Thursday, January 19, 2012

Knitting Together the Humanities and the Sciences

What do the humanities study? Beauty, ethics, language, the arts, history, epistemology, ontology, meaning, values, etc.

For a long time now, the sciences and the humanities have been divided. The sciences were understood to be sciences because of their ability to be mathematized and to give predictions. The humanities could not be mathematized nor made predictable, so they were shuttled off into their own area. And ignored by science. Though there was some effort at turning the humanities into science, the favor was mostly returned.

However, what if reductionist science is only half of the equation? What if complexity and emergence -- aspects studied by the humanities -- are legitimate areas of study for science? How does that change the relationship between the humanities and the sciences?

Many in the humanities have studied the impact of the economy and society on the humanities and artistic production -- mostly through Marxist lenses. Many in the humanities have used anthropological and cultural studies to study the humanities and artistic production. Many in the humanities have used psychological theories to study the humanities and artistic production. And they are right to do so, because the mind/brain, culture, and society are important elements to understand the humanities, and the production, appreciation, and understanding of the arts. But psychology, anthropology, and economics and sociology are all sciences. They are just complex sciences. They cannot be reduced to physics. They have their own emergent properties. Out of our psychological, culture, and sociological interactions -- out of this milieu -- come the arts and humanities. We are already in a situation to use science to understand the arts and humanities -- so long as we are using the right science, and not the wrong ones (mathematized sciences, like physics), which are far, far, far too simple.

Chaos theory, self-organization (including spontaneous order) theory, bios theory, complexity, emergence, information theory, network theory, etc. are all part of the new science of emergent complexity that is central to reconnecting the sciences with the humanities. More, it will help us to stop doing bad science in the complex sciences, particularly the social sciences, which are between the sciences of psychology (broadly understood) and the humanities. This suggests that the mathematical approaches so popular in economics in particular can do little more than mislead us. More appropriate to understanding self-organizing social networks are the methods of the humanities. Spontaneous orders are the stories of our lives we are living with others. We need to understand them as such. That is a very different approach than the attempt to turn economics into something akin to mathematical physics.
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