Science and the Other Culture

... all the arguments in the world will not convey an understanding of nature to those of "the other culture". Philosophers may try to teach you by telling you qualitatively about nature. I am trying to describe her. But it is not getting across because it is impossible. Perhaps it is because their horizons are limited in this way that some people are able to imagine that the centre of the universe is man.

"The Character of Physical Law" by Richard Feynman, page 58.

The literary critic, habitually attending to the fine texture of verbal detail, can at times barely be persuaded that something is being said at all if it is being said badly. It is almost a truism of the critic's working practice that the conventional distinction between form and content is misleading in literature: a work is those words in that order—one cannot blithely assume some "meaning" behind them which failed to get itself expressed properly but which is nonetheless the "message" of the text.

Stefan Collini in his introduction to "The Two Cultures" by C.P. Snow [1], page XXXVI.

Feynman refers to "The Two Cultures", a term that has insinuated itself into popular parlance over the decades before and since. This essay is addressed at those who have not gone out of their way to inquire into the origin of this unusually persistent term.

Whence "The Two Cultures"?

The origin of the term is the title of the Rede Lecture for 1959 delivered by (Sir at the time, soon to be created Lord) Charles P. Snow. The origins of the Rede Lectures at the University of Cambridge recede into the mists of the distant past. The form of the series has changed over the centuries. The current format, a single annual lecture by a prominent person, was instituted in 1858.

The persistence of the series relies on mutual feedback between the prestige of the series and the prestige of the lecturers: the more prestigious the series, the more willing a prominent person is to shoulder the obligations entailed by accepting the invitation, while the stature of the lecturer sustains the prestige of the series.

Over the decades one sees a parade of prominent scholars, civil servants, and public figures of various kinds. Most of the lectures, however meritorious they may have been, are forgettable in the sense that they are not easy to retrieve by a lazy pseudo-scholar who will not budge from his provincial home town.

The 1959 Rede Lecture was an exception. It was, after its first publication in 1959, reprinted 29 times up to and including 1993 [1]. Moreover the term "The Two Cultures" has become part of the vocabulary. This extraordinary career of the text should not be confused with the row that exploded three years after this Rede Lecture. The row was the result of the 1962 Richmond Lecture in Downing College at the University of Cambridge by F.R. Leavis [2]. The row can be summarized by saying that the lecturer used his hour to argue eloquently and, to some, entertainingly, that C.P. Snow was a phoney. A multitude of commentators judging that, in the words of Lionel Trilling, There can be no two opinions about the tone in which Dr Leavis deals with Sir Charles. It is a bad tone, an impermissible tone. It is bad in a personal sense because it is cruel—it manifestly intends to wound. [3]. It is curious that a literary critic has so carelessly read the lecture as to overlook what Leavis says

If ... Snow were merely negligible, there would be no need to say so in any insistent public way, and one wouldn't choose to do it. But I used the adverb 'portentously' just now with full intention: Snow is a portent. He is a portent in that, being in himself negligible, he has become for a vast public on both sides of the Atlantic a mastermind and a sage. His significance is that he has been accepted—or perhaps the point is better made by saying 'created': he has been created as authoritative intellect by the cultural conditions manifested in the acceptance [2].
It explains why it was necessary to establish the negligibility of Snow as an intellect.

Enough about "The Two Cultures" as a row. Before it erupted, a larger phenomenon had already started manifesting itself. Leavis recounts that he came across the printed version of the lecture shortly after its publication; that he briefly considered buying a copy, but that a few glances were sufficient to get the measure of the text. This saved him three shillings and sixpence. However,

To my surprise it took on the standing of a classic. It was continually being referred to—and not only in the Sunday papers—as if Snow, that rarely qualified and profoundly original mind, had given trenchant formulation to a key contemporary truth. [...] was the realizing, from marking scholarship papers, that sixth-form masters were making their bright boys read Snow as doctrinal, definitive and formative—and a good examination investment [2].
This phenomenon continued unabated during the ensuing decades, witness the 29 reprintings of "The Two Cultures" up to 1993. Soon Leavis's brave effort was a distant memory, without, alas, having improved the cultural conditions that goaded him into action.

The frequent reprintings of "The Two Cultures" may be caused by a sense that, at least in the title, the lecture was onto something. Those who refer to the lecture itself will be in for a disappointment: "The Two Cultures" reads just like the product of a high-level civil servant, someone whose stock in trade is intimate familiarity with the officialdoms of science, universities, and government.

Jacques Barzun as representative of "The Other Culture"

While recognizing Leavis's merits, I prefer to choose another representive of The Other Culture. Leavis's criticism of science is diffuse, implicit in the content of his journal "Scrutiny". The other representative I have in mind is Jacques Barzun as author of "Science, the Glorious Entertainment" [4], criticism explicitly targeting science.

