Is neuroscience really ruining the humanities?

by Yohan J. John

BrainWorshipers“Neuroscience is ruining the humanities”. This was the provocative title of a recent article by Arthur Krystal in The Chronicle of Higher Education. To me the question was pure clickbait [1], since I am both a neuroscientist and an avid spectator of the drama and intrigue on the other side of the Great Academic Divide [2]. Given the sensational nature of many of the claims made on behalf of the cognitive and neural sciences, I am inclined to assure people in the humanities that they have little to fear. On close inspection, the bold pronouncements of fields like neuro-psychology, neuro-economics and neuro-aesthetics — the sorts of statements that mutate into TED talks and pop science books — often turn out to be wild extrapolations from a limited (and internally inconsistent) data set.

Unlike many of my fellow scientists, I have occasionally grappled with the weighty ideas that emanate from the humanities, even coming to appreciate elements of postmodern thinking. (Postmodern — aporic? — jargon is of course a different matter entirely.) I think the tapestry that is human culture is enriched by the thoughts that emerge from humanities departments, and so I hope the people in these departments can exercise some constructive skepticism when confronted with the latest trendy factoid from neuroscience or evolutionary psychology. Some of my neuroscience-related essays here at 3QD were written with this express purpose [3, 4].

The Chronicle article begins with a 1942 quote from New York intellectual Lionel Trilling: “What gods were to the ancients at war, ideas are to us”. This sets the tone for the mythic narrative that lurks beneath much of the essay, a narrative that can be crudely caricatured as follows. Once upon a time the University was a paradise of creative ferment. Ideas were warring gods, and the sparks that flew off their clashing swords kept the flames of wisdom and liberty alight. The faithful who erected intellectual temples to bear witness to these clashes were granted the boon of enlightened insight. But faith in the great ideas gradually faded, and so the golden age came to an end. The temple-complex of ideas began to decay from within, corroded by doubt. New prophets arose, who claimed that ideas were mere idols to be smashed, and that the temples were metanarrative prisons from which to escape. In this weak and bewildered state, the intellectual paradise was invaded. The worshipers were herded into a shining new temple built from the rubble of the old ones. And into this temple the invaders' idols were installed: the many-armed goddess of instrumental rationality, the one-eyed god of essentialism, the cold metallic god of materialism…

The over-the-top quality of my little academia myth might give the impression that I think it is a tissue of lies. But perhaps more nuance is called for. As with all myths, I think there are elements of truth in this narrative. To separate truth from poetic license, four questions need to be asked:

  • Was there ever an intellectual golden age?
  • Is there really a crisis in the humanities?
  • Why should we care about the humanities?
  • Who are the invading forces?

I suspect that addressing the first question will require a master's thesis worth of research, so for now I'll accept that there really was a golden age, at least for argument's sake. The second question is also a matter of debate, but there is some interesting data suggesting that the crisis in humanities may have more to do with perceived quality than with quantity [5, 6]. For this essay I will restrict my attention to the third and fourth questions.

Assessing the worth of the humanities is a daunting task for any outsider, especially one who is ostensibly one of the vandal invaders. I have never had the pleasure of a college course in literature, history or philosophy; Indian science programs made no concession to undergraduate exploration, so I only studied physics, chemistry and mathematics. But I did manage to brush up against the big ideas — Marxism, feminism, anarchism… even objectivism — from time to time. Having friends in the humanities and social sciences helped. Late night discussions of books, movies and politics helped remove the blinkers of a narrow science-only education. My college experience sowed the seeds for an autodidactic approach to Theory-with-a-capital-T. I was able to cobble together my own version of a humanistic education, wth a little help from Wikipedia, the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy, and helpfully illustrated books with titles like “Introducing Cultural Studies” and “Foucault for Beginners”.

My training in physics meant that I was approaching the humanities from a very distant region of the academic spectrum. So I can relate to the impatience many scientists feel when confronted with the imprecise, hand-wavy style of argumentation that is common in the arts and humanities. Even more irritating is the fact that entire paragraphs of humanities writing can seem like little more than random collections of European last names: Kant! Hegel! Tolstoy! Kropotkin! Flaubert! Saussure! Camus! Barthes! Heidegger! Derrida! All this is a far cry from equations and graphs. I managed to overcome such stylistic obstacles, and gradually came to the conclusion that the humanities are valuable precisely because they are so different from the hard sciences.

