Alec Ash in Five Books:
Let’s start on your book selection. Your first choice is What Science Offers the Humanities, by Edward Slingerland. Tell us a little about the book first.
It’s a rather extraordinary and unusual book. It addresses some fundamental matters of interest to those of us whose education has been in the humanities. It’s a book that has received very little attention as far as I know, and deserves a lot more. Edward Slingerland’s own background is in Sinology. Most of us in the humanities carry about us a set of assumptions about what the mind is, or what the nature of knowledge is, without any regard to the discoveries and speculations within the biological sciences in the past 30 or 40 years. In part the book is an assault on the various assumptions and presumptions of postmodernism – and its constructivist notions of the mind.
Concepts that in neuroscience and cognitive psychology are now taken for granted – like the embodied mind – are alien to many in the humanities. And Slingerland addresses relativism, which is powerful and pervasive within the humanities. He wants to say that science is not just one more thought system, like religion; it has special, even primary, status because it’s derived from empiricism, or it’s predictive and coherent and does advance our understanding of the world. So rather than just accept at face value what some French philosopher invents about the mirror stage in infant development, Slingerland wants to show us where current understanding is, and where it’s developing, in fields such as cognition, or the relationship between empathy and our understanding on evil. Slingerland believes that there are orthodox views within the humanities which have been long abandoned by the sciences as untenable and contradictory.