A humanist looks at science – and at himself

My old friend and physicist Karl-Erik Eriksson recently called me. He had a concern to share. In an article published in Dagens Nyheter, philosopher Hans Ruin had written a critique of the new translation of Martin Heidegger’s famous Being and Time from 1927. One thing he addressed was Heidegger’s critique of the natural sciences: eternal truths, absolute room and absolute time.

Huh? Leading scientists referred to a completely different perception of the world already in 1927. Shouldn’t Ruin have pointed this out and added that the view is even more hopelessly obsolete today? But no, he didn’t.
Eriksson had previously appreciated an article by Ruin about a current production of Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal. In the article, Ruin had carefully discussed the protofascist elements of the opera and complained that the production in question had let these dark and repulsive features pass unnoticed.
But why had Ruin not been equally particular when he wrote about the natural sciences? Do those concerned with the arts and humanities not care about the modern natural sciences, Eriksson wondered.

His question is justified. Too many humanists have in recent years talked about disciplines such as physics, biology and medicine in a very generalising and condemning manner. The defence that some natural scientists show disregard for disciplines within the arts and humanities is poor at best. As we all know, seeing people act unreasonably on the other side of a more or less imaginary border is no excuse for behaving equally inappropriate. In the movement that is sometimes called postmodernism, there has been a clear tendency to embrace relativism.

Relativism in its modern form says that truth is subjective. There is room for both my truth and your truth, and both versions say more about our differences than about the world that the respective views concern.

HOWEVER, this type of relativism has not emerged because it has been promoted by some postmodern humanists. Instead, the conviction that ‘everything is subjective’ has grown immensely in popularity over the last few decades, especially among very young people. I remember how every new cohort of students I came in contact with appeared to be a bunch of non-reflecting relativists. Everything was subject to opinion, and any convincingly explained standpoint was met with a tired smile and a ‘Yeah, that’s what you think. I, on the other hand, happen to…’

Such a massive stream of relativism must be a result of more extensive changes in society. We have witnessed increasing commercialisation in society, accompanied with the perception that we’re all customers in life’s great bazaar, free to choose everything that our economic resources allow. We put the freedom of choice on the highest pedestal: freedom to choose pharmacy, electric utility, pension funds, schools, interests…

In such a world, it’s easy to view opinions and even knowledge as additional commodities we can choose among. ‘I like the theory of relativity best.’ ‘Really? The absolute room and absolute time work better for me.’

THE relativistic humanists have played a very marginal role in this major cacophony. But they have worked in the same university world as the natural scientists and have therefore attracted their attention.
The so-called science wars were in full swing in the 1990s and shortly thereafter. In one successful campaign, U.S. physicist Alan Sokals managed to get a parody on the postmodern way of talking about physics published in the top-ranked postmodern journal Social Text, and then revealed the hoax. Intense controversy followed.

THINGS HAVE calmed down since then, probably because postmodernism is in a state of retreat among humanists. However, this doesn’t mean that the problems are over. Replacing aggressiveness with indifference is not a good solution.

Personally, I have never felt this indifference. Nor have I ever been drawn to relativism. I was certainly too old to fall for postmodernism. But my own development path is not unique. My most important early interest was biology, bugs in particular (I was near-sighted). I also enjoyed math. Then when I was 14, I developed an overwhelming interest in literature. When it was time to choose an upper-secondary programme, I was forced into the programme called Latinlinjen, which was centred around the humanities and included a fair dose of Latin. Latin was still mandatory for those who wanted to study history of literature.

ONCE I GOT TO the university, theoretical philosophy for some reason took the upper hand over history of literature. Not surprisingly, I developed a focus on the philosophy of biology. I studied Darwin en masse, along with a number of successors. I spent one semester specialising in genetics (but that was before Watson and Crick had made their presence known in the classrooms, at least at Lund University). But when the leading philosophers lost their interest in history of philosophy, I changed direction and became a historian of ideas.

The 1950-1960s was also a time of several successful popularisations of mathematics and the natural sciences. The wonderful Sigma was published in Swedish – I still occasionally pick it up to read a few articles. Physicists and biologists wrote great popularisations. Swedish physicist Tor Ragnar Gerholm became a national TV star.

Evolutionary biology remained my primary interest under the natural science umbrella. I would like to learn so much more; but I keep picking up new fragments and am fascinated that Darwin’s old theory, transformed tenfold, now has been assigned such fantastic precision and such a huge amount of empirical confirmation.

I DREAM That historians and evolutionary biologists one day will unite in one grand perspective on humankind and its development. The knowledge about where we all came from, which at some point came to a halt because of ‘the missing link’, is becoming increasingly certain. We know that our species, Homo sapiens, is very young, at most 200 000 years old, and that all the people across the world form a very genetically homogenous group. Despite some exterior differences, we are much more similar on the inside than most other species.

Our period of evolutionary development has been short. Yet culturally, it has been very long. Biologically, we have essentially stayed the same over a period of remarkable change in our ways and manners. We picked up agriculture some 10 000 years ago, and started building villages around the same time. The oldest writing systems are less than 6 000 years old.

amazingly, we have been able to change large parts of the surface of our planet. We have even been able to fill its atmosphere with substances that are threatening our very existence. We have also constructed the most peculiar buildings, invented the most fantastic objects (many of which are intended to kill each other), developed our scientific knowledge to breath-taking levels, created the most wondrous music, literature and visual art – and stubbornly clung on to various religious systems and an abundance of pure superstition.

one remarkable aspect of this development is that it is largely cumulative. New epochs emerge from old ones and reject certain things but maintain and refine others. As a species, we are no different from the first farmers and urban dwellers. Our large, energy-guzzling brain and our ability to articulate speech have provided critical benefits. Numerous other species have used tools to some extent or have developed a basic linguistic ability that can be developed further when aided by humans. But they show no signs of cultural development comparable to what can be observed for humans.

Again, I’m hopeful that evolutionary biology and the knowledge about humankind’s historical development one day will come together. Simply establishing a continuous time-scale would be interesting. The long biological evolution over billions of years would be interacted with the short period of human development to date.

A fancy thought: Shouldn’t this be part of the national upper-secondary curriculum?

ADMITTEDLY, My examples are very limited and quite subjective. Still, I hope they can lend support to my main point: that humanists and natural scientists need each other.

/Sven-Eric Liedman

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Sven-Eric Liedman is Professor Emeritus of History of Ideas at the University of Gothenburg. He is a well-published author and his literary awards include the August Prize for best non-fiction book (I skuggan av framtiden).

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Cover of Science Faculty Magazine Issue 1 2015