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Alumni Spotlight: Adam Hayden

Well Suited for Illness

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Adam Hayden

Adam Hayden, a 2013 undergraduate and 2017 graduate of the Philosophy master’s program at the IU School of Liberal Arts, credits his philosophy training at IU Indianapolis for equipping him with the skills he’s used to navigate a difficult, life-limiting brain cancer diagnosis that he received in 2016, delaying the completion of his graduate degree while he underwent cancer treatment that included a long inpatient stay where Adam re-learned to walk, feed, bathe, and dress himself, following an aggressive surgery.

“We’ll finally find out if you’re really just a ‘brain in a vat,’” a professor joked with Adam before his awake brain surgery in May 2016 to remove around 95% of malignant tumor from his brain. The joke referred to a famous thought experiment in philosophy that argues against certainty in our knowledge. The outlandish hypothesis that maybe we’re just “brains in vat” wired up to a simulation device teaches epistemic humility, that is, teaches us to question whether we can be so sure about our beliefs and knowledge. The brain-in-a-vat hypothesis is the basis for the movie The Matrix.

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Epistemic humility is an important lesson that helped Adam wrestle with accepting his terminal diagnosis and is a hallmark of his nationally recognized patient advocacy. For his graduate work, Adam studied closely with Professor Timothy D Lyons, PhD, Chair of the Philosophy department. Prof. Lyons is a leading scholar in an important debate within the philosophy of science: the scientific realism debate. The debate asks whether we can believe our successful scientific theories are true, or at least close to it. The scientific realists affirm that we can, while the neorealists remind us that the history of science includes many theories that were successful at the time but since replaced by yet more successful alternatives.

Studying the philosophy of science teaches us to read both scientific and philosophical literature, and when Adam received his diagnosis, he applied this same rigor to digesting small bites from the vast literature on cancer biology, through the critical lens he developed at IU Indianapolis. His work with Prof. Lyons helped Adam maintain an optimistic outlook, knowing that even if our best theories today offer a grim outlook for Adam’s type of cancer, glioblastoma, the history of science reminds us that scientific theory change is a matter of course.

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Today, Adam uses the skills he learned at IU Indianapolis to give talks across the country. He also applies his competency in reading peer reviewed literature to serve on the Board of Directors at National Brain Tumor Society, where he also serves on the steering committee for the “Research Roundtable” program that convenes researchers, clinicians, pharmaceutical company leaders, government agency representatives from the FDA and NIH, and patients to collaborate on important issues affecting the brain tumor community. Adam has earned the moniker, “The Patient Philosopher.”

Know of an alumnus who is doing great work? Nominate them for an Alumni Award.