Yes and no: on science and the humanities

The author enjoying some literature

The author enjoying some literature

I just wanted to weigh in on this a little bit. I think it gets a lot right, but a couple things wrong. I’m very sympathetic to anyone championing the humanities, because in the face of rampant STEM-fetishizing, wonder-killing, capitalistic practicality, I respect that they managed to summon the energy. The main claim is that we still need the humanities because not everything worthwhile is quantifiable–some parts of the human experience require a bit of fuzzy mulling. Good luck turning this into policy and funds in the middle of this godforsaken recession, but yes, agreed. Wholeheartedly.

Here is where I quibble, and it may be the case that the distinction is too tiny to really matter, but here goes.

First, the author jumps on board with claims that a fellow Berkeley grad student makes in his doctoral thesis. To wit:

He claims, in essence, that literary modernism’s insights about the relationship between abstract thoughts and tangible objects are now being understood by neurological research. “This thesis of Ezra Pound’s that poetry should yoke ideas to particular objects—so that the thing and the thought are brought together in a single manifold,” he said, “actually anticipates a very recent neuroscientific insight, which is that, in certain aesthetic states, processing and perception happen in the same cortical centers of the brain.” Matt’s big idea, in other words, is that literature sometimes comes to important conclusions about the nature of consciousness and reality before science can catch up. “The point is—and this is a major claim of literary theorists—that literature allows us to feel our way around insights that we don’t yet have a clean, conceptual articulation of.” By his logic, then, the way to drive science forward might be to fund the study of literature.

Oh boy. OK. So, I am ALL for bringing neuroscience into fuzzy areas, as long as it’s done with a healthy respect of how much remains unknown. Here, it sounds something like Larry Barsalou’s idea of perceptual symbol systems, which holds that perceiving something and remembering something involve the same circuits–that is, that your memories are simply (simply? Let’s say “in a way” for now) re-activating the same circuits involved in seeing the thing. Even our concepts are rooted in this imagery. Now, I like this theory because it’s sort of parsimonious–why wouldn’t an evolutionarily conservative system capitalize on extant circuitry to get a job done? No need to reinvent the wheel and all that. And I can’t know from this what exactly Langione is referring to, but for the author to say that neurological research “understands” things sort of misses the point.

Science in action, driving wonder and deliciousness for future generations

Science in action, driving wonder and deliciousness for future generations

On the one hand, neuroscientific evidence can absolutely come to corroborate what people have only suspected in the past. I’m wary, however, whenever I see the argument made that just because the same brain area is activated by two distinct processes, the processes must somehow be similar. In truth, there is very little to be read out from this. When we say a brain area is activated, all we know is that an area’s activity was elevated compared to some baseline. That doesn’t mean we know where it’s getting its inputs, where it’s sending its outputs, whether it’s syncing up with other areas, what information is being encoded, and a million other things. And I would guess Langione knows this. We use multiple methods to get at this problem–say, investigating sleep using EEG to look at changes across time, and using fMRI to look at changes across space (i.e. different brain areas).

That’s a punctate gripe, but it points to a more broadly creeping uneasiness, which is the claim that neurological research “understands” anything. The idea that literary insights “are now being understood by neurological research” sets off all my “Whoa, hold up” alarms. And perhaps it’s because I’m jaded, but science can only go so far. It comes up with educated guesses about how the world works. Literature and science are not simply different in the level at which they explain things–it’s not that literature provides a portrait of ennui and someday, years later, a scientist isolates an ennui gene. The two simply don’t connect up in that way. Bridging the gap is rare and difficult because the way nature made our neural machinery rarely maps neatly onto the ways in which we understand ourselves using the very same machinery. They’re different ways of thinking, not different ways of collecting evidence. It is a stretch to say that science and literature exist on a continuum of evidence, supporting the same claims. Treating literature as science’s servant is kind of insulting to this book-loving scientist. I’d even go so far as to say that the two pastimes engage different circuits–whatever that means.

Which brings me to my second gripe, which is that I don’t think the two operate in sequence. Literature doesn’t just grapple with things science doesn’t get “yet.” It bums me out to think that’s the goal–to nail something down to its most physically explainable substrates. To make literature out to be a precursor of science is disingenuous and unhelpful. We need both, but not sequentially. A good book, whose use of plot, character, and themes perfectly encapsulate something science can’t speak to, is NOT just a trumped-up version of the “hypothesis generation” step of science, where scientists make stuff up before doing experiments to see if it’s true. It doesn’t need to turn out to be “true,” according to science, because if the book does a better job of making a point, then that book IS the ground truth for that point. And on the flip side, if we’re being picky, science doesn’t prove truths–it only disproves.

Believe in science. Believe in literature. Call it a day.

Believe in science. Believe in literature. Call it a day.

I think we need both literature and science not because one feeds the other but because humankind contains both kinds of minds. Science & literature may not exist on a continuum of evidence-gathering tactics, but most of us probably feel that our minds’ specialties lie somewhere on the continuum. I love leaving lab and reading a novel for 20 minutes, in peace, on my bus ride home. It makes me a saner, more understanding person. And so I absolutely agree that not all worthwhile aspects of human experience are quantifiable. I agree that we need to foster empathy and that humanistic scholarship is unrivaled in its ability to wire up these neural circuits. We all have to get along on this planet, so sure, we all need a solid grounding in both ways of thinking. But we grow up. We find our way. We choose to specialize, and that’s OK. Stuffing a novelist’s mind into a cubicle and telling it to code seems inhumane and stifling. Similarly, a brilliant hacker may produce unreadable prose. We all do better when we allow people to play to their strengths. Now, if only we could find a way to value people for those strengths, instead of requiring that roughly half of the population find a way to justify its existence by pointing to its utility for the other half.

But then again, Jesus, if that isn’t what humanity is best at.

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