The Philosopher’s Revenge

Contention: the humanities are just as important as STEM fields for the progress of humanity. It is good for everyone to have experience with both, because they work much better together than separately. Of course, I understand that everyone must specialize—but philosophy majors should spend time in the field applying their thought, and computer scientists need to take a step back and consider the ethical implications of their code (example).

I’m working on a much longer piece on the humanities, so the purpose of this short essay will just be a cursory glance at some concrete values the humanities have. As it turns out, that means name dropping a lot of books.

The Wisdom of Finance, by Mihir Desai (professor at Harvard Business School) is a book that illustrates the power of the humanities to illuminate and redeem other fields, in his case finance. Throughout the book, he introduces various concepts in the field of finance, like the principal-agent problem, and examines them through the lens of a story that features that concept. In the case of the p/a problem, he uses the play The Producers.

(I recommend clicking on the link to the book and looking at the table of contents in the preview. It tells you which problems and which associated stories are covered in each chapter.)

Stories and literature, fully the province of the humanities, make technical concepts more accessible. They also wargame the concepts in a fictional reality, giving readers, listeners, and viewers concrete examples of the concept deployed in the world—useful for neophytes and old hands alike.

But stories don’t just do wonders for explaining concepts in STEM (or finance), they can also illuminate thornier issues in other humanities like philosophy. Many times, it is easier to watch individuals play out a scenario that involves ethical issues than it is to read an ethical treatise, although treatises have their place. Two of my favorite books also illustrate better ways to think that are directly applicable to real life (Atlas Shrugged and Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality).

And if you still don’t think the humanities are important, consider the autonomous car. It will have to be coded to make decisions in scenarios like: “if a group of people jaywalks in front of the car, and you have the option to avoid—and save—all of them by slamming into a light post, seriously injuring or killing the driver, do you?”

Even if you think that scenario is easy, there are many more. Ethics, the branch of philosophy that is relevant here, is an applied field in the age of autonomous cars, inseparable from, and the guide for, STEM fields. It always has been, but now it’s harder to ignore that fact. I sometimes refer to this scenario—ethics and wider philosophy being ignored and dismissed as impractical, until we suddenly have urgent need of them— as the philosopher’s revenge. In general, dismissal of the humanities will incur this revenge in some form.

And beyond STEM fields, the humanities—and their cousins, the social sciences—are useful because they are the way of the world. To quote a science fictional character from the book Red Rising (although it could very well come from Machiavelli): “What we must study is humanity. In order to rule, ours must be the study of political, psychological, and behavioral science—how desperate human beings react to one another, how packs form, how armies function, how things fall apart and why.”


This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

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