"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Science vs. The Humanities–A False Debate

On May 19th Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic spoke at Brandeis University on the false prophets of Science and Technology and stressed the ageless importance of the humanities.  It is the humanities which give our life meaning, he said, and help us in our struggle to understand our lives and our place in the universe.  In other words, where would we be without Milton, Dante, and Shakespeare?  In today’s world, he went on, we are threatened by dissembling forces which remove us from personal insight, exploration of the soul, consideration of death and the beyond; and which in their reductionism and implacable rationality narrow our worldview to microscopic bits and chips.  Our aspirations have become mundane, our values cheapened, and our relationships, so commonly defined by asocial and impersonal media, deadened of any spontaneity and impulse.

For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work (reprinted by The New Republic 5.28.13)

We have become enslaved by machines and by ‘scientism’.  In the digital universe, he goes on, “knowledge is reduced to the status of information”.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Science and technology are not the enemies of learning but the means to greater knowledge and understanding; and from the days of The Enlightenment until the present, a rational, objective analysis of the world in which we live has always provided new insights into human nature and behavior and has always provided the basis on which moral, ethical, and religious discourse has been built.

In Shakespeare’s day the impact of Copernicus’ cosmology was just being felt. Mankind was no longer at the center of the universe, preferred by God and anointed by Nature.  After millennia of believing in a special relationship between the gods and Man, all human institutions were forced to reconsider their reason for being, their utility, and their purpose.

After Einstein the entire scientific establishment had to rethink its millennia-old conception of the relationship between matter and energy and the very nature of time.  Einstein’s discoveries not only changed science but philosophy.  Things were no longer easily understandable, static, and permanent.  The solid world was replaced by a much more dynamic and powerful one.

Quantum physics introduced Uncertainty to the world.  One could isolate a particle in space, but not in time; or track its speed but not its place.  It was only probable that the particle was travelling at a certain speed; and it only might be in a given place.  Probability replaced certainty, and there could be no more profound implication on philosophy or human perception.

Genetic modification will soon transform human nature.  There is no reason to think that recombinant DNA research will stop; and once we finally decode the human genome in all its complexity, we will be on our way to remaking ourselves.

When the interface between the mind and the computer becomes complete, all information ever recorded – every image, sound, note, smell, color, and taste – will be available to us in a millisecond.  Social networks will become neural networks in which we are all connected to others mind-to-mind.  Wieseltier criticizes American society for becoming too plugged in, too reliant on smartphones and tablets; too associated electronically; and too multi-tasking to stop and think and reflect.  However, he is missing the point that society is simply being reconfigured.  These electronic interfaces are but the first baby steps towards full integration of mind and machine and a truly virtual social environment.

These two scientific advances – genetic modification and mind-computer interface – will completely change the way any of us looks at the world, thinks of life and death, and the meaning of it all.

Big data has totally revolutionized inquiry.  No longer do we have to rely on individual pundits, academics, or scientists for new knowledge.  The aggregation of data from billions of information points will do just as well.  In a famous exchange between Noam Chomsky, the father of modern linguistic theory and Google’s Peter Norvig, Norvig said that we do not need to know how the brain produces language to create artificial intelligence, but simple what it looks like when spoken.  In other words, using big data, Google can collect all expressions of all languages to find commonalities – that is, the nature of language.

Out of a mass of a million random suggested solutions to a given problem, the chances that one will be correct are very high – higher in fact than individual efforts.  Crowdsourcing is not only a successful use of information technology, but it is changing the way we look at how knowledge is generated and used.

In other words, science provides the intellectual nutrients for philosophical thought.

This does not mean that there is no place for the humanities in today’s world.  On the contrary, I re-immersed myself in Shakespeare after many decades, having come to the conclusion that only through a literary vision would I be able to make sense of what I saw was a surprisingly predictable human history; and an even more predictable human nature.  Shakespeare confirmed what I had already concluded from studies in genetics, sociology, psychology, and anthropology – until human beings are genetically modified, they will always act in the same self-serving, aggressive ways of survival.

What Shakespeare did do, however, was to address how we deal with this perpetual cycle of history and human nature; how we can act nobly within a world of gods, Fate, and Nature.  All great writers explored this dilemma from Aeschylus to Nietzsche; and all serious writers now and in the future will place human reactions within a probabilistic, virtual, and genetically changing world.

I respect Wieseltier for his passionate defense of the Humanities – I am a product of a liberal arts education and proud of it – but I am afraid that he sounds like an old curmudgeon in his Brandeis address.  He is as fearful of change and a new world order as a much older man; and seems as enslaved by humanism as he claims we all are by scientism.  It is a narrow view, one too timid and arrière-garde for his young audience.


  1. Sounds like a really bad speech. I wonder how the science majors in the audience felt about it.

    Speaking of which, the scientists and engineers I know typically exhibit far more intellectual curiosity about the humanities and arts than the arts&humanities types do about the sciences.

  2. See Donald Lopez's Scientific Buddha for support of Wieseltier's position.

  3. In this response itself you demonstrate how science is conflates with scientism. The discoveries you cite in history show how our understanding of the world evolved through scientific inquiry. You then make sweeping proclamations about the future that are prescriptive and full of exactly the kind of hubris and certainty (this will change everything and it should because it will) that Wieseltier notes in his speech. Your response illustrates his point perfectly. Stating that philosophy has been informed by science does not lead to the conclusion that we are approaching the end of history and it doesn't demonstrate that there are no essential qualities that cannot be transformed into data.

    1. I read the speech. It bears very little resemblance to the imagined one you discuss here. Sure, his rhetoric occasionally flew a bit far in dividing science and the humanities, but you've also totally neglected his careful distinction between science and scientism. He didn't attack the beneficial possibilities of the technologies that you describe above. I also wonder why you assume that the main direction of influence between science and philosophy or other humanistic inquiry has been one-way. Do you really suppose, for instance, that uncertainty finally dawned on philosophy after Einstein? Do you read any philosophy?

    2. Anonymous - Thanks. You might like to read my many posts on philosophy, starting with http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/07/american-pragmatism-and-enlightenment.html. It focusses on the Enlightenment and early Constitutional ideals. The others are on St. Thomas, Augustine, and Kierkegaard among others.

      You might also like to read my many articles on virtual reality, recombinant DNA and the influence of these new revolutionary advances on life and thought. Start with this one, perhaps http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2013/02/the-rise-of-robots.html

  4. Brandeis should have just invited Robin Williams to recite his lines from Dead Poets Society and been done with it.

  5. One problem with Wiesletier's little diatribe is that he didn't make any "careful distinction between science and scientism". He couldn't even be bothered to tell us what "scientism" is --- because when it comes right down to it, he doesn't have any clear idea himself. For instance, does he just mean the idea that true things about the world are discovered by careful reasoning, logical analysis of concepts, and studying and testing observable phenomena? His comments exhibit what results from throwing around a bunch of vaguely important-sounding terms without ever bothering to think about some specific examples. But I guess that would be asking him to dirty his hands too much with mere "information" and force him to come down from the cloudy heights of real "knowledge".

    The problem is not generally that scientists tend to believe "that the solution to every problem is a scientific one", and so give "scientific answers to non-scientific questions." The problem is much more that nonscientists like to use the fact that math class is tough to give themselves a kind of right to be intellectually lazy and "uncurious", yet still blather on tendentiously about every subject. This is what is behind comments like "Do not be rattled by numbers, which will never be the springs of wisdom." After all, if we refuse to even try to measure things and compare them, then nobody will ever be able to check out on our "wisdom" and find out it was mostly a bunch of nonsense and foolishness.