THE EXPANDING THIRD CULTURE

John Brockman [10.25.06]
Topic:

Just as science—that is, reliable methods for obtaining knowledge—has encroached on areas formerly considered to belong to the humanities (such as psychology), science is also encroaching on the social sciences, especially economics, geography, history, and political science. Not just the broad observation-based and statistical methods of the historical sciences but also detailed techniques of the conventional sciences (such as genetics and molecular biology and animal behavior) are proving essential for tackling problems in the social sciences. Science is the most accurate way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it is the human spirit, the role of great men and women in history, or the structure of DNA. Humanities scholars and historians who spurn it condemn themselves to second-rate status and produce unreliable results.

THE EXPANDING THIRD CULTURE
By John Brockman

JOHN BROCKMAN is publisher and editor of Edge.

John Brockman's Edge Bio Page


THE EXPANDING THIRD CULTURE

Why does society benefit from an accurate representation of knowledge?

Many people, even many scientists, have a narrow view of science as controlled, replicated experiments performed in the laboratory—and as consisting quintessentially of physics, chemistry, and molecular biology. 

The essence of science is conveyed by its Latin etymology: scientia, meaning knowledge. The scientific method is simply that body of practices best suited for obtaining reliable knowledge. The practices vary among fields: the controlled laboratory experiment is possible in molecular biology, physics, and chemistry, but it is either impossible, immoral, or illegal in many other fields customarily considered sciences, including all of the historical sciences: astronomy, epidemiology, evolutionary biology, most of the earth sciences, and paleontology. If the scientific method can be defined as those practices best suited for obtaining knowledge in a particular field, then science itself is simply the body of knowledge obtained by those practices.

Just as science—that is, reliable methods for obtaining knowledge—has encroached on areas formerly considered to belong to the humanities (such as psychology), science is also encroaching on the social sciences, especially economics, geography, history, and political science. Not just the broad observation-based and statistical methods of the historical sciences but also detailed techniques of the conventional sciences (such as genetics and molecular biology and animal behavior) are proving essential for tackling problems in the social sciences. Science is the most accurate way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it is the human spirit, the role of great men and women in history, or the structure of DNA. Humanities scholars and historians who spurn it condemn themselves to second-rate status and produce unreliable results.

But this doesn't have to be the case. As I wrote in 1991 ("The Emerging Third Culture"):

The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

There are encouraging signs that the third culture now includes scholars in the humanities who think the way scientists do. They believe that there is a real world and that their job is to understand it and explain it. They test their ideas in terms of logical coherence, explanatory power, and conformity with empirical facts. They do not defer to intellectual authorities: Anyone's ideas can be challenged, and understanding progresses and knowledge accumulates through such challenges. They are not reducing the humanities to biological and physical principles, but they do believe that art, literature, history, politics—a whole panoply of humanist concerns—need to take the sciences into account.

Connections do exist: our arts, our philosophies, our literature are the product of human minds interacting with one another, and the human mind is a product of the human brain, which is organized in part by the human genome and evolved by the physical processes of evolution. Like scientists, the science-based humanities scholars are intellectually eclectic, seeking ideas from a variety of sources and adopting the ones that prove their worth, rather than working within "systems" or "schools."

As such they are not Marxist scholars, or Freudian scholars, or Catholic scholars. They think like scientists, know science, and easily communicate with scientists; their principal difference from scientists is in the subject matter they write about, not their intellectual style. Science and science-based thinking among enlightened humanities scholars are now part of public culture.

And this is not a one-way street. Just as the science-based humanities scholars are learning from, and are influenced by science, scientists are gaining a broader understanding about the import of their own work through interactions with artists.

Something radically new is in the air: new ways of understanding physical systems, new ways of thinking about thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions. A realistic biology of the mind, advances in physics, electricity, genetics, neurobiology, engineering, the chemistry of materials—all are challenging basic assumptions of who and what we are, of what it means to be human.

But evidently this information hasn't caught up to the editors at our most highly regarded newspapers and magazines. Rather than trusting scientists to review books by scientists, the best and the brightest at the elite publications often turn to literary critics. Confronted with ideas that that upend the Freud, Marx, and modernism default, they pussyfoot around the challenge and the responsibility of presenting the public with an accurate representation of knowledge. Why learn about the human genome when you've already read Virginia Woolf? Why present informed articles and reviews to your readers when you can play the "isms" game, in which you can avoid intelligent discourse by the mere mention of useless terms such as "scientism" and "evolutionism".

Not all intellectuals are of this frame of mind. One distinguished European novelist, who is also a publisher of literary novels and books by eminent scientists, threw up his hands as he exclaimed, "They don't know, they just don't know." To which might be added that a blissful state of ignorance is considered a credential in this world. Why else would reputable publications allow reviewers, ignorant in the sciences, to write about books by scientists? 

What can we do about this situation? We can start by asking a question. In 1971, the artist James Lee Byars presented a conceptual piece entitled "The World Question Center", in which he suggested that to arrive at an axiology of the world's knowledge, it was not necessary to read the six million volumes in Harvard's Widener Library. His approach was to seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves. 

Here is my question, the question I am asking myself, a question we can ask each other:  

Why does society benefit from an accurate representation of knowledge?