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Science vs. Humanities: A Closer Look at the Overlapping Methods of Inquiry

kobieta's picture

            It is in human nature to classify, organize, and put into a structure the things we encounter every day; when we implement this “order” into our lives, we get a false sense of security, a sense of empowerment at being able to have control over the chaos that is our world. When we take time to actually study and analyze these categories and boundaries we have tried so hard to set however, we see that much overlapping and blurring of the lines occur, even in what is originally thought of as two very different things. Often times, there are distinctions created between two things when none is needed. One such example is the boundary set between the disciplines of humanities and science. Using the rules that define realities and dreams to define humanities and science, we see that the defining qualities and more specifically, the methods of inquiry in both science and humanities are so similar—so similar that they can be used for both—that they almost need not be different disciplines.

            That’s not to say, however, that science and the humanities are one and the same. Although the methods which they use to study many observations and ideas and to develop questions and methods to answer them are the same, the subjects of study are still different. Through the same lens, science studies the natural world and how its different species act individually and with others, while humanities studies the inner world of self and the ways which it functions and perceives things. In many ways, these different subjects of study have greatly influenced the widely accepted “qualities” and ways which differentiate science from humanities.

            When the discipline of science is closely examined, it becomes apparent that the rules that govern science are very much like the rules that govern reality. Science is ruled by the subject it studies, by the physical, biological, and for the most part, tangible world; it’s very much like the world of reality. As it is said of science, “the test of replicability, as it is known, is the foundation of modern research. Replicability is how the community enforces itself” (Lehrer). For scientists, they pride themselves in the amount of control they have over their subject. For the science community, the way they answer the questions they ask is through control and replicability. Their logic is that if something is able to be controlled and repeated again and again, then it becomes a truth. The same can be said about what is perceived as reality. Much like the discipline of science, reality is also defined by control and replicability. Control is attained by the belief that one’s reality is controlled by him; the idea of free will is at play, and in fact allows life to be a reality. Similarly, the truth of reality is based on replicability. In court hearings and cases, what they deem truth or reality is based on accounts that different people retell. The one that is replicated the most—the overlap in the stories—is the story accepted as the truth. Thus, the characteristics that apply to science also apply to determining reality and the truth.

            Consequently, the characteristic that makes humanities unique from science is also what makes dreams unique from reality. Unlike science and reality that attempts to gain control and insists on having one, concrete answer, one truth, the widely accepted qualities of dreams and humanities are that they are mere differences in perception. In the humanities, there are all sorts of theories, and none of them ever mean the same for everyone (Culler). There are multiple, accepted truths within the discipline of the humanities; there is never just one answer to anything. The humanities are more content with not knowing, but rather, practice questioning and questioning, never settling on one single answer, because the truth is just based on different perceptions. The same can be said about dreams. They are the filtered versions of someone’s reality and truth; whether a dream is about an event that has already happened or something that is yet to happen, it is always a truth, a part of reality that is filtered by what the dreamer wants to concentrate on. Dreams are commonly defined by differences in perception, just as the disciplines of humanities are, and this supposedly separates it from reality.

            But, what if the things that separate realities from dreams are actually applicable to both? It has long been conceived that memory, a big element of reality, is controlled by the brain, in somewhat of a “biological disk drive, and everything you do, everything you see, all that experience is stored in some kind of neuro code, then later, [you] find a different file, and there it is... a memory” (“Memory and Forgetting”). However, scientists have now come to realize that “memory is not a neuro system of zeros and ones...memory is more creative; on a literal level, it's an act of creation, [where] we're reconstructing those memories, we take bits and pieces of experience, some things get sharpened, others get dulled, and from that create what feels like a recollection” (“Memory and Forgetting”). Thus, the idea that reality is defined by having the power to control and replicate the same thing again and again, is false. Additionally, reality is never always controlled by the self, let alone by just one being. Reality is always based on the interactions of the self with others that surround her and thus, can never be controlled, at least not the way that is commonly perceived.

