Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Some Words on the "Third Culture"

Intellectual entrepreneur and publisher John Brockman's idea, or he takes most of the credit. I have a link to Edge.org over there on the side--------->a ways down. It'll give you some background. There's a whole lot of mind-stuff there and I happen to find almost all of it fascinating.

Situating itself in a lineage that includes The Invisible College and The Lunar Society, the Edge thinkers are all part of what Brockman calls the "Third Culture," a historical succession from the problem described by novelist and physicist C.P. Snow, in his 1959 book The Two Cultures, which lamented the artificial iron curtain between the humanist intellectuals and the physical scientists. Professors of English literature were almost proud to not know anything about, say, quantum physics; academic chemistry professors felt bad they were not up on Lake Poets. Or something like that. The point is: this divide was harming knowledge as a whole; all of knowledge belongs to all of us, and we ought to know more about other things, but you know what? The literary critics are just incorrigible in their disdain of science and the language it's written in, mathematics. 

Brockman steps in and says the time of the snooty New York literary critics is over. No one reads them anymore. They have become stale, predictable, and there's a rather large and fairly sophisticated audience of lay readers who are craving the buzz from scientists who can write well for the public. And the ideas coming out of science happen to address almost all of the perennial philosophical questions; only don't expect "God" to play as big a part here. (Or rather: when He does show up, He's probably more surreal than you'd imagined. He might even be an It, or pan-sexual, who knows?) It was Brockman's mission to bring these scientists-writers to the public, and the Third Culture was born. It's a big tent, too. 

You know, for me, it's been a smashing success. As I said, most of this stuff I find fascinating. (Scientists who can explain their version of string theory, or what nanotechnology can already do, or new inroads in Artificial Intelligence, or black holes and the multiverse, or evolutionary psychology and what it says about our sex habits, etc: Hey: OG says thumb's up.) 

It does seem to be a logical, historical succession from the previous Philosopher Kings, the small-tent New York literary intellectuals. (Much more on them in a later OG disgorgement.)

There was a time when most people "did" science, just for kicks. They'd collect specimens, did experiments, bought the most affordable microscopes and telescopes, read Popular Mechanics. When you were a kid, I bet you looked under rocks just for the joy of seeing something marvelous that might be there, hidden, and "Daddy, why is the sky blue?" Gregor Mendel was just dinkin' around! (Well, he was serious about his dinkin', albeit.) The history of astronomy is rife with dedicated amateurs who furthered the science. Why did science become so exclusive? Why did some of us lose almost all interest in it at some point? 

Progressively, science became a hard-core discipline, driven by business interests and the military-industrial complex, which fed the universities. If you were a terrific geek or nerd with math chops, you would have a job. Scientific training became more and more regimented because regimentation "works" in producing an army of "left-brained" technical intelligentsia that can do marvelous things, working in teams...

As you got into the university, if you were "good at math" of had a knack for basic physics or chemistry or biology, you were strongly encouraged - herded - into the sciences. Because the rewards could be so great. (And some smart people really seem to love their physical science; clearly, they receive intrinsic rewards in the teasing out of Nature's puzzles.)

But in this hothousing of more and more scientists for the "Establishment," (<---when was the last time you saw that term?), very many young people who were not great at math got turned off by "science," as if it wasn't for them. On campuses Art and Science were different worlds. Each felt a bit envious of the other, superior, and tragically incomplete: Snow's Two Cultures.

A basic way of looking at this: the intellectuals who were adepts at verbalization and the written word called themselves "the intellectuals," for awhile and got away with it. The scientists, adept in the language of math, were perhaps biding their time?

In science, specialization is all. In fact, you specialize as soon as possible (when qualified), then sub-specialize, then you microspecialize: voila! Ph.D! The synthesizers seem the vast exception: creative, they see the problems accumulating in different areas of one discipline, sense patterns, develop hypotheses, test, experiment, tinker....new theory! (Very rarely: new paradigm!) And it all eventually turns into plasma TVs, laser-beam weapons, the Internet in the palm of your hand, biomass fuels, an fMRI machine, machines that correct other machines, etc, etc, etc.

Brockman's scientists (and he also invites non-physical scientists, and even humanities people to join in the conversation about Big Ideas, much to his credit, and probably because he was involved in the Art world beforehand?) are the cream. They may be geeks, but they are eloquent and interesting to read and listen to. U.S citizens desperately need these people; too bad it's probably the already-formally educated who are paying attention...(NB: the lamentable level of public discourse on evolution, global warming, stem cell research, on and on. These Third Culture types are standing by! They're sitting on shelves in your public library! Oh? American Idol is about to start? Nevermind...)

