The
Third Culture

RE: THE NEW HUMANISTS

By John Brockman


From: Timothy Taylor
Date:
4.17.02

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 science—if they read it at all—with 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.

Certainly 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 extraordinary—and often extraordinarily arrogant—underestimation 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.

There is much that I agree with in what John has said, but points of disagreement too and it will perhaps be useful if we first agree on what things we might mean by humanism. The Oxford English Dictionary gives four general definitions and a fifth, specifically philosophical one. Here they are:

1.Belief in the mere humanity of Christ.

2.The character and quality of being human; devotion to human interests.

3.Any system of thought or action which is concerned with merely human interest (as distinguished from divine), or with those of the human race in general (as distinguished from individual); the 'Religion of Humanity.'

4.Devotion to those studies which promote human culture; literary culture; esp. the system of the Humanists, the study of the Roman and Greek classics which came into vogue at the Renascence.

5.Philos. A pragmatic system of thought . . . which emphasizes that man can only comprehend and investigate what is with the resources of the human mind, and discounts abstract theorizing; so, more generally, implying that technological advance must be guided by awareness of widely understood human needs.

We 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 action—ethical humanism.

These definitions obviously contain contrastive elements. I take it that John might often be professionally concerned with definition 4, most usually associated with rhetoric, grammar, poetry and a knowledge of the classics—i.e. those things which popular science writing can benefit so much from (and which it sometimes fails to display); I am wondering, however, whether by new humanism John instead means to indicate something that furthers knowledge of humanity more rigorously and lucidly (more scientifically in one use of the word) than American sociology and socio-cultural anthropology currently do (disciplines which, powered by post-modernism and relativism, have all but imploded in some areas). If this is so, then the debate on what a new humanism might be as conducted in and from the US will be rather different to the debate which might be had elsewhere.

The dangers of scientists attempting to become the new humanists are best illustrated by specific examples. For instance, Richard Dawkins' idea of 'memes'—proposed cultural counterparts to genes—has not been adopted in archaeology, precisely the discipline where it should have succeeded had it been useful. It is unsurprising (and no real discredit to him) that a top-notch geneticist does not cut the mustard when it comes to theorizing cultural transmission: after all, Richard Dawkins may have no more training in cultural theory than I have in genetics. A problem arises, however, if people who may know no better think that memes must be a good idea, and interpret the paucity of critical discussion of them as evidence of the acceptance of the concept.

Similar kinds of concerns arise in relation to the psychologist Steven Pinker's formulation of a 'language instinct'. This is not a bad idea in theory, but it is elaborated with—apparently—total disregard for an extensive body of work by Russian, French and German philosophical linguists which has reached very different conclusions. That is to say, whether or not one accepts Pinker's linguistic judgements, his work has come out from a cognitive psychology background into the glare of public attention (and has been widely accepted to be true by the media) without engaging with those humanistic debates of most central relevance to the plausibility or otherwise of his most dramatic claims (as expressed by followers of L.S.Vygotsky, to take one example).

One has to confront the tricky problem that popular science often either preaches to the converted or, when it strays into more 'humanistic' domains, makes an unwitting ass of itself. The US has an excellent tradition of scientists writing for a broader audience, but a scarily growing third of the national population share a metaphysics which cannot accommodate Darwinian evolution, let alone understand what it entails. The rise of Creationism in the US is an unfolding intellectual tragedy that will only be turned around once there is greater respect, among scientists in particular, for the sophistication and unpredictability of human social and cultural formations. This will require a renewed humility in addressing the true complexities of our behavioural well-springs. The prospect of a great nation intellectually split between religious fundamentalism and an equally assertive, dogmatic and unreflectively narrow scientism is not pretty.

The 'human needs' alluded to in definition 5 above may well—in contrast to definition 3—include religion. Historically and prehistorically, they obviously do: viewed in a socially—and biologically-evolutionary perspective, religious beliefs generally (but not without exception) appear to represent adaptive systems which create and mediate cultural values and relationships. This indicates that to be fully human involves more than purely 'rational' existence. We might reflect here on Darwin's own horror of the possibility that the uneducated working classes would outbreed those who were more educated, like himself, even though, by his own survival-of-the-fittest logic, he should have taken a neutral, value-free view. He clearly thought that there was something valuable about humans 'at their best' that extended beyond reproduction. If it could no longer be viewed as a divine spark, then it was something equally transcendent—a quest for enlightenment and truth for its own sake, for example.

A real victory for science would consist not in sweeping other aspects of existence, such as religion, away (not that it has any hope of doing so), but in respectfully deepening understanding of what it is to live and die as a human and observe the universe from that perspective. Many dimensions of non-rational, symbolic or ritual behaviours can, of course, be partially or wholly analysed within a scientific framework, but other aspects will never be amenable to such a thing. There are places where experiment and verification cannot go and we have to observe, interpret, reflect and explain perceived phenomena in a qualitatively different way.

What we should remember, whatever disagreements and convergences this debate reveals, is that no data are untheorized; that theories embody values; and that therefore empirical research can never be wholly objective. In this sense, then, science is already pervaded by humanism—steeped in categories, perceptions and styles of entitation that have a long and distinctive cultural history. Science may be a (the?) most powerful way to answer questions, but both questions and answers are imbued with humane value. What is most important for John to do next is to encourage more people trained in traditionally 'non-scientific' disciplines to present their often highly sophisticated and demanding ideas in a way that enables greater dialogue across the arts-science divide. One day we may be able to just consider the quality and nature of our knowledge—distinguishing only good from bad thinking.

TIMOTHY TAYLOR is an archaeologist at University of Bradford, UK, and author of The Buried Soul. [more....]


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