The Natural History Museum in London is currently featuring an exhibit called “Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story.” Tucked amidst stone knives and prehistoric dioramas is a little grey placard titled “Creativity.”
“There was, and still is, something different about the brains and minds of Homo sapiens,” the placard reads. “These modern humans created representations of their worlds in carvings, paintings, and sculptures. Their meanings are uncertain, but they may have had a ritual or spiritual significance.”
In other words, what fundamentally sets us apart as humans, is art and spirituality, and not science.
This is a striking claim for a science museum: particularly in light of debates over the value of the humanities (i.e. art and culture) versus the sciences that have peppered news magazines in recent months. In a now near-canonical defense of the sciences, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wrote last year for The New Republic that “if one were to list the proudest accomplishments of our species…many would be gifts bestowed by science.” Pinker argues that while the humanities are good, they’d be even better if they incorporated some scientific thinking, especially since “the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science.”
Pinker’s article has already been challenged by a number of humanists in publications such as The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Most of the writers argue that the humanities contribute an equally important interdisciplinary, qualitative perspective to society and species.
Enter Catherine Pickstock, a modern British Homo sapiens and a Cambridge philosopher of religion, who recently published a book titled The Literary Agenda: Repetition and Identity. In her dense but strikingly vivid work, Pickstock plumbs literature, art, science, philosophy, and theology to ultimately “show the reality of God himself”
Pickstock and Pinker have dramatically different views on the place of the sciences and the humanities. But Pickstock’s book may suggest—perhaps in spite of itself—the sort of synthetic coexistence of human intellectual activities which could actually achieve Pinker’s goal of true interdisciplinary cooperation.
There is no certain answer, but art, culture, and God have something to do with it.
Make no mistake, Pickstock diverges sharply from Pinker’s intelligible universe. She mixes the literary and natural worlds, asking questions that would gall a scientist:
But how does nature know how to punctuate herself, when to separate with a full stop, as from stone to stone and mountain to mountain? How does she know when to interpose a kerning of semicolons, as in a hedgerow; when to impose the colon of causal consequence, as in the cataract of a waterfall; and when to raise a barrage of exclamation marks, as of cliffs above a sea, or question marks, as of the uncertain edges of vapour or cloud?
Pickstock’s answer to these questions essentially boils down to this: There is no certain answer, but art, culture, and God have something to do with it.
“Nature herself is constantly shaping and being reshaped,” writes Pickstock, and operates within hazy boundaries because of the seemingly non-natural things that “human beings can partially actualize as art and culture.” Art and culture are “engendered by nature, entailed by it, tangled up in it entirely. It may be for this reason that art and culture feel themselves to be so allied with a world which hides just behind nature: a realm of gods, nymphs, dryads, giants, and fairies. The realm of the imagination is at once out there and yet in here.”
Art and culture cannot ever fully escape mother nature. Nor can they escape the fact that (unlike nature) they can die—“whether by carelessness, malice, philistinism, or the outrunning of the obsolete by the innovative.” Thus, according to Pickstock, art and culture cry out to be symbols so as to achieve a kind of afterlife. The human self forms by replaying and recombining the symbolic and the real, a creative process of repetition made possible only by the divine. Therefore, “self-identity…is properly religious.”
But how does Pickstock’s philosophical pathway from nature to art and culture to religion relate to the ongoing science-humanities war? At the very least, it suggests that science doesn’t have a monopoly on scholarly explanations of the universe. But it also points to a larger observation that is perhaps more obvious and more important: all disciplines attempt to subsume others into their own frameworks.
Like Pinker, Pickstock rehashes some of the oldest moves in the humanities-versus-sciences game, belittling the other side as a mere wrongheaded mindset within her own universal explanation. At the outset of her book, she defends the humanities from generalizing systems like science by emphasizing the value of the unique and the individual, the non-classifiable:
But yet, if one were to imagine that one were exclusively a philosopher, or that one were in possession of philosophic systems which perfectly mapped reality…
—the goal towards which science is moving, Pinker claims—
…then one should fail ever to be puzzled or to tarry marveling, or to realize that a unique singularity can be more decisive than its original context—such as a flood, or a germ, or a volcano…or a single painting such as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.
