I spent the early part of the summer teaching an online symbolic logic class at Baylor. One of the refreshing things about teaching logic is how tidy so much of it is. There are rules for testing arguments; it's easy to tell when an answer is wrong and equally easy to say why it's wrong. To take a simple example: a thing cannot simultaneously be "A" and "not A," at least not at the same time and in the same way. Those are mutually exclusive. In higher level logic classes, much debated foundational questions arise, but not so much in an introductory class.
By contrast, the rest of philosophy, as with the many complex questions we face as individuals and communities, is not nearly so clear cut. Yet it seems that, particularly in our political discourse, we increasingly opt for binary or algorithmic modes of approaching complex questions.
In her new book, Rules: A Short History of What We Live By, Lorraine Daston traces the history and role of rules in public life from antiquity to our own time. Up until the late 18th century, she argues, rules were seen as thick and flexible, that is, they were rooted in living examples, rich in meaning, and applied prudentially to particular circumstances. But, she writes, "We are now all subjects of the empire of the algorithm, especially an algorithm executed by a machine." What does that mean and how did we get here?
Binary thinking came to the fore with the rise of modern mathematical science and technology. Binary thinking increasingly dominates our public life, particularly on social media. Psychologists associate binary thinking with splitting, "a defense mechanism by which people unconsciously frame ideas, individuals or groups of people in all-or-nothing terms — for example, all good or all bad," as explained by Andrew Hartz in The Wall Street Journal. So choices between "A" and "not A" become battles between righteous and evil.
It is interesting that the problems of binary thinking are increasingly recognized as having a toxic effect on our political discourse at the same time that Americans increasingly see humanities education as lacking utility. A discipline-like philosophy, in which I happily toil teaching students at Baylor, may not immediately lead to a job, although philosophy students do very well on the LSAT. What's worse, philosophy doesn't seem to make any progress. It raises questions that are not solvable, at least not in any peremptory fashion.
But maybe disciplines that teach us to navigate questions for which there are no easy answers are more important than they've ever been.
The poet John Keats once praised what he called "negative capability," the capacity to stand in "uncertainties, mysteries, doubts" without immediately demanding resolution or certainty. Careful study of great texts or works of art — from Plato to James Baldwin or Bach to Billie Holiday — involves coming to know certain facts about composition or argument. But such works lead us into ongoing debates and deepen our sense of the mysteries of beauty, suffering, evil and hope, as well as the complexities of human motivation.
As professors, how we teach can be as important in this regard as what we teach. We can take seriously views that are opposed to our own and we can encourage students to do the same with whatever views they bring to class.
Here's a practical example of how this happens. A former Baylor student, Ben Aguiñaga, likes to say that one of the most important moments in his undergraduate education occurred in an honors constitutional law class taught by Professor Elizabeth Corey. Having read the assigned case, he came to class ready to argue against it. As class opened, his teacher broke the class into two groups with one group arguing for the case and the other against. Much to his dismay, he was in the group charged with defending a case he thought was wrongly decided. Looking back, he realized later that he was being given a crucial lesson about understanding points of view with which he might not have initially agreed. He went on to clerk at the Supreme Court.
The African-American author W.E.B. DuBois famously defined liberal education as pondering the riddle of existence. To many, that might seem pointless. As a corrective to splitting, however, it has its virtues. While splitting can make the world seem more coherent, its cost is that it severely distorts reality. As binary thinking increasingly dominates our political discourse, we might begin to wonder whether humanities education is not a better investment than we have hitherto imagined.