The Two Cultures: Newsletter 40

Some of you might have read C.P Snow’s famous essay on the two cultures, where he talked about the polite incomprehension he confronted when he asked his fellow aristocrats if they have heard of the second law of thermodynamics, which Snow contrasted with the universal acquaintance with Shakespeare. Setting aside the fact that no one I know reads either Shakespeare or the second law of thermodynamics, Snow was pointing to a real divide between the literary, artistic (and less so humanities) types and the mathematical and scientific types.

We talk so much about the battle between faith and reason, between religion and science that it masks a different divide, one that has much greater impact on our spiritual and scientific lives. I don’t believe that there’s any conflict at all between religion and science, partly because I don’t believe there’s any such thing as religion. I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as science either. Both terms are too diffuse and too varied to refer to a unitary entity. There’s conflict between opposing centers of power - the Church and the State for example, and for good reason, since both want to benefit from our honest toil but it's hard for me to believe in an epic battle between religion and science.

Religious culture is a different story, if by religious culture, we mean an overarching way of life, one that dictated reason as much as it informed faith; let’s not forget that people went to the medieval university to learn logic. I am no scholar, and what I am saying is unlikely to be an empirical truth. I hope that it indicates a psychological truth when I say that the unitary world of religious culture, steeped as it was in the “great chain of being” was broken into two halves: the scientific, literal world and the fictional, metaphorical world.

What about fundamentalism, you might ask? Aren’t there people who believe in the literal truth of the bible? Yes, there are such people but that’s a modern trait, not an ancient one. In fact, the invention of “literality” is very much a modern phenomenon. If you set aside the potential explanatory power of modern physics, the greatest fundamentalists in the world are physicists and mathematicians who believe that a single equation (or more generally, a single logically consistent theory) explains the universe. At least the biblical fundamentalist thinks he needs an entire book; the physical fundamentalist needs just one equation, a single word that makes the world. The average scientist will find this repelling, but let me put it this way: science is fundamentalism with data, and if that average scientist reflected on this statement for a moment, she might recognize that the fundamentalist attitude has its virtues. The desire for certainty, for exactness isn’t always a bad desire. Incidentally, it makes some people very famous, very wealthy and very powerful. In comparison, the poet can only point a finger to the moon. In the court of the king, the poet can only be a bard or a jester; it’s only in the mountains that the poet hermit becomes a zen master. As we destroy the mountains, we destroy the power of poetry as well.

The bard offers entertainment and only exists to sing the king’s praises. In the court of twenty first century life, literary and poetic conceptions are only fiction; they don’t inform our view of the world. To give an example, when I was a child, people read novels to enjoy a good story, but also to understand themselves and the world around them. Now the same person is more likely to pick up a Steven Pinker book on cognitive science or a Dan Ariely book on behavioral economics. Novelists aren’t intellectuals anymore; they don’t offer norms for society as a whole, like Tolstoy and Tagore did for Russia and India. I find that to be a major loss.

Ultimately, the divide is about the nature of language and concepts, of the ways in which words interact with the world. While C.P Snow wouldn’t agree with what I am saying, the divide is between those who think there’s a word in some language (mathematics or programming or Sanskrit or Aramaic) that expresses the entire truth and nothing but the truth and those who take words to be indicators, as pointers to something beyond the word. As it so turns out, I find myself in agreement with both sides, that words express the truth and words indicate the truth, but it’s very hard to find people who take pleasure in both language games. That’s the wound which doesn’t heal.