THE NEW HUMANISTS BY JOHN BROCKMAN
radically new is in the air: new ways of understanding physical
systems, new ways of thinking about thinking that call into question
many of our basic assumptions. A realistic biology of the mind,
advances in physics, electricity, genetics, neurobiology, engineering,
the chemistry of materialsall are challenging basic assumptions
of who and what we are, of what it means to be human. The arts
and the sciences are again joining together as one culture, the
third culture. Those involved in this effortscientists,
science-based humanities scholars, writersare at the center
of today's intellectual action.
JOHN BROCKMAN is publisher and editor of Edge. His most recent book (as editor) is The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century.
|Responses to "The New Humanists" from John Horgan, Daniel C. Dennett, Timothy Taylor. Alison Gopnik, Carlo Rovelli, Robert R. Provine, Steven Johnson, Lee Smolin, Jaron Lanier, Michael Shermer, Piet Hut, Joseph LeDoux, Chris Anderson, George Dyson, Kenneth Ford, Marc D. Hauser, Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi, Douglas Rushkoff, Howard Rheingold, Reuben Hersh, Keith Devlin, James O'Donnell, Clifford Pickover, Nicholas Humphrey|
THE NEW HUMANISTS
By John Brockman
In 1992, in an essay entitled "The Emerging Third Culture," I put forward the following argument:
Ten years later, that fossil culture is in decline, replaced by the emergent third culture of the essays title, a reference to C. P. Snows celebrated division of the thinking world into two culturesthat of the literary intellectual and that of the scientist. This new culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, have taken the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.
A Great Intellectual Hunger
Advances in science are being debated and propagated by the scientists of the third culture, who share their work and ideas not just with each other but with a newly educated public through their books. Staying with the basics, focusing on the real world, they have led us into one of the most dazzling periods of intellectual activity in human history, one in which their achievements are affecting the lives of everyone on the planet. The emergence of this activity is evidence of a great intellectual hunger, a desire for the new and important ideas that drive our times. Educated people are willing to make the effort to learn about these new ideas. Book review editors, television news executives, professionals, university administrators are discovering the empirical world on their own. They are reading and learning about revolutionary developments in molecular biology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, massive parallelism, neural nets, the inflationary universe, fractals, complex adaptive systems, linguistics, superstrings, biodiversity, the human genome, expert systems, punctuated equilibrium, cellular automata, fuzzy logic, virtual reality, cyberspace, and teraflop machines. Among others.
Around the fifteenth century,
the word "humanism"
was tied in with the idea
of one intellectual whole.
A Florentine nobleman knew
that to read Dante but ignore
science was ridiculous.
Leonardo was a great artist,
a great scientist, a great
was an even greater artist
and engineer. These men
were intellectually holistic
giants. To them the idea
of embracing humanism while
remaining ignorant of the
latest scientific and technological
achievements would have
been incomprehensible. The
time has come to reestablish
that holistic definition.
Key to this cultural pessimism is a belief in the myth of the noble savagethat before we had science and technology, people lived in ecological harmony and bliss. Quite the opposite is the case.
In Cultural Pessimism: Narratives of Decline in the Postmodern World, Oliver Bennett, the director of the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies at the University of Warwick, pushes matters a step further when he writes that "the intellectual judgments on which cultural pessimism rests are inflected by that same complex of biological, psychological and sociological factors that are linked to the incidence of some forms of depression and anxiety." He wonders whether the intellectuals of the postmodern world would benefit from antidepressants ("Schopenhauer on Prozac would perhaps have produced a different philosophical system").
That the greatest change continues to be the rate of change must be hard to deal with, if you're still looking at the world through the eyes of Spengler and Nietzsche. In their almost religious devotion to a pessimistic worldview, the academic humanists cannot acknowledge that thoughtful people can have positive ideas. Within their own circles, they have, until recently, gotten away with it. The romantic emoting of a culturally pessimistic worldview has been intellectually approved. The world of the professional pessimists is a closed system, a culture of previous "isms" that turn on themselves and endlessly cycle. How many times have you seen the name of an academic humanist icon in a newspaper or magazine article and immediately stopped reading? You know what's coming. Why waste the time?
The Double Optimism of Science
As a counternarrative to this cultural pessimism, consider the double
optimism of science.
The second level of optimism concerns the content of science. Much of the news is either good news or news that can be made good, thanks to ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques. Because the findings of science are not mere matters of opinion, they sweep past systems of thought based only on opinion. Science, on its frontiers, poses more and better questions, better put. They are questions phrased to elicit answers; the scientists find the answers, and move on.
debate continually, and reality is the check. They may have egos as
large as those possessed by the iconic figures of the academic humanities,
but they handle their hubris in a very different way. They can be
moved by arguments, because they work in an empirical world of facts,
a world based on reality. There are no fixed, unalterable positions.
Scientists As Both Creators and Critics
significant aspect of the third culture is that scientists are both
the creators and the critics of the scientific enterprise. Ideas come
from scientists, who also criticize each other's ideas. Through the
process of creativity and criticism and debates, scientists decide
which ideas get weeded out and which become part of the consensus
that leads to the next stage. All scientists are involved in coming
up with new ideas and engaged in the critique of existing ideas, whereas
in literature and the other arts the creators and the critics are,
with few exceptions, two distinct sets of people.
Science is still near the beginning. As the frontiers advance, the
horizon gets wider and comes into focus. And these advances have changed
the way we see our place in nature. The idea that we are an integral
part of this universea universe governed by physical and mathematical
laws that our brains are attuned to understandcauses us to see
our place in the unfolding of natural history differently. We have
come to realize, through developments in astronomy and cosmology,
that we are still quite near the beginning. The history of creation
has been enormously expandedfrom six thousand years back to
the twelve or thirteen billion years of big bang cosmology. But the
future has expanded even moreperhaps to infinity. In the seventeenth
century, people not only believed in that constricted past but thought
that history was near its end: the apocalypse was coming.
people, even many scientists, have a narrow view of science as controlled,
replicated experiments performed in the laboratoryand as consisting
quintessentially of physics, chemistry, and molecular biology. The
essence of science is conveyed by its Latin etymology: scientia,
meaning knowledge. The scientific method is simply that body of practices
best suited for obtaining reliable knowledge. The practices vary among
fields: the controlled laboratory experiment is possible in molecular
biology, physics, and chemistry, but it is either impossible, immoral,
or illegal in many other fields customarily considered sciences, including
all of the historical sciences: astronomy, epidemiology, evolutionary
biology, most of the earth sciences, and paleontology. If the scientific
method can be defined as those practices best suited for obtaining
knowledge in a particular field, then science itself is simply the
body of knowledge obtained by those practices.
One Culture, the Third Culture
radically new is in the air: new ways of understanding physical systems,
new ways of thinking about thinking that call into question many of
our basic assumptions. A realistic biology of the mind, advances in
physics, electricity, genetics, neurobiology, engineering, the chemistry
of materialsall are challenging basic assumptions of who and
what we are, of what it means to be human. The arts and the sciences
are again joining together as one culture, the third culture. Those
involved in this effortscientists, science-based humanities
scholars, writersare at the center of today's intellectual action.
|Responses to "The New Humanists" from John Horgan, Daniel C. Dennett, Timothy Taylor. Alison Gopnik, Carlo Rovelli, Robert R. Provine, Steven Johnson, Lee Smolin, Jaron Lanier, Michael Shermer, Piet Hut, Joseph LeDoux, Chris Anderson, George Dyson, Kenneth Ford, Marc D. Hauser, Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi, Douglas Rushkoff, Howard Rheingold, Reuben Hersh, Keith Devlin, James O'Donnell, Clifford Pickover, Nicholas Humphrey|
From: John Horgan
if your essay was meant to provoke, it obviously succeeded. But
it really works more as a kind of Nike ad for science than a serious
analysis of science's relation to the humanities or culture as
a whole. It reminds me of Wired rhetoric, pre-Nasdaq crash,
or of the jacket copy for books about the Santa Fe Institute in
its giddy early days. Science rules!
A few more cantankerous thoughts:
You say scientists confront the "real world," as opposed to these humanist ignorami. I wish you had named names, so we could judge if your targets match your cartoon description. But let's take Judith Butler, who does deconstruction of sexual identity and is a favorite whipping girl of those bemoaning the decadence of the humanities. I would submit that she's far more engaged with realityour human realitythan string theorists or inflationary cosmologists.
