The Humanities, the Sciences, and the Nature of Education

Over the last couple of months, Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier have been trading shots in a debate about the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. Pinker, a distinguished scientist whose work ranges from linguistics to cognitive psychology, kicked things off with an essay in The New Republic titled, “Science is Not Your Enemy.” This essay was published with a video response by Wieseltier, the The New Republic’s longstanding literary editor, already embedded. It was less than illuminating. A little while later, Wieseltier published a more formal response, which someone unfortunately titled, “Crimes Against the Humanities.” A little over a week ago, both Pinker and Wieseltier produced their final volleys in “Science v. the Humanities, Round III.”

I’ll spare you a play-by-play, or blow-by-blow as the case may be. If you’re interested, you can click over and read each essay. You might also want to take a look at Daniel Dennett’s comments on the initial exchange. The best I can do by way of summary is this: Pinker is encouraging embattled humanists to relax their suspicions and recognize the sciences as friends and ally from which they can learn a great deal. Wieseltier believes that any “consilience” with the sciences on the part of the humanities will amount to a surrender to an imperialist foe rather than a collaboration with an equal partner.

The point of contention, once some of the mildly heated rhetoric is accounted for, seems to be the terms of the relationship between the two sets of disciplines. Both agree that the sciences and the humanities should not be hermetically sealed off from one another, but they disagree about the conditions and fruitfulness of their exchanges.

If we must accept the categories, I think of myself as a humanist with interests that include the sciences. I’m generally predisposed to agree with Wieseltier to a certain extent, yet I found myself doing so rather tepidly. I can’t quite throw myself behind his defense of the humanities. Nor, however, can I be as sanguine as Pinker about the sort of consilience he imagines.

What I can affirm with some confidence is also the point Pinker and Wieseltier might agree upon: neither serious humanistic knowledge nor serious scientific knowledge appears to be flourishing in American culture. But then again, this surmise is mostly based on anecdotal evidence. I’d want to make this claim more precise and ground it in more substantive evidence.

That said, Pinker and Wieseltier both appear to have the professional sciences and humanities primarily view. My concern, however, is not only with the professional caste of humanists or scientists. My concern is also with the rest of us, myself included: those who are not professors or practitioners (strictly speaking), but who, despite our non-professional status, by virtue of our status as human beings seek genuine encounters with truth, goodness, and beauty.

To frame the matter in this way breaks free of the binary opposition that fuels the science/humanities wars. There is, ultimately, no zero-sum game for truth, goodness, and beauty, if these are what we’re after. The humanities and the sciences amount to a diverse set of paths, each, at their best, leading to a host of vantage points from which we might perceive the world truly, apprehend its goodness, and enjoy its beauty. Human culture would be a rather impoverished and bleak affair were only a very few of these path available to us.

I want to believe that most of us recognize all of this intuitively. The science/humanities binary is, in fact, a rather modern development. Distinctions among the various fields of human knowledge do have an ancient pedigree, of course. And it is also true that these various fields were typically ranked within a hierarchy that privileged certain forms of knowledge over others. However, and I’m happy to be corrected on this point, the ideal was nonetheless an openness to all forms of knowledge and a desire to integrate these various forms into a well-rounded understanding of the cosmos.

It was this ideal that, during the medieval era, yielded the first universities. It was this ideal, too, that animated the pursuit of the liberal arts, which entailed both humanistic and scientific disciplines (although to put it that way is anachronistic): grammar, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, music, geometry, and astronomy. The well-trained mind was to be conversant with each of these.

All well and good, you may say, but it seems as though seekers of truth, goodness, and beauty are few and far between. Hence, for instance, Pinker’s and Wieseltier’s respective complaints. The real lesson, after all, of their contentious exchange, one which Wieseltier seems to take at the end of last piece, is this: While certain professional humanists and scientists bicker about the relative prestige of their particular tribe, the cultural value of both humanistic and scientific knowledge diminishes.

Why might this be the case?

Here are a couple of preliminary thoughts–not quite answers, mind you–that I think relevant to the discussion.

1. Sustaining wonder is critical. 

The old philosophers taught that philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, began with wonder. Wonder is something that we have plenty of as children, but somehow, for most of us anyway, the supply seems to run increasingly dry as we age. I’m sure that there are many reasons for this unfortunate development, but might it be the case that professional scientists and humanists both are partly to blame? And, so as not to place myself beyond criticism, perhaps professional teachers of the sciences and humanities are also part of the problem. Are we cultivating wonder, or are we complicit in its erosion?

