The Sciences, the Humanities and the Human Imagination

Tuesday September 23, 2008


Some time ago, I was at a conference on the subject of literature and science. As is the way with these events, there were few scientists presents, and a great number of people from the humanities, many of whom seemed to fall into one of two camps: firstly, the scholars of the nineteenth century who talked about such now discredited notions as ether and phlogiston and calorific fluid; and secondly, the science fiction buffs who, blinking through the thick lenses of their spectacles, talked about utopias, dystopias and how one can read Lacanian themes in Doctor Who.

Despite being largely ignorant when it comes to the nineteenth century studies and science fiction, it was an interesting and stimulating event, but I could not help asking wondering at the fact that scientists were so very thin on the ground. Perhaps they were all too busy working on real problems to spend their time discussing Lacanian themes in Doctor Who.

On day two, however, the scholars of the humanities managed to lure a Tame Scientist to speak to them. This, as you may imagine, was a cause of some excitement because, although they would not like to admit it, the mild-mannered humanities types probably themselves suspected that it is the scientists who work on the real problems. And not only had these historians, utopians, dystopians and literary theorists managed to lure a scientist to their conference, but they had managed to secure a scientist of some international standing, who could talk about big, scary things like the origin of the universe, antimatter, dark matter, and what goes on inside a black hole.

The scientist began by showing a slide of a time-line in the fashion of Carl Sagan. Those who remember Cosmos will remember Sagan leaping around in his corduroy jacket on a giant two-dimensional calendar representing the life of the universe, from the big bang to the present, as a single year; and they will remember how, relative to the age of the universe, we human beings made an appearance rather late on New Year’s Eve. But whilst Carl Sagan used this metaphor as the starting point for a kind of poetic wonder at the universe, the eminent scientist used it as a stick to beat the scholars of the humanities. ‘This,’ he said, pointing to one vanishingly small end of the line, ‘is what you study.’ He smiled at the audience. ‘I study all the rest,’ he went on. This must have been a cause of considerable satisfaction, because he repeated the point a little later in the talk. After all, what is bigger, more important and more fundamental: the nature of antimatter (for example), or the prevalence of Lacanian themes in Doctor Who? Answers on a postcard, please.

There was, however, something about this demonstration of the relative merits of the humanities and the sciences – if this was indeed what was being demonstrated – that struck a false note. It is not that the eminent scientist was wrong – the scholars of English literature, the historians and perhaps sometimes the philosophers as well, are preoccupied with a radically more circumscribed time-scale – that of human history, or even of recent human history – but one cannot gauge the importance of what they are doing by this alone, and to attempt to do this is to diminish not only the humanities but also the sciences.

The sciences, that is to say, need the humanities. Science, after all, is a human activity, even if it is one that looks beyond the horizons that our ancestors imagined, and scientific knowledge is built up of human meanings. This is not to say that the knowledge of the sciences is just a human construct – for the sciences say some very powerful things about the world, and often provide the best knowledge that we have – but it is to say that when it comes to what all of this means, then the meaning resides in us. This is something that Carl Sagan knew well, as a strong advocate for how a knowledge of the sciences can enrich and deepen our understanding of ourselves and of the world. To see Sagan talk about the sciences is to witness one of the most passionate voices ever raised in celebration of the extraordinary depth, complexity and subtlety of the physical universe of which we are a part. Sagan was well aware that, if we are to understand the sciences, we do not need to take leave of the humanities; and thus Cosmos ranges from the origins of the universe to tales of medieval monasteries, to the bizarre and faintly comical image of Sagan flying around the outer reaches of the universe in a futuristic spacecraft, to the fascinating (although contested – see the link that follows) story of the Japanese Samurai Crabs. It is a rich and generous brew.

Science needs the humanities because if scientists really want to communicate, they need to harness the human imagination, and this is something that those working in the humanities (when you can stop them banging on about Lacanian themes in Doctor Who) know something about. After all, hard science is often very, very hard. But hard science also matters a great deal for how we conceive of ourselves, of the universe, and of the possibilities that are before us. It matters because it has profound implications for how we think of ourselves and how we might best organise our human affairs.

The reverse, however, is also true: the humanities need the sciences as well. I remember talking to a philosopher friend and saying, in an offhand way, that the philosophy of mind really needs to look at empirical evidence from cognitive science. He looked astonished. ‘But why?’ he asked, genuinely puzzled, and he was deaf to my protests that any philosophical picture of the mind that ignores what we know to be empirically true about the way that our minds and brains work is not a picture of mind at all, but a picture of what we would like mind to be, and that this is not the same thing.

What I am talking about, I think, is what Edward O. Wilson called consilience – the possibility of a unified knowledge. Whether one is working in the sciences or in the humanities, such consilience seems to me like a worthy goal to aim for, a goal in which all knowledge might have a part. Even the study of Lacanian themes in Doctor Who, although – in this case – one might hope that it had a rather small part…

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#1 · Alan

24 September 2008

Question: as a philosopher, how do you conceive of the activity of philosophy in terms of this humanities/sciences dichotomy?

To provide some context for the question, here’s the first paragraph of a well-known paper by Richard Rorty:

“Many analytic philosophers do not like to think of their discipline as one of the humanities. They regard their own brand of philosophy as the disciplined pursuit of objective knowledge, and thus as resembling the natural sciences. They view the humanities as an arena for unarguable clashes of opinion. Philosophers of this sort prefer to be placed, for administrative purposes, as far as possible from professors of literature and as close as possible to professors of physics.”

(The whole paper’s online at this link: evans)

#2 · Will

24 September 2008

Good question, Alan. In part it depends on the philosopher and the flavour of philosophy, as Rorty suggests. I certainly see what I do as being an aspect of the humanities, although I’d hope it is informed by the sciences.

But others, no doubt, differ and philosophy is not one kind of thing. As Rorty points out in his paper, continental philosophers are often remarkably cavalier about science, which is, I think a problem for continental philosophy. And when they do talk about it, they do so in a very peculiar way. When Husserl says “science”, for example, he means something decidedly odd (quite what he means is still a bit obscure to me, but it is certainly decidedly odd…) But there’s also a breed of analytic philosophy that insists on its own importance for the sciences, for arriving at objective knowledge etc. etc. Science, often enough , gets along perfectly well without this kind of philosophy, which suggests – again – that this is something more of the nature of the humanities than of the sciences.

And some philosophy is harder to classify: is Dan Dennett’s work, for example, to be classified as belonging to the humanities or the sciences? Both, I would suggest.

#3 · Scooper

2 January 2009

I remember studying Modern Political Theory in college, and Rousseau’s concept of the Noble Savage. If he had known a bit of social psychology, or anthropology, let alone evolutionary biology (disciplines which didn’t really exist in his time) he would have seen that his concept was a vain and pernicious antisocial/anarchic fantasy. And if I had known those things, I would have said as much in class.

On the other hand, un-reflective application of discoveries in the physical and biological sciences may change humanity in directions that could really create those dystopias to which you allude in only one two generations. My apprehensions in that regard are at…

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