Certainly some science trade books, such as Ed Wilson's latest, Future of Life, address issues that should concern any thoughtful person. But tell me, John, is there any science book as important for someone today to read as, say, Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations?
And lots of popular trade books in science are peddling sci-fi escapism, geared especially toward socially awkward adolescent males. What does Lee Smolin's evolutionary cosmology have to do with the real world, honestly, or Ray Kurzweil's fantasies about what it would be like to be transformed into pure software?
I'm a science geek, so I find this sort of stuff entertaining, when well done, but I certainly can't blame others who have no taste for it. Let's face it, trade science books are best understood as a minuscule sub-niche of the entertainment industry. If people would rather read about Virginia Woolf's sex lifeor watch "Friends," for that matterthan wrestling with Brief History of Time or Origins of Order, I don't think they should have to feel like second-class citizens.
I agree with you that we would all be better off if more people
were scientifically literate. But to me, scientific literacy does
not mean getting all excited over the latest scientific "breakthrough,"
whether brane theory or monoclonal antibodies or nanotech. It
means knowing enough to distinguish genuine advances from the
hype surrounding Prozac or evolutionary psychology or Star Wars
or gene therapy.
Best wishes, and thanks for getting my adrenaline going.
JOHN HORGAN is a freelance writer and author of The Undiscovered Mind. [more....]
From: Daniel C. Dennett
I'm happy to join in the Third Culture victory dance, and I agree with most of what you have to say in your essay, but I also share some of the misgivings expressed, and would like to add a few of my own.
As Nick Humphrey urges, you should drop the paranoia. You've-we've-won. And as usual, there's a danger of squandering the spoils, and ignoring some of the problems created or exacerbated by victory. As Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi notes, many of the problems in the humanities these days are due to misplaced science-envy, misbegotten attempts to make the humanities more like the natural sciences. And as Marc Hauser says, your essay does contain some self-congratulatory caricatures.
to what you say, there are "systems" and "schools" in science
every bit as ruthless in the suppression of heresy as their counterparts
in the humanities. Science abounds in received doctrines and authorities
that one questions at the risk of being branded a fool or worse,
and for every young humanities scholar writing fashionably formulaic
drivel about one deservedly obscure poet or critic or another,
there are several young scientists uncritically doing cookbook
science filling in the blanks of data tables that nobody will
ever care to consult. I'm told that "Sturgeon's Law" is that 95%
of everything is crap, and while I would be inclined to adjust
that percentage to about 50% (I'm a softie, I guess) so far as
I can see, the percentagewhatever it isis not markedly
lower in neuroscience than it is in literary theory. Don't make
the mistake of comparing some of the best examples on one side
with some of the worst on the other. Hebb's rule, that if it isn't
worth doing, it isn't worth doing well, could put a lot of scientists
out of work along with their makework colleagues in the humanities.
Many years ago, the National Endowment for the Humanities had to come up with a term to refer to its clientele, and it chose what I think was a neologism at the time, "academic humanist," to refer to those professors and researchers in literature, history, and philosophy departments, along with "humanistic" psychologists and "cultural" anthropologists and the like. The idea was to exclude artists (NEA, not NEH) but not art historians, fossil-hunters (physical anthropologists) but not rite-interpreters and archaeologists, etc. So it's a grab-bag formed by excluding the "hard" sciences and the performing, creating artsleaving mainly, the "humanities" departments in colleges and universities.
Obviously the term has hardly anything to do with Renaissance Humanism or with the secular humanism so feared by the religious right. Perhaps the confusions sown by these overlapping terms makes "New Humanists" a gratuitously contentious label. But perhaps not. The term reminds me of a remark made by a wonderful physics teacher I had in high school: "Science taught right is one of the humanities!" What that teacher had in mind is exactly what you are celebrating in your essay: the deep appreciation of how scientific thinking enriches our perspectives on the world we live inall our perspectives, not just our narrowly scientific interests.
But it's a two way-street. When scientists decide to "settle" the hard questions of ethics and meaning, for instance, they usually manage to make fools of themselves, for a simple reason: they are smart but ignorant. The reason that philosophers spend so much of their time and energy raking over the history of the field is that the history of philosophy consists, in large measure, of very tempting mistakes, and the only way to avoid making them again and again and again is to study how the great thinkers of the past got snared by them.
Scientists who think their up-to-date scientific knowledge renders them immune to the illusions that lured Aristotle and Hume and Kant and the others into such difficulties are in for a rude awakening. One of the ignoble pleasures provided to philosophers by the current wave of enthusiastic scientist/authors offering their shoot-from-the-hip solutions to the problem of consciousness, for instance, is watching all the eminent pratfalls. The hard part is to keep from saying "we told you so." Intrepid poaching is to be applauded, and some of the best ideas I have encountered "in the humanities" in recent years were blurted out by imaginative amateurs interloping from the sciences, but genuine curiosity and humility is part of the package.
finally, science could make better use some of the traditional
scholarly talents and habits of the humanists. As digitized texts
become the sole medium of research, there are thousands of valuable
experiments hiding modestly in thousands of old journals, swiftly
fading into oblivion. There is valuable data mining to be doneby
hand, the old-fashioned way, by people who can read German and
French and Russian in addition to knowing the latest theoriesbut
I wonder if the scientific establishment will reward such scholarship.
From: Timothy Taylor
Far from recognizing recent putative victories of science as heralding a 'new humanism', I see the potential for a new barbarism. If a literary critic wrote something about 'air atoms' we might laugh; but when an eminent evolutionary biologist uses the word 'metaphysical' as if it meant 'supernatural' or 'mystical' (as one recently did) no one appears to notice. Arts, humanities and philosophy scholars read popular scienceif they read it at allwith an already jaded eye. No misuse of language (and consequent betrayal of muddled and unsophisticated thought) comes as a surprise any longer.
One could go off in many directions from the provocative starting point of John Brockman's essay on the 'new humanists', contrasting humanities subjects with 'hard' sciences; experimento-predictive science with historical science (necessity vs. contingency); or post-modernism with various brands of rationalism and Marxism.
I recognize some of what John diagnoses as frustrating (and worse)
in the social sciences'text-in, text-out' bubbles of inconsequential,
content-free activity only blasphemously given the name of scholarship.
But we must also recognize that there has been an extraordinaryand
often extraordinarily arrogantunderestimation of the complexity
of the humanities by some hard scientists who extend themselves
across the arts-sciences divide. Personally, I have no doubt that
to do moral philosophy well, for instance, requires a longer intellectual
training than is typically needed to make advances in, say, plasma
physics or genetics. But I also know that some physicists and geneticists
are prone not to recognize this. I do not mean to say that what
they do is simple-minded (emphatically it is not), simply that some
(perhaps much) of it is epistemologically more straight-forward.
should note that only in (1) and (3) is an association with atheism
explicitly signalled and that Renaissance humanists like Leonardo
believed in God (indeed their sense of wonder at the world and their
urge to invent and subcreate within it was often felt to be part
of discharging human duties that were ultimately divine in origin).
However, scientific humanism, as it arose with Darwin in opposition
to the dogma of Victorian clerics, is explicitly associated with
atheism or agnosticism, and is understood by many to point the way
towards a purely scientifically-grounded theory of right actionethical
TIMOTHY TAYLOR is an archaeologist at University of Bradford, UK, and author of The Buried Soul. [more....]
From: Alison Gopnik
is another reason why recent scientific advances, and the emergence
of the third culture, provide at least some grounds for optimism.
One of the arenas where we are making the most scientific progress
is in our understanding of the origins of our own knowledge of the
world, including the origins of science itself. It increasingly
appears that human beings are, by and large, designed to get at
the truth about the world. Much of the scientific process seems
quite continuous with the ordinary ways that we learn about and
make sense of the world, literally from the time we are born. From
a scientific point of view, nonscientists ought to be able
to follow, reflect on, understand and even emotionally empathize
with scientific activityand the success of popular science
suggests that they do. Science provides us with a structured, socially
organized way of exercising our innate truth-finding capacities.
Two sources of "cognitive illusion" are particularly relevant to the current culture. One involves cases where our explanatory drive far outstrips the evidence that is available to us. Ironically, the very motivations and emotions that are celebrated by many of the contributors to this discussion, the sense of glory in order and pleasure in explanation, may also be at the root of the continued appeal of magic, superstition and religious belief.
