The renounced psychologist Stephen Pinker is asking the humanities world to stop seeing science as en enemy and start embracing it more in order to enrich its own world.
One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong. Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented. Just as reviled is the application of scientific reasoning to religion; many writers without a trace of a belief in God maintain that there is something unseemly about scientists weighing in on the biggest questions. In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called “scientism.”
Then a philosopher Gary Gutting says that’s nonsense—the humanities world has been practicing interdisciplinary approach much more than the science world.
Consider my home discipline of philosophy. Pinker himself mentions the strong recent connections of philosophy of mind to cognitive science and neuroscience. What he doesn’t note is that philosophers of mind — David Chalmers is a striking example — who work in cognitive science are typically highly trained in that discipline. Few cognitive scientists and neuroscientists have comparably strong backgrounds in philosophy of mind. As I’ve argued in previous Stone columns, this is a major disadvantage when scientists try, as they often do, to interpret the bearing of their results on philosophical issues such as free will and happiness.
I am not interested in which is correct, and nobody can judge it either. That’s probably the reason why this discussion exists in the first place. When “scientists” discuss they try to reach an absolute truth, to which all parties must obey regardless of their position (ideally). When humanities scholars discuss they might potentially go on forever, because there isn’t an absolute truth but a variety of truths that “depend.” If humanities discussions are fencing competitions that use “to each his own” as the protection tip, science discussions might resemble duels in the early modern era.
I am rather interested in their motivations: why Pinker posted the article in the first place, and why Gutting had to counter-argue in an aggressive manner (Doomsdayer vs. Naysayer). I feel a sense of crisis in both sides that the world they live in has been, or is about to, disappear into oblivion. Both Pinker’s urgency and Gutting’s offensiveness is just a reflection of the underlying danger that is threatening them, in my eyes.
I agree with Pinker just for his attitude: acknowledging that something is not working and calling for actions. And I also agree with his call for humanities scholars to embrace science more, not because the “scientism” is corrupting the humanities world, but because: It. Does. Not. Matter.
Who cares about humanities and science in our life outside academia? A manager in most companies must understand both EQ and technology to organize his division well. A computer engineer needs to understand human interaction to make his program remotely usable to other people. Even a painter needs to understand mathematics to draw precisely what he wants.
The world is a gigantic interdisciplinary playground, and it has only one demand on what subjects we need to master: Whatever required.
And secretly, I believe it is the no-boundary chaos we are going through our lives that might lead us closer to the holy grail for those scholars: to understand this universe, who we are, the truths of all truths. For one thing, the world’s first recorded enlightened person (Buddha) went through the extremes—having everything and then nothing, doing everything and then nothing—to reach his awakened state.
While scholars are endlessly waging or amending wars among their sects, the world we live in carries on, posing a real threat to everybody on daily basis: how can we secure enough income to afford a place to live and enough food on our table?
It is those hard-working people who are allocating a part of their precious income and sending their kids to college, thus paying money for those scholars. Those patrons aren’t doing so to watch “scholarly” debates that themselves have already solved years ago.
Wake up, guys. The world isn’t divided between humanities and science. The world, thus the reality, just exists. And while you continue to “debate” on imaginary lines (Humanities vs. Science) you drew inside your tiny universe-city, the awesome ivory tower, made of ivory, is slowly dismantling in pieces.