As an undergraduate in the 1980s at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, Erik Wielenberg was into computer programming when Apple IIs were the thing. He planned to major in math and computer science. But when he discovered philosophy, he says, “it felt like coming home.
“Philosophy combines some of the logical thinking from computer science and mathematics but also has a writing aspect – even a creative aspect to it.” And, he says, “it was the questions that it asked that really captured my attention – especially as an 18 year old.”
Wielenberg came to DePauw 20 years ago to fill a semester-long position in the philosophy department. It extended to a year, then to two more years and, finally, a tenure-track position. He has been a full professor since fall 2013.
He grew up in Racine, Wis., went to Lawrence for a bachelor’s degree and then to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for a Ph.D.
“When I went to grad school, I didn’t really have an idea of what particular area in philosophy I was most interested in. I liked all of it,” he says.
“As often happens, there was a professor who I admired and was sort of a mentor to me. He worked in ethics so that’s what brought me into it initially.”
Wielenberg says that his work now has to do with thinking about the relationship between ethics and morality on the one hand and the existence or nonexistence of God on the other.
“I’ve done a lot work basically defending the idea that there can be objective morality, that there can be sort of true right and wrong and good and bad even without God as a foundation or a source for those things.”
Describing himself as a sort of non-religious person, he says that his most substantial research arose from the questions “Does my worldview make sense? Is it consistent?”
With many of the questions in philosophy, “it’s difficult to get to a point where you can say, well, everyone agrees, and it’s now clear that such and such is the case.”
Some students find that frustrating. “I found it invigorating,” he says. “That’s why I went into philosophy.”
The goal is to not convince everybody or get to an answer that everyone agrees on, “but rather to work the issues through for yourself and get to a point where you’re satisfied that a position makes sense to you.”
Wielenberg says he’s happy to have ended up at DePauw, with the benefits of teaching at a liberal arts school.
The best part of it? “Certainly interacting with students,” Wielenberg says. “You get to know students. Often you’ll have them in multiple classes, and you can actually see them develop, which is extremely rewarding.”
Another benefit? The ability to conduct research. The pressure to publish at a research university “encourages people to play it safe and stick within a narrow area,” he says, “whereas at DePauw you don’t have that same kind of pressure. And I know in my own case, that really enabled me to just try things out and be creative.
“And that really is the idea of a liberal arts education where it’s not just ‘I’m the expert in this one narrow question’ but rather trying to see the connections between different things.
“So in my research, in my teaching, in my own thinking, I’m always looking for these connections. To share that with the students can be exciting.”
When he’s not working, Wielenberg says, his family keeps him busy. He has two boys, ages 14 and 12, and likes reading fiction, playing basketball, running and cycling.
“And, since I grew up in the ’80s, I enjoy some of that ’80s hair-metal music.”
Your favorites? “Terrible bands like Guns N’ Roses and Poison and Def Leppard.”