Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Do we murder to dissect?

This from a NYT review of Oliver Sacks' Hallucinations, by Siri Hustvedt. Hustvedt is describing the Soviet neurologist A. R. Luria's distinction between "romantic" and "classical" science:
"Romantic scholars" he wrote, "do not follow the path of reductionism." Instead they strive "to preserve the wealth of living reality." Classical scholars work piecemeal toward the formulation of abstract laws, and in the process they sometimes "murder to dissect." Romantics may err in the other direction when their "artistic preferences and intuition" take over. Luria sought a middle ground -– a science that preserves the part without losing the synthetic whole.
It's an old distinction, certainly not original with Luria or Sacks. Blake and Wordsworth protested the reductionist agenda. Goethe tried to create a romantic science and got nowhere. Stuart Kauffman and others among our contemporaries struggle to create a synthetic science, so far without notable success. As far as science goes, reductionism swept the field and maintains its dominance.

I'd go so far as to say there is no such thing as "romantic" science.

Which is not to say that there are not romantics. I am one. I have devoted my life as a teacher and writer to "the wealth of living reality." I don't pretend to be a scientist. I don't claim a "middle ground." I stand aside from science and its reductionist agenda. I ply my "artistic preferences and intuition."

But unlike Blake and Wordsworth, I don't push science away. Quite the contrary, the knowledge science acquires by dissection vastly enriches the synthetic whole I try to inhabit. I can't imagine living in a world ignorant or dismissive of the galaxies and the DNA.

"Classicists" and "romantics" are not in opposition, and science should not seek a middle ground. Reductionism continues to bear generous fruit. But "classicists" and "romantics" need each other –-the former to spin the thread, the latter to weave the cloth. New Ager romantics who eschew science live in an impoverished reality. The same can be said for scientists who never leave the lab.