            Furthermore, reality can be based on different perceptions, a characteristic that is supposedly strictly for the world of dreams. According to Plato, and his arguments in “Allegory of a Cave,” even reality is just different perceptions. A person who has been chained to a cave his whole life, facing only the wall, against a fire, can only ever see shadows. If someone were to show him a book, all he would see is the shadow. Therefore, the book, which can mean an actual book to someone else, can mean another to this man, who perhaps only thinks of the shadow of a book, and never the book itself (Cohen). The very thing that separates dreams from reality is in fact also applicable to reality; what then is the difference?

            Upon further examination, dreams follow in the same path as reality, in that its unique characteristics are not so unique to itself. Dreams are not controllable, very much unlike reality. Often times, however, it is easier to control dreams than it is to control reality. As already mentioned, reality is not only controlled by one single individual, but controlled by the interactions of many different individuals, and thus, many different brains and perceptions. Reality is so complex that sometimes, it is easier to control dreams. There have been instances when what one wants to dream is exactly what the dream will be about. It’s just a matter of being able to control and force the brain to think about before actually dreaming. Sometimes, too, when the mind is somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness, how events unfold in a dream can be controlled by the dreamer. Studies have shown that “Techniques to control, or at least influence, our dreams have been shown to work in sleep experiments. We can strategize to dream about a particular subject, solve a problem or end a recurring nightmare” (Lite).

            Since the defining qualities that segregate reality and dream are in fact applicable to both, it is safe to say that there is a huge overlap in the definition of dreams and reality. It was established earlier that the qualities that separated science and humanities are also the same thing that differentiates dreams from realities. Thus, if dreams and realities are bound by common qualities, so are science and humanities. Once again, it is evident that the aspects of control that science so heavily depends on is not always a reliable outcome, and the different perspectives that the humanities proudly accepts, is sometimes more concrete. Since the rules that govern the humanities are like the rules that define dreams and the rules that govern science are the rules that define reality—and it has been established that they no longer apply and they overlap much more than previous perceived—then the notion that science and humanities are two very different things no longer applies as well. Although science and humanities stills study two very different worlds, they use the same methods of inquiry, and have no defining characteristics, other than the subjects they study.

            In science, replicability is important in exhibiting control; the answers to science rely on the ability of the tester to produce the same results again and again, until it becomes an accepted truth. It has been shown however, that science can’t always replicate results. Many scientific findings are extremes, and experiment results almost always have outliers in the first round. This outlier thus creates a mean that may be more extreme than expected and hence, becomes a new “finding.” Pretty soon, however, a phenomenon called “the decline effect” comes into play, in which there is an obvious regression to the mean. The effect that the outlier has produced in the initial experiment will soon fade, as the sample size gets bigger and bigger, its effect getting weaker and weaker. This continues until the scientist can no longer replicate its initial results, and thus, the answer that was created in the first experiment is no longer valid. In other words, science can’t even reproduce things again and again; in fact, the only thing science can reproduce time and time again is the phenomenon of not being able to replicate results (Lehrer). Thus, one of the practices and logic that science most heavily depends on is not even reliable a hundred percent of the time. Perhaps what’s even more interesting is that what science claims not to be—subjective and based on perceptions—is what defines science in a lot of cases.

            What’s more is that one of the most probable reasons that certain scientific results cannot be replicated multiple times, is that there is often bias, or different perceptions involved—a characteristic of the humanities. When scientists begin on an experiment, they often already know what they are looking for, what kinds of evidence they need in order to answer the hypothesis they are testing. Thus, measurements aren’t always accurate and results don’t always fully reflect the truth, albeit not on purpose. Scientists may subconsciously manipulate results, whether it is through changing the methods or changing the way they perceive and comprehend the results in order to get the answers they want; the very common case of outliers is a result of different perceptions (Lehrer).

