Bagg: Lying by omission

Your professors are lying to you.

It’s not their fault, really — it’s the ivory tower that forced them to overspecialize, to become so engrossed in their sub-sub-disciplines that they could no longer see the big picture. But the big picture has been lost. Narrow, territorial disciplines build fences and ignore the insights of others.

The effect is that your professors aren’t telling you the whole story. The kicker? We’re the only ones who can stop this madness. That’s right — Yale students are the last, best hope of academia and, very likely, mankind.

It is American undergraduates who get the most advanced liberal-arts education, and it is therefore we who can best integrate the lessons of the various human sciences.

After all, isn’t that what most of our liberal-arts endeavors really are? What are the “humanities” if not a study of humanity? Philosophy, literature, art history — all different approaches to the human condition. What about social science? Anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, history — all variations on the central theme of human interaction.

It is striking, then, if we are indeed all studying the same thing that we are so loath to learn from each other. Most visible to me is the reluctance of the traditional human sciences to integrate the insights of their newest colleagues in the study of humanity — namely, evolution and cognitive science.

The social sciences and humanities cannot be reduced to other disciplines or to natural science. Far from it — each perspective operates on a different level and has valid and interesting things to say.

However, The study of human nature is no longer confined to the realm of anecdote. No longer should it be acceptable simply to make assertions about all of humanity based on a consideration of one’s own experience, however deep and insightful it may be. We now have a better standard than conjecture and intuition by which to measure human nature.

It is the philosopher’s job to determine what the facts of science mean and what we should do with them. But the question, for example, of whether all of humanity needs religion is one that can be determined by scientists, not by an armchair philosopher. Either it is in our nature or it is not, and as interesting as anecdotal evidence may be, it is not the whole picture.

Almost every social science theory relies on a specific conception of human nature. When Aristotle bases the whole of his political theory on the assertion that man is a “political animal” — his conception can be evaluated by evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists. This doesn’t make his statement worthless, it puts it in perspective: His meaning can be examined in a new light, clarified, and perhaps better used for good in the real world.

The natural sciences will never tell us how to live our lives. But they can change the assumptions we use when making those decisions. They can’t alter the principle, for example, that accountability for actions should presuppose responsibility for those actions, but they can change the way we think about responsibility. It already has — laws regarding teens and the mentally handicapped have seen many changes in recent years because of developments in brain science.

Even more importantly, science can change the way we go about accomplishing our moral goals. If our objective is, for example, to stop men from cheating on their wives, then it might be helpful to know whether or not they are evolutionarily predisposed to do so. This disposition neither justifies nor condemns the action – that is our job. But an understanding of what underlies that action is essential to our response.

Obviously, no scientific consensus exists yet on many aspects of human nature, but this lack of common ground is nothing new; at least science provides a potential way to resolve some of the controversies. Even in the fractured academy, many have started to realize and begun to change. But when they do acknowledge the insights of their colleagues, most academics treat them as interesting but largely irrelevant factoids. Insisting, as they often do, on a definition of human nature without any reference to the developments of natural science, is either lazy or infuriatingly stubborn. It is an unforgivable offense, in the search for truth, to disregard evidence because it is framed in unfamiliar terms.

So the next time a professor tells you that neuroscience has no bearing on philosophy, don’t accept her premise. And when a political theorist tells you that Darwin is irrelevant to Habermas, point out his mistake.

Resist the pressure to conform – for no one discipline captures the whole truth about humanity.

Comments

  • alum

    History, a "social science"? etc

  • Anonymous

    "It is American undergraduates who get the most advanced liberal-arts education", oh boy, talk about living in an Ivory tower. What an illusion!