The Two Cultures and The Abacus And The Rose

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This month marks the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s famous Rede Lecture, “The Two Cultures And The Scientific Revolution.” A half-century later, the term “two cultures” is still well remembered, but many of the details, both of the history and of the philosophical foundations of the dispute–and the contributions of my hero, the scientist, philosopher, and future television celebrity Jacob Bronowski–have largely been forgotten.

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Too much of the “New Atheism” suffers from the “two cultures problem.” Many people value their belief systems, an ill-defined spirituality, and the wish for “more” than material success, and are not especially pleased with the “no to all of that” of “New Atheism.”

A greater appreciation for the humanities, and even of religion, might make science more palatable. I don’t much blame the “New Atheists” for calling what is stupid exactly that, “stupid.” Yet the “human spirit” is not stupid, it just has desires which are not going to be fulfilled simply by more knowledge and more stuff.

Of course the fundamentalists and their ilk badly suffer from “two cultures.” Rarely does the plea, “but how would you do science with ID?” even register with these people, since they just want their dogma. But I’ve focused mostly on our side because the problems with the creationists and other IDiots is pretty much a given, while the blindness to what people want of many scientists could, theoretically, be reduced.

As Tom Robbins wrote in Another Roadside Attraction, science gives us what we need, magic gives us what we want. Well, sadly, magic doesn’t really do that either, yet the wanting remains. This we must keep in mind.

Glen Davidson

http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

Maybe it was a valid approach at the time, but even if one could define and test such “cultures” the distinctions would change over time.

A possibly more illuminating distinction would be between testable scientific universal knowledge and learnable environmental contingent knowhow. Much of the humanities is by neccessity dealing with the later. It is only when one confuses them that it is a problem.

Too much of the “New Atheism” suffers from the “two cultures problem.” […] A greater appreciation for the humanities, and even of religion, might make science more palatable.

Okay, this is confusing. As I don’t know what Snow said exactly I started by googling, and Wikipedia immediately claims that:

Nonetheless, Snow’s basic point remains valid: that many humanities scholars do not know much science, and would not be embarrassed not to know the second law of thermodynamics, while any scientist would be embarrassed not to know who Shakespeare was, or, indeed, not to know a lot about his plays. This distinction is what is understood by the shorthand of “the two cultures” as attributed to Lord Snow.

This is quite the reverse of the above claim, seeing that scientists in general are atheists and public atheists in general scientific skeptics. It seems it is the scholars that don’t appreciate science enough.

Here in Sweden the organization that is claimed to organize most ardent atheists is The Swedish Humanist Association:

The humanistic worldview centers on humanity and human values, as opposed to supernatural entities like gods.

Also, I don’t seem to see any supporting evidence that atheism is suffering from its interest in human values (since that is what most generally atheism is a position on) or that vocal “New Atheism” in particular is suffering from what other people thinks about its position on belief.

Okay, this is confusing. As I don’t know what Snow said exactly I started by googling, and Wikipedia immediately claims that:

OK, so you didn’t know what Snow said “exactly” (“at all” seems to fit your level of “argumentation”), and you went googling. Then you found a very small snippet that doesn’t reflect any broadly useful knowledge of the debate.

This is quite the reverse of the above claim, seeing that scientists in general are atheists and public atheists in general scientific skeptics. It seems it is the scholars that don’t appreciate science enough.

So it seems, if you’re ignorantly following Wikipedia, as you are. The fact is that he faulted both sides, which you’d know if you were interested in an honest portrayal of this matter:

Remember, these are very intelligent men. Their culture is in many ways an exciting and admirable one. It doesn’t contain much art, with the exception, and important exception, of music. Verbal exchange, insistent argument. Long-playing records. Colour-photography. The ear, to some extent the eye. Books, very little, though perhaps not many would go so far as one hero, who perhaps I should admit was further down the scientific ladder than the people I’ve been talking about–who, when asked what books he read, replied firmly and confidently: ‘Books? I prefer to use my books as tools.’ It was very hard not to let the mind wander–what sort of tool would a book make? Perhaps a hammer? A primitive digging instrument?

