We celebrate Albert Einstein as the greatest scientific genius of the preceding century, yet we tend to focus solely upon his theories in physics when we do so. In the 75 years since his death, we have continuously taken steps to place greater importance upon science and mathematics and to downplay the importance of the humanities. Yet Einstein himself would have cautioned against taking this path. He remarked, in a piece for the New York Times in 1952 (and please forgive his exclusive use of male pronouns, which at the time was entirely usual in English):
It is not enough to teach a man a specialty. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine but not a harmoniously developed personality. It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good. Otherwise he – with his specialized knowledge – more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person. He must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions and their sufferings, in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow men and to the community. These precious things are conveyed to the younger generation through personal contact with those who teach, not – or at least not in the main – through textbooks. It is this that primarily constitutes and preserves culture. This is what I have in mind when I recommend the ‘humanities’ as important, not just dry specialized knowledge in the fields of history and philosophy.
How fascinating that at the time he was writing, the danger Einstein saw was that only history and philosophy would be taught in the humanities! Today, neither subject is a priority at most universities, and the humanities as a whole have been relegated to a lesser status next to so-called STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) subjects. Einstein, as this quote and others like it attest, was against this elevation of the sciences above the humanities, against the specialisation that has become the hallmark of contemporary higher education... he saw great danger on the path that we were already upon in the 1950s. We did not listen.
Today, even those of us who value both the humanities and the sciences for their unique contributions to human flourishing will tend to treat the former as worthy and the latter as useful. The impression is thus that the humanities are an optional extra, while the sciences are doing the real work in advancing human knowledge. Indeed, it sometimes seems that what distinguishes the humanities from the sciences is that humanities scholars merely ‘talk’ while scientists ