Who am I?

Prologue, added Jan. 29, 2018:

I have not tried to write an autobiography because there is no way I can do it without sounding whiny. Although I have had some occasional good fortune, my life's story for the most part is one of repeated failures to achieve my personal goals. For each such failure I could blame other people or I could say it was all my own fault, but I could not convince myself in either case that anyone would want to read about it.

Of course it was usually both, and more. I have spent a lifetime suffering the consequences of some bad decisions I made during my youth and some more bad ones I made in later years. But I have also suffered during that same lifetime on account of other people's misdeeds or indifference to my legitimate interests. And sometimes I made bad decisions just because I didn't know something that other people were taking it for granted that I would know.

I've been hearing lately that I am privileged. I don't think so. I have known privilege. I was in the military for a few years, and I experienced a bit of privilege then. I have experienced nothing like it since I was discharged.

Am I whining now? Perhaps a bit, but not to beg for anyone's sympathy. It is rather to set up a context for another observation: My problems, without exception, have been first-world problems. Throughout almost all of human history, the wealthiest people, the most powerful people, did not have the means to live as well as I have lived. If there is any sense in which I have been privileged, it was to have been born around the middle of the 20th century in the United States of America. But of course that was just luck, not privilege. No characteristic of mine had anything to do with when or where I was born.

When you're feeling mistreated, by life in general or by other people, it's rarely any comfort to reflect on how much worse off other people are or have been, but it sometimes help to think about opportunities gained that would otherwise have been missed. There is a cliché about making lemonade when life hands you lemons, and I think I've done a fair job of that. This website is, among other things, an attempt to share some of it. I've learned a lot of pretty important stuff that I probably would not have if certain things had gone the way I wanted them to.



(I started this Web site in early 2001 and posted an essay then, with the same title, to explain why. If anyone is interested, here it is.)

July 2012

My name is Doug Shaver. I’m a philosopher. I’m an amateur, in the strict sense that nobody pays me to do it, but I do philosophy. Whether my performance is amateurish in the popular sense, my readers will judge for themselves.

I came the formal study of philosophy late in life. I first graduated from college in 1975 with a BA in sociology and then pursued a career in journalism for the next 15 years. At the time, I was under the impression that philosophy was a waste of time. This was not because I knew anything about it. I had managed somehow to get through four years of college without taking a single philosophy course. This was not by design. I would have taken one just to round out my education, but none was offered at a convenient time and the university I attended did not require any for graduation. What little exposure I got to philosophy in some humanities courses, though, gave me the idea that I was not missing much of importance.

As I approached my 40s, I discovered the nonfiction writings of Isaac Asimov, particularly his collected essays from Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine. I went on to read other science popularizations by Jerry Pournelle, Carl Sagan, and Stephen Jay Gould, among others, and became sold on the idea that all human progress was attributable to the progress of science.

This was, in a way, just another episode in the intellectual odyssey that my life has been. The odyssey began during an adolescent flirtation with fundamentalist Christianity and has continued through several revisions of my religious, political, and social worldviews. As a Christian teenager, I was fixated on winning souls for Christ, being under the impression that humanity had no greater need than to be reconciled with God. I thought no problem was more pressing on any person than their estrangement from God occasioned by the fact of original sin. During my first year of college, I came to realize that most of my religious beliefs were in error. For the next few years I embraced a more liberal version of Christianity, but by my mid-20s had drifted into atheism. I still felt something like a missionary urge to participate in the world's salvation, but it was no longer clear just how that salvation might be accomplished. I was drawn to liberal politics for a few years but became disillusioned with that. Now, having come to realize that the advancement of science had effected much, if not all, of whatever diminution of human suffering had occurred in historical times, I became keenly interested in the history of science—and of mathematics, it being the proverbial language of science. I learned that science had once been a subdiscipline of philosophy, but I did not see this as a commendation of philosophy itself.

As I approached 60, a complex of events led me to consider returning to college. My journalism career was over (long story, not relevant here), and I had no realistic prospects for pursuing any other. The economy was bad and getting worse, and I had no skills that were marketable in that environment. I was barely supporting my wife and myself doing some unskilled labor. I had no illusions that another degree would make me any more employable, but I’d always liked going to school, and there didn’t seem to be anything better for me to do with my time. Besides, at about this time, I was getting the idea of writing a book presenting an apologetic for scientific thinking. I’d been doing some research for it, which necessarily included researching the origins of Western philosophy. It soon became obvious that I could not defend the efficacy of science without becoming conversant in epistemology, and a little bit of reading about that made me realize that, without knowing it, I’d been doing philosophy my whole life. The problem was that I’d never learned how to do it right. And so, having decided to get another degree just for the fun of it, my choice of major was obvious.

I had to put the book on hold while going to school, except insofar as my academic work has constituted research for it. I have now graduated, though with a qualification. (Those who care can learn more by reading this forum discussion: http://forums.about.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?tsn=1&nav=messages&webtag=ab-atheism&tid=47219.) I’m still not sure when I’ll resume the actual writing of it, because I have acquired other obligations along the way.

I have also acquired an appreciation of the difficulty of defending any worldview, including my own. I have not changed my mind about the epistemological primacy of scientific thinking and its indispensability for social progress. I continue to believe that metaphysical thinking in general, and religious thinking in particular, is mistaken thinking. But I have had to give up every vestige of a suspicion that the errors of metaphysics could be made obvious with a sufficiently clever argument. The logical positivists thought they had found such an argument. They were mistaken. I agree with the gist of their conclusion, but their argument to that conclusion was flawed, and no one has come up with a good fix yet.

But metaphysics cannot win by default. The philosophical inadequacy of a scientific worldview is not proven by the absence of a killer argument against any alternative. It is the case that if any worldview is true, then any contrary worldview is false. It does not follow, though, that if some people are justified in holding one worldview, then no one can be justified in holding any contrary worldview. Justification does not entail truth, and truth alone does not provide justification.

I don’t mean to sound like an epistemological relativist, because I’m not one. I am persuaded that there is only one reality and that anything we believe that contradicts it is a mistake. At the same time, though, our human limitations should preclude any of us from supposing that we have a privileged perception of that reality. To any religious apologist or defender of any other metaphysical notions, I will admit that I could be wrong in thinking that they are mistaken. They could be right, but possibility entails no probability. If they think they know something that we skeptics don’t know, it’s not up to us to prove they don’t. It’s up to them to prove they do. They have had all of human history to provide the proof, and they haven’t done it yet. This Web site is devoted to, among other tasks, showing why it is reasonable to suspect that they never will.

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December 14, 2012

I decided six years ago to pursue a degree in philosophy. It took me this long to finish because I could attend college only part time, but last week I finished the last course required for the diploma—a class in upper-division writing—along with an elective in non-Western philosophy. For both classes, as it just happened, the final assignment was a paper reflecting on what I'd gotten out of the class.

Reflective bookend for EDUC 306, Expository Writing for Education

Class project for PHIL 375, Non-Western Philosophy



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Some biographical trivia

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(This page was last updated on July 14, 2012.)