An Interview with Bryan Paulsen, SJ
The Philosophy Department conducted an interview with Dr. Bryan Paulsen, SJ. Dr. Paulsen completed our Master of Arts in Social Philosophy program in 2018, and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Northwestern University. Dr. Paulsen also holds a PhD in Materials Science from the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. This interview is part of a series conducted by Ciaran Rhys, Ph.D. student in the Philosophy department.
What is the value of studying philosophy in your view?
Well the value of graduate studies in philosophy sure isn’t economic! Joking aside, philosophy is hard. It is intellectually demanding. More so, in my opinion, than any other subject because at the end there is no right answer, no absolute arbiter to pat you on the head and give you a gold star, no common starting point, no widely agreed upon methods, and no universally held goal. None of these are critiques, but in fact are the strengths of philosophy. As someone who did not have an inborn love of philosophy, learning to traverse the philosophic landscape was especially challenging, but in the end pushed me to think in new ways more than any other program, academic or otherwise.
How does it prepare students to conduct better social analysis and engage in social justice work?
Simply put, philosophy is necessary for effective justice work because philosophy forces you to confront complexity. The world’s problems are complex. Reforms or solutions that do not account for this complexity will likely fail. On a more individual level, philosophy has been and continues to be the primary source of the language we use to articulate our experience. It is rarely statistics that drive change, but it is the lived and shared experience of people that drives people to work for justice. Whether we realize it or not, we lean heavily on thousands of years of philosophic tradition when we speak the truth of our own existence.
Which philosophy seminars most influenced you during your years at Loyola?
Not seeking a career in academic philosophy, the seminars that most influenced me where those that helped me better critically understand myself and the world around me. Schweickart’s existentialism and Marxism, respectively, are two seminars that come to mind immediately. Scott’s critical race theory also stands out. By the time it was offered I had already fulfilled my course requirements, but I knew I had to audit it and I do not regret it. Her Nietzsche seminar was also phenomenal.
How have they impacted your scholarship today?
My area of scholarship (physical sciences) seceded from philosophy a couple of centuries ago, so the content of the seminars has not impacted my scholarship. However, the practice of organizing, articulating, and arguing my ideas has been very helpful, especially in crafting a recent review article in my field (and replying to reviewers).
As a Master’s student, you wrote your thesis on Jesuit masculinity. What led you to research this topic?
I wanted to focus my time at Loyola studying topics that would both further my Jesuit formation and deepen my Jesuit identity. Spending time thinking about masculinity within the Jesuits just seemed to make sense (and nobody else had written on it yet). Jesuits give up sex and personal property, choose to live communally, spend a lot of effort on developing emotional self-knowledge, and are purposefully vulnerable with each other. None of these things fit well with contemporary masculine norms. But the Jesuit life is not a reaction against contemporary masculine norms. This Jesuit life is the product of the prayer, contemplation, and experimentation of a late-medieval/early-renaissance mystic who spent the first half of his life as a vain posturing backwater knight. Studying how such a seemingly hypermasculine man birthed something that today seems so counter to contemporary masculinity was very rewarding.
Can you tell us more about the relationship you see between gender identity and the capacity to do social justice work?
In many ways, to work for justice requires fluency in gender and gender identity, irrespective of personal political or moral positions. Gender matters. Gender is complicated. I was especially thankful my three years at Loyola to be able to accompany and serve queer, trans, and nonconforming young adults at The Crib (a work of The Night Ministry). All the theory in the world doesn’t matter if you are not proximate.
I’ve asked you a lot about philosophy and social justice thus far, but I recognize your background is primarily in chemical and materials engineering. How were you inspired to become a Jesuit in addition to your scientific research?
I first met the Jesuits (and the Catholic Church) in graduate school. In my mind, vocation isn’t about choosing a path in life, but finding the path that is the most natural, the most “you”, where you are your “best self”, to use a bunch of non-philosophical squishy language. But volunteering, worshipping, and hanging out with Jesuits I felt the most “myself”, so I sought to become a Jesuit. Fortunately, the Jesuits have a long history of scientists amongst their ranks, and my superiors have been very supportive my continuing a productive research career.
You are currently a post-doctoral researcher at Northwestern University. Can you tell us a bit about your research this semester?
I use a particle accelerator (the Advanced Photon Source synchrotron at Argonne National Labs) to shoot x-rays (one hundred million billion times brighter than the x-ray source your dentist uses) at special plastics (that are really good at “translating” back and forth between neurological signals and electrical signals) in order to understand how they work on a molecular level.
How has studying philosophy made you a better engineer and scientist?
Has philosophy made me a better scientist? Yes, absolutely! Philosophy has made me a better scientific researcher. If I was working a bachelors level engineering job, it is not clear how philosophy would make me a better engineer (though it would make me a better person). However, at the PhD level, attempting to carry out impactful independent research, the value is obvious to me as I mentioned above. Inverting the question, would studying science make a philosopher better at philosophy? I always laugh when I meet philosophers who fancy themselves scientists. It’s always “quantum physics this,” and “neuroscience that”. There is no more effective way to look foolish than to talk about something you do not understand. Philosophy is not a substitute for rigorous scientific education, and science is not a substitute for rigorous philosophical education. Further, science while broad in topics is narrow in method. Thus, the benefit gained by a philosopher studying science is likely not as great as the benefit gained by a scientist studying philosophy (save for the philosophers of science in which case it is clearly mandatory). Never the less, there is a peculiar value in seeing how each of the respective sausages is made.