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On the Three Cultures: a view
from the philosophical side

by Hubertus Fremerey


1. On the "Two Cultures" of Scientists and Humanists

In his famous Rede Lecture of 1959 the English author (Lord) C.P. Snow (1905-80) compared "two cultures" that in his opinion seemed to be peopled by two different sorts of intellectuals, who didn't talk the same language and therefore could not understand each other. One culture was that of classical erudition and "men of letters", those philosophers, theologians, jurists, poets, literary critics and writers of all sorts, who seem to define what the concepts "erudition" and "culture" are all about. The other culture is peopled by scientists and engineers and "men of practical achievement" like managers and politicians and officers and public officials who are "mere practitioners" and not "thinkers".

With his lecture Snow was reacting to the "Sputnik Shock" caused by the launch of the Sputnik by the USSR in November 1957. In his opinion the Sputnik was made possible by the high value and importance the Soviet Union attached to practical and scientific knowledge in its educational programs on all levels. The typical "intellectual" — while having and expressing his opinions on everything — seemed unaware (and even defiantly and proudly so) of the scientific and technical (pre)conditions that more and more define our modern world and that which is in the making.

This situation seemed comparable to that in China around 1900: The old Confucian mandarins clinging to old wisdom and its tradition were unaware of modern technical possibilities which they likewise despised, but then China fell prey to western colonial powers and later to the Japanese. The traditional disdain of western intellectuals for all things technical and practical and scientific was as unjustified, stupid and dangerous as the complacency of the Chinese mandarins had been for China some 60 years back and the whole system of education and curricula had to be reformed in the West just as it had been under the Meiji-Tenno in Japan, lest the communists of Russia and China with their "enlightened" faith in modern science and technology take over.

Of course this "enlightened" faith in modern science and technology had its origins in Western Europe and in the USA of the 18th century and was only adapted by the Russian and Chinese communists later on. In 1851 Queen Victoria opened the first great World Exhibition in London, then "the fabric of the world". The modern steam engine was put into practical application in 1776, the steam ship was invented 1805, the first steam-powered locomotive started the age of the railways in 1825, and the age of electricity began in the 1860s. So the second part of the 19th century was the era of intensive industrialization in Europe and the USA, and the Russian Revolution of 1917 — like the Sunist and Maoist Revolutions in China of 1911 and 1949 and like the Meiji-Revolution in Japan — were late and desperate tries to keep up with the western technical progress.

Against this historical background, the intellectual arrogance Lord Snow chided in his Rede Lecture has to be seen as part of a deeper resistance of conservative thinking against the whole thrust of "modern thinking" and the spirit of "transforming the world by applied science and engineering" altogether. It is then no coincidence, that the resistance against modernization grew first in the most advanced countries.

The struggle between the members of the "Two Cultures" — Scientists and Scholars — thus in its roots goes back to the timeless struggle of conservatives against progressives, of deep moral scepticism against the optimism of "people of action and progress". And much of the common European and Asian hatred of the USA and of modern liberalism and communism — which are both children of the hopes of Enlightenment — only mirrors this pessimistic (or realistic?) resistance against the (false?) hopes and promises of "progress by science and technology". The arrogance of the elderly and conservative "mandarins" answers the arrogance of the youthful modern "progressives".

But this picture is a simplification. As the "Marcusean Revolt" and the "Student Revolt" of the 60s made clear, the issues at stake are more complicated: The Revolt of the Sixties was a revolt in the name of a new "real" life of love and tenderness, of peace and mutual understanding and social justice to be realized all over the world by a new youth against a dumb and mechanistic and mindless "progressivism of the elderly". So it's not always the conservative and the churches and mullahs that defend human ideals against "mindless modernism and progressivism".

2. Is there a symmetry between the "Two Cultures"?

Lord Snow in his lecture tends to assume some symmetry between scientific and technical knowledge on the one hand and the "knowledge" of artists and poets and "spiritual masters" of all sorts on the other. But this symmetry does not exist and its assumption is an important misunderstanding.