2. Eduction is not merely the transmission of information

To borrow a formulation from T.S. Eliot: Information, that is an assortment of undifferentiated facts, is not the same as knowledge; and knowledge is not yet wisdom. One may, for example, have memorized all sorts of random historical facts, but that does not make one a historian. One may have learned a variety of mathematical operations or geometrical theorems, but that does not make one a mathematician. To say that one understands a particular discipline or field of knowledge is not necessarily to know every fact assembled under the purview of that field. Rather it is to be able to see the world through the perspective of that field. A mathematician is one who is able to see the world and to think mathematically. A historian is one who is able to see the world and to think historically.

Wonder, then, is not sustained by the accumulation of facts. It is sustained by the opening up of new vistas–historical, philosophical, mathematical, scientific, etc.–on reality that continually reveal its depth, complexity, and beauty.

Maybe it’s also the case that wonder must be sustained by love. Philosophy, to which wonder ought to lead, is etymologically the “love of wisdom.” Absent that love, the wonder dissipates and leaves behind no fruit. This possibility brings to mind a passage from an Iris Murdoch novel, The Sovereignty of Good, in which the main character describes the work of learning Russian:

“I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me…. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal. The honesty and humility required of the student — not to pretend to know what one does not know — is the preparation for the honesty and humility of the scholar who does not even feel tempted to suppress the fact which damns his theory.”

We should get it out of our heads that education is chiefly or merely about training minds. It must address the whole human person. The mind, yes, but also the heart, the eyes, the ears, and the hands. It is a matter of character and habits and virtues and loves. The most serious reductionism is that which reduces education to the transfer of information. In which case, it makes little difference whether that information is of the humanistic or scientific variety.

As Hubert Dreyfuss pointed out serval years ago in his discussion of online education, the initial steps of skill acquisition most closely resemble the mere transmission of information. But passing beyond these early stages of education in any discipline involves the presence of another human being for a variety of significant reasons. Not least of these is the fact that we must come to love what we are learning and our loves tend to be formed in the context of personal relationships. They are caught, as it were, from another who has already come to love a certain kind of knowledge or a certain way of approaching the world embedded in a particular discipline.

What then is the sum of this meandering post? First, the sciences and the humanities are partners, but not primarily partners in the accomplishment of their own respective goals. They are partners in the education of human beings that are alive to fullness of the world they inhabit. Secondly, if that work is to yield fruit, then education in both the sciences and the humanities must be undertaken with a view to full complexity of the human person and the motives that drive and sustain the meaningful pursuit of knowledge. And that, I know, is far easier said than done.

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15 thoughts on “The Humanities, the Sciences, and the Nature of Education

  1. Michael -
    My very favorite of all your wonderful posts. I was very much supportive of your “Borg Complex” theory, but what you have explained above about the humanities and sciences and the true point of all education, is where my heart lives.

    That is why, when I co-founded the Transformative Education Forum (tef.globalchallengesforum.org) with educators from all over the world, we worked together on these very ideas to come up with the Principles of Transformative Education many of them directly and specifically addressing this issue of the crossover of science (STEM) and the humanities (human meaning), but the last which encompasses them all for me, my personal favorite:

    TEF Principle 12: Sanctity of Human Learning and Life:
    “The learning environment shall be sacred, trust in the wisdom of the imagination, teach the wonder and potential of every human child, the interrelationship of life and that we can no longer afford to live in privileged disregard of this planet, all its diverse and valuable species and each other.”

    Because that one is about love — love of learning about life, love of learning how to love, love of learning how to live well on this shared planet, with others. As you so beautifully put it above,

    “Maybe it’s also the case that wonder must be sustained by love. Philosophy, to which wonder ought to lead, is etymologically the “love of wisdom.” Absent that love, the wonder dissipates and leaves behind no fruit.”

    That is everything I truly have learned about teaching children in my 30+ years of work. Without that respect for them, their wonder, and their ability to learn and grow in learning by continuing to love that learning, what is being done in those classrooms is not learning, or love, at all. The resultant damage, and the meaningless fights and dichotomies of what is “valuable or marketable” learning, has drawn us very far afield from, as you say, “our status as human beings seeking genuine encounters with truth, goodness, and beauty.”

