[APPLAUSE] MASON PECK: Thanks very much. Well, I have to say, when I was invited-- you invited me-- to plead for my life and that of my discipline, I guess I was told it is because they try to have someone from physics on the life raft debate.
Well, it turns out I'm not a physicist. In fact, the folks in the physics department would agree with that energetically.
But this sort of confusion raises an important point that I feel like we need to answer here, at least address.
Is there any difference among all this math and science and technology stuff? I mean, can't we just shovel it all into that pile of non humanities, things involves numbers and Greek letters other than Greek? And sort of drop it you dropped first semester calculus?
I mean, if we could do that, wouldn't that simplify our lives?
After all, what is engineering? And, of course, do you need it in your post-apocalyptic world?
So let me give you a quote from a guy named Theodore Von Karman. Those of you in the engineering world will recognize his name. He said that scientists discover the world that is, and engineers create the world that has never been. And this is the key to me.
Both that pursuit of knowledge and that desire to create something that we haven't seen before, something new. Those are both fundamental to what it is to be a human. When you think about survival, to me it's not simply survival of the body, it's survival of the mind, the spirit, and our aspirations.
So this is what you have to preserve on your life raft. And this is what you need in your new world.
Let me say something about engineering. I think it's not about those handy skills like starting fires or building bridges or even launching spacecraft any more than English is about penmanship or the correct use of the m dash.
Really, instead, it's this-- engineers make our aspirations real.
We're the ones that reach for new heights so what we do benefits everyone. We solve problems, sure-- and you'll need that in this new world. But more than anything, I think you need to create. You need to aspire and to achieve things because you want to retain what's essential to humanity.
Now, let me say a little bit about engineers, some of whom I know personally.
Generally they seem pretty well-fulfilled, and I'm not sure why that is, exactly. I'm going to speculate, though. It's generally a pretty happy bunch. We find some satisfaction, I think, in knowing that we can solve problems, that we can take you from here to there. Faced with a difficult situation, we can design our way out.
As I've said, though, it's more than just knowing lefty lucy, righty tighty-- and I'll explain that to you guys a little later. But like MacGyver, I guess, engineers are hopeful, optimistic, and sometimes to a fault.
There's this thing called design margin or engineering margin. It's your margin for error. So we've learned how to design the built environment. We've learned how to design a new world, and we can do so without disappointment, without failure.
Now myself, I've got a master's degree in English. I was actually in the PhD program in English at the University of Chicago for a couple of years before I changed my mind completely.
I'll give you some information that I figured out at some point around there, and that's that really engineering is about creativity.
I was under the impression that by studying the humanities, I would learn better how to create and how to realize something new. I find that I'm more successful in that, for one reason or another, in engineering.
And since this is a debate, I'm going to assert that the degree of creativity you see in the engineering school and that you see among your engineering colleagues might exceed, to some extent, what you see among the humanities. Because we're not simply studying what it is that we're interested in, we're doing what we're interested in.
I'll give you the example of KickSat. This is a small satellite that we've built in the engineering school. It's a satellite about the size of a loaf of bread or something like that. It's going to launch on Friday. It will carry with it 104 individual little satellites about the size of a cracker. So, don't trust the fat guy to talk about food-- I defused that one for you.
So why would we do such a thing? There are many reasons. There are some interesting physics involved, and we're interested in looking at that-- but also, we funded this thing on Kickstarter.
You know the Kickstarter website, right?
So this is a crowdfunding or crowdsource website. The student who led this project asked for $30,000 from the public. They gave him about $80,000, and each person who donated at least $300 got to essentially get his or her own satellite. You could program it with whatever five letters you want to send down to the ground. And we thought about four letter words, but that-- you know, so we went with five. And anyway, so this idea here of opening up to the crowd, what it is to explore space, is what I'm talking about here.
There is an enthusiasm-- a kind of aspirational enthusiasm, if you like-- that I find everywhere. I think there are people in here who would love the idea of going to space, building something exciting. That's what we do in engineering and that's why I contend you want me, or someone like me, on the life raft.
So I found out that engineering is about creativity. And I'll say it this way-- we are the ones who sculpt the built environment. We write the story of humanity's ascent on the stars and I'll say we perform the dance of biotechnology and synthetic biology that puts the power of life itself into our hands.
And that's why I'm a technology guy, and I think that's why you want a technologist on your life raft. Not just to patch the hole in your life raft today, but to create the next millennium. Thank you.
SPEAKER 2: Next, we have Professor Kamtekar.
PROFESSOR RACHANA KAMTEKAR: Cornell students. Congratulations on your utilitarian approach to your professors. Think carefully about how we can and can't benefit you, and don't shy away from calculating the utility to you of this human life. You'll soon be signing up with one of us, not for a semester, but for good.
Of course, you should have been thinking about the importance of your studies before, all along, but sometimes it takes an apocalypse.
Now, the more tender-hearted among you may be wondering, is it even right for us to treat our professors like this? Making them beg to be taken on board the life raft? And we're still making them argue that they'll be more useful to us than their colleagues down the hall?
The Kantians may be thinking, whatever happened to treating humanity as an end in itself? Maybe the moral thing to do is to draw straws.
So unless you take me on board-- Kantians, you're never going to get rid of those guilt-inducing thoughts and utilitarians, you won't get the Kantians to hold their peace.
First things first. I'm going to argue for you to take a philosopher on board not because it does me any good-- ever since I read Plato, I've been practicing for death, since death will separate my mind from my body-- which is really quite a nuisance, getting hungry and tired all the time and distracting me from philosophy.
