A Conversion

Cliff Williams
Department of Philosophy
Trinity College
Deerfield, Illinois 60015

It happened on the first Sunday afternoon in August of 1985. For several summers I had ridden my bicycle two or three times each summer to the south beach at Highland Park, about seven miles from our home in Deerfield. I would park my bicycle at the bicycle rack, then stroll to the boulders at the south end of the beach. There I would sit watching the waves splash against the boulders. I would form a photographic image of a particular splash and say to myself, "God knows the precise location of all the water molecules in this splash." Then I would say, "God knows the location of all the water molecules in the immediate vicinity of this splash, and not only that, in the surrounding area as well, and in . . ." Here I would stop. I could not take it in. It was all I could do to sit for a few more minutes in dumbfounded awe before getting up and returning to my bicycle. (As I was recounting this experience to a class once, one of the students exclaimed "Stop!" and put her head down onto her folded arms on her desk. I stopped.)
On this Sunday afternoon in August, Ron and Alison were sitting on the beach. I sat with them for a bit. We tossed pebbles into a Styrofoam cup that stood on the sand between us. One of them that Alison had tossed hit my leg. We joked about the headline in The Trinity Digest—Student Hits Professor with Rock.
I got up and headed toward my boulders. There were waves, but it was not the splashes that captured my attention this day. It was my life as a philosopher.
I had been trained in American analytic philosophy, which prizes clarity, logic, and precision. It also prizes the fact that it deals with real philosophy—"hard" issues such as the mind-body problem, free will and determinism, language and reality. It considered "soft" matters, such as the meaning of life and the nature of love, beneath its purview. Only nonphilosophers or European philosophers dealt with these latter unphilosophical subjects.
For the past several years I had been reading the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, the novels that probe the inner terrain of the human psyche. I had read and reread Blaise Pascal's Pensées, and the same for Book 8 of Augustine's Confessions, the chapter in which he analyzes his resistance to God's "austere mercy." I had soaked in Soren Kierkegaard's Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.
I could not resist the power these books displayed. I could not help engaging in some of the searching inspections these books described. At the same time, I could not help but think that doing so was not true philosophy. A genuine philosopher, I believed, would leave these matters to others. I prided myself on doing true philosophy.
My pride broke as I sat watching the waves. "I will not regard these matters with disdain. I will not feel less of a philosopher because I think about them," I thought.
I sat for another quarter of an hour, then went back north to my bicycle, waving to Alison and Ron as I passed them.
You cannot sit on those boulders anymore. There is a Stay Off sign at them, which the lifeguards enforce. I know, because I sat on the boulders once after the sign appeared. But just as I did I was told to leave by a lifeguard up at the beach who used a bullhorn to communicate his demand. I left and have never returned.