Science vs. the Humanities: Curiosity, Passion, and Skepticism Meet

Posted on 7/1/2020 10:13:08 AM By Ujjval Vyas

I have had recent conversations with scientists who all seemed resigned to the irreconcilability of the sciences and the humanities.  In a way, recent events are representative of this theme of separateness.  It has been my view for a long time that these two engines of human interaction with the world are not irreconcilable, and are, at the heart of things, the same.  I normally refrain from taking a first-person view when posting to this blog, but I think this might be a useful exception.  

I was not immune to this false dichotomy—that those in science and the humanities think in a fundamentally different manner and the twain shall never meet—for a large portion of my life.  Over many years, and having engaged in the humanities and in scientific pursuits in various ways, I am now firmly convinced that the two worlds are like our eyesight.  We have two eyes but what we perceive is a unitary thing.  If we purposely close one eye or the other, we are aware that there is a left eye and a right eye, but no one thinks we interpret the world better by blinding one eye.

The historian is as plagued by the difficulty of pursuing an “objective” point of view as the physicist.  When Kurt Gödel, to his own chagrin, came to realize that all axiomatic systems, including mathematics, were permanently incomplete or the Pythagoreans discovered that the square root of two was irrational, it was disturbing, but no less so than the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the rediscovery of Greek and Hebrew in the early Italian Renaissance were to historians at that time.

Both science and the humanities are about human interpretation of the world, not the world as it really is in an absolute sense.  And because the human interpreter is the common element, although science and the humanities may have differing substance of examination, the flaws and limitations of interpretation are also common to both. But there are three human attributes that can help to mitigate these limitations: curiosity, passion, and skepticism. Consistently applied, they form a stable, three-legged stool, a common framework for seeking understanding.

The pursuit of understanding starts with curiosity. Babies have an innate curiosity that leads them to constantly test their perceptions by acquiring information about the world through their senses. In a way, this the same as scientific hypotheses,whichare no better than convenient guesses at the beginning of a larger pursuit.  The history of science is full of such blind grasping and will continue to be so; history is no different.  A generic curiosity, by itself, leads to a surface perception of the world or what I call a first-order interpretation.

Curiosity coupled with a desire to know beyond the first-order surface interpretation is behind all human cultural activity. One might even say it is an attempt to wrest order from entropy.  But to create this order requires energy, or in more human terms, passion.  As the first two legs of the stool come together, they allow a second-order, fuller interpretation of the world, one that also gives rise to complications, realization of errors systemic or contingent, and a strong sense of human limits.  Passion without curiosity produces more heat than productive work.  And if it goes to the extreme, passion without curiosity can lead to fanaticism.

A second-order interpretation understands that greater rigor can both simplify and solve some things, while recognizing that there may be competing interpretations as well.  For everything amenable to solution by mathematical equations, there remain things that defy mathematical explanation (friction for example).  Competing histories of religion, societies, policies, human purposes, and freedom vie with each other and threaten to extinguish the passion and curiosity of the humanities.  And yet some persist in the struggle and pursue onwards.  Why they do this may be as inexplicable as the gratitude we should have for those who do.

The third attribute, skepticism, acts as a necessary characteristic of both the scientific method and the humanistic enterprise at the highest levels.  Passion presents risk, and skepticism helps to manage the risk of considering an interpretation complete when it hasn’t been questioned. All attempts to adjudicate between competing visions or interpretations of the world must be done under a regime of increasing rigor and skepticism.  Skepticism acknowledges that human beings can often be deeply mistaken and yet be sure of themselves, to the detriment of themselves and others.  Skepticism means being open to the possibility that our most cherished interpretations of the world may be wrong.  As one of my favorite humanists, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wisely reminds us, “Certitude is not certainty.”  And physicist Richard P. Feynman said, “If you thought science was certain—well, that was just an error on your part.” In both science and the humanities, our natural curiosity, coupled with an ongoing passion that is harnessed using skepticism, can give us some comfort to continue the fragile pursuit of understanding the world.


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