Hopefully when I'm dead, I'll see the deepest truths most clearly.
So I'm not doing this for my sake, but for yours.
In fact, it's you who should be begging me to come on board the life raft.
Now suppose I knew how to navigate by means of the stars? And maybe I do, since astronomy is one of the disciplines preparatory to philosophy-- and I did stay up, pretty much all night, trying to get a glimpse of that lunar eclipse-- OK, so you see how distracting the body is, all right?
OK, back to the point. Suppose I knew how to navigate by means of the stars? Wouldn't you want me on board to get you to dry land?
But if I got you to dry land, would you be benefited or harmed? Would the life you'd live there on that new dry land be a good life? Or would you live like any other animal, trying to feed yourself and reproduce young who'd feed themselves and reproduce young, and on and on? And what would the point of that be?
Now it's OK for an animal that can't ask, "what's the point?" to live like that, but you can and will ask what's the point and that changes everything.
You'll want not just to live, but to live well, to live as a human being should, to make your choices for reasons.
So if you think you want someone on board who can navigate the waters, think how much more you should want someone on board who can help you navigate life. Someone who's thought about what goodness is, what human nature is, what it is for a human being to live a good and fulfilled life, and what is selling that human being short.
In antiquity, when Greek cities set up new colonies, they asked philosophers to write their constitutions, and they did this for a good reason.
If you want your society to enable you to live well, it won't be enough for each of you to do what she thinks is the best and hope it all works out for each of you individually and all of you collectively. Someone or someones will need a plan. And to make a plan, you need to know what your goals should be as human beings living together.
So I know what you're all thinking-- all that can come later. Before we can live the good life, we first got to live. Our situation is urgent. We're going to need to eat, so we need a nutritionist. We're going to have to make stuff, so we need an engineer. We're going to need to deal with disagreements, maybe we should take the devil's advocate.
We're going to need to know the lessons of history.
Now historically, it's only after societies met their basic needs that they really developed philosophy. That's true of philosophy in China and India and Greece. But notice first that those civilizations had pretty rudimentary science and technology. No spacecraft. They didn't really need any of that stuff. So if you've been paying attention in your classes, you should be able to reproduce that pretty easily. OK?
The other thing is that you shouldn't mistake what you're in now thinking is important in your panicked state. And I understand you're panicked. You shouldn't mistake that for what's really important. So if I can get you to understand that philosophy is what's most important and I can get you to take me on board, then your society isn't going to have to cast about doing this and doing that before finally stumbling upon philosophy like those historical societies had to.
So why is philosophy so important, more important than nutrition and history and knowing how to make the weaker argument appear the stronger? When Aristotle systematized all the sciences and arts, he ranked them in value by asking, what kind of knowledge serves or is for the sake of what?
You make brain scanners, engineers? Your science is subordinate to the neurologists.
The only reason for you to make brain scanners is so that the neurologists can do her job. And this is because the neurologists goal, the neurologist's end-- a healthy brain-- is more valuable than the engineer's end, which is the detection of signs of disease and health and brains.
Without neurology, the engineers knowledge is without value. With neurology, the value it has is instrumental-- merely instrumental.
You study the effects of legislation on behavior, sociologists? Your science is subordinate to the lawmakers. It's because well-functioning societies are so important that we care about the data and theories of sociologists, because we think-- maybe-- knowing these enables us to run our societies better.
Philosophy is what sits at the apex of all these subordinate disciplines, because philosophy is the discipline that studies the human good, which is what all these disciplines are ultimately for.
So Aristotle also asked the question, could every discipline, every pursuit we engage in, be useful? Be valuable for the sake of something else?
Surely there must be something that's valuable for its own sake, otherwise doing this for the sake of that and that for the sake of some other thing just goes on forever. And this thing that's valuable for its own sake must be the source of value for the things that we do for the sake of other things.
Now, evidence of the intrinsic value of things is that we don't do them for the sake of other things.
So think of the things you do for their own sakes, things that are worthwhile of themselves, like spending time with your friends, listening to and making music, walking in the woods on a spring day. Notice how if you could do none of these things, you might not want to do the useful ones. And now notice how useless these worthwhile things are-- sure, relaxing with your friends refreshes you for the next bout of work, but that's not why you're doing it.
Aristotle had the guts to say what I'm not telling you. One way we know philosophy is so important is that it's useless. The reason you need to take me with you, Cornell students, is that I can show you how to do the most useless and most worthwhile thing a human being can do-- philosophy.
SPEAKER 2: Thank you so much. We now have Professor Ghosh.
PROFESSOR DURBA GHOSH: It's hard to be third is all I'm going to start with. So I'm going to start with jettisoning one of the most classic arguments in history, which is Darwinian. And, of course, you've all heard of Darwin. You've all heard of the arguments that he made that are very much dependent on a certain kind of modern history, which is that the fittest survive.
So I suspect that you need all of us, and that one of the important historical arguments I would jettison is Darwinism, and in particular what it entails-- the idea that some of us are more fit than others. Some of us surely are more fit than others.
That progress is-- I'm not very fit, this is why I say this-- the progress results from a loss of particular traits that are called by evolution. And obviously, culling is a big feature of this life raft debate.
So I want to jettison that and maybe move forward to a kind of future-minded argument, which I think Mason Peck also touched on. The first assumption that people make about historians is that we talk about the past.
One of the key features of this life raft debate is, of course, the folks on the life raft get to live. And one of the goals is to rebuild society. So the question really is, what do you need for this future?
When we think about history, we often think that it's a story about the past. It's a story of victors, right? Victors getting the right to tell the story. That historians work on old events and dusty archives, examining the lives of long-dead people.
