Dr. Robert King: a passion for knowledge and learning

This article is reprinted from the Sept. 12, 2013 issue of the Eagle’s Eye, Sierra Nevada College’s campus newspaper.
By Carly Courtney

Hidden away on the second floor of Prim Library outside the office of Dr. Robert King, the only sounds pervading the still air are whispered questions and footsteps echoing through the grates from the floors above. The silence is broken when the doors swing open to permit two professors walking up the stairs, laughing and planning a meeting “for this time next week.”

King pulls a chair out across the desk, a plaid button-up shirt sticking out the bottom of his navy cardigan, and worn Vans sticking out from underneath his pants. He pushed his thick rimmed glasses up further on his nose, one of Sierra Nevada College’s younger Ph.D holding professors, and began to talk quickly and without pause.

“I identify as a Floridian,” he says, as he describes Ormond Beach, where he grew up.

It was near to Daytona Beach, a place he explains is well known for “spring break… and the Daytona 500.”

King goes by Robert with those who are comfortable around him. He jokes that’s why all his colleagues call him King.

Robert King

Dr. Robert King

He attended the University of Florida, where he majored in zoology for three years before making a drastic change and getting a degree in English Literature. He arrived at Purdue University with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a minor in zoology and a head full of questions.

“I remember being very young, [around] 17, having morning experiences like getting in the shower just being totally depressed. It was kind of intellectual depression too; I had nothing bad happening to me or anything,” he lets out a laugh, remembering. “I was just like ‘This is so weird, why am I conscious in this way?’”

He decided to forgo his study of evolutionary biology and pursue philosophy, believing that it could provide him the tools to find the answers to questions he had spent years pondering.

“I certainly wasn’t going to crash the doors of some really good philosophy school without any background in it,” he says, explaining the bridge program he took part in, in order to get his Ph.D in philosophy. King uses his minor in zoology to explore human consciousness, a matter he considers to be his life’s mission to unravel.

“You start with like a basic universe defined by a basic set of chemicals or something like that, physical chemicals, and how do you get to this biological world? Where does the complexity arise for life? How does that process get going and maintain itself?  And that’s a so-called autopoietic process, so I’m interested in those kind of phenomena.”

Not just interested in the solitary mind, King is intrigued by the way minds relate to each other.

Using his hands to show two minds coming together, he explains, “[It’s an] intersubjective question of consciousness, but now of two consciousnesses, and the question of how they relate to each other, to me that’s also fascinating. In some ways that’s the whole question of society too, because that’s another one of these emergent properties. ‘What is society?’ Well it’s some kind of weird autopoietic emergent property.”

The questions he asks are mainly unanswerable at this point, and he admits he lives for the thrill of thinking about them. His goal is to know everything, because at that point, he says, is when you can know one thing.

“It becomes addictive,” he smiles, referring to these endless questions and ‘epiphenomena.’ “You get into these questions and they become the reason you’re living.”

His passion for knowledge and learning is palpable in the air as he gestures wildly and slaps the table in front of him to accentuate a point. All his life he’s been (unknowingly) preparing to answer these questions about consciousness and the origin of life. His degree in zoology got him started in the physical aspects of the human brain and its ‘complexification,’ the theories he developed learning English Literature helped him understand humanity, and his years of work in philosophy and religions kept the questions coming.

“What is the origin of life, or rather any kind of complexity? Where does that come from? To me it’s extremely fascinating, and I’ve been trying to pursue that.” King emphasizes he had no idea this is where his life would lead him. “I’ve tied all those strings together in a way. But I don’t think that’s how things ever worked really, that idea was not out there in advance, I certainly didn’t start with the germ of it already thinking ‘I’m going to take this and go somewhere with it’. It came from totally contingent places, and it was very random, and yet I’m still holding on to some kind of tendency.”

He gives a small half-smirk when asked if he wanted to be a professor.

“I didn’t really think I’d ever want to teach,” he says. He had gotten far with his degree and decided, “I have to teach. There’s just no other option. But, I have fallen in love with teaching.” His passion for learning, has probably lead him, in no small way to Sierra Nevada College, but he is adamant when he says it all just worked out this way.

King doesn’t want to insult the beauty and complexity of life by tying it up neatly in a bow. He believes in Western Judeo-Christian society; we take the tiny accidents and opportunities that make life what it is for granted.

“There’s way too much randomness in the world, and I’m not sure if we always appreciate that… everybody’s trained to think that there are origins and ends and there’s some kind of streamlined process, that we should follow a certain track from some kind of immaturity to some kind of maturity.”

Carly Courtney is a student in Introduction to Journalism.