Horban Essay Award 2020

July 10, 2020

The Department of Philosophy at Simon Fraser University would like offer heartiest congratulations to two of our undergraduate students, Jake Stewart and Jacob Gebrewold, who have recently been awarded the Peter Horban Philosophy Essay Award. The annual departmental award is made to recognize excellence in a philosophical essay written by an undergraduate student. Winning essays demonstrate academic and research excellence at the undergraduate level with particular emphasis placed upon originality and promise of ability in research.

  • Jake Stewart, for "Counterfactuals over Causation: Unification, Explanation by Constraint, and the role of Modality in Symmetry Problems" (PHIL455W: Causation and Modality)
  • Jacob Gebrewold, for "♫ It Kind of Matters If You’re Black or White ♫" (PHIL203: Metaphysics)

Jacob Gebrewold

What does winning the Horban Award this year mean to you?

It's a huge honor. I actually met Peter Horban for coffee last year. I didn't personally know any philosophers who shared my Christian worldview who worked in a secular academic institution, so I emailed him asking to meet. As per his reputation as a deeply involved and generous teacher, he was happy to give me his time.

Why did you take the course for which the paper was written? Where/how does it fit in with your degree plans?

I took PHIL 203 as a lower level prerequisite for a Philosophy Major and because I heard good things about Dr. Jennifer Wang's teaching. As a philosopher, I was eager to dive into ethics at a higher level. When I saw that the "Metaphysics of Race" as a subtopic on the syllabus, I was genuinely surprised. It broadened my appreciation for the intersections between metaphysics and social philosophy and gave me the chance to write this fun paper!  

Can you explain where your paper fits in with everyday life?

Why can’t Rachel Dolezal transition races? is the complex question which sparked my paper. 

When considering the values of individual autonomy over identity and respecting marginalized groups, a tension arises between them with regards to her case. I set out to demonstrate why people like Dolezal identifying with a racial group that they do not belong to, particularly given the white-black racial dynamics at play, is inconsistent with the anti-racist goals of a social constructivist metaphysics of race as laid out by Charles Mills in his classic book Blackness Visible.

While I limit my commentary to Dolezal’s inconsistency with this metaphysical account, the implications of my paper apply to how any worldview which purports to be antiracist ought to respond to any similar case of alleged racial transition. This paper will hopefully challenge ruggedly individualistic accounts of identity, especially as it relates to social identity. Despite Dolezal’s sincerely held beliefs, the consequences of her social identification do not solely result in benefits to her, but also accrue harms to people who should not have their identity annexed by her.

What inspired the title of your paper?

I like pop culture reference titles because it’s a fun writing challenge; this one definitely had layers. Michael Jackson was surrounded by controversy [note paywall: ] about the color of his skin. I felt that parodying the lyric of Jackson’s hit song about racial harmony, “Black or White” would be a fun, pithy way to introduce themes of racial controversy and identity

Any other thoughts?

Having also taken Metaphysics and Ancient Chinese Ethics (PHIL 322) with Dr. Wang, my philosophy education is made better by having a professor of color. She is a quality professor, independent of race, but that doesn’t mean that being a professor of color is irrelevant. 

Maybe it’s common for professors to include “race” as a subtopic in an introductory metaphysics class, though I highly doubt that.

Maybe if a white professor put this subtopic on the syllabus, I would have felt comfortable to write this same paper. It really depends, but I, like many people of color, often make decisions to not wade into controversial points on race if I’m faced with a white authority figure on whom I want to make a good impression.

I wonder how many fun, challenging and insightful papers about race have not been written by thinkers of color because the subtopic was left unexplored by professors who underrate its importance... or because the student didn’t want to gamble on offending their white professor…  I wonder how much better off we all would be if these papers had been written.

Ensuring diversity in hiring isn’t just a woke talking point; it leads to more writing worth thinking about, and even giving awards to.

Jake Stewart

Why did you take the course for which the paper was written. Where/how does it fit in with your degree plans?

I have come to philosophy from a physics and chemistry background with a primary interest in philosophy of science. The course I wrote this paper for, while not strictly a course on the philosophy of science, was nonetheless the highest level exploration of phil-of-sci related topics I have taken part in for my undergrad, and provided insight into what topics would be suitable for graduate level research.

Can you give a very brief explanation of the subject of your paper?

The paper addresses what is involved in providing a good scientific explanation, and specifically comments on a longstanding dispute over whether explaining something is synonymous with correctly identifying that thing's causes. Recent work by Marc Lange argues that some scientific explanations, such as those that appeal to conservation laws, have nothing to do with causation and instead explain phenomena in terms of necessity. As is, he allows for most scientific explanation to be causal. I was curious if his views were compatible with those which hold that scientific explanation writ large is not about tracking causal structures. I ultimately argue that they are, and moreover that incorporating Lange's ideas into non-causal theories of explanation helps them deal with outstanding theoretical problems.

What does winning the Horban Award this year mean to you?

Mostly, it reassures me that I was onto something with this paper, and encourages me to continue the developing ideas within it as I start my graduate career. As I won't be going into philosophy research immediately (I begin my physics Masters at SFU in the fall), I may use refining this paper as a side project to keep my philosophical skills in practice.

Past winners

2019: First Place: Alexander Chernets, “Kant And Berkeley.” ; Second Place: Grace Stanyer, “Defending Battered Women.”

2017: (winning both first and second place) Sam Mitchell, "Machan and the Hardliner’s Dilemma: Is Holding Mack’s Self-Ownership Proviso at Odds with Political Liberterianism?" and “Epistemic Policies Under Multiple Levels of Opacity.”

2016: (Two first-place prizes.) Kiana Bartz, “Proximate Causation in Criminal Law” and Robert Munro, “Nominalist Mathematics and the Second Philosophical Perspective.”

2015: Lindsay Grant, “Mind the Gap: Considering Jenann Ismael’s Compatibilism.”

2014: Rachel Taylor, "Colonial Problems for Pogge's and Wenar's Reforms to the Resource Privilege.”

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