One can spend many pages remarking on Barzun's astute observations on the multifarious manifestations of science. They are amusing in the same way as Erasmus's "In Praise of Folly". They are equally deadly in their aptness. The difference with Barzun is that Erasmus had a goal in mind: the purification of the church. Barzun shows that science is equally in need of purification. But, alas, he does not see the analogous need. The unspoken assumption is that of the humanist: "Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not."

A passage that shows how limited is the humanist point of view:

Here we touch upon the grim deficiency of the scientific culture, which is also the first lesson to be drawn from our historical review: the fundamental lack in our mental and spiritual lives does not come from the trifling division between scientists and humanists, or between scientists and the whole of the laity; it comes from the fact that science and the results of science are not with us an object of contemplation [4, page 25, Barzun's italics].

Yes. But whose fault is it? Is it anyone's fault? Only with the assumption that man is the measure of all things, or, rather, man as manifested by Barzun and those who live in the Culture of Contemplation. This is "the other culture" of the Feynman quote that serves as the motto in the banner of this text. Outside this culture it is discovery or creation that is taken for granted as motivating force for mental toil. This is where Feynman belongs.

Barzun observes rampant specialization in the sciences (the plural is a symptom of the thing itself). He deplores it as an unmitigated evil. But how can it be otherwise? There are worlds beyond the human species. And within the thinking species, there is much variation. The distinction between those who can do mathematics and those who cannot is but one dimension of variation. Beyond man, there is nature, of which Galileo said Philosophy is written in that great book which ever lies before our eyes (I mean the universe) but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols, in which it is written. This book is written in the mathematical language, ... This has proved prophetic for physics. As a result that part of nature is beyond the Culture of Contemplation.

So far I have chosen passages from Barzun's "Science, the Glorious Entertainment". The title, as happens more often, is chosen for impact rather than for descriptive value. It is the title of one of the chapters, the one devoted to the phenomenon that there is fandom in matters scientific. A recent phenomenon is a friend who contacted me excitedly that the Laser Interferometry Gravitational Observatory (LIGO) had detected a gravitational wave. My friend did not have the foggiest notion of what such a wave is or why it should exist. His excitement was not just relief that the hundreds of millions spent on LIGO had something to show for it—for him science is glorious entertainment.

For all its brilliance, "Science, the Glorious Entertainment" remains an unsatisfactory book. It is an account of what in science offends the literary sensibility. It takes for granted that the reader shares it. A better title would have been "The House of Intellect". This earlier book of Barzun's [5] is much like the later one: a latter day version of "In Praise of Folly". But at least, for a book-length enumeration of objectionabilities, the title gives a hint in the positive direction.

Is there room in the House of Intellect for someone who has written:

We must regard science, then, from three points of view. First, it is the free activity of man's divine faculties of reason and imagination. Secondly, it is the answer of the few to the demands of the many for wealth, comfort and victory, gifts which it will grant only in exchange for peace, security and stagnation. Finally it is man's gradual conquest, first of space and time, then of matter as such, then of his own body and those of other living beings, and finally the subjugation of the dark and evil elements in his own soul.
This is a quote found on page 8 of Dyson's [6]. Dyson is quoting "Daedalus" by Haldane [7].

The message I get from Leavis and Trilling is that the role of the literary intellectual is to examine the consequences of the scientific and industrial revolutions. In this role they could have protected the world from follies such as nuclear explosives, environmental depradations, the world-wide web, ... Alas, their self-inflicted limitations (see the Collini quote) ensure that all they can do is to stand on the sidelines and wring their hands. In spite of its merits, this is all that Barzun's magnum opus [4] amounts to.

Science and the modern mind

What of science itself? Not all words on the subject need to be wasted. Barzun [4] has a chapter under the heading "Science the Unknown". There is much talk of "The Scientific Revolution", leading to endless debates as to when it began and whether it is continuing, or even exponentially accelerating.

If one only allows a single book to be instructed on the subject, I believe it is "The Invention of Science" by David Wootton [8]. He argues that science is a system of concepts and practices sufficiently distinct from other pursuits that it can be said to have been invented and that this happened in the 17th century.
To give some sense of history, Wootton lists attributes of a typical well-educated European in 1600. He believes in witchcraft. He believes in werewolves; if he is English he may not think that there are any in England, but he does believe the account of a recently exposed witch elsewhere in Europe who kept one as a pet. He believes that mice are spontaneously generated in straw. He believes in weapon salve, but will acknowledge that it rarely helps, because it is so hard to make. He believes in astrology, but acknowledges that it rarely helps because it needs not only the date, but the exact time of birth. He has seen a unicorn's horn, but not a unicorn. He owns a couple of dozen books.