    And frankly, and I have always held this to be true in my classrooms, it just doesn’t feel as joyful or as pleasurable as what the learning based on that natural human predilection to, and love of learning, engenders in those classrooms instead.

    How I wish more educators, who must have known this once, would remember it. How I wish we would therefore reclaim it from these classrooms of division, narrow specialization, fracturing, ego, social-credentialing and constant “testing” of broken bits to make whole learning nearly impossible.

    How I wish more of them understood or remembered the point of human learning at all — to find effective ways to live well on this planet with one another and still in those most human pursuits of “truth, goodness and beauty” — which truly need to underlie all else for us to accomplish that goal.

    Thank you. So beautifully said; I will use it to inspire others.

  2. Michael,
    I wonder what you think of the idea that beyond the sciences and the humanities, a third element (path?, paradigm?) has become important in the last 10-20 years related to computing and simulation. I’m not sure whether I’d exactly call it a path to knowledge, although perhaps it is. We do have search engines and other knowledge systems that can incorporate knowledge to varying degrees.

    In physics, the methods of computing and simulation is sometimes referred to as a “third way”, in addition to theory and experiment. (See e.g. http://www.aapt.org/Resources/policy/Statement-on-Computational-Physics.cfm for a statement on Computational Physics from the American Association of Physics Teachers)

    I get a bit nervous when I hear computer scientists talking about artificial intelligence, and the whole field of “computer learning” frightens me some as well. But I wonder if there might not be some more positive way to see it, as another path to knowledge that can work together with the scientific and humanistic approaches.

    As you write, both Pinker and Wieseltier seem to feel that there is a war going on in which both the sciences and the humanities are losing. I wonder if this computing/simulation paradigm might be part of the thing that is fight against them. And could there be a way to not see it as a war?

    Whatever this new development in computing and simulation means, it ought to be weighed against the long histories and incorporated wisdom that the sciences and the humanities have in them. Perhaps these new approaches could be seen as part of the sciences or the humanities, or maybe they are best treated as new methods to be classified in a different way.

    A vague thought that I hope resonates reasonably with your post here….
    Regards,
    Boaz

    • Boaz,

      Thanks for this comment, and my apologies for taking a little while to reply. This is an interesting question. My first reaction is to relate this “third way” with the rise of Big Data and, more specifically, the digital humanities. I’m reminded to of David Weinberger’s arguments in Too Big to Know:

      http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/01/to-know-but-not-understand-david-weinberger-on-science-and-big-data/250820/

      The gist of it all is that the power of computers to crunch remarkably large amounts of data yields knowledge that we can’t quite understand, models that work even though we don’t quite understand why. I wrote something awhile back on this here:

      http://thefrailestthing.com/2012/01/10/knowing-without-understanding-our-crisis-of-meaning/

      If this is the sort of thing that you have in mind, and let me confess that I’ve not had a chance to read the link you left, then my reactions are mixed. On the one hand, it might be hard to argue that these methods are not yielding something of value. But, to be honest, the humanities applications usually underwhelm me, to put it mildly. Wieseltier mentions some of this himself in his responses.

      Also, as I mentioned in the post, my concern is chiefly with non-professionals, and, perhaps especially for them, some of the insights provided by Big Data, etc. are less than helpful.

      Not sure if I was on target in this reply. Let me know.

  3. Thanks for the response, Michael. I’m a little wary of the term “Big Data” since I see it so associated with commerce and industry rather than knowledge, but it does perhaps capture some of these recent changes and the hugeness of databases and the speed of computer algorithms to process this data in some way, which is sort of what I was getting at.
    I read that Atlantic article on Weinberger’s “Too Big to Know” (though not the book itself), and I found myself strongly disagreeing with a lot of what he wrote. One sentence that stood out for me was

    “Rather, the creation of data galaxies has led us to science that sometimes is too rich and complex for reduction into theories. ”

    This to me is a real misunderstanding of science. How does anyone know ahead of time whether something is understandable or not? It is the job of a theorist to build frameworks that allow one to understand things. Weinberger seems to be completely ignoring this kind of work. This is the perspective from which there is indeed a kind of war going on, in which both the sciences and the humanities will be the losers.

    Its so presumptuous to say that our masses of data we are collecting are so complicated, we will never understand them. If they actually represent something in the world, then the world itself is inevitably (by definition) much bigger, and more complex than the data that has been collected. If we choose to try, they can only improve our understanding of the world. There’s something very insidious going on in that rhetoric saying that there is a new kind of loss of ability to understand. We’ve always had only partial understanding. These different disciplines are different approaches, or paths to understanding, as you wrote in the original post.

