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Candid
Ian McDonald
Photo by Jason Halstead [BPE/92]

Ian McDonald

He has the confidence of a lead singer. He’s not in a band, but he looks like he could be. When Ian McDonald was younger he wanted to invent things, and he also enjoyed making arguments. His parents said he should pursue law, but he chose philosophy and now he debates metaphysics.

 

If you were at a party, how would you describe metaphysics to someone?
That depends how much I like them and how much I actually want to have the conversation. I think a lot of people describe it as a fundamental way of looking at what exists and how things exist… Where a scientist might look at properties like charge or mass, metaphysics, I think, asks that second question of what is it to be a property or what are properties like? Are they these platonic things up in heaven, or are they things that just bind together and create objects? So it’s questions like that.

 

How did you get into this?
I guess I have always been curious about stuff that I think people don’t question enough.

 

Where are you from?
Winnipeg.

 

How did you end up choosing the U of M?
I knew I was going to do my undergrad here. My dad is a tech here so there’s scholarships and stuff I could get because of that. So it was helpful that way.

I looked at some other universities for a master’s program. There is one in Wisconsin that I was thinking about but the governor Scott Walker basically gutted tenure. They passed legislation that would allow professors to be removed for financial gain if people thought that was necessary. So I didn’t want to go there in case the professor was suddenly axed. It was too big of a risk for me.

 

Where is your dad a tech?
Biosystems engineering. He does some instrumentation stuff there.

 

Did you guys go for lunch together?
It’s funny, just last week he told me I’ve been here for five years and we’ve never gone for lunch. So we went to lunch.

 

What is it you study or examine or think about?
I mostly focus on metaphysics and the philosophy of language. I’m mostly into metaphysics though.

 

What did you want to be as a kid?
I think I went through a few phases. At one point I wanted to just invent stuff, which I guess would lend itself to being an engineer. And my parents told me I should be a lawyer because I really like to argue.

 

Philosophy is a good second bet.
Exactly.

 

There is a lot of talk these days about “alternative facts”. Would a philosopher say they could exist?
I’m not entirely sure what alternative facts are supposed to be. My view on facts is something is either a fact or not a fact… The whole post-truth thing I find interesting because it’s supposed to be this idea that, now especially, is a time when people are being swayed by emotions, not facts. And I find this interesting because I think this is something that has been occurring as far back as politics go.

It’s interesting people are paying attention to it more now. There’s a liberal conception that politics and society progresses through rational debates and discourse where everyone really considers the pros and cons of policies. But I don’t think that’s how things have ever actually played out. I think if you go back a few decades ago, before people were throwing around the post-truth, it’s not like back then we were trying to take this ultra-rational look and weigh all the pros and cons of how policies affect all people. Ideology is always present and has been in society. So I see this discourse emerging recognizing just how much ideology is prevalent in the way people are making their decisions. So I find it interesting in that respect.

 

Perhaps in his mind, Trump is telling the truth. Are there subjective truths?
My view is that there really is an objective sense of true or not true. And you can have certain things be relational: It’s true that Trump thinks this way about this issue, but it might not be true about the issue.

The whole appeal to emotion thing is funny to me as a philosophy student. A lot of first-year philosophy students think that if you appeal to emotion it’s wrong and you lost. And that’s a mistake. I think emotions should be taken into consideration. But it comes down to my view on morality. If you’re questioning how much harm or pleasure or benefit people are getting out of a policy—how people feel in their day-to-day life—emotions should be coming into play.

Now maybe that doesn’t fit this situation with Trump.

I think it’s dangerous too when people fetishize this unemotional or anti-emotional stance and expect that everyone should be taking this stance. Often times it’s a veil for privileges certain people are experiencing… And often times I think pointing to peoples’ emotions is sort of used to silence them.

 

How so?
I think it delegitimizes what I think are often completely legitimate calls. Or there is a legitimate call that might be underneath the initial emotional reaction and that gets sidelined when people scapegoat the emotional reaction. So in Fergusson in the U.S., or in our other communities that have experienced riots, very quickly people point to those and say it’s illegitimate and they are outraged. They try to dismiss very legitimate complaints about police violence and racism. I find that very dangerous.

 

Because they put it in the emotional framework and then that allows them to push it aside?
Yes, at least that’s how it comes across to me.

 

To play the mean guy at the bar, what’s there to think about still? What’s the future of philosophy? Like, what do we still need to think about? Haven’t we thought over everything? What else is there to think deeply about?
There are different branches of philosophy and there are a lot of debates that are ongoing and interesting. Even with the way society has been progressing—you know, we think we have it all figured out—there are a lot of debates that re-emerge and with new twists.

In the wake of globalization, you see a lot of fallback to debates on epistemic relativism. Can things be true just to me? Are things true just to a given community? Can there be a different truth to another community?

 

How does that fit into globalization?
It comes about by epistemic and moral relativism too.

Think about social norms. That’s how I see it. You see a lot of different values in various communities and you say, well, if they consider that good, that’s good for them. And if we consider our everyday norms good, that’s good for us. And we shouldn’t judge other people’s cultures by our norms. That is a debate that has come up a lot again. More communities are becoming aware of very different communities across the world. So there are questions about how much can we judge, and from what framework. And that’s something that philosophers have considered for a long time and something that is becoming popular again.

I’m not saying this is my position, just that this is an example of a debate that has resurfaced.

Metaphysics is never going to be settled. The questions are too weird.

 

What’s a hot debate in metaphysics?
Grounding. It’s this notion of, like, metaphysical explanation and what does it take for something to occur in virtue of something else. It’s really questioning that in-virtue relation.

So you might think one event causes another. That may be a mechanistic causation. But then there is this other question on things we may take for granted. Like, how are they explained? Or in virtue of what do they exist?

You can take a chair and say maybe it’s just a grouping of atoms arranged in a certain way and there is no chair above and beyond those atoms. Or maybe there is. But the grounding question is: Does the chair exist in virtue of the particles existing? If you remove one particle, is there a different chair?

That atom you removed was from a grouping that existed already. So if you think it’s a different chair now, are there a billion chairs in this location? Or if there is just one chair, why is there only one chair and not a billion chairs?

That’s a grounding question.

I think it’s fun.

 

Favourite philosopher?
I’m going to give two answers. The answer that will make my professors happy, which I still agree with, is Saul Kripke. And my favourite philosopher is Jean-Paul Sartre.

 

Least favourite?
Probably [Robert] Nozick, this right-wing libertarian. It’s not just a political thing. I just think he doesn’t make good arguments.

 

Do you have any hobbies? You look like you should be in a band.
A couple of my friends and I have talked about starting a band but we have never followed through. I like going to local shows at the Handsome Daughter and the Goodwill.

My hobby is mostly doing political stuff.

 

Are you involved with a party?
I support a party. I’m not really involved with them. It’s not a typical party. I support the revolutionary communist party. And I do a lot of work locally on migrant issues. So I’m part of the Save NPMP. It’s a coalition of migrants that came together because [Brian] Pallister’s government, back in November, introduced changes he wanted to make to the provincial nominee program, which includes adding a $500 processing fee for any migrant applying to get into the program, which is how a lot of migrants stay in Manitoba.

 

Do you have any regrets?
Ah. Maybe. It’s funny, I told someone this the other day, and it’s not something I think about much, but we were talking about political work and I said the only thinking I regret about high school is not trying to make everyone a communist back then. I know, it’s ridiculous.

 

Who do you prefer, Marx or Engels?
Marx, definitely.

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