Stems and Soil

This time of year I often feel the need to say why the humanities matter in a university. It's linked to why I get up in the morning or do what I think I am doing in this vocation. But I also feel obligated to explain its value for incoming students. Implied here is the question, "What do I do with that degree?" To some extent this is an economic question of sustenance. But, so too, implied by this question are metaphysical suppositions about what "matters." Increasingly, our understanding of the world is shaped by a rather limited materialism which refuses to face questions of love, beauty, history and cultural and philosophical beliefs. Terry Eagleton's recent Faith, Reason and Revolution addressed this, and I don't mean to suggest that there is not a live debate here. Quite the opposite. It seems increasingly important to raise the materialist question again and again in order to avoid the rather banal assumption that degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM subjects, can do without the soil of the humanities. 

Of course, nobody would deny that we need more engineers to help design better buildings, more efficient transport, and biologists to keep working on cures to the pandemics we face. Some of the most complex mathematics sit behind one of the most simple buttons we click each day, Google's search. 



As I introduced the incoming students studying philosophy this year, the key value I hope they learn is cognative empathy, that ability to step into the shoes of another and really understand their disposition. Reading others well, especially those we disagree with, is crucial to this habit. It seems to me that the humanities are about training students in the habits of the mind which underwrite civil society. They provide the historical, literary and cultural understanding to examine and interrogate the human condition.


To use another analogy, one of the great challenges in physics today is to develop a theory which can account for newtonian and quantum mechanics together. "God does not play with dice," Einstein quipped, at the rather probabilistic whacky-ness of the quantum view of reality. The challenge can also be summed up as the relationship between two forces. While gravity is a weak force which nonetheless orders planetary movements, the atomic forces which quantum mechanics accounts for are incredibly strong. The world that seems solid and stable to us is actually mostly empty space held together by atomic forces, electrons, neutrons, etc. The analogy is that whereas the STEM subjects seem to be rather strong forces building, healing and creating, the humanities function like weak gravity. Understanding other human beings, the ability to empathise with the positions of others, is a weak force. However, our everyday sense of decency to others utterly depends upon it.

As so many recent philosophers have understood, the enlightenment values which undergird our societies are fragile. The so-called postmodern critique of the likes of Derrida were meant to call our attention to this fragility, not undermine it.