Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Humanities, Part I

Last semester a friend suggested I read the transcript from a great lecture he just heard. It was about the value of the humanities at universities and was given as part of a program that promotes the humanities at an otherwise science and engineering-focused school.

Back to the lecture. The argument was that we think we know more than we do and humanities can help us see this and adjust. The financial crisis was (according to the argument) a product of epistemic hubris--thinking risk (a known unknown) was understood (a known). The humanities teach that we don't know a lot of things. The lecturer illustrated this by giving an interpretation of two romantic poems.

This argument very unsatisfying. Can't we just study Godel's incompleteness theorems if we want to internalize the limits of knowledge? Or read up on the limits of various econometric techniques? Or just look at a list of provably unsolvable problems? These have the added benefit of teaching rigiourous thinking and employable skills.

This argument fits a broader pattern of argument that ends with the conclusion of "humanities make us better people." If you've read Bertrand Russell's "The Value of Philosophy" (from Problems of Philosophy) then you've read the most eloquent version of all these arguments. They're all bullshit, but I won't try to convince anyone of why since it's either obvious or near impossible to see.

I would like to just challenge the premise that the humanities are the best way to reaching an end though. If the humanities are for answering the important questions in life and making us better people, then why do we need humanities when we have religion? Religious people are happier than non-religious people. They have more of a sense of meaning and tend to behave more ethically (given their system of ethics). Religions do everything secular humanism does, just better. (I know you're thinking "but it's not about the end, it's about the journey" but that argument is bullshit.)

If you want to find the meaning of life then get a religion. If you want to change the world, you're not going to do it with a new interpretation of Roamntic poetry.