What’s the Point of the Humanities? A Response to Pinker and Wieseltier

What’s the Point of the Humanities? A Response to Pinker and Wieseltier November 11, 2013

David Rohr


Two months ago, I read the Pinker-Wieseltier exchange in The New Republic, and for two months I’ve been perturbed.  It’s troubling enough to witness a conversation between public intellectuals devolve into a name-calling match.  It’s even more worrying if you think, as I do, that only mutual understanding between scientists and humanists can bridge the chasm that divides our intellectual life into two separate, often antagonistic cultures. 

Most disquieting for me, however, has been a sense of internal conflict.  On one hand, I agree with Pinker that science is relevant to many important non-scientific questions and that, to the extent that humanists adopt and defend an anti-science posture, humanists are not thinking clearly and they are discrediting themselves in the process.  On the other, I agree with Wieseltier that the humanities are vitally important, grossly undervalued, and in need of protection from an increasingly common form of imperialistic scientism that will only respect humanistic disciplines once they have surrendered and become sub-disciplines of science—the humanities as applied sciences, a nightmarish thought.  Reflecting on my sense of conflict, I realized that I lacked a good answer to a fundamental question underlying the entire debate: Why do the humanities deserve similar respect and funding to sciences when they can’t produce definite answers (unlike science), they fail to progress in obvious ways (unlike science), and they produce few tangible benefits to society (unlike science)?  My answer is that science—despite being reliable, progressive, and producing amazing new technologies—is actually not very practical when it comes to understanding the complex realities that are central to humanistic inquiries like subjective experiences, meanings, and values. Here’s why:

1. Conclusions reached by mature sciences warrant the highest degree of belief.  

Setting aside analytically true inquiries like logic and mathematics, the mature natural sciences constitute our most certain areas of knowledge, the disciplines whose conclusions warrant the highest degree of belief.  At this point in human history, it’s intellectually counter-productive, if not irrational, to seriously doubt the existence of galaxies, tectonic plates, or cells; or to doubt the heliocentric theory of the solar system; or to doubt that all living species were brought forth by natural selection. To the extent that the word “knowledge” is ever applicable to human beliefs, we “know” these truths of science.  In contrast, humanistic interpretations are never certain or final.  No good humanist would ever claim they “know” the correct interpretation of Hamlet or Job.  To be clear, there’s much to be known about a text or a work of art that helps to constrain good interpretation, but the actual act of interpretation—the process of constructing meaning in response to a work of art—is inherently creative, not a matter of discovering a frozen, underlying truth.

2. Scientific understanding is relevant to many non-scientific questions.

Scientific understanding is important and valuable not simply because it’s relatively reliable, but because it constrains and illuminates many pressing non-scientific questions.  For instance, the relevance of emerging sciences to perennial questions about human nature is a running theme in Pinker’s intellectual work and in his New Republic essay. About this Pinker is surely correct.  As neuroscience, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology continue to mature they reveal an increasingly detailed portrait of the human mind as a product of evolutionary pressures.  It’s one thing to realize that humans look like chimps for a reason, and quite another to understand that the human mind—the very structure of our experience, the way the world shows up for us, the reasons why we notice what we notice, feel what we feel, and are motivated to act as we act—is largely a product of natural selection.  To grasp the latter is to feel the full weight of Darwin’s revolution in human self-understanding.

Of course, I’m not arguing that culture and intellectual ideas do not also shape human minds and help to determine how the world shows up for us.  Instead, I am agreeing with Pinker and others that human culture is constrained, without being fully determined, by our biological inheritance.  To be blunt about the implications of this position: biological and neurological underpinnings are relevant to understanding every cultural phenomenon, without exception.  This may sound imperialistic to many humanists, but I think it follows rather directly from an evolutionary perspective.  Just as there are no organisms whose life-sustaining processes violate the laws of physics, so no cultural practice occurs independently of human bodies and brains.