There is surely a lot of comfort for those of us who are historians that the people we study are no longer living because they don't talk back, but you are going to talk back today, right?
And you're going to vote for one of us, so I'm going to welcome that opportunity.
I think the thing that I would clarify is that, of course, history is a discipline that's intended to narrate the past, but it's also a discipline that is intended to narrate the past for a future that has, in the words that Mason Peck used, aspirations, for a future imaginary that explains how we got to where we are.
When we talk about the past, we often think that the past wasn't modern. And, of course, history is very much a modern discipline. It's a discipline that's modern because it anticipates what's new. So yesterday is obviously different from the day before. This year is different from last year.
This decade is different from the decade that precedes it.
It's an important thing to think with that only modern people think that they have a history. Because what they can imagine is a future that's different from today.
On the subject of being future-minded, one of the things that we recognized is that we have a future. And if you're going to take me on the life raft, I'll explain to you exactly why your past means that you're going to have the kind of future that you will have, and I think that's an important reason to think about history as a discipline that's not frozen in time but one that changes, particularly engagement with others.
If you want to rebuild society, you need a history. And in particular, you need a history that's usable for all of the people that are on the lifeboat, not just the people who survive. Not just the people who were the fittest not just the most powerful, but of course, all of the people that needed to survive on this life raft.
You need to think about the needs of a community and society that you hope to rebuild so that you can give everyone in their community and society a history or a past that they can feel proud of. And I'll give you just one example-- so [? Thev ?] reminded me that I work on gender, which, if you work on gender in South Asia, sometimes it seems like not a very happy story.
There are all kinds of figures that I'm sure you've heard of-- the really massively imbalanced gender ratio in many parts of South Asia and also in parts of East Asia, the sexual assaults that have taken place in recent years against a range of women, the likelihood that women in South Asia will be undernourished, undereducated, illiterate, and so on and so forth.
If we were going to tell history in the kind of old-fashioned sense, we wouldn't in the old fashioned sense. By this I mean in the Darwinian sense, we wouldn't be telling the history of gender or the history of women. But of course, if we are future-minded, which I think historians are, we try to include everybody, from women, children, disabled, people with not heteronormative sexual lifestyles, and the goal, I think, in thinking about history as creating a narrative for the future is to think about how all of these people that have long existed need a past that they can refer to.
I think I have about two minutes. So I'm going to end with the story of a kind of failure-- not a really dramatic failure, but a kind of failure-- because I think it's important to talk about failures as well as successes. E. H. Carr, who's a very famous political scientist but also a specialist in Soviet studies, wrote this book in 1964, just as the Cold War was at its peak, I guess.
He worked on Soviet studies, and he wrote this book called What Is History?
And what he noted was that history is for optimists. Much like engineering is for optimists, history is for optimists. Because historians should imagine the way to produce peace, justice, prosperity, equality, for all of his subjects.
He placed his optimism in communism. And of course, we have a sense that didn't work out terribly well-- not poorly, but not terribly well. But in some sense, one of the things the Carr's lesson to us leaves us with is the idea that we should be thinking optimistically about the future when we think about what kind of history we want to write.
I'm just going to end with a lighthearted story, partially because I do do work on South Asia and I'm sure some of you have seen the film Life of Pi, which is about a boat and a boy and a tiger and some other animals. It's a classic Darwinian story, right?
The biggest animal survives. But in the end, of course, the boy survives. And the reason we know that the boy survives is because the man tells the history of his life. It's a very important framework for thinking about why a kind of Darwinian struggle isn't particularly helpful in the future, because it's not especially inclusive.
I'm not going to say you should take me on your boat because I am not the fittest here, but I will leave you with the thought about what kind of future you would like to narrate for yourselves as you rebuild the community that will surely result when you survive. Thank you.
Thanks Professor Ghosh. Professor Levitsky.
PROFESSOR DAVID LEVITSKY: Well, thank you. And I understand this endeavor is about life. And I can't think of anything more intimately close to life than my discipline of nutrition.
We could start with the fundamental idea that what nutrition is was really chemistry. But it's not theoretical chemistry, it's really applied chemistry. It really is understanding how life can take photons coming down from a sun into plants, how we can consume this. How the body can strip away that little packet of energy that was given there by the sun and use that to energize every muscle, every gland, every neuron in our body. It's miraculous. One cannot conceive of these kinds of reactions without glorifying life itself.
Nutrition is about physiology. Nutrition is about understanding how we can take a product from the outside world-- some food that we find somewhere-- that food that is coated with all kinds of junk you don't want to know about. But as soon as we take that food and we put it into our mouth, we start destroying all those things that can impede us.
We swallow it. We put it in our stomach where everything is going to be destroyed except the nutrients. It's going to be carried. It's going to be carried, and it's going to be taken up by the rest of the body and used for fuel and for survival.
Nutrition is about systems. You can't understand how nutrition works unless you understand all these fantastically operating systems in the body-- how we can take things like a carbohydrate out of the food that we eat, and we can take it and put it into our bloodstream and hold that glucose within a very narrow limit. And if it starts to move from that limit, we have hundreds of mechanisms that take place that relays that to keep it back within its proper zone. For if glucose goes to high, it's going to destroy us. Glucose is an oxidizer of our tissue, and we won't let it. But if glucose goes too low, our brains don't function.
And so our bodies have evolved over thousands and thousands of years mechanisms that hold this glucose within a fairly narrow limit.
