about science. And there certainly are no big, juicy paychecks for writing books about the philosophy of science.
Philosophy professor and author Keith Parsons has just released his latest book, It Started with Copernicus: Vital Questions about Science. In 430 pages, he reveals the mysteries of the universe, explains gravity, verifies the existence of unicorns and presents the philosophical rational behind his stand against neo-conservative religious attacks on relativism in regards to postmodern feminism (we think we got that right). Oh, and he absolutely proves that you (yes, you) are not the center of the universe.
Okay, so we made up the part about unicorns but given that Parsons previously released Rational Episodes: Logic for the Intermittently Reasonable and God and the Burden of Proof: Plantinga, Swinburne, and the Analytic Defense of Theism, we figure if anyone could prove the existence of magical horses with horns growing out of their heads, it would be Parsons.
So if he's not in it for the big bucks, why write about such heady topics? "If I can make an important point, and make it as clearly as I think it can be made, then I feel pretty good," he tells us. "My reason for writing [It Started with Copernicus] is that my field, philosophy of science, is just too interesting and exciting to be left only for the specialists. The philosophy of science looks forbiddingly technical, and it often is. Really, though, once you penetrate this shell, you see that debates in the field are not exercises in hair-splitting. They are a lot more like a barroom brawls with the lights shot out.
"Opposing parties have passionate convictions, and sometimes, as in the 'science wars' of the 1990s, the fur really flies. Science is liberating, but it is also threatening. Science solves ancient mysteries, but does it answer all of our questions? What if the answers science gives are ones we do not want to hear? Does science give us objective truth, or is it a tool of the powerful and privileged? All of these are vital questions that should be considered by every thoughtful person, and not just professors of philosophy."
What He Does: "When people ask [what I do for a living], I tell them that I am a professor of philosophy. I don't call myself a 'philosopher.' I think that would sound a bit pretentious, kind of like calling yourself a 'deep thinker.' You cannot earn the title 'philosopher' just by thinking about philosophy, however brilliantly. Philosophy is something that must be practiced. It is a way of living. It is a commitment to thinking hard about things that people do not like to think about. It is a commitment to thinking things out for yourself and not accepting easy answers or following the crowd."
Why He Likes It: "I will be tired of philosophy only when I am tired of life. At the end of Candide Voltaire says that we should strive to live without theorizing. If he means the kind of empty, narcissistic, frivolous theorizing of the characters in that book, then that is good advice. But philosophers are just people with an enlarged sense of curiosity and an unwillingness to accept pat answers. They think that Socrates got it right when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living. The satisfaction of philosophy is the satisfaction of taking things on your terms-the terms that seem right to you-and resisting the blandishments of popular ideologies and canned creeds."
What Inspires Him: "There are two kinds of inspiration, positive and negative. Positive inspiration comes from many sources. Sometimes you hear something so profound and transparently right that it is inspiring. I read of a neuroscientist who was asked if he thought that humans have a soul. His answer was 'Yes. You have a soul, but your soul is composed of a hundred billion tiny robots.' Each tiny robot is a neuron, and it is the stupendously complex interaction of those billions of tiny robots that makes you who you are. This answer packs so much truth into such a compact package that it takes my breath away.
"Then there is negative inspiration. This comes when somebody says something that is dead wrong, but wrong in an interesting way. Thus, when someone says, falsely in my view, that science can tell us nothing about morality, which I have heard many scientists and philosophers say, this inspires me to ask just what is wrong with this claim."
If Not This, Then What: "I have sometimes regretted that I did not go into some field of natural science. Like many nerdy kids I wanted to be a dinosaur paleontologist. I still would."
If Not Here, Then Where: "I am privileged to have a terrific job here at UH-Clear Lake, and some very nice and smart people to be around. My work has been strongly supported and encouraged. Southeast Texas does pose some problems, however. Ultimately, I would like to live somewhere higher, cooler, and drier, with no mosquitoes, and with a night sky where you can see the stars rather than the light pollution from the local strip mall."
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What's next: "I am working hard on my next book. I am doing this one in my role as a historian of science rather than as a philosopher. I and my co-author, nuclear physicist Robert Zaballa, are writing a book for Cambridge Press on the nuclear tests at Bikini in the 1950s. The story of these tests, and of the indigenous Marshallese people that they displaced, is a largely forgotten but important story that needs to be told."
Keith Parsons reads from and signs It Started with Copernicus: Vital Questions about Science at 7 p.m. August 12. Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet. For information, call 713‐523‐0701 or visit brazosbookstore.com. Free.
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