Response to Coyne on the Humanities

I wrote the following in response to this post on Jerry Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution is True. Coyne said, among other things, that “science is the only game in town if you want to ascertain what’s real in our universe,” and he seemed to base this partly on the failure of the humanities to reach consensus.

I’m majoring in computer science and philosophy. I have some thoughts on this.

If you ask a philosophy professor a philosophical question, then they will say “well, first what are all of the possible positions on this issue that don’t contain explicit contradictions, and how many ways can we divide those up? what did Kant say and is that the right interpretation of Kant, because heaven forbid we ignore what Kant said? I have an intuition that this and that are true, and my colleagues have all of these other intuitions and we have to juggle them all.”

By contrast, if you ask a computer scientist a question about computer science, then they will immediately defer to reality. They will run the program or do the math, regardless of what other computer scientists have said. Quicksort is accepted because it works when we run the program, not because it’s been accepted by some authority.

This is the difference between the sciences and the humanities, in my view. It’s not that the humanities can’t make progress, it’s just that the humanities have accepted toxic patterns of reasoning that inhibit progress. I can’t help noting, by the way, that Dr. Coyne’s example of postmodernism is a perfect illustration of my point here.

Originally, the concept of philosophy was awesome. The idea of developing a way of living that is based on facts is what draws a lot of people into studying philosophy in the first place. But I think that got corrupted at some point into a sterile academic exercise.


One thought on “Response to Coyne on the Humanities

  1. Benjamin

    “It’s not that the humanities can’t make progress, it’s just that the humanities have accepted toxic patterns of reasoning that inhibit progress.”

    What an excellent summary.

    I’ve always felt that the humanities could be divided into three camps:

    Those subjects that can make objective progress, because they’re effectively doing science (i.e. making observations, producing testable hypotheses, testing those hypotheses against reality etc.). E.g. study of languages, history etc.

    Subjects where truth and objective progress are somewhat irrelevant., music, creative writing etc.

    And, finally, subjects that think that they’re making progress, but can’t due to their fundamental precepts or principles. E.g. the worst kinds of philosophy, postmodernism etc.


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