The Historical Rift and the Imminent Reconciliation between the Natural Sciences and the Humanities
The humanities and natural sciences have undergone a rupture that can be traced back to the Renaissance. The rift kept augmenting and reached its zenith in the Age of Enlightenment during which for the first time a general distaste for metaphysical speculation arose among natural scientists. For the first time in the history of Western civilisation, there appeared a perceivable mutual antipathy and distrust between literary scholars and natural scientists. This rift still prevails and gradually the humanities is being relegated to obscurity due to the emergence of utilitarian principles in economic theory propagated by classical and later, neo-classical economics. Corporate organisations and economic bodies have served to further aggravate the situation through their myopic stance. But, all is not lost. The humanities and philosophy, in particular, is slated to make a return to prominence as social progress currently hinges on the revival or critical and rational thinking as well as questions of morality, ethics and other philosophical considerations.
Historically, the natural sciences and the humanities share a common lineage. Since antiquity, starting from pre-Socratic philosophers such as Thales, who is considered the first scientist, Anaxagoras, Anaximander and Democritus to Aristotle and Euclid, the very scientists who speculated about the laws of nature also propounded philosophical theories about the nature of cosmos. The scientist and the philosopher were one. From about the 5th century till about the Middle Ages, the monasteries took on the responsibility of educating a select few from elite or wealthy backgrounds. The sciences and the humanities were taught in the model later adopted by universities. The first stage of education comprised of the trivium: general grammar, Aristotelian logic and classical rhetoric. For those who mastered these subjects, pursuing the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy was an option.
It was in these monasteries that the flow of knowledge was controlled. Education was confined to students from elite backgrounds and, consequently, peasants and the common masses were deprived of an education as it was too expensive and without much practical usefulness. Eventually, it was due to the dogmatic and doctrinal nature of pedagogy and the refusal to look beyond the established canons of knowledge – the characteristics of all religious institutions – that a few natural philosophers and mathematicians started questioning the ‘truths’ of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler can be considered the first ‘modern’ scientists for trying to explain their theories mathematically. Each of them, for instance, questioned the geocentric conception of the cosmos and, even though Galileo suffered more than the rest, all of them were insistent on an objective reality irrespective of the prevalent weltanshauung (worldview) provided by the Catholic Church.
The Renaissance, as well as the Reformation, had a debilitating effect on the authority of the Catholic Church. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 also had considerable repercussions as it was also one of the events that led to the Renaissance. Scholars in possession of classical manuscripts and texts fled towards Italy from fear of destruction of these invaluable reservoirs of knowledge. The availability of the classical texts and the advent of the printing press led to an unprecedented dissemination of knowledge among the masses. For the first time in history, the common man had access to the vast reservoir of knowledge of Greek and Roman philosophers and, eventually, many of them starting scrutinising these texts. Philosophers such as Descartes, Machiavelli and Bacon, among others, started examining not only the theological assumptions but the very concepts of morality and ethics advocated by the Church. Isaiah Berlin in The Divorce between the Sciences and the Humanities discusses this trend at length:
“As everyone knows, the great triumphs of natural science in the seventeenth century gave the proponents of the scientific method immense prestige. The great liberators of the age were Descartes and Bacon, who carried opposition to the authority of tradition, faith, dogma or prescription into every realm of knowledge and opinion, armed with weapons used during the Renaissance and, indeed, earlier.”
However, Martin Luther’s contribution in this context was unparalleled. He single-handedly challenged the authority of the Church and faced excommunication which to the populace was a fate worse than being burnt at stake by the Spanish Inquisition. In spite of the tremendous social, political and religious upheaval, as Berlin states,“there was much cautious avoidance of open defiance of Christian belief”. Luther, on the other hand, challenged one of the most powerful institutions in the history of mankind, one that was as formidable as the Roman Empire which it had replaced.