Of books, though, very little. And of the books which to most literary person are bread and butter, novels, history, poetry, plays, almost nothing at all. It isn’t that they’re not interested in the psychological or moral or social life. In the social life, they certainly are, more than most of us. In the moral, they are by and large the soundest group of intellectuals we have; there is a moral component right in the grain of science itself, and almost all scientists form their own judgments of the moral life. In the pyschological they have as much interest as most of us, though occasionally I fancy they come to it rather late. It isn’t that they lack the interests. It is much more that the whole literature of the traditional culture doesn’t seem to them relevant to those interests. They are, of course, dead wrong. As a result, their imaginative understanding is less than it could be. They are self-impoverished.

But what about the other side? They are impoverished too–perhaps more seriously, because they are vainer about it.

The two cultures

By Charles Percy Snow, Stefan Collini

Illustrated by Stefan Collini

Contributor Stefan Collini

Edition: reissue, reprint

Published by Cambridge University Press, 1993

ISBN 0521457300, 9780521457309

107 pages

tinyurl.com/phkqsx

Snow focused more upon his side, the humanities side, while also stating that the science side was insufficiently knowledgeable regarding the humanities.

The humanistic worldview centers on humanity and human values, as opposed to supernatural entities like gods.

Also, I don’t seem to see any supporting evidence that atheism is suffering from its interest in human values (since that is what most generally atheism is a position on) or that vocal “New Atheism” in particular is suffering from what other people thinks about its position on belief.

I’m sure there are dumber arguments than that one, but surely it ranks among the least intelligent.

Naturally, the shift to “atheism” away from the “New Atheists” I was specifically targeting is disingenuous.

More importantly, no one ever said that the humanities side was comprised of theists. Snow and others who have criticized the science side (and the other one) were faulting a culture, not a religious stance. So the intersection of atheism with the humanities means nothing to the issue, which should be obvious to anyone who comments on this subject.

That you don’t see “supporting evidence” is hypocritical in the extreme from one who brings in Wikipedia as if it covered the Snow controversy adequately. If you actually knew much of anything about the humanities, you wouldn’t have to be told that “New Atheism” seems to be “without a soul,” and it is hardly possible for me to make up for your ignorance of what I am discussing.

And if you were not disingenuous, you would have addressed the lack of concern for “spirituality” that I brought up regarding the “New Atheists,” something that is glaring to anyone who has some sense of these matters.

Your ignorance, use of highly inadequate resources, and disregard for what was said, is no argument at all.

Glen Davidson

http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

Glen,

Thanks for your most insightful remarks, but if my memory serves, Snow was a physicist who became quite conversant with the humanities too. I suppose that it took someone like him to discern the possibility that science and the humanities were diverging into two separate, but equal, “cultures”.

Appreciatively yours,

John

were faulting a culture

Or two, depending upon resolution and focus.

Glen Davidson

http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

Snow was a physicist who became quite conversant with the humanities too

At the time of the lecture, he was largely on the “humanities” side, known for being a novelist. I did not intend to suggest that he was not knowledgeable of science when I said that he focused on “his side, the humanities side”.

But yes, thanks for pointing out the importance of his having a foot in both worlds, which lent credibility and insight to his comments.

Even so, he reads as being a bit dated today, with his high praise for industrialization–what with our concern for global warming today (the divide isn’t the same either, though it continues to at least some extent in the fragmentation caused specialization). Not that poorer countries do not need modernization and technology, including some industrialization, however industrialization is presumably to be adopted more piecemeal and carefully than in the past.

Regardless of that, his comments stirred a useful debate that continues today.

Glen Davidson

http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

This is a bit off-topic, but still consistent with its spirit:

The Society for the Study of Evolution is honoring National Center for Science Education Executive Director Eugenie Scott as its first recipient of the Stephen Jay Gould Prize. According to its citation, she is being honored for these reasons:

“As the executive director of the National Center for Science Education she has been in the forefront of battles to ensure that public education clearly distinguishes science from non-science and that the principles of evolution are taught in all biology courses. … In these efforts, she has been an important leader in the public sphere, molding and focusing the efforts of scientists, educators, lay people, religious groups, skeptics, agnostics, believers, scholars, and ordinary citizens through firm but gentle guidance. … Dr. Scott is a gifted communicator and public intellectual. She is a frequent guest on radio and television shows, and an eloquent spokeswoman for science. Her writings have illuminated the process of science to thousands, and her books have exposed the efforts of many groups in our society to hobble and undermine the teaching of science to our younger generation. The organization she helped create far transcends the considerable reach of her own voice, vastly amplifying her impact on public understanding. For these many reasons, it is extremely appropriate that Dr. Scott be the first recipient of the Gould Prize.”

