May, 2016

A philosophy professor, fascinated by science fiction

FacultyScott Dixon, Assistant Professor, Philosophy at Ashoka University talks about his fascination with Science Fiction, experiences with working at Ashoka and philosophy of life

By Shubhangi Karia

What sparked your interest in Philosophy?

The story of how I ended up doing philosophy is not completely straightforward. Since I was very young (10 or 11 or so), I was interested in astronomy, theoretical physics, and cosmology–in general, in the “deep structure” of the physical universe. This was probably related to a fascination I had had for a while with science fiction (especially Star Trek: The Next Generation). It portended my later interest in philosophy. But I went to very small junior high and high schools in rural Montana, and so the curriculum was focused on the basics–certainly no philosophy courses. This resulted in me being almost completely ignorant about what philosophy was until I reached college, where I was required to take a philosophy course to fulfill one of the university’s distribution requirements. In that course, I met a very good friend (with whom I am still good friends). This friend’s older brother had majored in philosophy, and so was familiar with the subject before he had entered college (with every intention of majoring in it himself). He is the type of person that can get you interested in almost anything–a very passionate and well-spoken person. We would go to his house after philosophy class and talk for hours. This, in a nutshell, this is how I got interested in philosophy. I began to realize that it asked questions about the “deep structure” of not just the physical universe, but of the world more generally. In addition to questions like, “What physical things exist?”, it asked more questions like, “What (if anything) exists?, and other sorts of interesting questions, such as “What (if anything) is moral?” I came to realize that, by majoring in philosophy, I could avoid constraining the space of questions I could ask while still engaging in my chosen subject. (Biologists, for example, aren’t doing biology when they’re contemplating whether cloning Neanderthals is morally permissible.)

What made you come to Ashoka University?

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that, before applying to Ashoka, I had never thought about moving to India. For most of my graduate career, I had assumed I would get a job at a small college somewhere in the states (maybe Canada). I would have never dreamed that doing British and American philosophy would bring me to a place so far away from either Britain or America. I’m also embarrassed to admit that I applied to the job in very much an assembly-line fashion. My fall 2015 was my last fall at my Ph.D. program, and my focus was to apply to any job I could reasonably be taken to qualify for. I pored over job advertisements, Ashoka’s among them. The Ashoka job was unique in that it was at a very new university. After a bit of research, I was struck by the fact that Ashoka appeared to be very different from most institutions of higher education in India, and that, indeed, it was one of its primary missions to offer Indians a new kind of education, focused on the liberal arts rather than on one of the STEM disciplines. I thought it would be very cool to help build a new institution with a mission that was so novel as compared to the other institutions in the area. And, of course, when I visited, I was bowled over by the friendliness and intelligence of the students and faculty. I immediately knew that I would have a lot of fun working with them–and that I was in for an experience that would be quite different from what I could expect as a junior faculty member (little fish) in an established department at an established institution in North America (big barrel).

What goes into planning the courses you take? Do you try to make the different from traditional forms of lecturing? (We found it interesting to hear that you often draw from Star Trek or Calvin and Hobbes to discuss your course material. Tell us a little about that too?)

Many of the particular issues that interest me in philosophy have origins that lie outside the discipline. I’ve already mentioned that my interest in the “deep structure” of the world was initially spurred by a fascination with science fiction. Other issues find their origins in comedy. I’m particularly interested in the relation between the use of language and comedy. I love puns, for example. My interest in Calvin and Hobbes probably even predates my interest in science fiction. Indeed, the Spaceman Spiff strips may well have played a role in getting me interested in science fiction more generally (though this is speculative autobiography). And it probably set the stage for my interest in philosophy more generally. Bill Waterson used the strip to ask many deep philosophical questions, pondered while riding the wagon down the mountain, building snowmen, or stuck in left field during a softball game. When I’m preparing what I’ll talk about in a course, I try to integrate the origins of my interest in the various topics as much as possible. I think this serves to connect philosophical issues to the wider world. More generally, however, the most important part of planning is to have a carefully selected reading list, which hangs together according to one or several themes–specific issues raised in the area covered by the course. After this, it’s mainly a matter of carefully reading and taking notes on those readings. I’m not someone who functions well “on the fly”, and so I generally spend a lot of time prepping for each lecture.

What interests you outside the field of Philosophy?

Well, you’ve probably already managed to piece together that I like science fiction. I like comedy, cartoons, and comics as well. I like good illustrations and maps. In general, I’m interested in organizing information visually. There is a very cool map of the history of science fiction out there that is a good example of this. Regarding non-nerdy things: I grew up on a ranch in Montana, and so I’ve developed an appreciation for the outdoors. I love hiking in pine forests during the summer. I never did come to enjoy the winter as much, though I did have a lot of fun sledding, building snow forts, and having snowball fights with my fellow students at school. I also enjoy working around the house and in the yard. I especially like building things–fences, shelves–whatever is needed.

What message do you want your students to leave Ashoka with?

This is a difficult question. I’m not even sure what message I left college with. But here’s a stab at what I would like to see the students at Ashoka take away from their experience here. The world contains a lot of terrible things, some of which may break your heart. It also contains many wonderful things, which will fill it with joy. But aside from these things, it contains cool and interesting things. They don’t break your heart. But they don’t fill with joy either. They don’t really affect your heart at all. At least, not in my experience. They affect, mainly, your frontal lobe. I would hope that you leave Ashoka remembering that the world contains such things, and that you don’t forget. Assuming we only get one “go ’round”, so to speak, then it’s important that you appreciate, as much as you can, and in the short time that you have, the cool and interesting things the world has to offer.



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