Science and the Humanities and Social Sciences

To all this, tough-minded scientists, if they are still there, will say that art is not about truth at all. It is an expression of personal taste, and it only confuses the issue to speak of such mystical-sounding things as expressions, evocations, perspectives, and feelings. Such things are for softies, aesthetes, and the scientifically illiterate. There is only one truth, one way in which things are. The human mind is weak and prone to delusion, so coming to know the truth is difficult. Science offers the only sure route to truth because it observes closely and repeatedly, tests out many possible explanations, and checks with others for agreement. It guards against hasty or ill-considered judgments. It is based on tested, carefully checked evidence. It has the best and only chance of saying how things are.

This is one idealized view of science. But there is another. Scientists may not be white-coated technicians dispassionately dealing with facts discerned by their laboratory equipment. They may be poets of the universe, "voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone" (as Wordsworth said of Newton), awestruck by the intellectual beauty of nature, passionate to understand its integrated complexity, creatively inventing new modes of explanation and new ways of investigating the natural world. Perhaps the creation of "the scientific world" is itself a work of art, of creative imagination. In that case, science is shot through with value and creativity. Truth and compassion, beauty and intelligibility, the patient struggle against prejudice and irrationality are its hallmarks. Its martyrs are those, like Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin, who have given their lives in the search for truth. Its prophets are those, like Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Charles Darwin, who have revolutionized human thought by the brilliance and originality of their insights.

It is, therefore, deeply misleading to separate science from the humanities and social sciences altogether, as if science were concerned only with dispassionate evidence and reason, whereas the humanities were concerned only with imaginative fantasy and subjective feeling. What is needed is a more integrated view of human knowledge in its total range, fascinated both by the regularities of the physical and by the uniqueness of the personal.

The humanities and social sciences take as their object of study the personal world of culture and history, of language and art, of political and economic activity. The natural sciences study the impersonal world of particles, atoms, elements, cells, brains, and universes. These are aspects of the same world, but one studies beliefs, purposes, feelings, and values, as expressed in languages, social institutions, and artifacts, while the other studies mathematical relations and the laws and structures of physical objects. In the human person, both aspects are integrated, the life of the body and the life of the mind being entangled and closely interwoven.

This difference in the aspects of reality that are studied brings with it a difference in methodology. Passionate curiosity, imaginative invention, and the search for understanding are common. But ideas have no physical structure; there is no way to measure them in quantitative terms; they follow no pattern of predictable regularity. The world of the humanities is the world of meanings, and meanings have to be understood by an effort of empathetic imagination, by learning to interpret experience as others do.

As the work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein helped to make clear, the world of meanings is not purely inward, individual, and private. Persons learn to think in a social context. Their inner lives are molded by their language, and we learn how others see things by coming to understand their language or by appreciating the nonlinguistic expressions of meaning in their art and social institutions. So, meanings are not completely hidden from view inside the minds of others. They are socially expressed and communicated.

Nevertheless, understanding a meaning is an intellectual skill different from the skill of a scientist who investigates the pattern of atoms in a molecule. Scientists need careful and technologically enhanced observation, experimental control of the object they study, and the capacity to repeat their observations. Humanists need to interpret visual or oral data as communications, as conveying imaginative visions and ideas. In this area, what you see is always a function of what you are. You have to learn to see things in a new way, even if you disagree with what is being expressed. Thus, you have to enter into a dialogue between how you see things and other ways of seeing. That dialogue may be fruitful or frustrating. It may enlarge your understanding or reinforce your prejudices.

There is no neutral, value-free access to the life of other minds and cultures. Social anthropologists try to be as dispassionate as possible, but they know there will always be a critical difference between one who naturally belongs to another cultural tradition and one who merely reports it, however accurately. They know that different anthropologists report the same data in very different ways, for interpretation and personal understanding are inevitably from a personal perspective. That perspective may be changed by interaction with another, but it will never simply be eliminated.

So, scholars in the humanities and social sciences expect diversity of interpretation. Indeed, they look for it as a way to counter their own limitations, and to offer new forms of insight. But that does not prevent them from developing commitment to their own personal view, and arguing for it as the most adequate view. For understandings of the world, like languages, are always fluid and changing and exhibit both a loyalty to their own history and tradition and a concern to embrace a more global perspective.

Perhaps the greatest lesson scholarship in the humanities and social sciences can teach is that historical change and human diversity are in eliminable aspects of the study of human beliefs. To place ideas in their cultural context and to be able to give the history of their development are to understand them better. Nevertheless, the question of rationality and truth is not lost in the admission of diversity and development. Rationality is expressed in the concern to place ideas in a perspicacious and intelligible pattern, systematically set out so that their logical relationships can be clearly seen. Truth is neither just what anybody thinks it is ("it's true for me") nor a matter of clear propositions picturing clear states of affairs in the world. Truth lies in a relation between concepts and reality, and the nature of that relation depends on the concepts available to a given culture and on the extent to which reality can be depicted accurately in such concepts.

It is possible that human language is inadequate to provide a comprehensive and fully adequate description of reality. Why should the world fit our concepts exactly? Concepts divide up the world, classify it, and systematize it in specific ways. One of the miracles of science is that the language of mathematics does seem to depict and illuminate the nature of the physical world—as Eugene Wigner put it, "The appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve" (i960, 14). But the more beautiful and elegant the mathematics becomes—in quantum theory, for example—the less we are able to picture what the world it depicts is like or even whether it is depicting a real world at all.

Ordinary language more or less fits the trees and people and rocks we tend to bump into in everyday life. Mathematical language gives insight into the ultimate, but unpicturable, nature of the material world, the world of matter and beyond. But what other aspects of the world might there not be, and what different uses of language might we not need to depict them?

There is no reason that truth should consist only in the conclusive public verification of some precisely formulated statement in a human language. There are certainly some truths like that—the truth that there are forty-six chromosomes in the normal human genome is a good example. It is unambiguous and precise, and the statement corresponds to the facts. But truths about personal life are about a richly entangled, rarely fully explicit, constantly evolving, creatively interpreted set of thoughts and feelings. The language we have for expressing or describing such a life is limited and crude. We can hardly ever get a precise, unambiguous statement that corresponds to a mental fact, much less one that all of us could verify for ourselves. So, truth is much more a matter of degree, of metaphors that produce insight, if taken in the right way, of a more-or-less appropriateness.

There is, no doubt, only one way in which things are. But our language may not be able to state that precisely. Concepts may sketch it in a rough outline, with more-or-less adequacy and in rather different, even apparently conflicting, ways, if taken too literally. To gain a truly comprehensive and adequate view requires wisdom and sensitivity, and, given our human situation of vast ignorance and corruption of desire and will, hardly any one will manage to do it. Most of us will continue to live in a world of conceptual antagonisms, overemphasized inadequacies, and oversimple keys to understanding. The best we can do is to make of this situation a dialectic to enable wider understanding. The worst is to dismiss the views of others as ridiculous, being blind to the limitations of our own.

 
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