This is quite the reverse of the above claim, seeing that scientists in general are atheists

Speaking of magic, if its written often enough it might become true.

And yet here is one trained in the humanities who would be ashamed not to be aware (for example) of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I know three professional historians who think the same, and none who think different, and I know of no historian who dismisses the need for a detailed knowledge of the technology and theoretical knowledge available to the societies he or she studies (although that is not to say that they accept the idea of technological determinism).

But it is true that most of the literary theorists I have met don’t know or care for science. In general, this is simply the product of classic ignorance - that is, of ignoring it, of acting as though it were not there. The inability to see the nose on your own face, as it were.

The strongest anti-science bias I have come across in academe, however, is not among theologians or classical scholars. It is among post-modernist philosophers and literary theorists, who are very much prone to dismiss any thought of human progress, and to think of technological and scientific achievement as a chimaera; but there is also among this group a fairly strong correlation with rejection of traditional religion. Most of them would regard themselves as humanists, even though they often show a streak of misanthropy, shading almost to despair in some.

They also specifically reject the idea of “canon”, holding that all products of society should be studied, rather than a body of works thought of as “superior” or “classic”, and this often leads towards the same unconcern with “great books” (whatever body of literature is nominated) as the scientists are accused of having. Criticism of these attitudes as “nihilism” or as devotion to trivia is met by pointing out that it is the business of the academic to address what people are actually reading, actually viewing, actually doing, and not what it would be nice if they would read, view and do in an ideal world.

Is this a third estate, I wonder, one that does not care either for science or for “great books”? It would mostly have appeared after C P Snow’s day.

When I was a wee undergraduate at OSU in the 70s, smitten by Bronowski’s “Ascent of Man”, I was shocked to find that humanities professors dismissed out of hand anything that came from Bronowski. There was never an attempt to justify the contempt, just the exhibition of annoyance you would give a toddler trying to play a piano. Actually, I think they were annoyed at both me and Bronowski.

holding that all products of society should be studied, rather than a body of works thought of as “superior” or “classic”

Other than their favorite authorities, and philosophical canon, that is. But you’re not supposed to notice that…

Glen Davidson http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

Snow was actually a chemist, although his scientific reputation took a somewhat undeserved hit when he claimed to have discovered a means on synthesizing vitamin A, only to have it turn out that his experimental results were flawed. Snow did no serious science after that, but gained much repute for his novels. He was also quite active behind the scenes in Labour Party politics.

Not that poorer countries do not need modernization and technology, including some industrialization, however industrialization is presumably to be adopted more piecemeal and carefully than in the past.

It’s good to see that you qualified that statement, Glen. It seems to me that too often, capitalist industrialization is viewed as some kind of cultural inevitability. Maybe the concept of the ladder of progress, long abandoned by biologists and cultural anthropologists, should also be given a rest by politicians and social engineeers.

Dave Luckett said: And yet here is one trained in the humanities who would be ashamed not to be aware (for example) of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

The world needs more folks like you, Dave.

Unfortunately I think most people aren’t like you and are, rather, poster childs [poster children?] for ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’ Your typical layperson who claims to understand 2LOT probably can’t tell you what S, q and T refer to, nor how they are mathematically related. (I’m being uncharitable…maybe some of them can wing the right answer for T…)

Why does that level of literacy matter? Because without it people make errors. Giant, fundamental, idiotic errors about what scientific concepts mean and how the world works. Some philosophers get the idea that the Schroedinger’s cat story means an intelligent observer is necessary, and they start a new post-modernist craze throughout all of academia. Or your local police force starts listening to a psychic, reducing the communities’ safety. Or some bonehead in government decides that natural selection makes for good social policy because, hey, nature does it.

