Massey philosophy student Nathan Hawkins at Cambridge University
BRICKS OR PIE? - BIG QUESTIONS WIN GATES CAMBRIDGE SCHOLARSHIP
There is a standing joke between Nathan and I whenever we are engaged with a third party or more in conversations about philosophy and the meaning of life etc ...... I often joke at an opportune time (which is usually when Nathan has stated some idea that he has plucked from the stratospheric recesses of his mind) that of course "I taught him all that he knows."But of course the truth is that Nathan talks and I struggle keep up as I take notes." Read on:
Brick wall or sliced pie? It maybe a crude analogy, but it
captures how we might understand the structure of the Universe, says
Massey University Bachelor of Arts graduate Nathan Hawkins. He is about
to embark on doctoral research on the topic at one of the world’s top
Last month he was
selected for a 2017 Gates Cambridge Scholarship (established by the Bill
and Melinda Gates Foundation) to support his PhD studies in philosophy
and formal logic at Cambridge University, one of 55 from more than 5000
top applicants around the world. It’s his second such scholarship – he’s
currently completing a Master of Philosophy at Cambridge with the
support of a separate 2016 Gates Cambridge Scholarship, having just
completed his masters at Massey’s School of Humanities.
studying philosophy by distance through Massey University from his
Whangarei home last year to gaining two prestigious Gates Cambridge
Scholarships, Mr Hawkins explains via Skype from the revered British
university how fundamental questions about the Universe might be
explained by logic.
BRICKS OR PIE SLICES?
to bricks, pies and how they apply to metaphysics (a branch of
philosophy exploring the fundamental nature of reality). “The bricks are
each part of the wall, while the slices are each part of the pie, but
there is a difference between the cases,” he explains.
is derived from its brick-parts, but the slice-parts are derived from
the pie. We might then wonder, which is the case with the universe? Are
the parts of the universe fragments of a unified whole, or is the
universe the sum of its primitive building blocks?”
of multiple fundamental building blocks (the wall) is the philosophical
position of Pluralism, while the fragmented universal whole (the pie) is
its opposite, Monism. In the 20th century Pluralism has largely been
assumed to be true, although recent discoveries in quantum physics have
led to this assumption being questioned, he explains.
The way we
answer this question affects our understanding of the workings of
reality – is everything interconnected or is it all loose and separate?
In other words, does the world consist of gunk or junk? (Both are valid
philosophical terms used to describe different consequences of the
competing theories). The debate between the two positions plays out in
the philosophical field of metaphysics, although it draws heavily on
evidence from physics, mathematics, and logic, Mr Hawkins says.
MATHS LINK TO PHILOSOPHICAL JOURNEY
revisiting ideas and theories on the profoundest of issues is a personal
quest for this Cambridge philosopher, sparked originally through his
own faith journey and encounter with the writings of Northern Ireland
theologian and philosopher Peter Rollins. A love of mathematics led him
into logic – all part of his intellectual artillery in getting to the
crux of his doctoral study.
For the 36-year-old British-born New
Zealand citizen who married Kiwi Charlotte Hawkins (nee Smith), his
exploration encompasses more than just the physical dimensions of what
we call reality, but includes maths, ethics and divinity.
lure of philosophy is, he says, that it “questions the things we think
we know, in order to examine the foundations of those ideas and see
whether or not those beliefs are reasonable. I’m peeling back layers of
assumption to the nub of the issue and asking – is reality fundamentally
Mr Hawkins – who graduated from Massey with a double
major in maths and philosophy – says he must develop his own logical
language as a precursor to his PhD. This involves creating a new
alphabet, rules of grammar, the intended meaning of logical sentences,
and the principles that govern truth in the language, the groundwork for
which he’s done in his near-completed Cambridge masters.
Set Theory (the theoretical basis of all mathematics), Predicate
Calculus (the logic of objects, their properties, and their
relationships), Modal logic (the logic of what is possible and what is
necessary) Quantum Entanglement and host of other mind-boggling terms.
“We have certain ideas about reality – I believe that the world is a
complex, interacting whole but I want to see if I can model that to see
if that idea makes sense in terms of structure [maths and logic].”
CAMBRIDGE CONVERSATIONS HAVE 'WOW' FACTOR
He says being at
the University of Cambridge, home to past philosophy greats – including
Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein – has a distinct Harry Potter
feel to it. He’s based at Gonville & Caius (pronounced ‘keys’)
College, founded in 1348 and one of 31 colleges at the university, which
celebrated its 800th anniversary in 2009. It’s also the college of
celebrated theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who Mr
Hawkins has seen eating in the dining hall, where all the members must
wear black academic gowns.
Another cool aspect of being a
Cambridge scholar is the fascinating, if surreal, conversations. Forget
the weather – from the scientist developing ink that collects solar
energy so you paint your car and just go, to the woman researching how
to turn off the chemical trigger that causes our brains to age, another
training fruit flies to obey external commands and the pioneering PhD
astrophysicist living on packaged foods to prepare for his one way trip
on the Mars One mission and is “super excited to get blasted off to Mars
and never come back” – small talk at Cambridge can be other-worldly,
And while his own research might seem a tad esoteric, he maintains the study of philosophy is enriching and rewarding.
is something a lot of people can do and enjoy – it’s self-reflection,
it’s contemplating the mystery of our own existence,” he says.
BOOSTING CRITICAL THINKING
also helps develop critical thinking skills that not only “help people
not be duped by advertising” but can fortify us for societal challenges.
“We are entering time of political demagoguery and unique economic
challenges where we need to think outside the box and find fresh answers
for difficult questions.”
Mr Hawkins’ former lecturer Dr
Adriane Rini, from the School of Humanities, says winning admission to
the Cambridge PhD programme “is itself a terrific recognition of
Nathan’s abilities. The Gates Scholarships are extremely competitive.
Excellent research is the first consideration, but the Gates also
requires evidence that recipients are ‘using their intellectual gifts to
make the world a better place’.”
She says her former student
never shied away from the hard stuff in his scholarship, and is a true
Massey success story as all of his studies were as a distance student.
Mr Hawkins’ recognition as one of the world’s top philosophy students is
something she and her colleagues “and the philosophers at all the other
New Zealand universities” will be celebrating, she says.
Hawkins starts his PhD in October on the same day his first child is due
to be born, a coincidence perhaps and one he may just see as a signal
of the “internal relatedness of all things.” "