Sunday, December 18, 2016

There is only one culture: bringing back science into the fold of humanism


Yesterday, I was invited to give a talk at a public meeting on the usual themes: climate change, resources, pollution, and the like. This time, a question I received from the audience caused me a small enlightenment that I am describing here as I remember it (h/t Lorenzo Citti for having organized this interesting meeting) (image source)


Thanks for this question - it is a very interesting question: "are we teaching enough science to our children?" And I can tell you that it is much more than an interesting question, it caused some small earthquake in my mind. Truly, I had a flash of understanding that I had never had before and right now I completely changed my view of the world. It happens to me: the world changes so fast and I do my best to follow it.

Your question is so interesting because it has to do with the idea that there are two cultures: a scientific one and a literary one. As a consequence, some of us think that instruction is unbalanced in one or the other direction: maybe we teach too little science to our children, maybe too much. The whole idea goes back to someone named Snow who proposed it in the 1950s. He was not wrong, I think, but there were problems with the idea. The concept of the two cultures can be intended as meaning that we need somehow to bridge the gap that exists in between. Or, and I think that's what happens most often, it can be interpreted as meaning that one of the two cultures is superior to the other. That can generate a competition between the two and divide people into two different tribes: literates and scientists.  We are very good, as human beings, at dividing ourselves into separate tribes fighting each other. And that's bad, as you can imagine. Actually, it is a disaster. Snow was a scientist and he decried the scientific ignorance of literates. On this, he was right but in the long run the result was that literates despise scientists as illiterate boors and scientists despise literates as feebleminded ignorants.

Now, I had been thinking about all this and, as I said, today I had this flash that focused my mind on a concept. I think we have to say this clearly: this story of the "two cultures" is an idiocy. It must end. There is only ONE culture, and that's what we may call "humanism," if nothing else because we are all humans. That is, unless someone in the audience today is an alien or a droid. In such case, would you please stand up? No......? Apparently, we are all humans in this room and so we call our culture "humanism" (or, sometimes, "arts and humanities")  How else would you call it?

So, there is really no reason for considering modern science a separate culture rather than part of the human culture that we call humanism. I am saying this as a scientist: science is part of what I would like to call human "sapience", what the ancient called "sophos"; that we translate as "wisdom" "sapience," or "knowledge." The term philosopher just means someone who loves sapience. And that's what we are; scientists or non-scientists, the very fact that we are here today, engaged in this discussion. means that we love knowledge: we are all philosophers. And that's a good thing to be; sapience is what makes us human and that's why we speak of humanism.

So, why do science and scientists sometimes pretend to be a separate branch of knowledge? Well, it has to do with another concept that comes to us from the Greek philosophy. It goes under the name of techné that we may translate as "craftsmanship" and that originates the modern term "technology". Here lies the problem.

Five minutes ago, someone asked me about hydrogen powered cars. I answered that they have been a complete failure and that was it. But I ask you to go a little more in depth with this question. Why do many of us think these things are important: hydrogen cars, a hydrogen powered economy, and lots of strange things we hear as proposed by scientists and that are said to be able to "solve our problems." Why is that? There is a reason and it goes back to a period in history when scientists found that they were able to devise some clever gadgets: you remember the "atomic age", right? It started more or less from there. Then there was the space age, the information age, and so on. There was this great wave of optimism when we really thought that science would bring us a new age of happiness and prosperity - it was the triumph of technology over everything else. The triumph of techné over sophos.

That period of optimism is still with us: anything that you say that disputes the sacred cow of economic growth is answered with "the scientists will think of something." Climate change? Resource Depletion? Pollution? Not really problems if you have the right gadget to solve them. And this brings, sometimes, the question "do we teach enough science to our children?" It is a result of the opinion that, in order to solve our problems, we need more gadgets and that, in order to have more gadgets, we need more science and that, in order to have more science, we need to teach more of it to our children. I think this is not a good idea. I think we have too many gadgets, not too few. And all these gadgets either don't work or cause more problems than those they are supposed to solve. Think about that: we wanted flying cars and we got killer drones, we wanted freedom and we got body scanners, we wanted cheap energy and we got Fukushima, we wanted knowledge and we got 140 characters, we wanted a long life and we got Alzheimer. The more gadgets we have, the worse the situation becomes.