The other, perhaps more serious, problem, concerns the division of labor that is at the heart of the success of modern, socially organized science. The division of labor is itself one of the successful evolutionary devices that allow us to find the truth. By listening to their mothers, each generation of children can jump-start their way to the truth and take advantage of the militia of human investigation that preceded their appearance on the scene. But these mechanisms of authority and deference can easily produce a sort of cognitive software virus, a kind of counterworld in which the conventions take over from the realityas in the medieval universities or many parts of the "official" humanities today. One of the puzzles of the history of science is why science never really took off in China. After all, China had an elaborate set of social institutions that encouraged and rewarded specialized scholarship, an enormous system of competitive examinations, and detailed mechanisms for establishing authority and passing on knowledge. Maybe the answer is that that social infrastructure, so painfully reminiscent of the contemporary American academic mandarinate, hurt more than it helped. The European intellectuals who started institutions like the Royal Society stayed as far away from the contemporary universities as they could.
Ultimately, though, there are grounds for at least a contingent kind of optimism (contingent, for example, on the fact that nuclear war or global warming don't get us first). In other areas, understanding both our capacities and limitations has led us to increase those capacities and overcome those limitationsthe fact that I'm wearing glasses and writing this on a computer is testament to that. As we increasingly understand our learning capacities and limitations we ought, at least in principle, to be able to overcome both the intrinsic and social obstacles. Its just a guess, but I suspect that the program of John's essay will be one way to help solve the social organization problem. By providing social institutions that bridge and bypass the divisions of labor we ought to both be able to provide the right links between science and nonscientists, and to prevent the sort of internal wheel-spinning we see in so many parts of the "humanities" and too many parts of the sciences themselves.
ALISON GOPNIK is a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley and coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn. [more....]
From: Carlo Rovelli
Once more, John Brockman reclaims the cultural centrality of scientific thinking in our civilization. John tells us that a new "intellectual whole", a fresh reading of the world, is being developed by advancing contemporary science. This is the central role, recalls John, science had in the Renaissance that opened the modern age. Scientists today, or at least some scientists today, are the new humanists, searching and offering a powerful evolving, complex and articulated reading of the world, which is the core of today's culture.
I'd like to tell a story in this regard. It is a story that offers a perspective, and has a moral.
Many and many centuries ago, a young king of a small mountain kingdom had the wisest of all men as his teacher. The teacher taught the young king that knowledge is the source of civilization. And that rational scientific thinking is the way to knowledge. He nurtured in the king the immense dream of a novel world civilization, founded on knowledge. The king went to war. In his army, he did not have just soldiers, he had scientists, mathematicians, natural philosophers, engineers, writers, historians. People were amazed by the power of this army, that seemed capable, at times, to bend the world at his will. A city on a small island was considered impregnable: the scientists and engineers build a novel stretch of land to reach the island and took the city. The king conquered an immense empire, all the way to India. His life was brief and his empire fell rapidly apart. But his companions and the descendants of his companions inherited pieces of the empire, became wise kings and preserved the faith in knowledge. They built a great library to guard and propagate knowledge, and they keenly nurtured science. And science and knowledge developed astonishingly. The greatest scientist of all times lived then, medicine was born, optics was born, astronomy was born, physics was born, the basic book with the grammar of science, which we have all studied in school, was written in those times ... a way of enquiring the world had been found... With it, new huge ships were built, commerce flourished, new lands were reached, industries developed, people were healed, and the city of the wise king was diverse, prosperous, tolerant, intellectually vibrant and projected towards the future...
This is not a fairy tale. It is the true story of our civilization. The number of centuries ago is precisely twenty three. The young king is of course Alexander the Great. His wise teacher was Aristotle. The kings that continued his cultural politics are the Ptolemies in Alexandria. The great scientist is Archimedes. The book with the basic grammar of science we all have studied is Euclid's Elements, which created geometry. This is our deep heritage.
But did this inheritance continue across the centuries? No. Civilization fell back to obscurantism. The Romans failed to understand it. The story goes that they murdered Archimedes. Certainly they did not understand earlier theoretical science anymore. Time went on, things got worse and worse. The great library of Alexandria was burned down. Irrational and religious thinking prevailed. The kind of thinking whose effects we can well contemplate today in its very central nest: Jerusalem...
Eighteen century later, European men, full of awe and respect, slowly started to search and translate ancient books, where remaining bits of the old knowledge were still present, copied over and over by innumerable hidden and devoted hands. It took sometime, but soon some of these men, courageously, decided not to just rediscover, but to start the path again, push the path ahead. Galileo Galilei was one of these, well aware, as is clear in his writings, that he was doing again, eighteen centuries later, what had begun in ancient times. The path of rational knowledge had restarted. To a large extent, the modern world exists thanks to cumulated rational knowledge: the Greeks' recipe has worked.
Why tell this story? For various reasons. One is to remember that when we teach, say, elementary physics, we are not just training bored students to technical problem solving. We are telling them the story of one of the most extraordinary of the human adventures, the successful paths to knowledge. This is the story of human intelligence used at its best, with advantages for anyone of us. We are teaching the ways of the path to knowledge in our species, nothing less. The second reason is that I do not think Plato or Kant, or Wittgenstein, or so much of western philosophy, could be comprehensible, without the full understanding of the mathematics and the science of their times. And so many are the cultural misreadings of the historians who failed to understand the relevant mathematics and science (on this, and on others of the ideas presented here, see Lucio Russo's La Rivoluzione Dimenticata, Feltrinelli).
But the main reason for keeping this story in mind is that the Greeks had the far reaching intuition of the identity of civilization, knowledge, and rational thinking: but the they eventually lost. It took humanity eighteen centuries to restart the experiment. The path was lost once, and could be lost, in larger or smaller part, again. That we stay this direction is far from being granted.
We are certainly far away from obscurantism. But there are also signs of reaction against scientific thinking, and John's optimistic essay is also a warning against these. There are heavy signs of irrationalism all other the planet, and also in the words of our very top leaders. Our guarantee against obscurantism is not democracy alone: peoples have often voted into power forces that openly adhered to irrationalism such as the Nazis, or some current governments. Our guarantee against obscurantism is the widespread recognition of the vital and clear force of rational scientific thinking. This can help us finding a better world, if irrationalism (or the thirst of power and wealth concentration of our political leaderships) don't drive us down.
When I talk with cultivated people that happily claim they know nothing about math and science, I get even more scared than when powerful people say they do not read books. The control might fall in the hands of people that have no understanding of the basics of our understanding of the world, of our capacity of getting to correct answers and correct predictions.
There is much that is not science and that we want to defend around us. This does not change the core of John's thesis, that scientific thinking is at the core of our knowledge based civilization. We can add to this our thirsty belief in justice; our faith in dreams; our deep awareness of the emptiness of life; or our faith in humanity as a value; our desire of beauty; our joy in talking to all objects with a song; our sense of the mystery; and anything else that the wonders of the human adventure have given us. Nothing of this is challenged by science or challenges science. To the very contrary. The scientific quest for knowledge is deeply emotional in its ways and motivations. But if we resist it, we resist reality. Reality, however complex and unknowledgeable in its deepness, is there, and fights back. This is why rational scientific thinking is stronger. Whenever science has an answer to a well posed question, this answer is, at present, by far the best available answer.
than that, science is intrinsically capable of multiplying well
posed questions. And in this way it leads us continuously to unexpected
new realms. The intensity with which this is happening in the last
decades is wonderful. Yes, I agree with John that we are in a moment
of splendid explosion. Science has opened new realms that no unrealist
could ever dream of. Myself, I work in science because I believe
in dreams. Science offers such magical dreams, so much more colored
and so much more real than the tenuous dream called everyday's reality.
From: Robert R. Provine
New Humanist Warriors
While reading "The New Humanists", I found myself mostly nodding in agreement. After all, Brockman is preaching to the choir. What's not to like? It's difficult to argue with scientific flag and motherhood statements. It's obvious that the rest of the world should think and act more like us. Most scientists use empirical methods to seek that which is deep, elegant, and true, using experimental methods to settle disputes and reject error. The power of good science is that the method is so effective that it transcends mediocre practitioners. Like penicillin, it works despite who dispenses it. Many of the New Humanist values have already gained a foothold in Western society, with the power of technology and medicine converting many skeptics. I was not sure whether to treat the essay as a manifesto, progress report, self-congratulation, or declaration of victoryit's clearly too late in the game for a call to action. Brockman's 1992 essay, "The Emerging Third Culture", had more work to do.
