Friday, April 14, 2006

 

A Letter Home

Dear Mentor,

A while back (10 years ago now) you asked me to think about why scientists should study humanities and the arts.

I took this seriously, and have done a lot of reading and writing in the meantime. Im sorry about my progress being really slow, but the more you find out, the more you find out you really have no clue about what you just thought you had figured out, and that the entire thing is a whole lot more interesting than it first appeared.

Anyway, so far this is what I have.

If a scientist or engineer (or any technologist) makes a good faith effort to study the humanities, then they will not end up like, for example, Richard Dawkins. Thats pretty much it. Its really that simple. But, since you've already read this far, and hopefully dont feel like the idea is a waste of your time to read a page or two about, Ill go on.

Reading certain authors, whether they be Richard Dawkins, or Carl Sagan, or any one of a number of those permanently blinded by what-they-think-the-Enlightenment-is types, is like embracing a supermodel.

First, you run your hand down her very reasonable shoulder, past her sculpted upper arm, through the lovely enlightened inner elbow, letting your fingers massage the velvety soft skin of her perfect forearm. You long to hold her hand and run off into the sunset with her, feeling like you can understand your world with her, and that you will live happily ever after, secure in the knowledge that youre better than everyone else because youre a smarty-pants. Your life is truly better because youve been introduced to the supermodel. This is beyond question. Youre head and shoulders above where you were before.

Then, you come abruptly to the bloody stump of an amputation.

All the while the supermodel smiles at you, beckoning you to continue following her past the scientific method to empiricism or rationalism or secular humanism or atheism or pretty-much-any-ism. She reassures you that all is well, that all that mysticism and philosophical liberal arts mumbo-jumbo doesnt mean anything anyway, and is just a bunch of ignorant claptrap.

But she's bleeding to death, there on the couch.

The challenge to scientists is manifold. Scientific people have had a heck of a time this century. To go from the heady days of the 1920s, where science seemed to be on the verge of conquering all problems and would usher in a new modernity, free of toil and disease, to the Depression, where technological unemployment was (rightly or wrongly) blamed for much of the misery, to World War II, where scientists became associated with bombs, and weapons, and entered into an enduring symbiosis with the government, never to truly emerge as an independent class again, through decades of being portrayed as people who only memorize formulas, lack creativity, and have no fun, and finally to the present where they are all of the above and less - to go through all of this perhaps narrows the mind, creates a defensiveness, an over-reliance on empiricism, a replacement of a healthy worldview with nothing more than Occam's Razor as your weapon. Speaking as a technologist, its quite a tempting worldview.

At the very least, an effort made to study the humanities arms the scientist with a tourniquet to go with the razor.

As I remember, for the razor to cut, there must be some real solutions, and there must be some truly extraneous explanations. However, too often, I see surgery where none is required on the part of the scientist. This leads directly to bad science, not to mention the tendency to then liberally apply Occam's Razor to people, their identities, interests, orientations, beliefs, arts, and practices.

This can result in a world that not even the most hardcore scientist would truly want to live in.

Specifically, in the case of bad science - to pathologize something such as culture, homosexuality, religion, certain observable scientific realities, and then hack them off with your razor, to the delight of you or your audience, often results in a delay of discovery.

Who would have predicted that there would be thousands of studies showing the health benefits of religiosity, if everyone had believed Freud or if everyone went along with Dawkins? Surprise, being religious may be hard-wired into our DNA. Religiosity may actually have enhanced our evolutionary progress as humans, instead of hampering it.

The values of certain things wax and wane. There are as many fads in scientific thinking as there are in philosophy, or music, or fashion. If this is appreciated, a scientist becomes that much more powerful.

Scientific progress does not equate with or ensure social progress. It would be so nice if it did, but we can clearly see otherwise. The tendency of many scientists to take credit for the good while denying any culpability for the bad is something that can often be addressed through a study of humanities.

For all the attention paid to a separation between church and state - arguably a separation that has benefited US churches far more than the US government - precious little attention is ever given to a separation between science and state.


Government funds a lot of science. Government uses a lot of science. Money always comes with strings. Governmental motives are, I would argue, largely incompatible with pure research. It's worth asking whether or not tremendous distortions in the achievements of science have occurred with a lack of separation between science and government. Without an appreciation for political and social history, without an introduction to some of the basic philosophical concepts that lead to classical liberalism and the roots of our own Constitution, is it probable that the average scientist would see anything wrong with the current situation that they are ensconced within?

The great power of a scientist or engineer is often the sharpened curiosity and the years (or decades) spent becoming a better problem solver. Due to the realities of the division of labor, sometimes something has to be given up in order to allow the engineer or scientist to be an engineer or scientist. At some point, however, an integration and optimization has to occur at the grand systems level.

This is a fancy way of saying that at some point scientists (I'm speaking both of scientists in general and as a scientific person myself) really need to get a clue about what it means to be human. Otherwise, incurvatus est is their (our) destiny, and they (we) end up doubting every truth but their (our) own.

Hence, you have people like Richard Dawkins, who traversed the sky of his adult life from the rosy dawn of productive and positive pro-science writing to the smoggy sunset of anti-religious polemic, thus wasting years of his life expressing hatred at and for something that he claims is meaningless. Incurvatus est.

This is a great failing of intellect, not a triumph of it. Fundamentalism follows, and then fossilization sets in, only to be ruptured later by some sort of tectonic intellectual groundswell. A study of the humanities won't change the reality of the structure of scientific revolution, but my feeling is that it directly improves both the quality of the scientific work done as well as empowering the scientist to take a more active and more productive role in society.

Yours always,

-Mitch



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