Our suitemate came running out of his room, hair disheveled and covered in paint.
“My ceiling’s falling!” he said.
We weren’t surprised; we had already dealt with black mold and cockroaches in the grim basement of Vanderbilt Hall. We told him it was only natural, for gravity tends to make things fall.
“Well, gravity sucks!”
As it turns out, gravity doesn’t suck. It pulls. And it would be hard to imagine our lives without it. Apples wouldn’t fall from trees, raindrops wouldn’t fall from the sky and admittedly, ceilings wouldn’t fall on people’s heads.
Most Yalies have a rudimentary understanding of gravity — and other concepts in the physical and natural sciences — yet rarely appreciate their significance. Even physics majors struggle with the question of what concepts like the contraction of space-time means for us. This is why science, technology, engineering and mathematics students at Yale need to study philosophy. As philosophy professor Shelly Kagan puts it, while scientists try to understand the mechanics of why something happens, philosophers attempt to understand why it matters. How does the relative nature of time affect human existence? How is our conception of reality based on this shared experience of gravity and time, and would changes in gravity — perhaps during space travel — alter the way we perceive reality itself?
Within Yale’s curriculum, we rarely see scientists teach the skills they need to understand the implications of complex concepts and formulae. Indeed, most physics majors we know would be hard-pressed to explain gravity without resorting to tetra derivatives and axiomatic zippity doo dah.
A number of institutional factors lead to this divide between the disciplines. Consider the fact that most STEM departments are located on Science Hill, far from the center of campus and the Philosophy Department, on Old Campus. The plan to consolidate humanities departments within the Hall of Graduate Studies by the end of the decade will only exacerbate this division.
Moreover, the requirements of many STEM majors are highly onerous. Students intending to major in physics, for instance, are functionally required to take at least one math course and one physics course starting as early as freshman fall, leaving little time for the exploration of other fields. Given the widespread availability of easier courses in the humanities and the social sciences, most students choose to avoid philosophy, which is perceived to be more challenging. Directed Studies — by far the most cohesive course sequence in Western thought — has an absolute dearth of STEM majors.
In recent years, Yale has been trying to strengthen its STEM departments, for instance, through the renovation of existing science facilities. Despite this, Yale’s STEM departments trail, at least reputationally, behind many other departments. To differentiate itself from rivals like MIT, Yale should bring to bear its historic strengths in humanistic disciplines like philosophy on its latest STEM drive.
Yale already has a Physics and Philosophy major, but it draws very few students because of its perceived inapplicability to the real world. Instead, Yale should consider integrating courses in philosophy across STEM curriculums. For instance, Yale decided this week to introduce a new data science and statistics major, with an emphasis on applied learning. But to truly distinguish itself, the program should consider teaching its students higher-order topics like the philosophy of mathematics. Ditto for say, pre-meds, who should be exposed to formal classes in ethics — biologists, who should have some sort of training in epistemology.
An indignant but uninformed scientist might argue that experimental research is all that matters in science and that philosophy plays no role in the process of scientific discovery. But consider perhaps the most famous scientist of all: Einstein. As a patent clerk in Germany, he had no access to the high-tech instruments needed to really verify his ideas. Einstein’s process of discovery proceeded by way of thought experiment. It involved thinking beyond the bounds of calculation and experimental procedure to what physical reality really meant, which brought him to some of the most profound insights of our era. Is this not the truest form of philosophy?
Sam Day-Weiss and Shaheer Malik are freshmen in Saybrook College. Contact them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org .