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Columbia Spectator Staff

"Even professional scientists," Albert Einstein remarked, "seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest." When he said this in 1944, he was referring to a type of "independence created by philosophical insight" that scientists should consider diving into more often. It's also been a wonder to me why academic institutions, including Columbia, separate the sciences from philosophy as strictly distinct disciplines, when both sides could actually grow more intellectually by communicating and overlapping a little more. Just last week, I was chatting with a friend about the theory of knowledge at a café near campus. About fifteen minutes into the conversation, two guys with thick-rimmed glasses came up to us and said, "I heard you saying something about artificial intelligence. Do you mind if we join you?" Indeed, we were talking about how the creation of the computer changed the way we perceive and know the world, but we weren't necessarily fishing for dates that night. "We're neuroscientists," one of them said. A few years ago, I would have responded with something along the lines of, "How fascinating," and pretended to text someone to avoid an awkward silence. But the reality of casually interacting with a scientist was one I rarely encounter here. So instead of taking out my cell phone, I answered, "If you're a neuroscientist, you must believe that the mind and body are the same thing. But did you ever wonder whether they aren't?" When the other science guy revealed that all of his passwords are "Descartes," after the philosopher who claimed that the mind and body are separate substances, the four of us went on to have one of the most fruitful conversations I've ever had. It's really a shame that we couldn't repeat this sort of thing in a seminar where such a dialogue would be worthy of a solid A for all of us. In 17th-century Europe, the disciplines we refer to today as "philosophy" and "science" were synonymous to each other. Newton's treatise on gravity was titled "The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy." The inductive method that you'll find familiar in science experiments was derived from David Hume's research on the way humans understand things. While Columbia's philosophy department offers courses titled "Darwin" and "Philosophy of Science," students taking them are not required to supplement this kind of study with any science lectures and labs. From what I've heard from Columbia College students, the core classes like "Frontiers of Science" and "Contemporary Civilization" have little to do with each other. Engineers, too, are busy doing problem sets that might test one's knowledge on the theory of relativity, but not on Einstein's philosophical essays (yes, there are several). You might argue that the general requirements at these undergraduate institutions already attempt to nurture our minds with a variety of subjects. And I personally think that Barnard's "Nine Ways of Knowing" does a good job broadening our interests (although I disagree that there are only nine ways of knowing). But what if a school consciously decided to enrich the overlaps between seemingly opposite subjects like philosophy and the sciences? On top of possible new lectures like "Philosophical Logic and the Birth of the Computer," "Are Constants Really Constants?" and "Existentialism and Quantum Mechanics," to name a few, there should be small seminars where people in different majors are deliberately chosen to discuss things together for an hour or two every week. That way, they can start to spend more time with each other and possibly assist each other in further research. People might be inspired to think in completely new ways that would shift the current intellectual paradigm. And in all probability, several successful teams and couples will come out of this experience. Who knows? When I attended the commencement ceremony for the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia last year, I remember University President Lee Bollinger saying to the young engineers that they have more to teach "us" non-engineers than "we" have to teach them. He's right: it's probably easier for a scientist to pass a philosophy course than for a philosopher to ace a physics exam. But, as Einstein said, "It has often been said, and certainly not without justification, that the man of science is a poor philosopher." The exam scores may prove the system unfair, but there are no correct answers to most philosophical problems anyway. So perhaps it is really the philosophers that need to teach engineers that even when things look as clear as "2+2=4," there is always room for more questioning, examining, and, most important of all, wondering. Yurina Ko is a Barnard College junior majoring in philosophy. She is a senior editor of the Columbia Political Review. 2+2=5 runs alternate Wednesdays.

Philosophy Frontiers of Science