Thursday, November 17, 2011

Is knowledge unitary?

On the New York Times website last week, philosophers Alex Rosenberg and William Egginton continued their debates about the relationship between the humanities and the sciences. At particular issue in the exchange: Do advances in neuroscience render redundant the kind of knowledge provided by the humanities.

The humanities provide feelings, not knowledge, says Rosenberg, and feelings are the subject of neuroscience -- synapses firing, and all that. "Eventually we will have to choose between the narrative self-understanding and science’s explanations of human affairs," he writes. Story-telling and interpretation, the stock in trade of the humanities, does not after all really explain much of anything at all, he says. "What science can’t accept is some “off-limits” sign at the boundary of the interpretative disciplines."

The human mind is the new frontier of scientific investigation, says Rosenberg. Our thoughts and feelings -- as important as they are -- are destined to fall before the unstoppable advance of reductive science.

Egginton will have none of it.

Science is itself grounded in a historical, interpretive milieu, he insists. What can neuroscience add to the very debate he is having with Rosenberg? "That our respective pleasure centers light up as we each strike blows for our preferred position? That might well be of interest, but it hardly bears on the issue at hand, namely, the evaluation of evidence -- historical or experimental -- underlying a claim about knowledge. That evaluation must be interpretative. The only way to dispense with interpretation is to dispense with evidence, and with it knowledge altogether."

It's an old debate. The two cultures banging away at each other. Fun to watch, but ultimately futile. The advance of science has not rendered the humanities redundant. We don't stop reading poetry because we identify a poetry center in the brain. And science need not feel that any part of human experience, including the neurological response to poetry, is off-limits.

Science is the most effective methodology yet devised for providing reliable consensus knowledge of the world. A reductive kind of knowledge to which all of us can give assent. The humanities provide a different kind of knowledge -- synthetic, non-reductive, a multifaceted mirror in which each of us can gather the elements we need for constructing a unique self. It's hard to imagine living without one or the other.