Unintelligibility: The Starting Point for Discussing the Science-Humanities Relationship


Paradoxically, to speak intelligibly about the matters that concern them, contemporary intellectuals must appreciate the unintelligibility of the world in which those matters take place.

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The intricate relationship between natural science and the humanities is as old as philosophy itself. One need only think of Plato’s allegory of the cave, which illustrates that metaphysics can attain the truth, whereas knowledge grounded in observation is doomed to be a mere shadow of the truth.

It is not a question of which discipline, science or philosophy, appeals to reason. Both do. In some sense, philosophy trusts more in reason than science, since science only trusts reason bolstered by empirical observation. Given the dominant position of science, in conjunction with the events of the twentieth century, in which the universe appears ever more mysterious and the power of reason has been shrunk far more than by Kant’s critique, examination of the science-humanities relationship has never been more important.

A series of articles by Steven Pinker, Leon Wieseltier, and (here at Public Discourse) John Crosby reveals a deep divide in perspective regarding this relationship. It appears that Pinker has initiated the current debate out of frustration with what he sees as resentment of “the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities.” Wieseltier and Crosby take him to task for not sufficiently recognizing the limitations of science, in particular the inability of science to make propositions concerning the meaning of human existence. They critique Pinker from the side of the humanities.

In doing so, they accept Pinker’s premise that science “is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals,” the first being “that the world is intelligible” and the second being that “the acquisition of knowledge is hard.” Wieseltier recoils at the notion that these ideals belong to science. “Intelligibility and difficulty, the exclusive teachings of science?” he asks. “This is either ignorant or tendentious.” The battle is on—a battle based on a false premise.

The World Is Not Intelligible

It has been made abundantly clear since the seventeenth century that, from the perspective of science, the world is not intelligible. In the Principia, Isaac Newton writes, “For I here design only to give a mathematical notion of these forces, without considering their physical causes and seats.” Later he adds, “Hitherto I have not been able to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from the phenomena, and I frame no hypothesis.” Newton is echoing Galileo before him.

Explanation in terms of causality, a requirement of Aristotelian science, is discarded. Scientific knowledge, being concerned with relations among quantitative variables, is constituted in mathematical models (systems). These are intelligible because they are a product of human intelligence. But this intelligibility does not pass through to the phenomena.

During his time and for two centuries thereafter, one might have paid little attention to Newton’s epistemological remarks and proceeded with some notion of “action at a distance,” presuming the notion to be physically intelligible. However, in the twentieth century, one could not be so cavalier about the notion that the movement of particles is not continuous and that particles behave as waves and waves behave as particles. This is unintelligibility in your face. No wonder James Jeans referred to the “mysterious universe”!

One could quote any number of great scientists on the unintelligibility of nature; however, since our interest here is with the relation of science to the humanities, let us turn to a major political philosopher of the twentieth century who was concerned with cultural consequences resulting from this unintelligibility. In The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern, Hannah Arendt writes,

The trouble, in other words, is not that the modern physical universe cannot be visualized, for this is a matter of course under the assumption that Nature does not reveal itself to the human senses; the uneasiness begins when Nature turns out to be inconceivable, that is, unthinkable in terms of pure reasoning as well.

In trying to understand phenomena, we confront not only the limitations of sense, but also the limitations of mind. A remarkable aspect of science is that knowledge of nature is not limited by human understanding of it. As Arendt puts it:

What defies description in terms of the prejudices of the human mind defies description in every conceivable way of human language; it can no longer be described at all, and it is being expressed, but not described, in mathematical processes.

Scientific knowledge does not lie in description of the phenomena, but in mathematical processes created by mind, processes that cannot be interpreted via human categories of physical understanding—indeed, are often internally contradictory when viewed in terms of those categories. Arendt observes, “Man can do, and successfully do, what he cannot comprehend and cannot express in everyday human language.” This is an extraordinary feature of science and certainly must play a central role in any discussion pertaining to science and the humanities.

Lest anyone think that it is only in the tiny sphere of the atom (quantum theory) or the immensities of space (general relativity theory) that humans lack physical understanding, one need only look at the cell, with its hundreds of thousands of genes, RNAs, and proteins interacting in a nonlinear system across time scales varying in orders of magnitude, and its massively complex regulatory apparatus exhibiting redundancy, massive parallelism, and complex feedback loops. Cell behavior can only be described by the most difficult of stochastic processes, manifesting complexity that defies full mathematical solutions and complete computational simulation. One dare not leave rigorous mathematical and statistical characterization for a moment without degenerating into storytelling.

Such massive complexity and uncertainty are well outside the bounds of human understanding. As in the case of physics, we must depend upon mathematical models and the connection of those models to the phenomena via carefully designed experiments to check if predictions made by the models are borne out in the measurements.