But nutrition is also dedicated to figuring out, what happens when these systems go bad? So, what happens in the diabetic? Why can't the diabetic hold that glucose within normal limit, and what happens when it gets out of synchrony? So when glucose goes up, why does the diabetic become blind? Why does a diabetic lose feelings in limbs? We understand that by understanding the physiology that underlies the transport and the regulation of nutrients within our body.
And once we understand why the pathology occurs, we know how to treat it. We know how to treat diabetes. We've known that for a couple hundred years now. Well, not a couple hundred years, but 100 years, at least. We can treat it very well, and we're always coming up with better drugs because we now understand the fundamental principle that is maintaining life within the body itself.
We know what happens when we don't think about what we're eating for long periods of time. We know that we will deteriorate. We know exactly why we deteriorate. We know why just living is going to lead to heart disease, to diabetes, to stroke, and why it's going to kill us. But knowing this, we know what to do about preserving life. So we know what kind of diet we can tell you to eat to maintain life, despite all the thousands of diet books that are out there telling you, eat different things.
We do know. There is a unanimous agreement within nutrition what kind of diet you should eat. And it's not eating at McDonald's either. But it is understanding why eating certain foods in combinations will maximize your life because that's what nutrition is about-- life and maximizing it.
We can't consume nutrients unless we eat, and eating is common to all of us. Nutrition tells us about eating, what controls our eating. Nutrition tells us the importance of things like culture in eating, how it determines the kinds of foods we're going to love for the rest of our life. It's going to tell us about how other disciplines affect eating. How economics affect, drastically, how much we eat.
We starve, not because there's a lack of food, but because there's warring parties out there. They cut off food supplies. We suffer the ravages of poverty. Its nutritional effects are caused through the poverty, not by poverty itself. But the nutritional problems are a result of poverty.
We can understand history, the history of the evolution of cooking and what dramatic changes it occurred in civilization as a function of the fact that we can grow our food and we can produce our food and manufacture all kinds of foods in different ways.
We understand the full heartiness of food. There are thousands of advertisements out there to get you to eat all kinds of things as if it were a miracle. But by understanding fundamentals of nutrition, we can understand what's crap and what we should be doing.
And nutrition is about pleasure, the pleasure of eating. The pleasure of eating foods-- now, we're fortunate enough to get from all over the world. We can partake in different cultures. We him enjoy and fully embody the pleasure there is in eating.
Nutrition is about life, and that's why we should survive by keeping nutrition on board. Thank you.
SPEAKER 2: And to round out the first round, we have Professor Nelson.
PROFESSOR NELSON: I'm going to start with a joke, because that's what everybody expects from the devil's advocate. So, this job is interesting. The devil comes to me and says, will you be my advocate in this Cornell life raft debate?
So, I'm like, OK, but I want to see hell. Bring me down there. And I go down there. It was different than I thought. It was hot and miserable and all that, but there were clocks everywhere. All over the place clocks, clocks.
And I'm like, what are these clocks?
Well, one of these clocks matches up to a group of people that do a certain thing. And we measure their hubris-- by hubris, you know, their stuck-upness, their self-importance, their thinking that they're all that-- and so we have different rooms that we bring people and we're monitoring them with these clocks. One of the great ways to get to hell is to have a lot of hubris.
So I'm like, oh, show me around. And I go in that room and I'm like, who's in that room?
They're like, bakers. And the clocks are kind of moving kind of slow, right? I guess they go faster depending on how much hubris you have. Right?
So I'm like, oh that's interesting.
And then they're like, OK. Take me to another room.
And I'm like, what's that?
And the clock is moving pretty quick.
And I'm like, who is that?
That's professional athletes. They have a lot of hubris.
And I'm like, hey, I'm a professor-- where do you keep the professors' room?
Oh, we use that as the fan room. That's where it's like air conditioned and it's going around super fast and that keeps everybody nice and cool. And the point of the joke-- thank you for the few people that snickered-- was that hubris is a big problem with every single one of these groups, except for the history professor, who is a genius, who is like, don't take me.
So when you're making your decision, do not fall for reverse psychology. Right?
And just be like, yes, I agree with you. We won't take you. Thank you very much. We wouldn't want to bother you. So that leaves everyone else.
So I'm going to do a quick analysis of the debate thus far. And I'll go relatively quickly, but you'll be able to understand me because I will speak English.
Too and we don't have an English-- we have a guy that started English and then he took the wrong path down engineering and I'll talk about in specifics.
So I'm going to do a goal's analysis starting off. There's three things that we need to be concerned about in terms of goals. One is the devil's goal. Here, I'm the devil's advocate. Here's what our goal is, me and the devil-- to make sure that hell seems to be the worst place. If, right now, after this terrible apocalypse-- where maybe these people in this life raft are the only people left-- it's possible Earth could be worse than hell, right? This is bad for business for the devil. This is called dissing the devil. Devil wants to have the worst place.
It's possible, if you pick one of these people, you will actually make Earth worse than hell. And I'll explain why. Also you have a stake in this because you want to make a good decision and you probably want Earth to be better. Remember, some terrible thing happened to get us in this place. Just by prima facie evidence, all of them failed. We live in an apocalypse right now. Right?
We didn't learn the lessons from history. Our philosophy didn't help us, right? Right? Our nutrition-- that really helps us a lot now. I'm sure glad we're getting those five letters coming down from that satellite as we said on this-- failures, OK?
And then, what are their goals? Number one-- they have self-preservation, right? They want to live, except for the history person.
And they have that hubris that I talked about.
So let's get into the specifics.
First of all, let's talk about the engineer.
