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Science and the humanities in the understanding of Human Nature

By Robert Young - posted Thursday, 15 June 2000

It is an odd sensation giving an inaugural lecture four months before one's retirement. One consequence is that insofar as such lectures are promissory notes I trust you will agree that it would be prudent not promise to achieve much in the remainder of my tenure. Fortunately there are other purposes for such occasions. One is meant to stand back and take stock of something and locate one's place within a research tradition. Since I am so near the retiring age, I feel I have a special license. I can say more or less what I like. Not that what I have to say is particularly rude or retaliatory, but it does involve some plain speaking. Here is an example. The relationship between science and the humanities is in an awful mess, and if we don't sort it out the role of the universities in husbanding and enhancing human civility will probably wither away. Something similar is true of the wider culture. I have held important positions in three universities and have had major access to several media, in particular, publishing, television and radio. Throughout the nearly forty years I have been so placed, things have got more or less steadily worse, and the people in charge have, on the whole, accelerated that process. Our scientists do not learn enough in their education and training about the humanities, in particular, about the moral, political and ideological forces and issues from which their work emerges and into which it feeds. As C. P. Snow rightly observed in his memorable lecture on 'The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution', our arts people know even less about science and technology and are by turns sneering and culpably diffident. The people who try their damndest to mediate between the sciences and the humanities get sniped at and undermined from both sides. That is the space within which I have conducted my academic career. It's a case of something approaching killing the messenger.

I have had extensive education on both sides of this stupid divide. That has given me some interesting vantage points, and I have been present for some serious complacency. When I was in medical school I recall a professor beginning a lecture on cardiac dynamics with the remark, 'Before we get serious, let's have some history'. I have seen the eminent English don, F. R. Leavis, snarl at scientists, and I have been present when Watson, Crick, Brenner, Dawkins and Wolpert have haughtily said genuinely philistine things about philosophy, religion, social science and morality.

Now to my title. All of its key terms are problematic and fiercely debated. As to the first, the world view and boundaries of science are much disputed and are idealised and despised in different quarters. Learned scientific societies and promoters of the discipline calling itself 'the public understanding of science' assure us that there's nothing more exemplary of humanity's highest aspirations and achievements, while people who mount critiques of scientific and technological rationality claim that for all the achievements of science, technology and medicine, the world view underlying them is alienated and alienating and is leading to serious pollution, premature deployment of new developments, e.g., in pharmaceuticals and GM crops, and in debasement of the labour process, a subject upon which I have dwelt in several papers. The extension of the methods and assumptions of science beyond rather strictly drawn boundaries is called 'scientism', and it underpins reckless avoidance of the political and moral debates which should be part and parcel of scientific work at every stage from hunch to formulation and from funding to application. Scientists fiercely fight against what they consider to be the intrusion of politics and ideology into their putatively value-neutral and objective research, but the values are there, albeit often implicit. They do so with consequences which are often disastrous. I will return to some of the baleful consequences of the claimed separation of facts from values. My own position is that science, technology and medicine -- far from being value-neutral -- are the embodiment of values in theories, things and therapies, in facts and artefacts, in procedures and programs. I also believe that all facts are theory-laden, all theories are value-laden and all values occur within an ideology or world view.


The humanities, my second key term, are conventionally set over against science in the prevailing world view and in the choices our children face at alarmingly young ages. I would welcome some comparative data on this matter, one which bears fundamentally on whether we can integrate our debates about values with our scientific and technical developments. The traditional definition of the humanities in Renaissance humanism included grammar, rhetoric, history, literature and moral philosophy. The rebirth which constituted the renaissance was a rediscovery of ancient Greek and Latin texts, the study of which was opposed to sterile mediaeval scholasticism. Our list of subjects in the humanities would be longer, reflecting the growth of disciplines in the 19 th and 20th centuries. As late as the mid-19th century one could only study mathematics, classics or divinity at Oxford and Cambridge. Universities such as this one -- so-called redbrick universities -- were created to broaden the base of university education to include the sciences and, above all, technology. Technological education has, relatively speaking, eschewed the arts cultivated by the leisured class, while technology has become more central to our lives in successive waves. Along with these developments the separation of the consideration of technological development from moral, aesthetic, political and ideological determinations has become increasingly problematic. This separation impoverishes those trained in science, technology and medicine, and ignorance of the scientific and technical side impoverishes those who study the humanities. It is a disastrous and growing split.

