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Biology 103
2003 Third Paper
On Serendip

Big Questions: Conversations inside the Third Culture

Su-Lyn Poon

      In 1961, C P Snow introduced the idea of the "two cultures", the scientists and the literati, divided by a lack of communication that had been crystallized through academic specialization (1). Thirty years later, John Brockman unveiled the Third Culture as the new face of intellectual life, consisting of scientific thinkers who had ousted the traditional literary scholars in "rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are" (2). He has been criticized for his fragmented vision of intellectual culture, which affords no place to non-scientists in spite of the apparent inability of science to provide answers to the "big questions" that we ask (3). But are we defining these particular questions in a way that excludes science? If these are issues of truly universal significance, then no single discipline can claim monopoly over their interpretation: answers must draw from broader horizons.
      The scientific optimism of which Brockman boasts has been approached with much cynicism by humanist scholars. Much discomfort arises not from scientists' claims to general truths about the world, but from the assertion of many scientists that their work stops at the process of discovery: science has nothing to do with how politicians choose to apply their ideas (4). Humphrey (5) points out that it is a great cause of anxiety when those who generate knowledge disclaim all responsibility for how that knowledge is put to use, whether in the form of eugenics in the past, weapons of mass destruction in the present, or even possibly thought control in the future (5).

      Appleyard recognizes that science aspires to be a value-free pursuit of knowledge, but also that such pursuits are inevitably conducted in a value-laden world (4). If scientists refuse any role in shaping these values, then it is for the humanities and social sciences to help us understand the significance of scientific progress (6), whether it is through the way in which we define life, when confronted by abortion and cloning, or how increasingly closely-integrated communication networks have transformed human relations across the expanse of space and time. In this respect, Brockman's scientifically imperialistic conception of intellectual culture lacks the "questions of subjective, of spiritual and of social values" (3) that must lie at its heart.

      Furthermore, the criteria by which the sciences have established themselves and the standards to which they proudly hold have been responsible for the impressive advances, but as Taylor points out, "there are places where experiment and verification cannot go" (5). Given Brockman's emphasis on empirical facts, his understanding of "what it means to be human" (5) seems lacking. There is little room for the consideration of the moral dimension of the human experience. His words echo with what Leavis criticizes Snow for: an inadequate sense of human nature and human need (7). After all, according to Lanier, there are questions that must be addressed by any thinking person that lie outside of the established methods of science (5).
      If so, is it reasonable to expect science to provide a full worldview that can provide answers on the moral and spiritual levels? Hut's answer is hesitant: "Science just isn't far enough along to address that quest" (5). Instead, the scientific method should be used to sort through our inherited wisdoms, to separate that which is still useful from the dogmatic trappings of the past. Taylor maintains, therefore, that the promise of science lies not in "sweeping away other aspects of existence ... (but) respectfully deepening understanding of what it is to live and die as a human being and observing the universe from that perspective" (5).

      How is it, then, that Brockman can distinguish the achievements of the Third Culture, which he rightly predicts will affect everyone, from those of the humanities, described as the irrelevant and "marginal exploits of a quarrelsome mandarin class" (2)? Horgan reminds us that humanist scholars like Judith Butler, often derided for her work in deconstructing sexual identity, are "far more engaged with reality our human reality than are string theorists or inflationary cosmologists" (5). Ludwig Wittgenstein went so far as to argue that even when all the questions posed by science have been answered, the problems of human life will remain untouched (4). But is this true, or even a fair assessment of the purpose of science?

      What Brockman failed to make clear was that the sciences and the humanities have different goals, that the "deeper meanings" that the humanists seek are not necessarily the same that the scientists seek. Comprehension may arise from explanation, as offered by Pinker in his biological account of human nature (5). But we learn too from empathy (some may say more powerfully), as from Shakespeare's portrayal of Lear as the figure of fallen pride, repentant too late. The different approaches of sciences and the humanities obscure the relationships that do exist between what are often seen as separate cultures. Levine maintains that a kinship binds the two, that "science and literature reflect each other because they draw mutually on one culture, from the same sources", and yet they remain different enterprises, "(working) out in different languages the same project" (8).

