Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Science and the Humanities Major

First, a stupid joke of my own creation:

A humanities major and an engineering major walk into a bar and each order a pint. They sit down and a bit later a barmaid hands each of them a pint glass that's half-full. The humanities major, enraged, asks his engineering friend to go complain to the cheapskate bartender. The engineer agrees, "Seriously! As if they can't afford to buy half-pint glasses!"

Okay, so obviously the first thing that jumps out is how bad I am at making jokes. (Please inform me of a better such joke if you know one) The point however is not my poor talents at humor, but rather the difference in thinking between humanities majors (hereafter called "anthros") and engineering majors (hereafter called "smiths"). The anthro in this joke sees the half-full glass as resulting from the barkeeper's hesitation to give them the full pint, and the smith sees the half-full glass as being twice as large as it should be.

The difference in thinking is obvious, and much seen, but what precisely is this difference and what can it tell us about how we (as humans) see the world.

The answer is, simply put, that humans have evolved as both users of tools and as social creatures.

As social creatures, whose survival both of our group and within our group depends on effective communication of empathy, we are cursed by a lack of telepathy. If we had telepathy, and could know what each other was thinking and the thoughts of predators and prey in our environment, we would be able to plan around what other agents in our environment were doing because we would know completely what that was. Life would be reduced to a game of complete information, and we would all have evolved to be chess players: the tiger is hiding there and wants the turkey over there, not me, so I don't need to be afraid of walking here.

But this is not the world we evolved in. To determine whether the tiger wants to eat you, you must closely watch its posture and see who it's targeting. The process of making sense of the world by looking for "social" cues (loosely defined here to include the posture of tigers) is roughly one of dividing the world into agents (having goals and desires and the free-will to pursue those goals) and then attempting to understand their desires and infer their internal mental state. This process, of seeing the world as a collection of intelligent, emotional, "human-like" agents, is called anthropomorphism, and this is the way that the "anthro" sees the world.

The world is complex, and is the product of the interaction of many complex things that we cannot understand. The anthro "chunks" the world into easily identified agents and makes sense of the world as the "social" interaction of these elements. The extreme example of this being, obviously, the nature gods.

But as we came to understand the workings of high and low pressure systems, we obviously no longer needed to view "the north wind" as a human-like god. We now understand the wind as a "scientific" phenomenon, rather than a "miraculous" one. The triumph of the smiths!

This transition from deified, anthropomorphic understanding to a scientific one is typically cast as the triumph of god-like human reason over our more animal-like, emotional understanding. This view, however, ignores the fact that our "smith's" scientific view is also the product of evolution.

Humans are, apart from uniquely social, uniquely tool-using. Not only do we use the objects in our environment as tools, but we even design and create tools for future use. To understand how a rock or stick might be used as a tool, we must first be able to predict how this object would affect and be affected in a variety of situations. The goal of science, to make predictions about future observations, is a pragmatic goal based on our evolution as tool-users, not a lofty one handed down by god.

To the black-smith, a hammer is not an independent agent but rather an extension of his arm: he understands its properties and can cause changes in his world by using those properties. To "smiths" the world is the predictable interaction of simple tools: I strike the flint, the sparks heat the twig, the twig catches fire, the fire heats the pig, the pig feeds me.

This is the primary distinction between our humanities and engineering majors: how they make sense of a complex world. The engineer views the world from the bottom up: as the vast interaction of simple elements. He predicts the future, by extrapolating from the simple to the system. The humanities major attempts to view problems from the top down: assigning goals and personality to a system, and making predictions from their understanding of humans (themselves a pretty complex system!). While in today's secular society science is often touted as being superior, in fact these two understandings of the world are equally flawed, just in different ways. The scientist may fail to take _every_ interaction into account, and often the wholistic approach misses the crucial detail.

Eeastern and Western Medicine as Exemplifying this Difference

The primary difference, as I see it, between Western and Eastern medicine, is the difference between an anthro's and smith's approach.

