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Best Possible Selves 22

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

As a college student in the mid-1970’s, I remember being undaunted by the article from a national publication that was affixed to the door of the Philosophy Department office. I no longer remember the title of the article, but the gist of it can be summed up as follows: “No jobs in sight for Philosophy Majors.” Happily, since I was part of a generation that was empowered by the idea that our job was to improve the world, if not to save it, I was not deterred by such an apparently dismal employment prognosis.

In a teaching career now spanning 40 years, I have had the privilege of observing first-hand the ways in which philosophy plays a key role both in learning and in decision-making. In everyday life philosophy has been traditionally understood as “the love of wisdom,” and as a academic discipline it is also associated with “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.” Although these are pretty abstract ideas, there is lots of research to show that they are nonetheless relevant even to young children.

I have been struck in recent years at the way in which Data Analytics have come to play a more prominent role both in real world solutions and in the popular imagination. This is a promising development, but I believe that it is becoming increasingly important to balance the data-driven approach with a philosophy-driven approach. And while there seems to be general consensus that the roots of what I shall call “Big Philosophy” may be found in the respective traditions of Socrates and Aristotle, there is little consensus about the origins of “Big Data.”

Let’s consider the idea of Big Philosophy and the way in which it has helped to shape both our thinking and our culture. As the widely recognized father of Philosophy, Socrates is best known for promoting a logical method of inquiry focused on discerning goodness and morality from abstract principles. Socrates did not actually write anything down, so our understanding of his work comes from the devotion of Plato, one of his star pupils. Plato then became the teacher of Aristotle, whose major contribution to Big Philosophy was a focus on actual things and particular phenomena.

The origins of “Big Data” are less clear. According to a February 2013 New York Times article by Steve Lohr (The Origins of ‘Big Data’: An Etymological Detective Story), efforts to trace the origins of digital data have proved elusive, credit having been taken variously by economists, data scientists, and academics. That line of research is far beyond most people’s scope of expertise, and yet as 21st century citizens we are all linked to each other in an enormous and inextricable web of information exchange.

My point here is that GPS devices are able to tell us where we are with astonishing accuracy, but they are not very good at telling us where we should go. Similarly, while Netflix long ago pioneered the idea that our quality of life might benefit from personalized movie recommendations, most of us are now over-saturated with such information and thirsting for algorithms based on word-of-mouth or other less scientific measures. As we adjust to living in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, we will all need to stay in touch with our natural/biological intelligence as well.

In addition to such perplexing existential questions, on a practical level we are also witnessing a dramatic breakdown in American civic institutions. From my standpoint as an educator, I believe that there is urgent need for schools and other educational organizations to more closely align the innovative power of Big Data with the enduring benefits of Big Philosophy. Data experts can glean important patterns from unprocessed information, but in isolation they are unlikely to resolve the thorny issues of contemporary life.

My hope for America is to bring together the best of our emerging science with the best of our still-relevant philosophy. In technical terms this will require a reconciliation between Aristotelian logic and Socratic dialogue; in more everyday language, a willingness for people to reach out across the conceptual aisle. In realpolitik and in academia, the only viable pathway for a pluralistic future is to bring together these two powerful forces. How lucky that contemporary American society is filled both with talented data experts and with sensible philosophers.