            Moreover, not everything in science is as concrete and definite as it seems to be; a lot of scientific theories and principles are based on different perceptions. Take for example, the different types of species concepts. A species a way of classifying all the living organisms on Earth into more manageable sizes that also makes it easier to study how one organism is related to another. However, depending on how a species is defined, the relationships that are present on Earth cannot be fully studied. There are four different ways of defining what a species is. The biological species concept defines a species as a group that can “interbreed in nature, produce viable and fertile offspring, and cannot produce viable and fertile offspring with members of other species” (Principles of Biology). This isn’t the only way to define a species, though. Another way to define species is the phylogenetic species concept which uses the genetic makeup of organisms as a guide to understand who is related to whom and thus, distinguish the different species. Additionally, the morphological species concept uses similar structural features to determine the members of a species. Finally, the ecological species concept takes into consideration the “address” of an organism and its role in its habitat to segregate individuals into species (Principles of Biology). Depending on the definition of species that one uses, studies and observations can mean and produce different things. In this way, science is more composed of different perceptions than concrete definitions.

            Conversely, just as science can be more perspective and less concrete, humanities can be more concrete and less subjective. Kathy Davidson, a proponent of so-called “humanities labs”, argues that the humanities can often be too apprehensive of change and that they tend to work individually, but that in a lab, they will be able to imitate what science has been doing: working collaboratively and constantly changing, discovering, and experimenting old ideas instead of forever sticking to them (Davidson). By doing these things, the work of humanities is more controlled; in a paradoxical way, the presence of a set procedure that can be used again and again, can be used to come up with different perspectives. Davidson proposed the creation of the John Hope Franklin Seminars for Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities at Duke University, in which a problem that is both intellectual and institutional will be broken up, thought about collectively, and solved together, just as a scientific hypothesis would be tested. Besides this “humanities lab” that Davidson proposed, there are already a number of examples of such labs. In some sense, most liberal arts colleges’ humanities classrooms are labs, in which a question is stated and different answers are brought up, and the questions and evidences are thoroughly analyzed and worked on collaboratively. As Davidson describes, it becomes more like the process of science, which is about constant change and discovery. In this way, humanities are not only controlled just like science is, it almost is like science, in its approach of inquiry.

            Consequently, the different perceptions and theories that humanities allows, is sometimes more concrete than it should be. Humanities can sometimes be too defined and structured. Take for example, the Rorschach inkblot test. As is widely perceived, humanities should allow the ability to perceive these inkblots in many different ways. This psychological test, however, says that there are but two ways to seeing things, and depending on which one a person sees, defines the type of person he or she is. The test does not allow for more perception, for more freedom, or even mere creativity, which the humanities seem to be all about. Instead of a spectrum of possibilities, the Rorschach inkblot test only allows point A and point B to exist.

            Furthermore, humanities focus on the individual and how it reacts to its environment and the interactions of things and people around it. It is based on the idea that different people will have different perceptions. However, perceptions are created through controlled, electrical impulses. The studies and experiments done in how thoughts are processed show that the brain cannot distinguish an artificial environment from a natural environment. A brain can be put in a vat of life-sustaining liquid and it can think it is a fully-functioning human being (“Brain in a Vat”). This means that thoughts are not at all based on the individual and different perceptions, it is an equation, a set of electrical messages that are further instructed by chemical substances—DNA and genes—to make up such thoughts and perceptions. It is not at all subjective, but a very controlled science; the mechanisms that create the different opinions, different individualities, is the science of thought.

