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Thursday, December 15, 2005

science and culture

LI is reviewing a book that was chosen by the Conservative book club for the Austin Statesman. We won’t go into the book too much here. What has struck us, however, in this book and the author’s previous books is an odd, barely concealed hostility to science that crystallizes around evolution. The author of the book has a theory, which we think is untenable, that science is the linear descendent of Christian theology. His ideas echo those put forth by Steve Fuller in the Dover trial, with Newton’s theological concerns being exhibit number one. Permit us to politely dissent. The decisive separation between theology and science occurred in Newton’s work as Newton worked out the principles of his idea of not feigning hypotheses – essentially bringing Baconian theory of inductive ascent into natural philosophy. Newton himself had plenty of theories about Jesus, but used a conception of God in his natural philosophy that allowed for the absolute discovery of truths in nature without hypothesizing anything substantial about God. In other words, Newton’s science is absolutely translatable into other contexts – into Confucianism, into Hinduism, etc. Perhaps one can say that is true about much of Galileo – but Galileo is much still under the shadow of Aristotle enough to spend much time on refuting or dealing with him. Newton simply isn’t.

To understand what Newton did – to understand the beginnings of Natural Philosophy – means understanding the difference between literature and science. One of those differences is that Newton’s theological works, while telling us much about the context in which he did his work, do not help us very much in interpreting the work. There are no secrets in Newton’s natural philosophy texts. The last alchemist, as Keynes called him, saved his secrets for other texts. As an example, consider how Newton calculated the age of the earth. He did not refer to the bible. He did not refer to some hidden alchemical tradition. He simply imagined a ball of iron the size of the earth. This is a mode of thinking that is divorced from teleological considerations.

The Victorian controversy between science and the humanities is nicely explored in an article in the Summer, 2005 History of Science by Paul White. White’s article, MINISTERS OF CULTURE: Arnold, Huxley and Liberal Anglican Reform of Learning, explores the exemplary debates between Arnold and Huxley about the cultural value of science by asking about the common suppositions about culture held by both Arnold and Huxley.

Now, LI is a great fan of Thomas Huxley. He is greatly admired elsewhere on the Web, too, so it is easy to get ahold of his great essays. Go to the Huxley archive, for instance, at Clarke University. Arnold is an iffier figure. An anti-democrat, a great but narrow poet, and certainly the kind of Tory who had a lot of influence on the beginnings of modern conservatism, which (as we have pointed out in other posts) stuck out its baby lineaments in the 1870s.

The locus classicus of the Huxley-Arnold debate were two addresses made in the 1880s. But White points out that the two men were friends, members of the same Victorian liberal elite:

“The Huxley–Arnold debate has most often been viewed as an isolated event crystallizing the divisions of learning and the divergence of worlds. Yet these two public addresses delivered in 1880 and 1882 formed part of series of exchanges on the comparative value of science and literature, extending back to the mid-1860s. In fact, by the 1880s this debate had become a kind of ritual performance, with a well rehearsed script and agreed scope and agenda. One thing that might be said of Huxley and Arnold that cannot of Snow and Leavis [the two later debaters of the "two cultures" thesis] is that the men were friends. They met regularly in London, corresponded, and exchanged published work from the mid 1860s through the 1880s. Topics of discussion ranged from the education of Arnold’s eldest son, Arnold’s latest attack on middle-class Philistinism, and the moral integrity of Christ. As couples, the Huxleys and Arnolds dined together on many occasions.
One evening after dinner at Arnold’s home, Huxley was called upon to exercise his medical training with an examination of Blacky, Arnold’s cat, enveloping the creature in his table-napkin in order to examine a broken hip-joint.13 A number of letters survive from Arnold to Henrietta Huxley, conveying invitations, sympathy at times of illness, and, particularly from the late 1870s on when the couples saw each other less, Arnold’s deep regard and respect for her husband. The families were brought still closer when Huxley’s eldest son Leonard married Arnold’s niece, Julia.”

In order to understand White’s essay, I’m going to have to violate that 500 word rule about blogs and quote some Huxley at length. And, in the spirit of unfairness, I'm not going to quote Arnold. This is a long quote, from his lecture on Science and Culture. I think the quote is entirely contemporary, and puts into canonical form an issue that is still with us. I’ll get back to the rest of White’s essay tomorrow.

Here’s the quote:

“Mr. Arnold tells us that the meaning of culture is "to know the best that has been thought and said in the world." It is the criticism of life contained in literature. That criticism regards "Europe as being, for intellectual and spiritual purposes, one great confederation, bound to a joint action and working to a common result; and whose members have, for their common outfit, a knowledge of Greek, Roman, and Eastern [143] antiquity, and of one another. Special, local, and temporary advantages being put out of account, that modern nation will in the intellectual and spiritual sphere make most progress, which most thoroughly carries out this programme. And what is that but saying that we too, all of us, as individuals, the more thoroughly we carry it out, shall make the more progress?"3

We have here to deal with two distinct propositions. The first, that a criticism of life is the essence of culture; the second, that literature contains the materials which suffice for the construction of such a criticism.

I think that we must all assent to the first proposition, For culture certainly means something quite different from learning or technical skill, It implies the possession of an ideal, and the habit of critically estimating the value of things by comparison with a theoretic standard. Perfect culture should supply a complete theory of life, based upon a clear knowledge alike of its possibilities and of its limitations.
But we may agree to all this, and yet strongly dissent from the assumption that literature alone is competent to supply this knowledge. After having learnt all that Greek, Roman, and Eastern antiquity have thought and said, and all that modern literatures have to tell us, it is not self-evident that we have laid a sufficiently broad [144] and deep foundation for that criticism of life, which constitutes culture.
Indeed, to any one acquainted with the scope of physical science, it is not at all evident. Considering progress only in the "intellectual and spiritual sphere," I find myself wholly unable to admit that either nations or individuals will really advance, if their common outfit draws nothing from the stores of physical science. I should say that an army, without weapons of precision and with no particular base of operations, might more hopefully enter upon a campaign on the Rhine, than a man, devoid of a knowledge of what physical science has done in the last century, upon a criticism of life.”

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