oh, the humanities – part two

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The earlier post in this set gave a typical defense of the humanities – disciplines like religion, philosophy, languages, and literature – which is that we all benefit from understanding ourselves as part of a bigger purpose. That intellectual birthright, systematically developed in college, helps orient our work and lives afterward. So, good job security for the soul searchers and poets, right?

In recent centuries, at least in the west, the searchers and poets have clumped around varieties of humanism – an ethic different from the set of disciplines called “the humanities,” but arising from them. Humanism takes the human condition as a self-contained, self-evident good, man as the measure of all things.

For some of us – maybe the majority on American campuses – it’s “secular humanism,” agnostic if not godless. We readily admit to a universe that includes the supernatural, imperceptable, and mysterious – whether called branes, dark matter, or Quetzalcoatl. But we don’t take daily cues from it.

These days even formal religions seem influenced by humanism, as we see falling from favor those that discount or threaten human well-being, for example by preaching intolerance, mutilation, or virgin sacrifice. They just don’t draw crowds like they used to.

So, humanism for all, and the answer to the eternally nagging Why is apparently some version of “because it’s us.”

That alone fuels a lot of the human enterprise. We work hard, cure diseases, and write apps for smart phones not just to get ahead personally, but also to add to the overall stock of human happiness. The more you contribute to the common good instead of the personal one, the more virtuous you feel, but really it’s all just different versions of petting ourselves. It’s been a surprisingly durable way of avoiding the question Why, at least up to now.

If that’s about to change – and I think it is – then college curriculum in the humanities should brace itself. But for what? The acceleration of change on a few fronts has made it harder for colleges and universities to guess what’s around the next hedge.

tara-johninmazeThose fronts:

1. Machine learning is now mostly inductive, a lot like human learning. As they catch on, our gadgets are taking over not just factory work but also driving, diagnosing disease, and even making art. Already our computers can translate, and our phones can see. Whatever our colleges teach people to do next, we want to take care that it’s things people will still be the ones doing.

2. To higher education this raises a not insignificant question: what is that? In other words, at the maturity of our current AI growth spurt, what will remain as the competitive advantage of homo sapiens, and then how do we organize our curriculum to cultivate it, so our graduates can be employed? The answer, increasingly, may be volition.

Machines can find, solve, and invent many more things than they used to, but we humans still have a corner on wanting to.

So does it come down to that? Will college learning be mostly about purpose and meaning, about why we should want some things more than others? About the nature of the good life, of telling right from wrong?

I would welcome that, but also enjoy the irony, that the build-out of our STEM infatuated, high-tech world could usher in a golden age for the arts and humanities.

Except that:

3. The idea of free will itself is under new fire, beautifully summarized in a recent Atlantic article. It was never on solid footing, empirically speaking: we feel like we act for ourselves but it’s been mighty hard to prove. Now we’re seeing that the interval between deciding to take action and taking it may be reversed; that is, that an opaque cognitive curtain keeps us from knowing what we do for a moment or two, during which we mentally process the intention, fooling ourselves into thinking our wishes matter.

In the context of machine learning, this may be an even bigger deal than we think. It seems that if a day comes when we have to concede we lack free will, then on that day we will really have run out of uniquely human capacities.

And that means we will also have to face up to the circularity of secular humanism and our longstanding measure of meaning, ourselves. It may not be enough anymore to say art, or health, or technology are valuable because they advance the human condition, because that condition will no longer be exclusively human.

On that day, maybe coming up fast, we’ll have reached the end of the street down which we kick the can that asks Why.

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What does a forward-looking university do then? I am not sure, but hope I’m not sitting on the platform behind the commencement speaker who has to explain that intellectual bequest to the next generation. “It’s been a pretty good run but we kind of ran out of steam toward the end there.”

I was ruminating on this, rummaging around for a ready reason to go to work each day when the present one sputters out, when a couple of experiences gave me hope that the humanities may yet have some good continuing uses, even after they’re understood as not uniquely human. One was a textbook I read this Christmas on macroeconomics, and the other was a day last month that I spent in prison.

But more on those later.

Image credits: airships.net, Tara in Poland, International Business Seminars

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5 thoughts on “oh, the humanities – part two

  1. It occurs to me that, while the notion of “free” will may be called into question (just like there’s no such thing as a “free” puppy) we still corner the market on a combination of instinct and reflection. You can find both elsewhere, but individually. We H. sapiens, however, are still ruled by our hormones, amygdalae, and frontal lobes.

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