Quote Of The Day

The Economist’s Babbage, on computing education:

That, for me, sums up the seductive intellectual core of computers and computer programming: here is a magic black box. You can tell it to do whatever you want, within a certain set of rules, and it will do it; within the confines of the box you are more or less God, your powers limited only by your imagination. But the price of that power is strict discipline: you have to really know what you want, and you have to be able to express it clearly in a formal, structured way that leaves no room for the fuzzy thinking and ambiguity found everywhere else in life. The computer is an invaluably remorseless master: harsh, sometimes to the point of causing you to tear your hair out, but never unfair.

As many bloggers and blog-readers are internet-adept nerds, I suspect that his piece will resonate with you as it did with me. As many of you may know, I’m an electrical engineer. But what many do not know (though it may hardly surprise) is that in college I chose to minor in philosophy. I did this because I’d had some exposure to philosophy in high school, and because I thought it would be a good way, being in the School of Liberal Arts, to meet women. Sadly, philosophy was not quite as blessed with the fairer sex as I’d hoped.

What am I waxing self-referential? Because computers, engineering, mathematics and philosophy are fundamentally similar. All work as systems of basically fixed rules, where you “build” products based upon the inputs and structure of your system. In engineering, it is materials and the laws of nature. In computers and digital electronics, it is all a complex structure for deciding rules for how to make transistors turn on or off. In mathematics, as in philosophy, it is starting with premises (or mathematical axioms) and deriving from those premises and the laws of logic/math a conclusion.

What weaves these disciplines together is not the inputs and structure — it is the mental process of working within the structure. Much of the educational system involves teaching a student what to think. Math and philosophy teach a student HOW to think, and for students less suited to the abstract, subjects like engineering or computer science provide a much more tangible feedback loop than math.

Though I hadn’t realized it in advance, engineering and philosophy are not so unnaturally paired. In fact, I had signed up for one class without realizing I hadn’t completed the prerequisites, and when I spoke to the professor to drop it, he cautioned that often engineers to very well in philosophy, because we’ve already internalized many of the rules. When I later took a class on “Introduction to Logic”, I exactly saw his point: everything we were doing was a slight variant on what I’d covered in digital logic courses 2 years before.

Sadly, I think this is a portion of education that is widely overlooked. These are the very building blocks of reason. These are the skills that can help humans weed the truth from the bullshit. A good grounding in logic and critical thought might help see through corporate marketing campaigns — and of the bread and circuses of American politics. It makes one wonder if there’s a reason these subjects are neglected — it makes us all better subjects.

  • Akston

    No matter what lofty heights reason may attain in the cortex, emotion invariably seems able to shake the pillars of those heights. People buy cars because they are blue, elect presidents because the sound thoughtful, or tough, or have good hair.

    Quite a while ago, I saw in an excellent PBS Nova program called “Ape Genius” which contrasted ape and human skills and societies. Beside the ability to actively teach and learn (as opposed to unwittingly model and emulate), one the core differences the researchers highlight is the human capacity to manage emotional responses more effectively than apes.

    This is not to say that emotional responses are “worse” or “less evolved”. Emotions are the engine which often drives our efforts. Rationality is the steering wheel. Having one without the other is always problematic.

    It’s easy to get the mob torch and pitchfork ready if you appeal to our emotions. Without enough practice in logic and rational thought, we tend to go after whatever golem is conveniently out to hand (real or imaginary).

    A: Socrates is a man.
    B: All men are mortal.
    C: All men are Socrates.

    – Boris Grushenko

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany


    Emotions are the engine which often drives our efforts. Rationality is the steering wheel. Having one without the other is always problematic.

    Well put.

  • cjs

    Our general public discourse is constantly tainted by the inability to understand and identify fallacies. Wouldn’t we be so much better off if people couldn’t be so easily led astray by Ad Hominem and straw man attacks, appeals to emotion and ridicule and so on? A good understanding of how to build a valid argument and how to identify invalid arguments alone is essential for a free society.

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have much value in the marketplace, and that is the main reason why these skills have started to whither in the general population. The common wisdom seems to be that if a skill cannot be marketed it is worthless. Is the free market really the sole arbiter of value, or is there something more here?

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany


    I’ll tell you that such skills *are* valued in the free market. People capable of critical thinking are much more valuable than automatons only able to follow orders, and you can be sure this is reflected in paychecks and advancement. Often it’s not *direct* training in logical fallacies, but the ability to know when you’re being bullshitted and act accordingly has value.

    This isn’t very true in jobs that exist in black and white, but there’s a large category of jobs where you exist in a world of gray. You don’t have complete information of your own position, you don’t have complete information on the competition’s position, and you’re thrust into the situation to accomplish a goal. In sales it’s trying to figure out who your competition is, what their price is, what their value proposition is, and how to market yourself to a customer to offer more than your competitor (whether that’s a lower price, or a differentiated product, etc). In internal medicine you only have a portion of understanding what’s going wrong in your patient’s body, only a portion of understanding how they’ll respond to certain treatments, and yet you may have to make the right decision on the first attempt to actually fix the issue. Often the decisions made in the “world of gray” are time-critical and non-iterative, so you can’t simply try something and try something again — you’ll lose before you get a second chance.

    As for why these skills are waning, I think there are probably a lot of reasons. I do think there are societal changes of a more general nature responsible for it (i.e. greater consumption of “passive” media, more laziness, less of a “hard work” ethos, contributing to less math/science education). Greater affluence certainly does make it harder to convince people to struggle at intellectual pursuits and train their minds to see these trends. And I’d be remiss as a libertarian if I didn’t mention the greater federal dominance of education, teachers’ unions, and removal of true discipline and expectations from the classroom.

    Hopefully the internet age might reverse some of these trends. It’s a chaotic mess of technology, global communication, and more “active” media consumption. It’s a whole different world than the cable TV generation, and I suspect it’s changing the pathways of the mind in very interesting ways — hopefully for the better, but we’ll have to wait and see.