Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Humanities vs. Science, Part I

The humanities and the natural sciences are equally important in trying to make sense of the world.  However, neither approach can claim “the advantage of being in touch with the world as it is apart from anyone’s beliefs, allegiances, assumptions and theories.” (

And yet some of the most prominent scientists publishing today seem to believe that science provides wise insights into the world based on experiments conducted by logical, rational methods, while the humanities (religion and philosophy for example) rely on dogma, irrational faith, authority, subjectivity, and trust.  Academic superstars such as Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss, Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman, and John Gray come immediately to mind. 

Two recent public dustups have highlighted the unnecessary tension between science and the humanities that reflects much modern academic thought.  In one quarrel, philosophy and physics squared off over a negative book review of Krauss’ A Universe From Nothing:  Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing. (   In the other dispute, Dawkins and Pinker on a MSNBC Sunday talk show exhibited the smug triumphalism of famous scientists who know that their approach explains everything and that “religion clouds the minds of those who, if they were only sufficiently educated, would arrive at the conclusions supported by the overwhelming preponderance of scientific evidence and reject the blind adherence to revealed or ecclesiastical authority that characterizes religious belief” about global warming.  (

David Albert, a philosopher with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, wrote the New York Times book review that criticized Krauss for writing “that the laws of quantum mechanics have in them the makings of a thoroughly scientific and adamantly secular explanation of why there is something rather than nothing.” Albert draws attention to the battle lines between physics and religion by quoting Dawkins who wrote in the afterword to the book, “Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’, shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages.  If ‘On the Origin of the Species’ was biology’s deadliest blow to supernaturalism, we may come to see ‘A Universe From Nothing’ as the equivalent from cosmology.  The title means exactly what it says.  And what it says is devastating.” (

Albert is just as devastating in pointing out that Krauss does “not have a clue about” where the laws of quantum mechanics come from.  The fundamental laws of nature have “simply taken it for granted that there is, at the bottom of everything, some basic, elementary, eternally persisting, concrete, physical stuff…But the laws have no bearing whatsoever on questions of where the elementary stuff came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular elementary stuff it does, as opposed to something else, or to nothing at all.”  After explaining why Krauss does not really understand relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states, Albert ends his review with, “It seems like a pity…to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.” (   Krauss called Albert “moronic” and is described as believing that “philosophy, unlike physics, makes no progress and is rather boring, if not totally useless.”  In this assessment, Krauss seemed to agree with Hawking’s declaration that philosophy is “’dead.’” (

Stanley Fish explores similar themes because he watched the talk show where the host asked the question, “If you hold to the general skepticism that informs scientific inquiry…how do you respond to global-warming deniers…when they invoke the same principle of open inquiry to argue they should be given a fair hearing.”  Dawkins responded that in science you can quote Professor So-and-So’s 2008 study, “’you can actually cite chapter and verse.’”  (

Fish pounces by noting that Dawkin’s argument is “circular and amounts to saying that the chapter and verse we find authoritative is the chapter and verse of the scripture we believe in because we believe in its first principle, in this case the adequacy and superiority of a materialist inquiry into questions religion answers by mere dogma.”  ((

“With this proverbial phrase, Dawkins unwittingly (I assume) attached himself to the centuries-old practice of citing biblical verses in support of a position on any number of matters, including, but not limited to, diet, animal husbandry, agricultural policy, family governance, political governance, commercial activities and the conduct of war.  Intellectual responsibility for such matters has passed in the modern era from the Bible to academic departments bearing the names of the enumerated topics.  We still cite chapter and verse – we still operate on trust – but the scripture has changed (at least in this country) and is now identified with the most up-to-date research conducted by credentialed and secular investigators.”  ((

I have written before about the assumptions all scientists make about the world we are trying to understand when we do science. (
“The astronomer John Barrow notes ‘the practice of science…rests upon a number of presuppositions about the nature of reality.’ He identifies nine such presuppositions:
                The external world is external to our minds and is the source of our sensations.
                The external world is rational
                The world be analyzed locally without destroying its structure
                The elementary entities do not possess free will.
                The separation of events from our perception of them is a harmless simplification
                Nature possess regularities which are predictable
                Space and time exist
                The world can be described by mathematics
                These presuppositions hold in an identical fashion everywhere and every when.
(The World Within the World, New York: Oxford     University Press, 1988).”

Fish also understands that religious believers and scientists both operate by assuming things, albeit different things, about reality

People like Dawkins and Pinker do not survey the world in a manner free of assumptions about what it is like and then, from that (impossible) disinterested position, pick out the set of reasons that will be adequate to its description.  They begin with the assumption (an act of faith) that the world is an object capable of being described by methods unattached to any imputation of deity, and they then develop procedures… that yield results, and they call those results reasons for concluding this or that.  And they are reasons, but only within the assumptions that both generate them and give them point. (  

Although readers responded by “pouring the proverbial ton of bricks on my head,” Fish held his ground in a second blog posting.  Fish points out that both science and the humanities work.  Therapy “enhances the ability to socially interact, at least sometimes,” and religion “gives meaning and direction to life, at least for some people.” “The…qualifications in the previous sentence acknowledge that the certainty these practices give us is, at least from the perspective of the long run, provisional.” (

But as I have written before the truths of science are provisional as well. (

“Lys Ann Shore and Karl Popper add to my doubts that science will tell me what is really going on. Shore has written, ‘The quest for absolute certainty must be recognized as alien to the scientific attitude, since scientific knowledge is fallible, tentative, and open to revision and modification (Hagen, 1995).’ 
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes Popper’s philosophy of science (
‘Scientific theories, for him, are not inductively inferred from experience, nor is scientific experimentation carried out with a view to verifying or finally establishing the truth of theories; rather, all knowledge is provisional, conjectural, hypothetical—we can never finally prove our scientific theories, we can merely (provisionally) confirm or (conclusively) refute them; hence at any given time we have to choose between the potentially infinite number of theories which will explain the set of phenomena under investigation. Faced with this choice, we can only eliminate those theories which are demonstrably false, and rationally choose between the remaining, unfalsified theories. Hence Popper’s emphasis on the importance of the critical spirit to science—for him critical thinking is the very essence of rationality. For it is only by critical thought that we can eliminate false theories, and determine which of the remaining theories is the best available one.’
Popper thought there are only two kinds of scientific theories: those that have been proven to be wrong and those that have yet to be proven wrong.”

The humanities and the natural sciences are both useful in my quest to better understand the world I find myself living in.  In Part II of this blog post, I will examine the backlash of some humanists who reject the prevailing conventional modern wisdom that science explains everything.

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