Now, the engineer is a space engineer. Like-- he worked for NASA. OK? You're on a lifeboat. You don't have the things you need to make that little satellite that's going to be shooting the five-letter words down at you. You need food. You need water. You need survival. Right?
This guy is likely to be killed the first day by an angry mob when he starts trying to build a satellite. OK?
Now, let's go to the philosopher. The philosopher has a lot of hubris, and he's an expert on Plato.
And Plato was one of the most hubristic human beings ever to live. He was like, I'm the smartest person to live now and ever in the future. I better write all this down. So, he actually had a theory. In Plato's Republic, Socrates advocates telling lies to the masses in order to convince them to control complacent and make people complacent with pre-assigned roles like, you're made on a certain metals. You're gold. You get to do this. You're silver. You get to do this.
And so lying is not a good thing. And that's basically what philosophy is. In fact, it's lying to yourself. The French philosopher Camus said, "human beings aren't rational. They're rationalizing". The rationalizing part is the philosophy. A rational person would say, I'm here. I need to get here. How do I do that?
A rationalizing person-- i.e. a philosopher-- says, I'm here, why is that OK?
OK, I've dealt with the history professor. The one thing about history I'll just mention very quickly-- I'd like to hear your comments on this-- is that history-- historians always say, study history or you'll be doomed to repeat it. We are living in an apocalyptic state. It doesn't seem like it works. This is our second chance. Let's not repeat those same things.
Plus, you can never predict what will happen again. Even she said during her speech, you know, this guy wrote this great book. He was an important historian, and it just didn't work. No. And he was a good historian. Think of all the bad ones.
Now, the last person I want to talk about is the nutritionist. I only have a little bit of time left. But I did a little research, because I don't know a lot about our nutrition. I eat all my meals at McDonald's. But I went and found this guy named Edward Archer, who just published an article in an important nutrition magazine that I don't subscribe to.
And in 2013-- and this is his conclusion-- he's talking about the field of nutrition-- "But by not training mentees in the basics of science and skepticism, the nutrition field has fostered the use of measures that are so profoundly dissonant with scientific principles that they will never yield a conclusion. The subjective data perpetuates a never-ending cycle of ambiguous findings leading to ever more federal funding. The field has been perpetuating fraud against the US taxpayers for more than 40 years."
Pretty damning. Ooh, who is he? Says here, he's a nutritionist working at the University of Alabama. They have one honest nutritionist. He has probably eaten by cannibals afterwards. So that's what I have to say so far. Thank you very much.
SPEAKER 2: We're going to take a quick two-minute break. So feel free to gather your thoughts and then we'll start the next round.
All right, I think we're ready to start the next round. This time, we're going to have our professors speaking from the table, now that they're a little more intimate with one another. So, without further ado, Professor Peck will start.
PROFESSOR MASON PECK: Well, thanks. I want to first point out that the life raft is nowhere near full. I feel like there's plenty of room for everybody, should not be an issue. But OK, assuming that's not the rules of the game-- I will also point out there's next extra life jacket right here. So that means two of us. We're covered. Even then, let me offer a couple of other rebuttals.
And we heard this a couple of times from the devil's advocate, the notion that a lot of our statements are self-serving. They're about self-preservation. I mean that's kind of self-evident, isn't it? In the nature of this debate, that we're all going to frame our assertions in the form of, please save me? It is going to come that way. I assume you're smart enough to filter that sort of thing out. And my assumption, I think, gives you a bit more credit than the devil's advocate gave you.
And for that reason alone, I think you might want to think about our arguments a little bit more sincerely than his.
I expect you're intelligent enough to filter that sort of thing out, and I also expect you're intelligent enough to filter out the disingenuous claims that you might have heard along the lines of, I don't really want to live but I'll do it as a favor to you, which you heard once or twice in this whole thing.
I think I'd rather you think about the bigger picture, and what it means to have the discipline on board than the individual person representing the discipline. So the ad hominem comments probably shouldn't make much difference to you, although I will add along those lines, I come with extra calories already. So I can offer something along those lines that may be of interest beyond the nutritionist's own perspective.
Some of our folks here would be happier when dead. I think you can help them out with that sort of thing and you should feel free to act on that recommendation. I won't make it myself. I'll also offer a rebuttal to this notion, you know, what would be the point of reproduction?
I assert that if your goal here is to survive as a species-- if you are the last people on the planet-- reproduction should be at least somewhat in the agenda. You know, it does come up from time to time in repopulating the earth. And if that's important to you-- maybe it's not-- but if that's important to you, you might want to reject the philosophical perspective, which is questioning the value of reproduction and other more terrestrial concerns.
And you go and answer that later.
PROFESSOR RACHANA KAMTEKAR: I will.
PROFESSOR MASON PECK: OK. So we heard a little bit about hubris. That is the nature, again, of the debate. I will offer, though, that maybe beyond the kind of classic hubris that you heard among the four of us, there's also phrases like, I know what you're all thinking. You heard that a couple of times as well.
One of the things engineering brings is a degree of, I'll call it, objectivity I think, a respect for an unbiased perspective, rather than one that is the foundation for legalistic arguments. Those of you who might be going into law, for example pre-law or something like this-- you might choose to major in English or philosophy precisely because it prepares you to make those kinds of one-sided arguments.
Engineering is not about the one-sidedness. It's about the greater good. And I argue that even though philosophy-- that is, the subject of study of philosophy, that's the point, maybe-- of philosophy. Where it's practiced is in the engineering discipline.
So among our speakers, we had two that went over time. And I will suggest that if your priorities are survival, you want people to take seriously the use of resources. Including time, perhaps, as a resource. So I think you could probably strike the philosopher and the devil's advocate directly off the list just on the basis of going over time. I think that. You make your own decision.
