Two Cultures – CP Snow

There’s so much commentary on this lecture, I thought it was high time I read it – so I did.

Granted, it started a storm of controversy which still rages to this day. But, frankly, it’s pretty dated polemic rooted in a 1930s mindset that was already pretty well rotted (apart from, possibly, around the Oxbridge high tables of 1959 where Snow developed his subject). Modern references forget Snow’s prediction that world poverty would have ended by 2000. Like many vintage polemics, many of the base assumptions seem rather quaint. But, to demonstrate that the relevance of the two cultures, if there ever was one, is almost non-existent now:

1. Science-literate novelists, like Ian McEwan, Iain Banks, David Foster Wallace and Martin Amis (his first book was about video games fercrissakes).
2. Scientists and mathematicians who write beautifully and persuasively, and have a pretty good grasp of literature to boot: Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Peter Medawar, Douglas Hofstadter, Oliver Sacks, Matt Ridley.
3. Melvyn Bragg.
4. Melvyn Bragg.
5. The internet and technology are pervasive. No one can succeed in any higher seat of learning, even in the humanities, without understanding them.

But, there are a few things that humanities scholars need to understand about the sciences (and probably the other way round, but I can’t comment on those):

1. Mathematical argument, in particular, works in a different way to dialectical argument in discussions. If, as a humanities scholar, you bring mathematics into play, you are forced to play by a different set of rules, or you appear very, very stupid. In mathematics, you can be right (don’t get too het up about Godel’s incompleteness theorem – it’s extremely unlikely to help you). So, for example, if you try to come up with a jurisprudential theorem involving a perfect judge (called “Hercules” for example) who knows the algorithm to calculate the “correct” outcome of a legal question based on the extrapolation of all previously available data, you will have to content with this fact that this is isomorphic to the problem of how many curves will fit through a finite number of discrete points in n-space, to which the answer is always infinity. Hercules therefore has an infinite number of solutions to any given legal problem, and you have proved nothing. QED. There is no more argument, unless there’s a flaw in the maths.

2. Statistical issues are much the same, added to which the complication is that they are terribly counter-intuitive. If a statistician colleague demonstrates, for example, that by using “catch and release” statistical techniques that it’s 1,000,000,000 times more likely that Timon of Athens was written by Shakespeare (or at least by the person who wrote all the other works attributed to Shakespeare) then you really have to shut up about the historical evidence surrounding your pet theory that they were written by Queen Elizabeth, until you can effectively demonstrate the flaw in your opponent’s statistical analysis. The maths trumps your evidence, unfortunately.

3. Reductionism doesn’t destroy beauty. Really. See 5 below.

4. Chaos theory is fascinating, relatively simple, but also easily misunderstood.

5. Evolutionary theory is incredibly simple, but has truly astounding consequences. In fact, any form of emergence is really interesting.

That’ll do for the time being


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