Don't get me wrong: I am not saying that technology is bad in itself. We all live in heated spaces, we use electricity, when we have a headache we take an aspirin, and we use a lot of useful devices in our everyday life. I am not telling you that we should run to the woods and live as our stone-age ancestors - not at all. Being good craftsmen is part of being human. It is just that this fascination with gadgetry is generating multiple disasters, as we have been discussing today: from climate change to all the rest. One of these disasters is the decline of science, with scientists often turned into those raucous boors who feel they have to send out a press release every month or so to describe how their new gadget will save the world.

It can't work in this way. We need to take control of the technology we use, we need to stop being controlled by it. And I think the first step for retaking control is to bring science back into the fold of humanism. I am saying this as a scientist and as someone who loves science - I have been loving science from when I was a kid. Modern science is a beautiful thing; well worth being loved. It has been telling us so much that's worth knowing: the history of our planet, the origin and the fate of the universe, the thermodynamic engines that make everything move, and much more. We need to see science as part of the human treasure of knowledge and we need to love knowledge in all its forms. And, as I said at the beginning, someone who loves knowledge is a philosopher and that's what we can all be and we should be; because it is our call as human beings. If we want to save the world, we don't need gadgetry, we need to be what we are: human beings.


See also this comment on my "Chimeras" blog

37 comments:

  1. Ugo:

    I for one would love to be called a "Natural Philosopher" instead of a scientist (But since I walked away from the "Scientist" label ten years ago, I really don't have a skin in the game anymore).

    But, since you bring up Humanism, I feel the need to respond. Since I recently re-read Erasmus' "In Praise of Folly" I think that a more thorough and concise of humanism should be put into place.

    Erasmus is a great starting place. "Folly" can lead you to interesting places, like the opposing doctrines of predestination and free will. Like the place of man in the Universe.

    At the end of the day, one has to stop believing that humans are the center of the universe. So maybe going Ad Fontes back to the wellsprings of Humanism can provide us with direction

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    1. perhaps a reread of that wonderful book 'Ishmael' by Quinn would also help us walk in some different 'cultural' shoes as well...

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    2. I would love to be called "Natural Philosopher", too!

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  2. At a dinner party ≥50 years ago, we were discussing what invention (“gadget” in your terminology) did only good. My wife proposed “record players” (stereo, hi-fi, other names of the day). The oldest man present, then a 70-something, politely demurred. He fondly remembered when people made their own music, sang their own songs.

    I remembered my then-recent undergrad days at the University of Michigan (1950’s). Men’s dorms SW of Main Campus, women’s dorms NE of Main Campus; dorms ≈1 mile apart. There were closing hours for the women’s dorms, not for the men’s. Thus, when on a date, we guys never dropped our gals off at their dorms until the last moment, in a spectacle known as the “midnight show.” Then we would gather in places for guys from our dorm. When we had enuf of a group, we would walk together, singing. In harmony. (“Sloop John B” was very popular.) In 1958 this started to wane; by 1960 it was gone. We didn’t sing at parties or in the dorms any more, either. We simply turned on our Magic Boxes and listened to the professionals do it better.

    This isn’t the fault of the boxes. It’s our fault because we let it happen. To sing, play a musical instrument, we need to study and practice. To use the boxes, all we need to do is spend money. As with music, thus with much other "Kultur."

    Thus went the dinner conversation. After dinner, we sang. In harmony. (The wine helped.) We were trying to deny reality. (For whatever it’s worth, we men were all engineers.) The unhappy reality is that literati have been gobbled up by this Brave New World as completely as technophists.

