In Defense of the Humanities Again and Again and Again

And Yet Again


Over at Crooked Timber they’ve been hassling yet another Martha Nussbaum defense of the humanities. Though I know of her defense work, I’ve not read any of it, so I don’t really know whether the hassling is just.

But I’m going to believe it is. ‘Cause I’m tired of these defenses of the humanities. They’re so lame and predictable. In fact, I’m wondering whether or not it’s the humanities that’re IN FACT being defended.

Maybe the defense of the humanities has been USURPED INTO defending olden times. So, the defender doesn’t really like any of this new-fangled stuff, including the internet and all, but they don’t want to go after that directly. Instead, they defend the humanities.

And then . . .

One notion you find in defenses of the humanities is that we need to see the world whole. I agree. We need DO to see the world whole. Now more than ever. The arts do this in a way. So can the discursive humanities.

But we don’t need the old discourses. We need new discourses. 21st century discourses. Beyond postmodern discourse, etc. And it seems to me that the defense of the humanities genre is pretty much owned by people who want to stave off the creation of new whole-cosmos discourses.

That ain’t right.


What’s adequate evidence for God in principle?

As an atheist, is there any evidence that I would persuade me to provisionally accept that God exists?

This questions has recently been dealt with by both PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne – who are both atheists and biologists, and usually agree on most things, as far as I can discern. This time they don’t, however. PZ argues that nothing would persuade him, and Coyne explains how he could be persuaded (two other bloggers I follow, Massimo Pigliucci and John Wilkins – both philosophers with a heavy interest in biology, and both atheists, even though Wilkins doesn’t know it, have indicated that they side with PZ on this one).

First off, the question as stated doesn’t completely make sense. In order to refute a concept/hypothesis, it must be adequately defined. And quite frankly, those people who say they will not be persuaded by any evidence whatsoever, are exactly the ones who seem to me not to own up to this problem. If I just say ‘God’, then one can always refute positive evidence for the concept by saying that something else could explain it, by pushing further back what ‘God’ means. For example, if we define ‘God’ as that which caused a particular person with leprosy to be healed, then evidence that this particular person with leprosy was healed would be evidence of ‘God’. Stupid definition, of course, but the problem is that all the definitions are stupid, in this sense. Events purported to be explained by some God-concept can all be explained in other ways, too. And this is exactly the problem, and the reason that tree quarters of people surveyed (see above) will say that no evidence is sufficient to persuade them.

Read the rest on Pleiotropy.

It’s infectious

Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

That settles it

Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Are We Busted, Irrevocably?

Cross-posted in two other places. Why? Because I can.

By we I mean students of the human sciences.

* * * * *

Sometime in the early 1970s I read an article in Linguistic Inquiry, the house organ of Chomskyian linguistics, lamenting the lost promise of the Chomsky revolution. As I recall, the lament went something like this: In the early days it seemed possible that a complete grammar of English, or French, or Russian, or Quechua, or any other language was right around the corner. Then the articles began to get narrower and narrower in scope until finally the cutting edge of research discussed mere fragments. And the prospect of a complete grammar for some language, any language? Forgotten.

Almost four decades have gone by, with perhaps as many major revisions in Chomsky’s views on language. I don’t know what the official line is on the state of the Chomsky revolution, but, as far as I can tell, the situation hasn’t changed. It’s not just that the Chomskyians have failed to deliver on early promises, but that linguistics itself remains many. Chomsky never carried the day completely and, while some of the holdouts just wanted to remain stuck with the old ways, just as many wanted to forge ahead, but not under the Chomsky banner. As far as I can tell linguistics is, say, a half-dozen or so competing and apparently mutually incompatible schools that, for the most part, simply ignore one another. Linguists hold no deep conception that is as significant to all of linguistics as evolution is to biology.

And that goes across the board to all the human sciences. The cognitive revolution went flat in the 1980s. The neuroscientists have frittered away two or three decades taking pretty picture of the brain that benefit no one so much as the workers and stockholders of companies in the brain imaging business. Economists have been fiddling while the world economy burns and literary critics have been congratulating themselves on how revolutionary and counter-hegemonic they’ve been.

Up until recently I’ve believed this was the case because the problems are deep and compelling answers are hard to find. And, yes, that is true.

And, yes, I certainly have strong opinions on what approaches make sense, and which are garbage — not for the whole range of the human sciences, of course, but for those areas where I’ve been most active: literary studies, cognition and knowledge representation, cultural evolution. It’s not that I think all extant ideas and approaches are equally worthy. I don’t.

But I have thought that, after all, there is no other way to advance than to let 10,000 flowers bloom.

Perhaps I’ve been wrong. 1000 flowers? Sure, why not? 10,000? Really? Do we really need to sample the space of intellectual possibility at 10,000 points? Rather, are we really sampling the space at 10,000 points? Or are we only sampling the space at 1000 points, but pretending to sample it at 10,000 points by dressing up our ideas in funny but colorful costumes?

Are we bull-shitting ourselves about our intellectual productivity?

* * * * *

One of the standard ploys that curmudgeonly literary critics have deployed against newer ideas is that these new-fangled ideas with their technical terminology do not reflect any intellectual necessity. Rather, they are simply a response to institutional pressures for idea production. Institutions demand prestige, prestige requires publications, publications require new ideas, so let’s at least give them new terminology, which they’ll happily mistake for new ideas.

That’s the argument — it’s still alive and well. I’ve always resisted it despite the fact that, more often than not, it’s being deployed against ideas I don’t much care for myself. But, if those curmudgeons knew of my work, they’d deploy their argument against it as well, as I too employ abstract concepts and even a strange term or two.

But I’m beginning to wonder whether or not those curmudgeons have a point. Perhaps institutional pressures are bringing about needless over-production of useless ideas. It’s not that I’ve decided that our intellectual problems aren’t all that deep, after all. No, they’re deep. But these many ideas we’re tossing about aren’t plunging into the depths. They’re just padding out the CVs of the senior investigators.

What, then, can we do?

I wish I knew. As long as I can remember there has been calls for intellectual reconciliation and cooperation among disciplines. And those calls continue. E. O. Wilson has called for consilience. Herbert Gintis has called for the unification of the behavioral sciences around the idea of evolution. I’ve made a similar plea on behalf of cultural evolution.

But we are late-comers to this game. Calls for unification had become another genre of academic discourse long before we weighed in.

Can we do nothing? Nothing at all?

Come to think of it, doing nothing might give us a chance to chill out and do some real intellectual work.

For the New Athiests

Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Theory of Mind, NOT

Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

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