U of T Professor Hakob Barseghyan on philosophy, science, and morality

“Puposeful. Devoted. Somewhat Naïve,” was Professor Hakob Barseghyan’s response when asked to use three words to describe himself during his undergraduate years, noting that it was four words. “I’d say all of the above still apply today to a large degree,” he adds.

Barseghyan has been with U of T for six-and-a-half years, both as a graduate student and now as an assistant professor with the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. His courses include the Introduction to History and Philosophy of Science (HPS100), Introductory Philosophy of Science (HPS250), Aristotelian-Medieval Worldview (HPS309) and Theory of Scientific Change (HPS4600).

Throughout his schooling he had a computer programmer's mentality and typical hesitations with philosophy- why would anyone care? It was hard for him to connect to the “Plato said this” or “Aristotle said that” approach that many of his teachers applied. It wasn’t until his third year when he took a course on German Idealism taught by Levon-Harutyan Abrahyan that he started to discern broader concepts of the subject.

“I started to understand that philosophy is not about who said what, but about fundamental questions. Professor Abrahamyan would ensure that we understood the importance of the question at issue before delving into the discussion of different answers to the question and the reasons for and against those different answers", he says. 

Abrahamyan went on to be Barseghyan’s mentor, collaborator and confidant- inspiring much of his approach to teaching. Barseghyan starts with the question being posed, moves forward with the conceptions and answers and then applies the reasons. But the main thing he took from Abrahamyan was his decency- he was a man of kindness and humility who truly practiced what he preached in terms of moral behavior. This is a lesson that Barseghyan hopes to impart on his students:

“We are all different in our talents and interests, but first and foremost we should all be decent human beings.”

Philosophy and Science are often thought of as separate entities, how do they work together?

This is a huge topic. To give you a short answer, there are important questions related to science that are themselves philosophical in nature and, thus, call for a philosophical analysis. Since there are three major branches of philosophy – metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology – there are at least three different types of philosophical questions concerning science.

The metaphysics of science is concerned with the most general features of the word taken as a whole. Can mind exist without matter? Was there a beginning in time? Is the future strictly determined by the past? What is the nature of space and time? Metaphysics of science tries to address these questions by analyzing the currently accepted scientific theories.

As for the epistemology of science, its questions concern the nature and limits of scientific knowledge: Can there be absolute knowledge? Is there a universal and unchangeable method of science? Does science progress towards truth? How is science different from non-science? These are only some of the main problems of the epistemology of science.

Finally, the axiology of science addresses normative questions concerning science: Should science have a privileged position among other fields of human endeavor? Should the fruits of scientific research be openly accessible to the public? Should moral considerations limit the choice of scientific topics? These are some of the axiological questions concerning science. While I have great interest in all aspects of philosophy of science, my own research focuses mostly on the epistemology of science.

What do you find is the most common hesitation with students and philosophy? How are you able to break through this?

Since students in my intro courses come from very diverse academic backgrounds, the challenge is to show how philosophy of science can be (1) interesting and (2) useful. One possible approach is to start from common myths about science, such as “science proves its theories by experiments and observations”, “the method of science is universal and unchangeable”, or “there is a strict demarcation line between science and pseudoscience”.

Many students come into my class with these misconceptions, so my first task is to show that these are all myths; the real picture is much more nuanced. This also helps to show how philosophy of science can be useful in practice: a proper knowledge of how science works is instrumental for many professions. A science journalist, a school teacher, science policy advisor, or a grant agency reviewer – they all equally need this knowledge to make balanced educated decisions in their everyday practice.

What do you know now that you wished you knew when you were my age?

If you mean whether I would change anything in my past, I’d say “no”. Because of my upbringing and the culture where I grew up, I mostly managed to stay away from taking ill-advised steps that I would later come to regret – I never smoked or did drugs, never disrespected my parents or betrayed my friends. However, there is one thing that I’ve only come to appreciate with time: life is very short. This is something we all know in theory even when we are teenagers, but we only come to fully appreciate this much later, when we gradually lose those closest to us.

Yes, as an Armenian, I have always been very attached to my family and friends; you won’t believe, but my late grandfather – a veteran of WWII – was one of my closest friends and I miss him dearly. In that sense, I’ve always known that there are more important things in life than getting meaninglessly drunk in a company of people who don’t really care about anyone but themselves.

What do you like best/worst about being a professor?

