Science as Salvation?


Michael Saler profiles Marcelo Gleiser, who ” wants to heal the rift between humanists and scientists by deflating scientific dreams of establishing final truths,” in The Nation:

The battle lines became firmly drawn in the years following World War II. In Science and Human Values (1956), Jacob Bronowski attempted to overcome the sullen suspicions between humanists and scientists, each now condemning the other for the horrifying misuse of technology during the conflict:

Those whose education and perhaps tastes have confined them to the humanities protest that the scientists alone are to blame, for plainly no mandarin ever made a bomb or an industry. The scientists say, with equal contempt, that the Greek scholars and the earnest explorers of cave paintings do well to wash their hands of blame; but what in fact are they doing to help direct the society whose ills grow more often from inaction than from error?

Bronowski was a published poet and biographer of William Blake as well as a mathematician; he knew that artists and scientists had different aims and methods. Yet he also attested that both engaged in imaginative explorations of the unities underlying the human and natural worlds.

If Bronowski’s stress on the imagination as the foundation of both the arts and sciences had prevailed, Gleiser would not need to remind his readers that Newton and Einstein shared a similar “belief in the creative process.” However, while Bronowski meant to heal the breach by exposing it, he inadvertently encouraged others to expand it into an unbridgeable gulf, a quagmire of stalemate and trench warfare. His friend C.P. Snow battened on the division in lectures that were subsequently published under the meme-friendly title The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959). Snow acknowledged that scientists could be philistine about the humanities, but his ire was directed at the humanists: they composed the governing establishment, their willful ignorance about science impeding policies that could help millions worldwide. As the historian Guy Ortolano has shown in The Two Cultures Controversy (2009), Snow tactlessly insinuated that the literary intelligentsia’s delight in irrational modernism rather than rational science was partly responsible for the Holocaust: “Didn’t the influence of all they represent bring Auschwitz that much closer?” Such ad hominem attacks raised the hackles of the literary critic F.R. Leavis, himself a master of the art. His response, Two Cultures? The Significance of C.P. Snow (1962), proved only that humanists could be just as intemperate as Snow implied. (One critic, appalled by Leavis’s vituperation, dubbed him “the Himmler of Literature.”)

More here.