In regard to history, I will say that, although, clearly you need to leave space in the life raft for the engineer, it's probably worth giving the extra life preserver to the historian. I agree with a lot of her positions. I will point out, though, the same thing the devil's advocate did, which is that history has led us to this point. There is an unhappy tradition in rejecting history. The Chinese cultural revolution and lots of other things where we reject history at our own peril, and bad things result.
But history and even books that purport to have divine origins, they have let us down an awkward path in the past, right? There's been plenty of destruction and sort of petty destructiveness that's been the result of some of the thinking that goes under the guise of objectivity. So I wish we could leave a lot of that behind, and I wouldn't be too sad to see some of the ideas from the past stay behind. Of course, we might find them again, but as you heard from the devil's advocate, history repeats itself all the time. It hasn't seemed to help.
It's a good thing that the ancient Polynesians and the Inuits had a professional nutritionists, because without them, you couldn't possibly base a culture on the consumption of bare fat or taro root-- or maybe you could, I don't know, maybe you could. My point being there that there are uses for professions.
One thing that the engineering perspective brings, as I tried to argue, is this notion of objectivity of an unbiased approach to problem solving. We do this thing where we weight different options. They're called trade studies or trade-off analyses.
When I do this with my wife, it kind of drives her nuts. By the way, she's dead. She died in the zombie apocalypse. But if I could bring her along, she would find it irritating the way I do this. You know, if we're trying to decide what kind of house to buy I'll create a large matrix of properties and assign them weights with numbers. And yeah, there's no end to the fun that she can make of that, but we do get a good house as a result.
And I will offer that we could get a good raft, a good hut, a good bit of farmland, a good choice of crops and so forth, by looking at problems the way that an engineer looks at problems, which is not on the basis of what would make us feel happiest, but rather what would make us the most successful in an unbiased way.
So I will conclude there, with my time remaining. Thanks.
PROFESSOR RACHANA KAMTEKAR: Well, since the engineer is so economical with his use of time, he can give me his extra minutes and then I can say the really important things that I have to say as a philosopher.
So you've heard from a couple of people how important it is, as you face your future, that you be optimistic. Well, think hard about what's going to ground that optimism. It's got to be a life worth living. Engineers can solve problems, but what are the problems? What are the problems? They can make you a good hut-- that means a hut to live in. A hut to live in to do what?
Nutrition-- that's something you need, but you need-- human beings like yourself need food. You need to live and move in order to do something-- something that befits you as human beings. So, I ended by saying that philosophy was so important to you precisely because it's so useless.
And maybe you're thinking, hey, this doesn't make sense. I'm actually a little disappointed that the devil's advocate didn't notice this-- but you might think, well, she's saying on the one hand that philosophy tells you what the good is that you should get in your life. And on the other hand, she's saying philosophy is useless.
Well, if it tells you how to live and it tells you what a good life is, surely that's useful. So I'm sure you have noticed this apparent contradiction. However, it is only an apparent contradiction. For human beings-- for human beings-- asking and answering what Guy Noir calls "life's persistent questions" is the thing that makes you fulfilled.
It's the thing that answers the very distinctive nature that humans beings have, which is a nature that enables us to reason, rationalize, but also seek to know the truth. Not just how to make stuff, but how to make stuff that will make us objectively happy. And don't confuse the engineer's facts and figures for objectivity.
Philosophy is all about objectivity.
So let me just review for you the questions that are life's persistent questions, the questions you as human beings-- because you're rational-- will ask, whether you're thirsty on that life raft or you have all your basic needs met.
Here are questions that you're no strangers to. What if everything you're experiencing is an illusion, and how things really are is completely different from how you experience them? What difference would it make if I found out that this was the case?
What happens if you die on your life raft? Is it just your body that's going to die, or is something of you going to survive? Is the thing that survives going to be really you? You might all be thinking, look, that's all this aerial speculation.
Why does it matter for us? Our goal is survival.
But if you think about it-- poor people, hungry people, homeless people asks philosophical questions. Children ask philosophical questions. You may be too panicked to ask philosophical questions right now, but your children will ask those questions.
And just as we know that it's important when a child is hungry-- the nutritionist will tell us, when a child is hungry you shouldn't give it Coke-- you should give it milk and carrots because that's what nourishes the child's body. When our philosophical nature is starved, when we're hungry as thinkers, as reasoners, we shouldn't leave it to the sham and discouraging answers that say, oh, there's only technical questions and we can solve them by technical means.
Or people who might say, well, it's all relative. It depends on your perspective what the truth is. We need philosophy to be objective and to tell us what we're trying to survive for and to answer our deep, deep need to reason about the world and our place in it.
And so not for my sake, but for your sake, you're going to take me on this life raft.
PROFESSOR DURBA GHOSH: So, I don't want to be accused of lacking hubris or being disingenuous. So I did use reverse psychology and I do want to go on the life raft. Having said that, let me just start by saying there were some shared features in some of the things that we all said.
I think we're all academics in our fields because we're problem solvers. I think we are all very, very optimistic people because we want to imagine a future that's better than the one that we have right now.
I think we're all very, very interested in objectivity, although I'll talk about that in a second.
And perhaps most importantly, we're all really interested in systems and the idea that systems work as a whole, right? And that one person might make a really big difference in their moment in their time. But that a lot depends on what's going on in their larger communities, in their larger societies, in that moment in history.