Any rationalist or positivist will unequivocally hail the Renaissance as the greatest advancement in human progress. Unfortunately, it was also the first instance in history which caused an enduring rupture between two branches of knowledge. One could assert that it was the refusal of the Catholic Church to adapt to the rapid pace of knowledge production brought about by the profusion of classical texts that percolated down to the masses that led to this outcome. Unarguably, the rupture was initially due to the inability of the prevailing religious doctrines to incorporate the scientific methodology, but eventually knowledge moved out of the purview of religious authorities and at least put on the facade of secularism. However, mainstream education which no longer had direct ties to the Catholic Church continued to be dominated by religious attitudes. Surprisingly, this propensity was most pronounced in England, the so-called harbinger of progress, till as late as the 19th century. Peter Barry in Beginning Theory depicts this startling contradiction:
“To explain the rise of English studies we need to indicate briefly what higher education was like in England until the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The short answer is that it was a Church of England monopoly. There were only two universities, Oxford and Cambridge. These were divided into small individual colleges which were run like monastic institutions. Only men could attend them, of course, and students had to be Anglican communicants and attend the college chapel. The teachers were ordained ministers, who had to be unmarried, so that they could live in the college. The subjects available were the classics (ancient Greek and Latin literature), divinity (which was taken by those seeking ordination) and mathematics. Anyone who was Catholic, Jewish, or Methodist, or atheist was barred from entry, and hence, in effect, barred from the professions and the Civil Service. As far as higher education was concerned, then, you could say that right up to the 1820s, the organisation of higher education had not changed since the Middle Ages.
Many attempts were made to reform the situation, expand higher education, and introduce practical subjects into the curriculum, but they all came up against entrenched conservative forces. The breakthrough came in 1826 when a University College was founded in London with a charter to award degrees to men and women of all religions or none.”
Quite surprisingly, even Newton, the then President of the Royal Society, was apprehensive about publishing anything that would contradict religious doctrines, even though he spared no effort to decimate Leibniz’s reputation through a series of covert schemes, thus proving that even the greatest scientific minds are susceptible to the most primeval human impulses. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution did shake the very foundations of Christian, and by extension, all other theologies, but he was not really hailed as the greatest naturalist in human history overnight, the way Einstein was applauded after his Theory of General Relativity was proved by Eddington’s observations.
By the middle of the 20th century, the sciences and philosophy suffered a decisive rupture in which the former enjoyed unparalleled and unprecedented adulation and the latter was relegated to obscurity as part of the humanities whose relevance was being questioned. This rift between humanities and natural sciences is highlighted in C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution:
“I believe the intellectual life of the whole of Western society is increasingly being splits into two polar groups... Literary intellectuals at one pole – at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension – sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding.”
It is quite discernible that principles and methodology of a particular discipline are intertwined much the same way intellectual culture and political influence are interrelated. Taking up the first two characteristics, it might be an oversimplification to state that the former's objective is the pursuit of subjective reality and the latter's is the quest for objective, irrefutable and timeless truths. Newton, Einstein, Bohr, Born, Schrödinger – all had strong convictions even before their theories were verified. This calls into question the epistemological tradition of the natural sciences which often manifests itself in the conviction that is so vehemently advocated by scientists. Most of them never cease to proclaim their belief that their principles and methodology are devoid of subjective considerations. Often, scientists themselves have had to face considerable condescension from their peers before they were able to establish the veracity of their theories. Einstein’s relentless efforts to disprove the quantum theory seem quite incredulous and ironic considering that a two decades prior to his sustained duel with Bohr, he sought to displace the canon of classical physics.
A relatively recent occurrence of such a paradoxical attitude among scientists is that of Linus Pauling’s invective against Dan Shechtman’s work on quasicrystals for which the latter received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2011. Pauling who was the head of the research group not only asked Shechtman to “go back and read the textbook”, but also compelled him to leave the group for “bringing disgrace to the team.” What is even more surprising is that Pauling was one of the foremost scientists of the twentieth century, the only scientist other than Marie Curie to win the Nobel Prize twice for his contributions in two different fields. Ironically, the major advances in natural sciences, and especially in theoretical physics, would have been quite difficult without 'thought experiments' or philosophising about the basic nature of the cosmos. In fact, his two most famous aphorisms, “God is subtle but he is not malicious” and “God does not play dice with the universe”, present man with strong philosophical convictions – a ‘charge’ that he would have boisterously denied.
In the humanities, traditionally, subjectivity has been welcomed and scholars and intellectuals are far less apologetic about flaunting their predilection for creative subjectivity. Rather, each seeks to stamp one’s personality on one’s philosophy or literary works. The extent to which this subjectivity is acceptable depends on the zeitgeist or time – -spirit of the age. From Plato’s idea of forms and, Aristotle's defence of poets, to Descartes’ substance dualism which was presented for the first time in his Discourse on Method and even Nietzsche's conception of Übermensch or ‘Superman’ which was adumbrated in his Thus Spake Zarathustra and subsequently fleshed out in The Antichrist, most works of philosophy, social or literary theory are manifestations of the time or ‘-spirit of the age’ through the subjective persona of the poet or philosopher.
