THE NEW HUMANISTS

John Brockman [12.31.01]
Topic:

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. The arts and the sciences are again joining together as one culture, the third culture. Those involved in this effort—scientists, science-based humanities scholars, writers—are at the center of today's intellectual action.  

They are the new humanists.

THE NEW HUMANISTS 
By John Brockman


[Copyright © Tobias Everke]

JOHN BROCKMAN is publisher and editor of Edge. His most recent book (as editor) is The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century.

John Brockman's Edge Bio Page


In 1992, in an essay entitled "The Emerging Third Culture," I put forward the following argument:

In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person today. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.

Ten years later, that fossil culture is in decline, replaced by the emergent “third culture” of the essay’s title, a reference to C. P. Snow’s celebrated division of the thinking world into two cultures—that of the literary intellectual and that of the scientist. This new culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, have taken the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

A Great Intellectual Hunger 

Advances in science are being debated and propagated by the scientists of the third culture, who share their work and ideas not just with each other but with a newly educated public through their books. Staying with the basics, focusing on the real world, they have led us into one of the most dazzling periods of intellectual activity in human history, one in which their achievements are affecting the lives of everyone on the planet. The emergence of this activity is evidence of a great intellectual hunger, a desire for the new and important ideas that drive our times. Educated people are willing to make the effort to learn about these new ideas. Book review editors, television news executives, professionals, university administrators are discovering the empirical world on their own. They are reading and learning about revolutionary developments in molecular biology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, massive parallelism, neural nets, the inflationary universe, fractals, complex adaptive systems, linguistics, superstrings, biodiversity, the human genome, expert systems, punctuated equilibrium, cellular automata, fuzzy logic, virtual reality, cyberspace, and teraflop machines. Among others.

One Intellectual Whole

Around the fifteenth century, the word "humanism" was tied in with the idea of one intellectual whole. A Florentine nobleman knew that to read Dante but ignore science was ridiculous. Leonardo was a great artist, a great scientist, a great technologist. Michelangelo was an even greater artist and engineer. These men were intellectually holistic giants. To them the idea of embracing humanism while remaining ignorant of the latest scientific and technological achievements would have been incomprehensible. The time has come to reestablish that holistic definition.

In the twentieth century, a period of great scientific advancement, instead of having science and technology at the center of the intellectual world—of having a unity in which scholarship includes science and technology just as it includes literature and art—the official culture kicked them out. The traditional humanities scholar looked at science and technology as some sort of technical special product—the fine print. The elite universities nudged science out of the liberal arts undergraduate curriculum, and out of the minds of many young people, who abandoned true humanistic inquiry in their early twenties and turned themselves into the authoritarian voice of the establishment. 

Thus, as we enter the most exciting and turbulent intellectual times in the past five hundred years, the traditional humanities academicians—by dismissing and ignoring science instead of learning it—have so marginalized themselves that they are no longer within shouting distance of the action. One can only marvel at, for example, art critics who know nothing about visual perception; "social constructionist" literary critics uninterested in the human universals documented by anthropologists; opponents of genetically modified foods, additives, and pesticide residues who are ignorant of evolutionary biology and too lazy to look up the statistics on risk. 

And one is amazed that for others still mired in the old establishment culture, intellectual debate continues to center on such matters as who was or was not a Stalinist in 1937, or what the sleeping arrangements were for guests at a Bloomsbury weekend in the early part of the twentieth century. This is not to suggest that studying history is a waste of time. History illuminates our origins and keeps us from reinventing the wheel. But the question arises: history of what? Do we want the center of culture to be based on a closed system, a process of text in/text out, and no empirical contact with the world in between?

A fundamental distinction exists between the literature of science and those disciplines in which the writing is most often concerned with exegesis of some earlier writer. In too many university courses, most of the examination questions are about what one or another earlier authority thought. The subjects are self-referential. Yes, there is a history of science, but it is a field in its own right, quite separate from science itself. An examination in science is a set of questions on the real stuff, as it were, rather than what our predecessors thought. Unlike those disciplines in which there is no expectation of systematic progress and in which one reflects on and recycles the ideas of earlier thinkers, science moves on; it is a wide-open system. Meanwhile, the traditional humanities establishment continues its exhaustive insular hermeneutics, indulging itself in cultural pessimism, clinging to its fashionably glum outlook on world events.

Cultural Pessimism 

"We live in an era in which pessimism has become the norm," writes Arthur Herman, in The Idea of Decline in Western History. Herman, who coordinates the Western Civilization Program at the Smithsonian, argues that the decline of the West, with its view of our "sick society," has become the dominant theme in intellectual discourse, to the point where the very idea of civilization has changed. He writes:

This new order might take the shape of the Unabomber's radical environmental utopia. It might also be Nietzsche's Overman, or Hitler's Aryan National Socialism, or Marcuse's utopian union of technology and Eros, or Frantz Fanon's revolutionary fellahin. Its carriers might be the ecologist's "friends of the earth," or the multiculturalist's "persons of color," or the radical feminist's New Amazons, or Robert Bly's New Men. The particular shape of the new order will vary according to taste; however, its most important virtue will be its totally non-, or even anti-Western character. In the end, what matters to the cultural pessimist is less what is going to be created than what is going to be destroyed—namely, our "sick" modern society. 