I direct attention to a topic neglected in this new essay, the scientist/writer warriors of his New Humanism who are to enlighten, entertain, and change the world. Writing by these Third Culture intellectuals has a personal cost, scientific productivity. (The financial costs were nicely solved by the development of a literary niche.) Few, if any, Nobelists and Nobel class scientists write books, at least while occupied at the lab bench and in hot pursuit of the Prize. The 24/7 schedule of cutting-edge science leaves little time for writing, let alone book writing. Unless scientist/writers are highly efficient, they may become the handmaidens (handbutlers?) of this enterprise, not its leaders. Research reports in refereed journals are the preferred publication form of scientists. And grant writing is necessary to pay laboratory bills and keep university administrators at bay.
perched before the word processor, a scientist is neither turning
the crank on the research machine nor bringing in research dollars,
but is performing an important service. Books and key reviews advance
the scientific enterprise, especially in framing issues, organizing
scattered material, establishing new lines of endeavor, and, if
directed to a broad audience, educating the public who finance the
research. A book does this more effectively than shorter, more dispersed
journal articles that may never reach critical mass. However, the
act of writing also benefits the scientist. Text is crystallized
thought, and the act of writing, especially writing in the long-form
of a book, forces intellectual discipline. Writing is the act of
learning what it is that you have to say. Blocking may reveal the
terrible truth that you are confused and need to rethink what you
are trying to do. Writing goes beyond reporting and is an active
tool in intellectual and scientific activity. It's unfortunate that
the fast pace of catch-as-catch-can modern science makes it difficult
for science stories to be told by those who can tell them best,
the scientists who are doing the work and love what they are doing.
From: Steven Johnson
John, I read thisand the responseswith great interest, as I do everything that gets published on Edge. As others have suggested, the site itself is the finest example of the phenomenon you describe in the essay. Kudos on both.
think Nicholas Humphrey may have a point when he says that "you've
already won." One brief piece of anecdotal evidence: I attended
a dinner party last weekend that was populated entirely by people
who had spent their undergraduateand in some cases graduateyears
in the trenches of post-modernist theory. These were all people,
like me, who had sworn allegiance to Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault,
Jameson, et al. in their early twenties. (A number were Semiotics
majors with me at Brown.) Any science courses we'd taken in those
days we took in order to archly deconstruct the underlying "paradigm
of research", or expose one of any number of "centrisms" lurking
behind the scientific text and its illusory claims of empirical
I don't think my dinner survey was anomalous. It seems to me that the most interesting work right now is work that tries to bridge the two worlds, that looks for connections rather than divisions. I think that's what Wilson was proposing in Consilience: not the annexing of the humanities by the sciences, but a kind of conceptual bridge-building. In fact, I would say that the most consilient work today has come from folks trained as cultural criticsbooks like Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire with its mix of Nietzsche and Dawkins, or Manuel De Landa's 1000 Years of Non-Linear History with its unique combination of Deleuze and chaos theory.
I suspect there are other bridges to build in the coming years, but the traffic along those bridges will have to be two-way for the interaction to pay off. Obviously, the post-modernists have made a lot of noise trashing the empirical claims of sciences, but if you tune out a lot of that bombast, there's quite a bit in the structuralist and post-structuralist tradition that resonates with new developments in the sciences. To name just a few: the underlying premise of deconstructionthat our systems of thought are fundamentally shaped and limited by the structure of languageresonates with many chapters of a book like The Language Instinct. (I tried to persuade Pinker of this when I interviewed him years ago for Feed.) The postmodern assumption of a "constructed reality" dovetails nicely with the idea of consciousness as a kind of artificial theater, and not a direct apprehension of things in themselves. Semiotics and structuralism both began with Levi-Strauss' research into universal mythology, which obviously has deep connections to the project of evolutionary psychology.
So it seems to me that there are a number of productive avenues that scientists can explore by visiting the world of the humanitiesand not just vice versa. I hope more of that exploration can happen on Edgethere's really no better forum for it.
STEVEN JOHNSON, co-founder of Feed, a pioneering Web publication, is the author of Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. [more....]
From: Lee Smolin
To my mind what is significant about the idea of a Third Culture and a New Humanism has little to do with a split between academic humanists and scientists. That was the old First/Second culture debate, and there is no need to rehash it. The point I think John is making, and the point that I think is worth discussing is the extent to which that old split has been transcended by the work of some scientists and humanists over the last few decades. I believe that it has, and the reason is that there has been a turn in the kind of questions people are asking across a broad range of fields, andeven more importantlythere has been a shift in what kinds of answers scientists, social scientist and humanists have been searching for in their work. This shift, which I will characterize in a moment, is what characterizes the Third Culture and New Humanism, and it is also why these movements are able to resolve the old disputes between First and Second Culture scientists and humanists.
Thus, what Third Culture and New Humanist intellectuals have to offer society is far more than just being in touch with science. They represent the vanguard of a broad intellectual movement that already has representatives in diverse fields of the sciences, social sciences and humanities.
I think the deepest characterization of this new movement is epistemological, because it is about the kinds of questions people are asking and the kinds of answers they are searching for. It is indicated by the emergence of new styles of explanation which reject the notion of an eternal "ultimate reality" perceived by God alone in favor of more rational and accessible styles of explanations. The old style explanation relies on the hypothesis that behind the ever changing appearances there is an "ultimate reality" that is eternal and unchanging. This eternal reality may be God, it may be eternal principles of justice or aesthetics, or it may be the ultimate laws of nature. The new style of explanation rejects such ideas as being in the end little different from mysticism, as the alleged "ultimate reality" is unknown and unknowable. As pointed out by C. S. Peirce, any explanation that rests on an appeal to the existence of ultimate and unchanging eternal laws of nature is fundamentally irrational, because there can be no further explanation of why those laws of nature, rather than some others, hold. Such an explanation is logically no different than an appeal to "the mind of God."
The new style of explanation rejects the Platonic myth of an eternal realm of true ideas in favor of the idea that knowledge has no meaning apart from what humans beings, as part of the natural world, can perceive and agree on. It also rejects the transcendent fantasies according to which scientist used to picture themselves outside of reality and outside of any society, in the place of God, surveying all that exists without being a part of it. Instead, many scientists are now happy to see ourselves as individuals who work inside of communities of living beings, who seek knowledge by sharing their observations and debating their ideas.
At the same time, this new style of explanation is neither relativist nor irrational. It believes that there is a truth to things, and that human beings are capable of finding it. It is just rejects as irrational mythology the idea that truth is possible because of the existence of an imagined platonic realm of eternal, absolute ideas. Instead, this new movement grounds the notion and possibility of truth on the ability human beings have to argue rationally and in good faith from shared evidence and, by doing so, to arrive at agreement. To accept this is to accept also the notion that rationality is situated and pluralistic. By accepting that there will be things that appear differently from different viewpoints, we strengthen the importance of those things that we find we can agree on.
A contributing factor to this shift is that our cosmological picture has changed drastically, in a way that makes the search for an eternal "ultimate reality" incoherent. Relativity and quantum theory tell us that science must be based on relational quantities, that have to do with relationships between things in the universe, and that no appeal to anything transcend or eternal or otherwise outside the universe is possible, or even meaningful. Observations tell us that we live in a young universe, that was born a relatively short time ago, and has been evolving ever since. It is far from clear what eternal laws of physics can mean, when the universe itself is only a few billion years old.
An aspect of this is the attitude towards reductionism. Everyone can agree that when something is made of parts it is of course useful to explain it in terms of its parts. This is fine but the problem is that there is a natural limitation to how far such a reductionist explanation can be pushed. When it succeeds, reductionism must lead to an explanation in terms of some set of elementary particles and forces. But then there is a problem, because if the elementary particles are truly fundamental their properties cannot be explained by a further appeal to reductionism. So the question of why these fundamental particles and laws, and not others, must be answered in some way that is not itself reductionist. So if we truly want a rational understanding of why things are as they are, and not otherwise, we must follow the path of reductionism till we find out what the fundamental parts are, but after this we must find new, non reductionist modes of explanation.