Studying the history of science has convinced me of the value of epistemological pluralism and methodological anarchism. There is no unitary scientific method: different fields and sub-fields have different standards of evidence and argumentation, and these standards evolve over time. We might say that the various branches of science share Wittgensteinian “family resemblances“. Attempts to foist a single definition of science onto the scientific community typically involve distorting scientific history and ignoring the diversity of scientific opinion on current research. When scientific proselytizers adopt a triumphalist, imperial tone they do a disservice to the history of science as well as to the way it is actually practiced.

Epistemological and methodological diversity are good for science, so surely they must be good for other academic pursuits, and for culture as a whole? We mustn't put all our eggs in one intellectual basket. Even the egg basket metaphor isn't quite right though. The eggs in the metaphor give the impression that we all share a single currency of value. In other words, it can lead us to assume that all ideas and cultural practices are no more than tools with which to achieve a singular goal. This goal tends to revolve around the magnitude and distribution of material wealth in the relatively near term.

Comparing the humanities and the sciences is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. It isn't clear that the goals are the same. Scientists may employ a variety of different intellectual and material techniques, but they all seem geared towards gaining power over nature: both physical control and explanatory power. Science is about what is the case, not what ought to be the case. Science describes, but does not prescribe. The humanities do involve explanation, but I think they are more closely wrapped up with the oughts. The humanities are never far from the question of how the individual and the society ought to behave. The humanities explore values, whereas many scientists and pholosophers agree that choosing what we should value is outside the strict purview of science. Science can describe how the brain and body encode and make manifest our personal value systems, and how values spread through societies, but it is not equipped with tools for deciding what to value in the first place.

Perhaps the sciences and humanities should work together, with humanities contributing to democratic debate about values, and science proposing efficient methods with which to implement society's chosen values. Debating values requires going beyond epistemological and methodological diversity. Our conceptions of personal and social good must also occupy a wide spectrum if our debates are to have substance. It seems to me that only the arts and the humanities are capable of opening up the space of possible values. Scientists may desire to know the truth about nature, but in order to apply these truths they must supplement this desire with some vision of the individual and of the society.

If writers such as Arthur Krystal are to be believed, the humanities and sciences are not engaging with each other as equals. Instead, the neuroscientists and cognitive scientists are colonialists of the mind, replacing the rich and multifaceted ideals of golden-age humanists with boring and short-sighted mechanistic narratives. How widespread is this colonization? It is difficult to come up with an objective measure of the quality of humanities discourse (and any attempt may itself be interpreted as an example of scientism), but I can testify that in my experience, the past decade or so has witnessed an explosion of popular neuroscience and evolutionary psychology in places where humanistic debate might have once been more common. Evolutionary “just-so stories” and tales of neuroscientific hard-wiring routinely crop up across the spectrum of educated discourse, from self-help books to highbrow journals. This is only a cause for worry because it seems as if otherwise healthy critical faculties become paralyzed by the slightest whiff of the scientific. Scientific ideas are not threatening because of their content, but because of the quasi-religious power society seems to have vested in scientific authority.

But is it really the cognitive and neural sciences themselves that brought about this situation? If we are looking for explanations at the level of individual belief, then we will naturally conclude that the changes in academia and public discourse are the cumulative result of many individuals losing their faith in humanistic ideas and settling for Darwinism and data instead. As my academic myth implies, the decline of the humanities may also have something to do with the ambivalence about values that has come to dominate the left-liberal world since the fall of European Communism. The humanities themselves were instrumental in creating a “skepticism of metanarratives” such as religion and modernism. Initially, this process may have been motivated by a genuine desire to question the assumptions of affluent white males, thereby creating space for the inclusion of previously marginalized voices: those of the poor, ethnic minorities, women, 'postcolonial subjects', 'subalterns', and lesbian, gay, transgendered and queer people. But in the process of 'problematizing' traditional white male value systems, it seems other babies may have been thrown out with the bathwater. Skepticism can devolve into cynicism and nihilism, sucking the life out of progressive politics and art.