So let me maybe tell you about why it's important to historicize all of the things that we've talked about. And maybe this will give you a sense, both of what's important about each of you individually, but what's also important in thinking about you as members of a community that produce particular kinds of outcomes and effects.
So we talked a little bit about objectivity and being unbiased. And of course, one of the big things that historians would argue is that there are a lot of objective facts out there about the past.
I'm sure the apocalypse has come about because of something that historians-- historians don't often predict the future, but yes, history does repeat itself. And so something went wrong in the apocalypse.
But of course, we also think of apocalypses or catastrophes as historically produced in a particular moment. And so I want to think a little bit about why it's important to think about this moment as a moment in history that's been produced by particular kinds of factors.
Professor Kamtekar asked this question, should we beg? And of course, it's important to historicize the question of morality.
In some communities and societies, people do beg, and people do go begging. We're very lucky, and so I think it's important that we not beg, because begging means that somebody else doesn't get on the life raft.
It's very, very important to think about history in this particular moment in a post-Darwinian moment as being inclusive, as being democratic, as being community-minded, as encompassing all different kinds of people of aspirations, of hopes, of fears, of anxieties. And in that sense, I would say that history is a particularly modern kind of discipline that you need in the future.
We also talked a little bit about nutrition, and I think nutrition is so important.
A couple of my students said that the nutritionist was handicapped to win today. And I would take the nutritionist on board as well. I think one of the things that I would just say-- again, nutrition seems like it should be so objective, right? It's very clear what we should eat and not eat. I ate a lot of cookies for lunch today just because I wanted to and I fed my children soda because they're home on spring break.
It's terrible. It's terrible. But you know what? It's historically produced, of course, because soda and cookies didn't exist for large parts of the population. They don't exist for large parts of the population, and so it's very important to historicize something even as objective as nutrition.
Finally, the idea of reproduction came up. And since we are going to have to reproduce in this new society, I'm going to make the gendered argument here that certain people or certain kinds of people are thinking more about reproduction than others. And so this is an argument against, probably, the four of us-- that really, you need people that are younger and fitter than us.
And so, professors it turns out, tend to be particularly unfit and old by the time we finish our PhDs.
Go for a post-doc. That's what I would recommend.
So next year, get a line up of post-docs. They are much more a sign of the future then I think faculty tend to be. Get a graduate student. Get an undergraduate.
I think in some sense, one of the things that's very important-- and I'll just conclude on a note of what our shared characteristics are-- is we're all optimists. We're all optimists who are committed to having a very promising future.
That's why we invested our careers in the fields that we did. History, I think, has a lot to answer for in a not very positive way. But I do think I want to keep in mind all those historians who write history, because they want to think about how to put together the details and the facts of the past to imagine a different kind of future. So I'll end there.
PROFESSOR DAVID LEVITSKY: OK. We're trying to figure out survival. And there are five of us here, and four of us have to go.
I'm not sure of four of us, but I think the first person that has to go is the devil's advocate.
I think his arguments were totally illogical. I think it's really easy to tear down things. It's much more difficult to create. And for that iota of creation that all for us I think put forth, we should survive and our critics should swim.
I can't make any argument why engineering is worse or history is worse or philosophy is worse than nutrition.
I think nutrition encompasses-- and in fact, needs-- all of these disciplines. It is constructive. We are trying to figure out ways how we can best survive, how we can make everybody best survive. How we can survive with the least suffering. Again, it involves many disciplines besides the four disciplines that are represented here.
It represents a need for all kinds of aspects, for political scientists, for economists. The economic system that we're living under is really the cause of the nutritional problems that we see today. And that economic system has got to be understood-- not just the way it works, but how do we get in and change it.
It's causing us to eat all the crap that that's being sold in many aisles in [? Wegman's, ?] and it really is forcing us to eat.
And I won't talk about the mechanisms, but there are lots of data showing that just watching commercials makes you eat food. And that this is not good.
Particularly, all the diseases that we see today emanate from the very fact that we eat more than we need.
That's what causes weight gain. It's not magic. It's simply eating more.
Food companies are out to sell us those extra calories. That's how they make their food.
So when we say, you've got to stop it, that's not good enough. We need that political scientists. We need the economists. We need the historians to tell us, what is the best way of getting it. We've faced these kinds of situations before. We've mastered it.
We need the philosopher. I start of my course-- I teach the introductory course here in nutrition. And I tell them that I will tell you the second most important thing to live in life itself. And I will tell you how to live the best life, mechanically, what foods to eat, how the exercise, what kinds of exercise do, to live the longest and healthiest life you can. But I can't answer the most important question-- only the philosopher can tell you that. Why should I live the healthiest life?
So I think you need all of us. And I'm for all for one, and we go with all of us.
I think nutrition is a fantastic discipline, that it really encompasses all other disciplines within itself. And it's necessary to understand all these different disciplines in order to get the best out of nutrition.
So I think I will rest my case. Thank you.
PROFESSOR SAMUEL NELSON: OK. I'm going to refute each of the speakers as they came through and convince you to let them all drown. And that's kind of the nature of this game-- some of the participants don't understand this. I'm not in the boat. I'm just a devil's advocate, right? I'm not trying to live. I don't have any stake in this game. I'm going to live no matter what.
But I'm representing the devil and telling them why they shouldn't be able to stay-- why, when you start your new society-- you're in the boat-- you wouldn't want them along. That's the game.
And the argument-- I'm going to start with the engineer, first of all.
So during his rebuttal, he said a couple of things that were very interesting.
First of all, he said he irritates his wife, and then he explained how he did it in almost like a torturous way. He's like, oh, you want a new house? Let me make a spreadsheet. Let me show all the different ways. And you notice she's not around anymore. He actually talked about her death. Who knows why? Maybe she started this whole calamity anyway.
