This is a cross-post from my Substack:

I take it as axiomatic that imagination breaks the path which reason follows. Imagination is not the unique preserve of the arts and humanities, of course, but there are things that cannot be accounted for without the humanities. Just take a common sense, market-based view: why would we put so much time and resource into perpetuating the humanities if they had no useful function?

Humanities alone are inadequate. Many literature graduates lack the “mental models” of social science disciplines and many novelists and writers are not very good for that reason. But Mill was correct that logic and poetry together make the true philosophy. This is what many in EA lack and it is why Eliezer is such an… idiosyncratic thinker. The world cannot be simplified to analytic thinking alone.

So, we cannot make such a clean separation between narrative and analytic thinking as Plato does when he expels the poets. Narrative can distort logic—just read the news, or Eliezer’s story about his daughter—but there are things that can only be understood individually or idiosyncratically. The first principle of evolution is near infinite variation in the species. At some point, we need to account for this variation in the way we apply our general findings. If you want to understand how social norms actually operate, read Jane Austen.

The social criticism of Charles Dickens was worth as much as all the nineteenth century’s poverty data. Statistics alone cannot make you feel the truth of what it is like to be in jail, school, or an orphanage. Think too about the role of Harriet Beecher Stowe in the debate about slavery and the way it affected the whole of society. More prosaically, it’s absurd the extent to which The West Wing preoccupied (preoccupies?) the imaginations of a whole generation of political types. That is not a good thing, but it is undeniably real.

The humanities provides us with messy thought experiments that help us see ideas in context. Write all the think tank reports and op-eds you want, people pay more attention to Netflix, and are more likely to be influenced by the screen. What made more difference to the spread of Christianity—logical, doctrinal argument or the stories of the gospels? Are people more excited by the technical accomplishment of GPT or the way it can love-bomb a journalist?

At a certain point, you just cannot separate the two. Analytic thinking alone is not enough.

As George Eliot said,

The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment

Plato—the poets’ great enemy—quoted Homer and the dramatists. He is good at writing character and at staging arguments. Some of his most influential arguments are metaphors. The Socratic method is inherently dramatic or staged, relying on the “plot twist” of realising something Socrates had anticipated in his earlier questions. Sometimes analytic thinking is a narrative process.

We should work to make people more analytic but also accept that art is the closest thing to life and make better art.



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