Rethinking science

"Humanism” in the modern sense was fleshed out as a worldview in the 20th century, although its roots go deeper. The idea originated in a desire to find a philosophical approach to life that would provide a basis for morality, meaning and hope in the world we live in, without having to resort to religious authority or supernatural explanations.

From its origins to the present, humanist thinkers have had to confront the apparent opposition between the sciences on the one hand, and the arts and humanities on the other. This is partly because humanism itself has a foot in both camps. Several of humanism’s leading figures have been scientists, from Julian Huxley to Richard Dawkins, while other humanists, such as the philosopher AJ Ayer, have “put their trust in scientific method” as opposed to religious authority. At the same time, “humanistic” learning – poetry, rhetoric, philosophy, history – has been seen by some, such as the writer Sarah Bakewell, as part of the same tradition as modern humanism.

In its search for ethical principles and a deeper understanding of humanity, the humanist tradition has also looked in both directions: to sciences such as biology and psychology, as well as to imaginative literature and other “humane studies”. The relationship between these different intellectual traditions and practices has been of particular interest to humanists, and therefore humanism has much to teach us about the possible tensions between the two.

This is an important time to pause and reflect. In recent years in Britain, as also in western countries more generally, there has been much soul-searching in humanities
departments and among the literati in the media about their subjects’ raison d’être. In the university and cultural sectors, the arts and humanities seem to be experiencing ever more funding cuts, while STEM subjects are frequently privileged, because of their perceived greater utility, economic value and sheer power. Artificial intelligence, for example, can now help to diagnose illnesses and even create “art”.

This is a dramatic reversal from the respective positions of the sciences and humanities a mere 150 years ago. At the same time, there is a battle over how far ethical and policy considerations should influence scientific research, and who exactly should set the rules.

Complimentary, or in competition?

Scientific ideas and discoveries have fired the imaginations of poets for centuries. However, it has only been in the last 200 years or so that the successes of science have allowed it to exert a tangible influence over wider culture in a way it never could have done before. The term “scientist” was probably coined in 1834, analogous with “artist”. The English word “science”, deriving from the Latin for “knowledge”, took on specific connotations of knowledge in the natural sciences – excluding non-experimental, non-empirical “sciences” like theology. By the 1880s, the Royal Academy of Arts was toasting “science and literature” as two opposite and complementary fields.

It was in this context that Matthew Arnold conducted a debate over several years with his friend, Thomas Henry Huxley, who is also known for coining the term “agnostic”. The essence of the debate was the relative value of “science and literature” in society and particularly in education. Arnold’s name was almost synonymous with the study of Literae Humaniores (“more humane letters”, now Classics). Since the Renaissance and before, classical literature had been associated with a deeper humanity and more refined cultural outlook, both connoted by the Latin humanitas. In all these senses, Arnold – a poet, critic and schools inspector – was a “humanist”. In his 1882 Rede Lecture, he argued that it would be better for people to study both science and “humane letters” – in other words, primarily classical literature. However, if it was necessary to choose, the latter was preferable because it would make students “live more,” in the sense of becoming fully rounded and reflective characters.

T. H. Huxley, in contrast, was an evolutionary biologist and comparative anatomist. His nickname “Darwin’s bulldog” came from his public championing of Darwinism, which he used as part of a campaign to increase the status of science in an education system that still considered Classics a more “gentlemanly” discipline, and less of a threat to established religion. In his 1880 speech “Science and Culture”, he argued that “the free employment of reason, in accordance with scientific method, is the sole method of reaching truth”. In a later speech, he implied that Arnold felt threatened by the “invading and aggressive force” of science – which was probably true.

A symbolic moment in this ongoing debate came in 1956, when this magazine changed its name from the Literary Guide to The Humanist (it became New Humanist in 1972). This act was hailed by Julian Huxley, an evolutionary biologist and the first president of the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK), as signifying the importance of “all essential human attributes and values, morality as well as science, art as well as reason”. This approach was embodied in Huxley himself, who was the grandson of T. H. Huxley on his father’s side, and the great-nephew of Matthew Arnold on his mother’s.