I guaranteeing you-- if you pick this guy, he's dead in a short period of time. He does seem like the kind of guy I'd like to go out with a beer with, but while I'm drinking the beer, he's telling me the rate of the consumption, right? The milliliters that are going down my throat and at what level, and what the beer is made out of.
The nutritionist will come up later and tell me I should be doing that, but these kind of people-- and he admits this whole-heartily-- are different. Yes, that's why engineers, right, generally don't go into those things, those kind of activities that require social skills. The reason why is, they drive people nuts, right?
He will admit that. He's kind of proud of it. He's like, I irritate my wife. Right? Yay!
So you don't want someone with this kind of attitude. And that goes back to the first argument that I made when I spoke about hubris. They know that what they're doing is wrong but they still do it.
Also, did you notice he pointed-- hey, the devil's advocate went over time by 30 seconds. Ignore everything! Way to think out of the box! OK.
Now let's go on to the navel-gazing philosopher. Right?
She ends her speech by saying it was useless. I thought I was being polite by not pointing out, hey, this is not a very good argument. Right? That you're saying that your whole discipline is useless?
But then I made a very important argument that goes undenied. I said that Camus, a philosopher of such, said that human beings are rational. They're rationalizing. And then I said everybody does it.
Then she came and responded to my argument by saying, yes. Everybody can philosophize. Duh? We don't need you.
Right? Everybody will do it. The nature of human beings is that we philosophize. We can't stop it. We don't need an expert. We'll figure it out on our own.
So that's just a waste of a spot, right?
And then, the next-- and just another thing about the philosopher. She talked about objectivity, right? But philosophers themselves can't agree on anything. Even philosophers on this campus can't decide whether what they're studying is right or wrong. The discipline is the most chaotic of any of them.
I doubt that this particular philosopher that studies Plato is interested in anything that Slavoj Zikek-- from wherever he's teaching at this moment-- right? Or some other post-modern philosopher, she's not interested in his ramblings, right?
So that's just the thing. Philosophers can't agree on anything. If you don't want to agree, then get a philosopher.
But philosophers can't agree.
Then I go to history. History is tricky. She's playing a Jedi mind trick on you.
I'm not 100% sure what's going on here, but I feel a little woozy trying to follow her logic.
At one point, she admitted to forcing her kids to eat cookies-- or she ate the cookies, and she gave soda to her kids. Right? And I heard these words come out of her mouth-- get a under-graduate for reproductive purposes.
My fantasy is always, when someone makes that argument, that President Skorton walks in. Right as she's saying that.
What the hell is going on here?
With like a group of religious leaders or something.
So, again. I'm mystified. I don't think we need this kind of confusion.
And then I want to talk about the nutritionist, because the nutritionist scares me a little bit in a lot of different ways.
Because the nutritionist-- first of all, made an argument, let's save everybody.
Again, that shows a lack of understanding of what the game's about. You get to pick one. And then the nutritionist also attacked me and said I should in.
That's part of the game-- I don't get to be picked.
I'm not in the boat, right? I don't get to go in the boat because I'm not going to add anything. But that doesn't mean my arguments are bad. It's OK to be the critical thinker. It's OK to think for yourself. It's OK to say, look mighty professors-- I don't agree with you. You're not all that.
But they'll say, but we're professors. Were here at Cornell University. You're not supposed to think for yourself. You're empty vessels. You're mere college students. Your little pea brains are nothing compared to our great mighty Nobel-winning brains, right? How dare you challenge our thoughts!
But I say something different. I say, I'm the devil's advocate, and I say tell professors to go to hell. I say, tell them we don't need you. We can think on our own. You cannot intimidate us into putting you in the life boat and taking over our new future world.
We know what you old guys lead us to, you old men and women led us to. You lead us to an apocalyptic future that we are in right now.
The history person said, you're right, we can't predict the future. But I can eat cookies.
Don't fall for that argument. I know it's tempting. Right? Don't fall for it.
Say, I'm sorry, you didn't measure up, even by the engineer's standards of using some kind of laser beam to do the measurement. You just did not measure up and I'm going to reject the idea that any of you should be part of this new world that doesn't let others think for us. Instead, we're going to start a world where we think for ourselves. Thank you.
SPEAKER 2: We're going to have everyone just cast their vote now, then pass their ballots into the center aisle, which we'll collect and vote.
All right, everyone. Before we announce the winner, I'd just like to take the chance to give another round of applause for our distinguished panel.
Logos would also like to thank the philosophy department for their generous support which made this event possible, and also thank each and every one of you for voting who gets to stay on the life raft.
Without any further ado-- in a very close race-- the winner is the devil's advocate, Professor Nelson, which means that no one gets in the life raft. So-- second?
PROFESSOR SAMUEL NELSON: I lied.
PROFESSOR RACHANA KAMTEKAR: Congratulations.
PROFESSOR MASON PECK: Well played, sir.
SPEAKER 2: Professor Peck came in second.
And in third, Kamtekar. Philosophy.
All right. Thank you, everyone, for coming.
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Professors from five Cornell departments argued the merits of their academic disciplines April 15, 2014 in a hypothetical life or death situation at the fourth annual Life Raft Debate sponsored by Logos, Cornell's undergraduate philosophy club and journal.
Participants: Durba Ghosh, history; Mason Peck, mechanical and aerospace engineering; David Levitsky, nutritional sciences; Rachana Kamtekar, philosophy; and the Devil's Advocate, Sam Nelson, forensics.