While most scientists see the problem as a lack of respect for science, John examines the other side of the coin. Noting that the Sokal Affair often comes up in these discussion, John reacts to the criticism of postmodernism implicit in that reference. It's true that most scientists agree with Alan Sokal that the worst form of postmodernism is an embarrassment to all disciplines, not just the humanities. However, it's also true that humanities (e.g. English, Sociology, Psychology) have been far more lax than the sciences when it comes to intellectual rigor. In that sense, the humanities have lost respect.
John attempts to explain the good things about postmodernism. I understand his point, although I think might be protesting just a bit too much. He concludes with,
There is a cultural divide between the humanities and the sciences, but it is not a simple one. It has to do, ultimately, with respect. The division is between those who respect science, and those who respect the humanities (and the other human-related subjects, like social science, political science and so on). Yes, we in the humanities treat science like a text. This is because, as we are not doing science, we interface with that vibrant tradition via the texts of science, mostly. And we are being, as philosophers, very "meta" about science - that is, we are discussing its discussions, and reflecting upon its reflections. Textualisation is impossible to avoid, although one can correct for it. But some of us respect science. We respect it for the same reason that Locke, Hume, Kant and Mill respected science - it is where the knowledge is gathered (or made, or constructed out of data, etc.), so it is the single most important part of human cognition and social organisation to a philosopher.Anyone who has spent much time wading through the pious, obscurantist, jargon-filled cant that now passes for 'advanced' thought in the humanities knew it was bound to happen sooner or later: some clever academic, armed with the not-so-secret passwords ('hermeneutics,' 'transgressive,' 'Lacanian,' 'hegemony,' to name but a few) would write a completely bogus paper, submit it to an au courant journal, and have it accepted . . . Sokal's piece uses all the right terms. It cites all the best people. It whacks sinners (white men, the 'real world'), applauds the virtuous (women, general metaphysical lunacy) . . . And it is complete, unadulterated bullshit – a fact that somehow escaped the attention of the high-powered editors of Social Text, who must now be experiencing that queasy sensation that afflicted the Trojans the morning after they pulled that nice big gift horse into their city.
Gary KamiyaYes, it's all about respect. However, I still think scientists are feeling more like Rodney Dangerfield1 than the average sociologist or philosopher. The way I see it, philosophers and others in the humanities often have a very narrow view of science. It's not that they treat science as just another human endeavor, which is bad enough, it's that they treat science as something that's not a part of their disciplines. This exact point is addressed in a lecture Alan Sokal gave earlier this year [What is science and why should we care?]. "Science" is not just about rocket ships and natural selection, it's a way of thinking. A way of thinking that people in the humanities would be wise to adopt. Sokal says,
At a superficial level you could say that my topic is the relation between science and society; but as I hope will become clear, my deeper theme is the importance, not so much of science, but of the scientific worldview—a concept that Ishall define more precisely in a moment, and which goes far beyond the specific disciplines that we usually think of as "science"—in humanity's collective decision making. I want to argue that clear thinking, combined with a respect for evidence—especially inconvenient and unwanted evidence that challenges our preconceptions—are of the utmost importance to the survival of the human race in the twenty-first century.Sokal has it right, as far as I'm concerned. The war between the two cultures is not just about whether you've read Shakespeare or Einstein, it's about how you think. Either you adopt the scientific worldview that values evidence and rationality, or you practice some form of superstition. In this sense, the humanities are just a part of science and not a separate way of knowing.
Of course, you might think that calling for clear thinking and a respect for evidence is a bit like advocating Motherhood and Aple Pie (if you'll pardon this Americanism)—and in a sense you'd be right. Hardly anyone will openly defend muddled thinking or disrespect for evidence. Rather, what people do is to surround these practices with a fog of verbiage designed to conceal from their listeners—and in most cases, I would imagine, from themselves as well—the true implications of their reasoning.
Sokal emphasizes this point again and again.
I stress that my use of the term "science" is not limited to the natural sciences, but includes investigations aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of factual matters relating to any aspect of the world by using rational empirical methods analogous to those employed in the natural sciences.I don't think John Wilkins would agree with this perspective since it makes philosophy—and all other humanties—just a part of a scientific worldview.2
John continues with his analysis of the two cultures problem.
Scientists often do not respect humanists, either. It is a running gag that PZ or Larry Moran will tweak me and others for being mere philosophers, but the gag is that most scientists really do think philosophy is a waste of funds and office space. Likewise they think the same thing about literary studies, history, social sciences, and in fact everything that is not their own speciality. It's not hard to see this as special pleading, but if scientists want respect, they had better show some. It's not impossible: Ed Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould are just two examples of scientists who - for all their faults - respect the humanities. Nobody has the time or energy (or mental capacity) to become experts in both fields; there's barely enough time to become expert in one subspeciality of one discipline of one field); but we can respect those who do learn those limited domains even if they are not our own. This is a plea for respect too, between the analytic and continental styles of philosophy. Neither is totally stupid nor totally on track. Rather than reject the other styles, perhaps what we should do is mutually support each other to do what we do well.For the record, I'm much closer to Gould on this issue that it appears. I have a great deal of respect for philosophy, provided that it's done correctly. I would strongly support making philosophy and the study of logic a mandatory course in every university. Similarly, there is much to be learned about human behavior—and, let's face it, we are all interested in ourselves even if we know that we are just one species out of ten million—by studying sociology, English literature, and art history. The problem isn't lack of respect for the subject matter as much as lack of respect for the way the subjects are studied.
I'd also like to point out that I'm an equal opportunity curmudgeon—the best kind, in my opinion. While I don't hesitate to point out the muddle-headedness of philosophers like Michael Ruse and Daniel Dennett who pretend to be scientists, I also don't hesitate to make fun of scientists like Ken Miller and Francis Collins who abuse science to support religion.
In the war between rationalism and superstition there are many in the humanities who are on the wrong side. But there are lots of scientists who are wrong as well. I still think that, as a general proposition, there's more respect for the humanities out there than for science. Our society is educating an entire generation of scientific illiterates who are not only unknowledgeable about basic concepts in science but, in most cases, still quite proud of their ignorance.
The next time you hear someone say that science or math is way too hard for them, you should express your sympathy by saying, "Gee, I'm sorry you're too stupid to understand these things. What can I do to help?"
1. or Aretha Franklin
2. To put it even more bluntly. All of the humanities is simply concerned with the behavior of one particular species on this planet. It's just one tiny part of life on this planet, which, in turn, is an infinitesimally small part of the universe. Those who think that the philosophy of Plato is more important than understanding evolution have their priorities all screwed up.