Saturday, November 19, 2011

Sovereign Triviality

Above all else, the mentat must be a generalist, not a specialist. It is wise to have decisions of great moment monitored by generalists. Experts and specialists lead you quickly into chaos. They are a source of useless nit-picking, the ferocious quibble over a comma. The mentat-generalist, on the other hand, should bring to decision-making a healthy common sense. He must not cut himself off from the broad sweep of what is happening in his universe. He must remain capable of saying: “There’s no real mystery about this at the moment. This is what we want now. It may prove wrong later, but we’ll correct that when we come to it.” The mentat-generalist must understand that anything which we can identify as our universe is merely a part of larger phenomena. But the expert looks backward; he looks into the narrow standards of his own specialty. The generalist looks outward; he looks for living principles, knowing full well that such principles change, that they develop. It is to the characteristics of change itself that the mentat-generalist must look. There can be no permanent catalogue of such change, no handbook or manual. You must look at it with as few preconceptions as possible, asking yourself: “Now what is this thing doing?”

— Frank Herbert, “The Mentat Handbook,” Children of Dune

While I do my best to suppress such realizations, Dear Readers, I have found it increasingly difficult to deny that we live in an age of Engineering and Science triumphalism. Signs abound for all to see, from technology’s relentless conquest and absorption of everyday human interaction, to the increasingly strident complaints that my own industry has hobbled the march of civilization by luring innocent youth away from test tubes and argon lasers and perverting them to the “socially useless” worship of Mammon. It is perhaps no stronger evidence that Science with a Capital S has consumed the heart of our common narrative that so many of the culturally and intellectually dispossessed have been fighting so fierce a rearguard action in denial of its most basic claims. Flat Earthers are never more strident or dangerous than when they feel their very relevance to society is threatened.

Within the mainstream conversation, however, there seems to be a general consensus that as a country we neither possess nor produce enough scientists and engineers to meet our current and projected challenges, so many of which are asserted to be scientific or technical in nature. Climate change, pollution, adequate energy, population pressures, poverty—all these and more are asserted to be in some form or fashion reducible to technical problems. Problems which, many seem to assume, can be solved if we simply graduate more scientists and engineers to fix them (and make sure they don’t go to Wall Street). Let us birth more Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerbergs, the argument goes, and all will be well.

Accompanying this narrative, of course, is a general wailing and gnashing of teeth that we devote too many resources within higher education to the teaching of the liberal arts and humanities, resources which could be better allocated to training the technicians, engineers, and scientists we really need. Now, as a fierce devotee of the liberal arts and humanities in my own right—and, in full disclosure, a graduate with a degree in a traditional “soft” social science—I am understandably partial to arguments which refute such heresy. Sadly, the few examples I have seen so far1 have done little to press what I consider the strongest arguments in favor of maintaining broad and robust humanities programs in higher education.

The weakest are of a kind: arguing the instrumentalist case that liberal arts disciplines can be functionally useful to society, either in their own right or as producers of the junior partners—translators, communicators, panegyrists, and apologists—for the scientists and engineers who do the “real” work. But this will not do. That way lies intellectual stepchildren like “Applied Philosophy” and “Science Journalism,” fine professions no doubt, but hardly compelling enough societal amanuenses to justify $200,000 bachelor degrees and ongoing taxpayer subsidies.

Writing in The Economist, Will Wilkinson supplies stronger arguments. He points out that college, for most, is now a major consumption good, which students exploit because they can. He flips Alex Tabarrok’s argument of education in the service of economic growth on its head:

What is economic growth for, anyway? It’s for expanding our choices and making life better. Is it really so surprising that, as we grow wealthier as a society, more and more of our young people, when the amazing resources of the modern university are put at their disposal, choose to use them learning something satisfying and enriching and not for anything except cherishing the rest of their lives? Is it really so surprising that taxpayers are not in revolt over the existence of poetry professors?

He also makes the more germane instrumentalist point that, as Western society gets richer, we expend more and more leisure time consuming the products of artists, writers, and other creative folk. Who else but Film Studies and Comparative Literature majors will produce these entertainments, anyway? Physicists? Mechanical Engineers? Please.

