Monday, June 25, 2012

The Humanities vs. Science, Part II

The title of this blog is purposefully wrong, or at least misleading.  The humanities and science are not at war and are equally important for my understanding of the world.  However, as we saw in Part I many foolishly regard science as reflecting objective truth and religion as reflecting dogma and authority.  And yet Stanley Fish has convinced me that both these two approaches are provisional and affected by the assumptions, beliefs, and theories of those who practice their respective disciplines. ( (

Defenders of the humanities claim they have no problem with science, but they do challenge the wisdom of what they call the “parascience” or “scientism.” Neurologist Raymond Tallis defines scientism as  “the mistaken belief that the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology and their derivatives) can or will give a complete description and even explanation of everything, including human life.” (  Novelist Marilynne Robinson in her Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy at Yale ( attacks the parascientific approach exemplified by E. O. Wilson’s On Human Nature:

“The core of scientific materialism is the evolutionary epic.  Let me repeat its minimum claims:  that the laws of the physical sciences are consistent with those of the biological and social sciences and can be linked in chains of causal explanation; that life and mind have a physical basis; that the world as we know it has evolved from earlier worlds obedient to the same laws; and that the visible universe today is everywhere subject to these materialist explanations.”

One way to get at the tension between the humanities and scientism is to focus on first principles, the subject of the Albert/Krauss conflict described in Part I.  Science has replaced metaphysics in the modern academy, but it is worth recalling the Oxford English Dictionary definition of metaphysics:

“That branch of speculative inquiry which treats of the first principles of things, including such concepts as being, substance, essence, time, space, cause, identity, etc; theoretical philosophy as the ultimate science of Being and Knowing.”

Robinson echoes Fish when she takes parascience to task for saying that metaphysics no longer has utility:

“To say there is no aspect of being that metaphysics can meaningful address is a metaphysical statement. To say that metaphysics is a cultural phase or misapprehension that can be put aside is also a metaphysical statement.  The notion of accident does nothing to dispel mystery, nothing to diminish scale.” (
Robinson wants us to remember that science is a relatively recent phenomenon culturally localized in the West and that religion is far more ancient and global.  She argues for including insights from both in our understanding of the world, and she worries that “mind as felt experience has been excluded from important fields of modern thought.”  She finds the parascience view of human history “to suggest a parochialism that follows from a belief in science as a kind of magic, as if it existed apart from history and culture, rather than being, in objective truth and inevitably, their product.” (  This is an observation, which I believe Fish would endorse.

Exhibiting a confidence and ego to match Dawkins (which is saying a lot), Tallis attacks scientism with a zeal hard to describe.  His passion seems to come from his stance as a meliorist who needs to believe that humans are fundamentally different from other animals and that we humans have a duty to work together to improve the conditions of existence for our fellow man.  For Tallis the stakes in this battle are indeed high and worth fighting for; if his enemies win:

“Our distinctive nature, our freedom, our selfhood and even human society would be reduced to the properties of living matter, and this in turn would be ripe to be reduced, via molecular biology, to matter period.” (

In a previous blog post, I have summarized how Tallis the neurologist gleefully attacks those who have ruined neuroscience with imaging studies that are poorly designed and misinterpreted by the lay press. In just one example he quotes Matthew Crawford’s characterization of a brain scan as “’a fast-acting solvent of critical faculties.’” (

In numbing detail, Tallis puts forth his thesis that much of parascience is based on overreaching conclusions from experiments that “grotesquely simplify human life.”  Tallis approvingly quotes Andrew Scull who writes:

“The neuroscientific findings that are so proudly proffered reflect simple simulated experiments that in no way capture the intricacies of everyday social situations, let alone the complex interactions over time that make up human history.” (

Like Robinson, Tallis cannot accept parascience’s insistence that everything humans do directly or indirectly serves the replication of our selfish genes.  Tallis believes such a conclusion ignores much that is central to human nature and quotes William James to support his case:

“Man’s chief difference from the brutes lies in the exuberant excess of his subjective propensities…Had his whole life not been a quest for the superfluous, he would never have established himself as inexpugnably as he has done in the necessary.” (

Although Tallis dissects neuro-economics, neuro-law,  neuro-lit-crit, neuro-theology, neuro-truistics, neuroaesthetics, and neuroarthistory, I will only summarize his views on art in this blog post.  The parascience approach to art is described concisely by Robinson:

“What is art? It is a means of attracting mates, even though artists may have felt that it was an exploration of experience, of the possibilities of communication, and of the extraordinary collaboration of eye and hand.” (

Talllis disapprovingly examines Semir Zeki who directs an institute at University College London devoted to neuroaesthetics.  Zeki discusses his views on art.

“The artist in a sense is a neuroscientist, exploring the potential and capacities of the brain, though with different tools.  How such creations can arouse aesthetic experiences can only be fully understood in neural terms.  Such an understanding is now well within our reach.” (

Zeki believes Mondrian speaks preferentially to cells in region V1 and V4 and that the Fauves stimulate V4 and the middle frontal convolutions.  Tallis attacks this approach because

·      “Great artists are more often biological losers than they are alpha semen spreaders.”
·      Art engages us as whole human beings.
·      “Works of art…are in dialogue with the world in which they are produced, with other works in the same and different genres and with the earlier and later works of the same artist.  They invite us not only to have experiences but to examine those experiences.”
·      “Rembrandt’s series of self portraits is not merely a parade of coloured surfaces but a profound meditation on the tragedy and beauty of the course of life.” (

Fish, Robinson, and Tallis have convinced me that science does not give a complete description and explanation of human life.  I am going to have to reject Francis Crick’s Astonishing Hypothesis:

“You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” (

Instead I am going to embrace Marilynne Robinson’s conclusion that there is a mind separate from the brain, there are things unknowable in this world, and that the humanities can still teach me things that science cannot explain:

“As proof of the existence of mind we have only history and civilization, art, science, and philosophy. And at the same time, of course, that extraordinary individuation.” (



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