It is mostly a "why" that haunts pensive people. The question "why?" is the question of freedom and existence: "Why are we here? Why should we do this and not that?" etc. "Why is it, why should it be?" is totally different from "What is it, what must it be?" and from "How is it, how must it be?" The natural order showing up in the laws of nature is, what it is. But the order of a human society, the social and moral order, is not what it is, it is the outcome of human understandings and misunderstandings and of human design.

Of course people are and should be interested in "facts" concerning the world they live in. But they have to take those facts for granted. What really is disturbing people are the questions of freedom, the ethical questions: "Why should we do this and not that?". The questions of ethics, of "what should we do and why, and what should we do not — and why not?" are totally different from the questions of physics and engineering. There cannot be a symmetry then, and in this Lord Snow was just plain wrong.

3. Should and could there be a "Third Culture"?

The above applies to the concept of a "Third Culture" too — and by the same argument. The "Third Culture" is a term coined by Snow himself somewhat after his Rede Lecture to indicate what was needed in his opinion: a third culture peopled by men and women trained or at least acquainted to both cultures — that of the "humanists" and that of the "scientists" — combining their approaches and insights to a new way of seeing the modern and coming world. The term itself was made known to a larger public later on (1989) by the then bestselling book of John Brockman 'The Third Culture'. Brockman made readers aware of a new species of "learned people" that are engaged in very modern ("leading edge") scientific fields (like computation and robotics, micro-biology and bio-engineering, high-energy physics, cosmology, nano-technology etc.), who think on the problems of a world in the making but are mostly unknown to the old "erudite" and "well read" people trained in the classical faculties of "philosophy, theology, law and medicine".

But the dream of a new "Third Culture" never materialized. The serious popularizers of the wonders and horrors and dangers of modern technical "progress" — many of them Nobel laureates in one of the scientific categories of that prize — are hardly ever aware of the meaning or importance of modern philosophical or theological arguments, and maybe not even interested too much. The same applies vice versa to the members of the old faculties as representatives of "the old wisdom". They usually not only don't know too much of modern and forthcoming scientific and technological results, but they are not even really interested. But there are Commissions with members of both "cultures".

The concept of "making people aware of imminent problems" — problems hard to grasp and hard to evade, veiled or not clearly discernible now — is an old one. During the 1960s there evolved what is called "technology assessment" (TA) to study the possible impact of new technical devices and technologies on society, economics, politics, the environment etc. But this approach — while sensible and important — should not naively be overestimated. Prognostics and futurology, trend and impact analysis and even science-fiction are all different sorts of TA. But then of course Marxism was some sort of grand social TA too, and the warnings of Herbert Marcuse and of the Club of Rome have been likewise. There are dangers everywhere and what is new is always risky. If the atomic industry should have been stopped, why not the computer industry, the television industry, the avionics industry, the automobile industry, the electrical industry, the steam engine, the printing press and the using of numbers and letters before? Of course one has tried that.

One can become sensitive to some dangers — and that's it. The debates on the dangers of nuclear energy and on those of global warming and of globalization are important, and those on the dangers of "green" and "red" genetic engineering and of PID and of the possible criminal uses of computers even by the police and the politicians etc. are likewise. All these debates remain open debates that by the very nature of the problems debated cannot be closed definitely. So the term "The Third Culture" in practice designates only a special and important branch of TA concerning some leading edge technologies. But that does not imply that those people inhabiting the Third Culture are more "wise" than the older "intellectual elites. They remain specialists in their relative fields and "technical advisors to the men and women in charge of decisions.

Of course there is one great difference in the quality of some actual debates on our future: The Atomic bomb was the first weapon in history that made the self-destruction of mankind a real possibility. And now with genetic engineering and with microcomputers and nano-technology the possibility to change the very nature of man becomes a real possibility too. That is scaring us — and it should be.

