William Grey Home Page
Honorary Research Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of Queensland (Brisbane); obtained BA (Hons) and MA degrees from the Australian National University (Canberra) and a PhD in Philosophy from Cambridge University. Before joining the Philosophy Department at the University of Queensland taught at the Australian National University, Temple University (Philadelphia) and the University of New England (Armidale). Research interests include applied ethics, in particular environmental philosophy and bioethics, and metaphysics. Research (and other) publications can be viewed (and in some cases downloaded) from Academia.edu.
In September 2007 participated in Al Gore's climate change leadership program in Melbourne and qualified as a Climate Leader with The Climate Project, whose Australian branch was established in in conjunction with the Australian Conservation Foundation.
I was born in Launceston, Tasmania, and went to the Launceston Grammar School. I completed a BA (Hons) degree, at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, with a double major and a first in Philosophy in 1969. In 1971 I received an MA from the ANU for a thesis entitled "Metaphor". (For a sketch of my central argument see Metaphor and Meaning (2000).) From 1971 to 1974 I was a research student at King's College at the of the University of Cambridge, where I wrote my PhD thesis "Time and Existence". In my thesis I defended an anti-realist conception of the future — against the strenuous objections of two of my supervisors, Hugh Mellor and (later) Jack Smart. Hugh's very different metaphysical prejudices were subsequently published in Real Time. Jack's views can be found in many places.
The metaphysical inspiration for my dissertation was the conception of time articulated by the great New Zealand philosopher Arthur Prior. Prior famously championed the view that the temporal modalities past, present and future are basic ontological categories of fundamental importance for our understanding of time and the world. His admirable metaphysical views about time, however, were flawed by a Russellian theory of reference. This led Prior (at least in some moods) to deny the reality of the past. In my thesis I argued that the (then exciting and new) causal theory of reference elucidated by Saul Kripke provided a smoother and more coherent supporting framework for Prior's general metaphysical position than did the theory of reference which he favoured.
In 1975 I accepted an appointment at the ANU, which continued until 1982. During this time I managed to integrate environmental concerns into my philosophical agenda. Since the late 1960s I had been increasingly concerned by accelerating environmental degradation. Our obliviousness to a contemporaneous mass extinction of the scale of the late Cretaceous is astonishing. Part of the reason for this indifference is the limited capacity of the human mind to grasp the implications of exponential growth. (Many years after reaching this conclusion I discovered Al Bartlett's excellent and important lecture Arithmetic, Population, Energy which articulates this idea with rigour, precision and clarity.) There has not been sufficient adaptive pressure in the course of our biological or cultural evolution to develop this capacity. My views were then more alarmist (or if you prefer, less sanguine) than they are now. While at the ANU I developed a course on environmental philosophy, then in an inchoate stage of development, to address these issues. An important dialectical exchange was then taking place between John Passmore and Richard Routley (later Richard Sylvan), philosophers at the ANU Research School of Social Sciences, which helped to clarify some of the fundamental issues.
After leaving the ANU I spent a semester at Temple University in Philadelphia before taking up a position in the Canberra bureaucracy. From 1983 to 1988 I worked mainly on science and research policy, watching Dawkins' revolutionary higher education policies unfold from the inside. These education policies were largely the product of an economic agenda. From the point of view of economic policy makers, higher education, and most of the research it conducts, provides a poor return on investment. After all, with Australia in the late 1980s (and many times since) cranking up its current account deficit at $1-2 billion a month, it's not surprising that the bureaucrats in Finance and Treasury were dreaming up ways to harness the universities to the economic task. No doubt they still are.
While working in the bureaucracy I developed a long-standing interest in another dimension of human cognitive pathology: belief in the paranormal. (Though please note that I do not believe that bureaucrats are any more susceptible — or any more immune — than the rest of us to the blandishments of the paranormal.) Paranormal belief is another bugbear subsequently integrated into my philosophical agenda. The incapacity of the human mind to deal effectively with the facts of exponential growth is matched by our shaky grasp of probabilistic inference, and the singular human vice of overinterpretation. Some cognitive capacities that have served us well through the course of human evolution seem, in our present circumstances, to predispose us to error.