Once a science reaches the point where naive reductionism can take us no further, there are three moves one can make. The first is of course to deny the existence of a crisis with reductionism and continue in a hopeless search for the eternal "ultimate reality". Unfortunately, this characterizes some, but by no means all, recent work in fundamental physics. Physicists who align themselves with the "many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, "eternal inflation" or who believe that theoretical physics is about to end with the discovery of "M theory" are operating from what may be called a "nostalgia for the absolute." There are similar, nostalgic movements in other fields.
The second response is what can be called the postmodernist move. This begins by denying the use of reductionism and the importance of rational understandings altogether. Truth is held to be nothing but a social construction, and a thorough going relativism is embraced. This is even worse than the nostalgic response, because it undermines the very reasons for the crisis, and leaves us suspended in an impotent haze from within which we cannot even remember how useful rational thought has been for improving our world, politically, scientifically and humanly. Even more than that, the postmodern ideology sabotages the possibility for democracy, because it denies the possibility that people in different situations, with different points of view, can argue rationally on the basis of shared evidence and reach agreement and mutual understanding.
There is however, a third, progressive response to the crisis in the search for "ultimate reality." This is to accept the strengths and limitations of reductionism and to seek to go beyond it to a more comprehensive and powerful kind of explanation. Evolution by natural selection is a paradigmatic example of such a theory: it is consistent with reductionism, but transcends it in being ultimately historical and allowing causation to go both ways-from the more to less complex, and the reverse. By attributing order to self-organization rather than design from the outside, evolution by natural selection offers an essentially rational mode of understanding that avoids any mystical appeal to eternal "ultimate causes of things."
Another characteristic of such explanations is that they may be applied to whole systems, which contain both all their causes and all their observers. Such whole systems include the universe, societies and ecologies. This implies that there is no useful view from outside the system, instead description and explanation are both pluralistic and relational, because they must take into account that any observer is situated inside the system. Thus, rather than denying objectivity, this kind of approach rationalizes it, by rooting objectivity in what may be observed from many, distinct view points, rather than in a mythical appeal to an "ultimate reality or an imaginary viewpoint from outside the system. This makes possible both sciencethat is knowledge without appeal to authorityand democracy in a pluralistic, multi-ethnic society.
This new kind of explanation characterizes much of modern biology, as well as recent approaches to complex and self-organized systems, whether economic, sociological, physical or biological. Into this category also goes new approaches to the foundations of quantum mechanics, which have been called relational quantum theory and new approaches to explanation in cosmology, such as cosmological natural selection, the notion of internal observables, and varying speed of light cosmologies.
believe that what John has called the Third Culture and the New
Humanism is ultimately rooted in this pluralistic, relational approach
to knowledge. It characterizes many (although of course not all)
of the thinkers that were interviewed in the Third Culture book.
But the divide between the older, absolutes-seeking styles of thought
and the newer, pluralistic and embodied, relational approach does
not run cleanly between the sciences and the humanities. Many of
the key debates now animating science are between specialists whose
philosophical predilections put them on either side of this divide.
The debates between many worlds and relational approaches to quantum
mechanics or between string theorists and loop quantum gravity theorists
clearly reflect this larger debate. So do the debates in evolutionary
theory about the level and mechanisms of natural selection and the
debates among computer scientists concerning the possibility of
strong artificial intelligence. At the same time there are artists,
philosophers, scholars, architects and legal theorists whose work
is an exploration of the implications of the new attitude towards
knowledge. Among them one can mention legal theorists such as Roberto
Unger and Drucilla Cornell and artists and writers as diverse as
Brian Eno and Pico Iyer.
LEE SMOLIN is a theoretical physicist and a founding member at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo Canada. And author of Three Roads to Quantum Gravity. [more....]
From: Jaron Lanier
are playing a vital role in moving the sciences beyond a defensive
posture in response to turf attacks from the "postmodernists" and
other leeches on the academies. You celebrate science and technology
as our most pragmatic expressions of optimism.
there's a community of scientists who have become the "new humanists",
but that isn't good enough.
While "postmodern" academics and "2nd culture" celebrity figures are perhaps the most insufferable enemies of science, they are certainly not the most dangerous. Even as we are beginning to peer at biology's most essential foundations for the first time, we find ourselves in a situation in which vast portions of the educated population have turned against the project of science in favor of pop alternatives that are usually billed as being more "spiritual". These range from the merely silly (such as astrology) to the archaic, mean, and often violent religious orthodoxies which seem to be gaining power within many of the world's religious traditions at the same time.
What is it that drives vast numbers of people into superstition, and the inevitable exploitation that follows from it? What is it, for instance, that has made medicine informed by science (often derided as being merely "Western", or "Allopathic") so unattractive to so many smart people, when it is utterly clear that it has been an overwhelming success?
Perhaps the science culture elite has not sufficiently appreciated the task it must take on if it is to be its own advocate. Postmodern critics of science are mostly merely ridiculous, while the mainstream enemies of science are something much worse: They are winning.
What does that word "spirituality" mean? Let me propose a definition: One's spirituality is the range of one's emotional relationships to those questions which cannot be answered. Scientists and technologists naturally gravitate away from such questions. "What happens when you die?", for instance. Of what we cannot speak we remain silent. We have made peace with the big questions every child asks by finding the limits to our abilities to answer them.
Many of us have grown comfortable with a few familiar and eternal splotches of ignorance, even though they are centrally placed in our fields of view, because there have been compensations for our disappointments. We're delighted that the universe can be understood so well in so many ways, and specifically that we've been able to make personal contributions to that understanding. We're often enchanted with the beauty we see in nature; beauty that's harder for non-specialized people to appreciate. Some among us have even found faith of one sort or another, but usually only faith which is precisely coincident with those splotches of ignorance.
But what we forget is that many people, probably most, haven't had life experiences which lubricate such intellectual bargains. Most people are not comfortable with accepting a little unfortunately-placed ignorance, or perhaps uncertainty leading to only rigorously bounded zones of faith, in exchange for robust specialized knowledge in other areas. There is every reason in the world to ridicule stupid elitist cultural figures who use trendy pessimisms as a cover for narcissism. Yes, please, let's have fun with them. But that approach won't do much for the hugely larger number of people who suffer from sincere anxiety about the unanswerable big questions.
I'd like to focus on one particular cultural pathway which I believe is driving much of the public away from the sciences, because some members of the edge.com community are central to it. It goes like this: A scientist or technologist is sought out by the media because she is articulate about life beyond the lab. She appears on TV talking about items with human interest using the intellectual framework of her research. Suppose she likes to think in the terms of artificial intelligence, evolutionary psychology, or some of the other intellectual frameworks which refute the "specialness" of people in order to clarify investigations. An idea arising from such a framework which might serve a purpose in the lab often turns out to fall flat out in the open environment. For instance, if she's an artificial intelligence researcher, she might in passing wonder if a lonely, childless couples could raise a robotic child for comfort in the future. This was an idea in a popular science fiction movie recently, but was also espoused as a reasonable and realistic eventuality by an MIT scientist on National Public Radio.
Within the informed scientific and technological community, it's possible to have a nuanced debate about such a remark. It's possible to ask if the scale of complexity in a real child can really be approximated by a digital device anytime in the relevantly near future. One might point out that even if the hardware gets vast and fast enough, we don't seem to be able to write stable giant programs, so some unforeseen advances would at a minimum be required on the software front.
But that's not what happens out in the wide world of non-scientists. "Soft", or "spiritual" people, for instance, are often disturbed and become more likely to cancel doctors' appointments in favor of aromatherapy sessions. If scientists think robots and children are the same, then a pox on them! When the artificial intelligence researcher equated, even in a very narrow sense, information systems and human beings, she inadvertently answered some of the big questions of childhood in a particular way. I fear the message ends up being heard as something like, "Not only is there no soul, no afterlife, no nothing magical about you at all, but I'm an elite scientist who can see into your circuitry and make another thing like you, thus making you in a fundamental way subordinate to me."
