This series has looked at the shifting value of the humanities, in a world where the word “human” is in fresh flux. As we augment our intellects with machine learning and artificial intelligence, and our bodies with prosthetics and gene therapies, we should note the less visible but no less dramatic changes to fundamentally human activities like paying attention, interacting, and creating.
The first post made a distinction between my current handwringing and the longer, honorable tradition of simply complaining that no one majors in poetry anymore. I think that one’s still on solid ground; our faculty friends in literature, languages, and philosophy can look forward to centuries of continuing disfavor.
The second post shifted to my present concern, which is that the question of “why are our lives meaningful” may soon need more than the widely accepted response of secular humanism, which is essentially “because we’re human, and man is the measure of all things.” That yardstick is macerating in a bath of technology, and may soon dissolve completely.
The third post got a little more hopeful, by looking into the places where traditional secular humanism still has plenty of ground to clear and fields to plow, for example among the impoverished and imprisoned.
This one will close the set with what I think is the most convincing case of optimism on behalf of the humanities.
I owe the thinking in this post mostly to a book called Sapiens, and its extended discussion of “imagined realities.” I read it when it came out a couple of years ago and didn’t think much of it, but parts keep sticking with me.
I’m especially taken by Harari’s premise that our remarkable evolutionary success is owed to a little recognized human propensity. Yeah, brainpower is good, and so are upright walking and opposable thumbs. But the really significant innovation was significance itself, our tendency to collectively assign meaning and then believe in things that aren’t intrinsically true.
Paper money is one easy example of an imagined reality. So are traffic signals; nothing in the color red necessarily denotes stopping, but so long as we all agree to pretend it does, our streets work fine.
In the tradition of secular humanists, Harari puts religion into this category. But he defines religion to include a lot of things others don’t, such as the culture of Silicon Valley, and its zeal and evangelism on behalf of coding. He counts liberal democracy and American exceptionalism as religions, too.
Once you start seeing our world as a collection of collective fictions, they turn up everywhere. Today is Wednesday because we all say so, and not because there’s anything Wednesdayish about today’s spin around the poles.
In my world of higher education, the fictions feel especially arbitrary and rampant: the credit hour, the division of knowledge into disciplines, the agreed ways of organizing, explaining, and adding to what we know.
If your workday is like mine then it includes a meeting or two you’d rather not sit in. On the off-chance you find your mind wandering, I encourage you to note the collective fictions that go into all the assumptions, discussions, and resolutions you’re party to in a given hour, noting of course that the hour itself is a fiction, as are the job titles, resource allocations, and policy implications. For all the psychic investment – and it can be considerable – it’s amazing how purely hallucinatory the topics are.
I mean, let’s note that other animals do this less. Wolf packs may agree to imaginary boundaries between ranges and observe an invisible hierarchy, but they don’t codify it in zoning laws and tax brackets – to name two inventions that go back as far as recorded human history. There must be powerful reasons for doing this.
Harari believes we make these investments because the stories we tell ourselves are more than organizing. They are also keenly, eerily motivating. University presidents, fundraisers, consumer brand managers, and warmongers all make their livings on that energy.
Not to say you can do so with falsehood for long – although it helps to dress truth to advantage (paraphrasing Pope), you still need truth. And it’s possible not only that history is written by the victors, but also that the victors won because they had a more compelling history to write.
So now that I’ve had a year or two to ruminate on Harari’s thesis, I can imagine a time after ours when this will be how the word “human” is used. By then we can expect “human” to serve less as a self-evident, self-contained noun, and more as an adjective to describe that predilection for shared fiction, whether demonstrated by us talking primates, or by whatever comes next.
I think if we still organize our collective learning at universities, then they’ll be mostly in the business of intentionally, systematically developing the intellectual capacity for literature, religion, and philosophy. And even though we’ll still go begging for poetry majors, the humanities may be our main job. Performing even complex tasks will have become trivially easy for machines that don’t need college, but seeing the purpose behind the tasks will not.
As the third post pointed out, the economist who argues that we’ve passed the last point of diminishing returns and finally hit the limits of economic growth fails to convince because he doesn’t allow for the next paradigm-breaker.
For macroeconomics as well as the humanities, I think we’re developing such paradigm-breakers right now, with connected intelligence, the imminent discovery of exoplanetary life forms that will challenge our assumptions about life itself, and – believe it or not – quantum entanglement, which promises to do to lightspeed communication what the telegraph did to the horse.
These shifts are already underway, poised to upend the secular humanist complacency. They may finally kill our longstanding tautology that humans are significant because significance is human.
Instead we’ll enter another Copernican reframing, knocking ourselves out of the center and looking for our bearings elsewhere.
That elsewhere will need to be understood and organized, more than ever, by the disciplines of philosophy, religion, languages, and literature.
Our awesome capacity to narrate collective fiction will then be more vital to us than ever, and become one of the biggest purposes of future higher education.
And the first new story we’ll need to tell ourselves will begin with the word Because.
If you’ve made it this far, then a note of gratitude: this series was harder than usual for me to write. Along the way I’ve benefited from comments and feedback from you, individually and over the social networks that syndicate this blog. Thank you.
Image credits: Airship.net, vexels.com, KQED, NY Daily News, The Cosmic Engine.