Compare this to a well-educated Englishman in 1733. The beliefs listed above have vanished. He believes science is going to transform the world. He has looked through a telescope and through a microscope. He owns a pendulum clock and a barometer. He owns a couple of hundred books. The year 1733 has been chosen because it is when Voltaire wrote "Letters Concerning the English Nation" so that the attributes of the well-educated person apply to England rather than Europe.

The evolution the modern mind took time. For example, Robert Boyle, he of the gas law, was a devoted alchemist. According to Wootton, Descartes, that shining exemplar of the modern, believed that in the presence of a wolf skin, a drum with a sheep skin membrane would not sound. Isaac Newton may well have devoted as much effort to alchemy as he did to natural philosophy and then again as much to scriptural studies. When J.M. Keynes discovered this in the 20th century he was amazed [9]. It was only hindsight that singles out one of the three pursuits as important while rejecting the other two as arrant superstition. Voltaire may have recognized in Newton a fellow modern mind. In this he was mistaken: in the words of Keynes "[Newton] was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians."

The modern mind evolving

If Wootton situates the invention of science in the 17th century, he is only partly right. It is indeed a process with a recognizable beginning. What was in place by 1700 was natural science. Perhaps the Scientific Revolution, that pet phrase of the likes of C.P. Snow, is, after all, a more useful term than the Invention of Science. Because of the overwhelming success of natural science, that which was in place in 1700 assumed a misleading appearance of finality. Developments in the 20th century taught otherwise.

As a result of the scientific revolution, everything has to be re-thought: even history, philosophy, even thought itself. As random sample I offer some recent appearances on my shelves: Simon (1969), Rorty (1989), and Chomsky (2016).

"The sciences of the artificial" by Herbert Simon [10]. Triumph of science started in the 17th and continued for two centuries. The following quote from a 1883 lecture by William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) captures the triumphal spirit:

... when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be. [found on Wikiquote, June 15, 2019]
It was to be expected that this was the model followed by attempts to expand science into economics and the study of formal human organizations. The result was controversy and fashions, rather than enlargement of knowledge.

Simon's analysis was that the success of science is restricted to investigation of nature; that it is time to ask whether investigation of the artificial requires introduction of new concepts. I will hint at them by words, though not new, that took on newly important meaning: information, control, interface, signal, system, hierarchy, complexity, environment, adaptive. Much of Simon's new world can be characterized by whatever can be helpfully modeled by a computer. Indeed, instruments are prostheses for thinking, and act as agents of change [Wootton, page 244]. By 1969 plenty of new instruments had recently appeared and served Simon as food for thought.

"Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity" by Richard Rorty [11].
Wootton's term "modern mind" is useful as a characterization of his concept of the invention of science. The emergence of the "post modern" in the second half of the 20th may give rise to the hope that this term refers to the work that needs to be done to further develop the modern mind of 1700. This hope is disappointed by the fact that much of the post modern is bullshit.

At first sight Rorty might be dismissed as part of the bullshit. This would be a pity, as he says many valuable things; things needed to be thought through in the further development of the modern mind.

... we shall not be tempted to confuse the platitude that the world may cause us to be justified in believing a sentence to be true with the claim that the world splits itself up, on its own initiative, into sentence-shaped chunks called 'facts' [Rorty, page 5, italics added]
This leaves me with an interesting philosophical task, which is to reconcile the following. I agree with Rorty that facts are sentence-shaped chunks, and that sentences are mental constructs. On the other hand I value science, which is based on facts shared with a community, where these same facts are constructs in different minds.

"What kind of creatures are we?" by Noam Chomsky, 2016 [12]. The book's title is a question, and so are those of the chapters: "What is language?", "What can we understand?", "What is the common good?", and "The mysteries of nature: how deeply hidden?"

Chapter 1, "What is language?", argues that thought and language are closely related and that the latter is biologically part of the kind of creature that we are. Since antiquity language has been noted as distinctively human. Since the nineteenth century it was natural to assume that language is an evolutionary adaptation to be explained by its supposed value for survival. By mid-twentieth century this had been argued as unlikely. See Susanne Langer's "Philosophy in a new key", 1942 [13]. She identifies symbol processing as the distinctively human feature, which manifests itself, among several others, as the discursive use of language. No alternative genesis is suggested.

It is therefore appropriate that Chomsky starts his book with language. He notes a book that Langer would have loved to refer to, had it existed in her time. It is "Masters of the planet" by Ian Tattersal [14], an anthropologist who observed that for the first hundred thousand years there was nothing notable about the human species. But about 60,000 years ago, their brains began processing information symbolically, leading to language, art, technology and sophisticated social organization, all of which accompanied our species across the world, wiping out competing hominids.

