On The Humanties Versus The Sciences


Human beings crave meaning; they crave an orderly universe that they can make sense of. Science is a fantastic tool for making sense of and predicting the behaviour of the “physical” world. In turn this predictive ability leads to the development of technology that human beings use for a myriad of purposes. So far so good, but once this is said questions immediately start to arise; what do we want the technology for? Is all technology of benefit to human beings? Does that matter? Do I even care? Are the resources required to develop the technology proportionate to the benefits provided by the technology?

The first think you will notice about these questions is that they are not scientific questions; they are questions of judgment, of value. They ask what particular aims and objectives we value in any given circumstance and why. Science for the most part cannot help in answering these questions, it can provide us with some types of evidence that can help us make decisions but ultimately science cannot answer these questions.

Then there are a vast range of other questions that are crucial to the human lived experience that science does not really help us answer; What is love? What does it mean to be in love? What is the meaning of death for the living? How do I respond to to the death of my own child? Are the starving in the third world my responsibility?

Perhaps science can tell us what physically happens in the brain when we are in love, or when we hate or suffer grief. Science can tell us what chemicals are released etc and it might even provide us with a credible and probable theory of why these emotions like love, hate and grief evolved – not just in human beings but in other social animals too. But science cannot tell us what it “feels like” to be in love, what it “means” to lose a child or what we should “do” about the starving in Africa. In terms of our individual lived lives science is really not very helpful when it comes to these issues. It can help provide us with solutions once we have decided on a course of action but it is not the determining factor in the deciding which way to go.

So if science cannot help us with these huge issues that fill our lives from the moment we are born what can? Well, the humanities and social sciences can; Literature, Art, Dance, Music, Theatre, Philosophy, Politics, Sociology, Psychology and history these are the disciplines that explore the meaning of our lives and how we should we live them. These are the subjects that are crucial to our lived experience and they are far more important to us than the sciences. Science is not and cannot answer the “big” questions because the “big” questions are not scientific. For most of humanity who have ever lived and whoever will live the true nature of quarks and Leptons is not a “big question”, it is a highly technical matter only of interest to a tiny number of specialist scientists”. True scientific discoveries in these areas could lead to unimaginable technologies that could fundamentally change the experience of human existence but even then the technical issues will not be the “big questions”, the “big questions” will be what the changes “mean” for human interactions and whether those changes are “good” or “bad” and those “big questions” are not scientific.

The humanities and social sciences are not a “choice” that a society can make. They are that society. The S.T.E.M. subjects of  science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are merely tools that human beings use to articulate the values they discover in literature, art, philosophy and so on, in the humanities.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the humanities are far more important for the success of our society and the happiness of our citizens than are the sciences and the government has made exactly the wrong decision in making the cuts they have.

Technology does not make societies healthy or people happy, technology makes life physically easier and can provide tools such as the internet that speed up communications but the the things that make people happy are their relationships with other people. What people crave is to be secure, to love and to be loved, to belong to a community and to live lives of purpose and meaning. While science is not irrelevant to those aims it is certainly not the determining factor in achieving them and those of us in the Humanities need to stop apologising for our subject areas, stop trying to justify ourselves using the logic of economics or the market place and assert the humanities as the intellectual space within which we explore the nature and meaning of lived human existence – at least as valuable an exercise as developing a new washing powder or a new type of plastic or new type of hand grenade or……..well you get the idea.

I Am Not A Number

Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society

corporate democracy economics freedom left-wing libertarian managerialism moral philosophy politics radical socialist society

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