In an Age of Artificial Intelligence, Philosophy Is More Vital Than Ever

Imagine you are building a self-driving car. Chances are you’ll look for a team of engineers who can figure out how to make each part work fluidly in an interconnected manner. You’d look for software engineers and mechanical engineers and experts in user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design.

But then you realize that people won’t drive this car in a lab. Context matters. Humanity is inherently messy. Suddenly, you are dealing with cultural, social, and political issues that weren’t present in the lab. Take a dark example. This self-driving is cruising down the rode. A man runs in front of it. If you swerve, you’ll cause a potentially deadly accident. If you don’t, the results could be disastrous. In this moment, you need something that artificial intelligence can’t generate.

Wisdom.

For years, technology companies operated in a technocratic, socially neutral mindset. Just engineer things the right way and you won’t have to mess with the messy social, cultural, or existential questions. Social media platforms tended to push a sort-of socially agnostic framework; often ignoring the social and cultural forces that influenced things like user experience.

But things are starting to change. As our technology continues to grow more complicated, corporations are beginning to embrace the human side. It’s one thing for Google to say “Don’t be evil.” It’s another thing for Google to ask the very hard question, “What is evil?”

 

Why Philosophy Has Become Trendy Again

I recently wrote about seven tech trends that educators will need to grapple with. Admittedly, these can feel like distant, abstract trends that feel more like science fiction and less like the reality teachers face in the classroom. We’re always hearing about “disruptions” that turn out to be far less disruptive than what we had imagined. Remember when the eBook was supposed to end physical books? Last time I checked, kids still love to read. Remember when the laser disc was going to replace teachers? Last time I checked, teachers are still in classrooms and laser discs have gone the way of Hammer Pants.

However, these trends are often shaping our lives in ways that feel invisible. If social media doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, it’s probably because it’s become so normal that it’s almost banal. It’s easy to forget just how earth-shattering Facebook is when you’re watching a 15 second video showing you how to make a peanut butter pie or a compilation of dogs failing to catch things in their mouths. But it’s this invisibility that makes philosophy that much more important as a subject. It’s often the more commonplace elements of technology that have the greatest impact on how we live.

Tech companies are suddenly waking up to the need for the humanities. They are reaching out to the liberal arts as they deal with these deeply human issues. Here are some examples:

Technology Companies Are Hiring More Liberal Arts Majors Than You Think

Why Top Tech CEOs Want Employees with Liberal Arts Degrees 

That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket

As technology companies shift toward embracing the humanities, they are beginning to seek out candidates with a background in philosophy to answer the kinds of questions that can’t be solved with great engineering.

Why Philosophy Majors Are Changing the World of Business

Google’s In-House Philosopher: Technologists Need a “Moral Operating System”  

There’s a great TED Talk on this subject:

It’s as if tech companies, pushing toward the future at breakneck speeds are now facing whiplash and turning back to something deeply vintage. Suddenly they’re reaching out to philosophers to ask the questions they were too busy to ask as they hurled toward the future.

 

Five Reasons Why Philosophy Is Becoming the Subject of the Future

Although I don’t believe we should take all of our cues from the tech industry, I think they’re onto something here. In an era where we can find information anywhere, what we really want is students who grow in wisdom. In an era where we are constantly redefining what is possible and what is real, we want students who can wrestle with the hard questions around the nature of reality.

#1: Philosophy is vital in an age of artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence continues to blur the lines between ourselves and our machines. For example, in an era with self-driving cars, who decides the value of a life when avoiding a car crash? What does it mean to have an original thought? What does this mean for plagiarism and copyright? How do you make sense out of ideas like attribution and originality?

We already have companies using AI to write news articles. We’ll see an increase in AI products around budgeting and other analytical jobs. But still, we have certain things that machines can’t do well. These are the supposed “soft skills” of empathy and compassion and the creative thinking skills of divergent thinking and paradox.

Here’s where wisdom becomes critical. Students need to be prepared to think in ways that transcend artificial intelligence. In other words, if students want to thrive in an ever-changing world, they need to think like philosophers.

 

#2: Philosophy is vital when we are constantly redefining reality.

We live in an age where the fundamental understanding of what it means to be human is changing. Social media platforms continue to redefine our sense of time and place. We grapple with these changes as we try to define ourselves and our social relationships in an era of constant connectivity. A few decades ago, if someone claimed to have “followers” you’d assume he or she was starting a cult. Now it’s a phrase that 12 year olds use when they talk about Instagram and Twitter.

