Where Science and the Humanities Meet

in deepthink •  last year

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With @SteemDeepThink kicking off this week, I will start off our chain of posts with some reflections on the nature of science and the humanities. Whether you agree with me or not, I hope I will have challenged you enough to think for yourself. (A shout-out to both @SteemSTEM and @SteemDeepThink!!!)

I was recently introduced to the work of Fritjof Capra, an Austrian-born American theoretical physicist. (Wow. That's a mouthful.) He became well-known back in 1975 with his bestseller book, The Tao of Physics, which argues for the necessary entanglement of science and mysticism. While many scientists and poets would argue for a clear and definite separation between the two, Capra works towards a reconciliation. And not just a begrudging handshake between the two, but an intimate and inseparable unity.

Capra says, "At the very beginning of my encounter with Eastern traditions, I was very threatened myself... I found it threatening to leave rational thinking, the analytical mind, the kind of world I have grown up in and that I have been educated in, and try to transcend this world in meditative experience. That is something threatening to someone who does it for the first time. And so many physicists are threatened by the main idea of having their very dear theories compared to mystical traditions." (link)

Capra believes that the rise of modern science has created an artificial division between fields of study, leading to the traditional distinction we make between "science" and the "humanities." We separate the things we can study and quantify and replicate from the things that inspire and awaken and animate. We divide things into (supposed) categories of "subjective" and "ojective." According to Capra, this paradigm is false.

Painters, Dancers, and Mystics

There is an extremely interesting YouTube video of Capra, not long after the release of The Tao of Physics, where he engages in a stimulating debate over the role of science in determining the meaning of life and consciousness.

"Arthur M. Young and Fritjof Capra - Institute for the Study of Consciousness"

Capra (seated in the middle of the video) wants to emphasize that science is a perfectly valid and vitally important form of inquiry - but it is not the only form, or even the best measuring stick for other types of questioning. It isn't just biologists and chemists and physicists - but painters, dancers, mystics, and philosophers - all have equally valid forms of inquiry. Just because it can't be "objectively" proven (if there is such a thing - another day, another post) doesn't mean it isn't true.

Early on in the conversation, Arthur Miller challenges this view saying, "You might have a great difficulty getting agreement among the poets... The difficulty about getting opinions from these other areas is that they are not, the way science is, subject to this agreement. That's really one of [science's] most powerful assets."

In other words, because of the empirical nature of science, anyone can replicate an experiment at any time with the same environment and variables and come up with the same results. It is not dependent on the bias or judgment of the scientist; its truth lies outside of the scientist. On the other hand, for the poet or philosopher or mystic, truth lies within and is dependent and integral to the person itself. This kind of truth may not (and probably cannot) be agreed on. In Miller's opinion, this is a weakness.

The Limits of Universal Agreement

What if this is an assumption we make from a false (but pervasive) paradigm? We have held up this "universal agreement" as the ultimate standard for truth. That only things that are true for all are True. And so the scientists become the experts, as they are the ones that can bring universal agreement to the things they study.

Capra states: "For example, when government wants to ask some experts about a political decision, they would invariably ask scientists. They would not ask poets - but they should, to get a broader spectrum of human experience."

There is something that the poets bring to the table that is vital to understanding our place in this world. The experiences they bring are important enough to be on par with the scientists. Not "better than," but equal. The fact that the poets cannot agree - perhaps this is a strength! Think of the limitless facets of life that are exposed when many disagree!

For those feeling a little uncomfortable with these bold statements, it is important to know that Capra is definitely not dismissive of science. He is a scientist himself! He sees the absolute necessity of having clear and definite conclusions for many of the challenges we face in life. His main point is: don't dismiss the other side, the non-scientific approach to inquiry. Science has as much to learn from the humanities as the humanities do from science.

Take some time to challenge your thinking and watch even just a few minutes of this video. (The whole thing, though, is very interesting!)


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If a thing is real, and exists in reality, then it can be tested.

Can poetry be tested? Does it exist?

If poetry subsists upon that which is real,
I see no reason to reject its appeal;
Yet what use is poetry if it has no fact,
Even if it's beautiful, forward and back?

