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Science as Salvation? | The Nation

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Science as Salvation?

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Marcelo Gleiser

Marcelo Gleiser

The Island of Knowledge
The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning.
By Marcelo Gleiser.
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Whether or not scientists are from Mars and humanists from Venus, the “two cultures” debate about the arts and sciences has never been down to earth. For decades we’ve endured schematic sparring between straw men: humanists claim that scientists are reductive, scientists find humanists reactionary. (A recent bout between the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker and the literary critic Leon Wieseltier in the pages of The New Republic ran true to form.) Marcelo Gleiser, a physicist with strong ties to the humanities, is alarmed by the hubristic stance of his discipline and the backlash it is liable to provoke. He has written The Island of Knowledge as “a much needed self-analysis in a time when scientific speculation and arrogance are rampant…. I am attempting to protect science from attacks on its intellectual integrity.”

Perhaps this well-meant intervention is unnecessary, given the many signs of interdisciplinary concord today. These include the growth of science studies, technocultural studies and the digital humanities within the liberal arts; successful popularizations of science in the media—the new Cosmos had the largest debut of any series in television history; and the ongoing enthusiasm for science fiction in mass culture. (True, the genre is often light-years away from genuine science, but at its best it’s an exemplary merger of the two cultures.) From such portents alone, we seem poised to embrace the ideal of “one culture, many methods.” But might this be a pious platitude, if not a colossal category mistake? Are the arts and sciences actually fated to be an estranged couple, burdening their offspring with crippling complexes?

Gleiser hopes to heal the rift between the two cultures by denying the scientific dream of establishing final truths. He insists that while the arts and sciences have different methods, they are fundamentally united in their search for humanity’s roots and purposes; they also share the human limitation of finding only provisional and incomplete answers. He traces Western science’s misguided aspiration to omniscience, and its consequent devaluing of human fallibility, to its beginnings in classical Greece. This is certainly an appropriate place to start for a history of science’s Platonic aspirations. However, the origin of the “two cultures” debate that Gleiser implicitly addresses is more recent, and thus less entrenched, than his own chronology implies. The unhappy couple stands a good chance of being reconciled through judicious interventions such as his.

Their current disaffection commenced in the early nineteenth century, when the “natural philosopher,” a man of parts, began to be replaced by the specialized “scientist,” a term coined in the 1830s. A new division of labor emerged. Scientists claimed to establish objective facts and laws about the natural world by stifling their imagination and relying on empirical observation, testing and prediction; humanists embraced the Romantic imagination, interpreting the ambiguous nature of human experience through empathy as well as analysis. At the dawn of the twentieth century, reconciliation beckoned within the new domain of the “social sciences.” Economists, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and historians combined rational inquiry with intuitive insight—the sort of “scientific use of the imagination” proposed by the scientist John Tyndall and exemplified by the fictional icon Sherlock Holmes. Nevertheless, methods clashed and philosophies jostled. Should social scientists seek simple, encompassing laws like the natural sciences, or should they highlight particularity and uniqueness, like the humanities? The debate revolved around approaches deemed “nomothetic” (generalizing) or ”idiographic” (individualizing)—terms so ugly they assured public disinterest.

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The battle lines became firmly drawn in the years following World War II. In Science and Human Values (1956), Jacob Bronowski attempted to overcome the sullen suspicions between humanists and scientists, each now condemning the other for the horrifying misuse of technology during the conflict:

Those whose education and perhaps tastes have confined them to the humanities protest that the scientists alone are to blame, for plainly no mandarin ever made a bomb or an industry. The scientists say, with equal contempt, that the Greek scholars and the earnest explorers of cave paintings do well to wash their hands of blame; but what in fact are they doing to help direct the society whose ills grow more often from inaction than from error?

Bronowski was a published poet and biographer of William Blake as well as a mathematician; he knew that artists and scientists had different aims and methods. Yet he also attested that both engaged in imaginative explorations of the unities underlying the human and natural worlds.

If Bronowski’s stress on the imagination as the foundation of both the arts and sciences had prevailed, Gleiser would not need to remind his readers that Newton and Einstein shared a similar “belief in the creative process.” However, while Bronowski meant to heal the breach by exposing it, he inadvertently encouraged others to expand it into an unbridgeable gulf, a quagmire of stalemate and trench warfare. His friend C.P. Snow battened on the division in lectures that were subsequently published under the meme-friendly title The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959). Snow acknowledged that scientists could be philistine about the humanities, but his ire was directed at the humanists: they composed the governing establishment, their willful ignorance about science impeding policies that could help millions worldwide. As the historian Guy Ortolano has shown in The Two Cultures Controversy (2009), Snow tactlessly insinuated that the literary intelligentsia’s delight in irrational modernism rather than rational science was partly responsible for the Holocaust: “Didn’t the influence of all they represent bring Auschwitz that much closer?” Such ad hominem attacks raised the hackles of the literary critic F.R. Leavis, himself a master of the art. His response, Two Cultures? The Significance of C.P. Snow (1962), proved only that humanists could be just as intemperate as Snow implied. (One critic, appalled by Leavis’s vituperation, dubbed him “the Himmler of Literature.”)

The “two cultures” debate has continued for decades, often rehashing the same issues and generating more heat than light—a metaphor that reminds us of how entwined the arts and sciences are in everyday life. In recent years, however, the tone and substance of the debate have changed. There is a revived tenor of nineteenth-century scientific triumphalism, owing in part to the amazing successes of the natural sciences, from the standard model in physics to DNA sequencing and the Human Genome Project. Numerous physicists are convinced that they will discover a final “theory of everything” proving the unity of nature’s laws and defining its constituent elements. Not all scientists share this reductionist outlook, but the wider culture unintentionally reinforces it, thanks to information technology’s colonization of everyday life. We’re more primed than ever before to think in terms of keyword searches, algorithmic sequences and Big Data.

No wonder that science, for many, has become a secular holy writ, goading its believers to denounce all forms of religion as empty superstition while converting the humanistic disciplines into mere disciples of science. The new priesthood even performs last rites, as Stephen Hawking did in 2011: “Philosophy is dead,” he pronounced, because “[p]hilosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.” Gleiser is troubled by the fatuous preening of some prominent scientists, who risk alienating a public otherwise predisposed to appreciate the marvels of scientific discovery and the mysteries of scientific exploration: “To claim to know the ‘truth’ is too heavy a burden for scientists to carry. We learn from what we can measure and should be humbled by how much we can’t. It’s what we don’t know that matters.”

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