    I brought up the example from physics of this “third way” because in this case, I think the computational and simulational approaches can really be used together with the other approaches, to understand something. So I’d like to keep in mind some of the positive ways we can use computing without losing our agency or joy of knowledge in the process.

  4. I awoke this morning with thoughts about your initial post here Michael, and Boaz’s interesting replies arguing for “digital humanities” and “computing and simulation” and how it jarred me.

    I couldn’t get it out of my mind apparently, and had dreams about how I see differently the education of the whole human child and mind, and the “marriage” of all these binaries, so many of them long characterized in “feminine”-humanity (disparagingly) and “masculine”-science (exaltedly) disciplines ways. But I would argue that learning itself, especially in the first “Universities” after the Enlightenment, were not truly ever “universal” but defined initially and increasingly since — by masculine “rationality” alone — as there were no women included. And this dichotomy mirrored in religious history as well and the defining of the “sacred”, seemed to increasingly move along that now broken path, to a greater and greater forking of the “sacred vs. the profane”.

    But the “sacred” itself had already been reduced historically, to patriarchal study of patriarchal religions. Thus the tone and presumption of the first “learned discourse” and whose voice it could be heard and written in, colors all these discussions, even this one above. Boaz, in my opinion and rationally, takes it in its logical direction — the argument for digital humanity or “intelligent machines” and I think, if I am reading him correctly, in this way hoping to somehow overcome that very dichotomy through those machines. But it seems to me, when one (all) has long since narrowed the definition of “intelligence” to only these rational-logical-linear dominated ways of knowing, within that fatally-limited reduction it is irrational to hope that the ultimate embodiment of that type of thinking (the computer) jumps beyond those limitations to more complete “knowing” than we have now reduced ourselves to as the only valid “intelligence” left? Seems like “circling the drain” to me? Certainly circular and reductive reasoning?

    So I am going to do something shocking here, not meaning to “shock” but meaning to try and relay my meaning differently than these parameters allow, these parameters that reduce these underlying values discussions usually to “platitudes”, dismissing any legitimacy to any higher or sacred claims of “truth, beauty and goodness”. Or shunted to the rarely read or seriously “valued”, dismissed realms of poetry. I am going to do it here Michael, because I believe you are trying to approach this very discussion but from the opposite direction than I. Yours is the more “acceptable” coding to do so — I just don’t believe that “coding” can surmount its own limitations to actually do so, alone. So forgive my “jarring” attempt to open the words here — but I think that itself is a sign that the sacred has become “shocking” and the profane, all that is now valued or “heard”:

    ****Education of the Sacred and the Profane****

    Gazing out my balcony directly across to the 18th Century stone convent/parochial school and the group of chartreuse green-vested all male London construction workers beside its walls — smoking a cigarette, taking a break — nothing could be more clear this cloudy day.

    Like the jackhammer every morning that wakes me, the pounding that shatters and cracks my dreams taking me out of the sacred, to the profane – I am beginning to put it all together now. All together in the very place it first happened in the modern era — that place that began “modern industrialization” and also the beginning of destroying the last ties to “mother” earth and our sacred feminine nature. Similar to the forces earlier that had cut the umbilical tie to that profound creative and life force that was actually creating new life inside us, the sacredness and power then of female sexuality and thus all seminal sexuality, and instead profaning it for “production”, for profit, for male power-over, overpowering and raping that sexuality and now that natural force, that “Mother-Nature” by Father-Force.

    But this remaining tie took more centuries to cut and did not go easy, until they got the “machines” to mechanize the profanity: Pounding, carving, cutting and reaming our earth itself. Creating phallic skyscraping monuments where green soft mounds used to overlook valleys, paving over all with cold concrete and dynamite. Calling it “noble”. Destroying the river banks to create Banks, where money only flowed in. Slicing up gentle paths with carved out “roads” and railways, machines pumping black soot into the skies, run by black suits with coal eyes. Profaning the sacred, patriarching the “soul”. Carving out the “heart”, leaving it for poor mothers to try and save, pass on, teach-for-pay to patricians’ children.

