Felix, qui, potest rerum cognoscere causa
|(“Fortunate is he who is able to know the causes of things”)|
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.