For a few years I participated in the task of publicly addressing the rising tide of credulism in the role of President of Canberra Skeptics and through work with Australian Skeptics. The aim, as I saw it, was to promote public epistemological hygiene. During the course of this period I persuaded Jonathan Kelley of the National Social Science Survey at the ANU to include a few questions on belief in astrology into one of his national surveys. The result of this was the first profile of belief in astrology in Australia, and as a consequence I acquired a modest national media profile as an "expert" on belief in astrology. The really beautiful result of the survey (for me) was an unequivocal linear correlation between level of education and rejection of astrology. As someone in the education business, it's good to see numbers which suggest that the product works. Two other correlating factors are age and gender. Overall, young, poorly educated women are the most credulous and mature, well-educated males are the most sceptical.
In 1988 the family moved to Brisbane, where I took up a position at the University of Queensland teaching logic and other courses (a component 'God and the Meaning of Life' in 'Introductory Philosophy') to large classes of first year students, as well as a range of advanced level courses (including 'Philosophy of Science' and 'Minds, Machines, Genes and Morals'). This lasted for several years before my peripatetic career took us back to NSW.
In 1990 I accepted an appointment at the University of New England (UNE) in Armidale, NSW. UNE is a fine university adjacent to several spectacular national parks. The Hinton Collection at the New England Regional Art Museum is one of the finest collections of Australian impressionists in the country. But Armidale inevitably has the limitations, as well as the advantages, of a country town. It's miles from anywhere. And it's real brass monkey country in winter! It was only as recently as 1995 that it (re)acquired a cinema and established access to ABC Radio National and ABC Radio FM.
The University of New England maintained an extensive distance education program, and the external students were a lot of fun to teach. While in Armidale I created a module for introductory philosophy classes 'Science and the Paranormal' which examined Hume's arguments about the rationality of belief in miracles and developed them to apply to some contemporary enthusiasms about the paranormal. Some of the memorable misconceptions which this course generated are recorded in The Sceptical Student — 1991 and The Sceptical Student — 1992-94.
At the end of 1994 I returned to the University of Queensland to develop courses in professional and applied ethics. This involved addressing issues in professional and applied ethics in a variety of courses and disciplines, as well as participating in a range of course offerings in other disciplines. I also established a postgraduate coursework Certificate, Diploma and Master of Arts in Ethics at the University (though from 2008 this is being phased out). I have served on Behavioural and Social Sciences Ethics Review Committee, I served as Deputy Director of the Australian Institute of Ethics and the Professions at the University of Queensland and I was Ethics Advisor to the ARC Centre of Excellence for Integrative Legume Research (CILR) at the University of Queensland from 2003 to 2007.
Unsurprisingly, my Credo — for what it's worth — has been shaped by the vicissitudes of my history. My philosophical interests include environmental philosophy, the metaphysics of time and the epistemology of paranormal belief. I am a "green" philosopher, concerned (and cautiously pessimistic) about our planetary prospects, an anti-realist about the future, and one who is deeply sceptical about so-called paranormal phenomena.
At bottom philosophy, as I conceive it, shares a common aim with art, science and religion — and indeed with inquiry quite generally. For inquiry — when it is not concerned with immediate and practical needs — is concerned to locate us intelligibly and satisfyingly within the complex web of contingencies which constitute history and to refine and fortify the vision and the values that we need to shape our individual and collective destinies.
In general I'm sympathetic to the post-Enlightenment scientific world-view, which has provided us with an ever-deepening understanding of the world and its origins and destiny — a tale more marvellous than the inventions of the shamans and poets, marvellous and fascinating though their stories may be.
My non-academic interests include bushwalking and (social) tennis. In some years (though with decreasing frequency) I manage to get in some skiing as well, though the ever-diminishing Australian snow-fields are rather remote from Brisbane. Despite the hot (and decreasingly sultry) summers and the cockroaches Queensland is a great place.
In June 2012 I retired from the University of Queensland, 24 years after arriving for my initial appointment. Reflections on my time at the University, as well as on Life, the Universe and Everything, can be found in my Valedictory Address.
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School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics
The University of Queensland
Brisbane, Queensland 4072 Australia
Created by: William Grey, Last altered: June 2012
Copyright © William Grey 1995.