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    1. Great comment! "To sing, play a musical instrument, we need to study and practice. To use the boxes, all we need to do is spend money." The same is true, perhaps even more so, of our computers/phones. People just spend money and they are free to use the most sophisticated tech and nevertheless deny science that made it possible.

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    2. Very interesting comment, Dave. It made me remember one of the novels of Ursula Le Guin's trilogy "The Wizard of Earthsea". I think it is in the third one where she describes how an evil spell pervades the land. One of the effects of the spell is that people are not able to sing anymore. Better said, they can still sing, but they don't enjoy that anymore. And I think it is something that's happening to us, too. Nobody sings anymore. We don't enjoy it, or maybe we can't. It really seems to be an evil spell that befell upon us

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    3. Ah, Dave, can I publish your comment in my other blog, "Chimeras"?

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    4. Yes, David, and I remember whistling. Even as a young adult when I worked on building sites and such, some men still whistled. There were some sad examples. I remember one man working on his own who only had one tune and even then it was just a phrase or two over and over again.

      It all died very suddenly. Men working on their own own use a radio.

      best
      Phil

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    5. Ugo: Go right ahead. I thank you for the honor.

      By the way, I forgot to mention serenades. When I was in the university(ies), in Latin America a guy would serenade his beloved and thus indicate that his interest was serious and honorable. On a Saturday evening, one would hear several serenades going on in different parts of town. Women past a certain age would sit on their balconies and listen, often with a tear or two trickling down; nobody cared that the serenaders were longer on passion than musical ability and often overly fortified with Dutch courage.

      I courted my Latin wife in the US and never serenaded her. She still resents this. Nevertheless, I get great mileage out of singing "Como un rayito de luna", "Cerca del mar", "Storms Are on the Ocean" et alia, plucking away on the guitar to smooth the asperities of a mediocre voice in an aging throat.

      But today, it's gone with the wind, lo que el viento se llevó.

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    6. One place where group singing, regardless of skill level, is still encouraged is in church. I belong to a Unitarian-Universalist church, which has a strong earth and humanistic focus, and we sing our hearts out collaboratively every Sunday. Here is a recording of us singing a mediation on "Breathing" (in harmony), which follows a reading about how painted turtles overwinter without breathing: https://soundcloud.com/user-228748583-778181982/12-4-16-rev-lisa-mobayed-peace-reading-and-sermon. I've wondered why this collaborative singing feels so good. Recent classroom-based research using EEG studies of students experiencing different teaching styles has shown that the students' brainwaves were in in closer synchrony with each other when they were working collaboratively than when they were listening to lectures, and that at those times they experienced "[i]ncreased classroom engagement and a more joyful classroom experience" (https://aaas.confex.com/aaas/2016/webprogram/Paper18350.html). I wonder if part of the joy of singing together, perhaps especially in harmony, is that it leads to this same sort of synchronized brain waves, and if this was an evolutionary development that favored group coherence and collaboration?

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  3. Wonderful post. You will surely love reading E.O. Wilson's 2014 book "The Meaning of Human Existence"

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    1. Interesting. I didn't know of that book. I just bought it on Amazon and thanks for the suggestion!

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    2. Bought and read it. Worth reading, sure, although a bit out of focus, at times. But he does say the same thing that I say here: that there is only one culture, not two. What a mess we have done!!

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  4. Snow was a scientist and he decried the scientific ignorance of literates. On this, he was right but in the long run the result was that literates despise scientists as illiterate boors and scientists despise literates as feebleminded ignorants.

    But that was the state of affairs long before Snow -- how was it the "result in the long run"? It's more accurate to say that Snow's "two cultures" conversation did nothing to change things.