            Finally, the modes of inquiry in science and humanities are very similar, almost the same thing. Although humanities tend to have several different answers for one single question and science likes one definite and concrete answer, the ways which they use to get to those answers are the same thing. The idea of an English lab that Dickinson proposed, as mentioned earlier, is not necessarily a new idea. If the idea of a humanities lab is simplified, it is evident that what are left are the methods the humanities uses in order to answer questions. Basically, both the humanities and science use the scientific method, which is improperly labeled and should rather be just called the inquiry method. Both disciplines start with a question—whether it’s about the natural world or the inner world of the self—and then a series of steps, or a procedure, is created to test out several possible answers for that question. Although this procedure part is not as obvious in the humanities, it is most definitely used. For example, in literary analysis, when a reader wants to know what it is the author is saying—in other words, the question being tested—she has several different ways or procedures to analyze the message of the writing piece, using genre, tone, and other elements of writing as a guide to shape the procedure. In science, a specific lab protocol is written and established before the actual experiment. Both the procedure from humanities and the procedure from science can be carried out in multiple ways, but ultimately, try to get answers that will eventually answer the question. After the procedure is carried out, the “results” are interpreted to answer the question. In science, raw data is interpreted in able to answer the question. For example, the pattern in an offspring generation can determine the hereditary of a trait. In humanities, the different elements of literature can determine just what the author is saying—or at least what is thought to be the answer, just as the interpretations of raw data in science is never concrete. Even after the inquiry method has been completed, it is repeated several times, and the way each discipline goes about it is the same; the establishment of theories and truths within these disciplines are accomplished by constant revision. The humanities are never quite content with its answers, and always strive to look for more answers; it seems that one answer, one point of view is never enough. In the sciences, although one answer to a question may temporarily satisfy scientists for a short period of time, new discoveries and new studies always lead to new hypotheses, and therefore, a series of revisions. Thus, in the two disciplines, answers—and questions for that matter—are always revisited, edited, re-interpreted, again and again, in a never-ending process. Although science seems more concrete because it likes to acknowledge only one answer at a time—and does so for the most party—it is revisited as often, if not more than humanities are. It is evident that although the subjects that these two disciplines study are never the same—since one deals with the outer and physical world while the other deals with the workings and mechanisms of the inner self—the methods which they use to inquire about the world that surrounds them are the same.

      Once again, it is clear that what was previously thought in general as two very distinct practices is actually quite similar. Apart from the subjects of study, much of science and humanities overlap and in fact, are the same; both science and humanities carefully integrate and intricately weave certain amounts of control, perception, and replicability. In an intertwined braid with the same modes of inquiry, these aspects have come to define both the practices of science and humanities. Contrary to popular belief, there is much similarities and overlap between the two. In fact, if the overlap can be more properly and widely acknowledged, more can come out of it.

      If the two practices were implemented together in every single thing that is examined and studied, perhaps a better, more refined understanding would come out of it. In an essay called Building Two-Way Streets, Anne Fausto-Sterling has argued that science has much too many “practitioners” and barely any “critics.” The practice of science, as aforementioned, is content with finding a single answer until something else can prove it wrong. Scientists are never critical of their work, because in their minds, science is concrete, science is unquestionable. However, the opposite is true for the practice of humanities. Where scientists are always content with a single answer, the humanities has way too many “critics” and never enough “practitioners.” The humanities is filled with people who are always revising the answers to their questions, always trying to come up with the greatest new idea, new solution to a problem. The humanities is all about being creative, and what’s more, about having many different answers to a single question. The humanities is open to interpretation—mainly because there are too many critics who find multitudes of mistakes in one single answer, and therefore keep revising again and again.

      If the science lacks critics and the humanities has too many, and consequently, humanities lacks practitioners and science has an abundance, then perhaps the two practices should be combined in order to get an clear, incandescent mind. In fact, it seems that although much effort has been put into separating these two practices, these two fields of study, both are always needed in order to arrive at a better understanding. For example, the Rorschach test is a psychological test that has been used for several decades in the humanities. It is a method which aids in understanding the psyche, the inner world. Depending on the different interpretations and visuals that a certain person sees in the inkblots, determines what kind of person they are, what they are going through, and most importantly, in understanding the world of the inner self. However, this very humanist practice is actually also quite scientific. In order to fully understand what is going on within a person’s mind, one must apply scientific practices. Certain results mean certain things; there is a science to the interpretations of a Rorschach test. It is as if a formula is given, in which the psyche is the product and the Rorschach ink blots play a huge role in determining what the missing additive is, and it becomes easier to understand someone’s personality.