The arts and humanities (and lets not forget the religions!) have been perpetually faced with the challenge of making simple things complicated. So we have preposterously garbled academic books about philosophy and art. This is a little like that old trope about Cargo Cults. When I was trained as a composer, I was made to study ridiculously arcane academic music that only a small number of people could understand. This simulated the situation in physics, in the hopes that similar prestige, budgets, and even parking spaces on campus might be forthcoming for the most celebrated and cryptic elite. In this case the cargo cult approach worked!
Science faces the opposite problem. Most scientists would be delighted if the inherent elitism of a hard discipline would suddenly drop away, so that there could be an army of new collaborators. Sadly, this future is not to be. Instead, we have to learn new ways to improve the interactions between the scientific community and the world at large.
This is where I think the "Third Culture" still needs to mature. Science must learn to be better at communicating its limits non-apologetically as strengths. And scientists might have to learn to communicate in public about how we, too, are sometimes troubled at night by the unanswerable questions.
JARON LANIER, a computer scientist and musician, is a pioneer of virtual reality, and currently the lead scientist for the National Tele-Immersion Initiative. [more....]
From: Michael Shermer
This is the finest essay you have penned to date John, but I wondered if it could not just as easily have been titled "The New Scientists"scientists who have adopted "scientism" as a complete and all-encompassing secular world-view that includes humanism (as traditionally conceived) but is not necessarily restricted to its tenets or activities. In several publications I have noted your important contribution to the building of a scientistic world-view through the primary vehicle of its disseminationbook publishing. Since we live in a free society and a free market, instead of cursing the darkness we scientists should light a candle through books, magazines, radio, television, the Internet, and other forms of communication. My hat's off to you and to the Edge community for the construction of this culture of scientism. We have come a long ways, but it's a long row to hoe.
To that extent I feel your essay is as much prescriptive as it is descriptive. That is, this is definitely the direction our culture is moving but we are not quite there yet. As the publisher of a science magazine (Skeptic) and a contributing editor and monthly columnist for another science magazine (Scientific American), I find myself, like you, prescribing as much as describing this scientistic (third) culture. And if you compare Skeptic to, say, The Humanist magazine, or Free Inquiry magazine (the two main humanist publications in America), there is still a striking difference in content. Where they cover issues like abortion, birth control, overpopulation, third world poverty, civil and human rights around the world, separation of church and state, freedom of speech, etc., we (Skeptic, and even less so Scientific American) rarely deal with these issues, and when we do it is only orthogonally so where they intercept with, say, what science can tell us when "life begins," or what new technologies there are for birth control, why overpopulation is related to education, how poverty can be effected by the adoption of a market economy, why church and state need to be kept separate in order to protect the teaching of the theory of evolution from creationists, etc.
In other words, my "Scientism" and your "Third Culture" are really still mostly science and not so much humanism, because science still has little to say about absolute moral choices. Science may be able to inform our moral choices (e.g., abortion before the 23rd week is not murder because the neural template is not yet complete, thus there can be no consciousness, thought, etc.), but science cannot (or, at least, has yet to date) to provide actual moral decisions somehow apart from the human being making that moral decision in a very personal way. This is a (so far) insoluble problem. The "why" is the easy partscience (more specifically, evolutionary ethics and evolutionary psychology) can explain the origin of morality. The "how" part is a different (and more difficult) story. How we should be moral, science has far less to say. I have yet to determine if this is a permanent limitation of science, or just that no one has solved the problem yet. Until then, I fear that the gap (although closing) between science and humanism may never be completely closed.
MICHAEL SHERMER Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and author of The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense. [more....]
From: Piet Hut
I, too, expect science to be able to deal with any aspect of reality, in due time. The only catch is that we don't have much of an idea what this future science will look like. This means that we can be proud of the method of science, and of the results that have been obtained so far, but we'd better be very modest about claims that our current results more or less describe the world 'as it really is'. There are two directions in which to argue for this position.
This is why I don't expect science to be able to provide a valid alternative to a full world view anywhere soon. Whether we are looking for an ethical, humanistic, religious, or spiritual view of the world including our own presence, science just isn't far enough along to address that quest. It makes more sense to use the scientific method to sift through the knowledge that has come down to us through the ages, to try to separate dogma and specific cultural trappings, while highlighting that which seems to be based most on empirical investigations. Insisting that the results of those investigations fit into a 21st (or 19th or 23rd) century snapshot of a scientific framework would be arbitrary limiting.
I wish I could have a peek into the future to see what a more mature future science would look like, what mathematical structures it would use, how it would describe the subject, to what extent it might have risen beyond a purely descriptive style into other types of (still empirical and verifiable) investigations. Who knows? But whatever will be discovered with these tools in, say, the year 52,002 will already now apply to the real world. And the question is, from the vantage point of 52,002: will our current scientific knowledge be seen to be more helpful to leading a full life than our current religious and spiritual views? If we distill from the latter what is closest related to experiential insights into the human mind, my guess would be that these will provide for us the more useful tools for quite a few centuries to come.
PIET HUTan astrophysicist at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton. and a founding member of the Kira Institute. [more....]
From: Joesph LeDoux
It's great to seek some sort of fusion across diverse fields, but I'm concerned that things are not as black and white as you imply in the piece. There are of course some vocal "relativists" in academic circles, but I think most people who are actually making culture (artists, writers, muscians) are open to and very interested in what science has to say. Unfortunately, the same is less the case for some scientists. It shocking to see how ignorant and dismissive of the arts scientists can be. As I see it, a broader view of culture you propose is going to require some mind expansion in the sciences as well.
JOSEPH LEDOUX is a neuroscientist at New York University and author of Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. [more....]
From: Chris Anderson
off, the philosopher in me suspects there is some language confusion
seeping into this discussion.
CHRIS ANDERSON, a philosopher by training, is the Chairman and Host of the TED Conference held each February in Monterey, California. [more....]
From: George Dyson
Twelve years ago I was invited to join the Reality Club. It changed my life. Brockman's genius was in recognizing that there was something about science (and some but not all scientists) that transcended the boundaries of the profession itself. If you were deeply and completely engaged in trying to better understand some aspect of reality, you could give a talk about it, and thereby join the Club. I talked about 18th-century Aleut/Russian kayaks in Alaska and my attempts to reconstruct them, and I passed.
I am not suggesting that "The New Humanists" is a hoax, like Alan Sokal's "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," but I believe that it is a test. Brockman is testing us too-comfortable members of the old Reality Club, now settled into our overstuffed browsers, to see if we will wake up and say, "Hey! Wait a minute! This is exactly the kind of talk about talk and writing about writing that's so far removed from objective reality that it won't get you into the Club! Who let this guy in here, anyway?"
We now return to our normal programming. This was only a test.
GEORGE DYSON, a historian among futurists, is the author of Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship. [more....]
From: Kenneth Ford
It's a good essay, John, thought-provoking and on target. I for one would find it more effective if it conveyed less certitude and more of the tentative quality that characterizes science. (Is the "fossil culture" really in decline?)
KENNETH W. FORD is the retired director of the American Institute of Physics and coauthor (with John Archibald Wheeler) of Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics. [more....]
From: Marc D. Hauser
I read your piece "The New Humanists" with interest, but actually think that you have painted a caricature of both scientists and humanists. Somehow, you have convinced yourself that the goals of humanists should be more closely aligned with those of science. I think this is a mistake. I think the problem with your essay is that in trying to make the argument that scientists have swallowed up the positions long held by humanists, you have actually blurred two important issues.
The first point concerns what any respecting intellectual should know about the world. You argue, and I concur, that one simply can't be an educated member of the species Homo sapiens without knowing about the sciences. What the new humanists, as you call them, have done, is opened the door on some of the mysteries of science by making such information accessible to a general public. Making information accessible is, of course, for the good. One might argue, and sometimes I have, that some of the information disseminated by scientists is done in such a way that it is almost mischievously irresponsible. But that is another story. Returning to the main point, I fully agree that for those in the humanities to remain woefully ignorant of the sciences is to remain in the bleachers of an intellectual life. But here one could equally well accuse many scientists of remaining woefully ignorant of the humanities. I am often shocked and appalled by scientists who have never read some of the classics of literature, who know little about history, and who continue to ignore insights from philosophy. So, the finger can be pointed both ways. Summing up, it is hard to argue with what I take to be one of your main points, specifically, no card carrying intellectual should be ignorant of the sciences. Ditto for the humanities.
