Big Questions: Conversations inside the Third Culture
In 1961, C P Snow introduced the idea of the "two cultures", the scientists and the literati, divided by a lack of communication that had been crystallized through academic specialization (1). Thirty years later, John Brockman unveiled the Third Culture as the new face of intellectual life, consisting of scientific thinkers who had ousted the traditional literary scholars in "rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are" (2). He has been criticized for his fragmented vision of intellectual culture, which affords no place to non-scientists in spite of the apparent inability of science to ...view middle of the document...
In this respect, Brockman's scientifically imperialistic conception of intellectual culture lacks the "questions of subjective, of spiritual and of social values" (3) that must lie at its heart.
Furthermore, the criteria by which the sciences have established themselves and the standards to which they proudly hold have been responsible for the impressive advances, but as Taylor points out, "there are places where experiment and verification cannot go" (5). Given Brockman's emphasis on empirical facts, his understanding of "what it means to be human" (5) seems lacking. There is little room for the consideration of the moral dimension of the human experience. His words echo with what Leavis criticizes Snow for: an inadequate sense of human nature and human need (7). After all, according to Lanier, there are questions that must be addressed by any thinking person that lie outside of the established methods of science (5).
If so, is it reasonable to expect science to provide a full worldview that can provide answers on the moral and spiritual levels? Hut's answer is hesitant: "Science just isn't far enough along to address that quest" (5). Instead, the scientific method should be used to sort through our inherited wisdoms, to separate that which is still useful from the dogmatic trappings of the past. Taylor maintains, therefore, that the promise of science lies not in "sweeping away other aspects of existence ... (but) respectfully deepening understanding of what it is to live and die as a human being and observing the universe from that perspective" (5).
How is it, then, that Brockman can distinguish the achievements of the Third Culture, which he rightly predicts will affect everyone, from those of the humanities, described as the irrelevant and "marginal exploits of a quarrelsome mandarin class" (2)? Horgan reminds us that humanist scholars like Judith Butler, often derided for her work in deconstructing sexual identity, are "far more engaged with reality – our human reality – than are string theorists or inflationary cosmologists" (5). Ludwig Wittgenstein went so far as to argue that even when all the questions posed by science have been answered, the problems of human life will remain untouched (4). But is this true, or even a fair assessment of the purpose of science?
What Brockman failed to make clear was that the sciences and the humanities have different goals, that the "deeper meanings" that the humanists seek are not necessarily the same that the scientists seek. Comprehension may arise from explanation, as offered by Pinker in his biological account of human nature (5). But we learn too from empathy (some may say more powerfully), as from Shakespeare's portrayal of Lear as the figure of fallen pride, repentant too late. The different approaches of sciences and the humanities obscure the relationships that do exist between what are often seen as separate cultures. Levine maintains that a...