Zach Gabor ‘15 Challenges Rationality and Pursues Normative Truth

The Haverford philosophy and mathematics double major discussed his time as a Ph.D. student at Harvard University as part of the Young Academic Alumni Lecture Series.

On Sept. 29, Lutnick Library hosted Zach Gabor ‘15 for “Rationality, Capacity-First,” his talk in the Young Academic Alumni Lecture Series. In this series, Haverford graduates who have chosen to pursue academia share their experiences. Gabor, who majored in both mathematics and philosophy at Haverford, is now nearing completion of his Ph.D. at Harvard University.

When Gabor arrived at Haverford, he was primarily interested in chemistry or physics, but that quickly changed when, in his very first semester, he took “Linear Algebra” with Professor and Chair of Mathematics and Statistics Robert Manning. Meanwhile, he fell in love with philosophy when he took “Virtue Epistemology” with Danielle Macbeth, professor and chair of philosophy.

“What I found so compelling about math and philosophy were the intellectual tools they provided me to develop a clearer, more general, bigger-picture understanding of the world around me,” Gabor explained. “For example: my visual imagination alone only allows me to understand the way space works in one, two, or three dimensions. What fascinated me about linear algebra is that it gives you mathematical tools to understand space which work the same way in any number of dimensions, and it really excited me to feel like I had this deeper, more general understanding.”

That desire for a deeper understanding was fulfilled by philosophy too. Gabor believes that philosophy is particularly powerful because it does not focus on simply gaining knowledge itself, but rather by connecting fields of knowledge. In doing so, it gives access to a fuller understanding of all fields.

After graduating from Haverford in 2015, Gabor began his Ph.D. studies at Harvard in 2016. In his first year of graduate study, he came across a common theme in his research, one that has defined his time at Harvard.

“In my first year at Harvard, I remember making some comment in a seminar and mentioning ‘the norm of truth.’ Some of the other students in the seminar were puzzled by this expression, and I remember being equally puzzled that they were puzzled,” Gabor said. He has been researching this idea of the ‘normativity of truth’ ever since, and trying to find out why he believed in the normativity of truth while his classmates did not.

“Because truth and rationality are related, I found that the tack I was taking in my research seemed to me to help clarify the related debate about the normativity of rationality, which was the impetus for the project I talked about in my presentation,” he said.

In his recent talk at his alma mater, Gabor challenged his listeners to reconsider their association of rationality and the truth. If we are always rational, can we ever think outside of our own beliefs? He responded to that question and sought to vindicate rationality.

“I argue that if we reconceptualize rationality by thinking of it as a characteristic capacity—part of the strategy that human beings have for getting around the world—and draw a distinction between objective and subjective rationality, then we can get the paradox generated by the above-stated argument to melt away, so we can make sense of the idea that the concept of rationality is a normative one,” he said.

Gabor noted that it is common for up-and-coming graduate students to feel hopeless when faced with everything they don’t know, particularly compared to what they already do know. He admitted that he has wrestled with these feelings many times.

“What I’d advise someone entering graduate school is not to resist the realization that there is vastly more that they don’t know than that they do know, but to resist the doubt that this realization can engender, and instead regard it as a profound source of opportunity and hope,” Gabor said. “We find ourselves in a vastly complex world, and each of our individual efforts can only illuminate a tiny portion of it. But this means that there is opportunity for discovery everywhere, and that there is so much we can learn from each other.”

Upon concluding at Harvard, Gabor aims to teach philosophy at the collegiate level—a desire instilled in him during his time at Haverford.