STEM The Tide: The Revolution Will not Be Digitized
Remarks on the Occasion of World Philosophy Day 2017
1. There can be no question of skepticism about the results of three hundred years of scientific research. The issue is not whether material nature can be understood by the scientific method. Rather, the question is whether human beings and our societies and cultures are reducible to material nature, its elements, forces, and laws.
2. There can also be no question of retreating to idealist dreams of a spiritual other-world and divine origins. Not only do they presuppose what would need to be explained: how god created the world and what reason there would be for souls to become embodied, they also abstract from the limitations and challenges that make life as finite, mortal being difficult.
3. Hence the philosophical object is the specific historical materiality of human beings, the way our individual and collective lives are at once biological and social, physical and symbolic, framed by objective forces that are nevertheless subject to interpretation and change. Grasping this specificity adequately is not only a philosophical problem: it organizes the whole field of the humanities. What is uniquely philosophical is the task of making the case, against reductionism on the one hand and idealism on the other, of the synthetic, bio-social nature of human beings.
4. Our biology both links us together in mutual need and allows us to think as separate individuals. We are drawn together and pulled apart; the meaning and value of our lives are at once collective political problems and individual existential problems. We build together and dread our deaths alone.
5. Our finitude can be lived religiously or philosophically, or it can be ignored scientifically. If religious belief cannot solve the problems of existential anxiety, the dread of uncertainty, the eventual reality of failure and loss, when it is honest it at least acknowledges them as the source of the need to question the silent heavens. “Let man, coming back to himself, consider what he is in comparison with what is; let him consider himself as lost in this out of the way corner of nature; and from this little cell he finds himself lodged … let him learn to appreciate at their true worth the world, the kingdoms, the cities, and himself. What is man within the infinite?” (Pascal, Thought 13).
6. Science makes the same mistake as the dogmas it claims to overturn. In reality a historical and dialectical accumulation of partial understandings, science oversteps its competency as soon as it weighs in on ultimate issues. The absurdity of thinking that there is an algorithmic solution to ultimate questions is as overt as the belief in a literal creation of the universe in 6 days.
7. Choice is not algorithmic but normative: what can cruel or kind, tender or ruthless mean to a machine? They are felt and cognized realties, machine intelligence is artificial because it is not a feeling intelligence aware of itself and its responsibilities.
8. Ultimate questions are those which human beings have perennially posed, in all reflective cultures: Life, death, purpose, love, hate, sex, creation, destruction, knowledge, ignorance, future, the part and the whole, the self and its community, justice, freedom.
9. Philosophy as the public exercise of foundational questioning lives now as it has always lived, nourished by these ultimate questions. Human beings apart from these ultimate questions are protein awaiting recycling. Feeling the essential importance and value of our existence depends upon being confronted with these questions. We do not reason our way to these questions as a computer grinds out solutions. They are just there one day: alone on a bus, walking in a field, looking into your lover’s eyes, alone and suicidal, deliriously happy but knowing it cannot last. “It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. … But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, p.10).
10. Cut off from these ultimate questions philosophy is reduced to a loose connection of technocratic specialities that must live and die by their contribution to instrumental knowledge. In the competition between empirical disciplines and philosophy over the instrumental value of knowledge, philosophy cannot win over the long term. It will eventually be absorbed by the empirical disciplines. If it wants a future, it must confront those disciplines with the limits of their competence.
11. Those limits are: the values by which we live and ought to live, the interior life of imagination and thought, the purpose and meaning of existence, in all of their historical complexity and contradiction.
12. Once we open up this field of questions there is always the possibility that the best conclusion is nihilism: that there are no universal values, that inner life and the affections and attachments it helps us form are chimeras, that life has no purpose. Living only really begins where confrontation with the non-necessity of continuing to live has been thought through and felt.
13. Everyone must think down to this level below which there is no going deeper on their own and for themselves. The value of the history of philosophy is not to unburden each individual of the need to work down to that absolute floor. “The task of becoming subjective, then, may be presumed to be the highest task, and one that is proposed to every human being.” (Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 146). If any philosopher could answer fundamental questions once and for all, they would have been the last philosopher. Like Virgil leading Dante through Hades, the history of philosophy is a guide that lets us see what we need to see, but not an answer book.
14. Hence, the public value of philosophy today is that it keeps these questions alive for the whole community, in circumstances in which our politics, our culture, and our science wants to ignore them or pretend they can be answered by pointing to a chemical sequence or a string of numbers. It forces us to think the specificity of the human as an existential, historical, social, symbolic, and political reality.
15. While this task is not the preserve of an expert culture of academic philosophers, academic philosophers find their public justification as teachers of disciplined and rigorous ways of posing these questions, as interpreters of the history of answers, as creators of answers demanded by our own time, and as exemplars of the dignity of argument and reasoned defence of positions, against violence on the one hand and the dogmatism of quantifiable results on the other.
MA Candidate in Philosophy
Philosophy, Poetry, and Dis-Orientation
In the spirit of the informality of this event, what I have to say will primarily be my own personal experiences with philosophy and the humanities. Given that these are my thoughts, feelings, and experiences, I must make a disclaimer that not everything I have to say fits into the lightheartedness of the event, but I intend to keep it as lighthearted as possible.
The humanities continue to give me perspective and direction in my life. Since we are here for World Philosophy Day, I will say in respect to Philosophy that it has helped to unify and strengthen some of my values and beliefs, and that, through philosophy, I have been able to find means by which I can contribute back to the community. This contribution comes in a way that I am inherently predisposed: through writing, asking questions, and rewriting.