It was precisely this subjectivity that the proponents of positivism tried to root out. Consequently, during the Enlightenment, the conflict between the sciences and the humanities reached its zenith. As Isaiah Berlin points out:
“There were invasions and counter-invasions; grammar, rhetoric, jurisprudence, philosophy, made forays into the fields of historical learning and natural knowledge, and were attacked by them in turn.”
This was primarily because “theoretical knowledge was still conceived as one undivided realm; the frontiers between philosophy, science, criticism, theology, were not sharply drawn.” In fact, the positivists went so far as to claim that they could create “a logically appropriate language – the language of the mathematical and physical sciences” which according to Leibniz would be “not unlike the general science of discovery.” This conviction percolated to the creative arts as well in the attempt to remove all kinds of artifice and poetic diction in language and instead to make it as plain as possible. The plays of Racine and Moliere, and the verse of La Fontaine and Boileau were examples of such a hackneyed style in verse. Pascal, who was one of the foremost scientists of the time, sought to accomplish something similar in prose. The endeavour of the positivists seems understandable, and, to a certain extent, effective. However, it raises important philosophical questions.
The auto-corrective methodology and the rationalist ideology of the Enlightenment were indeed necessary to vitiate the authority of regressive religious institutions. But was the ‘language of science’ a suitable alternative to the cultural and anthropological structure of language? In Art and Science, Sian Ede eloquently writes:
“Scientists may be to able to explain how the brain works in terms of mapping the cortex or understanding synaptic connection-making or the function of neurotransmitters, but they cannot convey how experience feels the way it does to us as individuals. Nevertheless, current endeavours to understand the actual matter of mind and consciousness increasingly show it to be depersonalised. How far can we claim to possess a unique sense of self, of individuality, or identity, if so many of our mental processes are innate or automatic?”
She delves deeper and traces the epistemological rift between the arts and the sciences:
“On one hand is the view that there is an implicit reality out there waiting to be discovered, independent of the observer’s mental state, as very many scientists maintain. On the other hand is the idea that reality is all or at least partly a construction of the human mind, phenomenologically and linguistically determined and therefore unfixed, and whether we are aware of it or not, viewed in accordance with the prevailing values and beliefs of particular times and places. How far can we say that objects possess an intrinsic meaning beyond that derived from the way we utilise them or have beliefs about them? Is knowledge dispassionate and absolute, or forever ambiguously dependent on the slippery meanings we give to words?”
It is quite discernible that the debate between scientists and philosophers is destined to continue, but for the moment scientists have the upper hand. In the field of education, be it at the primary, secondary, undergraduate or graduate level, the natural sciences have gained considerable leverage over the humanities in general and philosophy, in particular. The natural sSciences seem far more accessible at least at the school level compared with the humanities. Mostly students who are deficient in the natural sciences and mathematics opt for the humanities and at the undergraduate level those left without any option in the humanities and social sciences, often to their chagrin, opt for philosophy. There is almost a feudal hierarchy starting at the top from the students majoring in natural sciences and mathematics, followed by economics, commerce and finance, and ending at the bottom with those pursuing humanities and social sciences. Perhaps, philosophy occupies an even lower rung of the ladder. This ostracisation of the student of humanities is the consequence of the alienation of a student from the humanities at the primary level. The natural sciences are a mandatory part of the curriculum, and the social sciences don’t appear till the student has already reached the secondary level and by then he or she feels completely alienated from these myriad disciplines.
This alienation has also resulted from the political influence exerted by natural scientists going back to the Enlightenment. The Royal Society took a conscious decision to enforce a dogmatic rationalism in its methodology and even in the nature of language it employed for discussions. Its philosophy was strictly one of rational materialism and any kind of metaphysical generalization was avoided like the plague. A more recent manifestation of this attitude among natural scientists is the appeal signed by the likes of Einstein, Freud, Mach and Hilbert in TheJournal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods (, Vol. 9, No. 16, 1 (August 1, 1912):
“To be sure, there has grown up from the soil of natural science itself a strictly empirical and positivistic point of view quite indifferent to metaphysical speculation and to so-called critical, transcendental doctrines...