Meanwhile, virtual reality and augmented reality continue to redefine what we believe about what is real. Imagine what all of this will look like as biohacking becomes a reality.

Within the technology community, you have the growing Singularity Movement. The idea here is that humanity and artificial intelligence will become so intertwined that “man and machine” will both become one. What will happen when we can permanently “store” our consciousness? What will it mean when we can’t distinguish between ourselves and our devices? If these ideas sound crazy, let’s not forget how unfathomable something like a smart phone would have seemed to someone manning a full-size computer room in the 1950’s. Imagine how crazy human flight would have seemed in the late 1800’s. Imagine trying to explain to someone in the late 1930’s how the simple act of splitting an atom would change our world forever.

Just recently, my sons saw Star Trek and laughed at the “primitive iPads” that they used. A year ago, my daughter asked me if I was alive when people used flip phones.

flip phone question.001

So, on some level, these changes happen quickly and life moves on and you don’t think too hard about the way the tech is reshaping our world. People fall in love. They have weddings and funerals and birthday parties. They stub their toes and curse into the heavens and they get angry when they’re hungry and they cuddle close to those they love and they get lonely and lost when they feel misunderstood. These elements of the human condition remain and because of that it can be easy to ignore the way technology is reshaping our concept of identity.

But these questions about technology and reality cut to the core of our most fundamental philosophical questions. What is reality? What is truth? What does it mean to be human? What is the purpose of life? And the problem with our devices and the culture of amusement around them is that if we’re not careful we can end up so distracted that we don’t even try to answer these questions.

 

#3: Philosophy is vital in an age of instant information.

We live in an era of instant information, but it’s also an era of constant distraction and amusement. When students learn to think philosophically, they are able to make sense out of nuance and paradox. They are able to think through the larger philosophical underpinnings of the media that they consume. They learn how to think about logic and reason in a way that goes beyond, “this seems right so it must be true.”

 

#4: Divergent thinking will be a premium skill in the uncertain future.

There are certain things that computers do really well. They are amazing at computation and systems. They are great at executing commands quickly and accurately. This is why a search engine algorithm works better for most searches than a person checking out a card catalogue. And yet . . . if you’re ever in a bind and you need someone to find research in an unexpected area, librarians will always beat out a Google search.

Computers have to be programmed and, as such, they struggle with divergent thinking. It might be easy for you to take two objects and find a handful of unconventional uses for these items. However, these are the types of tasks that still baffle many of the designers of artificial intelligence. This is why divergent thinkers will thrive in the future. They will be thinking in ways that transcend the technology. They will be able to look at problems from different angles and find innovative solutions that can’t be programmed by AI.

Philosophical thinking sets the groundwork for this type of divergent thinking. Philosophy teaches students to question everything. Philosophy is all about non-conformity and curiosity. It’s about a willingness to take intellectual risks even when you’re not sure where they will lead. These are the key elements to divergent thinking.

Look at just about any creative industry and you’ll notice that some of the most innovative thinkers are also people who geek out on philosophy. This un-quenching quest for meaning is often what drives us to do creative work.

 

#5: Philosophy provides students with a timeless framework in an age of novelty.

We live in a world of amusement and novelty. Trends shift quickly. However, philosophy is timeless. People are starting to realize that some of the best voices are actually vintage. I’ve met several people who are reading Seneca and embracing the ideas of stoicism. In a world where we have so much and still don’t feel happy, there’s this vintage voice from the past providing some real answers.

I’m not suggesting that stoicism is the answer. But I do think there’s this danger in viewing newer ideas as being inherently better than anything classical. There’s a chorus of voices from the past and, if we’re open to it, they raise some great questions for us to grapple with. And I guess that’s the point. It’s not that we buy into one specific philosophy but that we learn how to engage in philosophical dialogue. The cool thing about Socrates is not that he finds the answers. In fact, he almost never does. Rather, it’s that he asks all the right questions.

 

What does this mean for teachers?

So you have these big trends like artificial intelligence, biohacking, or augmented reality, and they can feel like some kind of far-off science fiction future. What does this mean to a teacher leading guided reading groups or showing students how to solve for x?

But the reality is that our students will inhabit a world shaped by these seismic technology trends. There’s this tendency to ask, “how will we use this?” or even “how will we teach kids how to use this?”

