Pursuing Truth with Anjan Chakravartty An interview with the first Appignani Foundation Chair for the Study of Atheism, Humanism, and Secular Ethics at the University of Miami

The American Humanist Association (AHA) has a long and distinctive relationship with Louis Appignani, the Founder of the Appignani Foundation and the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center (AHLC). Appignani is a longtime humanist and member of the AHA and has spent much of his life encouraging the spread of humanistic values through secular organizations and activities. Through his generous support, for example, the AHLC is able to provide advocacy on behalf of humanists and others in defense of their constitutional rights, while also strengthening the wall of separation between church and state.

Appignani has now taken another important step in nurturing the humanist movement. In 2016, the Appignani Foundation endowed a chair at the University of Miami for the study of atheism, humanism, and secular ethics. This chair is the first of its kind in the United States and the university recently announced that Anjan Chakravartty, a professor of metaphysics and the philosophy of science at the University of Notre Dame, will be the first to occupy it. The mandate of the position is to “explore a philosophical approach that emphasizes the methods and techniques of science, logic, and reason in dealing with questions of knowledge, ethics, politics, and social policy.” And Dr. Chakravartty takes this mandate seriously.

Bertrand Russell writes in the Skeptical Essays,

No man is fit to educate unless he feels each pupil an end in himself, with his own rights and his own personality, not merely a piece in a jigsaw puzzle, or a soldier in a regiment, or a citizen in a State. Reverence for human personality is the beginning of wisdom, in every social question but above all in education.

As a philosophy student myself—because once a student of wisdom, always a student of wisdom—and a member of the AHA, I welcomed the opportunity to speak with Chakravartty about his own pedagogical approach and his vision for this exciting new opportunity.

TheHumanist.com: How did you become interested in the Appignani Foundation Chair for the Study of Atheism, Humanism, and Secular Ethics? And what was the selection process like?

Anjan Chakravartty: To be honest, when I came across the announcement initially, I didn’t think of myself as an obvious candidate, but the more I read about it and discussed it with colleagues at the University of Miami, the more I realized that it was a good fit after all. Given the broad remit of the position, expressed in the title of the chair, there are a lot of different ways one might approach it, and certainly the perspective of a philosopher of science, with interests in metaphysics and epistemology—that’s me—should fit well there. My work as a philosopher has always centered on questions regarding how we formulate beliefs about the world and the reasonable extent of our knowledge. These questions are intimately connected to the issues of the chair.

I think the selection process was carefully planned to reflect the broad nature of the mandate. The search committee was made up of people from across the sciences and humanities, from psychology and political science to literature and religious studies. There was a genuine commitment to think about this position in an interdisciplinary way, which seems exactly right: the deepest and most important questions we face are ones that should be considered from across the breadth of our ways of engaging with the world and the different perspectives they afford. Coming from a field that has this sort of interdisciplinarity built in—the history and philosophy of science—I related to this approach immediately.

TheHumanist.com: What is your vision for your tenure in this position?

Chakravartty: As an academic, I see my role very generally in terms of facilitating the best research we can produce on important issues, as well as the best education we can provide to those who seek it. This general role is one I hope to fulfill more specifically in connection with the mandate of the chair. There will be courses to explore these issues locally, at the University of Miami. But there is also an ambition to parlay these efforts into resources that will be more widely available, through partnerships with interested organizations (educational and otherwise) both domestically and internationally, as well as workshops, conferences, and other public fora. And I hope that out of this will come the stimulation we need for research, with the ultimate goal of adding to knowledge and reaping the practical benefits of a world in which we know more.

TheHumanist.com: Can you talk about advocacy versus education? And how your tenure may positively impact the discrimination and marginalization of atheist and nontheist communities within the US? Or, in a smaller way, students on campus?

Chakravartty: This is an important question, especially in the context of a university. The role of a professor is not generally one of an “advocate”—we aren’t typically in the business of lobbying students in classes to believe one thing or another, especially concerning deep questions that are difficult to settle on purely evidential grounds. We are in the business, though, of striving for the clearest and most penetrating arguments on all sides of these sorts of questions and equipping students with the ability to grasp and pursue this kind of contemplation for themselves. If I can achieve this in connection with the chair, I’ll be delighted, but ultimately, students will have to decide for themselves what they believe, and that is as it should be. All of this said, when discrimination and marginalization of any community is based on ignorance, prejudice, poor thinking, or bad arguments—as we see all too often, sadly—a serious education can’t help but combat these things. This isn’t an observation about the chair so much as an observation about what we should all hope for in education.

