Friday, September 13, 2013

The War Between the Humanities & Science

I commented previously on Steven Pinker’s essay in The New Republic: “Science Is Not Your Enemy An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians”.  This essay rubbed a sore spot in contemporary intellectual culture.  The New Republic’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, responded with a lengthy essay: “Crimes Against Humanities Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don't let it happen”.  Ultra-Darwinian philosopher Daniel Dennett has responded in turn at The Edge website with “Let's Start With A Respect For Truth”. 
Wieseltier does not reject science, to be sure, but he is clearly afraid of it. 
The question of the place of science in knowledge, and in society, and in life, is not a scientific question. Science confers no special authority, it confers no authority at all, for the attempt to answer a nonscientific question. It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science. Nor does science confer any license to extend its categories and its methods beyond its own realms, whose contours are of course a matter of debate.
This is a manifesto with a long pedigree.  There are many claims to intellectual (not to mention legal and political) authority: the philosophers, the scientists, the churches, the courts, etc.  Let us assume that each has its place.  Who gets to decide who gets what place?  In Galileo’s time it was the Church.  In modern America, it is the Courts that get to decide whether evolution or intelligent design will be taught in schools.  Wieseltier is arguing for a more limited authority.  Philosophy must decide what questions science can address. 
Wieseltier confers this authority on philosophy because he is worried about science “invading” the realm of the humanities. 
Science is a regular source of awe and betterment. No humanist in his right mind would believe otherwise. No humanist in his right mind would believe otherwise. Science is plainly owed this much support, this much reverence. This much—but no more.
Dennett responds scathingly. 
Pomposity can be amusing, but pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious. Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or "problematics" to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid. It is true that there is a crowd of often overconfident scientists impatiently addressing the big questions with scant appreciation of the subtleties unearthed by philosophers and others in the humanities, but the way to deal constructively with this awkward influx is to join forces and educate them, not declare them out of bounds.
That strikes me as correct.  There is clearly a tension here between the humanities (along with political philosophy and ethics) and the physical sciences.  Just as some ethicists worry that neuroscience threatens moral responsibility, Wieseltier worries that scientific analysis of literature threatens the beauty of great writing.  If that is true, building a wall between the sciences and humanities is no viable solution.  Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. 
I confess that I am largely free from the anxiety that eats away at Wieseltier.  That is largely because I think that what he calls the humanities and philosophy have the same root as all the sciences.  That root is the awareness of a difference between how things look, at first glance, and how they really are. 
The world looks flat.  Is it?  No.  Philosophy begins with the recognition that our opinions (how it looks to me or to us) are not reliable.  It seeks to replace opinions with knowledge by relentless questioning.  Modern science is grounded in a refined strategy of questioning.  It seeks to phrase each question in a way that its solution can be guaranteed by experiment.  Since many important questions cannot be phrased that way (what is a species?) modern science necessarily limits itself. 
Poetry in all its forms begins with the same basic insight.  What Romeo or Caesar or Oedipus think they are doing is not the same when viewed by a third person.  Poetry proceeds differently from philosophy in so far as it looks rather than questions.  All forms of modern fiction radiate out from classical poetry just as modern science radiates out from classical philosophy.  Short stories, for example, dig into the difference between the view of each character and the character viewed from outside, in context. 
There is indeed a tension between poetry and philosophy.  If you don’t believe me, ask Plato.  A tension is not, however, an opposition, let alone an exclusion.  A unified view of the human things is not in the cards.  Looking and questioning will produce different results as applied to all the human things.  There is no point in trying to hobble the one or the other.  We probably can’t get to the bottom of things.  It were best to allow both sides to keep digging. 


  1. Might Wieseltier be scared of the scientific community rather than science itself? His argument isn't entirely unlike the idea of the separation of church and state. Just as Jefferson seems to fear the influence of religion on politics, Wieseltier may fear the influence of overzealous members of the scientific community who make things like climate change into something like a religion on science and morality/politics/art. Jeffersons fear may have been justified. Wieseltier's may be too.

  2. Ms. Flint:

    Wieseltier speaks not of scientists or the scientific community, but of science. He is clearly trying to limit the domain of topics into which science can legitimately inquire. This strikes me as wrong headed, for Aristotelian reasons. If you ask what a human being is, both a materialist scientist and a poet can offer answers: a cloud of molecules and a soul at odds with itself. These answers are not in opposition because they interpret the question in different ways. Occasionally, there will be intersections between their intellectual trajectories. What is the role of neurotransmitters in the capacity for love? Wieseltier wants to discourage such encounters. I think we should encourage them.

    I think you are onto something by bringing in the separation of Church and State. I would note however that this is a matter not of intellectual authority but of political authority, which is to say power. When climate change zealots try to use their influence over journals and institutions to silence critics, that is indeed analogous to religious zealots using political power to silence dissenters against their orthodoxy. That is indeed offensive and should be resisted.

    I just don't think that that is what Wieseltier is about. What he objects to is scientists inquiring into topics that he regards as outside their domain. I respectfully dissent.

  3. Thanks, Dr. Blanchard:

    I read Wieseltier quite differently. In my view, he was not arguing so much that science should not ask questions about certain topics, but instead that it should not smother out other disciplines. He takes issue with the scientific community trying to make every great thinker into a “scientist” and thinks that the humanities have some claim to greatness. I think that that view is fair.

    As I read Wieseltier’s article, it seems to me less like he is arguing that science should not ask questions about certain topics and more like it could not provide certain kinds of answers. His approach seems somewhat similar to the one you make in your Praying Apes post, where you say, "Understanding how our evolved inclinations make prayer possible and how they influence its expressions cannot tell us whether the object of that turning exists or what its character is." There are some things science may not answer well. Wieseltier uses the Tolstoy example as evidence of this. I think he's right - at least concerning Tolstoy.

    He does say that he is taking issue with science, but as I read through his article, it seems to me that he is criticizing scientific personalities far more than he is criticizing science itself. He is particularly objecting to the idea of scientists having authority over others. "It is not enough for them that the humanities recognize and respect the sciences; they need the humanities to submit to the sciences, and be subsumed by them."
    He may be right to be worried if Pinker’s treatment of Tolstoy is any indication.

  4. Thank you, Ms. Flint. I have decided to reply to this note in a separate post.