Specialization – Applied Philosophy – 3

In an essay titled “Why Nerds are Unpopular?”, Paul Graham writes that life in elementary school is warped and savage because it is isolated from reality and identifies specialization as the reason for the isolation.

“Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In pre-industrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren’t left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies.

Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers…
The cause of this problem is the same as the cause of so many present ills: specialization. As jobs become more specialized, we have to train longer for them…”
(Emphasis added)

Specialization and trade are the primary mechanisms of human progress. Todays industrial societies and the incredibly complex global economy would be impossible without specialization – without men who spend most of their lives working in a narrow field. Specialization has given us the sophisticated gadgets we use in our daily lives, the means to communicate with people across the globe, the opportunity to excel in our chosen careers. Specialization has given artists the time needed to create works of art and others the opportunity of enjoying them. Specialization has given sportsmen the time needed to perfect their skills and others the opportunity of being inspired by human perfection. In short, specialization has given us most of the things that we value in life.

Specialization has also caused innumerable problems. Specialization has made it very difficult for young people to make an informed choice of career or to change a choice of career once made. Specialization has made it difficult for people to adjust to economic changes. Specialization has created complex chains of dependencies among people. Specialization has made it difficult for people to understand fields other than their own. Specialization has made it difficult for anyone to understand the broader picture – the workings of the world. Specialization is atleast partly responsible for the large number of fallacious beliefs held by mostly reasonable people – particularly in economics and politics. Specialization is partly responsible for today’s rampant pragmatism – the lack of respect for abstract ideas and philosophy.

Perhaps the single biggest problem caused by specialization is the problem of knowing what to believe outside of one’s chosen field. Men have evolved a number of mechanisms to solve this problem – peer reviewed journals and techincal associations in science, the concepts of degrees and certifications in education, the concept of branding in advertising, independent rating agencies in industry, efforts like wikipedia, government regulatory bodies for everything, etc. While some mechanisms work better than others, it is clear that there can be no complete solution. The body of human knowledge is so vast and varied that it is impossible for anyone to establish trusted authorities in every field. The mixed success achieved in solving this problem is an important reason for the general lack of respect for abstract ideas and general principles. It also raises (well founded) questions about whether the entire system can sustain itself without directed effort. But the questions cannot be answered without abstract ideas and general principles, i.e without philosophy. Contrary to popular belief these are not merely questions of economics. They cannot be answered without an understanding of the nature of man, the function of his reason, the nature and structure of his knowledge and the reasons for his motives.

Specialization is a natural phenomenon. As long as men deal with each other, they have to trade. And as long as they trade, they will choose to spend their time on that which they are best equipped to do. In the absence of a catastophic disruption, a society will continue to grow in complexity. A system that constantly increases in complexity cannot be sustained without directed effort. Without that effort or with wrong efforts a catastrophic disruption is inevitable. Anyone who believes that the economy will continue to prosper irrespective of the social and political system is deeply mistaken. As the level of specialization continues to accelerate, the need for the right philosophy becomes ever more crucial.

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2 Responses

  1. There exist only a limited number of cases where specialization and the resultant ignorance of other fields is the source of problems – those that relate to life changing decisions. To buy or use a computer, I don’t need to know how it is manufactured or how to write software. The same applies in most trivial to not-so-trivial cases – buying homes, loaves of bread or cars, going to the dentist, deciding on normal surgical procedures etc. So, an overall idea of what benefit a particular product or service provides me is more than enough to take the necessary decision.

    But when the matter relates to complex medical questions – when two different doctors will offer different opinions based on their experience, or decisions on things such as whom to believe when it comes to the question of anthropogenic (human induced) global warming, things become messy because without the requisite domain knowledge (and even then, probably), no meaningful conclusion can be arrived at. And all the “mechanisms” will become meaningless. The only solution and a partial one, that I can see in such cases is that the specialists involved should stop basing their opinions and actions on probabilities of this and that and come down to known facts.

    I won’t blame specialization (every partially) for the lack of attention to philosophy, politics and economics. While these fields are complex, their basics are clear enough for those who take the effort (and it is a reasonable one) to know about it – its not as if people are being asked to read tomes on econometrics or derivatives. So laziness, fierce and unquestioning attachment to a particular dogma, or the inability to think – these share the blame here.

  2. Let me address your example of buying a computer. If I am buying an assembled computer, should I buy an Intel CPU (reputed) or an AMD one (much cheaper). I have heard AMD once had problems with heat dissipation. Have they been solved? Does it matter? and so on…
    This may not be a life changing decision but I certainly have a problem. Take this further. Suppose I run a company and need to buy computers for all my workforce. The same issue is now much more important. Then I have additional issues. Which Operating System will give me better reliability, usability, support, extensibility, scalability etc… All of the relevant information required to make these decisions exists somewhere but it is no easy task getting hold of it or integrating it properly. All these difficulties are certainly not because of specialization. But specialization does exacerbate them.
    Coming to economics. Clearly there is a problem when the specialists in a field cannot agree about fundamentals. That is a clear indication that the field is inherently difficult. The chief difficulty here is the complexity of the subject (and complexity is directly related to specialization). No matter what theory an economist might propound, someone can easily come up with examples that seem to contradict it. Reconciling those examples with the theory will involve a detailed analysis of all the relevant factors in the related fields. As an example, note that there is no agreement about the causes of the great depression. Similar is the case with politics and philosophy.
    So I certainly blame specialization for many problems. But I also believe that specialization is inevitable. And so we need to come up with ways of dealing with its problems effectively. And the foundation for this is to be found in a sound philosophy.

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