This brings up the second point, which I believe is unfortunately fused with the first. You seem to suggest that the humanities ought to have the same or at least quite similar goals to the sciences. (You applaud humanists who think like scientists, and point the schoolmarm's finger at those who don't). The humanities can, and should I believe, have different goals. Take, for instance, philosophy. Although I personally have a great affinity for the empirical philosophers such as Dennett, Fodor, Block, Stitch, and Sober, I also enjoy reading work in the philosophy of ethics that toys with interesting moral (fantasty) dilemmas, philosophy of language that presents interesting twists on meaning and metaphor, and philosophy of mind that simply engages one to think about possible worlds. Many of these philosophical discussions explicitly ignore empirical work because that is not the underlying mission. I don't think this is bad at all. It is healthy.
So, to put a final point on the discussion, there is plenty of room for scientists to do their thing, humanists to do theirs, and for fertile interactions to arise between the two. I of course agree that the most fertile ground is in the interface zone, but that is a matter of taste!
Two smaller points:
1. You claim that science is a "wide-open system." I think you are very much wrong. There are significant constraints on science. Although science may well move on, it is often constrained by particular paradigms that are dominant, and often dominated by particularly powerful individuals. There are also ethical constraints, as evidenced recently by heated discussions concerning the use of information from the human genome project to explore biomedical issues related to ethnic background.
2. On science, information and quantity. The contrast with Moore's law fails in my opinion. I have never heard a scientist speak of the quantity of information. Sure enough, there are more journals now than at any time in the past, and all of us complain about keeping up. But I would rather think of science as changing as a function of radical new ideas that open the door to looking at problems in new and exciting ways, as opposed to simply gaining new information. Each new paradigm shift changes the game. Sure, there is more information. But it is the new information, guided by the new paradigm, that is of interest. When Darwin provided his lightening bolt of intuition, he turned people around and caused them to look at problems in a new light. Yes, it led to more information. But quantity wasn't the issue. Similarly, when Chomsky provided his lightening bolt of intuition into the structure of language, yes it generated immense data sets on the similarities among languages. But critically, it provided a new way of looking for new information. Again, quantity wasn't the issue.
MARC D. HAUSER is an evolutionary psychologist at Harvard University and author of Wild Minds: What Animals Think. [more....]
From: Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi
John, I do share with you the almost petulant impatience concerning what passes for scholarship in the humanities and the social sciences. The isolation from the rest of the world, the navel-gazing, the faddish swings and inbred coteries are not a pretty sight.
But is this situation due to the perversity of humanists, or is it a temporary disease that just now happens to afflict the humanities? You seem to blame mostly the individuals involved, whereas I would hope that the problem resides with the way the humanities have been practiced in the past few generations.
The mandate of the sciences is to explore, discover, and create new ways of looking at the world, and new ways of controlling physical processes. Some of this will be useful to humankind; somesuch as nuclear waste, hothouse gasses, genetic changesmight yet be our bane. But because every culture (first, second, third...) tends towards hegemony and values dogma, we must pretend that science is an unmitigated blessing. And in the meantime, it is true, as you say, that the pursuit of science and its sexy daughter, technology, are a lot of fun for those involved in the chase.
What we expect from the humanities is something different. It is not the production of novelty, but the selection among them, the evaluation of what is important, meaningful (dare I say "good"?)and then the transmission of the selected human achievements to the next generation. And the next. Thus the role of the humanities is conservative, bridging the present with the future with a view to the past. As you know, there cannot be evolution without a well-working mechanism for screening novelties that improve life from inferior ones: producing novelty alone does not lead to adaptive change. To help in this process should be the role of the humanities.
Of course, by and large the humanities have abandoned that task. Why? There are surely many reasons, but one of the major ones is that the same criteria that make sense in science have been applied to the humanities. Assistant professors in philosophy or English are hired and promoted on the basis of the "originality" of their contributionswhich forces them to come up with ever cuter novelties rather than reflect on what is valuable and permanent. Young scholars are not rewarded for being good humanists, but for applying the "explore, discover, create" approach to texts, in a superficial imitation of the sciences. If there is blame to assign, it is the recent success of the sciences that has helped erode the uniqueness of the humanities.
So it is true, in my opinion, that the domains of the humanities are in trouble. But it is less of a distinction between "scientists" and "humanists" than between the institutional structures and the social reward systems within which the two groups operate. As you say at the end of the article, there are humanists who think like scientists, and vice versa. In fact, it is probably true that the frequency of scientists who are provincial in their outlook, who ignore the long-term implications of their work, who disdain anyone outside their circle, is at least as large as that of benighted humanists. The difference is that they are doing a job appreciated by the majority, while the humanists are not.
Therefore my solution to this problem is in some ways the opposite of yourthe humanities need to rediscover their true calling, and stick by it. Of course, this does mean that in order to evaluate, select, and transmit valuable knowledge the individual humanists has to be acquainted with the novelty produced by scientists, and understand its implications. It may no longer be possible for an artist to be at the forefront of science, like Leonardo was, but the insularity of both camps ought to decrease. With a common fund of knowledge, the two endeavors can then proceed towards their respective goals.
MIHALYI CSIKSZENTMIHALYI is the Davidson Professor of Management at the Claremont Graduate University, and author of Finding Flow. [more....]
From: Douglas Rushkoff
Fascinating piece, John. And it couldn't come at a better time.
Funny, it reminded me of Buckminster Fuller's argument, in Operation Manual for Spaceship Earth, that the invention of academic disciplines was intended to prevent anyone from getting the whole picture. Of course it led to tremendous advances in particular fields, but it also led to an incompatibility between them.
I have lately been thinking about the lasting effects of modernism and science on religious narrative. Cultural theorists may think we're in the age of "post-post-modernism," but our theologians are still simply contending with the impacts of Descartes, Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud. The most profound impact of modernity is that we can no longer base the authority of our religious testaments on history; our myths and our Gods are refuted by scientific reality. We lose our absolutes, and the sense of certainty they afforded us.
So in march the post-modernists, from James Joyce to MTV, who learn to play in the house of mirrors, creating compositions and world views out of relativities. Entirely less satisfying (feels more like a Slurpee than hot oatmeal that actually fills you). We cultural theorists tried to make sense out of this world of self-references as if it mattered.
What we ended up with was a culture of inside jokes, cynicism, and detachment. Detachment was considered "cool" and then "cool" itself was replaced by objectification. So all our kids walk around like models in a Calvin Klein catalogue; and actually getting photographed is the supreme honor. It means that you are single absolutethe benchmark against which others will define themselves.
This whole Vanity Fair culture, beginning with Didion or Wolfe, and ending with Sedaris or Eggers, has run its course. We've grown sick of living in a vacuum and struggling to remain detached. It's no fun to read magazines through squinty, knowing smirks. We realize that detachment is a booby prize. We want to engage, meaningfully, in the stuff of life.
In comes science. And with it, comes good, old-fashioned, innocent awe. Science is not the force that corrupts our natureit is the open-minded wonder that returns us to it. It is being welcomed back into the culture of narcissism because we've finally grown tired enough of ourselves to care about something real. We ache to let go of our postured pretentiousness and surrender to that sensation a kid gets at the Epcot Center or planetarium.
The jaw drops, the eyes widen, the mind opens.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF, a Professor of Media Culture at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, is is author of Coercion: Why We Listen to What "They" Say. [more....]
From: Howard Rheingold
Can Science Crack Cooperation?
Because scientific propositions must be testable, and because questions of humanism versus science come down to how these ways of knowing affect our lives, I propose a test for the role of scientific understanding in human affairs: can science improve life for most people alive today, and for our heirs, by understanding the nature of cooperation as profoundly as physicists understand matter and biologists understand the processes of life and evolution?
I suspect that if this question, above all others, is not answered soon by some method, all other questions are likely to become moot. Even if we stipulate the advent of a technological singularity in the manner of Vinge and Kurzweil several decades hence, who today does not have at least a reasonable doubt that machine intelligence will mature quickly enough to take over soon enough to prevent human intelligence from beating itself to death with its own creations?
pose this as a scientific, not a philosophical question. Certainly,
the attempt to apply scientific methods to psyches, societies, markets,
and civilizations has been less successful to this point than scientific
probes into the nature of the cosmos, matter, and life itself. Does
this mean that the atom or DNA of cooperation, the fundamental element
of human collective goods, is eternally elusive, perhaps in some
Heisenbergian Godelian-Zen sense? Or does it mean that current scientific
knowledge of human cooperation and conflict remains inadequate?