In western medicine, we see the body as a completely intelligible interaction between simple components. Naturally, to correct a problem one simply needs to correct for the component of the machine that is missing or repair it. Is you kidney failing? Let's put you on dialysis! Is your heart stopped? Restart it! Are you sad? Take this serotonin supplement! This approach is fantastically successful at saving lives in seriously threatening situations. To some degree, your body is a machine and to keep functioning each part (each "tool") must fulfill its responsibilities.

Where this breaks down, however, is in unintended consequences. For as much as we would like to compartmentalize our understanding of the body, it is a fundamentally more interconnected, complex artifact than can be understood completely. Drugs have side-effects, and while the body is usually resilient enough to balance them out, it is today's "body as machine" methodology that results in serious (sometimes fatal) complications. This leads to the bizarre, completely insane yet all too common practice, of taking one or several drugs just to combat the side effects of another drug. For example, millions of people today are taking Advil to combat the aches and pains caused by Allegra and Lipitor, and it isn't uncommon for psychiatric patients or patients with liver problems to take cocktails of dozens of drugs to remain stable. The nearly endless stream side-effects comes from this erroneous notion that we can have a targeted effect on one part of the body, without it effecting others.

Chinese medicine, far from discarding these inter-relations, relies on them. It views the body as an anthropomorphic relationship between parts, and in attempting to "please" the body they get a fuller understanding of the body-system as a whole. It is this understanding that makes Eastern medicine "wholeistic" and (in many ways) far superior to Western medicine, particular for non-specific ailments and long-term health. Have a stomach ache? Drink this tea, and let me poke your foot! You feel sad? Let's fix your diet, and meet regularly for a massage, de-stress and talk about your life. You heart has stopped? Let's put some needles in your back!

My point is: Give me western when something is seriously wrong: give me eastern the rest of the time. It is a mistake to think that a logical, tool-based understanding is any more valid or any less a product of our animal heritage than a perceptual, anthropomorphic understanding. Both ways of understanding a complex world are equally valid and important.

Application to Computer Interfaces

The problem with computers today is that without presenting a good understanding of how it works to the user, then you cannot think of it as a tool. Yet without presenting itself as a social creature, giving clues and working "with" the user, you cannot understand it as an agent! It's easy to see how many claim to "not get" computers! The challenge to designers of all kinds of tools is to create something whose function (and therefor use) are obvious and appeal to our existing understanding of the world.

The challenge (and perhaps opportunity) with computers is that they are so complex and abstracted away from our typical (physical) understanding of the world, that only very nerdy computer scientists can understand how they work. The opportunity here is that this means that computers are _already_ anthropromorphised, and that it shouldn't be too difficult to "play up".

While many consider "clippy" (Microsoft Word's paper-clip assistant) to be a laughable failure in the history of interfaces, this is (I claim) more from its failure as an agent, than a failure of approach. The problem with clippy was that for as helpful as he tried to be, he never quite understood what you actually wanted. He was, in this way, too ambitious for his time. Despite his complete lack of utility, he (see the anthropomorphism here?) became a well-loved (if oft mocked) mascot of technology attempting (and failing) to be helpful.

But modelling intelligent agents, using machine learning to identify user intent, and even the theory of designing lovable mascots and modelling emotion have all progressed significantly in the past 15 years. Computers are not becoming less complex, and people's conceptual understanding of computers as tools is progressing slowly. Perhaps the time has come for the PDA to truly try to be your friend.


  1. Hey buddy, need to do a spellcheck. Many misspelled words in here. Otherwise, I like the intro with a joke. Not so sure the whole article hangs together well. Would appreciate a creator God view also of mankind being made in the image of the creator with certain endowed elements! Love from a special relative of yours, think N A N A......

  2. Thanks for reading and pointing out the spelling errors. This blog is meant to show how I understand things: obviously it isn't going to make sense to everyone.

    Disbelief in evolution does bring up an interesting related point of course: that sometimes these models of the world become so convincing to people that they will disregard facts in order to maintain a worldview that makes more sense to them.
    To those in love with an overly human-like God, they are apt to ignore evidence of His dispassion and pray for Him to help Japan instead of actually contributing something themselves. Likewise, science today is so in love with simple models and complete rationality that it misses the spiritual side of psychology and feels that happiness can be bottled and sold by Pfizer. Both are foolish and delusional and prevent us from truly helping our fellow man.