This open-minded spirit of intellectual curiosity and an appetite for learning of all kinds, epitomised in figures like the polymath Bertrand Russell, was and continues to be a thread in modern humanism. Despite this, in humanism as in wider society, tensions between proponents of “science and literature” still flared up from time to time.

C.P. Snow and the "Two Cultures" debate

The next round in the wider debate took place in the 1960s. It was kicked off by C. P. Snow. Born into a working-class family in Leicester, Snow began his career as a researcher in infrared spectroscopy at Cambridge. After a purported discovery about Vitamin A turned out to be based on miscalculations, he switched to administration and novel writing – ultimately becoming, in literary critic Stefan Collini’s words, a “public figure, controversial lecturer, and pundit”.

In 1959, Snow gave the Rede Lecture, which he published as “The Two Cultures”. Despite having been out of academic research for many years, he gave an idealised portrait of scientists as “very intelligent men. Their culture is in many ways an exciting and admirable one. It doesn’t contain much art, with the exception ... of music. Verbal exchange, insistent argument ... Of books, though, very little.” Scientists were also, in his view, more likely to be “unbelievers” and on the political left, and to obtain better-paid jobs.

At the opposite end of the spectrum were the “literary intellectuals”, guardians of the “traditional culture”, whom he portrayed as out of touch and “natural Luddites”. When he asked one to describe the second law of thermodynamics, “the response was cold: it was also negative”. In other words, Snow implied, the literary intellectual neither knew nor cared about this fundamental physical principle. He argued that the division between the two cultures needed to be overcome in order for the world to prosper in the long term.

Snow’s lecture ignited a debate which also had its impact on humanist thought of the period, challenging humanists to position themselves in relation to both “cultures”, and goading some of them to take sides. It is perhaps unsurprising that Julian Huxley, the heir of “science and literature”, took it upon himself to articulate the importance of both. He did this in The Humanist Frame (1961), one of the first collections of essays on 20th-century humanism in English, which he edited.

Huxley himself used the opening chapter to argue that the “three great activities of man” beyond the business of earning a living were “art, science and religion”. All of them, he argued, properly understood (and separated from superstition) had their place in a model of “evolutionary humanism”. In contrast to science, which is about knowledge and control, art qualitatively enriches life by allowing us “to escape from the material world” into a higher realm of experience and emotional insight. The artist can use “intellectual ideas and moral concepts” as raw material, “thus transmuting reason and morality into art”.

This generous-spirited attitude, which assigned to art and science more or less equal importance in the life of the mind, arguably helped to set a standard for the attitudes of more recent humanists.

Not long after The Humanist Frame came out, the literary critic F. R. Leavis published a blistering response to Snow’s “Two Cultures”. Snow, he argued dismissively, was a poor novelist, had forgotten any appreciation of science he might have once had – a huge insult for someone who had been a scientific research fellow at Cambridge – and spoke in clichés. At the same time, Leavis rejected the world of Snow’s “literary intellectual”, by which he meant, in Leavis’s view, only “the modish literary world … [of] the Sunday papers” – for which Leavis himself had “contempt and resolute hostility”. While his ad hominem attack was considered in bad taste, the underlying argument struck a chord with many, no doubt “literary”, commentators.

Humanism and "creative living"

The debate was still raging when, in 1968, The Humanist Outlook was published under the editorship of A. J. Ayer. This second volume of essays shows how humanist thinkers were increasingly refining their views about the place of the sciences, arts and humanities against the “two cultures” debate and within humanism more broadly. The teacher Cyril Bibby inclined towards the science pole of Snow’s spectrum. He argued that the real distinction was between scientists and creative artists on the one hand, and “purely verbal” scholars on the other. “Both working artist and working scientist explore the properties of the universe” and are “always producers”, he claimed, while the “cultural mandarins”, using nothing but “pen and paper”, kept all too aloof from messy reality.

Closer to the literary pole were two novelists, Kathleen Nott and Brigid Brophy. Nott argued that, for all Julian Huxley’s stress on the importance of the arts in The Humanist Frame, it was questionable whether he had brought them any closer to humanism. In her view, imaginative literature was needed to serve as a brake on the excessive utopian optimism of the scientific humanists, discouraging any “hubris”. Brophy argued that literature should take the place of religion as a liberating imaginative experience, but without being tied down to literal belief.