    That period of optimism is still with us: anything that you say that disputes the sacred cow of economic growth is answered with "the scientists will think of something." Climate change? Resource Depletion? Pollution? Not really problems if you have the right gadget to solve them. And this brings, sometimes, the question "do we teach enough science to our children?" It is a result of the opinion that, in order to solve our problems, we need more gadgets and that, in order to have more gadgets, we need more science and that, in order to have more science, we need to teach more of it to our children.

    I am afraid this is a bit of a misguided way of looking at things.

    Proper understanding of science is what tells you that a lot of the fantasies about various vaporware silver bullet tech will remain fantasies.

    The problem is that we have thoroughly confused science (as a way of understanding the world) and technology, and that "science" is usually understood as existing for the primary purpose of driving technological development. Which is why we forget how many of the greatest achievements of science constitute placing limits on what can be done -- that doesn't really fit in the paradigm of eternal progress and so it is never emphasized.

    In that sense the problem is indeed that we do not teach kids enough science. But that is science properly understood.

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  5. (Continuing from above because of the 4096 character limit):

    In general, the two cultures conflicts is IMHO still highly relevant.

    There is a natural hierarchy of knowledge, with humanities being subservient to the natural science, which has to always be remembered and well understood, but it never is. From which a lot of our problems stem.

    This is a very real issue, and it in fact has a lot to do with our inability to do anything about the sustainability crisis. And it in fact goes back to Ancient Greece and even prior to that.

    Intellectual work requires complete immersion in it, which means that it simply does not happen in the ranks of people who have to work 15 hours a day just to feed themselves. There isn't enough time and energy for that.

    So you need to generate surpluses that are to be used to support a small intellectual elite that can dedicate all its time to thinking about things and writing.

    But this has a very important consequence -- the intellectual class tends to live in cities, it does not work the land, and is also often closely associated with the aristocracy/political elite (or is even directly a part of it).

    A direct result of this is a disconnect between the culture that this intellectual elite produces and the physical environment. If you live in a city, do not work the land, and mostly mingle with aristocrats and other philosophers/writers/artists/etc., your thinking naturally revolves primarily around the interactions between people. That is all you see and think about. You don't think about soil erosion, irrigation canals, gold mines being exhausted, and other stuff of the sort. Which bias is naturally reflected in your works. This is why the vast majority of the so called classics deal exclusively with what we would call from a biological point of view issues of intraspecific competition within the human species.

    The "classics" then get passed on from generation to generation, copied, studied, analyzed, etc., primarily by people living lifestyles similarly disconnected from the relationship between the human population and the environment. Who in turn produce more works of the same nature.

    The end result is the development of a culture, the overwhelming bulk of which revolves around issues of intraspecific competition, to the complete neglect of the more fundamentally important issues of the relationship between the population and the environment, and, of course, none of the intraspecific competition stuff is discussed from a proper biological point of view. It is a culture that completely fails to understand its own evolved biological nature, the evolutionary drivers of human behavior, its proper place in the cosmological order and within the ecosystems of the planet.

    This is also why the politicians can look at environmental problems and perceive them as just as political in nature as their various other political dealings even though we know very well that nature does not negotiate and that you only solve physical problems by doing what has to be done to solve them, not by compromising half way in between. Because they are a product of that culture and its overwhelming focus on relationships between humans, and they do not see the world as physical in nature but as political.

    I have hard time seeing how this is not a problem and how it can be fixed through means others than establishing a proper intellectual hierarchy of subjects, in which the humanities are near the bottom, reflecting the very minor importance of human affairs on a cosmic scale.

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  6. So, have you read Dmitry Orlov's latest book, 'Shrinking the Technosphere'? I haven't yet. Sounds like it will be a good read.

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    1. I did. A bit too gloomy for me (!!) but surely worth reading

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  7. Ugo, there is a divide. Not seeing it is fooling yourself. It is the divide bewteen the doers and the story tellers. Scientists do things. But time to time that also are making narrative stories. Stories tellers hate that and the is the basis of the War against science.

