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By Lee Isaacsohn

 

A few months ago my brother was in town during part of his winter break. He is an avowed “non-science” person, yet reading Walter Isaacson’s biographical sketch of Einstein led him to question some of his core intellectual assumptions. An essay from the book which first appeared in the USAtoday touches on Einstein’s creativity, its relation to science, and our society’s perception of science.  In this essay, Isaacson touches on the dichotomy that exists between the general knowledge of art and culture, and the general knowledge of science. He laments certain members of our society who considering themselves ‘well educated’ go so far as to flaunt their lack of science knowledge, or at least readily dismiss it as being too hard to understand. The essay, a modern continuation of CP Snow’s landmark 1959 lecture ‘The Two Cultures’, deplores a world in which it is ok ay for intelligent, well-informed and rounded people to have no basic understanding of science, its giants, or its larger purposes.  One is expected to be familiar with Shakespeare and Hemingway, but not with Newton or Copernicus. Within the scientific community, however, similar exceptions are made: it is acceptable to brush off topics such as philosophy, literature and history in favor of the “hard sciences”.    

 

How sincere are these divisions? Every so often I find myself engaged in conversations as to the wholly distinctive natures of the humanities and the sciences. These conversations are troubling, even infuriating, and yet understandable at the same time. In fact, I have spent many years studying on both sides of the divide and have often failed to see a shared relevance. My ‘scientific-self’ used to stand, distantly, in harsh judgment of my ‘humanities-self’, and vice versa. Worse still was how I allowed these divisions to persist. I kept my worlds as separate as possible: when with the science-minded my ‘humanities-self’ remained hidden. A short speech I once heard helped me to allow my worlds to intermingle. The speaker was a both an award winning fine arts photographer as well as a successful litigation lawyer. For years he went though pains keeping those worlds distinct; neither party knew the other existed. He was afraid of ridicule from both sides, that the one would not understand his need for the other. His description of their meeting was anticlimactic: nothing happened. His friends were even a bit offended at being kept in the dark. Yet the affect on him was profound and his work flourished. In the end this photographer-lawyer realized that both are equally vital (this is true also of their larger fields). Both are vital because they are sister pursuits, embarking on the major intellectual pursuits of humanity through dissimilar means.

 

Science and humanities are after answers to the same questions that have plagued humankind for millennia: what is life, and why do we exist? Newton’s experiments were devoted to explaining the phenomena of life. He even invented a mathematical language with which to describe its idiosyncratic patterns. Before Newton, physics and philosophy were in the same department at Cambridge. And when Crick and Watson cracked the genetic code, were they not seeking answers to life’s ‘big’ mysteries? Artists, writers, musicians all strive to accomplish the same. Through their paintings and sculptures, art movements as varied as Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism also engage these questions. The examples run on and on because the pursuit of truth and of answers is as endless as it is ubiquitous. The almost supernatural character of these universal inquiries demands a combination, not a division, of disciplines. These are questions for everyone to ponder, and there is valuable insight to be gleaned by examining the work of others.

As my brother and I kept talking, we were reminded of an incident when a friend (a pre-med at the time) exposed a particularly glaring hole in his personal knowledge base: he did not know the years of the First World War. It turned out that three pre-med students were able to pinpoint the dates of that major world event. We quickly discovered that the gap extended far beyond just WWI and as a group began exchanging daily trivia questions on basic history and literature. That no one suggested including any science component is revealing—we were proof of the problem addressed in Isaacson’s essay. Science trivia was not considered because we unconsciously decided that those not involved in science did not need to know about PCR or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle . We were wrong.

 

We live in a world that is becoming increasingly tailored to mirror our existing notions and lives back to us, reinforcing what we already know and believe. Both the humanities and the sciences are guilty of being too insular, too exclusive, too self-referential. This is to each of their detriments. In writing on the benefits of reading the ‘great writers’ by psychoanalytic students, Theodores Reik argues on behalf of the emotional depth it creates. He extols how these works penetrate the unconscious and then almost unexpectedly begin to “pervade the atmosphere”.  This subtle percolation happens whenever one is exposed to different ideas. Isaacson is clued into this: he explains that understanding the depth of Hamlet’s fateful decision is no more or less complex than grasping the basics of Newton’s laws, thus those engaging intellectual pursuits can and should broaden their horizons.

 

Our questions are the same, they are just being asked in different languages. It is our challenge to not allow these differences to cloud and fragment our intellectual frameworks. Our world today is not simply one of Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ but one of ‘thousands of cultures’.  In worlds so micro-specialized it is even harder to notice our similarities among the more glaring differences. Yet we are much more similar than we are different.

The intellectual characteristics that mark great scientists are the same as those of great philosophers and artists – creativity, intrepidness, clarity, devotion and genius. A friend sent me a blog post by one of her classmates about this same topic. The post remarks, after a discussion on art and science, how cool it is that our brains work differently. Yet our brains are not actually working differently, the sciences and the arts are engaging in the same pursuit of truth, from divergent angles. If there is any hope of figuring any of this out, of furthering our conceptions of the human project and our lived experience of it, then what we need is a symbiosis between the humanities and the sciences. Einsten wrote, “arts and sciences are branches of the same tree…directed toward ennobling man's life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.”  It’s a big job – we may as well start on it sooner rather than later.

 

On Humanities and Science

An essay on how the humanities and sciences talk past each other, and why they shouldn't.

 

3/26/12

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