      If this example is expanded even more, it seems only reasonable to claim that in order to understand life and humans in general, one must use both the practices of science and humanities. It is already established that both implement control, perceptions, and replicability, and that they both use the same methods of inquiry. The only thing that separate them are the subjects—the outside world and the inner world of self—the two things that make up humans, the two things that make up life. Therefore, studies like Biology, is improperly labeled and named. If Biology really was the study of life, it would not be classified as a science at all. It should fall somewhere between science and humanities. In order to have a clear understanding and to be able to fully comprehend how life worlds—at least as far as humans go—one must look both at the outside world, the world of genes, cells, and proteins that make physical life, as well as the inner world of self, dictated by emotions, brain patterns, and interpretations. Only when these two practices are implemented can one have a clear understanding of life and of the subject at hand.

      Once again, the pattern of breaking away from widely-accepted norms and standards exist in understanding life. The categories that have been set in order to establish order, only accomplishes the exact opposite. After all, true order cannot be obtained unless a full understanding of something can be reached. In that matter, then order can never be attained. Perhaps this is the message that the science of entropy always tries to show. Science and humanities, just like realities and dreams under this umbrella of practices, cannot be separated into two different categories because there is much overlapping between the two. In fact, this segregation only succeeds in creating disorder and confusion; the two practices need to be implemented into observing and analyzing any given set of data or observations, in order to fully comprehend a given subject. Just as when a man and a woman will create better ideas and concepts, science and humanities both need to be present to answer a question.

Works Cited and Consulted

“Brain in a Vat.” Wikipedia. 29 Apr. 2012. Web. 30 Apr. 2012. <>.

“Building Two-Way Streets.” Forum. 2012. Jstor. Web. 21 Apr. 2012. <>.

Cohen, Marc. “The Allegory of a Cave.” The Allegory of a Cave. 08 Apr. 2012. Web. 21 Apr. 2012. <>.

Lehrer, Jonah. “The Truth Wears Off.” Reporting and Essays. 13 Dec. 2010. The New Yorker. Web. 21 Apr. 2012. < >.

Lite, Jordan. “How Can You Control Your Dreams?” Mind & Brain. 29 July. 2010. Scientific American. Web. 21. Apr. 2012. <>.

“Memory and Forgetting.” Radio. Jun. 2007. Radio Lab. Web. 21 Apr. 2012. <>.


Naomi's picture

0 critics in science? Google, you can do better, please fix this

The author profoundly misunderstands the philosophy of science. Science not criticised? There are caveats to every experiment and every model. (Research assistant class 101)
The validity of experimental data to change a model of a natural phenomenon is scrutinized by peer review (often peers who are competing), and potentially any person that will ever live in perpetuity. Science is the never-ending criticism of models of the natural world. And frankly, that's why many scientists love what they do; there is always augmentation and change on the horizon. It's important to note, though, that science is powerful and many models are reliable precisely because of their intense scrutiny and accountability to the entire world forever.

Science and Humanities are different ways of "knowing" our world. Their overlap is in different ways of getting closer to a kind of truth. As Sir Polkinghorn proposed - bringing them together gives us "binocular" vision of our world - a richer view with more depth and understanding than either alone. Imagine, if people knew a good amount of science, humanities, and the arts, then we'd all see through those binoculars.

jrlewis's picture

Critics indeed!

I suspect we are missing a quite important piece in this discussion of the humanities and natural sciences.  That is the role the social sciences play in helping us understand the accumulation of knowledge as a group activity.  I am thinking of Bruno Latour and his work in sociology of science... 

Science does not enter a chaotic society to put order into it anymore, to simplify its composition, and to put an end to controversies. It does enter it, but to add new uncertain ingredients... to all the other ingredients that make up the collective experiments. When scientists add their findings to the mix, they do not put an end to politics; they add new ingredients to the collective process.