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    1. Scientists *constantly* tell themselves stories: about power too cheap to meter, GMOs saving the world, about human space travel, bionic this and that.

      Scientists keep on "doing" when objectively the antidote to our problems is (or would have been) to *stop* "doing".

      The more they "do", the worse it gets.

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  8. We still need to teach science in school. Kids need to learn how the natural world operates because scientific explanation has one advantage that other fields of knowledge do not have; it has the ability to relate cause and effect most accurately. Predictive power helps us prepare for future contingencies and scientific knowledge is the best basis for prediction. We are all better off if we know how things work.

    What we don't need is more science or more scientists. We already know far more about the natural world than we can use. We also have far more knowledge now than can be preserved for future generations. Along with peak oil and peak population we are now at peak scientific knowledge. We may not be going "run to the woods and live as our stone-age ancestors", but life is about to get far more simple for those who survive the coming bottleneck, a time that will surely result in peak tragedy. Life will become too simple to need the results of scientific research being done today.

    Every day, thousands of esoteric studies are published about the very latest advances in science. These studies are great fun; everyone enjoys learning something new and there is always more to learn. But virtually all of these studies are destined to disappear from human consciousness. No one will be around to read them, understand them and use them to expand scientific horizons.

    Science is now a waste of time, effort and resources that would be better spent preparing for the coming collapse of our complex societies in the face of resource limits. How ironic it is that it has been scientists who have clearly warned us about what is to come. Perhaps now is also the time of peak irony.

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  9. It is comforting to prefer the noise of delusional magical thinking and pretending that the system of perpetual growth can work forever; that some variant of business as usual can persist. There is just too much tied up with it and any unraveling would be far too chaotic and unpredictable. Wrapping our heads around the eventualities of global warming; of overshoot; of the desecration of world wildlife; of the acidification of the oceans; of the poisoning of pollinators stymies.

    A world no longer powered by fossil fuels, no matter what incarnation, is almost inconceivable and for many terrifying. . It is indeed traumatic for what it might (probably) means not just for us but for our love ones, children, grandchildren. Our hearts break. We want to fix it. So we do more technology and more ultimate harm.

    We are slowly technogizing ourselves into extinction. Technology is seductive. Is it the power? Is it the comfort? Or is it some internal particularly human attribute that drives it? Technology surrounds us and becomes part of our story and myths. Technology tantalizes the human mind to make, combine, invent. There are always unintended consequences with technology. It effects how we experience the world in time and space. It affects how we feel the world. If all the externalities were included in the prices and cost to nature, we would be very, very wary of technology.

    I think we have moved from technology in the service of religion (pyramids and gothic cathedrals) to religion and culture in the service of technology. It isn't a deity that will save humanity but in the eyes of many - it will be technology.

    We will do more of the same, business as usual until there are no more holes in the ground to dig, no more water above and below to contaminate, no humans to wage slave, no other lifeforms to eliminate. Yes, we are building Trojan horses in our hearts, minds and spirits. It will be elitist and entitlement and hubris – it will end with both a bang and a whimper.
    http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2015/06/a-bang-and-whimper.html

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  10. Broadly I agree with Joe above. I think we are entering a phase which might be called by our descendents: 'The Failure of Knowledge'. Humans though will always have knowledge and some future knowledge might be more pertinent than a lot of what we have now. It is not too difficult to think of things that we could learn to do a great deal better. The present 'package deal' we have now, however, is going to have a limited 'shelf life'.

    I am not sure it helps to think of our cultural assumptions but I draw attention to concepts such as 'objectivity / subjectivity'. The most unquestioning adherents I know who regarded this as a fundamental concept have been friends educated in literature at our most prestigious Universities, Oxford, Cambridge, and Edinburgh.