If we want to bridge the academic divide between the ‘two cultures,’ this is the sort of science literacy we need our fellow academics to have. Not just ‘I can use words to describe it’ but ‘I get when, where, and to at least some extent how it applies.’ Ideally we also want this sort of scientific literacy in the general population. Good basic science education should reduce the number of bad policies that are adopted as a result of inadequate understanding of scientific concepts.

All in a perfect world, of course - I have no illusions that policy blunders will stop once scientific literacy is acheived. :)

By the way, why did Bronowski use a rose for the literary types while we got stuck with a crummy abacus? Foul play I say! It was the sixties, he could’ve gone with something like “the Laser and the Mockingbird.” Or since the Salk institute was involved, why not “The vaccine and the rosebud?” (Okay, I’ll admit my lack of ability in constructing nice turns of phrase may be one reason I’m part of the abacus crowd…)

That was painful to read. It appears that Timothy Sandefur seems to have missed the entire point of Snow’s piece. Perhaps had Sandefur spent some time in a Literature department, he might have been better prepared to evaluate Snow’s work. But that would have meant understanding Snow’s point. Instead, this piece reeks of ignorance.

It’s not clear to me from reading the comments exactly how many people have actually read The Two Cultures, and unless you know more about what he says (other than the celebrated piece about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is the first and often only thing people look at) you cannot adequately comment on who Snow was or what he meant.

The book is a small one, thin, quite short. Not an easy read because his ideas take a little pondering, but not something requiring heavy note-taking or drawn-out analysis either. It’s worth it. I thought I had once seen the entire thing online but I just checked and since it’s still under copyright, doesn’t seem to be available for free.

From the comments, it seems like some people are dismissing Snow: for his science, his rank as a scientist, for his writing, I don’t know what all. It’s important to see him in his time and place.

He was 35 by 1940 and had been a scientific scholar and teacher, and then he entered government. If the time-servers we have seen in Washington for the past half-generation are your idea of civil servants, think again. Academics of any flavor were rare in Great Britain in 1940 and the old-boy system – younger sons of titled men, and their cousins and their Eton classmates – ran government. Snow and his peers, who in the eyes of previous leaders were “new men” coming from nowhere (and boy, t’was ever thus), moved into high official positions in those stressful years because of their intellectual excellence. Of course, by doing so they removed themselves from the straight up-and-down lines of those who remained doing science. So he moved from his first position of strength into a world where – despite his Cambridge background and intellectual qualities – he was an outsider.

F.R. Leavis, the literary intellectual who disliked Snow so much, had his own status issues. Leavis grew up in Cambridge but his father was not an academic – he was a shopkeeper, nonetheless, his brilliant son received all his education in Cambridge and stayed there most of his life. I think it’s likely that as a newcomer within the barricades he was ardent to keep out pretenders like Snow, who had “only” come up through the University of Leicester and then, after receiving the gifts of advanced education at Cambridge, abandoned academe, showing him not to be a serious intellectual.

And basically, everything Snow touched was golden. He had a happy marriage to the highly-praised novelist Pamela Hansford Johnson (who could have married Dylan Thomas but was too smart for that); her children by an earlier marriage liked him and they had a child of their own. He became Lord Snow, and he also had the effrontery to compete with Leavis on what Leavis perceived as his own turf, literature, with an eleven-volume cycle called Strangers and Brothers. Leavis thought it was laughable and yet, while some of it is dated, I think it stands with Trollope for containing beautifully drawn characters. Each novel has its own story yet the characters come and go throughout the series, which is considered a beautiful study of the getting and taking of political power. I would recommend all eleven to any student of mid-century Great Britain.

And in fact I would also recommend them to anyone who wants to get to the root of Snow’s examination of the two cultures. While the famous lecture was in 1959, the novels evolved over decades and their underlying reading is subtle … but it’s there.

To sum up, I think that in order to understand The Two Cultures you must take C.P. Snow as a creature of his time and place. He could not foretell the future; he did not foresee the internet or computers or any numbers of things. I think he would be fascinated to look at class or politics or education or business or communication in today’s Great Britain or the U.S. I also think that if he were here today, he would make his points somewhat differently, but the underlying idea would still apply.

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