Humanities, the enemy of Science

When I was younger, I strongly favored sciences and mathematics over humanities. I didn’t enjoy the seeming arbitrariness in what I was learning about humanities, and the fact that what was rewarded didn’t seem conceptual but factual (in sciences and mathematics, I felt I was taught the concepts and the way to derive facts from them; in humanities, I was supposed to regurgitate the facts I was taught — it seemed like memorization). Moreover, I cringed at a thought of the imprecision of humanities (what do you mean there is no exact answer?); if there was no verifiable, universal answer, how can we agree on anything, let alone be assessed on our knowledge of it? Finally, I could not for the life of it understand why everyone around me seemed to prefer humanities. Did people really prefer memorizing dates and causes of wars to deriving results from relatively few theorems?

As I grew older (and as I learned to take deep looks at my observations), I discovered a certain complexity to the above picture which made it not so obvious anymore. First, I realized that mathematics, sciences and humanities (in that order) are disciplines on a continuum and that continuum has several important characteristics. I already knew that as you move from the former to the latter,

The disciplines become less precise and exact, that is, it becomes harder to make statements which can be validated, verified, and agreed upon

I had also observed long time ago that

They seem to require more information for the same amount of conclusions drawn (memorizing many causes of wars vs knowing only a few mathematical formulae)

However, what was a relatively new realization (and what gave me a rather powerful aha moment) was that

They are increasing in complexity because of the systems they are trying to describe and whose behavior they are trying to predict

In retrospect, this last characteristic is pretty obvious, but it has powerful implications:humanities tackle much more interesting (and important) problems. They deal a lot with the human nature, with what makes us us, with inter-personal relationships, with our feelings and intangible abilities (such as the appreciation of the art). In a way, humanities take the world for what it is even if they can’t fully grasp it, as opposed to creating a simplifying model of the world and making exact predictions about it.

Let’s take mathematics, for example. What got me very excited about it was how richly it could talk about the world constructed just from a few assumptions, for example, discuss all numbers existing in nature (and even those that don’t!) by starting with five simple axioms. It could describe an incredibly complex world of geometry by postulating five things (and eight even more complex worlds by tweaking the fifth one). Yes, mathematics is exact — once proven, statements remain proven — but the domain that mathematics deals with is so narrow that it doesn’t really correspond in any meaningful way to the real world; it can’t even get to a kind of complexity we’re dealing with every day.

Similarly, the ethos of all sciences is that they propose and test models based on consistent observations. A model is a gross oversimplification of some real-world phenomenon; again, sciences (in the strict definition of the term) are unable to talk richly about any sufficiently complex phenomenon — in fact, physics (probably the purest of all sciences) chokes on even the simplest (in terms of the amount of complexity) systems — one of the interaction of inanimate matter in the universe.

So instead of thinking of humanities as “weaker” forms of the sciences or mathematics, I started thinking of humanities are their “more ambitious” forms. True, because the complexity mounts so quickly, the specific disciplines we know of as “history” or “economics” are more vague and less precise than the sciences, but fundamentally, the problem is simply much more difficult. Unsurprisingly, more information is required to make the same level of predictions.

Once I realized that the humanities and the sciences are the same conceptual discipline that happens to deals with problems of varied complexity, I realized that while humanities scholars have the humility to point out the inexactness of their disciplines in search for answers to complex problems, scientists don’t convey the flip side (that the exactness of their responses comes at a cost of transforming what’s around us to something simpler. In a way, then, the problem with the sciences is that the apparition of precision creates a dangerous approximation. Moreover, by forcing you to frame yourself in terms of models, sciences tend to be escapist and detach you from your nature; wouldn’t you rather feel the answer even if you can’t write it down, than write down a precise answer to a much more simplified question?

A final strength of humanities is that they don’t constrain themselves to be brittle. In mathematics, out of billions of statements, if you insist on just one to be different, you destroy all of mathematics. In physics, a new discovery may force us to rewrite the textbooks that we have used to teach generations (this has, in fact, happened about a hundred years ago already!). In a way, past results in the sciences are not indicative of future performance. But the lessons of history, even if imprecise, are a pretty good beacon for its future.