Questions about the value of the humanities and the relationship between the sciences and humanities have been very much in the news recently. Notable intellectuals, like Stanley Fish, Steven Pinker, Philip Kitcher, Daniel Dennett, and Martha Nussbaum, have all weighed in on the discussion. Public opinion is shifting in favor of science and tech education.
There are two related challenges:
1) There is a threat to the perceived value of the humanities in the culture at large. This manifests itself in two ways: reduced public support for humanities research, and students being steered away from studying the humanities in university. Criticism from those who say ‘tell us why we should invest resources in humanities education, why parent should spend good money to have their children study French literature, or why the state should subsidize degrees in philosophy. Science and engineering degrees can be viewed as effective ways of getting jobs and we (as a country) need more scientists and engineers, but what is a degree in cultural anthropology worth?’
2) And then there is the threat to the humanities mounted by people like Alex Rosenberg and that Phillip Kitcher is addressing in his work. The claim is that in a scientific world-view the human sciences will ultimately be absorbed into (or replaced by) the hard sciences, and there will be no place for the humanities as a source of knowledge (as against, a diversion, entertainment, distraction). We are, on this view, bits of matter, alongside other bits of matter, governed by material laws. Understanding ourselves is not different in principle from understanding celery or cells. The great complexity of the human has fostered the illusion that human behavior is special, different in kind, but that position is indefensible from the point of view of science.
On the face of it, these are two quite difference challenges. In response to the second, the position that some have retreated to is to relinquish the claim that the humanities provide a source of knowledge and hold that it ‘makes our lives better’ in other ways. In response to the first, some have argued that contrary to appearances, a humanities education will make you a better lawyer, businessman, get you a better job, make you better at public relations. Martha Nussbaum has argued that it makes you a better citizen and so is crucial to the success of the polis. A more dismissive answer is provided by Stanley Fish who rejects corporate or economic values as the sole, or ultimate arbiter of value. Why should the humanities have to justify themselves by those standards any more than corporate values have to justify themselves by the standards of the humanities? You might make more money as an engineer, but you will be culturally illiterate, historically ignorant, and uninsightful. I believe that this is the right form for an answer, but Fish makes it sound as though the humanities are a pleasurable diversion that ought to be valued as entertainment.
A deeper answer would address the real issue about what kind of value the humanities have. Such an answer would involve an examination of what education is for and an articulate conception of what types of understanding education should take as its goal. This way of putting it brings it closer to the problem that Kitcher addresses, and so the problems turn out to be connected.
I would suggest that a naturalistic conception of the human being and its place in nature provides the answer to these challenges by showing that the humanities seek a kind of understanding that (i) science tells us is indispensable, and (ii) is not something science can deliver.
The old reductionism that used to hold that all of science would ultimately be absorbed into physics has gone out of vogue. For reasons having to do with emergence and complexity, it is now understood that the special sciences provide new laws and counterfactual supporting generalizations that can’t be strictly deduced from the underlying physics. But there is something more specific that pertains in particular to the human sciences, that hasn’t been so widely recognized, and that is directly relevant to whether humanities will be displaced by physics.
Here’s what science tells us about ourselves: we are choosers. The general laws of physics together with the on-board machinery are designed to make the behavior of the individual human being not simply the product of external circumstance and internal hard-wiring, but a process called choice which brings into the pathways between stimulus and responses memories and beliefs acquired over the course of personal history and encoded in the soft structure in the brain. The fact that our human behavior is governed (partly) by choice has implications.
Choice is a method of ensuring effective unpredictability. It means that understanding one another will not be a matter of knowing the physical laws. Although we are physical systems, and fall under the scope of general laws, knowing the laws of physics is for practical purposes useless for predicting the behavior of the individual human being. Without full, detailed, precise microscopic knowledge of a person’s microstate together with full, detailed, precise microscopic knowledge of a cross section of her back light cone, and assurance that nothing will enter her light cone from outside, we can derive close to nothing about how a person will behave.
The reason that the physical laws are not helpful if the goal is to predict human behavior is that the laws capture generalities and the behavior of the individual human being is highly sensitive to specificities. Understanding one another (knowing why we behave the way we do, how we can be expected to act in the future, or under conditions that might arise) will require an understanding of how people work, when they are modeled as persons, i.e., as believers and agents. It will require an understanding of how behavior depends on the specificities of personal history and belief. This is a kind of understanding that comes with a humanities education. Reading novels is a way of coming to understand the complex hidden internal world that goes on inside another human being. Studying history is a way of coming to understand and the complex currents of culture that govern the tides of history. The study of languages and the arts also make a contribution.
So from a third person perspective, if we want to understand systems whose behavior is governed by choice – i.e., to know what makes them tick, to guess how they will respond, and to influence their behavior, and to interact with them effectively – we have to get good at psychological interpretation. We have to become skilled at reasons explanations and belief/desire psychology, and we have to become sensitive to emotional dynamics and good at communicating. We need to understand one another, not in the way that we understand toasters and electrons, but as human beings.
But there is something more as well. The kind of understanding that we want to have is not just being able to predict how another will behave, but being able to see things through their eyes, being fair and generous and empathetic. We are social animals; we are partners, friends, coworkers, mothers, lovers, bosses and teachers. The better we are at understanding one another in the more substantive, morally significant sense, the better we will be in all of these capacities. This sort of human understanding is not something that one can get from physical law.
The importance of the humanities is even more pressing from a first-person perspective because of the impossibility of taking a passive stance towards one’s own choices. Early on in life, much of what you believe and do is the product of parents, education, and circumstance. But increasingly as you grow, you are faced with choices and become the product of those choices. Ultimately, we what we choose to make of our histories and circumstances. In this sense, we are all inescapably the authors of our lives. No one will make our choices for us. A humanities education will both help us learn how to live both by opening up the imagination to the rich array of possibilities of what to be, and helping us to understand the consequences of our choices.
Understanding ourselves will always be an art rather than a science because it involves a kind of creation.