This is a key question, because we know that science did move beyond
age-old inadequate understandings of the physical world when the
"new methods" of rational, empirical inquiry emerged from the work
of Descartes, Newton, Galileo, Bacon five hundred years ago. Is
human social behavior beyond the understanding of science, or has
science simply not caught up yet?
Some general characteristics of cooperation among living organisms in general and humans in particular have been emerged from biological and economic experiments using game theory and sociobiological theories explaining the behavior of organisms. The use of computer simulations in Prisoner's Dilemma and other public goods games and the application of public goods games to human subjects has begun to provide the first pieces of the puzzle of how cooperation has evolved up to the present, and most importantly, small clues to how it might continue to evolve in the future. Sociological studies of the way some groups successfully manage common resources have illuminated a few general characteristics of cooperative groups. Recent economic studies of online markets have demonstrated the power of reputation systems. Social network analysis, experimental economics, complex adaptive systems theory, all provide relevant evidence. The evolution of social cooperation, aided and abetted by the evolution of technologies, has been the subject of meta-theories of social evolution.
The entire puzzle of how groups of different sizes agree to cooperate, why and how cooperation breaks down, how conflicts arise, intensify, and resolve, is largely unknown. But the puzzle pieces from a dozen different disciplines are beginning to fit together to reveal larger patterns. Part of the current lack of understanding may stem from the nature of specialized scientific inquiry: biologists, economists, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, computer scientists, game theorists, and political scientists have only recently begun to suspect that they hold parts of the same puzzle.It has taken some time for those studying cooperation, reputation, and conflict to recognize the need for interdisciplinary syntheses.
The practical chances of this proposed test of the power of science to do what the humanities have tried to do for centuries depend on whether someone marshals resources and spurs organizational motivation for a full-scale, cross-disciplinary effort to understand cooperation. Unlike knowledge that might lead to new weapons, new media, or new medicines, no organizational or economic structure currently exists to support an Apollo Project of cooperation. And even the best organized and funded effort can't guarantee that an answer exists, or that it won't take a century to discover.
consequences of failure might or might not be the end of all cultures,
but if scientific inquiry does succeed in elucidating the nature
and dynamics of social cooperation, it will have proved its superiority
as a way of knowing that can improve the way most people live. Curing
diseases was impressive. Curing conflict would be proof.
HOWARD RHEINGOLD is a communications theorist and author of The Virtual Community. [more....]
From: Reuben Hersh
Your essay is eloquent, even inspiring. I hope it stirs some interesting controversy.
As a part-time member of the old-fashioned humanists (a habitual reader of the New York Review of Books!) I can imagine some responses....
"Your optimistic scientists seem, by your account, to live entirely on the cognitive plane. Perhaps even with some workaholic tendencies. Optimism is the only emotion you report.
May one wonder if they live in a particular placeperhaps, many of them, in the U.S.A.?
Do they breathe air? drink water? consume nourishment?
Have some of them aged parents? How do they relate to such parents, how are such parents cared for?
Have they youngish children, or grand children? How do those children or grand children see their present and future in this world they must live in?
Have they spouses? ex-spouses? emotional relationships with fellow human beings?
These questions are perhaps not as irrelevant as you may want to call them. If readers of the New York Review (for instance) have more of an inclination to read about politics, literature, history, even art and music, than about science, technology and computing, perhaps this has to do with their being human in a more inclusive sense than you seem to contemplate.
If the situation of such readers (including me) includes some of the issues I have hinted at, perhaps you will admit some counter-balance to the breath taking optimism you offer.
Are we governed more wisely than 100 or even 5,000 years ago?
Is the frequency of genocide decreasing, say per decade?
Is freedom of thought and inquiry becoming safer and more respected?
Are standards of taste in music, art, or entertainment being raised, maintained or debased?
Are our prisons, hospitals, old-age homes becoming more numerous and horrifying, or the opposite?
Is the standard of truth, honesty, responsibility in public life and in commerce rising or falling?
Do the wondrous advances you expect in molecular biology, cosmology, and of course computers, give any strong hope of saving our political, moral or cultural life?"
Such, I imagine, might be some responses to your essay.
REUBEN HERSH is professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico and author of What is Mathematics, Really? [more....]
From: Keith Devlin
to the development Brockman has labeled the Third Culture (and not
altogether separate, although arguing that would require another
article), the past thirty years have seen major changes in the way
we organize our societies and live our lives, at least those of
us in the Western democracies. Nicholas Negroponte, the director
of MIT's Media Lab, dubbed the key technological development "Being
Digital". Regular Edge readers are unlikely to need
any explanation of that phrase, and anyone who does can read Negroponte's
1995 book with that title.
KEITH DEVLIN is a mathematician at Stanford University, and author of The Math Gene. [more....]
From: James O'Donnell
Most interesting and most correct. Has a particular personal zing because I've just been appointed Provost of Georgetown as from 1 July, and so I now "own" a bunch of humanists and scientists in a fresh and challenging way. Got some ideas, but . . .
And you make me wonder: as a recent second-hand customer (not quite done, right? what's he up to next?) of a traditional university education, what do you make of our curriculum and its impact? There's a piece in the Penn Almanac this week by the College dean on the "pilot curriculum", which has always struck me as a pretty tame exercise.
Not resisting your main line of argument, which as you know I support, two concurrent areas of thought:
JAMES J. O'DONNELL, a classicist and Vice Provost of University of Pennsylvania, is the author of Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace. On 1 July 2002, he will become Provost of Georgetown University. [more....]
From: Clifford Pickover
Although Nicholas Humphrey would disagree with me, I'm on your side when you suggest that science is expanding and providing a never-ending geyser of interesting and profound problems. One of my heroes, Isaac Asimov, had the key when he wrote, "I believe that scientific knowledge has fractal properties; that no matter how much we learn, whatever is left, however small it may seem, is just as infinitely complex as the whole was to start with. That, I think, is the secret of the Universe."
On the other hand, I do believe that there will be facets of the universe from which we will always be shielded, because our brains will not have the capacity for such understanding. Can a gorilla understand calculus or gravitational wave theory? Computers will no doubt be of immense help, allowing us to reason beyond some of these cognitive limits.
Consider that around four billion years ago, living creatures were nothing more than biochemical machines capable of self-reproduction. In a mere fraction of this time, humans evolved from creatures like Australopithecines. Today humans have wandered the Moon and have studied ideas ranging from general relativity to quantum cosmology. Once space travel begins in earnest our descendants will leave the confinement of Earth. We will evolve into intelligent simulationsmachines that think, love, dream. I agree with theoretical physicist Freeman J. Dyson who suggested there will always be new frontiers to explore:
And remember that science includes the sense of wonder. Richard Powers had it right:
CLIFFORD PICKOVER is a research staff member at IBM's T. J. Watson Research Center and author of The Paradox of God and the Science of Omniscience. [more....]
From: Nicholas Humphrey
I have major problems with the essay. In particular, I don't find the identification of Science and Optimism at all convincingon either of your two counts.
This isn't to question your main point that, today, "science is the only game in town." I do of course agree there's more hope in science than there is in anything else. I spelt out my position on this at the end of my Amnesty Lecture, "What Shall We Tell the Children.". But, the problem, as I see, for this Essay, is that you already made this point years ago as convincingly as could be in your introduction to The Third Culture, and it really doesn't need making again. In fact, if I were you, I would now adopt a totally different tack.
Instead of repeating your attack on the Bloomsbury-obsessed intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century, I think you should be drawing attention to the way they have already become marginalisedpartly through your own, I mean John Brockman's, efforts. The evidence for the triumph of science in the intellectual culture is all around. In literatureeg Ian McEwan's "Enduring Love", in filmeg "A Beautiful Mind,", in theatreeg Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen", and so on: what we're seeing is an astonishing turnaround from the old values to the new. Even Bill Clinton, in The New York Times (2nd March 2002), when asked what he wished he knew more about, replied "biochemistry"!
as it is, is curiously paranoid. You no longer need to be! You've largely
won. But the next task is to provide a sober assessment of the nature
of the victory. "Double Optimism" seems much too simplistic.
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