Saturday 18 December 2010

The humanities and the sciences depend on each other, so cutting humanities funding hurts the "hard" subjects too

Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, a vivid example of the cross-fertilization of art and science during the Renaissance.
DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES republishes the below article by Darian Meacham, senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of the West of England. It first appeared at on December 17, 2010.
The UK educational reforms, with their utilitarian emphasis on Science and Engineering, demonstrate no understanding of what makes for a good science research environment. The meeting of speculative and experimental sciences, as well as other areas of the humanities like literature, creates a general atmosphere of creativity, intellectual tension, and reciprocal engagement. It is probably impossible to nail down this atmosphere in any exact terms, but most scientists (in the broadest sense of the word) have a sense of it; it exists as much in a general culture as in a specific domain of academic life.
The UK government has made staggering cuts in England’s university teaching budget, alongside cuts in research funding. The humanities have been particularly badly hit. The Browne review of higher education funding suggests that whatever remains of the funding for university teaching be funneled into ‘priority’ areas like business, engineering, and medicine. Universities are now responsible for raising the rest of the money needed to pay for teaching through increased tuition fees. However, university vice-chancellors have warned that tuition fees will not be enough to cover the funding gap, especially if there is a lag between the cuts and tuition rises. The feared result of these policies is that many humanities and basic sciences departments will be forced to close or radically downsize. There are many important issues and questions at stake here surrounding who should bear the cost of a world-class higher education and how. But these issues aside, one thing seems unequivocal, these cuts and recommendations for the distribution of the remaining funds are short-sighted and display a disturbing lack of understanding of the scientific enterprise as a whole and its contribution to our civilisation.

The sciences do not work in isolation from one another, but rather have always engaged in a continuous process of cross-fertilization. This is why, after decades of increasing specialization, there is renewed emphasis on interdisciplinarity. Since its beginnings, progress in the scientific endeavour as a whole has often proceeded in this manner. One need only think of Leonardo, Leibniz, or Goethe to see how this cross-fertilization, even within one mind, has stimulated great discoveries. As these thinkers demonstrated, research in the humanities is not divorced from the natural sciences; it simply operates in different registers. For example, the humanities may explain phenomena in terms of how they are experienced rather than in causal empirical terms. In doing so, fields like philosophy, psychology, and even literature can often be, in a sense, theoretically one step ahead of the natural sciences, especially in cognitive and neuroscience, and those areas related to the study of the senses; sniffing out clues and pathways—like scientific truffle pigs—which the natural sciences can follow-up with empirically verifiable causal explanation. This is certainly not their only value, but the humanities’ contribution to the overall development of the sciences should not be overlooked. Philosophy, especially, is best understood in relation to the great project of science as a whole: the investigation of the world by means of rationality. The sacrifice of the humanities at the altar of deficit reduction will be a blow to this project and to the society we have painstakingly built upon it.

This rather abstract story about science can be illustrated with some more examples. By exploring sense perception, researchers in perceptual psychology, cognitive science, and neurology are making wonderful progress towards being able to help people who have lost one or more of their senses compensate or re-adjust their sensory manifold so as to engage in many activities they otherwise might not have been able to (1,2,3,4,5,6). Some of this research was recently showcased on an episode of the BBC’s science program Horizon which featured scientists like Beau Lotto, whose own groundbreaking work on perception is an excellent example of how arts and sciences can stimulate one another, even within one lab. As I watched this program and marveled at some of the applications of this research, I noted that much of what I saw being concretely elaborated using modern technology like fMRI scans and hypersensitive cameras to track eye movement had already been theoretically elaborated within the sub-domain of philosophy that I work within, phenomenology. Philosophers like Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) had already theorized the total integration of the senses, the importance of the ‘body-schema’ (a sort of plan that consciousness has of the body as it is lived as opposed to the actual empirical physical body object), the importance of the Gestalt whole to the perception and comprehension of individual objects, and had described a process whereby consciousness brings forth information from the past, without the individual being aware, to form our perception of the present. All of these things are now being empirically elaborated by natural scientists in an effort to unlock the mysteries of sensory perception. Merleau-Ponty’s seminal work, the Phenomenology of Perception, is filled with philosophical meditations on the kind of optical illusions that fascinate neurologists, cognitive scientists, and perceptual psychologists today (7). This should not be read as a plea for more attention to be paid to phenomenology (although I of course think that would be a great thing). Philosophers like Merleau-Ponty used the science of his day to investigate and criticize both philosophical and scientific paradigms, for example, behaviourism and cognitivism. They constantly referred to the most up to date science they could to make theoretical predictions that are now being tested and examined empirically. These philosophers, and many still living ones, would have loved to be in the lab alongside these cutting edge researchers in the natural sciences, comparing their findings and trying to push the science ever further.