Today, the relationship between modern and earlier types of “humanism”, as well as between humanism and the sciences, is still being explored. In Humanly Possible (2023), Sarah Bakewell argues that classical and Renaissance humanism, Enlightenment, humanitarian and non-religious humanism all have in common a focus on “the human dimension of life”, which together enables a “coherent, shared humanist tradition” to be traced from ancient thinkers like Protagoras or Confucius, via the Renaissance, all the way down to our own times. When I asked her how humanists could reconcile the literary and scientific approaches to life, her response was that “the two cultures are connected ... not contradictory”.

At some level Bakewell may be right about this. However, as the “two cultures” debate suggests, the methods and perspectives of the sciences and humanities, as well as the creative arts, can differ from each other both in content and in the way in which they are perceived.

For example, in the third Amsterdam Declaration of modern humanism agreed by Humanists International in 2022, science is explicitly mentioned in the section on rationality, while “artistic creativity and imagination” are slotted into the section on human fulfilment. The humanities are not specifically mentioned at all, but presumably implied by references to the imagination, literature, sympathy and so forth. In contrast, in the first Amsterdam Declaration of 1952, the focus was on democracy, science, education and personal and intellectual liberty; only the last paragraph finally mentioned “fulfilment” through “ethical and creative living”.

In the 2020s, perhaps, modern humanism can afford to be more welcoming to the arts and humanities. More-over, beyond fulfilment, they also have a place in humanist ethics. As Andrew Copson, head of Humanists UK, put it in an interview for the Freethinker, “Go to your novels for humanism.”

Between Snow’s lecture in 1959 and the present, the number of academic disciplines has multiplied. Yet the old antithesis between sciences and humanities and their associated “cultures” is still resuscitated from time to time, usually in a polemical context. In Enlightenment Now (2018), for instance, Steven Pinker takes issue, not with humanities scholars or artists, but with the “literary intellectuals, cultural critics and erudite essayists” who still form part of the chattering – or perhaps the pontificating – classes. Such types are mere “specialists in generalisations”, according to Pinker, and continue to display a hostile and ignorant attitude to science.

Pinker gives as an example the article written by the literary critic Leon Wieseltier for New Republic in 2013 entitled “Crimes Against Humanities”, in which the latter argued, also from a “humanist” perspective, that scientists should effectively keep out of morality, politics, philosophy and art. Pinker responded in the same year with an article entitled “Science is Not Your Enemy”, in which he argued eloquently that “science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism”. In Enlightenment Now he criticises Wieseltier’s “bunker mentality”.

Pinker also argues that critical theory and postmodernism – the latter a “disaster” from which the humanities “have yet to recover” – have led to the widespread “demonisation of science” on humanities courses, with science “commonly blamed for intellectual movements that had a pseudoscientific patina”, such as “scientific racism” and “eugenics”. In fact, he argues, while the role of scientists in these movements must be acknowledged, the “intellectualised racism” of the 19th century, which was a precursor of Nazism, “was the brainchild not of science but of the humanities”; and the term “eugenics” has been used to stigmatise legitimate practices in medical and behavioural genetics.

Polarisation and making peace

This leads us into the “culture wars”, which it might provocatively be suggested represent a sort of “two cultures” debate for our times. A caricature of the situation might represent the humanities as trying to take a last-ditch revenge on science by using their “theories”, such as postmodernism, to exert control and censorship over it.

In November 2023, a paper entitled “Prosocial motives underlie scientific censorship by scientists: A perspective and research agenda” was published in the American journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by 39 co-authors, including Pinker. It presents a wealth of evidence that “scientific censorship appears to be increasing”. For instance, in a survey of US, UK and Canadian academics, “From 9 to 25% of academics and 43% of PhD students supported dismissal campaigns for scholars who report controversial findings.” A 2022 survey by C. J. Clark and others found that, as reported in the “Prosocial” paper, “468 US psychology professors reported that some empirically supported conclusions cannot be mentioned without punishment.”