To say that nature is “unintelligible” or, in Arendt’s words, “inconceivable” or “unthinkable,” is not to say that nothing meaningful can be said about it. After all, Newton’s laws are among the most meaningful statements ever made (Einstein’s theory notwithstanding). Nature is unintelligible in the sense that it cannot be understood in terms of human categories of physical understanding, but this in no way implies that the human intellect is cut off from nature. Mathematical historian Morris Kline writes, “What science has done, then, is to sacrifice physical intelligibility for the sake of mathematical description and mathematical prediction.” And the latter are intelligible. Within the scientific framework, one makes intelligible propositions that, via their relation to the data of sensibility, provide an empirical basis for knowledge.

Discussion of the science-humanities relationship must start with the recognition that nature is unintelligible—exactly the opposite of where Pinker and Wieseltier begin their debate. Were they to begin with this recognition, they would immediately confront the “uneasiness” of which Arendt speaks. Arendt, the philosopher, is uneasy, whereas the scientist suffers no disquietude on account of nature’s unintelligibility.

After telling a class that neither he, nor anyone else, understands the theory of quantum electrodynamics, Richard Feynman is unperturbed when he counsels, “I hope you can accept nature as she is—absurd.” Why get excited? Absurdity is a human category, and the absurdity of nature is relative to human intelligibility. Should an empirically minded scientist really expect anything else?

The Human Problem

Having said this, the human problem does not vanish. Science is modernity’s greatest enterprise. It is universal. The mathematics that forms the language of its theory is shared by all humankind. Scientific revolutions are more important than political revolutions. Can one who wishes to contemplate the human condition really stand outside of science?

Contemporary intellectuals, with Voltaire, Locke, and Kant before them, must understand the foundations of the science of their time. If they do not, their words will be reduced to irrelevant chatter. Their job is more difficult than that of the scientist, who can go merrily along his way without concerning himself with nonscientific issues. They, however, must first come to grips with the puzzles of the atom and the cell before they can speak intelligently about the human condition. The paradox they face is that to be intelligible about the matters that concern them, they must first appreciate the unintelligibility of the world in which those matters take place.

Science historian Gerald Holton describes the plight of intellectuals who are ignorant of modern science as “a position of tragic impotence.” “They are caught,” Holton writes, “between their irrepressible desire to understand the universe and, on the other hand, their clearly recognized inability to make any sense out of modern science.” The situation for today’s dramatist or philosopher is far worse than it was in the eighteenth century, when Voltaire could retire to his home to study physics or conduct experiments without having to first spend years studying stochastic processes and mathematical statistics or building a contemporary microbiology laboratory complete with DNA sequencing, microarray technology, and high-performance computers.

Wieseltier appears indignant as he reacts to Pinker’s premise that intelligibility and fairness belong exclusively to science. “Plato believed in the intelligibility of the world,” Wieseltier protests, “and so did Dante, and so did Maimonides and Aquinas and Al-Farabi, and so did Poussin and Bach and Goethe and Austen and Tolstoy and Proust.” If so, then Plato and the others were all wrong. This is not a criticism of great minds—none of them lived after the first half of the twentieth century—but it is a criticism of Wieseltier for using them to defend a premise that both he and Pinker should know is false, given that they both are educated men living in the twenty-first century.

Pinker, too, appears indignant; indeed, he is at his best when he lampoons the “historically illiterate” and scientifically ignorant critics of science. He writes, “Many of our cultural institutions, including the liberal arts programs of many universities, cultivate a philistine indifference to science that shades into contempt.” Pinker will not let his adversaries escape by blaming society at large. They must admit that the “malaise” from which they suffer is at least partly “self-inflicted.” He cuts to the quick: “The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness.” Obscurantism, dogmatism, conformity—he could not have been more incisive had he been referring to Torquemada and his inquisitorial companions.

Unfortunately, Pinker fails to carry the logical constraints of scientific reasoning outside the domain of science when he indulges himself in a startling non sequitur. He states, “The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism—requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value.” What possible implication could there be between a person being literate in mathematical theories and their concordance with empirical observations and his not believing in a transcendental moral order?

Science cannot envelop philosophy because the form and validity of scientific theory depend upon an epistemology that must be formulated outside of science. In the other direction, science cannot be ignored by the humanities because they concern the human condition, which depends upon nature, and therefore knowledge concerning nature ipso facto constrains thinking about the human condition.

Deliberation on the science-humanities relationship has never been more important. Pinker rightly criticizes the virtual absence of scientific education for liberal arts students, but we should not overlook the virtual absence of liberal arts education for students of science and engineering. A rigorous analysis of the science-humanities relationship, absent indignation, would at least provide an outline for more beneficial educations on both sides. Indeed, were the science faculty more familiar with Plato, Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, et al., they would perhaps recognize the impoverishment of the education that they are now providing their own students; and were the humanities faculty more familiar with Einstein, Schrödinger, Gödel, Waddington, Wiener, Cramér, et al., they would perhaps abandon postmodern silliness and provide their own students with a serious liberal arts education.

Edward Dougherty is Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M University and Director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Genomic Systems Engineering.

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