    Harnessing and strapping the power of the gentle sacred to the “purpose” of the profane, calling it necessary progress — some of it was — but not including all the costs in its “new math”, demanding “ownership” and “rights” and all the power gained in terms of patriarchal landed rights to decide for all. Talking of the “future”, unhinged of the past, creating binary machines uncoupled to the binary force of life, uncaring of young and new life. Always the women and the children suffered most under men enslaved to other men, chained to the claims and “rationalizations” of those who thought most profitably, for themselves alone. And taught with cold words why this was the way it had to be….

    Finally, completely unearthing the “earthiness” of the sacred, the power of sensual sexuality, the “knowing” of the kindred, the fecundity of the feminine and paving it all over with the pornography of the profane and finally selling that for profit from the poor, the lost and the damned.

    And we called it, and still do, “brilliance” and “progress” and only the witches now know how sad the joke and on whom.
    ************************************

    Forgive me Michael and Boaz, but it was your words and thinking above that engendered the response. I am willing to accept, as I have for decades, that for the way you see this conversation, it is “off the point”. As someone who so deeply believes in the power of our words and even more so, how those words are used in our “education”, I have come to believe it really isn’t — that it may be the part of the discussion in both the “humanities” and the “sciences” most missing?

  5. It’s taken me a couple of days to get back to the comments on this post, so my apologies Boaz and June. I appreciate both comments. Boaz, I share your concerns about the loss of hope in our power to understand. My own concern was not so much that we were prematurely giving up on understanding, but that it was entirely likely that computers would be able to create certain models that were somehow true to the world even though we couldn’t quite “understand” why and that actions would be driven by this knowledge without understanding.

    June, I think that I’m not equipped to follow all that you are driving at in your comment, although I do appreciate the fact that some things need to be approached from multiple angles. I will say this though, having interacted with Boaz on a number of occasions, that I’m pretty sure he was not driving at any reduction of human thinking to that of the machine. Also, I have no quarrel with asserting the power of words, but I don’t know that I could perceive all that you intended by your words. I value poetry immensely and I don’t mind being shocked into a new perspective. From what I gathered, we are, it seems, trying to get at some overlapping areas of concern, but coming at it from different places. All of that said, and maybe this is part of the problem you are getting at, but I may need to have some of these concerns restated so that I can get a better understanding. I’m happy to admit that this is my own limitation.

    • Michael. Because your use of the language and words has always been nuanced and sometimes lovely, even while being precise about these issues, and because that response to me was both so gentle and generous, I am going to try and answer. But I know I cannot really do what you ask under these limitations.

      And I grant that Boaz was asking broader rather than more reductive questions about the possibilities of computers and physics to help us in “understanding” these complex issues, but it is that very frame – computers and physicists providing the most important data as if they could define that – that I find fatally reductive. And subsequently an impossible direction to go to truly get these broader answers or “understandings” of such key and multi-layered complexities as the education of the human mind, heart and soul. Or even the critical issue of the saving of our planet, which that education is tied to in my mind.

      It’s a problem with the language itself, Michael, the words and their underlying construct and it’s a problem exacerbated almost to impossibility of “hearing” anything else under the constructs of these machines, these ways of communication and the underlying premises on which they were made and function. I already knew that, and still in answer to you and Boaz, I tried, fearing again the closing, clanking gates of how “truth, beauty and goodness” were going to be allowed to be defined or understood or even discussed under these constructs and thus so easily refuted in the realm of either/or, facts or fantasy, spirituality/ethics/meaning or science. (But at least Michael you and Boaz are still willing to discuss them, rather then reduce them by snark to clever tweets or dismiss them altogether as meaningless “platitudes”).

      The Humanities once represented that last grouping of spirituality/ethics/meaning between it and science, but that was long before the Humanities were constructed into the “Social Sciences” and developed along the same intellectual masturbatory word play that, severed from its underlying emotional intelligence counterpart, created nothing different, transforming or new. (Except more machines, even at the obvious growing danger to the planet and “nature”). Consider really, how ludicrous to the concept of the integration of human and planetary systems and even both (all) sides of the human brain that initial question/controversy above is: in the 21st Century we still need to say both Humanities and Science are important to human problem solving? Seriously? I am sorry if often I then can only thus see school boys in a sandbox, arguing aggressively and competitively over the narrowest of understanding(s), flexing to each other their mental muscles to prove they are the “righter” one!