When my students ask for a career advice, I always tell them: ideally, you want to choose a job that you would do even if you weren’t paid. The point of course is not that they should settle on volunteering their whole lives, but that preferably one’s job and hobby should not be far apart. I’ve been lucky to turn two of my hobbies – computer programming and philosophy - into jobs. I love every part of being a philosophy professor – teaching, research, meeting with students, brainstorming with friends and colleagues – everything.

If there is one thing I would change in the profession in general, I would elevate the role of teaching. It is my firm belief that if you cannot properly explain a complex idea to a talented undergrad, then chances are, you don’t quite understand it yourself. This rule has important consequences not only for one’s teaching but also for one’s research. As researchers, we often travel to the most obscure corners of human knowledge.

This is natural and normal, as after all we do want to advance our understanding of the world around us. However, we should always make sure that we “draw the map” of these obscure areas, so that we can guide our students to those areas. If there is no proper map, then there is a great risk of fragmentation of knowledge, where many unique achievements simply become irrelevant or lost.

This is not well understood in the academia, where teaching is generally considered as something secondary to research. Unfortunately, our university is not an exception; good teachers are very rare here and are seldom appreciated. You can win all the possible teaching awards, have the highest possible teacher evaluation scores, and still end up without a job once your contract expires. I believe that the very idea of “a great researcher who cannot teach” instills a very dangerous culture of elitism among those who think of themselves as “pure researchers”. That needs to change.

Are you currently conducting any research in your field of study?

The main goal of my research is to understand how science changes through time. My team and I are working on elaborating our general descriptive theory of scientific change, which explains different aspects of the process, including changes in both theories and methods of their evaluation. In 2016, we have established a new workflow that makes it possible to enhance the theory communally in a piecemeal and transparent fashion. This workflow is instrumental in the process of creating a new science of science, called scientonomy.

Early in 2016, we established the Encyclopedia of Scientonomy, which aims to document the current state of scientonomic knowledge and track changes in that knowledge. Once properly documented, this body of scientonomic knowledge is then scrutinized during the annual seminar hosted by the University of Toronto’s IHPST; the goal of the seminar is to find problems in our current knowledge, to see what’s not working, and to formulate open questions.

These open questions are then documented in the encyclopedia and become promising topics for scientonomic research. Each scientonomic research paper is an attempt to provide an answer to an open question and, thus, to convince the scientonomy community that our current knowledge of scientific change should be modified in one way or another. In addition, in September 2016, we launched a new journal, Scientonomy, where these suggested modifications are published.

Finally, we are currently at work on launching the Tree of Knowledge project, the ultimate goal of which is to reconstruct the mosaic of accepted theories and employed methods for any epistemic community at any point of time.

What's one thing you want students to take away from their university experience?

There is good reason why they are called “universities”: first and foremost, they are meant to produce well-rounded citizens with broad – universal – knowledge. Yes, the immediate interests of capitalism seem to dictate the production of specialists with a very narrow focus. Unfortunately, that creates a culture of self-centered narrow-minded semi-robots, who don’t know or care about anything outside of their narrow domains. The products of this system know very little about the history of humanity and sincerely believe that everything that’s important is happening “here and now”.

This explains why people choose to listen to subpar music simply because it’s new and “trendy”. They unknowingly deprive themselves of a vast layer of human culture that was crated before the last month or two. Yes, this is dictated by the interests of business: after all, they have to keep producing and selling more and more new stuff. But the thing is I’ve never met anyone who would know the history of music and would still prefer to listen to the contemporary “fast-food” music.

In short, escaping narrowmindedness should be a matter top priority for students. This is achieved through finding a right balance between specialized education and universal education. To that end, I strongly recommend taking courses from many fields, including world history, literature, ethics, social philosophy, and of course HPS.

You are traveling back to your hometown in Armenia, accompanied by blind traveler. He asks you to take him to your favourite spot, and describe what you see in front of him. What do you see?

I actually have a friend who is almost completely blind, so I won’t even try to pretend that I can possibly comprehend how he portrays the world in his mind (think about spending your whole life in a place like O.Noir). Besides, I am not particularly good with my adjectives, as my thinking is object-oriented. So I guess I would skip the sightseeing and would instead introduce him to those very special people that make Armenia special – my fantastic parents, my family, my great friends. After all it’s never about the place; it’s always about the people that populate it.

An interesting conversation over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee in the company of those who genuinely care about you would perhaps be the best option.

Is there a quote that you live by? 

I am not sure any single quotation could define anyone – human beings are too complex for that. What I can give you instead is one of the several rules that have been guiding me. I’ve heard this one in The Last Samurai (although it’s quite likely they took it from a much earlier source): devote yourself to the perfection of whatever you pursue.