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In August / September of this year The New Republic published a debate between the experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker and its own literary editor, the writer and critic Leon Wieseltier, on the relationship between science and the humanities.

The debate was launched with an article by Steven Pinker published August 6, 2013 entitled ‘Science is Not Your Enemy: An Impassioned Plea to Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors and Tenure-Less Historians’. This was followed a month later by an article by Leon Wieseltier entitled ‘Crimes Against Humanities: Now Science Wants to Invade the Liberal Arts – Don’t Let it Happen’. The third round appeared September 26, 2013 under the more dry but no less attention-catching heading ‘Science vs. The Humanities: Round III’.

The debate is worth reading – both for its contents and passionate comportment. A brief summary and my comments below:

Steven Pinker’s essay starts by pointing out that the great thinkers of Enlightenment were philosophers and scientists. They were not against science unlike contemporary representatives of the humanities, who are concerned about the presumed reductionist and positivist logic of science and think this will lead, via abuse, to genocide or war and, for sure, to the loss of moral and spiritual health. From there, Pinker goes on to defend ‘scientism’ (and not just science), intentionally “appropriating the pejorative” to make his case.

Scientism, argues Pinker, is committed to two ideals: the idea that the world is intelligible and the idea that the acquisition of knowledge is hard work. Intelligibility is about seeking to explain a phenomenon or complex happenings according to principles, which is not equivalent to reductionism. ‘Hard’ he uses in the sense of following a robust method of research and analysis:

“The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies and superstitions … To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity … nurturing opportunities for falsification of … own beliefs.”

The contempt cultivated vis-à-vis science from within the humanities is based on misconceptions that are similar to those professed by religious institutions.

And yet, in actual fact, both science and humanities stand to gain from closer collaboration.

“The humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences, to say nothing of the kind of a progressive agenda that appeals to deans and donors. The sciences would challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists.”

Leon Wieseltier does not agree. Science he writes “confers no special authority.” Insofar as the fields of morality, politics and the arts are concerned – “these are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy.” What is more, “the errors of religious fundamentalism must not be mistaken for the errors of religion.”

Wieseltier fears that science is not genuinely interested in collaborating with the humanities; rather it wants “the humanities to submit to the sciences and be subsumed by them.” Pinker’s ideal or principle of intelligibility, argues Wieseltier, is shorthand for ‘scientific intelligibility’ and this is equivalent to conflating scientific knowledge with knowledge as such.

“The translation of non-scientific discourse into scientific discourse is the objective of scientism … The scientizers do not respect the borders between the realms; they transgress the borders so as to absorb all the realms into a single realm, into their realm. They are not pluralists.”

And:

“In literature and the arts, there are ideas, intellectually respectable ideas, about the world, but they are not demonstrated, they are illustrated. They are not argued, they are imagined, and the imagination has vigors of its own.”

Philosophers of science and sociologists of knowledge will recognize in this debate old cleavages that have hampered the collaboration between science and humanities for years – and likewise the fruitful blend of empirical and theoretical research or quantitative and qualitative approaches.

This is a difficult subject and more so because the debate confounds different levels of analysis:

At one level this is about competition over resources. In this respect the humanities have reasons to fear the rapid ascendancy of science. Science already now gets the lion’s share of research and institutional funding and, therefore, the fear is legitimate that closer collaboration will aggravate this trend, leading among else, to the complete marginalization of those subfields within humanities that have little to offer to science.

At a definitional level the debate has to do with the structural semantics of interdisciplinarity, namely whether the latter is to be conceptualized on equal terms (as Pinker envisages) or within a hierarchical framework (as Wieseltier fears).

Related to the above is the issue of vocabularies and metaphors that are used by different disciplines, in other words the mental and imaginative schemata available to each to guide exploration. Such schemata are mostly helpful devices that fulfill the function of signposting. But under specific circumstances, such as in inter-discipinary discourse, they often function as barriers to communication and understanding leading to cacophony. When this occurs there can be no way forward without translation – which implies the need for translators.

At a deeper level the debate is about meaning and different forms of experience. Here we are confronted with the fear that science will make the arts obsolete by explaining away beauty and aesthetics – treating then dismissing them as intermediary or derivative variables with no value of their own.

In other words: do we risk losing our feelings, emotions and all that we associate with the ‘human spirit’ once we have grounded them in material ‘scientist’ understandings? Does science take away our ability to write, paint, or make music? Worse still: will passion, pleasure and enjoyment then be gone – eventually replaced by some artificial intelligence?

These fears are unfounded yet real. Perhaps the more relevant question at this point is why they should arise in the first place. But this is the topic for another blog – some other time and place.

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