The word philosophy derived from the ancient Greek, philos and sophia, meaning “love” and “wisdom.” It sounds good, doesn’t it? Who couldn’t use a bit more wisdom? At least I thought this was the case when I started college.
I entered Wake Forest hoping one day to become a physician, as I have. I knew the journey would be arduous and uncertain, but I didn’t want to go as the crow flies. I was at Wake Forest, a place famous for its meandering trails. I was particularly excited by the one marked “philosophy.” But at the trailhead, there were several ominous warnings. “Don’t take philosophy since it will kill your GPA.” “Wait until your senior year.” “Philosophy seems wildly impractical.” But I still couldn’t resist peeking at the trail as a freshman.
I soon found myself in a crowded (only by Wake standards) classroom in Tribble Hall, ready to start an introductory philosophy class. A well-dressed student in a blazer entered the classroom and stood in front looking at everyone with a pile of papers in his hands. A hush fell over the class as we all slowly realized that blazer-kid was not a student. His name was Christian Miller. Although the ink was still wet on his Ph.D. dissertation, he was going to be our philosopher, our professor and our GPA killer.
The ensuing semester and years did not go as planned. Professor Miller was as full of wisdom as any gray-haired professor, and the philosophers were not out to get us. We discussed the practical and biggest questions in life. What is the meaning of life and death? Does God exist? What are the arguments for/against abortion, the death penalty and gender equality? I was hooked. I majored in philosophy, and for the next four years, philosophical debate started in class and spilled over to the dinner table at the Pit. These discussions reached a climax with a famous class from Professor Charles Lewis, called “Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche.” After a semester’s worth of nonstop dinner discussions of philosophy we barely understood, an exasperated and weary friend finally declared that there would be “no more Hegel at the table.”
When I graduated from Wake, I didn’t realize that I would face the most challenging philosophical problems yet. In medicine, I had to make sense of the senseless, such as coping with the loss of the 8-year-old patient who had been shot while sleeping in his bed. As a researcher, I struggled for years to elucidate the neural pathways our brains use to make moral judgments. As an entrepreneur, I wrestle with the problem of how to design artificial intelligence algorithms that can effectively save patients’ lives while avoiding negative unintended consequences. When seeking answers to these hard questions and issues, I have reflected on the deeper meanings behind these activities, the conclusions of those Pit dinner conversations, and the philosophers’ views I heard in Tribble many years ago.
My wife and I met on our first day at Wake Forest and have followed similar paths. She minored in philosophy and is now a physician. We have a young daughter and son who are full of life, energy and curiosity. They embody many of the conclusions that we had reached about the meaning of life years ago. We named our daughter Sophia. (Don’t worry, we did not name our son Phil.) I hope they both will become lovers of wisdom. I hope that they find this wisdom to be as practical as anything else they learn. And I hope they will not wait until the senior year of their college, careers or lives to do so.
Lawrence Ngo (’08), a Reynolds Scholar at Wake Forest, received a Ph.D. in neurobiology and a medical degree at Duke University in 2015. He is a physician who co-founded CoRead, a company that helps find and correct medical errors. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife, Jen Shaffer Ngo (’08), and their two children.