Comments on a couple of nonphilosophers doing some philosophy
Believe me when I say I am not one of those narrow-minded disciplinarians who believe knowledgeable people should stick to their own turf and never meddle in other people’s business. Indeed, one of my chief disappointments is that we live in a time when so few people are willing to let their attention and intellect roam more freely in order to produce synoptic visions that bump and swerve the rest of us into new ideas. But there are right and wrong ways to go about such meddling, it seems, and a couple of recent examples provide some instructive lessons.
There is nothing not to adore about E.O. Wilson, who delivers in his gentle drawl the most amazing details of ant life, and then goes on to deliver brazen homespun schemes for unifying all fields of intellectual endeavor. He is, in my mind, a great prophet of the human intellectual anthill. That’s not to say I agree with his schemes. In a recent essay for Harvard Magazine, Wilson suggests that we really won’t know what we are doing in the arts and humanities until we begin to grasp our place in the natural order. Everything we do with our minds and hearts we do because evolution put it there, in some way, and understanding those evolutionary conditions should help us to realize why art moves us, and what the exchange of ideas means for us as a species. To his credit, Wilson is not seeking to reduce arts and humanities to sociobiology; he seems to be arguing for the more modest claim that it would be nice, wouldn’t it, if we all broadened our minds a little and learned a bit of science. After quoting a conventional attempt at defining the humanities, Wilson claims:
Such may be the scope of the humanities, but it makes no allusion to the understanding of the cognitive processes that bind them all together, nor their relation to hereditary human nature, nor their origin in prehistory. Surely we will never see a full maturing of the humanities until these dimensions are added.
And this seems sensible, inasmuch as a truly “full” maturing had better be cognizant of these dimansions. Indeed, why shouldn’t humanists and artists try to understand the origin of their own species?
The bulk of Wilson’s essay is focused on the evolution of human sensory systems, and a general story of how that evolution relates to cave paintings, and (by extension) the rest of the arts. He actually doesn’t say much about the humanities, it turns out, or about post-prehistoric art, and this leads me to discover a blind spot in his vision through which I shall now direct a freight train. I think that he carves the world into “the true story,” revealed by science, and “the entertaining stuff,” comprised of the arts and the humanities. If that’s the division of labor, then it would make sense for the entertainers to know the mechanics of their craft, if only to entertain all the better. But what’s missing is that the humanities and the arts are genuinely different ways of seeing, and deeply different questions raised to human experience – all so different, it seems to me, that I am not sure Wilson’s “added dimensions” of heredity and origins will really add that much. They won’t add nothing, and they may help with some applications, but the fact is that explaining the evolutionary forces behind the beginnings of these endeavors does not reach far enough into the subject matter of those endeavors to be very illuminating.
Take, for example, a scholar thinking through Rawl’s theory of justice. At the core are questions about the community’s obligations to its members, and what a community must provide in order to be just. One wonders whether it will help to know, through Wilson, that:
Selection at the individual level tends to create competitiveness and selfish behavior among group members—in status, mating, and the securing of resources. In opposition, selection between groups tends to create selfless behavior, expressed in greater generosity and altruism, which in turn promote stronger cohesion and strength of the group as a whole.
My bet is that it won’t help that much. The actual subject domain is about the concept of justice, and what it means for the economies of human societies, and consequences of distribution, and entitlements. All of the discussion can be carried out and is carried out under its own steam, so to speak, without much concern over what our ancestors on the savannah were working out for themselves. Now I can hear someone object that, “Of course it will help, because maybe Rawls is in Cloudcuckooland, and needs to factor in evolutionary constraints in order to be sure he’s dealing with reality!” But no, not really. The aim of the endeavor is to work through the concept of justice, for us as we are with the minds and hearts we have, and that constitutes its own field of concepts and entailments and problems. Bringing up the evolutionary backstory will be about as relevant as urging physicists, as they try to work out a unified field theory, to factor in the political pressures exerted upon granting agencies.
Which brings me to my second point. If the scientists have something to tell the humanists about the origins of their subject matter, so too do the humanists have some news for the scientists. For it turns out, as survey research has shown, that a whopping majority of scientists turn out to be human beings, subject to ideologies, traditions, economies, social conditioning, ressentiment, prejudices, alienation, and wishful thinking. The philosophy and history of science is a field within the humanities, and it is at least in part an attempt to explain why scientists spin out the stories they do. If it is a good idea for humanists to learn their backstory as told by science, wouldn’t it also be good for scientists to make use of what those confounding humanists say about the all-too-human origins of their own work? I’m not saying it should change their field, anymore than learning some science should change the field of the humanist. In both cases, it is a matter of helping disciplines to “fully mature.”
I am sorry to say I don’t feel the same sort of love for Lawrence Krauss. Let me first admit I haven’t read his book, A Universe from Nothing. I have seen a recent TED talk by Brian Greene on the basic idea (highly recommended), and I’ve read some other things, though I am far, far away from being any sort of knowledgeable person on the matter. But I recently came across The Atlantic‘s interview with him, where he gets the chance to smack back on the negative book review written by David Albert. The interview is a good one – good questions, I mean – and Krauss shows himself to be one of those hubristic physicists who feels it is wholly unnecessary for him to know anything about philosophy before either engaging in it or trashing it (or both simultaneously, like Stephen Hawking).
His view, basically, is that philosophers have been trying to do physics for 2,000 years, and basically failing to make any progress, and now their collective noses are out of joint because physicists are actually answering their questions for them. When philosophers like Albert (who by the way, earned a Ph.D in theoretical physics before writing philosophy of physics) complain that Krauss isn’t really addressing the deep philosophical issues, Krauss replies that they are morons. When the interviewer suggests that philosophers like Wittgenstein and Russell may have had a hand in the founding of computer science, Krauss tells us that they in fact were mathematicians, not philosophers. When the interviewer points out that there’s a lot more to philosophy than metaphysics, Krauss admits that he was making his sweeping claims only to be “provocative.” (Fine; but why then cry about it when you provoke a response, you glib moron?)
Enough. Like I said, I haven’t read his book, so I am at least dangerously close to being guilty of the sin I’m imputing to him. Let me say merely that, by my reading of this interview, I am not eager to read his book.
I think both Wilson and Krauss are guilty of not really knowing the humanities they seek to either assimilate or usurp. But they are different inasmuch as Wilson is trying to do something constructive, with the good intention of preserving whatever it is that is valuable in the Other; while Krauss really wishes the Other would just go away. So one moral of the story is that, if you want to provide a broad vision, try to see the real merits of the objects falling within that vision. A second moral is to be sure that your vision really does include all that you think it does.