Preposterous Universe

Thursday, May 27, 2004
Vital questions addressed

Will Baude at Crescat Sententia asks two profound questions that we at Preposterous are happy to answer.

First: What is the appropriate honorific for a professor at the University of Chicago? There's a story one sometimes hears to the effect that everyone (students, faculty, presumably researchers) at the UofC refers to each other by Mr/Ms, in sort of a charming reverse-snobbery. (As Brian at That's News to Me points out, the story is promulgated through the UofC student guide.) We're all supposed to be a community of scholars or some such thing. But is it really true?

The existence of this story makes things more awkward than they should be, if anything; the transition from Dr/Professor to first names as students get to know professors better is ambiguous and difficult enough, and throwing the possibility of Mr/Ms in there muddles things beyond hope. But we can look at the data. A quick perusal of emails from students in my current undergrad class reveals about a 50/50 split between "Professor Carroll" and a complete absence of name (just "Hi" or some such thing). No "Mr. Carroll"'s in evidence. But perhaps email is slightly more formal than face-to-face? I recall at least one student last quarter using "Mr." Not that I care; students are welcome to call me by Sean, or Professor, or Dr. I would think that the rules should be close to what they are outside the academic environment; if you are meeting someone for the first time, the relevant title seems appropriate, and once you get to know them better you can use the first name. Note to students: not every professor feels this way, and some quite like being called "Professor." And there's no easy way to tell.

To be honest, I'm not always clear on what I should call other professors. In particular, if I am sending email to someone in my field, whose work I am familiar with but whom I've never met in person nor corresponded with previously, should I call them Dr/Professor or just use their first name, as would be common if we were introduced at a conference? For no especially good reason, I tend to jump right in with the first name if the person is actually in my field, but use an honorific for someone in another discipline. Presumably I feel as if we physicists are a band of brothers and sisters, all in this together and somehow all friends even if we haven't actually been introduced. Whereas the more abstract ties of academia aren't quite enough to allow for such assumed intimacy. I think this compromise is not unusual, actually, although I don't have any real data.

(As I was writing this I noticed an update. Seems like the Professors are taking over.)

Will's second question: Should an omnipotent God be omnicontracting (able to make any promise, but not to ever break those promises) or omnibreaching (able to do anything at any time, even break past promises)? That one is much easier. The concept of an omnipotent God is incoherent. There is no sensible way to define what is meant by "omnipotent." That's okay, because there doesn't exist anything resembling an omnipotent God, so the logical impossibility of the concept shouldn't bother anyone.

Never let it be said that we don't tackle the important issues.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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