TheHumanist.com: What will your class load (undergrad vs. grad) be? Other duties?

Chakravartty: There will be at least one course offered each year in some area falling under the mandate of the chair, which could be undergraduate, graduate, or a mixture of the two. This fall I’ll be teaching a course on “Science and Humanism” that will look at an important area of philosophy concerning values: a number of issues concerning how the sciences and values intersect with and impact society. Other duties will include facilitating the kind of research and outreach I mentioned above, not to mention pursuing my own research, which in various ways extends beyond the remit of the chair.

TheHumanist.com: Who is your favorite philosopher to teach?

Chakravartty: It’s very difficult for me to pick a favorite. This is no less true of philosophers for me than it is of movies, music, or ice cream! I have wide-ranging tastes, and I’m happy to obsess about the thing I’m working on at any given moment, and for that to change by the moment. However, there’s no getting away from the fact that I’m a philosopher of science, with foundational interests in metaphysics and epistemology. So issues concerned with the nature and interpretation of scientific theories and models, and their intersections with questions of what exists and how we come to know these things, are very close to my heart.

TheHumanist.com: When did you know you that would become a philosophy professor? (For example, I was studying the Nicomachean Ethics as an undergrad when I realized that I loved philosophy and would go on to graduate school.)

Dr. Chakravartty: I knew I loved philosophy long before I knew I would become a professor. I too read the Nicomachean Ethics as an undergraduate and was profoundly affected by it. I was hooked very early on, when taking some extra courses during the summer, first on some of Plato’s dialogues and then on Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics. It took me so long and so much effort to work out even a small bit of what was going on that it was hard to imagine a future in it, but my mind was blown. (It might be misleading not to mention that I also had mind-blowing experiences studying math and physics; perhaps it’s no surprise that I ultimately found my way to the philosophy of science.) I actually alternated between university studies and working in international development, and was genuinely uncertain which of these paths I might pursue as a career until late into my PhD, when I realized that I couldn’t give up the life of the mind.

TheHumanist.com: When did you become an atheist? What’s your religious background?

Chakravartty: You’re assuming that I’m an atheist! Given the position, that may be a natural assumption, and it’s not that I don’t have a view—in fact, I came to a view about this issue at a young age, and have never had occasion to doubt it. For the purposes of this position, however, I don’t think I’ll speak publicly about what that view is, which has everything to do with your earlier question about advocacy versus education. I don’t want to give anyone the impression that, because I have a certain view, those who hold an opposing view are unwelcome, or that they will find their thoughts and arguments given short shrift. Strictly speaking, my own view is irrelevant to the work I will do as the Appignani Chair, because I’m committed to helping students and others pursue the truth, not to convincing them to believe what I believe.

My parents emigrated from India to Canada, where I was born and grew up. Our family is Hindu by background and when I was young there were a lot of religious observances carried out in Sanskrit (which was all Greek to me!). Interestingly, though, despite the observances, there was always a diversity of theological commitment present even within our family. This is not uncommon, of course, in many religious communities, where people are welcome and may participate for reasons of friendship, cultural identification, and so on, quite independently of whether they believe in the theological aspects of the tradition.

TheHumanist.com: What is your favorite thing about teaching? Do you think there’s a difference between teaching religious and nonreligious students?

Chakravartty: I have to admit that I don’t think of students as forming groups with defining characteristics in quite this way. Some students are religious and some aren’t; some believe in a god or gods and some don’t; some are very sure of their views and others are not; some are very vocal about their opinions and others are more shy. All of these characteristics and more come in all sorts of combinations, and it’s impossible to generalize. My favorite thing is teaching students who are hard-working, open-minded, and who go where the arguments take them—because when all of these things come together, there are truly opportunities for personal growth.

TheHumanist.com: What are you most intrigued by in taking this position?

Chakravartty: This is new terrain, not only for the university but also for the country. I think that everyone who has been involved in the process is very curious to see where it will lead, and I’m certainly among them! The thing I’m most unsure about is what response we will get, in a society that is so polarized in so many ways, but I’m hopeful that everyone, whatever their personal view of the Chair for the Study of Atheism, Humanism, and Secular Ethics, will join me in thinking that the ideal of excellent education and research is crucial to our wellbeing as a society and to our collective future.