Last week was a busier one than usual for scientists ridiculing people--mainly academics--whose learning and accomplishments, if they can even be called as such, are confined to the soft realms that usually go by the name of the 'humanities'. First, noted provocateur Richard Dawkins was wondering why the Nobel Prize for Literature was never be awarded to a scientist or science-oriented writer, but was always bestowed on people who wrote about 'things that never happened'. If you actually read the interview, he is not really all that hostile to literature itself perhaps so much as to a certain fairly sizable class of cognitively limited people who fetishize it. He does take a dig at Jane Austen, that he doesn't care about who is going to be married to whom and so forth, but it's not like that has never happened before. Emerson said pretty much the same thing ("The one problem in the mind of the writer...is marriageableness; all that interests in any character introduced is still this one, Has he or she money to marry with, & conditions conforming?")* and much worse besides. I personally think Pride and Prejudice deserves is one of the best and most important novels, deserving of its central place in the tradition, etc, but minds of the most extreme masculine bent do seem to be pretty consistently resistant to its charms. Since a lot of scientists, as well as Wall Street financiers and top economists fit this category and in the current climate hold status as the smartest and most effective people in society, when they go around casually kicking out in one sentence various pillars on which the humanistic tradition is built and declaring that reading any novel constitutes a major descent in content and intensity of thought from the kinds of things they are wont to muse about while shaving, this has the effect of arousing the sense of panic that is already latent in certain embattled English professors and the more impoverished and 'underemployed' of their former students. This form that this panic takes is something along the lines of course of 1: All of the people with power, money and good jobs will be persuaded that I am stupid and treat me accordingly; 2: I actually am stupid and totally deserve to be treated this way,that progress and evolution in fact demands it; 3: The life that I have led has been demonstrated by science to have been pointless and in fact not even to consist of any measurable or identifiable knowledge or thinking that is real; 4: I could not even attain my dream of being one of these joke intellectuals that scientists can expose as charlatans in a couple of sentences. Why haven't I killed myself already?
Dawkins's provocations were mild however compared to Daniel Dennett's (and John Brockman's) chest-pounding, all-out smackdown of the modern liberal arts, whose practitioners are informed in so many words that the progression of thought and knowledge has blown so far beyond them that they don't even have the capacity to perceive how puny and ridiculous their ideas of what constitutes these things are. Indeed the liberal arts people are so clueless that the scientists can whip out 20 year old insults to lash them with that scarcely need to be updated ("A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s"--perhaps you could stick in gender studies and Derrida for Marx and Freud--I wouldn't know, I never even made it to that 1950s level). This is followed by a merciless upbraiding in which Dennett lacerates the humanists for being completely ignorant of enormous advances made by science in the understanding of concerns that have occupied philosophers for thousands of years and supposedly constitute the primary personal and professional obsessions of the humanists' lives:
"Those who want to be taken seriously when they launch inquiries about such central philosophical topics as morality, free will, consciousness, meaning, causality, time and space had better know quite a lot that we have learned in recent decades about these topics from a variety of sciences. Unfortunately, many in the humanities think that they can continue to address these matters the old-fashioned way, as armchair theorists in complacent ignorance of new developments."
The comment sections in these articles are even worse. I was hoping someone might say they had once met somebody who was not a professional scientist who struck them either as intelligent or admirable in some way or who had an acceptable understanding of any scientific principle and had incorporated it into their own field in an interesting manner. But no one seemed to have had any experiences of this type. All they could feel for the mental prospects of anybody outside the field was disdain, with at best a kind of hard pity for the futility that would forever accompany all their efforts to appear intellectually substantial and relevant in the 21st century.
That said, all this is not a new development, of course. Your poets and speculative philosophers have had to adapt and react to advances in scientific knowledge since at least the days of Galileo and Copernicus. They had more leisure to make the transition--the advances came at a slower rate in general, and a poet might not receive the news that say the earth rotated around the sun for a generation or two, especially if he lived in some wild place. The geological discoveries of the middle 1800s dating the age of the earth at several billion years shook the confidence of many traditional thinkers in their own methods (moreso, in my observation, than the subsequent writings of Darwin did, though these too had a huge impact), and in the earlier part of the 20th century physicists (or, more usually, their champions) were lording it over outdated collegiate dons and ineffectual would-be artists that their skills and visions of life were obsolete. Aldous Huxley, who seems to have had some understanding of science, though probably not enough to be considered legitimate by a real scientist, wrote some of the more effective critiques of the worldview and arrogance of the scientific community I have ever come across during this time, which I hope to write more about sometime in another post. As an ongoing problem (or threat) this is much more of an issue for academics than for artists, who are primarily concerned with interpreting the experience of being human in a more penetrating and dynamic way than it is usually perceived to be. If the rapid increase of knowledge and outlook by the prime movers in society and the changes in attitudes this requires is bewildering to 99% of the population it is actually the place of some part of art to interpret and respond to this bewilderment. It is implied that this is not the case with theoretical philosophy and literature and history as academic disciplines, however. As the concerns of these are with truth and truth alone, and as the methods of science are by far the greatest tool at man's disposal for penetrating to the truth about things, or nearer to it than philosophic or poetic thought or pure reason itself has ever been able to get, even with regard to logic and morality and time and the conception of will and other ideas that seem to have their origins in human mind and language, these disciplines must acknowledge the discoveries that science has made therein, accede to them even though supposedly their practitioners are unable to understand them, and desist from further making fools of themselves by looking at these problems and going on about them in the same way as they have for the last 400 years.
I need to wrap this up as briefly as possible. 1. Most intelligent people who are non-scientists adapt to the new ideas once they are able to have some sense of the truth under consideration and what it signifies. It is natural to resist what one does not understand if one wants to function as an autonomous thinking person. It appears to contain in some sense a purer reason than even the most elegant propositions and syllogisms produced by theoretical philosophy, but this is folded within an extremely esoteric language, training and attitude towards the meaning of truth that is not as easily translated to more regular language as it seems it should be. 2.The humanities constitute a legitimate and important body of knowledge, but it is a slow knowledge as far as progress goes, which I guess puts it at a disadvantage in the modern world, where people are not impressed by anything anybody had to say about anything 20 years ago, let alone 2,000. When I was in school in the early 90s my college, which is an admittedly extreme case, was just getting around to tentatively accepting that the writers of the 20s--Proust, Woolf, Joyce, Kafka, Eliot, etc--were important...
I have to stop. I am still having awful issues with my computers. I guess I have to do something about it.
*Of course Emerson's opinion of Jane Austen was not in his case an argument for the general worthlessness of literature as a tradition or ongoing endeavor.