In my last post I pondered the question of an unexamined life and I hope to further that discussion here. To recap, the unexamined life, as Plato describes it through the mouth of Socrates, contains three elements. First, it has no regard for the value, either good or bad, of an action. Second, it places personal comforts or properties above the betterment of one’s soul. Third, it has no foundation of reflection, virtue, or determination with which to complete the race of life. As I venture further to answer this question, it requires an examination of the different factors within our society and our humanity that help or hinder our quest. If one desires to live the examined life, he or she must first be able to analyze thoughts and actions and make judgments about them. This requires three things: (1) the ability to think critically, (2) an understanding, at least in some degree, of the scope of these actions, and (3) a standard by which to judge. Specialization deals mostly with point two, but I will address it within all three.
Point 1: Thinking Critically.
Critical thinking challenges us to climb the ladder of examination, looking for weaknesses in ideas. Ideas are composed of premises and conclusions. Therefore, evaluation of their reasonableness requires, at least, a rudimentary understanding of the rules of logic. Understanding the differences between sound and unsound arguments, formal and informal fallacies, and necessary and sufficient conditionals will be invaluable as we examine the foundations of our thoughts and begin to rebuild them with Truth. Those of us who have been reared in the public school system will find critical thinking frustrating. Having never been trained in the art of dialectic, it will quickly vex our mental faculties. Like the weight-lifter starting a regimen, we must begin small. If we endeavor too large a task too quickly we will break our spirit and our determination with it. Specialization fights this current. Its whispers tell us we need not understand Philosophy or Logic. The philosopher will handle those trades. However, without the ability to determine whether an idea or action is right, we can never live the examined life.
Point 2: Scope of our Actions.
The ripples in the pond will last long after the pebble has sunk to the bottom. The same holds true with our actions. The effects they leave behind linger far beyond actual time of happening. Therefore, we must not only analyze the immediate effects but also the lasting ones. I understand our inability to foresee all consequences, but any attempt will be better than nothing. Yet again, specialization tries to narrow our view of life to the point of insignificance. Imagine a highly specialized, industrial society which contains:
a mass of workers below and a small group of elite, who are themselves technicians, at the top. The workers are likely not to know what they are producing, and the managers likely not to care. Division of labor may become so minute that it is impossible for the individual to grasp the ethical implications of his task, even if he were disposed to try. . . There could be no better example of this than the atomic-bomb project of the United States in the second World War. At Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a force of seventy thousand persons labored at an undertaking who nature they knew little or nothing about; in fact, wartime propaganda has been so effective that they took pride in their ignorance and boasted it as a badge of honor or as a sign of co-operation–in what?1
In the most horrendous slaughter of noncombatants never before contemplated. Would these individuals have stopped their work on the project had they known? Would they have considered the ethical implications of their actions? Would you?
Point 3: Standards.
This topic will be covered in much more detail as time passes, but necessity dictates I mention a few points here. For those who say “There are no absolutes.” or “Everything is relative.” I simply ask, “Is that an absolute statement?” and watch their position crumble. There are standards, but the difficultly comes in finding them. For help along the way, I point you to C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. Learning more about the nature of ultimate reality will lead us to better definitions and tangible concepts of truths and values which often remain obscure in an unexamined life. Also, I do not believe it necessary to find air-tight definitions of these absolute standards, but simply solid working definitions which greatly improve our ability to navigate through the murky waters of human thought. Here the impact of specialization should be obvious. Just as in point two, if we relegate the tasks of seeking, finding, and proclaiming Truth and standards to a select group of individuals, not only do they lose accountability; we will lose the means by which to properly determine our course of action. We will be left tossing upon the waves of trend, culture, and relativism; when instead we should be throwing life-preservers to those who are drowning in the sea of uncertainty.
In conclusion, specialization is not the worst error of our time. It has not, nor will, cause the downfall of society, and we have reaped many great benefits from intense, possibly even obsessive, devotion to specialized fields. However, it causes us to become entrenched in the minute world of details. Losing sight of the larger picture, we see “our little corner of the world” through a constantly narrowing lens. This tunnel vision hinders the ability to think abstractly and synthesize thoughts. We need to return to center; toward the inter-connectedness of ideas and disciplines and away from the periphery of specifics. Returning to a more balanced view of life will result in a better understanding of the world around us. “Specialization develops only part of a man; a man partially developed is deformed; and one deformed is the last person to be thought of as a ruler; so runs the irresistible logic of the position.2” Where should we draw the line on specialization? How can we become more generalized and broad our base of knowledge? Is it even a big issue? Think about it.