    On the other hand, when a child I gained much from BBC radio for children, including a Natural History programme series. The ‘panel’ were essentially scientists well known in their fields. We were not condescended to nor offered glib ‘explanations’. ‘Attitude’ was what my brother and I carried with us into adult life: interest and respect and not using the natural world as ‘inkblot’: rather a steady engagement with observation. I see this as similar to looking with the gift of an artist’s eye: an alert calm engagement; or in a different context, “ready for insight or realization [that] may come to them … ready for decisive action”, (Hugh Brody, 1981, Maps and dreams). This seems perhaps to me the opposite of a divided ‘subjective’ or ‘objective’ world.

    We can think about the ‘Science’ we could work to preserve and hand on. Ugo has given as a lead here: knowledge worth knowing 'for its own sake’.

    I guess I would like to preserve the astonishing global data base gradually being built for climate science and climate change. Even when the tools for building it can no longer be used, the observation data will make a tremendous historical narrative, covering with luck more than one century. The story could persist into a far future.

    best
    Phil

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    1. Yes, preserving the data we have collected will be a task worth doing, even though during the dark times ahead, libraries will be burned again

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    2. One word: monasteries. Those were arguably the primary mechanism of information transfer across the last set of Euro-dark ages. And the key to that success seems to have been their voluntary poverty - nothing to loot.

      Ironic, if it turns out that religious orders serve as the mode for transmission of scientific information across centuries, as they have in the past, given the yawning divide between science and religion at the moment.

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    3. "knowledge worth knowing 'for its own sake".

      Each omelet of this sort, though, requires breaking a few eggs. Until there aren't any eggs left.

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  11. fatti non foste a viver come bruti
    ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.

    (Dante Alighieri - The Divine Comedy - Inferno - Canto XXVI)

    That is to say:

    you were not born to live like brutes,
    but to follow virtue and knowledge.


    Or, if you prefer:


    Ye were not form’d to live the life of brutes,
    But virtue to pursue and knowledge high.


    Bye!

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    1. What is the outcome of this attitude?

      "Living like brutes" we would have clean water and air, and plentiful flora and fauna still.

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  12. Sir Charles S. Sherrington "Man on His Nature".
    I would strongly recommend to read the book but if just curious, one can read this
    http://www.giffordlectures.org/lectures/man-his-nature

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    1. another introduction
      http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/130/8/1984

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  13. Science long ago allied itself with business and thereby compromised its original value: objectivity.
    Everything in our world now is run by the dictate of business, which is of course infinite expansion on a finite planet. It's worked for so long now, that if you dare to critique it, you are a communist or luddite.

    The victory of business is complete, we are just playing out the endgame now.

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  14. Ugo, Snow was a perceptive commentator and worth reading. But "two cultures" referred to two cultures within the academy, particularly in the UK. The relationship between the academy and the larger society remained largely intact at the time.

    Also it was long before the literary academic sector decided it would be fun to attack science head on.

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    1. Correct. I only read excerpts from Snow's book, but he was surely a smart and perceptive commentator. He seems to have referred mainly to the academy, indeed, but the problem quickly spilled to the whole society. Literary types have their faults, but also on our side there is plenty to be criticized.

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  15. Absolutely on target... but ... If we want to save the world, we don't need gadgetry, we need to be THE BEST VERSION OF what we COULD BE: human beings.

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  16. There is only so much time to study something, and you have to make decisions on what and what not, especially with respect to the fact, that you have to dedicate a lot of your resources to make your living, i.e. heavy specialization or even backbreaking, stupid work. Also, depending on whether you are bright or not so bright, whether you are lucky enough to meet the right people in your life or not, you may be able to gain a wider or narrower knowledge.
    Having said that, i am completely with you in that there is only one science, one philosophy, one to-be-interested in the world and its uncountable facettes. I believe, that it is possible to give many at least a solid base of education - in both natural sciences and letters/social-science/philosophy (and maybe even meditation, which helps to gain a kind of meta-awareness of the conditionality of states of beeing).
    The basic questions in education ar: What is important, concerning the field in question? What are the biggest mistakes you can make? What can - and cannot - be said?

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)