Cultures at loggerheads

On May 7 1959 C P Snow delivered his Rede Lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution”. His theme that there was an ever-widening gap between science and the humanities has influenced me ever since. He recounted how he had asked cultural luminaries, who were only too ready to leap on any intellectual mistake by a scientist, to define the second law of thermodynamics – and received no answer. I reflected, with shame, that the question would have foxed me too. So I started to read science – which is why you have a Science and Faith column in this newspaper today.

Snow, both a scientist and a novelist, deplored the contempt in which intellectuals held science to be no more than a kind of advanced artisanship while they revered an old culture, nowadays often attributed to “Dead White European Males” which was, in his view, already in decay and increasingly irrelevant. The future of civilisation, he claimed, depended on the explosion of science which alone could maintain it and spread its benefits of prosperity and the good life to the developing world.

Civitas, the Institute for the Study of Civil Society, has just published an excellent book on the controversy Snow triggered, and the 50-year aftermath. Edited by Robert Whelan, who writes a fine opening essay, it is called From Two Cultures to No Culture – which indicates its drift.

Although science was only recognised as a discipline with its own name in the 1830s, it goes back at least as far as Thales (seventh century BC). Many would date the beginnings of the modern scientific method to Francis Bacon at the turn of the 17th century. In essence it starts with a hypothesis about cause and effect in the material world from which predictions can be made. These predictions can then be tested with empirical evidence, which either confirm or refute the hypothesis.

Science is a progressive discipline. Despite errors and revisions it accretes knowledge, with practical certainty. It builds on what it has established at an accelerating rate. But philosophy does not. A modern philosophy may deal with different subjects from a different aspect, but its raw material was available to Plato. And, prescinding from Revelation, neither does religion. Who would claim to know more about the nature of God than, say, St Paul? Such questions are limited to the possibility of understanding more deeply what has been known from the beginning.

Both cultures are directed at truth, although their fields of inquiry are different. They can be, and often are, at loggerheads. But the disputes resolve themselves with better understanding. We all find it difficult to live meanwhile with ambiguity, yet the ability to do so is a sign of wisdom and maturity. Dismantling the barriers makes them complementary in many ways. Keats complained that Newton had “destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to a prism”. But he was wrong. At a human level we can still rejoice at the wonder of a rainbow and, at another, rejoice in our understanding of how it comes about.

Science offers service to religion, by helping us to distinguish between the direct action of God in, for instance, the evolution of man, and the spiritual aspects – of which we are certain but which are not susceptible to scientific analysis. It eradicates the dangerous, and potentially scandalous, theory of the “God of the gaps” by making us face up to the utter otherness of God. We should be in awe of God’s creation ex nihilo, and in awe at what the scientists tell us of the architecture and the origins of man.

But when science is taken as a panacea it becomes dangerous. Snow believed that the dissemination and heavy funding of science and technology in underdeveloped countries would close the gap between rich and poor. But this has proved to be dramatically wrong. His failure, not confined to him, to understand through history and literature the factors of human nature which have so often choked rational advance, blinded him to the difficulties.

 It is man’s inclination to sin which has – through war, tribalism, aggrandisement and corruption – prevented the benefits of science from reaching those who need it most. It can teach all of us, scientists included, that bread alone is not enough, but every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Science, however powerful in itself, cannot succeed in improving the human lot without the conversion which leads man to the love of God – directly, or through love of neighbour.

Civitas, though not dealing with the specifically religious aspects, is not optimistic. It sees the trend in education as running against the value of the academic mastery of knowledge in both the sciences and the arts. The science curriculum is elided into a subject of general interest, and students can complete their education with minimal knowledge of history and without the opportunity to study a classic book or play at the depth at which its real treasures can be found. The emphasis is on education for change, but we cannot understand change unless we know how we got there first.

While this superficial educational approach affects the next generation, I continue to be concerned at the confidence of opinions expressed to me by so many of the older generations. Often they appear to be based on smatterings of truth which mislead because they are not based within a sound context. Did you know that a third of senior science teachers in America teach Creationism, and a quarter believe that it can be proved scientifically? 

Fortunately, this kind of thing is relatively rare on Secondsightblog, but I look forward to reading your comments. It may be that you think that the compass has shifted and that our society is focussed unhealthily on science at the expense of the humanities. Or you may think that our culture is stronger and more coherent than it was 50 years ago. Perhaps our capacity for instant communication, or the ability to find knowledge on the internet has relieved us from time-consuming study. Is this a mixed blessing?

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Cultures at loggerheads

  1. Frank says:

    I think Quentin has summarised this debate very well. I have not read the Civitas report but I have the greatest respect for Robert Whelan (a Cambridge man like myself, I believe). I think that the crucial debate now is not so much between the relative merits of science v the arts but the fact that education itself no longer has anything to do with deep-seated, objective values. It has become a matter of Gradgrindery: facts, ideas and viewpoints divorced from belief.
    The Catholic Summer School, begun by the late David Foster RIP, tries to remedy this by offering an intensive week in which teenagers are introduced to various subjects – such as maths, art, music, history, theology, philosophy – under the ‘architecture’ of the Catholic Faith. Thus the subjects are all seen as linked together and not treated as discrete disciplines. This is the approach that is needed.

  2. Daisy says:

    I was interested in Ed West’s review of “The Rotten State of Britain”, which is published by the Adam Smith Institute. (CH May 8, p15). The book is described on the Institute site as
    “Under Gordon Brown leadership, Britain has achieved that sinking feeling without knowing exactly why things are so bad and how it happened so fast. In this coruscating attack on the government, here is the first sustained analysis what went disastrously wrong and why it will continue to get worse under current policies and we will all feel the financial pain.”
    Naturally the book is written from a “free market” point of view, but it some seem to summarise a real decay in our culture, evident in several areas.
    The recent scandals about dishonourable Members of Parliament looks like a dramatic symptom of a decaying society. I wish I had confidence that any other political party will start to rebuild it.

  3. Durham says:

    I suppose that everything is a “mixed blessing” – and certainly modern communications have their problems. But, for example, there are many original texts available, which most people would never have a chance to read. On this blog, quite recently, I have seen quotes from the Summa of Aquinas, and passages from Augustine. We are stuck no longer with the odd quote from Dame Julian of Norwich, but we can read the whole text etc.

    But we do perhaps need to know more about critically assessing all this information. For instance Wiki can be a good starting point, but we need to check elsewhere to confirm.

    On direct communication I am all for emails – provided that phishing and spam is minimised. If I were uncharitable I would advocate a tax on all those who don’t use email. Written correspondence takes far longer, and requires stamps and letterboxes.

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