To the extent that the sciences and humanities are in conflict, I think it usually concerns the relevance of science to wider, non-scientific questions.  Scientists recognize this relevance and quite naturally apply their hard-won expertise to wider questions.  The problem is that applying specialized knowledge outside its own specialized domain is an interpretive process that is far more complicated than it often appears.

3. Applying scientific understanding to non-scientific questions is a complex interpretive process, which can never be purely “scientific” for at least two reasons: (1) we lack an overarching theory that can integrate the many specialized disciplines of science into an all-inclusive whole, and (2) a scientific picture of the world is far too complex to be humanly comprehensible.

We often speak—and I have so far been speaking in this essay—as if “science” is one intellectually, socially, and methodologically unified process, but this could hardly be further from the truth.  The natural sciences are many, and each discipline has its own theoretical and conceptual tools, social organizations, and methodologies that it employs to illuminate its special corner of reality.  What is often underappreciated is how difficult it is to unify diverse scientific disciplines, to explain without distortion the content of one scientific discipline in terms of a second discipline.  Perhaps the best candidate for such a theoretical reduction is the explanation of chemistry in terms of quantum mechanics.  However, the theoretical gaps between disciplines like chemistry and biology appear more permanent.  To the extent that organisms are adaptively designed because they are decoded from genetic information that evolved in a process of natural selection that occurred across several continents over the course of billions of years, it seems unlikely that a physical-chemical account focused on immediate causation will ever constitute a satisfying replacement for a historical, narrative explanation of an organism’s adaptive structure.  Likewise, if brains and human languages are information structures constituted by evolutionary processes, a similar in-principle limit to theoretical integration will apply in these cases as well.  While these in-principle limits to integration are a bit speculative, conceptual incompatibility even within a scientific discipline is common.  For instance, there are at least twenty-two distinct definitions of “species” employed by biologists.

The upshot of all this theoretical disunity is that it makes it impossible to translate without distortion and explanatory loss the content of one scientific discipline into the conceptual scheme of another discipline.  Thus, the scientific specialist who attempts to apply her insights beyond her field of specialization is committed to an interpretive process that cannot rely solely on “scientific” methods and, therefore, does not deserve the same privileged epistemic status that I have suggested science itself deserves.

As an example, my introductory neuroscience textbook makes the following statement in the context of discussing the unprecedented proportions and capacities of the human brain: “The evolutionary evidence from our ancestors shows that we humans are specialized in having an upright posture, making and using tools, and developing language but that we are not special because our ancestors also shared these traits, at least to some degree.”  Now, the fact that human features evolved from ancestral precedents is an evolutionary truism not worth stating.  Presumably, our lack of specialness is here intended in some wider cosmological or theological sense.

However, I can’t see how an evolutionary account of our ancestry or a detailed understanding of brain function provides any straightforward answers here.  The “unspecialness” of human beings, asserted in order to resist teleological interpretations of evolution, has become something of a biological dogma.  Often this “unspecial thesis” is presented as flowing directly from the data of biology, but this picture is too simple.  Biological and neurological facts only bear upon the question of human specialness when those facts are interpreted within an encompassing philosophical or theological framework.  Human “unspecialness” is a classic example of a non-scientific interpretation of science that has been promulgated using the epistemic authority of science.  Probably there would be much less resistance to evolutionary theory if people did not feel that believing in evolution required denying what seems so painfully obvious: that humans are the only Earth species that writes poetry, develops laws, charts galaxies, and addresses ultimate reality in prayer – and that all of this makes us very, very special.

In addition to the problem of applying scientific knowledge of parts to the interpretation of wholes, interpreting the wider significance of science is further complicated by the sheer complexity and scale of scientific understanding and the limited resources of human comprehension.  Here I want to stipulate a distinction between “understanding” and “comprehension.”  By “understanding,” I mean correctly grasping the basic ideas and content of a subject.  To understand neuroscience includes at least knowing something about neurons, action potentials, complicated neural networks, and the transformation of sensory input into a behavioral output.  By “comprehension,” I mean something like the ability to fathom a belief, to “wrap one’s head around” an idea.  To comprehend the human brain in this sense requires fathoming an intricate network of 85 billion neurons with perhaps 85 trillion synaptic connections, whose different firing rates somehow constitute information; to comprehend the brain in the strong sense I intend requires “seeing” the whole without abstracting away all the parts and “seeing” all the parts as they fit together into a coherent, functioning whole.

