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What Is It Like to Be a Human?

By Geoffrey B. Kristof

The humanities seem to have a half-life approximately that of Caesium-137. On some campuses, arts majors are more difficult to find than gluons. The humanities today have less stature than the fossils of Homo floresiensis.

The number of humanities degrees awarded has decreased by half since 1967, sparking an increasingly urgent debate about the role of the humanities in a 21st century education.

Last fall The Crimson joined a crescendo of pundits and scholars in critiquing the humanities for their impracticality and irrelevance in an increasingly digitized world. But before we repurpose Hemingway and Steinbeck into kindling over which to roast our former English teachers, perhaps we should consider why we seek education in the first place.

The cliché is that the purpose of a liberal arts education is to teach us to live more “fulfilling” lives. Like many well-worn platitudes, there is some truth behind the pretty rhetoric. That’s because the humanities allow us to recognize the power of our consciousness to interpret the world around us.

Generally when we learn something, we learn it within a very narrowly defined context, such as the history of 7th century Ireland or the transcription of DNA. That information, though useful in context, is meaningless in our everyday lives because we live neither in medieval Europe nor in the nucleus of a cell. For knowledge to have relevance to our everyday lives, we have to make it relevant. That requires the conscious drawing of connections among radically different genres of experience, knowledge, and existence.

The traditional approach to learning focuses on specialization, dividing education into various fields, which are further broken down into smaller, individual courses. This model is very efficient at producing graduates with discrete skills, but it also encourages the compartmentalization of knowledge. This helps us prevent the misapplication of ideas from one genre to another: It keeps Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle from making us disbelieve the GPS in our moving car. But it may also make it harder to step back and recognize the broader themes interwoven throughout our studies. Sometimes it’s not what you know, but what you are uncertain of that ends up mattering most. Perhaps that’s the greater lesson from Heisenberg.

Or maybe it isn’t. The point isn’t that there is any single “correct” life lesson to divine from the study of quantum mechanics, or economics, or any field. The point is that if you fail to consider the larger significance of the everyday problems you struggle with, then in a certain sense you are missing out on life. You may be a great athlete or musician, but the patience, hard work, and determination you apply in your area of expertise will not carry over to other endeavors unless you work consciously to make it so that they do. Learning from experience requires the de-compartmentalization of knowledge from one area of life and applying it to others.

Science and the social sciences give us important tools with which to think about the world. You won’t be able to think as coherently about issues and events if you don’t understand the concepts of present value and marginal cost, or if you can’t distinguish correlation from causation. But the humanities also offer important tools, useful for other kinds of critical analysis of the world.

Science draws conclusions in a context that is concrete and clearly defined; the humanities force you to draw connections in a context that is opaque, with concepts that are ill-defined and unrelated. Emerson and Fitzgerald force you to think outside the box, encouraging the kind of open-mindedness that pays dividends when it’s your own life you're reflecting on and not Gatsby’s.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel pointed out that, even with a perfectly complete objective description of what a bat is, it is still coherent to ask the question, “What is it like to be a bat?” That’s because that final bit of information detailing what it is like to be something—the phenomenon we commonly refer to as consciousness—is in principle unquantifiable and irreducible.

So it is of bats and men. No outsider will ever be able to tell you what it is like to live your life. That’s why the sciences will never replace the study of what it means to be human—the human experience is not reducible to the neurons and electrodes that make it possible. The phenomenology of experience is a peculiar perspective reserved for the pages of literature, musings of esoteric philosophers, and the actual lives we live.

Only you can answer what it is like to be a human. Now comes the messy work of living.

Geoffrey B. Kristof ‘17 is a Crimson editorial writer in Grays Hall.

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