Why philosophy is an essential modern human skill

22 Feb 2017 | Christinen Asserghodsi

Our ability to prepare for a world in which computers can learn many things faster than we can, speaks to the importance of understanding what it means to be human and what we value as knowledge.

Artificial intelligence is called artificial for a reason; it is not the same as human intelligence. It may have the capacity to construct content knowledge faster than we can, but for now - and for the foreseeable future - it lacks our capacity to wonder, to appreciate beauty, and to empathize. It also lacks our capacity for philosophy. Mention studying philosophy and you are likely to come across stereotypes of white male filled, ivory towers turning out archaic ideas and unemployable graduates with no practical skills.

Global Teacher Prize Top 50 Finalist Rohan Roberts has long believed that philosophy is a practical, even essential, modern human skill.

I recently had the opportunity to ask Rohan about his interest in philosophy and why he believes it is so important.

What led to your interest in philosophy?

From a young age I was curious about everything. I didn’t get answers from the adults around me, so I turned to books. I found the best answers to “why” questions came from science. But philosophy opened my mind to so many new ways of thinking and evaluating knowledge. Philosophy was a gateway to the big existential questions and grand universal themes of life.

How have you incorporated philosophy in your teaching?

The technological level at which our world operates is nothing short of astonishing. But to understand how we got here, we’ve got to learn about all the things humanity did right over the last two thousand years: particularly the lessons from the Golden Age of Greece and the values of the Enlightenment. It’s also important to make philosophy relevant in a 21st century context. That’s where the host of NatGeo’s Brain Games, Jason Silva, comes in. He’s been described as a techno-philosopher, an ideas DJ, a poet for the digital age, and an ontological thinker. His Shots of Awe videos grapple with the big philosophical themes that have concerned the philosophers through the ages: life, death, love, the nature of reality, the purpose of existence etc. Young students relate to him much better than they would to traditional philosophers. Jason’s videos are an integral part of every lesson, workshop, and training session I lead.

Another way I incorporate philosophy is to include the voice and opinions of contemporary philosophers. Someone I particularly admire is Alain de Botton. The videos he creates for School of Life are incredibly thought-provoking and hugely relevant in a 21st century context.

What impact has this had on your students?

It’s made them critical of the information they receive. Their motto is, Nullius in Verba. This is Latin for: take no one’s word for it. It’s good to see that they’re learning the importance of self-doubt in their teenage years. Also, it helps spark a love for learning for the sake of learning. Sapere Aude was a phrase associated with the Enlightenment. It means “Dare to Know.” These students are now excited about learning new knowledge and sharing it – not for grades and tests – but for the inherent pleasure of learning.

Why do you think engaging with philosophical questions is important in light of the exponential growth of technology?

In a world where A.I. and super A.I. will take over jobs and do things we thought were traditionally the preserve of humans, we have to ask ourselves what humans will be good for. We’ll also need to answer the question, what is the purpose of education. More than preparing students for the job market, education has to be about preparing students to be good, responsible citizens and moral, upstanding human beings.

Philosophy plays an integral role in ensuring this – and I mean all the broad branches of philosophy: Ethics – the philosophy of moral values; aesthetics – the philosophy of beauty; politics – the philosophy of governance; and semantics – the philosophy of language. In an age of information overload, exponential technologies and accelerating change, it is imperative that we teach students to be able to distinguish between information, misinformation, and disinformation. Critical thinking and being aware of our cognitive biases is not something we should learn just as part of science. These are integral parts of developing philosophical-minded students and caring, responsible citizens.

The link between the technology of the future and philosophy will be addressed in a range of workshops at this year's Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai. These workshop will be hosted by SOLVE @ MIT, covering the teaching of the skills of tomorrow, increasing women in STEM, and how to maximize the benefits of technology.Solve is a marketplace that connects technologists, business leaders, researchers, social entrepreneurs, and policy makers, from across the globe. This community unearths and implements solutions to rotating yearly challenges. Solve was born out of MIT in 2015, a natural offshoot of MIT’s commitment to open technological innovation, and its long commitment to actionable thought leadership in the public sphere.