SCIENCE AND THE HUMANITIES

Steven Pinker is, of course, both clever and influential, and there is much that I would agree with him about. So when he makes what he calls an impassioned plea for an understanding between science and the humanities, something that I feel strongly about, too, and indeed believe to be of the greatest importance for our future, it seems churlish to find fault, especially as I am grateful to him for the opportunity to explore in more detail issues about which it is obvious we both care very much. But for all that he claims to be setting out to reassure his colleagues in the humanities, I doubt that his essay will have the desired effect. In fact I fear that it may appear to some to exemplify everything that those in the humanities fear to be the case about the contemporary science establishment.

The marriage, or at any rate the peaceful cohabitation, of science and the humanities is essential for the health of our civilisation. I speak as someone who has a foot in each camp, and an interest in their rapprochement. I agree wholly with Professor Pinker that each can learn from the other. And Professor Pinker is right to recognise that all is not as well as it might be in this relationship. Perhaps he feels he is offering therapy.

However in any relationship there are at least two points of view, and two stories to tell about where the trouble lies. And to engage successfully in therapy you need to see both.

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IAIN McGILCHRIST & JORDAN PETERSON: IN CONVERSATION

From Perspectiva.

 

CERTAINTY

In the field of religion there are dogmatists of no-faith as there are of faith, and both seem to me closer to one another than those who try to keep the door open to the possibility of something beyond the customary ways in which we think, but which we would have to find, painstakingly, for ourselves. Similarly as regards science, there are those who are certain, God knows how, of what it is that patient attention to the world reveals, and those who really do not care, because their minds are already made up that science cannot tell them anything profound. Both seem to me profoundly mistaken. Though we cannot be certain what it is our knowledge reveals, this is in fact a much more fruitful position – in fact the only one that permits the possibility of belief. And what has limited the power of both art and science in our time has been the absence of belief in anything except the most diminished version of the world and our selves. Certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris. The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong. The difference between scientific materialists and the rest is only this: the intuition of the one is that mechanistic application of reason will reveal everything about the world we inhabit, where the intuition of the others leads them to be less sure. Virtually every great physicist of the last century – Einstein, Bohr, Planck, Heisenberg, Bohm, amongst many others – has made the same point. A leap of faith is involved, for scientists as much as anyone. According to Max Planck, ‘Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: Ye must have faith. It is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with.’ And he continued: ‘Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.

In this book certainty has certainly not been my aim. I am not so much worried by the aspects that remain unclear, as by those which appear to be clarified, since that almost certainly means a failure to see clearly. I share Wittgenstein’s mistrust of deceptively clear models: and, as Waismann said, ‘any psychological explanation is ambiguous, cryptic and open-ended, for we ourselves are many-layered, contradictory and incomplete beings, and this complicated structure, which fades away into indeterminacy, is passed on to all our actions.’ I am also sympathetic to those who think that sounds like a cop-out. But I do think that things as they exist in practice in the real world, rather than as they exist in theory in our re-presentations, are likely to be intrinsically resistant to precision and clarification. That is not our failure, but an indication of the nature of what we are dealing with. That does not mean we should give up the attempt. It is the striving that enables us to achieve a better understanding, but only as long as it is imbued with a tactful recognition of the limits to human understanding. The rest is hubris.

If it could eventually be shown definitively that the two major ways, not just of thinking, but of being in the world, are not related to the two cerebral hemispheres, I would be surprised, but not unhappy. Ultimately what I have tried to point to is that the apparently separate ‘functions’ in each hemisphere fit together intelligently to form in each case a single coherent entity; that there are, not just currents here and there in the history of ideas, but consistent ways of being that persist across the history of the Western world, that are fundamentally opposed, though complementary, in what they reveal to us; and that the hemispheres of the brain can be seen as, at the very least, a metaphor for these. One consequence of such a model, I admit, is that we might have to revise the superior assumption that we understand the world better than our ancestors, and adopt a more realistic view that we just see it differently – and may indeed be seeing less than they did.

Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

IMITATION AND THE EVOLUTION OF CULTURE

Let’s [address] the question of how humans acquired music and language, since it helps us to understand the revolutionary power of imitation. Music and language are skills, and skills are not like physical attributes – bigger wings, longer legs: not only can they be imitated, which obviously physical characteristics on the whole can’t, but in the case of music and language they are reciprocal skills, of no use to individuals on their own, though of more than a little use to a group. An account of the development of skills such as language purely by the competitive force of classical natural selection has to contend not only with the fact that the skills could easily be mimicked by those not genetically related, thus seriously eroding the selective power in favour of the gene, but also with the fact that unless they were mimicked they wouldn’t be much use. Imitation would itself have a selective advantage: it would enable those who were skilled imitators to strengthen the bonds that tied them to others within the group, and make social groups stable and enduring. Those groups that were most cohesive would survive best, and the whole group’s genes would do better, or not, depending on the acquisition of shared skills that promote bonding – such as music, or ultimately language. Those individuals less able to imitate would be less well bound into the group, and would not prosper to the same degree.

The other big selective factor in acquiring skills and fitting in with the group would be flexibility, which comes with expansion of the frontal lobes – particularly the right frontal lobe, which is also the seat of social intelligence. Skills are intuitive, ‘inhabited’ ways of being and behaving, not analytically structured, rule-based techniques. So it may be that we were selected – not for specific abilities, with specific genes for each, such as the ‘language gene(s)’ or the ‘music gene(s)’ – not even ‘group selected’ for such genes – but individually for the dual skills of flexibility and the power to mimic, which are what is required to develop skills in general.

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ATTENTION

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Attention is not just another ‘function’ alongside other cognitive functions. Its ontological status is of something prior to functions and even to things. The kind of attention we bring to bear on the world changes the nature of the world we attend to, the very nature of the world in which those ‘functions’ would be carried out, and in which those ‘things’ would exist. Attention changes what kind of a thing comes into being for us: in that way it changes the world. If you are my friend, the way in which I attend to you will be different from the way in which I would attend to you if you were my employer, my patient, the suspect in a crime I am investigating, my lover, my aunt, a body waiting to be dissected. In all these circumstances, except the last, you will also have a quite different experience not just of me, but of yourself: you would feel changed if I changed the type of my attention. And yet nothing objectively has changed.

So it is, not just with the human world, but with everything with which we come into contact. A mountain that is a landmark to a navigator, a source of wealth to the prospector, a many-textured form to a painter, or to another the dwelling place of the gods, is changed by the attention given to it. There is no ‘real’ mountain which can be distinguished from these, no one way of thinking which reveals the true mountain.

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