Marin: We don’t need bridges

“I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river

Is a strong brown god — sullen, untamed and intractable.”

When Eliot wrote these lines in “The Dry Salvages,” he was writing about truth and reality. The river is a reality that we continuously fail to understand. Eliot continues, telling us that the river god is “patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier; / Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce.” At first we recognized reality and truth as a frontier, beyond our comprehension, something we strived to reach and know we cannot cross. Then, we tried to use it to achieve prosperity and happiness. Yet just as Eliot’s river was untrustworthy, so too was our reason. Consequently, Eliot tells us, the river became:

“Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.

The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten

By the dwellers in cities — ever, however, implacable.

Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder

Of what men choose to forget.”

We can now, through science, manipulate the world without even realizing all that we have forgotten to investigate and understand. If this is true, could Serrena Iyer have been correct in saying that science majors are receiving a better education? (“Easily gutted education,” Sept. 18)

I posit that science is the builder of bridges. The strong brown god, the river, is what we attempt to understand through science. For example, the river could be gravity. We should try to understand gravity. Science, instead, builds a bridge over gravity and forgets it.

Science describes gravity, but doesn’t explain what it is. We know it attracts two masses together, but what is this attraction? Why does it happen? We don’t know. Our descriptions of gravity pass off as definitions. Science is full of definitions.

We then learn about the interaction and relations between these definitions. We don’t really understand what mass is, but we can describe it with a term called grams. We can then describe the relationship between one group of mass to another using gravity and time and speed. Time! Another concept that has a “definition” but one that no one understands.

Math is an even better example of building bridges. We come up with definitions such as the definition of a “normal subgroup” and a “group.” Then we play around with all the interactions between these two concepts for which we have chosen the definitions.

Let’s start with something more basic, though. We have a definition for a “1” and “2” and “+” in math. But how can 1 + 1 really equal 2? Two is an individual number — how can it be broken up? And if 1 is 1, then how can 1 turn into 2? These are the kinds of questions Euclid struggled with. Yet we have defined 1 + 1 = 2 and subsequently have forgotten how little we understand about the concept of a number.

Perhaps this explains why there are more gut math and science classes. The first classes in each of these areas focus on learning definitions. After learning these, one learns how to apply them and find relationships between them. The more relationships you find, the more laws, theorems, hypotheses and definitions you have to work with. Consequently, there are even more relationships to seek between all these new ideas. The work gets exponentially harder with each class. And yet, doesn’t it seem like we have forgotten the brown river god by building these bridges of definitions?

The most remarkable consequence of building such bridges, though, is that somehow there is a correspondence between the theorems we derive from our definitions and the real world. So, perhaps we can never come to understand what the brown river god is exactly, but we do learn technical training. In other words, we learn how to manipulate the world around us. Surely, though, even this knowledge of manipulation is limited. How well have our attempts to manipulate nature, politics and the market turned out?

Most importantly, technical training is not the same as education. Yale is also not a vocational school. True education seeks to understand, illuminate and open our souls; this is the goal of the liberal arts.

Humanities classes do not set precise definitions of words like justice, goodness or love. In that way, the humanities make it difficult to build bridges, and instead their students wade into the strong, murky water of the river.

The ideas and questions that we value as humanities majors are tossed about each other in the river, catching the light, playing in the current, coming together and drifting apart as we try to catch glimpses of them and extend our hands trying to grasp them. Our clothes get soggy and dirty as we try to understand the river while the science and math majors walk serenely across the bridge above us, laughing at our foolishness.

Isabel Marin is a sophomore in Trumbull College.


  • Yale Engineer

    Does physics not slowly reveal the beauty and harmony that is the world? Does it not recognize reality and tries to reach the truth? Perhaps I do not know what time is but I know that it does exist and this illuminates me and makes me seek to understand.

    Perhaps, we may not become dirty and marvel at mystery, but at least we stay clean and no longer ignorant.

  • Confused Scientist

    This is the most oversimplified description of science I have ever read. Using the same mode of argument, I could point out that philosophy in general is nothing but definitions and human created abstraction; that modern political science is just poorly appropriated statistical concepts to human interactions combined with outdated philosophy and poorly understood psychology; that history is entirely invented, a veritable story told as meaningfully one way as another. That humanities path to truth is as easily walked blind. But I won’t.

    It’s almost beyond ludicrous that science, of all things, is attacked with post-modern relativism, while somehow not applying that same critique to the humanities and everything else in life.

    One one specific point: an entire branch (or two) of modern physics is devoted to understanding gravity — precisely not just leaving it where Newton began. From general relativity to quamtum loop gravity to theories of gravitons, scientists have an almost insatiable desire to understand the world in its truest form, as opposed to merely how me perceive it generally within our daily lives.

    That said, there are a thousand good reasons science ought to be supplemented by humanities, and a thousand reasonable arguments as to the failings of science. They just are mentioned in this straw-man of an article.

  • 0y9

    Read some Wittgenstein. (The Blue & Brown books are a good place to start.)


    Science DOES explain ‘why’ gravity happens. Subatomic particles are a cutting-edge area of research.

    Just because Honors Physics didn’t cover it in your sophomore year of high school doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    This writing is Exhibit A for why every Yalie should be required to take rigorous science classes – so they don’t look like buffoons when they make laughably false claims.

    I’m not even a science major and the sheer ignorance and lack of fact-checking in this piece made me furious.

  • Quite clearly written by a humanities major.


    The author describes what Husserl calls sedimentation: the process in which the public use of definitions obscures the ambiguities of the definitions themselves. This is nowhere more obvious than in math and the natural sciences, which build theorems from postulates, and then apply the theorems to manipulate the natural world. What Husserl is worried about is an epistemological investment in such theorems – that the means of manipulation sets the horizon for philosophy. Like Husserl, the author of this article hopes that we will not forget the fundamental questions – “the river” – that inspired such definitions in the first place.

    I agree with the author that most practitioners of science have succumbed to sedimentation and do not understand the philosophical import of their own discoveries (though I still thank them for their practical utility), but I am not sure this warrants the author’s conclusion that students of the humanities are much better. Literature certainly yields better emotional purchase on life than do the natural sciences, but then emotional insight is generally not recognized by philosophy as a form of knowledge. Perhaps the deeper problem is philosophy itself. In the Cartesian scheme, which seems to be the authentic successor to Socrates (if not entirely to Plato), the search for truth is the search for certainty, and a proposition is certain only if it can be deduced from undoubtable premises. But if there is no undoubtable premise, philosophy will either lose faith in itself or succumb to its own sedimentation. So on the one hand we have the Nietzschean critique of philosophy, and on the other the extremely sedimented tradition of analytic philosophy.

    Today we live in a world awash in various epistemological investments, naive scientism not obviously worse than any other. Though humanities students get dirty in the river, they are unlikely to find anything there but Heraclitean Flux, a philosophy closer to Nazi ideology than most postmodernists would care to admit. The river will not be understood, nor the bridge redeemed, unless and until something outside the river approaches it in peace.

  • BAT

    Provocative piece, Miss Marin. It’s always nice to read columns that incorporate literary reference points (even if it means Eliot, I suppose). Well done.

    And a very johnstonian response, Mr./Ms. DQDLM.

  • Prufrock

    I hope to see many more allusions to Eliot in these pages from you.

  • Disappointed

    This is a terrible piece of writing, the result of somebody with meek understanding speaking as if she were an authority in the field.

    Simply put: utterly self-indulgent.