Crucially, Chomsky oberves that the purpose of language is not communication. It is a common abuse of the idea of evolution that everything notable about a species is an adaptation conferring advantage for survival. Langer emphasizes that what can be expressed in the discursive use of language is but a part of mental activity, which is symbolic transformation more generally. Accordingly, Chomsky distinguishes "E-language", which is a serial stream of lexical items, from "I-language", which consists of structures that are not linear and whose atomic components are symbols related to lexical items, but not necessarily in a simple way. Creating such a structure and repeatedly letting it be changed to a transformed version can be called "thought". The structures of I-language and their transformation rules can be called "the Language of Thought", if one keeps in mind that this language is not E-language.

The question heading chapter 2, "What can we understand?", is disruptive to much philosophizing. A preliminary step was taken by the logical positivists of the 1920s who dismissed much of philosophy as the pursuit of pseudoproblems generated by the unhygienic use of language. Chomsky's starting point is that the kind of creature we are is a biological (hence material) entity, that it is remarkable enough that it can understand at all, and that it is to be expected that there are limits to such understanding.

Chomsky introduced, long before this book, the distinction between "problems" and "mysteries". The first being what is unknown, but knowable; the second comprising what is unknown because unknowable. Given that our cognitive abilities have a biological basis, the distinction is organism-relative. Ergo, there is motivation for viewing computers as possible substrate for minds that have a different material basis hence different cognitive abilities, with different scopes and limitations.

Chapter 4: "The mysteries of nature: how deeply hidden?" Chomsky wants the world to be comfortable with the fact that our cognitive abilities have a biological basis. This fact implies that mysteries are inevitable. Accepting that fact will ensure that enlargement of understanding is not unnecessarily hampered by agonizing over some of the mysteries.

As example Chomsky discusses Newton's concept of gravitation. It was deemed to imply "action at a distance", something rejected as inconceivable. It took a long time to be clarified, if ever it was, but successive publics stopped agonizing. Chomsky's message is that the criterion of conceivability is a hangover from philosophy. Only with Newton did physics emancipate itself from philosophy: the title changed from "Principia Philosophiae Naturalis" to "Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis". It seems that the idea of Descartes, that planets are propelled by "vortices" seemed to commend itself to those who found action at a distance unacceptable. A slight change in wording makes all the difference. From the current vantage point one would like to shout: "It's a mathematical model!" Mathematical models don't need to be conceivable; they just need to work. And work Newton's model did. Galileo was doggedly dogmatic in his defense of the cosmology of Copernicus. It was indefensible, even with its refinements by Kepler. Then Newton came, and "all was light".

By the twentieth century all this was old hat, or should have been. But no, the conceivability controversy played itself out all over with quantum phenomena. And then again with consciousness, witness e.g. Francis Crick's "The Astonishing Hypothesis" [15], in which one of his century's greatest scientists presents as bold innovation a position formulated by eighteenth-century thinkers such as David Hume and Joseph Priestley, namely that mental phenomena have a biological basis.

Coda

Under a possibly misleading heading I have offered a meandering peregrination that finally found its proper end: that science, after its invention in the 17th century, is not restricted to natural science but causes the need for everything to be re-thought, up to philosophy and thought itself. As samples I offered some small books: by Simon, Rorty, and Chomsky. That this last item dates from the current century is no indication of finality, but of the fact that the transition to Wootton's "modern mind" is continuing apace.

References


[1] "The Two Cultures" by C.P. Snow. Cambridge University Press, 1993 edition.
[2] "The Two Cultures? the significance of C.P. Snow" by F.R. Leavis. Chatto and Windus, 1962.
[3] "Science, Literature, and Culture: a comment on the Leavis-Snow controversy" by Lionel Trilling.
[4] "Science: the Glorious Entertainment" by Jacques Barzun. University of Toronto Press, 1964.
[5] "The House of Intellect" by Jacques Barzun. Harper, 1959.
[6] "The Scientist as Rebel" by Freeman Dyson.
[7] "Deadalus, or Science and the Future" by J.B.S. Haldane. Kegan Paul, 1924.
[8] "The Invention of Science: a new history of the scientific revolution" by David Wootton. Allen Lane/Penguin, 2015.
[9] "Newton the Man" by John Maynard Keynes. Lecture prepared for the Newton Tercentary celebrated at the Royal Society.
[10] "The Sciences of the Artificial" by Herbert Simon. The MIT Press, 1969.
[11] "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity" by Richard Rorty. Cambridge University Press, 1989.
[12] "What Kind Of Creatures Are We?" by Noam Chomsky. Columbia University Press, 2016.
[13] "Philosophy in a New Key: a study in the symbolism of reason, rite, and art" by Susanne K. Langer. Harvard University Press, 1942.
[14] "Masters of the Planet: the search for our human origins" by Ian Tattersall. St. Martin's Press, 2012.
[15] "Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul" by Francis Crick. Scribner, 1995.