The reasons for these types of censorship are as yet to be firmly established, but those which the paper gives as possibilities are “expanding definitions of harm”, “increasing concerns about equity and inclusion in higher education”, “cohort effects,” “the growing proportion of women in science,” “increasing ideological homogeneity” and “direct and frequent interaction between scientists and the public on social media”.

The paper does not comment further on these possible factors, but it is clear that most of them involve the aims of social justice, such as equality and reducing harm against minorities, as well as the peer pressure and conformity induced by social media. In other words, it looks as though any moral or political ideology – however well-intentioned – may have a deleterious effect upon scientists’ research if it gains too much influence over them, especially if they are bombarded with constant publicity online.

One example of a “culture wars” debate exerting a direct impact on humanism came in 2021, when the American Humanist Association stripped Richard Dawkins of his accolade of “Humanist of the Year”, claiming he had “accumulated a history of making statements that use the guise of scientific discourse to demean marginalised groups”. In a response published in Areo, Dawkins argued, “Gender theorists bypass the annoying problem of reality by decreeing that you are what you feel, regardless of biology.” According to this view, there is a clash of disciplines – not just over interpretation or feeling, but over fact.

The probable negative impact of current ideologies on scientific research provides a striking contrast with public attitudes towards science during the pandemic. The journalist Janan Ganesh has argued persuasively in the Financial Times that after Covid, “an ignorance of science will no longer be viable in polite company”, and it will not be enough for either journalists or ministers to be trained in the humanities if they remain “innumerate”.

On the other hand, there are dangers in overcompensating. During the lockdowns, the injunction to “follow the science” started to sound like a religious mantra intended to discourage debate. In the recent Covid Inquiry, Chris Whitty himself – England’s chief medical officer – described the phrase as “a millstone round our necks”. As Pinker points out in Enlightenment Now, scientific practices such as open debate and peer review are designed to compensate for the inevitable shortcomings of scientists as human beings and for differences of opinion. And scientific expertise has its limitations: “many scientists are naïfs when it comes to policy and law.”

Far better, as Pinker argues, is when adepts in the humanities, arts and sciences can learn from each other. For instance, the application of data science to printed matter has given rise to a new “digital humanities” in which scholars can trace ideas and other patterns through vast swathes of material. Pinker is himself an intellectual who straddles the disciplines: in addition to books on linguistics and cognitive psychology, he has written one on literary style, which takes Dawkins’s prose as a paradigm.

Communication between the “two cultures” is also important. Collini describes it as a sort of “bilingualism, a capacity ... to attend to, learn from, and eventually contribute to, wider cultural conversations”. In 1972, the novelist Iris Murdoch attempted to resolve the debate by claiming that “there is only one culture and words are its basis”. This view, however, is now out of date. There are natural, verbal languages, the basis of the humanities, literature and everyday communication. But there is also the language of mathematics, the basis of science and information technology. These days, a reasonable competence in both is surely to be preferred.

Through communication, those on both sides of the divide need to appreciate the different perspectives which their disciplines can bring to an understanding of our common humanity, whether seen from the point of view of the subjective individual or from that of the impersonal universe. While humanities scholars are often (not without justification) accused of being Luddites, those on the science and technology side could also benefit from the knowledge that the humanities have accumulated over the centuries, such as a historical perspective, philosophical reasoning, the judicious and artful use of language, and close textual analysis. Finally, no intellectual activity worth the name can flourish in a politically repressive environment: freedom of expression and enquiry should be an issue to unite artists, scholars, scientists – and humanists.

One final, speculative point: as we approach the middle of the 2020s, the explosion of artificial intelligence and the prospect of humankind being surpassed or even threatened by artificial general intelligence (AGI) poses new challenges for all intellectual activities. Perhaps particularly for the arts and humanities. Increasingly, novelists may have to compete with ChatGPT, visual artists with Midjourney. The futurist James Lovelock has anticipated a world in which humans will be ruled by benign “cyborgs”.

In the race to develop AGI and the metaverse, it would be a shame if the perspective of the embodied, subjective, unique individual – our distinct and shared humanity – were forgotten.

This article is from New Humanist's spring 2024 issue. Subscribe now.