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Embracing The Humanities: A Perspective From Physics

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A new paper discusses the value of studying the humanities.
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According to neuroscientist and author Sam Harris, science can answer moral questions. According to philosopher Alex Rosenberg, science can answer "persistent philosophical questions," including the purpose of life and the meaning of human history. According to geneticist-turned-writer Adam Rutherford, "the domain of knowledge amenable to science has only ever changed in one direction: at the expense of all others."

Against this backdrop, it's natural to wonder what's left for the humanities to answer or reveal. As scientific methods answer more and more, is the scope of humanistic inquiry reduced to less and less?

According to Jenann Ismael, a professor of philosophy and author of How Physics Makes Us Free, the value of humanistic inquiry is in no way diminished nor undermined by science. In fact, her argument for the value of the humanities begins in a surprising place: with science itself.

In a paper called "Why (study) the humanities?," forthcoming in an edited volume on the philosophy of understanding, Ismael aims to show that even within the most rigid, scientific picture of humans that we've developed, we can make a strong case for the humanities.

Her starting point is a form of classical mechanics — not because she endorses classical mechanics as the best account of the natural world (she doesn't), but because doing so confines her to work with strong assumptions about determinism and locality. These technical terms entail what Ismael calls the DL principle: that "if we know the initial state of the matter inside [a circumscribed system defined by a sphere] and all of the forces that impinge on the surface of the sphere over any interval of time, we can predict the behavior of anything inside the sphere with certainty." If she can successfully argue for the value of the humanities from so local and deterministic a beginning, her argument is likely to succeed in a world with less local and deterministic properties, as well.

The DL principle is quite strong in the sense that it applies to the whole universe, and that includes humans. If we define a sphere encompassing an individual human, for example, the DL principle entails that with enough information, we can predict the behavior of that person with certainty.

Yet in another sense, the DL principle is rather weak. It entails that we can predict something with certainty if we know the initial state of all the matter inside the sphere and all the forces that impinge on it. But that's a lot to know! The DL principle does not imply that anything less will do. Knowing 90 percent of the initial state of the matter and 90 percent of the forces that impinge on it, for example, does not guarantee that you can predict whether a coin flipped inside the system will land heads or tails with 90 percent probability. You may be no better off than chance.

So what does this mean for our ability to predict the behavior of humans?

Predicting complex systems isn't necessarily hopeless. For instance, Ismael suggests that we can do pretty well predicting the behavior of toasters or of termite colonies. This is because the dynamical laws that describe the behavior of such systems are relatively linear and stable across variations in many variables within and beyond the system. When we get to humans, though, these assumptions break down. Ismael writes:

"What is special about the human being is that in the human mind we see the development of a cognitive platform for the emergence of a new behaviour management strategy involving deliberation and choice. Instead of passing through a set of internal filters designed to keep behaviour covarying reliably with features of the local environment, the effect of the stimulus on behaviour is mediated by a process that seems almost perversely geared to undermine any possibility of general laws of human behaviour."

If human behavior depends intimately on specifics — both in the mind and in the world — it follows that predicting human behavior precisely will present a serious challenge. But for Ismael, the role of deliberation and choice in human behavior has two additional implications, both of which play a central role in supporting her ultimate conclusions.

First, to understand a person as a deliberating, choosing agent, it isn't enough to predict that person's behavior. Ismael writes that we also seek a richer kind of understanding, an understanding that comes from "being able to see things through their eyes, being fair and generous and empathetic." And that, she suggests, is something the humanities can provide:

"Someone who has grown up reading novels will learn to understand the complex hidden internal world that goes on inside another human being. Someone who has studied history will have an appreciation for the complex currents of culture that govern the unfolding of civilizations. Each of the fields traditionally classified as humanities makes a distinctive contribution to this kind of understanding."

Second, when it comes to our own lives, we aren't after predictions or mere descriptions: We seek guidance in how to live. "It is in equipping us with tools to address the very personal questions: 'What should I do? How should I live?'," writes Ismael, "that I see the humanities as making an indispensable contribution. A humanities education can, among other things, open up the imagination to the rich array of possibilities of what to be."

