Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Two Cultures: 50 years on

This month is exactly fifty years since C.P. Snow gave his famous "Two Cultures" lecture, decrying the chasm between the humanities and the physical sciences.

There is a nice Editorial and Commentary in Nature Physics. In the latter, Mark Buchanan dialogues with an essay on the topic by Clive James,
The humanities are literally the 'human-ities'; immersed in the lives of people within human cultures, celebrating individual human perspective and experience, and necessarily resisting any universal or objective perspective. In contrast, science always seeks the universal and objective. Inspired rather than alarmed by the Copernican revolution, it aims to determine the Universe (as far as possible) from a non-human perspective, undistorted by emotion and desire.

One of the things this implies, as James points out, is a crucially different perspective on history in the humanities and in science. Science can for many purposes forget history and focus on the present, for scientific advance and the technology it creates can alter our world beyond recognition in less than a generation. In contrast, and apart from the rapid and ceaseless alteration of superficial style, the core matter of the humanities changes only as fast as the deep nature of people and human life changes, which isn't fast at all.

.... differences are so set in the subject matter of the two cultures — one exploring everything human, and the other aiming for what is outside the merely human — that it is difficult to imagine the two cultures ever coming together. Even so, scientists remain human, and artists live in a world described by laws of inspiring beauty. There will always be innumerable points of contact.
To me, this ties in with an ealier post, Why History does (and does not) matter. It underscores why the Bible is just as relevant today, historical criticism has limited relevance, and there is no need for theology to beholden to the latest scientific developments.

On the other hand, I think Buchanan is overlooking the real gulf and communication difficulties between scientists and scholars in the humanities. I will expand on this soon....

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