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March 10, 2004

A Pinnacle Is the Tip of Equivalent Sides

Although not as predictable as researchers' conclusion that (funding for) more research is necessary, it seems at least very common that a scientist will tend to see her particular area of research as the single-greatest endeavor known to human beings. I've seen this most when scientists argue about such matters between themselves, but when somebody with a B.A. enters the room, they'll all agree that their way of thinking makes his studies appear as little but a glorified hobby.

Well, we're born, and we die, alackaday; it's all hobbies in between, from a certain perspective.

From another perspective, it's all profit, and in replying to my previous post, Michael Williams, although obviously not taking it to be the end-all-be-all, suggests that a "higher percentage of people who earn science degrees will go on to use those degrees to greater profit than will those who earn humanities degrees." Not so, says Eli Lehrer:

Finances may also influence students’ paths of study. And science students, it is true, do earn higher wages right after graduation, something which might be important to those with large student loan debts. Still, wages tend to equalize after a few years.

If Michael means that those with science will go on to use the specific skills that were the tangible commodities accompanying their degrees, I'd suggest that the same is probably true of those who go to trade school. The humanities don't bear their full fruits directly on the vine.

But seeing as standing on the shoulders of giants is rarely as lucrative as reselling their wares, I think Michael would agree with me that this isn't an adequate measure of "success." What of academic success? Michael writes:

Since we're mostly relying on anecdotal data, I know no one who has earned a degree in a scientific field who could not have obtained an equivalent degree in the humanities, should he have so desired. I know plenty of people with humanities degrees who couldn't possibly have earned a scientific degree.

Well, it is likely relevant to note that Michael is a Ph.D. candidate in a scientific field, putting him among a particular segment of people who have earned degrees in a scientific field. More to the point, however, his statement simply doesn't contravene the argument that people desirous of an intellectual challenge are currently being shuffled into the sciences. This disparity is exacerbated by the well-rounded nature of the humanities, which rightly attracts those who aren't seeking particular careers, and who, in search of general knowledge, would indeed be ill suited to technical studies. As my Grolier Encyclopedia CD-ROM explains in the entry on "the humanities":

The traditional purpose of education in the humanities was to instill qualities that were thought essential to citizenship and participation in public affairs. The ancient Greek notion of enkyklios paideia—meaning "general education"—influenced the Roman ideal of humanitas, the qualities that distinguish humanity from other animals.

In a sense, then, the giants of the humanities are those most steeped in humanitas. Often, their expression of this quality will be tacit or inherently embedded in the incidental language of a particular discipline. Often they will be able to apply it to a science in ways that scientists would never have considered. Michael writes of "the underlying philosophy" of the humanities and of the sciences, but the only unifying philosophy of the former is the search for Truth, and the latter is defined by process, not philosophy.

It mightn't be surprising that a Ph.D. candidate in Computer Science would declare that particular discipline to be "the pinnacle of both science and the humanities." To the extent that Michael's claim is accurate, I respond only that a pinnacle of multiple sides is definitionally equal parts of each. However, the extended quotation, by Marvin Minsky, that he cites as evidence suggests that Michael is switching from "the philosophy of the humanities" to the distinct discipline within the humanities called Philosophy.

It may well be that Computer Science will replace Philosophy to the extent that Philosophy addressed logic and the structure of knowledge. However, Minsky's mention of an operating system is interesting. What value would your computer have to you if it were nothing but an operating system? And what value hast a network without users?

This applies only in a limited way to Michael, but what worries me is modern society's willingness to see science as a philosophy of itself, an arbiter of morality, and to insist not only that it is an important contribution to humanity, but that other pursuits are hardly worth improving upon — or even pursuing, really, except as hobbies — by comparison.

Posted by Justin Katz at March 10, 2004 12:22 AM

Sorry for the comment, but your site is too interesting to be blackened out in certain areas. This is the kind of site one wants to read every single word. So, well, I wish you could brush the dust off the screen, to read it all. Sorry again. :p

Posted by: Miguel at March 11, 2004 5:31 AM