Friday, 20 January 2012

The Second, Third, and Fourth Cultures and Their Discontents

Felix, qui, potest rerum cognoscere causa
(“Fortunate is he who is able to know the causes of things”)
I actually had two comments posted to one of my recent blog entries, and that seemed strange. I think of this process as the solipsistic beginning of my writing day. It's a sort of warm up where I give myself permission to write about what I thought about when I couldn't sleep or when I was waiting in a long queue in a shop.  [Since these are solitary and disorganized, I need to unlink this blog from my social network links. No-one could read these ramblings without becoming totally crazed with boredom).

Last night my sleep was interrupted by thoughts on C. P. Snow's  account of the two cultures, science and the arts, and the hostility and the lack of communication between them.  Raymond Tallis' in "The Eunuch at the Orgy: Reflections on the F. R. Leavis" (1995) outlines some of the systemic problems which dog attempts to communicate across the cultures of sciences and the humanities, but it seems a slightly  dated now. The arrogance and airs of 'omnescience' which Tallis saw among humanities intellectuals have now largely been displaced by the a pervasive drive  to make science and scientific research the sole arbiters of  cultural relevance and 'truth'.  In other words, the sciences won the culture wars a long time ago. now few reputable thinkers make assertions which are not  demonstrably valid within a naturalistic, scientific framework. 

The beginnings of the ascendency of the sciences  can in small part be traced to a classic online essay published in 1991 by John Brockman, Edge: The Third Culture. The essay is for Brockman part  cri du coeur and partly a call to scientists to reinforce the  the barricades against  the dubious thinking of unscientific infidels. It's a master class in how to rebrand science to guarantee its cultural ascendency.  In the essay, he makes no mention of any thinker who is not a  credentialed  scientist, other than to lament that Snow's original speech included a  "new definition by the 'men of letters'" [but] "excluded scientists such as the astronomer Edwin Hubble, the mathematician John von Neumann, the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, and the physicists Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg."

Brockman was advocating that   "third-culture [scientifically proficient] thinkers...avoid the middleman and endeavor to express their deepest thoughts in a manner accessible to the intelligent reading public."

What has happened in the two decades since Brockman's Edge essay is that the pendulum has swung strongly away from any consideration of the humanities except as inferior attempts at explanation best left to professional scientist. 

Now don't think that I'm some sort of anti-science Luddite who thinks we should all return to studying the classics and leave science and scientific literacy as the purview of the scientists.  That is not my point at all. This is the twenty-first century. We all need to be conversant about the major new trends  in the sciences. Obviously they are of critical cultural importance.  

Still, for a number of reasons, I think it's time to give this trend of making science to arbitator of all culture some  deep and critical thought.  Jonah Lehrer, who wrote Proust Was a Neuroscientist , has begun to popularize what he's labelled  the Fourth Culture.  As he defines it:

If we are serious about unifying human knowledge, then we'll need to create a new movement that coexists with the third culture  but that deliberately trespasses on our cultural boundaries and seeks to create relationships between the arts and the sciences. The premise of this movement--perhaps a fourth culture--is that neither culture can exist by itself. Its goal will be to cultivate a positive feedback loop, in which works of art lead to new scientific experiments...

Lerher's earlier article in Seed on the roles of science and art is a good place to get more background on his position. 

A quick list of some of the books and thinkers I consider fourth culture thinkers [even if they lived long before the twenty-first century] would be:

1. Giordano Bruno...I'm rereading him right now, and he was an amazing [if technically pre-scientific thinker], even if his writing style is ornate and egotistical for 21st century readers.
2. The Cambridge Quartet by John Casti (Many critical reviewers don't appreciate the fact that sometimes the only way to fully understand a period of time, is to think about it imaginatively.)
3. A Certain Ambiguity by Suri. More books like this one might be a first step to begin to expose the 'culture wars' for what they often are: Dictatorial posturing and overtures to false 'certainties'. 
4. H. Allen Orr's piece in The New York Review of books entitled The Science of Right and Wrong. I added this after finding it referred to in a comment section, being impressed  and mildly amazed by how well it fits the points I was making here earlier today. 

I could make this list a lot longer, but I need to get to my REAL projects.  Nobody pays for solipsistic ramblings. If they did, I'd be quite rich obviously. 

1 comment:

  1. "The premise of this movement--perhaps a fourth culture--is that neither culture can exist by itself. Its goal will be to cultivate a positive feedback loop, in which works of art lead to new scientific experiments..." <-- This is an incredibly stupid and misguided idea, hardly worth taking seriously from either an artistic or scientific perspective.