On several occasions Pickstock attacks materialism as a “brute and cloddish procedure” that cannot coexist with her own explanations of thinking, imagination, or the self. She takes science head-on, leveling that favorite refrain of the humanist: Science cannot be true because it forms the world in its own, human image.
Pinker believes that all dented, damaging, or otherwise imperfect attempts no longer count; they are pretenders to science’s holy name.
Pinker offers equally standard counterarguments to all Pickstock’s claims, but the implicit dialogue the two writers enter on this last point seems most interesting. In his New Republic article, Pinker argues that science has developed practices to eliminate the human from its activities: “On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable.” What’s more, he writes, “any movement that calls itself ‘scientific’ but fails to nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs…is not a scientific movement.”
In other words, Pinker believes that all dented, damaging, or otherwise imperfect attempts no longer count; they are pretenders to science’s holy name. But how many acts will deserve the name of science, after he has cherry-picked the history of his discipline? A hundred? A dozen? And how many of his own studies will meet the criteria in a few decades time? Pinker’s definition of science is both too perfect and too present, based on the contingencies of contemporary ethics, beliefs, and mores.
But Pickstock is not immune from the “human problem” she so readily diagnoses of “enthroning the partial as if it were the absolute.” In fact, there is the phrase both she and Pinker use with frequency: “We know.”
In “Science is Not Your Enemy,” Pinker yields entire lists of “we know” statements:
We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate…
We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree that embraces all living things and that emerged from prebiotic chemicals almost four billion years ago. We know that we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy…
We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers…
But who is this we?
Both Pickstock and Pinker tend to cite canonical white male Western thinkers and write for Western intellectual audiences. And by adding the word “know,” their “we” gets even smaller: a group of people who share a set of beliefs about the world, yet claim those beliefs are universal. Pickstock, the theological philosopher, argues that religion alone can unify “the real, the historical, and the fictional” and provide the framework for human identity. Pinker, the evolutionary psychologist, proposes science as both worldview and tool for extracting true knowledge. “With the advent of data science,” he writes, “…signals can be extracted from the noise and debates in history and political science resolved more objectively.”
Pinker trusts that science will produce knowledge and that the humanities merely add to subjective error and “the noise.” Pickstock, by contrast, finds noise in “all the real of reality” and suggests that humanistic interpretation and individualism are the key to acquiring the knowledge we need to navigate the chaos.
“Art, culture, and society are products of human brains,” says Pinker, but then so too is science, and religion. Science fails just as surely as any other human practice in defining the whole of the human condition.
Failing to define what it is fundamentally human, however, doesn’t mean we should stop attempting. Let us—whoever we may be—turn in our attempts to one of Pickstock’s most beautiful lines (and she has many) on “emergence”:
Emergence is revealed as something like the way every new season of spring takes one by surprise, both because each spring is slightly different and because…the full and perfect spring can never have burst forth on earth, since spring as non-identically repeatable has never fully sprung, and holds herself always in a reserve of yet greater and deranging fertility.
It’s a simple idea, really: Just as no spring exhausts the capacity for bountiful green spring-ness, another aspect of the human story always waits to be told. Pickstock, Pinker, and many others seek interdisciplinary coherence—but it is only when the products of humanity cease their cannibalizing and seek instead a kind of coexistence can Pickstock’s creative process of repetition take place, can the ice melt, the waters muddy, and a new and emergent spring of shared discovery “burst forth on the earth.”
Julia F.P. Ostmann is a junior at Harvard College, a concentrator in the Department of the History of Science, and a library enthusiast.
1. Catherine Pickstock, Repetition and Identity: The Literary Agenda, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 188.
2. Pickstock, 76.
3. Ibid, 78.
4. Ibid, 78-9.
5. Ibid, 100-103.
6. Ibid, 103.
7. Ibid, 3.
8. Ibid, 4.
9. Ibid, 42.
10. Ibid, xii.
11. Ibid, 158.
Image from Flickr via Moya Brenn.