But if a poem is not here to give verifiable truth,
If it's just a feeling, upon which there is nothing to sleuth,
I would question its use in technological development, and the betterment of society,
For it could be nothing more than a dessert, with the true meal being scientific inquiry.

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Nice! Though I'm not sure if you're playfully disagreeing or facetiously taking my side. Either case is fine!

"If it's just a feeling... the true meal being scientific inquiry." This is how many can end up treating what they call the "soft sciences" - with "soft" usually implying inferior or illegitimate.

For example, think about the psychology of love. "Can it be tested? Does it exist?" Can love be quantified, measured, manipulated? Biologically speaking, love is essentially a bunch of neurons firing in the brain triggering a release of endorphins, oxytocin, and dopamine that elevate our heart rate, make us more alert, relax our muscles, etc. - all creating "feelings" of pleasure, arousal, social bonding, and motivation. Science can explain how all this happens physiologically. Yet most would say that there is something more that is happening.

Love is more than the sum of its parts. Science can definitely help us understand our own responses, help us avoid negative patterns of behavior, and help direct and reinforce positive behavioral aspects. But science can't help as much with the other parts of love: self-sacrifice, patience, perseverance, faithfulness, integrity. That is where the poets come in, exploring the complex intertwinings of relationships, bringing insight to the unknowable, voicing words that bring hope. These things can't be measured, per se, but they can be experienced.

Poets without science are flighty, ungrounded. Scientists without poetry are just plain dull. Why can't we be both? ;)

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Yet most would say that there is something more that is happening.

If they would say this, then why?

A sunset is beautiful, but when taken apart, it's just radiation refracting off atmospheric gases.

Is this bad somehow?

Is oxytocin bad? Is reality wrong for not being literal magic?

How can a thing be experienced, but not measured?

I get the clear feeling that people don't want to measure these things, because if measured, it would yield answers that they don't like. Such as: Love is an evolved instinct that allows people to breed and protect each other.

Yet, having a family and community isn't bad, is it? I just don't understand this disdain of reality being explained, as if it had to be something "more."

Scientists without poetry are not plain dull.
I don't think poets need science to produce glorious art.

Why must insults be thrown around? =p

Really now, I try to see everything in a positive light, WITHOUT having to embellish things, or ignore aspects to it that make things seem over analyzed. I love analysis and detail put into things.

I love a good piece of fiction, with clever plots, deep characters, and fun mysteries.

What lowers the quality of fiction for me, is deus ex machina type plots, which here, seems to equate to needing to make love into "more" than what it truly is.

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Ok. A glorious conversation. Yes, I can handle that!

It's worth saying that my reference to "poets" and "scientists" shouldn't be taken literally, but more as symbols for tendencies to look at life in different ways. I don't mean to create straw-men here that I can dismiss with a stroke of a pen (or thumb, since I'm typing on a tablet).

I also don't intend to dismiss science either. I have a degree in computer science, and have worked as a software engineer and I.T. administrator before I went into a career in education. Science is important! It teaches us how to carefully observe and study our world, critically think, understand how things work, etc.

I suppose conversations like this eventually come down to some level of faith. I can't prove to you that love is more than the sum of its parts. It's a gut feeling, a hunch, a commitment. It's how I choose to live my life. I understand that others could see that as a weakness, believing that I somehow need to make life into something it's not in order to make it worthwhile. I see it as a strength, something that gives me direction and purpose.

There are many times I find I have to exercise love towards others in ways that run contrary to my feeling. Someone hurts me in some way, and my natural inclination is to withdraw or fight back - the evolutionary response, flight or fight. What happens if I do neither? If I use the cutting pain of woundedness to understand myself and understand the other? I find strength to stand without a response of fear or anger, and I find compassion towards the other, even seeing glimpses of myself in them. What begins as hostility can end (at least on my part) with unity. I see myself as one with them, knowing they may not see the same.

This for me is the "more" to love that gives meaning to my life, more than relational practicality, social collectivism, or natural selection. I recognize that others could even explain my response above in evolutionary biological terms, so I guess it just comes down to me seeing it differently and being OK with that.

I would be interested to hear what brings meaning to your life. Where do you find value and give yourself to it wholeheartedly?

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For me, I find meaning in the little things.

Things like love, good food, a warm bed, security in life. Making money, learning stuff, reading cool stories and ideas, and whatever else is real and true.