* * *

But all these counterattacks miss the three most important reasons I believe broadly available liberal arts education will remain critical to our society and polity for the indefinite future. First, there is the point which Frank Herbert makes so artistically and metaphorically in my epigraph above. As the body of scientific and technical knowledge swells exponentially, scientists and engineers by definition simply must become narrowly focused specialists. You cannot be effective as a scientist or engineer nowadays if your knowledge spans too broad a field. Our collective scientific knowledge is simply too deep. But this introduces the dilemma of the expert, who literally cannot see the forest for the trees or, more aptly, for the respirative pores on the bottom of leaf #6,972 on branch #473 of tree #1,204. Who will aggregate and balance the competing viewpoints, suggestions, and research programs of all these specialists in highly complex microdomains? Who else but someone who has been rigorously educated in the general discipline of how to think, of how to evaluate competing claims and conflicting evidence under conditions of extreme uncertainty? Who has been taught not only how to analyze and synthesize disparate, incompatible, and even conflicting data but also how to judge?2

The second point to realize is that the usual suspect scientific and technical conundrums which the techdysiasts would have us address are defined and constrained far more by their social and political dimensions than by the hard science issues at their core. Fixing climate change, poverty, or even global financial regulation is not merely a problem of finding the correct solution to a thorny technical problem. These big issues are big because they entail questions of philosophy, ideology, justice, the proper form of society, and even culture. The underlying science is almost trivial compared to the value questions at stake.3 Here, again, we find that the study of liberal arts and humanities prepares a student far better to come to grips with the thorny issues at hand than, say, one prerequisite bioethics course for a pre-med major. Do we really want to turn the keys to our global future over to a bunch of narrowly-educated, really smart, culturally and historically naive technocrats? I sure don’t. Give me someone who has read Herodotus, analyzed Shakespeare, or argued over Rawls instead.

Lastly, there is the larger issue that, for all their power and demonstrable success, science and technology simply do not, cannot, will not address a host of questions and problems which are natural to the human condition. Here is Richard Feynman:

The next reason that you might think you do not understand what I am telling you is, while I am describing to you how Nature works, you won’t understand why Nature works that way. But you see, nobody understands that. I can’t explain why Nature behaves in this peculiar way.4

But this is simply not good enough. It may be futile, unscientific, even a cognitive mistake to ask big questions about the nature of reality (the “whys”), the proper form of relations to other human beings in society, our rights and duties to ourselves and others, and the very reasons for belief in our own knowledge (including, of course, science itself), but it is natural and ineluctable. Science will never address these questions. It doesn’t have the tools. Art, social science, literature, cultural studies, history, psychology, and soft sciences like economics do. For this reason alone we cannot, must not, will not abandon them.

To do so would be to forswear the very nature of what it means to be human.

The verifiability, the falsifiability of the sciences, their triumphant progress from hypothesis to application, constitute the prestige and the increasing domination they exercise in our culture. But in another sense, these also make up their sovereign triviality. Science cannot give an answer to the quintessential questions which possess or ought to possess the human spirit. Wittgenstein noted that point insistently. It can only deny their legitimacy. To inquire about the nanosecond prior to the Big Bang is, we are didactically assured, an absurdity. Yet we are so created that we do inquire, and may find St. Augustine’s conjecture far more persuasive than that of string-theory.5

* * *

I suspect Harvard’s Philosophy Department will be able to order that new laser printer next year, after all.

Related reading:
Alex Tabarrok, College has been oversold (Marginal Revolution, November 2, 2011)
First, Let’s Shoot All the Philosophers (April 22 2011)
Mary Crane and Thomas Chiles, Why the Liberal Arts Need the Sciences (and Vice Versa) (The Chronicle, November 13, 2011)
Why we subsidise arts majors (The Economist, November 3, 2011)
Eugene Wigner, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” (February 1960; accessed November 19, 2011)

1 A sample which I freely acknowledge, for the benefit of my more scientifically inclined friends, to be neither comprehensive nor statistically significant.
2 I speak, naturally, of the best of liberal arts education. Expecting a specialist in 15th Century Catalan poetry to be able to make such judgments is heroic, at the least (but perhaps not impossible, even then). But there are many disciplines under the rubric of the humanities which teach such skills. I do not wish to oversell this point, but it is clear—at least to me—that in an age of increasing specialization, someone should be paying attention to the forest.
3 If only, we presume, because it may admit of a clear solution we all agree to. Questions of value do not.
4 Richard P. Feynman, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, Princeton, New Jersey, 1985, p. 10.
5 George Steiner, “Ten (Possible) Reasons for the Sadness of Thought”, Salmagundi, Nos. 146, Spring 2005, pp. 3–32.

© 2011 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.