Who knows what: For decades the sciences and the humanities have fought for knowledge supremacy. Both sides are wrong-headed
October 17, 2012
Whenever we try to make an inventory of humankind’s store of knowledge, we stumble into an ongoing battle between what CP Snow called ‘the two cultures’. On one side are the humanities, on the other are the sciences (natural and physical), with social science and philosophy caught somewhere in the middle. This is more than a turf dispute among academics. It strikes at the core of what we mean by human knowledge.
Snow brought this debate into the open with his essay The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, published in 1959. He started his career as a scientist and then moved to the humanities, where he was dismayed at the attitudes of his new colleagues. ‘A good many times,’ he wrote, ‘I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?’
That was more than half a century ago. If anything, the situation has got worse. Throughout the 1990s, postmodernist, deconstructionist and radical feminist authors (the likes of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Bruno Latour and Sandra Harding) wrote all sorts of nonsense about science, clearly without understanding what scientists actually do. The feminist philosopher Harding once boasted: ‘I doubt that in our wildest dreams we ever imagined we would have to reinvent both science and theorising itself’. That’s a striking claim given the dearth of novel results arising from feminist science. The last time I checked, there were no uniquely feminist energy sources on the horizon.
In order to satirise this kind of pretentiousness, in 1996 the physicist Alan Sokal submitted a paper to the postmodernist journal Social Text. He called it ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. There is no such thing as a hermeneutics of quantum gravity, transformative or not, and the paper consisted entirely of calculated nonsense. Nevertheless, the journal published it. The moral, Sokal concluded, was that postmodern writing on science depended on ‘radical-sounding assertions’ that can be given ‘two alternative readings: one as interesting, radical, and grossly false; the other as boring and trivially true’.
Truth be told we don’t know whether the laws that control the behaviour of quarks scale up to the level of societies and galaxies
Blame for the culture wars doesn’t lay squarely on the shoulders of humanists, however. Scientists have employed their own overblown rhetoric to aggrandise their doings and dismiss what they haven’t read or understood. Their target, interestingly, is often philosophy. Stephen Hawking began his 2010 book The Grand Design by declaring philosophy dead — though he neglected to provide evidence or argument for such a startling conclusion. Earlier this year, the theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss told The Atlantic magazine that philosophy ‘reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke: those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym. And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics whatsoever’.
To begin with, it is fair to point out that the only people who read works in theoretical physics are theoretical physicists, so by Krauss’s own reasoning both fields are irrelevant to everybody else (they aren’t, of course). Secondly, Krauss, and Hawking for that matter, seem to miss the fact that the business of philosophy is not to solve scientific problems — we’ve got science for that. Objecting to philosophy on these grounds is like complaining that historians of science haven’t solved a single puzzle in theoretical physics. That’s because historians do history, not science. When was the last time a theoretical physicist solved a problem in history? And as the philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), a book that has been very popular among scientists: ‘There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination’. Whether or not they realise it, Hawking and Krauss need philosophy as a background condition for what they do.
Perhaps the most ambitious contemporary attempt at reconfiguring the relationship between the sciences and the humanities comes from the biologist EO Wilson. In his 1998 book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, he proposed nothing less than to explain the whole of human experience in terms of the natural sciences. Beginning with the premise that we are biological beings, he attempted to make sense of society, the arts, ethics and religion in terms of our evolutionary heritage. ‘I remember very well the time I was captured by the dream of unified learning,’ he wrote. ‘I discovered evolution. Suddenly — that is not too strong a word — I saw the world in a wholly new way’.
Wilson claims that we can engage in a process of ‘consilience’ that leads to an intellectually and aesthetically satisfactory unity of knowledge. Here is how he defines two versions of consilience: ‘To dissect a phenomenon into its elements … is consilience by reduction. To reconstitute it, and especially to predict with knowledge gained by reduction how nature assembled it in the first place, is consilience by synthesis’.
Despite the unfamiliar name, this is actually a standard approach in the natural sciences, and it goes back to Descartes. In order to understand a complex problem, we break it down into smaller chunks, get a grasp on those, and then put the whole thing back together. The strategy is called reductionism and it has been highly successful in fundamental physics, though its success has been more limited in biology and other natural sciences. The overall image that Wilson seems to have in mind is of a downward spiral wherein complex aspects of human culture — literature, for example — are understood first in terms of the social sciences (sociology, psychology), and then more mechanistically by the biological sciences (neurobiology, evolutionary biology), before finally being reduced to physics. After all, everything is made of quarks (or strings), isn’t it?…