      I cannot tell you the many, many, many students I have known deeply and passionately interested in Philosophy or Ethics, Morality or Mind, Psychology or Sociology that lost all that passion once they went to these “Universities” to study them. But watching it happen myself as I studied Biochemistry at Berkeley, I began to be able to explain it. I could even predict well who it was going to happen to and who would be selected to continue and succeed as a “Social Scientist”, (even easier to predict in the sciences and especially “philosophy”- more dominantly male than all the other disciplines), but oddly few of these same professors ever could see it at all? It had to do with “intelligence” they would say, and I would laugh. It was not the students’ limits of intelligence that was creating the problem. Knowing that, I left the field of Biochemistry – after 3 years – to focus on education and how one does not destroy the other “multiple intelligences” I was watching destroyed around me and I believed were far more critical to the complete picture needed if you were to heal the globe in a truly globally-brain-connected way.

      I think it is this very different perspective, despite my own training in this formal thinking, that makes it hardest for you and others so well-educated in that model to understand something argued so “differently”. For that education did do some things extremely well, creating machines (some very deadly) and technicians to run them (some very emotionally “dead”) and lots of wordy reputations based on arguing whether humanities and sciences can or should any longer co-exist. It has done other truly wonderful and good things, also, that science. But the answer to that question above is obvious to me in a planet and species facing its own very “brilliantly” designed extinction, brilliant for those who have benefitted and profited most from this fragmented educationally-produced “understanding” and now confusion about how exactly we got here? My guess, and others I work with around the world in terms of a different type of education for sustainability, is that it has something to do with that initial destructive dichotomy and split between the “feminine” and the “masculine” particularly in Western Enlightenment theories of learning and science, that mirrored the split and subjugation of now “feminine-nature” to “masculine-science”.

      At least that’s some of the perspective emerging from other voices and “ Women’s Ways of Knowing” (Mary Belenkey, Blyte Clinchy, Nancy Goldberger and Jill Tarule, eds) and indigenous or more “spiritual”/nature-aligned or Eastern taught cultures in other parts of the world. It would also explain why at the next big UN Conference (COP 19) in November in Warsaw, Poland on this resulting (due to our “advanced” science and technology) most pressing environmental crisis, the key convening panel focused on “Gender and Climate Change”.

      But true, it is some of the scientists (IPCC) who have spoken most clearly about this with the “facts” and even with urgency. Problem is, given this developed split in de-humanizing education and its advertising counterpart (where emotional intelligence was most understood and manipulated), it is no longer a language that anyone seems to be able truly hear or speak in: either in the conventionally taught humanities or the narrow reductive, and thus impossible-to-save-us-alone “sciences”.

      That’s all I was really trying to say.

      • Michael,
        re:
        “My own concern was not so much that we were prematurely giving up on understanding, but that it was entirely likely that computers would be able to create certain models that were somehow true to the world even though we couldn’t quite “understand” why and that actions would be driven by this knowledge without understanding. ”

        I think this happens all the time. We find ways to influence events without fully understanding them. A computer program of this type would be a tool that could produce useful results even though we don’t understand why. One way to get at this distinction could be the difference between science and engineering. In science, I see understanding at the heart whereas with engineering the main guide is whether or not something works.

        June,

        You write: “…but it is that very frame – computers and physicists providing the most important data as if they could define that – that I find fatally reductive.”

        Since I’ve studied physics, and work in physics professionally, its an area where I can draw examples from. I guess I know what you mean, in that physics is seen as the most fundamental of sciences, and there’s this grand hope that we can use it to ground our knowledge in all other areas. I admit to having spent time thinking about the extent to which this could be true. Nancy Cartwright has called physics (and economics) imperialist in this respect. And I think computer science is being added to the list of imperialist disciplines. My thought was that if we look within the discipline of physics itself (not into its dreams to conquer the whole world) we can see a somewhat healthy relationship between computing approaches and other ways of thinking.

        • Boaz, I appreciate your response as I do find it is always better to hear a person clarify their own thoughts when you are trying to respond to them. And I really do appreciate the lead to Nancy Cartwright and some of the questions she is raising; am also pleased to see part of that project on Philosophy of Science is local to me here in London, at LSE and they are offering talks on it. I will be trying to attend.

          But this problem of reductionism in the sciences goes deeper than just physics and economics, which I do think have become the most “imperialist”. In fact, my very strongest “fights” and arguments about these ideas were with the physicists at Berkeley and with my deep frustration with the “mental blindness” I felt I kept running into, which meant that not only couldn’t see what I was trying to explain about more ways of looking at the universe, but that they couldn’t even “hear” me without an emotionally charged wall of defense that could only have meant I, or my ideas, deeply threatened their entire frame of the world. And all I was suggesting is that there might be more to that world than the limited, narrow, linear/mechanical ways of understanding nature and natural laws that might still exist beyond the realm their physics at that point, had in fact been “reduced” to, by a limitation of what was valid data to see and certainly to “feel” or imagine?

