Significant Figures is a periodic feature on my blog of those who have
shaped, influenced, and impacted me along the way.
Doctor Thomas Foster began his long career at Ball State University the same year I was born. I encountered him 20 years later as an undergraduate philosophy major where he taught logic and metaphysics. He died in 2012.
Dr. Foster is arguably one of the smartest people I have ever known. He had a sharp logical mind and spent his career using it to wrestle with metaphysical questions. I remember not having class one day because he was traveling to a conference to refute someone else’s theory of time. We were a bit in awe of this man who brought a thermos of hot water with lemon to class every day—leaving an occasional lemon seed in his beard—as he was going off to argue about the nature of time.
He was good at explaining complex logical and metaphysical issues. He guided us through Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in metaphysics. We discussed Gödel’s Proof and the identity of indiscernables, a problem with which he held different views than Max Black. He was an imposing intellect and we respected his prowess. He was the defining figure of the philosophy department for most of us.
He had an ability to find subtle shades of meaning and articulate the nuances he uncovered. I remember standing in the main office of the philosophy department when the discussion turned to dying. Dr. Foster quipped, “I don’t want to live forever; I just don’t want to die—there’s a difference.” He was right, and it has stuck with me for 25 years.
Dr. Foster influenced me in two main ways. First, he taught me symbolic logic, which I thoroughly enjoyed as a discipline and as a subject. I’ve always had a analytic bent and in his courses, I was able to use and refine it. He gave us interesting logical problems to wrestle with and I enjoyed the contest. I spent hours on end in the library looking up books and articles on the “liar paradox” which remains one of my favorite logical puzzles.
Second, Dr. Foster was my role model for a time. Something about the way he taught and the aura we constructed around him was attractive to me and I wrestled with the decision to attend seminary or to pursue a PhD in philosophy. If the University of Nebraska had offered me scholarship money in their acceptance letter, my life may have turned out very differently, but I’ve never regretted the decision to go to seminary instead. Looking back, I don’t think PhD studies in philosophy would have done anything to strengthen my faith, which was not overly strong as an undergrad.
While my life has never led me back to the halls of North Quad at Ball State, I have seen a fair amount of death. I do not fear it, but contrary to Dr. Foster, I do desire to live forever, though not as my life is now. I long for life in the presence of the source of all wisdom, where identity and meaning will be transformed.