What is left when, perhaps inadvertently, we have devalued beliefs in emancipation and societal transformation, whether religious or secular? What seems to remains is a form of utilitarianism that only values short-term expediency and practicality. If all we have to do is maintain bodily, mental and economic health, then we can stop debating values (by asking, for example, what constitutes good health for individuals, societies and ecologies) and instead hand over the reins of society to self-appointed experts: financiers, economists and psychologists, and now neuroscientists, tech entrepreneurs, and data analysts. The closest we have to a new ideology is nebulous techno-utopianism: the belief that clever geeks and theirs robot heirs will guide us to a hedonistic paradise, if only we don't ask them too many pointed questions. (The modern obsession with food may also be a reflection of society's shortage of grand vision: with no common values to bind people together, food can quite literally bring people to the table. Everyone has to eat something, after all.)

The parable of a secular loss of faith has a kind of surface plausibility, and also resonates with other curmudgeonly sentiments, such as the belief that pop music has regressed, or that political correctness is throttling free speech and creative thought. These beliefs may well be reflections of real phenomena. But we also need to take a wider view, and look at the prevailing historical and economic forces that contribute to the present intellectual climate. Surely a few thinkers from the golden age would approve?

The major force changing the way universities are run, and the way the humanities are funded, appears to be economic expediency. Universities are now major corporations — approaching the scale of private city-states — that treat students as paying customers, rather than as impressionable young people in need of edification. The laws of supply and demand now dominate thinking in academia, rather than any desire to create enlightened citizens of the nation and the world. It seems as if many university administrators think a professor is only worth hiring if she brings in vast sums of research grant money, of which the university keeps a large percentage [7]. Given the economic constraints, humanities professors cannot carry on as before. The golden age thinkers didn't bequeath them any scientific-sounding metrics with which to demonstrate success and failure. In any case, thinkers in the humanities are not necessarily seeking solutions to practical problems. Their ideas can't be monetized by start-ups, or turned into wonder-drugs by pharmaceutical companies. Their ideas merely aim to change the way people think about themselves and the world — and sadly the economic and political powers-that-be don't have much use for this sort of change. In such an atmosphere it is hardly surprising that a few adventurous academics are attempting to promote their careers by sticking people into scanners to see which brain areas 'light up' when they read Homer's Odyssey.

As far as I can tell, the humanities were never about building handy tools, but about carrying on a conversation — one that may have started over two thousands years ago with the ancient Greeks, and is gradually incorporating voices from all over the world [8]. This conversation is like a great river, and its tributaries and distributaries are the various sub-fields of the humanities and sciences. To silence the great conversation would be no less tragic that redirecting the flow of a river, destroying eco-systems and disrupting unique ways of life. Sadly, the wielders of economic power seem to care even less for the environment than for the university system, so this analogy is unlikely to change the situation.

It's worth pointing out that the very same economic forces that see no use for the humanities also have a major impact on science. The short-term focus on usefulness and profitability inevitably lead funding agencies to direct money away from basic science and into applied science. Scientists get around this issue by promising specific medical and technological breakthroughs that will be made possible as a result of indulging their curiosity. Economic 'rationality' can also end up pushing- scientists into catch-22 situations that affect the quality of their research. Scientific grant proposals must be novel. If there is any inkling that a part of the research has aready been performed, then the grant is likely to be rejected, replication be damned. Why waste money on what has already been demonstrated? At the same time, the research must also be feasible given everything else that is known about the topic. So research can't be too imaginative and 'blue sky' either. Why waste money on some mad scientist's implausible scheme? These constrictions incentivize a kind of science that is simultaneously conservative and preoccupied with demonstrating superficial novelty. As David Graeber points out in his essay “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit“, the short-sightedness of market-driven thinking may actually have hampered economic growth and technological innovation.

Once we take a wider view, the story of neuroscience ruining the humanities seems to have a few plot holes. The forces that have lined up to weaken the humanities (and basic science) are much older than the recent burst of neuromania. Admittedly, some conceits from within the humanities may also have contributed to the intellectual vacuum that is apparently being filled by neuroscience. But they are nothing in comparison with the wider political and economic forces at work. We can now modify our academic myth somewhat. The temple-complex of big ideas does seem to be under attack, but not from the cognitive and neural sciences. The gaudy idols of scientism distract us from another idol that is being installed in the sanctum sanctorum: the new king of the pantheon, the pig-headed, invisible-handed god of market fundamentalism [9].