          As Bruno Latour (“An Attempt at a New Compositionist Manifesto” ) mockingly says in rebutting this “dead” conception by scientists in regards to nature,

          “But there is no way to devise a successor to nature, if we do not tackle the tricky question of animism anew. One of the principal causes of the scorn poured by the Moderns on the sixteenth century is that those poor archaic folks, who had the misfortune of living on the wrong side of the “epistemological break,” believed in a world animated by all sorts of entities and forces instead of believing, like any rational person, in an inanimate matter producing its effects only through the power of its causes. It is this conceit that lies at the root of all the critiques of environmentalists as being too “anthropocentric” because they dare to “attribute” values, price, agency, purpose, to what cannot have and should not have any intrinsic value (lions, whales, viruses, CO2, monkeys, the ecosystem, or, worst of all, Gaia). The accusation of anthropomorphism is so strong that it paralyzes all the efforts of many scientists in many fields—but especially biology—to go beyond the narrow constraints of what is believed to be “materialism” or “reductionism.” It immediately gives a sort of New Age flavor to any such efforts, as if the default position were the idea of the inanimate and the bizarre innovation were the animate. Add agency? You must be either mad or definitely marginal. ”

          One can argue, I think you are attempting to do so Boaz above, that even Physics is currently trying to come to grips with their own paradigm-breaking or theoretical-breaking constructs in Chaos and Quantum theory. But my explanation for one possibility regarding why they now feel this possibly means we cannot then process all the “Big Data” to understand all this data, like the computers do, is the limited direction they have taken in definining “understanding”. I think it reduces those actual capabilities to those only taught and developed educationally, which are predominantly linear/reductionist capacities and not the thus necessary more global/synthesis parts of understanding. I think one very good argument on this is Ian McGilchrist’s “The Master and his Emissary; The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World”.

          My concern is that as a teacher for over 30 years, I have watched this emphasis on this science-as-the-only-valid-way of understanding our world develop to a mania, with humanities, arts, music, play, dance, joy, laughter and necessary emotional intelligence/empathy/care all reduced in its STEM-focused wake. The imbalance, causing much social/emotional imbalance for centuries, is now truly effecting the natural imbalance shown by serious, even scientific results, that may truly be irreversible for our species’ health at some point soon. There are even new arguments that the dramatic increase in autism worldwide — but especially in modern, Western cultures — is related to this overly left-brain (simplified) focus, but regardless I know that the development of “metaphoric autism” in my society is frankly scary and very widespread.

          As illustrated in the discussion that started this thread, whether Humanities and Sciences should essentially come together in order to see the whole? What is missed, and what is my essential point here, is that they are already “together” under the dominance of scientific and quantitative reasoning-only, that “won” all the arguments. Thus Humanities itself, in this modern era, has lost much of its vital force and values-clarifying meaning by that subjugation to this dominant way of validating all thinking. Because its essential methodology — the way we now teach it — is in reducing the problem to broken, disconnected, empirically seen and measured data only, “valid” by restrictive paradigms of “validation”, many that match our computational models made manifest in our “brilliant” computers.

          I just think that “There are more things than heaven and earth Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” has become very much more true with this focus on narrow ways of viewing science and now all subjects in the humanities as well, and in the basic mathematical algorithms of the computers themselves. I think we need to go further back epistemologically, sociologically and even historically and thus maybe to different types of “intelligences” and cultural viewpoints, to ask the more essential questions necessary to that answer? And it is something the computers by definition and most physicists I know, cannot any longer seem to do.

  6. June and Boaz,

    I apologize for not being more active on this thread. During the work-week, I have a pretty limited amount of time to mind the blog, and this thread obviously required more than a spurt of attention and a passing comment. Even now my reply will be relatively brief, I’m afraid. To the grading of papers there is no end …

    But I do want to make a few comments. First of all, I’m glad for this exchange and the spirit in which it was conducted. I wish, too, that this could’ve been undertaken face-to-face. While the a-synchronicity of this medium has certain advantages, I would still prefer hashing these things out in person. The com box format tends to wear me down for some reason, no matter how good the comments.

