Bricks or pie? - big questions win Gates Cambridge scholarship

Massey philosophy student Nathan Hawkins at Cambridge University

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 philosophy departments.

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.

From 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?

Back 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.

“The wall 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?”

A universe 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.


Cambridge University

Maths link to philosophical journey

Questioning and 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.

The 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 complex?”

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.

Enter 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].”

Nathan Hawkins at Cambridge University, based at the same college as celebrated theoretical physcist Stephen Hawkings.

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, literally.

And while his own research might seem a tad esoteric, he maintains the study of philosophy is enriching and rewarding.

“Philosophy 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

Philosophy 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.

Mr 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.”

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