The comforting certainties of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology may simply serve as a lubricant, making it easier for the forces of economic expediency to push through far-rearching 'reforms' to the Western university. Scientists simply don't have the power to effect these changes on their own. The university — one of the longest-lasting institutions in the history of the world — has traditionally served as a haven for thinkers not beholden to power or profit. In the post-Cold War globalized world, the increasingly unregulated forces of the market seem to brook no opposition, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the university too is subject to 'disruptive innovation'. Blaming neuroscience for displacing the big ideas in the humanities only points to one symptom of a much deeper malaise. Perhaps people in the humanities and the sciences will eventually discern that there are at least a few values they share, and will join forces before it is too late.

[This essay grew out of an answer I wrote to a question on Quora.]



[1] When I first read Krystal's article, I'm pretty sure the title was “Neuroscience is Ruining the Humanities”. The title has since been changed to “The Shrinking World of Ideas”. The url still contains part of the original title though. One can't help but wonder if there really was an element of clickbait in the initial title. Perhaps some enterprising editor was attempting to tap into the neuro-zeitgeist?

[2] I first became aware of the academic divide while at Delhi University. The college I attended was divided into 'artsies' and 'sciencies'. The divide was quite objective: artsies received Bachelor of Arts degrees in subjects like economics, English, history, or philosophy; sciencies earned Bachelor of Science degrees in physics, chemistry, or computer science. (Interestingly, you do either a B.A. or a B.Sc. in mathematics.) But the differences were more than academic: they were also cultural and class-based. According to the stereotype, artsies were cool, fashionable, intellectual, and seemed to have a great deal of free time to indulge in extra-curricular activities. Sciencies were shy, awkward, unsociable, and were bogged down in laboratories during the crucial afternoons, when the artsies were engaging their creative sides and/or holding forth in the college cafe. I was a sciencie with mostly arstie friends — a member of both tribes, and therefore neither.

[3] The Chemical Self and the Social Self — 3QD

[4] The Mind Matters — 3QD

[5] Arthur Krystal's article definitely gives the impression that it is the quality of humanities discourse that has suffered, rather than the quantity of people in the humanities. In his view, mechanistic thinking amounts to a narrowing of scope. A related point — that history now suffers from short-term thinking — has been made by David Armitage and Jo Guldi in an article entitled “Bonfire of the humanities“. People in the humanities do seem to enjoy evoking the doom-and-gloom of Old Testament prophets.

[6] A blog post at the Chronicle by Benjamin Schmidt entitled “A Crisis in the Humanities?” presents the data on humanities enrollments in the United States. Schmidt's graphs vividly demonstrate that in the 1960s humanities degrees exploded as a percentage of all degrees, and then declined just as fast, more or less returning to 1950s levels. But the 'percentage of all degrees' is an oddly inward-looking measure, focused only on university market-share: it doesn't take into the distribution of humanities degrees in the general population. If instead one looks at humanities degrees as a percentage of the college-age population, the current proportion of humanities degree holders is higher than in the 1950s, and has held more or less constant since the 1990s. The numbers suggest that if there really is a crisis in the humanities it has little to do with enrollment.

[7] A recent investigation by the scientific journal Nature examines who is benefiting the most from US government research funding. Universities retain a large percentage — between 20% and 85% — of grant money awarded to researchers. Even larger percentages may be retained by hospitals and non-profit research institutes. These sums go towards “overheads”, administrative support and other forms of rent charged by the university. The Nature investigation also covers the debate about whether these funds really are necessary for universities. Some observers claim that the system encourages wasteful spending on flashy new buildings and overgrown administrative teams. (David Graeber has made related points in his essay on “bullshit jobs”, and his piece on the impact of neoliberal ideology on scientific and technological innovation. ) University administrators counter that the funds actually pay for essential facilities and administrative services.

[8] The process of inclusion is still far from complete, but hopefully the daunting litanies of last names will soon start to include a few non-European names. Perhaps people should just engage with the ideas themselves and give credit in the footnotes. I'm a big fan of footnotes.

[9] I had to resist the urge to throw in a “Prophet of Profit”.