campus life

An Interview with Dr. Jason Gray

by Sarah Phillips

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with one of AUM’s lecturers in the English and Philosophy Department, Dr. Jason Gray. Dr. Gray has been with AUM for three years now and has taught a variety of courses from intro to philosophy, to applied ethics, to philosophy of religion and even courses for AUM’s University Honors Program, which earns him the title of “Honors Lecturer”.

Jason Gray
Dr. Jason Gray

He didn’t start out his academic journey with an interest in philosophy, though. He originally earned an undergraduate degree in history from the University of Alabama, minoring in biology and philosophy. In fact, Dr. Gray said it was by chance that he was first exposed to the discipline of philosophy and discovered his love for it.

 

“I sort of wandered in to my first philosophy class in my sophomore year. I didn’t even know what philosophy was. I took this class called “Modern Philosophy” just because I had a space in my schedule and it looked interesting. I really didn’t know what to expect but I had a very good teacher and the first question that we tackled was proofs for and against the existence of God.”

Dr. Gray says that what really interested him about the study of philosophy was the kind of questions it forced him to ask and attempt to answer.

“I just found those extremely profound questions, the depth of the questions and also the almost impossibly large scope of the questions to be extremely compelling. I began to think about things I had taken for granted up to that point in my life like ‘how do you define causation?’ There’s some real mystery there when you start to think about things like time and cause and human nature and all these things that you just take for granted. In what other class can you prove, disprove and reprove the existence of god in, you know, an hour and fifteen minutes? Of course, you don’t actually end up with definitive proof but it is partly that challenge, the depth of the questions and the broadness of them that I found very appealing as an undergraduate.”

It was just by a fluke that Dr. Gray didn’t double major in philosophy and history. The problem was that he still needed and hadn’t taken ancient philosophy and it was not offered during his last semester. So, he ended up with a bachelor’s degree in history. By that point though, Gray says he knew he did not want to be a historian. Philosophy was what truly interested him.

“So after being in the “real-world” for about a year and a half, I went back and got a bachelors in philosophy from the University of Alabama,” he said. “To improve my chances of getting into a good Ph.D. program I went to Georgia State University and earned a master’s degree there. Finally, I went to the University of California Riverside and I received my Ph.D. there in 2013. I taught two years as a graduate assistant at Georgia State; I worked as everything from a graduate research assistant, to a teaching assistant, to participating in a fellowship. Before I came to AUM, I taught for two years as a visiting assistant professor at UAB. And now I am here.”

Dr. Gray knew early on that if he was serious about philosophy, he would end up in teaching. But he wasn’t so sure if that path would be right for him.

“Both of my parents were teachers.” Dr. Gray explained, “but I wasn’t sure if I would like it. I suppose it must be in my blood because my both of my parents and three of their children, including myself, ended up as teachers, although one of my brothers ended up becoming a salesman, so you can’t win them all I guess.”

His passion for philosophy hasn’t faded with time though. In fact, Dr. Gray says that the more he teaches and the longer he has engaged with the discipline, the more he loves it.

“I found that when I got to Georgia State, I liked it. At UCR, I enjoyed it even more,” he said. “As time has gone on, I’ve liked it more and more. I know I really love teaching because even though I get up each day knowing I’m going to be teaching something I taught last semester, it’s a new group of students that I’m teaching. So, I think, ‘today, I’m going to surprise some people with some stuff they haven’t thought of before.’ I have no personal agenda when I go into class; all I hope for is that the student will critically think about what they are learning, and fairly consider what other philosophers have thought about these issues. That’s what I enjoy about it; the engagement with students, the opening of minds.”

Dr. Gray thinks that the field of philosophy has a lot to offer the modern world.

“Philosophy encompasses a lot of subfields: medicine, free will and moral responsibility, ethics, and even philosophy of law. I think there are some valuable contributions could make in the near future, one of these being in regards to artificial intelligence. Computer scientists are very confident about achieving what’s called strong AI within the next 20 years or so. Strong AI essentially means that computers might become creative. Currently they can’t tell jokes or create art movements, like we can. That’s what’s so amazing about us (humans)! A question that arises is ‘what will the role of humans be in a world of strong AI and that even possible to begin with?’ If it does happen, what are the ethical implications of an AI achieving genuine consciousness. If that happens, a computer would then deserve ethical consideration.”

Beyond the field of science, Dr. Gray thinks philosophy has other relevant applications.

“Another area I would like to see philosophy take a role in is law. For instance, and I am familiar with this because I did my dissertation on it, is addiction. We are eons ahead now in terms of our scientific understanding of how addiction works in the body and brain. Asking questions like is addiction a compulsion and how do we define compulsion can help us to better understand the issue in terms of the moral responsibility of addicts. This is a huge issue in our legal system which I think philosophy could begin to address. To sum it all up, I want to see more philosophers contribute to this scientific revolution that’s ever and ever advancing. I think that if we work I conjunction with the sciences, philosophy could make some interesting and valuable contributions.”

For students who are interested in philosophy, Dr. Gray says to keep an open mind to the benefits and disadvantages of a philosophy education.

“I think it is a tremendously good second major or minor for students, but especially for people interested in law school and medical school. Philosophy teaches you a number of skills: critical thinking, the ability to see and understand counter arguments, how to build a structured argument.”

“However, if you are considering being a professional philosopher,” he added, “you have to ask yourself if that is what you really want to do. Unless you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, then philosophy is not for you. It is highly competitive, even with a Ph.D. If you really want to involve yourself at the doctorate level, you should know that you truly love philosophy. It should be more than a hobby or an interest to you, it should be something which is a driving force in your life.”

On a final note, Dr. Gray encourages all students at AUM to take advantage of their education and let philosophy be a valuable part of their university experience.

“And to all students I say, take a philosophy class. If nothing else, take intro to philosophy. Even though you may not like it, this is a special time in your life, probably the only time in your life, where you get to explore vastly different fields. Students should take advantage of the diversity that a university education can offer, because it is a universal education. I think philosophy is something that is uniquely positioned to address certain questions and provide answers to those questions, even if they’re not always satisfying, that no other discipline is positioned to do. So, I highly recommend taking at least one philosophy class while you’re an undergraduate. And even as a minor or double major it is a practical choice. Partly because, one of the most important things philosophy can teach you is how to understand natural language and critical thinking. Philosophy can do that for you and will ask you some deep questions along the way.”