I wish my friends in the humanities would relax. They’re so agitated and uptight about the presumed inferiority of the humanities to science that they remind me of nothing so much as the stereotypic Victorian lady screaming “scientism” and clutching at her skirts at the sight of a mouse. (Btw, here is a bit of empirically valid, biologically based, thoroughly scientific—and not “scientistic” – wisdom: Mice don’t run up ladies’ skirts. And the humanities aren’t inferior to the sciences. Just different.)
Of course, the sciences command more money, simply because it costs more to do their work. If you’ve ever tried sequencing DNA, you’ll have discovered that it is a bit more pricey than writing a novel, composing a symphony, or creating a painting. Ditto if you’ve ever tried to discover a new antibiotic or a Higgs boson. But money isn’t the measure of all things; indeed, I’d argue that its costliness is one of the outstanding liabilities of today’s Big Science.
In any event, W. H. Auden was irretrievably wrong when he wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen.” It makes plenty happen, as does painting, music, dance, sculpture, theater, fiction, philosophy, and so forth. It’s just that most of those happenings are inside our heads … which is, after all, a fine place for things to happen.
To my mind, one of the special joys of the arts and humanities is precisely that they are disconnected from the “real” world in a way that science isn’t. I have now written or edited 31 books and more than 250 empirically or mathematically based research papers, but have never succeeded in creating publishable fiction (although some of my critics might disagree!). I have tried and always given up, defeated by what I call the “tyranny of the blank page.” But I adore reading fiction, listening to (certain kinds of) music, watching plays, etc. My life would be unimaginably poorer—and when I write “unimaginably,” I mean this literally—without the successful efforts of those in the humanities who overcome this tyranny, or who never experience it in the first place.
There is a profound creative playfulness made manifest in the humanities. By contrast, science—although often best undertaken with a playful, exploratory mindset—necessarily collides with the empirical truths of physical and biological nature, stern task mistresses indeed. Although scientists are free to hypothesize to their hearts’ content, eventually they must be constrained by the empirical truths of the actual world. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously pointed out, people are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. They are similarly entitled to their own arts, but not their own science.
And here, I believe, lies a crucially important but to my mind not heretofore acknowledged strength of the humanities: It’s productions are unique in their creativity.
If Newton or Einstein hadn’t lived, we almost certainly would nonetheless have basic physics as well as relativity. If Lavoisier hadn’t discovered oxygen, someone else would have, just as somebody would have figured out that the heart pumped blood even if William Harvey had never been born. The double-helix structure of DNA was there for the unraveling; had it not been accomplished by Watson and Crick, others would have done so. (Linus Pauling, for example, was very close.) Absent Lorenzo Romano Amedeo Carlo Avogadro di Quaregna e di Cerreto, Count of Quaregna and Cerreto, we might have had Jones’s Number, but it still would have been 6.022 x 1023. And it doesn’t diminish the stature of Darwin himself to be reminded that Alfred Russell Wallace glimpsed the same basic truth of nature, independently. But if Shakespeare or Bach had not been born, we can rest assured (or rather, bereft) that we wouldn’t have Hamlet or the Goldberg Variations, just as without F. Goya or L. Fendrich, there is virtual certainty that we would never have been blessed with the visual art they created … or in Laurie’s case, are still creating.
This is not to argue that the arts are more valuable than the sciences. Rather, because the former results from the free flow of creative imagination, unconstrained as science is by reality (or at least, less constrained), the arts aren’t just unique, but—at the risk of outraging language purists—in a sense, “more unique,” and thus, maybe even more precious.
My advice, therefore, to the humanists among us: Hold your heads up, stick out your collective chests, be proud, do your thing, don’t worry about your petticoats and please stop screaming.