The Fall of the Hume-anities

Last week, in my Philosophy of the Person class, I learned about the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume. As an empiricist (a philosopher who analyzed the external world), Hume concluded that radical skepticism about matters of fact—or rather, anything you can observe in the world—is useless. In other words, there’s no point in indulging those crazy theories of “what if nothing is real,” or “what if we’re all being controlled,” because even if they were true, there would be nothing we could do about it.

While sitting in class, I was reminded of all of the conspiracy theories that came out after Black Mirror released its interactive Netflix Original, Bandersnatch. Though the episode had many different plots and themes, the one that stuck out to me was the concept of choice. Throughout the course of the movie, the watcher makes choices for the protagonist, Stefan, who slowly realizes that he is being controlled. In the episode, this realization led to him gradually fighting against the watcher, while in real life, it prompted questions of if we are, in fact, all Stefan. For me, it prompted radical skepticism about matters of fact.

Originality is essentially extinct in the 21st century, and that’s not a bad thing: ideas need to build off other ideas in order to create truly thought-provoking stories. But the problem with this in fast entertainment is that the original source for such ideas—such as, perhaps, an 18th century philosopher—is not acknowledged. When you’re forced to analyze a novel in a high school English class, your teacher might focus specifically on mythological or Biblical allusions, but when you’re watching a movie by yourself in your dorm room, you do not have to consider any of the greater implications of the film.

There is, of course, a large audience of Black Mirror viewers who watch and love the series because it is so thought-provoking. Yet it’s not common knowledge where the inspiration for these ideas comes from, even though Black Mirror might be lauded as one of the most “original” franchises on Netflix.

That is not to say that Black Mirror writers are in any sense copying philosophers of the past or really that any show ever is not the original source of its own brilliance. Rather, I posit that the ideas that are appraised as authentic and creative today have already been contemplated centuries ago, and it is only our fast-paced, Netflix-centric world that does not know about them.

The resurgence of philosophical and psychological plots in modern television shows can mean one of two things for the humanities. The first would be that the liberal arts, which have become sequestered in the age of modern technology, will be fully appreciated as they once had been—in the time periods when philosophers like Hume lived. This is quite a far-fetched possibility, and therefore the less likely option, but it does not seem impossible.

Take, for example, The Good Place, a show about the afterlife and what it means to be a good person. The Good Place debuted on NBC in 2016 and has been renewed for four seasons now. The creator of the show, Michael Schur, specifically researched philosophers who contemplated virtue and vice.

It therefore makes sense that one of the protagonists is Chidi, a moral philosophy professor. From the first few episodes, Chidi teaches Eleanor about Aristotle, Kant, and Hume, and it would be difficult to argue that we as the audience do not learn anything alongside Eleanor. While the show is still fast entertainment, it provides a gateway for audiences that are genuinely interested in how to become better people.

The other possibility is that both universities and America in general will continue to disregard the humanities. The track of TV shows and instant gratification will continue without any care for questions about morality. Such a topic may be used as fodder for popular entertainment, but it will not, or rather cannot, be seriously considered because no one knows how to access the sources. And even if they did, no one would care enough to read through hundreds of pages about the meaning of virtue.

The reason why this matters at all is that common ideas from philosophy and even theology are the basis for the shows we enjoy most today. But if the actual source is neglected, then there can only be a proliferation of uninspiring, trite entertainment (Why do you think all movies are sequels nowadays?).

The idea of people “forgetting” the humanities is a projection into the far-off future. But even today, we can see implications of it in our world. Boston College is one of the few Jesuit institutions in America, and just about every other college student assumes that means we’re all Catholic. But in truth, it means we have opportunities to contemplate things like the philosophical implications of the latest Black Mirror episode. Because such options are not open to everyone—and even if they were, few would take them—most people will watch an episode and think it through  during the 15 seconds before the next one starts.