The humanities allow for a level of freedom, creativity, and play that STEM fields lack. I have found Philosophy to be a space in which I can let myself breathe because I know there might not be answers to the questions I have right now, but I can still seek them out without being told to stop. And I can play with the questions and ideas as I go, taking them in and adding my own voice to them. You can’t necessarily do that in STEM. When we think everything will eventually fit into concrete categories with well fitting labels, when we think the world is a 10,000 piece piece puzzle just waiting for humanity to put the pieces together and display it, the creativity and play suffocates.
I believe a large part of what it means to be human exists in creativity and freedom to think and play with ideas and images. Humans are meaning bestowing creatures: we find and give meaning to things. The humanities teach us not only the history and ways in which we inscribe meaning into the world, but they teach us how to bestow our own meaning. Which is why a solution to the world’s problems does not exist in STEM as a solitary or even primary saviour. We cannot fix global crises by pretending that STEM has a value-neutral foundation or by moving further away from what it is to be human.
This is where things get a bit more personal, so I’ll begin with a definitive statement: If I had majored in a STEM field, I would not be where I am today. I mean this in more than the obvious fact that I wouldn’t be up here speaking or doing an MA in philosophy. I mean more so that I probably would have dropped out of university a few years ago.
My relationship with STEM fields has always been in tension. I have a habit of taking in information and regurgitating it beyond what is necessary; I’m relatively good at memorizing. There were a lot of examples that created a basis for public school educators and my parents to believe that science came naturally to me. While I enjoy learning about the world, my passion has always been centered around reading, writing, and interpreting the world instead of trying to map it. Yet somehow I fooled everyone into thinking I wanted to pursue a career in science.
When you’re a kid about to enter high school, adults around you want you to start building a solid plan for the rest of your life. Start thinking about a career and what kind of job you’re going to do to function as a perfect cog in the economy machine. When you’re from a working-class family, your parents push you to do better in school and figure out a plan so that you can work, take sick days when you need to, and find comfort in being able to retire at 65. So I knew in grade 8 when I had to write an autobiography describing the type of adult life I wanted, that I wouldn’t get away with saying that I wanted to be a big name author without some kind of negative feedback. Instead, I coupled the strongly emphasized desire to be a writer with a made up desire to become a marine biologist. I mean made up in the most removed sense; I was and still am incredibly wary of large bodies of water that have creatures with sharp teeth or beaks. But I was so confident in this fictional autobiography that when it came time for the arbitrary graduation awards that my school handed out, I was convinced that I would receive the English award. I thought the consistent emphasis that marine biology was a backup career for writing would be evidence enough that English was what I intended to do. I was so devastated when I received the science award instead that I stubbornly further committed myself to a career in English.
So that’s why I started university with an intended BA Honours in English Literature and Creative Writing. But in grade 12 I was also fortunate to take a course in philosophy. I failed the course with a 12%. Yes, 12%. I took it again the following year, passing with a 53.
How did I end up here, halfway through an MA in philosophy, with a BA[H] in English and Philosophy, when I barely passed high school philosophy? High school me didn’t have the work ethic for philosophy, but my exposure in high school led to taking a minor in philosophy in first year and then switching to a double major the next. I took grade 12 philosophy a second time because it affected me like English had. In both I was allowed to engage with the material in a way that was almost completely my own. Both gave me a direction beyond the unstructured idealism I had of just writing stories.
I was glad to have not enrolled in a STEM field because in university, both English and Philosophy gave me the perspective and foundation I needed to stay in school. I was very sick during my first year of undergrad and was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease the following summer. At the end of my second year, I underwent major surgery to attempt to bring my Crohn’s into remission. It was, thankfully, successful, but all 5 years of my undergrad were filled with family problems, toxic relationships, and major depressive episodes. If I had been a STEM major, I may have been lucky enough to have understanding professors like the ones I have met in the humanities, who have always been more than willing to work with me so that I could get through each semester. However, in STEM I would not have been able to reach an understanding of myself and my situation outside of a framework that values productivity above individual lives.
We as a society try to pretend that STEM fields are not influenced by values, but they are just as heavily influenced by an underlying value system that holds profit above workers, productivity over sustainability. Meaning and humanity are forfeit when we work to live to work. I know myself well enough to say with certainty that I would not have lasted an entire undergraduate degree in STEM because it was only through the humanities that I could see myself as a human being with real limitations that no amount of caffeine could remove.
STEM cannot fix the world’s problems because they forget that they are built on and swayed by a dominant value system. Their forgetfulness results in not questioning the extent to which these values may and do cause harm. Some like to think that, eventually, we can use STEM fields to instruct us on how to regulate and account for the things that lead into the global problems we are seeing today. They don’t realize that no amount of regulation is going to fix a system that, at its very foundation, uploads money as having ultimate value. You cannot regulate the foundation out of a inherently harmful system. But the humanities provide means to actively question values and dominant systems and try to push beyond them while reminding us of our own humanity.
I cannot convince my body to do go past its limitations. I cannot remove these limitations anymore than anyone else can; as living, embodied beings, we are inherently constrained by our limits. But through the humanities I have been able to understand these limitations in a way that gives direction to my creative and philosophical work. There is a strong confliction in me between the emphasis on productivity in our society and the understanding that value can and does exist outside of one’s ability to produce. I have been able to bring the former into perspective through studying the humanities. I have given voice to this conflict in my creative and academic work, like many others. Giving voice to this conflict and actively critiquing the ruling-value system is how we begin to find a solution to the world’s problems, not through STEM fields in isolation.