Faculties Still Divided

Before we move from “Divided Faculties”, I want to pass along Steven Pinker’s “Science is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians” as another way to consider the two cultures in the twenty-first century. (Here is a link to the article: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114127/science-not-enemy-humanities.) Where Snow grounds his literary intellectuals in deconstructionism, Pinker goes so far as to say that those who resist science often do so not so much based on an inclination to reject notions of true or false, but on a resentment of the approaches used by scientists: “In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called ‘scientism.’”

Pinker includes a speech from G.W. Bush’s adviser given in 2007 to support the anti-science sentiment, where scientific discovery is seen as “soul-less scientism” which compromises the “moral and spiritual health of our nation, the continued vitality of science, and our own self-understanding as human beings and as children of the West.” In our readings, we have become familiar with the division of science and literature based on intellectualism’s assertion of the importance of studying the classics and of adopting a deconstructionist attitude toward scientific truths. It is useful to understand that the category of “anti-science” has been expanded to include those who see science as impinging on their faith. Pinker defends the work of scientists as “of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism”, rather than sacrilegious labor, which aligns with Snow’s understanding of scientists as equally concerned with both the moral and social life.

Snow notes the gap between the two cultures as having been widened during the thirty years prior to his lecture, saying that at one point the groups once “managed a kind of frozen smile across the gulf”. Education is discussed as the only way to reconcile the two cultures. However, that reconciliation has yet to come, especially within universities – as Pinker points out, the humanities is “the domain in which the intrusion of science has produced the strongest recoil. Yet it is just that domain that would seem to be most in need of an infusion of new ideas.” Since Snow’s lecture, the two cultures have been politicized in new ways, redefined, re-categorized, and have undergone a replacement of prejudices, but the issue is still intact – and as we can see through Pinker’s article, the solution that Snow sought remains hazy. 

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3 Responses to Faculties Still Divided

  1. Thus far, we’ve made a point of tracing a certain anti-scientific disposition, among other things, along the political spectrum through time. Prewar intellectuals tended toward the right according to Snow, while scientists tended toward the left. Within a few decades, “intellectuals” tended toward the left, though they also adopted keen reservations about science, insofar as the scientific project—obtaining knowledge, obtaining truth—is subject to the political whims and wants of those producing scientific fact. That is, truth can’t be objective truth when it has to be qualified with an appellation d’origine.

    I’m not sure that it’s fair to compare this with the anti-scientific disposition prevalent in some right-leaning circles. They might raise the same objection—that scientists are necessarily biased—but they’re doing it to a different end. Because scientific fact more or less overrides a preconceived truth—the creation narrative, etc.—science must be written off somehow. It isn’t—as above—that science is flawed and thus to be treated with caution, it’s that science must be wrong because it’s trying to supplant something that’s obviously true.

    The end result is an anti-scientific tendency at both ends of the spectrum, but those tendencies have little in common.

  2. teithabess says:

    Though it is not as related to the class discussion of “science vs. humanities” in university institutions, Jackson Lears’ article, which Pinker quotes early on in his article, is an interesting read for anyone curious about the debate raging around the “anti-science” and “anti-religion.” Pinker does not give much context for Lears’ quote, so little that Lears issued a response accusing him of taking it out of context (the response can be read at the bottom of the page). Lears’ article is actually mostly about Sam Harris, whose “positivist assumptions” Lears considers a “resurgence of Gilded Age patterns of thought” (pg. 1). It is these patterns that the quote describes, not exactly a quote parallel to the one from Leon Kass’s speech describing what Kass considered the current state of affairs in 2007. More importantly, Lears focuses on “positivists,” not all of science and all scientists, when discussing the horror of eugenics and WWI. In fact, he separates “positivists” from science and its role in human well-being. The point of the passage Pinker quotes was that “as ethical guides, scientists had proved to be no more reliable than anyone else.” (1)

    When he turns to the modern “positivists,” with Sam Harris as his primary object of criticism, Lears takes aim at their ignorance of history, context, and a variety of other disciplines, making it an article I’d argue Lears could learn from. For example, Harris’s scorn for anthropology is misguided, to say the least. “Too often, [Harris] says, ‘the fire-lit scribblings of one or another dazzled ethnographer’ have sanctioned some destructive practice (human sacrifice, female genital mutilation) by explaining its adaptive or social function” (4). Yet Lears asserts that this opinion stems from an utter misunderstanding of cultural relativism, from not understanding why some women choose to wear burqas to realizing that cross-cultural understanding has been used to help local women stop female genital mutilation (4). This and other examples, especially of Harris’s tirades against religion, though especially Islam, are uncomfortably close to Pinker’s long paragraphs devoted to how science has “undercut” a variety of moral systems and essentially proven that religious beliefs are void. Even as an atheist (though not a scientist), I balked when he declares that “there is no such thing as fate, providence, karma,” etc. etc. First, has science actually proven these things? And second, for an article titled “Science is not the Enemy,” Pinker is surprisingly antagonistic (not to say Lears isn’t, in some respects).

    In conclusion, the moral of this story and solution Lears’ article offers is to read and understand the context of an idea, first — which, I’d say, indicates exactly why humanities should be bolstered and critical thinking be emphasized.

    Now I know there’s a lot I didn’t talk about and might have missed in Pinker’s article, so call me out for ironically missing any of his points.

  3. Again, I find relevant material from my other English lecture, 130B. Today, we talked about systems of categorization introduced by various characters in Melville’s “Moby Dick”, and the ways in which they inevitably fall apart. The professor’s example was based in his person life–his obsessive compulsive collection and classification of his albums. He sorted all his music by genre, and became distraught upon remembering that Ray Charles, one of his favorites within the world of blues, also recorded a country album. Subsequently, the professor’s entire system of demarcation imploded–it no longer held its logic. Many of the texts we have read this semester meditate on permeable boundaries. For instance, in “The Time Machine,” H.G. Wells blurs the line between human and animal, in the figure of the Morlock. In “Do Androids,” lines are blurred between human and android, between real animals and electric animals. And, of course, we have this division of two cultures, the theory of which is constantly being revised to accommodate our changing world. I’m interested in what this blurring of lines suggests. Of course, there is the understanding that all systems are constructs–they are not real. They are not spoken by nature, but integrated into systems of knowledge by scientists and other powerful minds.
    What does the fact that the faculties are “still divided” suggest? Are all attempts to distinguish between these cultures merely futile? Does the way in which the boundaries between literature and science break down suggest an underlying commonality between two cultures very often at odds?

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