A dissection of the humanities-sciences distinction

Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci published a great essay on Aeon, entitled “Who knows what”. In this essay, Pigliucci argues that neither the humanities nor the sciences should “have the last word on culture”, to quote a part of the URL of the essay. (It is not often that I find that the URL of a web page has a better title than the page itself, but this one certainly does.) EO Wilson’s book Consilience comes in for a thorough critique, without disparagement. Lots of topics that fascinate me make an appearance and Pigliucci discusses them well: culture and its evolution, the problem of induction, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems—these are some prime examples. I recommend this essay to you wholeheartedly, curious reader. Here are the two concluding paragraphs, which resonated with me perhaps more than all the others:

Seen this way, the differences between philosophy, biology, physics, the social sciences and so on might not be the result of the arbitrary caprice of academic administrators and faculty; they might instead reflect a natural way in which human beings understand the world and their role in it. There might be better ways to organise our knowledge in some absolute sense, but perhaps what we have come up with is something that works well for us, as biological-cultural beings with a certain history.

This isn’t a suggestion to give up, much less a mystical injunction to go ‘beyond science’. There is nothing beyond science. But there is important stuff before it: there are human emotions, expressed by literature, music and the visual arts; there is culture; there is history. The best understanding of the whole shebang that humanity can hope for will involve a continuous dialogue between all our various disciplines. This is a more humble take on human knowledge than the quest for consilience, but it is one that, ironically, is more in synch with what the natural sciences tell us about being human.

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