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.