Entry 5: The Man-made divide between science and the humanities

"A whole is defined by the pattern of relations between its parts, not by the sum of its parts; and a civilization is not defined by the sum of its science, technology, art and social organization, but by the total pattern which they form, and the degree of harmonious integration in that pattern."—Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers (p.527) (1959)

"In the United States the European literary tradition as a basis for education disappeared almost a hundred years ago, or rather was transformed beyond recognition. But it has not been replaced by an education based on the physical sciences, mathematics and modern languages. Some would say there has simply been no replacement. At all events, there have been repeated events to provide some broad basis for the cultural life of the nation—broad enough to include the physical, biological and social sciences as well as the Anglo-Saxon literary tradition and concern with art forms from various civilizations." —James Conant in the Forward to Thomas Kuhn's The Copernican Revolution (1957)

So let us go then, you and I, from STEM to STEAM. As the two quotes above illustrate, we have recognized this problem for decades. Koestler's very readable and entertaining history of astronomy turns into jeremiad in the epilogue, when he urges the new science of relativity and quantum physics, which turn the chair he's sitting on into void, to get back to a sense of spirituality, so that a cold science of disappearing electrons, waves and math can not be all that there is to the human endeavor. So that science can escape its current absurdities back into a rich human imagination and vision. A theme of the book is that science and the humanities—or in this case spirituality and mysticism—worked together at the beginning of man's quest for himself and the universe, and propelled both along.

But now that science is increasingly, exponentially, specialized, and the President has made it a national program to recruit more students into science, technology, engineering and math, we are losing the pathways back to a harmonious system of the world that included the arts and faith and other hallmarks of the power of human consciousness. Have current physics students read Koestler and Kuhn, who makes the same point? Do they know the history of the science they're studying? In both books the authors stress that science was not a series of progresses that led from one rational discovery to another. Rather, science depended on the fallible human, who sleepwalked his way (the point of Koestler's title) his way to discovery of natural laws. He had no idea what he was doing, what he set out to do was very different from what he found, he made mistakes, he had biases, and those mistakes and biases also helped in in shoring up the true knowledge he found. Objective science could not be possible, in the state that it's in, without subjective man.

And besides that, the early modern scientists were liberally educated. They grew up in Latin schools where the classics had to be taught. Getting back to now, I once read a quote by the director Paul Schrader urging young film making students to major in English or another liberal art instead of film making, so that they could know the stories out there and their continuum in art, and thus make better art. In the same vein, scientists of all stripes should know the arts and other human fields, so that they can be better scientists. For science like art requires imagination and creativity. It also needs a sense of ethics, of what the science is good for in a moral society, and what better way to learn about society then to study history and politics?

A field as important to the human race as science, must take on the extra responsibility of learning about the human race as much as it can. A field as important as the arts must take on the extra responsibility of learning about where humans are headed in their knowledge. The scientist will use the arts to shape his science and the artist will use the sciences to chronicle better the current evolution of human thought and technology. Culture is both science and art.

Separating them as if they were separate things is stupid, and inimical to civilization.

So a big fuck you to the man-made divide between science and the humanities.