Wednesday, January 9, 2008

"Humanities are Not For Something, But Everything Else Is For Them"

As I mentioned in December, this month I am happy to be featuring contributions from some of my favorite bloggers, as well as some folks in the sciences and the arts who have been asking themselves the kinds of questions I have as of late.

The first piece comes to us from my good friend, Dimitri, with whom I have had many a conversation abut the Humanities over the years. Dimitri first contributed this piece today per comment regarding the Stanley Fish post I featured yesterday. Dimitri is a Ph.D. in Bioengineering and his most current neuroscience research is at the level of a single synapse or small local circuits of neurons. He hopes to move in the direction of computational neuroscience of larger circuits of neurons such as the ones responsible for decision making or object recognition and affective response. Dimitri is also a closeted literary person.

Here are his thoughts on the Humanities:

I wonder how many of those who question the 'use' of the humanities have followed through with questioning the 'use' of other endeavors, including science. Although I value the pursuit of knowledge using rigorous methods and scientific humility (tentativeness of truth), I find artistic expression, emotive rhetoric, collective effervescence, and cultural fads to be a major source of intellectual stimulation and of research ideas. My question "what do you set out to do when you write?" was not one of ridicule but of genuine inquiry.

To divide disciplines into 'hard' and 'soft' is to miss the main premise of science: all knowledge is uncertain. As long as you can make an experimentally falsifiable explanatory hypothesis, it's science. Economics can be good science. John Nash and Jon von Neumann used economics to start new branches of mathematics. Neuroscience leaves little in humanities outside the reach of its inquiry. Humanities are us, our brains, they are cingulate cortex talking to cingulate cortex.

The boundary between humanities and 'hard' disciplines is an illusion (unless you are a robot following written procedures). This boundary is the product of dualistic thinking (soul vs. flesh, reason vs. emotion, good vs. evil) -- damn Zoroaster, damn Descartes and Hegel -- it's hard to shake them off, but we'll have to eventually.

I have observed that there is a strong correlation in individuals between scientific achievement and deep engagement in questions of the human condition, philosophy, motivation and emotion, society, and free artistic expression.

I disagree with Steven Pinker's belief that art, music, literature are artifacts of sexual selection, the proverbial 'peacock's tail' whose only function is to get chicks (okay, hens). Pinker comes from 'inhumane' computational sciences. Thinkers who are closely related to 'wet' empirical neuroscience are beginning to understand how emotion and conscious reasoning are inseparable (e.g. see Antonio Damasio's work). Art, emotion, and verse are but expressions of mutual limbic regulation and serves as communication device of vast subconscious processes of the limbic system. Love and relationships are stable regulatory networks that establish themselves with little consultation from your conscious self.

Perhaps the answer is that the use of sciences and other vocations is simply to create a context and a disciplined bloodline for the humanities -- free exploration of possibilities? Humanities are not for something, but everything else is for them. Perhaps it's just that the technical types feel left out burdened by the illusion of perpetual intellectual discipline? :-)

8 comments:

Nicki said...

"I wonder how many of those who question the 'use' of the humanities have followed through with questioning the 'use' of other endeavors, including science."
exactly, Dimitri.
i had a similar reaction when i read the Fish piece.
eye-opening and informative piece. thank you!

Andy said...

What Dimitri wrote, "...burdened by the illusion of perpetual intellectual discipline?" is something I could have told my father when I switched from Pre-Med to Art History.
This is good.
What is Dimitri's blog's title?
Where is it?
Thanks.
-Andy

Bri said...

Andy:
He does. It's an invite-only format and he has been informed of the interest. Thanks.

Dimitri said...

thanks Andy. I do not blog regularly, I only host a small esoteric forum with a few of my research companions. I do have many things I would like to bring up for a more inclusive discussion. So perhaps this is the time. :-)

andy said...

Thanks, Dimitri. I appreciated your post and if more science folk had the same sound approach on general cognition, things would be much different.
I will have the nerve to set up a blog too but as of now I feel I need to learn from the more established bloggers..... Soon to surface, though.

Rebecca said...

Quetion for Dimitri.
Dimitri,
I found your "The boundary between humanities and 'hard' disciplines is an illusion (unless you are a robot following written procedures)" comment most interesting. Why is it then, per you, that so much effort is placed on morphing a 'concrete-looking' boundary between the Hum. and 'hard' sciences? Does this have anything to do with economics?
Thanks for a throught-provoking post.
Rebecca

Rebecca said...

Quetion for Dimitri.
Dimitri,
I found your "The boundary between humanities and 'hard' disciplines is an illusion (unless you are a robot following written procedures)" comment most interesting. Why is it then, per you, that so much effort is placed on morphing a 'concrete-looking' boundary between the Hum. and 'hard' sciences? Does this have anything to do with economics?
Thanks for a throught-provoking post.
Rebecca

Dimitri said...

Rebecca,

The illusion is twofold.

First comes the illusion that some things are forever beyond the reach of scientific inquiry. This has been changing, especially thanks to advances in neuroscience. Emotional responses to a poem, a poignant rhetorical statement, a lover's face, musical motif, or a serene landscape have been used to map brain circuits and regions. Social movements have been studied as emergent phenomena subject to overarching regularities. Brikena has published a piece on this blog on the emotional effect of dirty language mediated by the amygdala from Steven Pinker.

Second comes the illusion that humanities are complimentary and fundamentally unnecessary for one's existence. To the contrary, the questions of meaning can be a deciding factor in one's life or in the life of an entire culture. They are quite possibly equal in their economic value to a huge portion of scientific and technological progress. I will venture to say that the robustness of the cultural life is the bedrock of society that enables scientific progress and not vice versa. I am willing to provide multiple historical examples.

I think we need to do more to deconstruct these illusions. There is great potential here for people on both 'sides'.