....the sowing of despair and self doubt has become so pervasive that we accept it as a normal intellectual stance—even when it is directly contradicted by our own reality.

Key to this cultural pessimism is a belief in the myth of the noble savage—that before we had science and technology, people lived in ecological harmony and bliss. Quite the opposite is the case. 

In Cultural Pessimism: Narratives of Decline in the Postmodern World, Oliver Bennett, the director of the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies at the University of Warwick, pushes matters a step further when he writes that "the intellectual judgments on which cultural pessimism rests are inflected by that same complex of biological, psychological and sociological factors that are linked to the incidence of some forms of depression and anxiety." He wonders whether the intellectuals of the postmodern world would benefit from antidepressants ("Schopenhauer on Prozac would perhaps have produced a different philosophical system").

That the greatest change continues to be the rate of change must be hard to deal with, if you're still looking at the world through the eyes of Spengler and Nietzsche. In their almost religious devotion to a pessimistic worldview, the academic humanists cannot acknowledge that thoughtful people can have positive ideas. Within their own circles, they have, until recently, gotten away with it. The romantic emoting of a culturally pessimistic worldview has been intellectually approved. The world of the professional pessimists is a closed system, a culture of previous "isms" that turn on themselves and endlessly cycle. How many times have you seen the name of an academic humanist icon in a newspaper or magazine article and immediately stopped reading? You know what's coming. Why waste the time?

The Double Optimism of Science

As a counternarrative to this cultural pessimism, consider the double optimism of science. 

The first optimism of the science-based thinkers is conceptual: the more science they do, the more there is to do. Scientists are constantly acquiring and processing new information. This is the reality of Moore's Law—just as there has been a doubling of computer processing power every eighteen months for the past twenty years, so too do scientists acquire information exponentially. They can't help but be optimistic.

The second level of optimism concerns the content of science. Much of the news is either good news or news that can be made good, thanks to ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques. Because the findings of science are not mere matters of opinion, they sweep past systems of thought based only on opinion. Science, on its frontiers, poses more and better questions, better put. They are questions phrased to elicit answers; the scientists find the answers, and move on.

Scientists debate continually, and reality is the check. They may have egos as large as those possessed by the iconic figures of the academic humanities, but they handle their hubris in a very different way. They can be moved by arguments, because they work in an empirical world of facts, a world based on reality. There are no fixed, unalterable positions.

Unlike the humanities academicians, who talk about each other, scientists talk about the universe. Moreover, conceptually there's not much difference between the style of thinking of a cosmologist trying to understand the physical world by studying the origins of atoms, stars, and galaxies and an evolutionary biologist trying to understand the emergence of complex systems from simple beginnings or trying to see patterns in nature. As exercises, these entail the same mixture of observation, theoretical modeling, computer simulation, and so on, as in most other scientific fields. The worlds of science are convergent. The frame of reference is shared across their disciplines.

Scientists As Both Creators and Critics

A significant aspect of the third culture is that scientists are both the creators and the critics of the scientific enterprise. Ideas come from scientists, who also criticize each other's ideas. Through the process of creativity and criticism and debates, scientists decide which ideas get weeded out and which become part of the consensus that leads to the next stage. All scientists are involved in coming up with new ideas and engaged in the critique of existing ideas, whereas in literature and the other arts the creators and the critics are, with few exceptions, two distinct sets of people. 

Creativity in both the humanities and the sciences involves the same thought processes, but science understands that work becomes part of a common body of knowledge. It doesn't matter who had the ideas in the first place. Most scientific developments emerge when the time is right—a new experiment, a new discovery, a new paradox. Science is a combination of creative insights and robust criticism. This process gets rid of the failures and refines and improves the surviving ideas. Science figures out how things work and thus can make them work better. As an activity, as a state of mind, it is fundamentally optimistic. 

The Horizon Grows

Science is still near the beginning. As the frontiers advance, the horizon gets wider and comes into focus. And these advances have changed the way we see our place in nature. The idea that we are an integral part of this universe—a universe governed by physical and mathematical laws that our brains are attuned to understand—causes us to see our place in the unfolding of natural history differently. We have come to realize, through developments in astronomy and cosmology, that we are still quite near the beginning. The history of creation has been enormously expanded—from six thousand years back to the twelve or thirteen billion years of big bang cosmology. But the future has expanded even more—perhaps to infinity. In the seventeenth century, people not only believed in that constricted past but thought that history was near its end: the apocalypse was coming. 

A realization that time may well be endless leads us to a new view of the human species—as not being in any sense the culmination but perhaps a fairly early stage of the process of evolution. We arrive at this concept through detailed observation and analysis, through science-based thinking; it allows us to see life playing an ever greater role in the future of the universe.

Scientia

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 (such as psychology) formerly considered to belong to the humanities, 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 nothing more nor less than the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great men 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. There are encouraging signs that the third culture now includes scholars in the humanities who think the way scientists do. Like their colleagues in the sciences, 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, 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.

One Culture, the Third Culture

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. The arts and the sciences are again joining together as one culture, the third culture. Those involved in this effort—scientists, science-based humanities scholars, writers—are at the center of today's intellectual action.

They are the new humanists.