    Regarding the substance of the discussion, I’ll start off by saying that throughout the exchange Hamlet’s line to Horatio was kicking around in my mind (I’d recently taught Hamlet), and so it was serendipitously fitting, June, that you closed your last comment with reference to it. I think that line does a nice job of illustrating the conversation. I think all of us would agree on this: it’s misguided to think that any one discipline, or any one way of knowing the world, could be self-sufficient and/or exhaustive. We do seem to differ in how we converge on that conclusion, how we express it, and perhaps also what we make of it.

    I go back again and again to the premise that all genuine advances in knowledge are grounded in humility, the humility to imagine that we might be wrong or that we might not see all that there is to see. And so I’m glad to find myself, in this post, hearing from a committed defender of the humanities and a practicing physicist. I’ve much to learn from both of you, so thanks, as always, for enhancing the quality of what transpires at this site!

    • Thanks Michael. Your attention to your blog is always impressive, since understandably you have many other commitments. I admit my initial comment was quite open ended and a bit vague, and then I’ve also not had much time or consistent internet connection to respond to follow-ups by you and June. Perhaps this type of discussion (which necessarily involves personal experience and trying to understand where the other people are coming from) works better face to face.

      I would say to some of June’s comments about the rigidity of scientists and physicists in particular that she has met, that I know there are plenty of such rigid scientists, but also many who are not. Although science may have “won” the arguments in some domains, there is a spirit of science that does seem to me somewhat imperiled these days in a way that has much in common with a similar spirit of inquiry that I associate with the humanities.

      I think your summary of what the three of us might agree on sounds pretty reasonable to me, Michael. And I very much agree with your grounding of knowledge in humility.
      Regards,
      Boaz

      • Gentle-men,

        I like using that word when meant in its truest sense and I believe despite the different context I had to come from to make my underlying points in this discussion, you both have responded in that sense of that word.

        Michael, in the end, it really is all about “humility” especially in the education of the human child. It was the children that so deeply humbled me when I first began teaching with the background of arrogance that is the underlying legacy of both the humanities and the sciences in Western “elite” education, especially if you do well in them. It is these more emotional/social/cultural underlying, but nonetheless learned assumptions, that I was trying to suggest were and are obfuscated in current subsequently-too-narrow conversations about “education”.

        Again, it is the children who taught me how much more these unconscious assumptions matter and actually “hurt” and how that affects all their subsequent education, in humanities or science. And how it then plays out in these “adult” discussions in critical ways to understand and excavate.

        Boaz, if I have a “tribe”, it is scientists. My father was a professor of Zoology/Biology, I loved math and science all through school and went to Berkeley thrilled to pursue them. I married an MIT trained Electrical and Computer Engineer/Mathematician – and many, many I met in that world were the “gentlest” of men and sometimes, thinkers. But often the ones least able, when society’s rewards and “light” shone on them, to listen to viewpoints and perspectives outside of their realms of “knowledge” and expertise, defaulting to some rather limited underlying premises about “intelligence” and outright condemnation of “others” (especially women and minorities), not just entering their fields, but entering their fields questioning such limitations. How does one really explain the active and virulent misogyny in the most currently exalted of these science/rational based worlds – technology and computer science?

        I thought Michael, as he almost always does, was raising this question to get to some of these underlying values and lost “humanity” that I was suggesting had been lost to both the “humanities” and the “sciences”, despite the many steps forward in other ways. But as I work around the world in education that would address these deeper issues as well to solve the now intertwined complex human and ecological problems, it seems to me very necessary to thus go deeper to answer that initial question.

        I truly enjoyed trying to do so with both you and Michael, but felt most empathetic connection to Michael when he wrote,

        “The com box format tends to wear me down for some reason, no matter how good the comments.”

        In the end that’s what I find most “humanly” true and thus most critically limiting about all these conversations and something deeply important to understand about the future of “education”. Considering that, I am ultimately pleased with what the 3 of us managed here.

        And thus am sincere when I say, I’d be happy to hear from either of you if you just happen to pass my way and through central London (for the next couple of years), to continue it in the full “bandwidth” :-) I believe most important to this particular and so important question with which Michael started his post.

        With warm regards to you both,
        June

  7. Far from a being meandering essay, these cogent thoughts on knowledge and learning hit right on the mark of what most of us have experienced. Love of knowledge does not occur in a vacuum. Passionate people full of wonder “infect” others with the lovely
    contagion.

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