I once thought it remarkable that some philosophy courses are devoted exclusively to answering questions such as “What can I know?” and “For what can I hope?” I did not understand the significance that such trivial-seeming questions could have for describing large-scale human behavior. But, over the last year, I have come to appreciate the importance of asking the most fundamental questions of human existence, knowledge, and behavior. Philosophy studies the nature of humans; what study has greater implications for society’s well being?
This realization process began when I read a speech delivered by Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged, to the graduating class at West Point in 1974, called, “Philosophy: Who Needs It?” In this speech, Rand essentially argues that philosophy is an abstract science that is necessary “to deal with concrete, particular, real-life problems—i.e., in order to be able to live on earth.” She states, “the special sciences are the trees, but philosophy is the soil which makes the forest possible.”
Rand argued that many common expressions are examples of philosophy in and of themselves. When one says, “this may be good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice,” Rand attributes that philosophy to Plato. The expression “Nobody can be certain of anything” is embedded in the works of David Hume.
I bought the argument that everyone is affected by philosophy and practices it, whether aware of this fact or not. I did not understand, however, the implications it had in shaping greater human culture.
Today, we live in what many call the age of technology, of genetically modified organisms and video chat. The common function of much of our technology is to make time usage more efficient. New inventions are increasingly finding their way into people’s lives, evidently changing human behavior. If philosophy is the study of human existence, and our behaviors are constantly changing, would the applications of philosophy not be constantly changing as well?
What does it say about human nature that we have become more reliant on Facebook and cell phones? In answer to this question, Pomona College E. Wilson Lyon Professor of the Humanities and philosophy professor Stephen Erickson said we cannot forget that technology has allowed people to communicate more efficiently and to reach a standard of living not previously possible, but perhaps people are becoming more “robotic” as well.
Erickson acknowledged both the benefits and drawbacks of technology. When asked his opinion on the effects technology has on human behavior, he stated, “I believe that technology may get us more and more thinking about how something could get done rather than what it would mean to do it.”
For example, he asked, “Do we live in a world where, at least on a statistical basis, more and more educated people … see life more and more as an issue of how long you can live in a healthy and alert way and the extent to which you have the material resources to get the things that … satisfy various desires you have?”
He cited the three questions that Immanuel Kant declared to encompass all other questions about human reason and speculation. According to Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy, these questions are, “What can I know?”; “What must I do?”; and “What may I hope?”
It is the last question that Erickson most worries is being ignored by the present technology age. He gave the well-versed example of education: Is education geared toward getting a job, and subsequently toward making money, rather than the passion and interest in a specific career an education can create?
Steve Jobs, a major pioneer of modern technology, seemed to have the same reservations about human behavior in today’s society. In his commencement speech to the graduating Stanford Class in 2006, he stated that that after he was fired in the 80s from Apple, a company he founded, it was “devastating … the only thing that kept me going is that I loved what I did.” As we know, he went on to found Pixar and then eventually returned to Apple, revolutionizing the company. How? He attributes it to his passion for his work. In other words, the difference was in how he answered Kant’s last question: “What may I hope?” He did not work in order to make more iPhones, but rather because he loved programming.
Philosophy, then, is still enormously relevant in today’s society. Society itself may be constantly changing in the new age of technology, but people’s behaviors can still be described by the fundamental questions philosophy poses. Perhaps the very success of Jobs, and the invention of the iPhone, came down to how he answered Kant’s final question.