Those who take an interest in these progressive inquiries will find it to their advantage to have a scientific association which shall declare itself opposed to all metaphysical undertakings, and have for its first principle the strictest and most comprehensive ascertainment of facts in all fields of research and in the development of organizzation and technique. All theories and requirements are to rest exclusively on this ground of facts and find here their ultimate criterion.”
The political alignments of the twentieth century which led to the creation of international economic organisations furthered the influence exercised by rationalists and materialists. Governments and international institutions decided that progress is not possible without incorporating such a positivistic approach. However, the materialists grew stronger and transformed rationalism into a rigid materialism. Their objective was not to be inclusive but exclusive in furthering their own interests. This was especially prevalent in the spheres of trade and commerce. Adam Smith’s myopic theory played an extremely pivotal role in propagating such beliefs. The central thesis of his economic theory is as follows:
“As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.”
Conspicuously, John Harsanyi in Morality and the Theory of Rational Behaviour echoes the concept of ‘preference utilitarianism’ which, he says, owes its origin to Smith. Harsanyi defines his theory as:
“...the only form of utilitarianism consistent with the important philosophical principle of preference autonomy. By this I mean the principle that, in deciding what is good and what is bad for a given individual, the ultimate criterion can only be his own wants and his own preferences.”
The basic tenet of preference materialism was followed by several monarchies and, after their downfall, by democratic governments and dictatorships on a national and international levels with every institution trying to further its own economic power, which was inextricably linked to political influence. This has also been an attribute of all religious institutions since the dawn of civilisation. It is a significant phenomenon in itself, but for now the focus remains the extension of preference materialism into the domain of the individual. The Industrial Revolution made this possible. Snow takes the literary intellectuals to tasks for failing to consider that the Industrial Revolution did not just breed materialistic and utilitarian propensities, but also provided opportunities for those at the lower socio-economic strata to improve their standard of living.
Perhaps Snow’s censure is not without justification, but the very premise of Smith’s argument is convincingly refuted by Émile Durkheim. He had an almost prophetic vision of moral corruption in an industrial society. In Professional Ethics and Civic Morals he quite literarily questions the fundamental assumptions of classical economics:
“If we follow no rule except that of a clear self-interest, in the occupations that take up nearly the whole of our time, how should we acquire a taste for any disinterestedness, or selflessness or sacrifice?...
It is therefore extremely important that economic life should be regulated, should have its moral standards raised, so that the conflicts that disturb it have an end, and further, that individuals should cease to live thus within a moral vacuum where the lifeblood drains away even from individual morality.”
His prescience has proved to be accurate on several occasions. The economic recession of the previous decade was the result of unmitigated avarice and rampant corruption in large financial institutions. Their short-sightedness has not only affected financial and commercial institutions but also the academic disciplines. The most noticeable fallout has been the funding cuts for the sciences and humanities, but the humanities have had to face proportionately far greater cuts than the natural sciences have had to reckon with. The budget for humanities research has been progressively reduced to the point that various organisations have had to deal with shortage of academic personnel and resources. Major academic bodies such as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Arts Council UK and the European Commissioner for Research and Net4Society (funded by the European Union) have consistently been expressing their concerns, mostly in vain, about this worrisome trend.
The contribution of corporate organisations to further aggravate matters in this regard has not been insubstantial. Every corporate organisation has one ultimate goal and that is making profit by advancing the self-interest of its stakeholders. Like the decision-makers in political bodies and government organisations, even they realize that greater innovation can lead to higher profits. They do patronise the arts but, in doing so, they fulfil another, more subtle, agenda – creation of an image of social responsibility, a well-thought out but unabashedly devious marketing strategy. Corporates have increased their hold over government organisations and, in turn, affected national and international policy decisions. If it was the political rivalries of despotic, democratic as well as communist regimes which brought the human race to the brink of extinction in the twentieth century, it will be the indiscriminate greed of corporate organisations which will pose the greatest challenge to human life and society in the twenty- first century. This threat prevails because for the first time in the history of mankind, the pace of technological (and industrial) progress has outpaced our growth as a society. We have weapons powerful enough at our disposal which could cause catastrophe or at least set us back by centuries. Logically, such powerful weapons should not exist in a fragmented society such as ours. The fact that corporate control over political and social institutions continues to increase is enough reason to be apprehensive about the future of human race.