But I wonder if the answer isn’t so much about how-to and more about the why. When we teach students how to be philosophers, we encourage them to become the strategic thinkers and the life-long learners we want them to be. They can have a framework for making sense out of a world that can sometimes feel like science fiction.

 

Integrating Philosophy into the Learning

Here are some of the ways you can integrate philosophy into the curriculum:

  • Teach students how to be non-conformists. Encourage them to question answers as often as they answer questions. Teach students to identify the bias in a source and to pick apart the information to make sense out of worldview and philosophical underpinnings.
  • Start with student inquiry. Kids are inherently philosophical. They are asking “why” at a young age. Encourage these questions and watch as they grow more and more philosophical.
  • Let students argue with one another. Really. Many students struggle with the idea that philosophical arguments are not the same as “being mean.” However, class culture is critical here. It’s important that they feel safe as they engage in these contentious conversations.
  • Don’t shy away from bigger questions that don’t have immediate answers. Sometimes kids have a hard time with the idea that they won’t have the answer at the end of a philosophical inquiry.
  • Teach philosophical reasoning within your content area. Don’t shy away from conflict. Some of the best philosophical reasoning comes from the inherent conflict in a subject area. So, a science class might delve into the limits of observation or the question of whether or not truth is objective. Let students chase those questions.
  • Try using debates, discussions and Socratic Seminars in your content area.
  • If you’re up for it, set aside time for philosophy. When I taught social studies, I used to do a Philosophical Friday once a week. Students would engage in structured Socratic Seminars where they sat in a circle and wrestled with the deeper questions that connected to our content. Eventually, I abandoned this as I shifted toward design thinking and project-based learning. However, I’ve been rethinking this. If I taught a social studies class again, chances are I’d bring back Philosophical Fridays.

Philosophy doesn’t have to be a separate subject. Instead, it’s a way of thinking that impacts how you view your world and ultimately how you live. When students learn to think philosophically, they are better equipped to make sense out of a rapidly changing world. And that’s precisely what we want for them.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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4 responses

  1. Thanks for this, John. I’m applying for my Masters in Curriculum and Assessment and this is exactly what I would like to examine. The push for STEM makes me a little twitchy for the very reasons you’ve discussed here.

  2. […]   […]

  3. Great article on what I also think is a very important, and often unrecognized, problem. Technology has never been value free but because the focus has been on the design-and-implementation aspect rather than the effect the product (hardware, software, firmware, AI, etc.) has on the human beings who will use it, it’s been easy to ignore that.

    I would offer a couple of additional things: first is that anyone who thinks science and technology are value-neutral should go back and read “Frankenstein”, the first novel to truly bring up this question. I think the lesson there might be: “just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.”

    The other thing I hope people remember is that “philosophy” is both a noun and a verb. John, you’re talking about philosophy as an activity – disciplined inquiry and the search for wisdom. “Philosophy begins in wonder” (first said by Socrates, in Plato’s “Theaetetus”) and echoed by Aristotle (“Metaphysics”). If more of us had this approach, we might see more students who embraced philosophy rather than grudgingly taking it to fill a Humanities elective.

    What worries me about this topic is that students often take philosophy as a noun: a body of concrete, finalized knowledge. The answer to AI questions like “should the self-driving car swerve to hit the pedestrian or stay on course and kill the driver?” or “should wedding-cake-making software work for gay couples and vegans?” or “should my AI medical advisor offer abortion as an alternative when counseling on birth control?” may be answered differently by a follower of Nietzsche, Simone deBeauvoir, or Plato. This is true even within the same branch of philosophy. A Christian Existentialist (say, Gabriel Marcel) and an atheist (Jean Paul Sartre) may answer differently about how educational sofware should teach Evolution and Creationism. “Which is ‘proven fact’ and which is ‘altenative theory'”?

    Let’s keep encouraging divergent thinking and open discussion. Especially open discussion.

    (posted by a former philosophy teacher from Michigan)

  4. Wow John, you hit so many important issues in one article. I think the section at the end, “Integrating Philosophy into Learning” is essential for all educators to recognize as we work with 21st century learners. Teaching our students to ask questions and have discussions or arguments in a safe environment will build a sense of community in a world where community can be abstract. I appreciate all that you shared and look forward to sharing your ideas with my friends and colleagues.

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