I don’t think human beings are capable of comprehending the brain in this sense.  Nor do I think this problem is limited to our bewilderingly complex brains.  The fact that I have spent every moment of my life orbiting the center of a spiral galaxy that stretches across 100,000 light-years and contains 100 billion stars; or that my body is composed of 10 trillion cells, each of which is a city-like flurry of millisecond-scaled activity; or that the world shows up for me in bright greens, blues, reds, and yellows because innumerable photons are being absorbed and re-emitted by electrons surrounding atomic nuclei in all the matter around me, and that some of these re-emitted photons pass through the narrow hole of my pupil and are processed by my retina and brain—each of these is an unfathomable truth.  As an intellectual and spiritual practice, I enjoy contemplating scientific facts like these.  I delight in the attempt to comprehend, even as I delight in my inevitable, illuminating failure.

Without this strong sense of comprehension, I think we lack the ability to interpret with confidence the meaning of scientific facts.  As I have already made clear, I think neuroscience and other sciences are highly relevant to questions about human nature and about the mind.  However, I think it’s overly simplistic to move from incomprehensible neurological details to sweeping conclusions about the nature of our subjective experience.  For this reason, it strikes me as wildly inappropriate when the authors of my textbook argue that neuroscience supports eliminative materialism, an extreme position in the philosophy of mind that argues that mental states are illusions that will be explained away by a neurological understanding of the brain.  The details of their argument are beside the point of this essay.  Simply put, to be convinced that my mental experience, my thoughts, my beliefs, and my choices are illusions, I’d need to be able to comprehend (in the strong sense I mentioned above) my brain with all its neurons, synapses, firing patterns, and densely tangled networks—I would need to see the whole without abstracting away all the parts and to see that, indeed, my mental states are illusions.  I think this type of comprehension is the only neurological evidence capable of discrediting the reality of subjectivity, and I doubt the neuroscientists who wrote my textbook have had such an experience.

The basic question here is whether or not scientists’ opinions should be significantly privileged over well-informed non-scientists when it comes to interpreting the wider meaning of science.  Again, when astrophysicists opine about the cold hostility of vast empty space, or the insatiable violence of a black hole, does their anthropomorphic interpretation really count for more just because they are scientists?  Ought we to look up to them as those that stood before the darkness and survived to tell the tale?  Have they looked out upon the vastness of space and really comprehended it?  I seriously doubt it.  And, therefore, I take their existentially loaded characterizations of the universe with a big grain of salt.  Scientists deserve respect, gratitude, and funding because their ingenious efforts produce genuine, useful knowledge about incomprehensible micro- and macro-scales of our reality.  But they don’t deserve demi-god status, which I would happily grant them if they comprehended what they were talking about.

In short, no one lives in a scientific world.  No one actually sees trillions upon trillions of photons, no one walks on Earth aware of their actual position in the encompassing galaxy, and no one comprehends what it means to have their subjective experience constituted by an ever-evolving network of 85 trillion synaptic connections.  The world discovered by contemporary science is subjectively inaccessible to one and all.

4. The humanities are concerned with analyzing and interpreting very high-level integrations that are humanly comprehensible – like subjective experience, cultural meanings, and valuational orientations. While a scientific account of these complex realities would be incomprehensible and practically useless, the humanities begin at the integrated level and help us to deepen our sensitivity to the richness of subjective experience, maintain and cultivate wisdom achieved in the past, and guide present human striving toward worthy goals.