      It is thus erroneous of Brockman to expect the goals of the humanities to align with those of the sciences, or to expect them to become empirically-based (Hauser, 5). By this same token, however, it is also unreasonable to expect the sciences to answer our big questions in the manner that we have posed them. One may argue that the point of science, given its specific methodological commitments, is to be held to a different set of questions, a different manner of asking and seeking answers. It is in bridging this gap that we see the power behind the enterprise of the Third Culture, which, contrary to Brockman's puzzling portrayal of it as predominantly scientific, draws a large number of its members from the humanities and social sciences. Smolin describes this community as characterized by a new epistemology, rooted in a pluralistic, relational approach to knowledge that gains from the rich exchanges between its diverse participants (5). Nagel's "view from nowhere" has proven unfruitful, and is here usurped by the view from everywhere.
      Perhaps nowhere is there a clearer record of the extent of this bridge-building than the World Question Center (9), an archive of questions and responses from the Third Culture. I provide a short list of some of the entries from 2002 as an indication of the breadth and depth of conversation. The contributors of these ten questions include professors of astrophysics, biology, classical studies, mathematics, physiology and social psychology, as well as science writers and laboratory directors.

* Can democracy survive complexity?

* Is it conceivable that the standard curriculum in science and math, crafted in 1893, will still be maintained in the 26,000 high schools of this great nation?

* Can there be a science of human potential and the good life?

* Why do we fear the wrong things?

* Will non-sustainable developments (i.e., atmospheric change, deforestation, fresh water use, etc.) become halted in pleasant ways of our choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice?

* Are space and time fundamental concepts or are they approximations to other, more subtle, ideas that still await our discovery?

* Could our lack of theoretical insight in some of the most basic questions in biology in general, and consciousness in particular, be related to us having missed a third aspect of reality, which upon discovery will be seen to always have been there, equally ordinary as space and time, but so far somehow overlooked in scientific descriptions?

* Do the benefits accruing to humankind (leaving aside questions of afterlife) from the belief and practice of organized religions outweigh the costs?

* Why bother? Or: Why do we go further and explore new stuff?

* Do 'folk concepts' of the mind have anything to do with what really happens in the brain?

      These pages stand as testament to the fact that science, in spite of its inability to answer some of the big questions that we have, is still willing and able to pose some of its own. It also presents with determined clarity the fact that the sciences and humanities (and everything in between) cannot and should not ask their big questions in isolation from or ignorance of each other. This is the hope of the world that the Third Culture bears: that we will begin to see holistic, encompassing answers rather than specialist treatments of a narrowly-defined topic.


(1) Snow, C. P. (1959). The two cultures and the scientific revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press.

(2) The Third Culture - An essay introducing the Third Culture.

Durant, J. (1995, June 1). Off line: the third culture. The Guardian (London): pg 9. Retrieved December 19, 2003, from Lexis-Nexis database.

Appleyard, B. (2003, November 30). Mugged by the science mafia. Sunday Times (London): Features; News Review 9. Retrieved December 19, 2003, from Lexis-Nexis database.

The New Humanists: Science at the edge - Introductory essay by John Brockman and responses to it from members of the Third Culture.

More on the Science Wars (2003, February 23). From the weblog of Steven Shaviro, Professor of English at University of Washington. Retrieved December 19, 2003.

Leavis, F. R., and M. Yudkin. (1962). Two cultures? The significance of C. P. Snow. London: Chatto & Windus.

Levine, G., and A. Rauch (Eds.). (1987). One culture : essays in science and literature. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press.

Edge: The World Question Center - An archive of responses from scientists, thinkers, etc. to the questions that John Brockman has posed.

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