Oh, the humanities!

Jerry Coyne and crew have been having a grand old time tearing this debate apart (1st post, 2nd post), but there’s just something I wanted to add. And I can’t really call it a debate, I just haven’t found a better word: it’s basically a few philosophers championing the humanities by tilting at the windmill they call “scientism,” and Steven Pinker crassly injecting some intelligence into the affair. The most striking thing to occur to me is that, if those who have spent their lives studying the humanities are stupid enough to pass judgment on something they can’t understand even superficially, perhaps it really is time to do away with the humanities…

“Scientism” is a curious term, obviously used as a curse most often, but even at the best of times it’s defined without much understanding. Essentially it’s the ideology that everything can be understood through empirical means, gaining knowledge by analyzing data and “reducing” it all down to the physical laws. It really doesn’t take much to see why this might actually be a good idea, for two very solid reasons: the first, that we are physical beings who interact and perceive our entire existence through physical senses; and the second, that all too often when we’ve relied on the spiritual, philosophical, intuitive, emotional, or even logical conclusions produced solely within our own heads, we’ve been fantastically wrong – and these errors have most often been demonstrated by empirical means. In other words, while abstract thought might be a great way to start the investigations into our world, it needs to be backed up with something solid to prove it, because it’s not dependable enough to provide accuracy on its own.

What’s funny about this is how few people actually speak in favor of scientism, or even consider it a valid concept. Science isn’t ruled by any ideology and often proceeds without any at all, most often just driven by curiosity and the (oh so heinous) idea that starting from solid data is a good move. It would appear, however, that a few humanities professors find this to be in extreme bad taste, decrying the intrusion of science into their fields and the ultimate destruction of art, music, literature, philosophy, and degrees that many graduates regret having wasted their time on when they see how rarely the job market has a place for them. According to these professors, scientism is poised to destroy the magic, the mystery, the awe, and the passion that makes the humanities what they are. Even worse (and this really is an argument still put forth, hard as it may be to believe,) we have science to blame for all the ills of the world today.

This isn’t the best argument to put in front of a guy who’s published a book explaining how our social standards are higher, and strife and violence lower, than at any previous point in our history. But even without that, it’s a stupid argument. Understanding why we get any particular feelings from art or literature doesn’t make them go away – and if it does, one must ask just what exactly was so magical about them in the first place. The fear of the humanities professors is exactly the same as that of the theologians: that their realm can be dismissed by science pulling aside the curtain of self deception. The magic, awe, and passion are all emotional reactions. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if they vanish when examined critically, one must wonder what their purpose or value might be.

One must also wonder what can be found when the selectivity is taken away – when one compares the passion of the Mozart enthusiast against the passion of the religious martyr, the transports of the Joyce scholar against the righteousness of the rebel mercenary. These are also emotions, producing more noticeable behavior than the art enthusiast, just not as socially acceptable; considering only the good side is biased, and in fact not worthy of a college professor in any way. Moreover, this ties in surprisingly well with the idiotic argument of how science is responsible for the ills of the world, since even a child can see that it isn’t technology, but how someone is motivated to use it – this is exactly what those in the humanities should be studying and informing us about, rather than avoiding the subject and attempting instead to find a scapegoat by creating a new epithet. The bare fact that there is a significant cultural emphasis on the “bad things that science has done” is direct evidence that those in the humanities are not only failing to make useful contributions, they’re complicit in actively skewing our views of the world. If you question that as a broad assumption, tell me: who else is going to come up with an argument of that nature?

It wasn’t really my intention to demonstrate how feeble the humanities are, but there comes yet another aspect that isn’t helping any. While it’s certainly fine to receive a strong emotional response to a piece of music, there remains no small number of people who then ask, “why?” The curiosity, the passion to find out just what is behind such reactions are also emotions – moreover, ones we can thank for the millions of advances that comprise the collective noun of science in the first place. Science, despite the portrayals of these outspoken philosophers, isn’t emotionless at all, and no one who has ever spent any time in the company of scientists could rationally make that argument – it’s rather pathetic that anyone with even a brief education could think that scientists somehow depart from all the qualities that every other human has. Yet it is also emotions that can lead us astray, clouding our judgment with ego or making us believe in things without evidence – and this is exactly what the scientific method was adopted to combat. It’s ground floor, first-day-of-class knowledge, yet somehow those who have never grasped this feel obligated to render their ruling upon it, as if they have something to contribute.

Pinker missed an opportunity to wield a little Richard Feynman or Carl Sagan, trashing the argument that science takes away the passion and making those that promote it look remarkably ignorant. He also missed a very basic lesson: science is simply a methodical process of learning, not a religion; it does not impose rules on its disciples. The only rules found therein are the rules of the universe, discovered where they lie. Even worse, and this argument is heard constantly, there isn’t any place where science “doesn’t belong” – if we’re curious about something and want to use the best method to understand it that we’ve ever stumbled across in human history, then why would we not use science? In what manner is there some dividing line, some rule, that makes science off limits, and who’s responsible for creating it? If you mutter, “The people who have something to lose,” then I’m in agreement with you.

Those who have put too much faith in philosophy wield the term “reductionism” as another curse, implying that science/scientism works to reduce everything to simplistic ideas (which Pinker does touch on.) However, if such things really can be explained in terms of the molecular or atomic level – if our minds, for instance, can be found to work solely by exchange of chemical energy – then this is not reduction at all, but discovery, and fascinating in and of itself. That is, unless you possess some view that the mind is magic (dualistic/transcendental/immortal/whatever) in some way, in which case you might be disappointed and more than a little frustrated. Such a reaction isn’t either scientific or rational, though, it’s emotional, and not in a good way – petulant, juvenile, self-absorbed, pick any three. The biggest point in all of this, however, is that science only deals with what is, and if we can sense it, there’s no reason why it cannot be quantified for science. If it cannot be quantified, what the hell are we sensing? Wouldn’t the humanities actually be interested in this? You’d think so, if you accepted the goals as stated.

With funding for the humanities getting slashed in many universities, it’s easy to speculate that those who specialize in it are worried about its future – perhaps this is the motivation behind such infantile accusations, perhaps not. But even so, attempting to defend the humanities by denigrating the empirical fields that are producing results every day is a tactic we should only be seeing from reality TV, not from any reputable professor. There are two kinds of competition: improving oneself to be better than others, and tearing down others so one looks better in comparison. If those in the humanities are finding themselves in trouble, maybe they can consider the first option and step up their game. Judging from these ridiculous arguments, there’s plenty of room to grow.