Friday, November 26, 2010

science and humanities

I'm reading this sort of disappointingly annoying book of essays on "science and the creative spirit." Contrary to the title, it's really about trying to reconcile science and the humanities in the minds of some very humanities-ish* authors who seem to think that they are two different and complementary approaches to attaining truth.

The traditional division of conceit is between hard scientists who scoff at the humanities for being fluff detached from reality, and artistic scholars who scoff at the sciences for being one-dimensional and flat, devoid of the humanity that makes life actually interesting. As a social scientist (albeit with roots in the hard sciences, although mathematics is arguably more of an art than a science as well...) I don't quite fit in with either of those camps, although I subscribe to a modified version of the scientific conceit wholeheartedly: Science is the path to the truth and its object can be the physical universe or the human experience. Anything else is fluff and detached from reality.

Am I missing something there? I'm really trying to be open minded, but honestly that seems so obviously true I can hardly believe anyone who disagrees is entirely mentally healthy...

It's not that there's no value in that aspect of the humanities, of course, just like there's plenty of value in fictional literature and art. But that value is aesthetic, not truth. Yes, everyone experiences the world differently, and those varied thoughts and feelings and our collective consciousnesses and culturally revisionist histories are all truths in themselves. But that doesn't make them true, and the humanities do not have access to some other realm of truth by virtue of their coexistence. And while we can create many alternate stories to explain actions or events or written words or art, and those stories may be aesthetically pleasing and even internally consistent to varying degrees, that doesn't make them true. The humanities do not have access to some other realm of truth by virtue of its lack of a requirement of discriminating proof to support those stories, either.

Science is how we learn about the universe, our history, and ourselves. Much of the work done in the name of the humanities or liberal arts is a (usually very informal/sloppy) form of science. The rest is art, which is simply the creation of new experiences that science can later study. Art is not an alternate path to truth, it is an entirely different activity.

*What is the adjective form of humanities??

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