So Ismael ultimately endorses a view on which the sciences don't crowd out the humanities — instead, they offer a complementary form of understanding, and one that we can defend on scientific grounds. She concludes the paper like this:

"It has taken time for science to mature so that we can see the importance of the humanities as emerging from within the scientific conception of the human being. If there was a time when the sciences and the humanities seemed to offer competing visions of the human being, that time is past. It is now possible to say on scientific grounds what is wrong with the idea that the sciences will ever replace (or displace) the humanities."

Ismael was kind enough to answer a few questions about her paper in a conversation by e-mail. Below are my questions and her replies.

Your argument begins by considering what it would take to predict human behavior with precision and certainty. I wonder, though, whether your reasons for advocating the humanities really depend on potential limits to our ability to predict. If we could predict human behavior with precision and certainty, would that obviate the need for humanistic study?

No, I don't think that the ability to predict human behavior with precision and certainty would obviate the need for the humanities, for two reasons. The first reason is that the humanities provide a different kind of understanding than the sciences. When I think about how I want the people who I care about — say, my mother and my partner — to understand me, I want them to understand me in the terms in which I understand myself. I want them to see my reasons for acting as I do, to understand my feelings, and my hopes and my dreams, to see things through my eyes, and to get a window on my experience of the world. That kind of understanding has less to do with prediction than with empathy.

The second reason has to do with our relationship to our own actions. When one is forming beliefs about what someone else will do, she is trying to predict. When she is thinking about what she will do, she is trying to decide. Those are two very different things. There's an often repeated remark that Sartre is said to have made: "everything has been figured out, except how to live." What that remark is pointing out is that no amount of scientific knowledge is going to relieve each of us of the freedom (or the burden) of making our own decisions. And to make our own decisions, we have to figure out what to value, what to care about, i.e., what is worth doing. Science doesn't provide answers to those kinds of questions.

The reason for taking up the scientific challenges to the value of the humanities is that there is a deep tension between our conception of ourselves as decision-makers and the scientific conception of us as material systems in a world governed by natural law (a tension that is especially strong in a deterministic setting, but doesn't go away in an indeterministic one). And that tension is what is making some people say that the value of the humanities is based on a vision of the human being that is undermined by science. As a philosopher of physics, that interests me. It interests me not because I think that the humanities need to be set on scientific foundations to be legitimated, but because I think that it reveals an obscurity at the heart of our scientific understanding of human beings. Sorting it out is a scientific project that also opens the way for a much more fruitful relationship with the humanities.

As a psychologist, I naturally wonder where you see psychological inquiry fitting in to your picture. On the one hand, psychology is a science: It aims to generate scientific explanations for human behavior. On the other hand, psychology might offer some of what you ascribe to the humanities: insight into our experience and emotions, into how and why we see ourselves as we do, and so on. So where does psychology fit into your picture of scientific versus humanistic understanding?

This is a great question, and one that I should be asking you. But let me describe how I see things, and maybe you will have something to add, or maybe you see it a little differently. There was a time when people thought of the mind just in terms of its conscious part; i.e., in terms of the progression of perceptions, thoughts and feelings of which we are consciously aware. We now know better. We now know that there is a lot going on in our own minds that falls below the threshold of consciousness: a whole ocean of unseen activity that supports the visible currents that we see on the surface. We get a great deal of insight into why our thoughts and emotions follow the patterns they do by understanding the unseen processes that guide and shape them, and those processes can only be studied with the methods and instruments of modern psychology.

With respect to conscious processes, there is some overlap in what we can learn from a scientific psychology and a good psychological novel. Even so, there's a difference in focus. The psychologist will tend to look for generalizable regularities and principles. She will be interested in perception, cognition, intelligence and emotion, as they function generically, in normal human beings. Whereas a psychological novel will zero in on the individual psyche of a particular human being, in all of its specificity, without a primary interest in generalization. What you learn from Flaubert's portrait of Emma Bovary, Tolstoy's portrait of Ivan Ilyich, or Virginia Woolf's portrait of Clarissa Dalloway is less like a lawful regularity in human behavior and more like what you get from knowing a particular person in a very deep way.

And, of course, it is worth remarking that there is a great deal that the humanities do that isn't about helping us understand ourselves, but is rather about enriching our experience of the world. Art, poetry and music, for example, can all give powerful expression to emotions that transcend the petty occasions in our lives that often prompt them. The swallowed pain of a small insult or the tingle of joy at unexpected attention can find their purest expression in a Verdi opera or a Beethoven Sonata. Artists can also give us new ways of seeing often familiar subjects. Seeing Tahiti through Gauguin's eyes, and brothels through Toulouse-Lautrec transforms the way we see them as well.