4. Philosophy and the mysterious concept of progress

Now here we are back to the center of philosophy: "What is the nature of humankind — and what should it be?" That is a typical philosophical question that no mathematical or physical argument can answer. It is one of the deepest of those "why questions" commented on above. If we are able to do nearly everything, our top question should be, "What shall we do with our abilities — and why?".

The question of what should be done can never be answered by a reference to facts. That would be "the naturalistic fallacy" (G.E. Moore). Facts always are circumstantial and instrumental. Facts are to be respected, but they don't force us to go this way and not that one. While it may seem "natural" to be out for wealth, lust and power, the monks and nuns in Christendom, Islam and Buddhism vow "poverty, chastity, and obedience" without being forced to do so. There is pride and there is humility — which may be the greater one. There is this exemplary scene of the proud king asking the humble saint, a scene which appears in several cultures in different versions. So the very deep question not asked by the people of the Third Culture remains: What should be the true values of mankind: "Wealth, lust and power" of all sorts or "honesty, love and authenticity" — to name but one possible alternative set of values.

The greatest danger of Enlightenment from the beginning around 1700 till today always remains some thoughtless and ignorant inability of most scientists and engineers to get at a deep and complex understanding of the concepts of "improvement" and "progress": "Improvement in what sense?", "progress to what end or goal?" What indeed does it mean to "improve" oneself? What does it mean to "improve" society? In what way does it matter? Why should it be important? What do we aim to — and why? Lest all these questions seem empty we should always ask what is it, that makes the monks and nuns vow "poverty, chastity, and obedience" without being forced to do so — and without being fools or neurotics.

Philosophers and theologians as representatives of "the old intellectual elites" despise the "naturalists" and the "secular humanists" and "pragmatists" as clinging to "flat" concepts of reality, to concepts, that appeal to the men and women in the street, concepts that are decidedly "democratic" in that they seem to confirm the "common sense" and repudiate any deeper understanding as "elitist". A "deep" concept of reality is — like the Platonist and the Neo-platonist one — a concept that is not restricted to mere facts and rules and laws and effects, but which sees the world as one great cosmos giving sense and importance to the eternal human striving for "the good", "the true" and "the beautiful", not being content with the pleasant and convenient solutions that a mere intelligent animal would prefer.

But this seemingly elitist stand is not necessarily undemocratic in itself: What the Buddha said or what Jesus said surely is not "common sense", but it is not complicated or unacceptable or unintelligible to the common man and woman either. So there is a difference to be made — a decisive difference — between a superficial and convenient simplicity and a deep and fundamental one. The great works of Bach and Mozart and Beethoven are "simple" in a way that is totally different from and even incompatible with any mere "spa music", and the great works of Rembrandt or of Picasso are likewise incompatible with any mere cosyness or pleasantness. So the concept of "simplicity" and "intelligibility" in itself is a very deep and disturbing one.

There are some very deep riddles in human goals and values and concepts of the self and of the world we are living in which cannot even be approached without reference to religious and philosophical ideas and experiences, but which cannot be dismissed as mere sentimentalities or superstition either. As one critic of behaviorism once put it aptly: "After giving up the unjustified anthropomorphic concept of rats we now tend to fall to a rattomorphic concept of man." And this sort of thinking in chains of cause and effect without any real understanding of what the deeper longings of the human soul are aiming at is the great danger of scientific and technical thinking and should be held in check everywhere and by all means.

Of course there should be improvements in the way we handle war and violence and poverty and famine and illness and injustice and human indifference and other evils of all sorts. The promises of the Enlightenment are indeed great hopes for mankind. But ours is a time when by the very progress on the technical fronts not only new dangers but the deep paradoxes of the concept of a good life become visible for a growing number of pensive people. It is these paradoxes that tend to evade the bright scientists and engineers while they eagerly "improve life conditions". And it is these paradoxes that are the traditional field of the "old intellectual elites".

© Hubertus Fremerey 2002

E-mail: hubertus@fremerey.net