This essay was supposed to be a defense of the humanities, but so far it’s focused almost exclusively on science.  The takeaways are: (1) that science warrants a foundational position in our contemporary intellectual life and (2) that science is relevant to some of humanity’s deepest questions, but (3) that there are very good reasons for suspecting that science alone cannot constitute an adequate worldview and (3) that many aspects of reality are so complicated that our best scientific understanding cannot be meaningfully comprehended and, therefore, cannot be used to guide our practical engagement of reality.

In contrast to science’s attempt to know with certainty the isolated bits and pieces of reality, humanistic disciplines seek to understand complex wholes in all their subtlety and richness.  Humanists take for granted, as the very subject matter of their inquiry, the reality of subjective experience, cultural meanings, and valuational orientations.  If science is incapable of offering a convincing account of these complex realities or if a scientific account is too bewilderingly complicated to be comprehended, so much the worse for science: subjectivity, meanings, and values require critical analysis and interpretative exploration because they are absolutely fundamental to human life.  And if humanistic interpretation and meaning are never certain, so much the worse for certainty: questions gain their legitimacy as they arise in our lived experience, not when we decide that we are capable of providing infallible empirical answers to them.

Throughout his essay, Wieseltier also argues that analyzing and interpreting subjective experience, cultural meanings, and valuational orientations is the proper non-scientific goal of the humanities.  However, Wieseltier defends the legitimacy of humanistic inquiry by demanding like an angry medieval father that scientists “respect the borders between the realms” and by appealing to an ontological dualism dividing subjectivity from matter and culture from nature.

In contrast, my argument for the legitimacy of the humanities doesn’t appeal to a fractured ontology or claim any authority for humanists beyond legitimate expertise.  Instead, my argument is simply that, while we should rely on science whenever we can, life presents many problems that science alone can’t answer.  To be perfectly clear: I’m not doubting anything about the reality—meaning “existence”—of any entity in the scientific picture of the world.  Nor, as I’ve said, am I denying the relevance of reality-according-to-science to understanding complex, human-scaled realities like those studied by humanists.  I merely doubt the capacity of human beings generally, including scientists, to confidently interpret such complex wholes strictly in terms of the incomprehensible details provided by science.  This is a criticism not about scientific truth claims, but about the adequacy of scientific understanding to encompass all the things whose existence we are warranted in believing in (minds, meanings, ideas, values, beauty, and so forth) and, therefore, also about the applicability of scientific understanding for guiding a holistic, integrated, sensitive, and authentic human response to reality.

In short, we need our intellectual traditions to help us do more than answer basic ontological questions about the stuff of reality.  We need epic poems that help us process our deepest longings and conflicts, theatre that names and dignifies the tragedy of life even as it teaches us to laugh at our vanity, and novels that widen our empathic circles as we imaginatively explore the subjective experience of others.  We need paintings and poetry and films to awaken us to the aesthetic richness of our own experience.  We need history to contextualize our moment in the long trajectory of human striving, to feel the weight of our debt to those who have gone before, and to learn from our cruelties and failures so that they are not perpetuated into the future.  We need the gadfly of philosophy to humble us concerning what we do not know, even as it emboldens us to think coherently and systematically about the knowledge we have gained thus far.  And we need traditions of religious reflection that preserve ancient wisdom and sustain modern spiritual quests without promoting delusion, authoritarianism, or bigotry.

As Wieseltier caustically but correctly notes in his concluding remarks, science is sexy, confident, and universally adored—the star quarterback of our intellectual culture.  In contrast to the dusty, boring, and impractical humanities, science is fresh, exhilarating, and its practical fruits form the fabric of our ultra high-tech society.  I love science too.  And I think the internet and modern medicine are amazing.  However, I also think that power is an insatiable human thirst, that the glamour of science is largely due to the technological power it produces, and that military and corporate funding of science is not always about seeking truth for its own sake.  Power is not an intrinsic good—it’s only good when it is tempered by wisdom and wielded to achieve noble ends.  This, above all other reasons, is why we should value the humanities alongside the sciences.

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