Mending the Gap
I finished reading a book and wanted to write something about it. It is a bit dense, not so big, but definitely interesting. It took me a long time, I read it in parts due to the “professional” readings for the classes and other activities.
It is the last book of the monster Stephen Jay Gould.
Gould, John Lennon – and others - are surely among (as he says) my personal heroes. It is not one of his best books, I would say. But the subject always catches my attention: the attempt to bring the humanities and science together. The arguments are not surprising, neither the conclusion: Gould, of course, was coherent with his ideas along his entire career. I could imagine his arguments before he actually says so. Curiously, he writes about complexity and contingency in a similar way compared to my humble personal text about moths and my work. I felt glad that we had a similar chain of reasoning.
In the heart of his idea is the refutation of reductionism as a logical way to bring together the science and the humanities. He says that the humanities (including arts, ethics and religion) cannot be reduced to smaller and smaller units in the complex web of organization of knowledge. To support his reasoning, he states two basic arguments to refute the idea that it is possible to “reduce” the humanities into the science or vice versa: emergence and contingency.
This is a bit abstract, but completely understandable (I am not giving any concrete example). Emergence should be applicable to those properties that result from the interaction of units in a lower level of organization. When two “things” interact, a third component may emerge from this interaction, and ultimately it cannot be reduced to the units that once originated it – it has to be studied in its own level of complexity. The study systems targeted by the humanities are very complex, with multiple variables interacting at the same time achieving different results (like ecology and evolutionary biology in some extent). This complexity should be studied in detailed as a whole, with its units, interactions and outcomes.
Contingency. I already wrote in more detailed about this one. But in the humanities, historical “accidents” should be the usual pattern. This historical aspect of any kind of study is retrospective. Contingency is not reducible. It is what happened. And something always happened.
In conclusion, he says that we should not reduce the Humanities into the Science, but instead to see them as unique and complementary domains. That it is not time to fight against each other. It is time to unite their strengths and qualities for our own benefit: the ultimate wisdom.
When I read this last book of a great genius (unfortunately he died prematurely), I felt in the last and critical sections, when he was explaining why reductionism is not possible, that he was tired. I may be completely wrong. But he is an essayist and usually allows his feelings go to the writing.
He fought all his life to support his sometimes-unusual ideas. I have never had any problem to understand him, and although I do not support everything that I read from him, he is with no doubt a great influence to me and to science in general.
But, anyway, I think he deserved a better book to be his final one. The book is good; he has a good resolution and good arguments.
He was a humanist and scientist, a truly pluralist.
He wrote about everything. His essays sometimes fond me with surprises and intellectual wonder, especially when I was an undergrad. That’s exactly why I think he deserved more. A book to be remembered forever. I do not know if this book will be.
Yet, I think he will.
- The name of the book is: The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox – Mending the gap between science and the humanities - Here's the Amazon link