Debate between the humanities and science is nothing new, so Steven Pinker’s latest manifesto for science is no real surprise. He argues for science’s rightful place at the table discussing questions about life, morality, and human nature. That’s a reasonable enough request; but Pinker, unfortunately, goes overboard, instead arguing that science should be at the head of the table… maybe even the only one at the table. What a boring dinner party. And, like any polarizing argument, he’s garnered some very strong reactions.
In fact New Republic’s editor, Leon Wieseltier, placed his defense of the humanities directly within Pinker’s article. He argues, like many within the humanities, against the hubris of science as the exclusive holder of truth. Other, more pragamatic, critiques of Pinker argue that his condescending attitude only deepens the rift he is, supposedly, trying to bridge.
In the midst of all this mud-slinging, it’s refreshing to hear some voices that are reasonable and nuanced. I was more than a bit surprised to find Daniel Dennett, who is typically as vitriolic as Pinker, as one of those voices. In his recent piece on the Edge, Dennett urges the humanities to “join forces” with science, to drop defenses and quit making itself off-limits. I don’t think this is just a Trojan horse attempt by science to infiltrate the humanities. I think it’s a very reasonable appeal to drop the war-ladened metaphors all together, and to again take up the mantle of pursuing truth.
When the humanities dismiss science, they talk about relativism- what Dennett calls postmodernism. This viewpoint dismisses any claims to truth, or to a privileged, objective viewpoint. It’s like the thought-child of Freud and Marx (that’s one hairy baby). Freud’s half is the insight that our unconscious filters our experience. Marx’s contribution was to describe how society also holds ideas, which it impresses upon us, which then prevent us from seeing reality as it is. This hairy child was then raised by innumerable other critical theorists, like uncle Foucault and Derrida, until it became the intellectual cul-de-sac (sorry, I’m mixing my metaphors) where everything we say is just interpretation, including science.
For example, if I was a postmodernist I’d now talk about how my story about the origins of postmodernism is just one interpretation of the complex mess that is the birth of ideas. It’s about as meta as one can get. This tradition is important because it has helped to acknowledge the influence of beliefs on action, and is typically concerned with finding and dismantling oppressive beliefs. That’s good stuff. But, it’s also a bit annoying because it puts me above criticism. You don’t agree with me? Well that’s fine, because it’s all interpretation. You can imagine why scientists have a problem with this philosophy.
The scientific method is built upon a tradition of observation, criticism, and correction. It doesn’t hold absolute truth, but it provides good enough predictions about the world to launch rockets to the moon, cure smallpox, and describe really, really small pieces of matter. That’s also good stuff. Tell a scientist that her discoveries are just interpretations and she’ll ask to see your data. Rightly so.
Dennett is right: scientific discoveries DO have a bearing on questions about human nature, morality, history, and even literature. The humanities would do well to work with science instead of trying to guard themselves against science. A humanities scholar can do so without abandoning concerns about the effects of interpretation.
Consider a scholar working to understand the theological consequences of trauma. There’s ample material for reflecting on what the prolonged suffering of trauma tells us about human nature and ideas about the divine. She doesn’t have to look at the brain chemistry behind trauma. But if she ignored this data she’d miss out on the rich implications that come from seeing which brain regions are impacted by overwhelmingly awful events. Worse than missing out, she’d also risk telling a story that conflicts with the data.
In this example, brain chemistry sets certain guidelines, boundaries, around understanding the nature of trauma. It’d be hard to talk about the heightened anxiety, restricted consciousness, or loss of meaning that trauma can cause if there were no observable effects on stress hormones, the frontal lobes, or the hippocampus (incidentally, all these things are impacted). By bringing scientific data into the humanities, scholars can offer more robust theories. Theologian Shelly Rambo at Boston University, the inspiration for this example about trauma, is a prime example of how the humanities can take science on board.
But if Dennett is asking that the humanities let down their guard and bring science to the table, then he has to be ready to have the humanities at the table as well. He has to be ready for a discussion about how our worldviews impact our methods and guide our actions. He has to be ready for scholars who take the “inwardness,” or subjectivity, of our daily experience seriously, not because they’re defending terrain from encroaching science but due to their own data on language, artwork, ritual, symbols, and religion. If the humanities and science can get along and pursue truth together, then perhaps the emerging worldview won’t be so shallow or relative. That’s an exciting prospect.