You provide some compelling examples of how humanistic study can enrich our understanding and potentially guide our lives. I wonder, though, about your stronger claim in some places that the humanities are indispensable. Do you think it's possible that for some people, science or religion provides some of the understanding and guidance that you attribute to the humanities?

Yes, I think that science and religion can certainly, for some people, perform some of the functions that the humanities do. For example, both science and religion can do one of the things that art does quite effectively, namely, take us out of the mundane self-centered perspective of daily life and give us a more transcendent view of things. And religion quite explicitly raises the question of how to live, encouraging us to think about what is right and good, and how to be better people by standards that go beyond ourselves. Religion also helps people cope with the terrifying kinds of pain which arise from our vulnerability to sickness and death, and our own decay and demise. In addition, it provides occasions and places specifically devoted to contemplation, solemnity and reflection. Even though I'm not religious, when I enter a religious place, I share something of the feeling that Philip Larkin describes in Church Going. "It pleases me to stand in silence here/A serious house on serious earth it is," a place, he says that can never be obsolete, "Since someone will forever be surprising/A hunger in himself to be more serious/And gravitating with it to this ground".

The problem is that instead of encouraging humility and empathy, religions so often engender conviction, dogmatism and division. At their worst, they become instruments of oppression and conflict that license arrogance, and astonishing cruelty to other human beings. So while religion can for some people, perform some of the functions that the humanities do, it comes with some dangers.

Science can also encourage a transcendent perspective, taking us outside the selfish circle of concerns from the day to day. Like art, it can also reveal unsuspected beauty and expose the hidden unity of all things. At its best, science encourages wonder and humility, reminding us how little we are and how little we know. But at its worst it can create the same cramped dogmatism that we find among religious people. The anti-humanism of people like Rosenberg and the dis-enchanting scientism of people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris seem to me a good example of this.

In your paper, you raise the "vexed question" of what universities are for. You write: "We do need to prepare a workforce and produce researchers who will help us cure cancer and save the earth. But education does not have to be just about that." What are the extra pieces that you think a university should provide, and how should it do so?

There has been a push towards STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education from a government that wants a workforce that will compete in the global economy. And there has been a concomitant shift towards thinking of education as job-training. Universities post job-statistics and earning potential, and students think of a degree as an item on their resume. There used to be a rather different conception of education that went something like this. Your parents taught you everything they could and you went to university to get exposed to ways of being and ways of thinking that went beyond what they taught you: to widen the horizons of your imagination, and help you make your own decisions about what to value and how to live your life. You got exposed to science, history and literature. You read Hobbes and Rousseau, Plato and Goethe. You learned about the French Revolution and the Roman Empire. In the course that, you figured out what you liked, what you believed and what you valued. And you used that to make some decisions about who you want to be and what you want to do. That ideal was embodied in the lofty ideas of a liberal arts education.

In the United States, there are over 3,000 colleges and universities where you can get an education like that. It has much in common with Oxford or Cambridge, but few other places in the world have anything like it. But it is in serious jeopardy. For one thing, it's expensive. It costs $50,000-$60,000/year, even with the subsidies provided by the schools. For another, it's elitist. Few can afford the luxury of purely non-vocational training, and curricula have come under justified attack for lack of diversity. Finally, there is research that suggests that students aren't coming out with the rich and rounded education they were supposed to get, and (worse) that their ability to write and solve complex problems is not significantly better after four years than it was when they entered. There is, moreover, increasingly, a misalignment between what students and parents say they want out of their education and the liberal arts ideals I described above. When students ask 'what's the point of studying — say — philosophy, literature or art history?,' they mean 'How is it going to get me a job?' And when parents ask children who have chosen those topics as majors, they have a similar question in mind.

I don't know what to say about this deep shift in ideas about the value of education. As a country, we are at a pivotal point in figuring out the future of higher education, and it's a national conversation that we need to have. The old ideal of a liberal arts education might be lofty and outdated. But without denying the economic reality of the need to a make a living, and without detracting from the possibility of obtaining an education that will prepare them for the workforce, I think that we should try very hard to preserve among students and parents alike, a sense of the non-instrumental value of education, i.e., a sense of value that of education that isn't just about livelihood.

Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo