Photo of Tom Nickles in seminar room

APA Member Interview: Tom Nickles

Thomas Nickles is originally from Illinois farm country. He received his B.S. and B.A. degrees at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in math and philosophy, back in 1965. His 1969 Ph.D. is from Princeton’s old Program in History and Philosophy of Science. His main interest is in problem formulation and solving, and in decision-making generally, at research frontiers.  He has been at the University of Nevada, Reno since 1976.

What is your favorite thing that you’ve written?

Probably my articles on heuristic appraisal at research frontiers, especially the one in Revisiting Discovery and Justification (Springer, 2006), edited by Jutta Schickore and Friedrich Steinle. I now think it a bit overstated (and badly proofed by me!), but it makes the case for a more prospective account of scientific research, in contrast to the usual, retrospective confirmation theories.

What excites you about philosophy?

For me, the most wonderful thing about philosophy is that you don’t have to specialize in one narrow area. You can pursue just about any interest you wish, and several at once. Even specialists within philosophy can still pursue general interests. In my view, philosophy is a generalist sort of field, although I wish now that I had been prescient enough to specialize in philosophy of biology or cognitive science, while maintaining my general interests.

What do you like to do outside work?

Engage in the arts. They are as important as anything in our culture, in my opinion—and I am a science & technology lover. In retirement (coming soon!), one goal is to compose a respectable, contemporary-sounding piano prelude or waltz and something for the cello.

Where is your favorite place you have ever traveled?

Italy. I have enjoyed being a member of the graduate faculty at the University of Catania, with connections to Sapienza University of Rome and with other Italian friends in the north. Despite its financial and political problems, Italy has everything, including a most beautiful linguaggio.

Where would you go in a time machine?

500 or 1,000 years into the future, to see how wisely (or not) our distant offspring have treated each other and the planet as their power has increased. More academically, such time travel could provide a test of historicism vs. strong realism, which predicts (or forecasts or prophecies) that current understandings in the supposedly mature sciences will last forever.

What’s your favorite quotation?

Each chief step in science has been a lesson in logic.

– Charles Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief” (1877)

I also like the forward-looking, pragmatic maxim attributed to Ralph Barton Perry:

There are two ways to solve a problem. You either get what you want or you want what you get.

What’s your top tip or advice for APA members reading this?

Network, make connections, and try to collaborate! Philosophy can be a lonely field, even anti-social, in the sense of its being every person for himself (male phrasing probably justified in this case), whereas philosophical inquiry is (or should be) an essentially social affair via oral as well as written interaction.

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This section of the APA Blog is designed to get to know our fellow philosophers a little better.  We’re including profiles of APA members that spotlight what captures their interest not only inside the office, but also outside of it.  We’d love for you to be a part of it, so please contact us via the interview nomination form here.

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