The essence of the humanities is the exploration, husbanding and conducting debates about values. That is central to literature, the theatre, fine art, much of philosophy, cultural studies, history, classical studies and much else. Our culture is riven. It is characterised by sharp dichotomies, each and every one of which is a false dichotomy, but our belief in them precludes unified deliberations about the scientific and the moral. Here is my list of them:



























primary (qualities)










I will not have time on this occasion to explore all of these, but I will seek to undermine some of them.

To get to the bottom of the issue I will have to do what the Renaissance humanists did and try to recover some ancient wisdom. The separation of fact and value which we associate with modern science was an innovation in the seventeenth century. The framework of explanation which prevailed in ancient, mediaeval and Renaissance times was the Aristotelian one in which causes or aitia (literally, the 'comings to be' of things) always occurred in fours: the material, the efficient, the formal and the final cause. If you did not come up with all four causes you did not have an explanation. Most of them are familiar to our modern scheme, because versions of them were carried over into the paradigm of explanation of modern science. The material cause told you out of what raw materials the effect came -- the matter. Our modern concept of matter, including the periodic table of elements and of fundamental particles, corresponds to this. The material cause of an ordinary chair would be wood. The efficient cause is that which imparts energy to it and would include intrinsic ideas of energy not altogether unlike our own but also that which imparted change, in this case, the carpenter. The formal cause was hugely important in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, but we can only dwell on certain aspects -- what type it was, where is sits in a classification. The chair partakes of the form of 'chair-ness', but the formal cause can embrace architect's plans, formal arrangements, structures, shapes, types, taxonomies. There was a form for everything -- the good, the true, the beautiful, for humankind, for dishonourableness, for dirt, for shit. As I say, there were and still are huge debates about forms or types or concepts -- where they come from and how we get them into our heads. People like Locke, Piaget, Chomsky and, in psychoanalysis, Wilfred Bion, have pondered such things. The fourth and last explanatory factor was the purpose or use or aim and was called the final cause. The final cause of a chair is to provide somewhere to sit.

As I said, three of the four Aristotelian causes found their way into the explanatory paradigm of modern science, but the final cause or purpose was considered not objective and was split off and relegated to the mind of God and of people. It is not part of a scientific explanation, at least not a reductionist or materialist explanation. That's the official story at least, but it kept sneaking back in, for example, in functional explanations in anatomy, physiology and medicine, in evolutionary theory, in the functionalist tradition in the human sciences which was based on biological analogies, e.g., structures, functions, organic analogies. But make no mistake, strictly speaking, they had no place in the explanatory paradigm of materialist science which allowed only matter, motion and number.


René Descartes, whose Discourse on Method was published in 1637 and is often called the founding document of modern science, redefined the basic furniture of reality. He divided the world into two sorts of things -- extended substances and thinking substances. Extended substances had extension, figure and motion and made up the world of matter, while thinking substances were defined negatively as that which does not pertain to matter, and their essence was will. We were left with a world of minds and bodies — since called Cartesian dualism. This radical definition of reality was very useful for certain scientific purposes, but it left a dreadful legacy of unsolved problems, for example, how minds and bodies interact. Many, many philosophers have lamented this split. One of my favourites is Alfred North Whitehead, who wrote Science and the Modern World, in which he had this to say about the modern world view:

"The seventeenth century had finally produced a scheme of scientific thought framed by mathematicians, for the use of mathematicians… The enormous success of the scientific abstractions, yielding on the one hand matter… on the other hand mind, perceiving, suffering, reasoning, but not interfering, has foisted onto philosophy the task of accepting them as the most concrete rendering of fact.

Thereby, modern philosophy has been ruined. It has oscillated in a complex manner between three extremes. There are the dualists, who accept matter and mind as on equal basis, and the two varieties of monists, those who put mind inside matter, and those who put matter inside mind. But this juggling with abstractions can never overcome the inherent confusion introduced by the… scientific scheme of the seventeenth century" (Whitehead, 1925, p. 70).

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This essay was originally presented as Professor Young's Inaugural Lecture as Professor of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalytic Studies, Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies, University of Sheffield, 25 May 2000.

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About the Author

Robert M Young is Professor of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Sheffield. He has written extensively on this and other topics since 1956.

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