Now: a proto-Third Culture had lurked long before Brockman got into Wiggy Ideas. When Ilya Prigogine put forth his theory of dissipative structures (early 1970s), he was tapping into a vein that poet-mystic-philosophers had been talking around for a long time. People like Henri Bergson. Titanic thinkers like Alfred North Whitehead. Weird polymaths who sought wisdom from the East. Prigogine (Nobel Prize) said his findings (in thermodynamics) were like a "science of becoming,"a "deep collective vision."

Prior to Prigogine, there was Ezra Pound's project.

Even further back...

If Brockman and his crew have included him, I missed it, but Immanuel Wallerstein has argued that the first Third Culture occurred when the new nomothetic social sciences arrived. This was 19th century stuff. What is "nomothetic" social science? Economics, political science, and sociology and the 19th century search for "law-like" formulations within those fields. The rise of those disciplines created a Third Culture in the ruins of the long-running medieval faculty of philosophy, which split up and became physical science vs. the humanities. Into the lurch: Econ/poli-sci/sociology, all of them fairly dismal, if you ask me...With some major exceptions, in my view. (Some other time, my friends.)

Back to Brockman's cadre of engaging scientist-public intellectuals: there are a lot of them, their work is almost always mind-blowing (to me, at least), and it's a boon for the Overweening Generalist, to say the least. Now, before I apologize for going on too long here, I ask you this Question: is there a Fourth Culture in our midst? If so, who are its constituents, and what's their main thrust?

Apologies for veering into verborrhea; if you stuck with this rant: thanks. And please: any thoughtful dissent is welcome.


ARW23 said...

Fourth Culture? I think one of the constituents, you may be referring here, would be Jonah Lehrer and his unification of human knowledge powerfully expressed in his "Proust Was a Neuroscientist":

"[A fourth culture] seeks to discover the relationships between the humanities and the sciences. This fourth culture, much closer in concept to Snow's original definition (and embodied by works like [Ian McEwan's] Saturday), will ignore arbitrary intellectual boundaries, seeking instead to blur the lines that separate. It will freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and humanities, and will focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience. It will take a pragmatic view of truth, and it will judge truth not by its origins but by its usefulness. What does this novel or experiment or poem or protein teach us about ourselves? How does it help us to understand who we are? What long-standing problem has been solved? ... While science will always be our primary method of investigating the universe, it is naïve to think that science alone can solve everything itself, or that everything can even be solved ... When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art ... No knowledge has a monopoly on knowledge."

One, Two, Three, Four? I think Four is becoming One again. In my view knowledge began as a whole, one and unified in old cultures such as Greece, China, India. Then over centuries it somewhat got divided and monopolized. Or, as you mention in your blog, got "exclusive". BUT, was it really ever completely divided and exclusive? Did it just appear that way? Was it just presented to us that way? In essence, I think, Art and Science are interwoven and I perceive Knowledge as a whole. It seems, to me, knowledge consists of a variety of different fields and I wonder if the absolute division is even possible.

Of course, some like to "divide and conquer", and I agree with your point that any divide of the Arts and the Science has been "harming knowledge as a whole". Again, "No knowledge has a monopoly on knowledge". What a powerfull words by JL.

michael said...

Thanks for this! This is why I started this blog, so the Group Mind of generalist, omnivorous readers would chime in and we could turn each other "on." Note to self: investigate Jonah Lehrer.

The Academy - at least in the US - has long been subsumed into an apparatus of the Military-Industrial-Academic-Entertainment Complex, in my view: scholars must compete for funding. It's mondo cane, and the Old intellectuals, the humanists, are largely radical and try to effect social change via writing, speaking; the newer class, the technical intelligentsia, are very well-funded by the Corporate State. The irony? They are largely politically conservative, but their cultural productions - you're using one of them now - have very radical impact on culture. No wonder the retreat into pomo jargon and writing-to-each-other we see from the bulk of Humanities-side academics. (Or have they never learned to write well for the public?)

Eric Wagner said...

I have not read Proust Was a Neuroscientist yet.

It seems odd for January to arrive and not watch new American Idol episodes. Perhaps I will read old OG posts instead. Go Sanjaya!