Other examples of the way that science progresses in bits and pieces, but also as a whole endeavor that involves many different disciplines coming together, are not hard to find. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) was a French biologist and an early proponent of evolutionary theory who believed that phenotypic characteristics acquired during a lifetime could be passed down to successive generations of offspring. The mechanism of Lamarck’s theory of evolution has of course been abandoned with the development of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis. Lamarck himself was much less sure of the mechanism of evolution than of the general validity of the idea of evolution in accordance with natural (not divine) laws, and probably would not have hesitated to revise his theory on the basis of Darwin’s findings and of discoveries in genetics. One place where Lamarckian ideas about evolution were kept alive was in the more esoteric regions of Freudian psychoanalysis. In his writing on religion, Freud proposed that there could be meaning structures active in an individual’s psychic life that were inherited through a ‘phylogenetic heritage’, meaning not just culturally passed down, but somehow also inherited through biological mechanism (8). Widely derided for ‘Lamarckianism’, Freud’s theory about the inheritance was dismissed. His defenders argued that he had been misunderstood and was not a Lamarckian after all.  But, what is interesting is that recent calls for a revision of Modern Evolutionary Synthesis have included research that brings Freud’s claims back into the picture, although in a drastically revised form. Psychologist Rachel Yehuda, for example, has produced findings which suggest that some forms of trauma may have an heritable epigenetic effect which interferes with the physiological capacity of offspring to deal with stress—pretty much what Freud would call a ‘phylogenetic heritage’ in psychic life (9,10,11,12). Researchers like Kevin Laland and those who work with him at the Laland Lab in St. Andrews University are also doing fascinating work in exploring the relation between human evolution and culture (13). This kind of cutting edge science is the fruit of a holistic understanding of science.  

It would be silly to suggest that Husserl, Freud, or Merleau-Ponty came up with the science before the scientists. For one thing, these philosophers and the natural scientists whose work relates to theirs are working largely in different scientific registers or vocabularies; the former aiming to investigate psychic and perceptual experience qua experience, the latter looking to uncover the causal and physiological mechanisms behind such experience. But I do think that the meeting of speculative and experimental sciences, as well as other areas of the humanities like literature, creates a general atmosphere of creativity, intellectual tension, and reciprocal engagement. It is probably impossible to nail down this atmosphere in any exact terms, but I think most scientists (in the broadest sense of the word) have a sense of it; it exists as much in a general culture as in a specific domain of academic life. It is within this kind of ‘rational milieu’ that different areas of the vast enterprise we call science can feed off of and push each other towards new discoveries, even when sometimes the findings at first seem quite outlandish and divorced from scientific rationality as it is now conceived (as is the case with Freud’s ‘phylogenetic heritage’).    

Lord Browne and the current UK government do not seem to think that this kind of research or the kind of teaching that will lead students and potentially future researchers into this kind of creative scientific thought is a ‘priority’. This narrow view of progress and rationality displays a frightening lack of comprehension of the best enlightenment thinking upon which the UK’s scientific, economic, cultural, and political strength was in large part built.        
  1. Corney D, Haynes JD, Rees G, Lotto RB. The Brightness of Color. PLoS One. 2009;4(3):e5091. Epub 2009 Mar 31
  2. Clarke R, Lotto RB. Visual processing of the bee innately encodes higher-order image statistics when the information is consistent with natural ecology. Vision Res. 2009 May;49(11):1455-64. Epub 2009 Mar 13;
  3. Kuhn G, Tatler BW. Misdirected by the gap: The relationship between inattentional blindness and attentional misdirection. Conscious Cogn. 2010 Oct 11.
  4. Kuhn G, Kourkoulou A, Leekam SR. How magic changes our expectations about autism. Psychol Sci. 2010 Oct 1; 21(10): 1487-93   
  5. Sagiv N, Ward J. Crossmodal interactions: lessons from synesthesia. Prog Brain Res. 2006; 155:259-7;
  6. Rosenblum, L.D. See What I’m Saying: The Extraordinary Powers of Our Five Senses. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2009
  7. Cf, M. Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology of Perception, C. Smith (trans.), London: Routledge Classics, 2002, pp. 6, 41.
  8. S. Freud, Moses and Monotheism in The Pelican Freud Library Volume 13: The Origins of Religion, ed. Albert Dickson, Middlesex: Penguin, 1985, p. 343
  9. Yehuda R, et al. Vulnerability to posttraumatic stress disorder in adult offspring of Holocaust survivors. Am J Psychiatry. 1998 Sep; 155(9): 1163-71
  10. Yehuda R, et al. Low cortisol and risk for PTSD in adult offspring of holocaust survivors. Am J Psychiatry. 2000 Aug; 157(8): 1252-9
  11. Yehuda R, et al. Transgenerational effects of posttraumatic stress disorder in babies of mothers exposed to the World Trade Center attacks during pregnancy. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2005 Jul; 90(7): 4115-8   
  12. Yehuda R, Bierer LM. The relevance of epigenetics to PTSD: Implications for the DSM-V. J Trauma Stress. 2009 Oct 7. [Epub ahead of print]    
  13. KN Laland, J Odling-Smee & S Myles. How culture shaped the human genome: Bringing genetics and the human sciences together. Nature Reviews Genetics 11: 137-148 doi:10.1038/nrg2734  
This article is published by Darian Meacham, and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it without needing further permission, with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. These rules apply to one-off or infrequent use.

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