The
Third Culture

RE: THE NEW HUMANISTS

By John Brockman


From: Marc D. Hauser
Date:
4.12.02

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....]


John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
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