I'm content with just living my life as it appears, and not looking too deeply into those dark corners. And if I do look into them, I use a light, and generally find that the dark corner is just like the rest of the room, and it was hiding nothing spooky at all.

I don't mind the biological or scientific. I can multi-task, and feel both the happiness of an idea, and also the technical aspects of it, and be content with both.

So although you mentioned before "there must be more to love," which I assume is something to do with the grand psychedelic mystery of the mind and genetic code, for me, it's just a thing that I assume can be explained, even if it's wonderfully complex.

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Oh, and I wouldn't consider it taking your side OR disagreeing.

It's dialectic awesomeness. It's exploring an idea. Not a debate, but a glorious conversation. A meeting of the minds. I'm here to learn your philosophies, and grow as a person.

The problem of modern-day scientism is that the fanatics assert that science is the only valid method at arriving at truth. They forget that science is an inductive reasoning process and is only useful for examining certain aspects of the world that can be repeatedly observable. Also, science can be used to understand our environment as it currently exists, but is somewhat unsuited for evaluation of origins.

Mathematics is a deductive reasoning process that is another tool that can be used to examine and evaluate our environment. Many scientific research uses mathematics in their analysis. But mathematics exists only in the logical framework of the mind, yet no sane man would deny that mathematics is a real phenomenon. The assumption that only deductive reasoning process, science, is the only method at arriving at the truth is itself an inductive conclusion and not "scientific."

"Capra states: 'For example, when government wants to ask some experts about a political decision, they would invariably ask scientists. They would not ask poets - but they should, to get a broader spectrum of human experience.'"

The above trend is a dangerous trend. I will conjure up another scene from the movie Star Wars: New Hope to illustrate a point.

"The rebel fleet is still a threat."
"They are a threat to your star fleet, commander, not to this battle station. This station is now the ultimate power in the universe. I suggest we use it."

Science answers the question of can this be done, how is it done, but it cannot provide the answer to the question ought this be done. For political questions to be left only to such amoral quantity will invariably result in the above scene from the movie. We have the technology, so we will use it; the justification has neither a moral dimension, nor even a political practicality. The justification of the Imperial admiral is that since we know how to blow-up a planet, let's blow one up.

Capra is correct his suggestion to include members from other fields in deciding important policy decisions. As a carpenter would not attempt to build a house only with a hammer, so too should society attempt to examine our world using only science.

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Image Credit: https://elinatrance.com/tag/soul/

things get quite deep in this analysis and govt's may need to hide while scientists and truth seekers reside in actually finding out the properties of ...reality.

Naked yogis from long ago, figured out this entire show

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+1 for such a great response! and
+1 for using a Star Wars reference!

I think your comment on the oughts of policy is important. While science can give us statistical analysis of likely outcomes (which is very important data!) it cannot speak to whether we should do something or not. It may be statistically likely that obliterating a rogue nation state with nuclear weapons would make the world safer, but for many that crosses an ethical line of what it means to be human.

Esta frase debo aceptar que me atrapó "La ciencia tiene tanto que aprender de las humanidades como las humanidades hacen de la ciencia". Buen articulo

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¡Gracias! No hablo español, así que tuve que usar un traductor. :)

The subject matter of science should not be limited to science only. Glad to know that mysticism is covered by Capra.

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I'm definitely an advocate for a more holistic perspective that doesn't pit science against religion or philosophy. I think integration is a necessity.

Simple naked yogis discovered some immense and crucial scientific phenomena meditating in the Himalaya many a moon ago.

We now have large hadron colliders
and massive mathematically backed experiments
validating what they arrived at with non material tools and flow

Our civilization stands at the intersection of Science and the Humanities.
Where we go from here depends upon us (and AI sanity).

On a side note, anything that exists ought to be able to be measured and understood scientifically.
Our tools, like us, are evolving quite specifically

or simply revealing themselves bit by bit,
the multiverse is vast, mathematically infinite

-my two mystic tokens

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...and I immensely enjoyed reading the glorious conversation above.

Live (h)OM(e) and Prosper

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Yes, let's use all the tools we have at our disposal - scientific measurements and statistical anlalysis, as well as mindfulness, compassion, and peace.

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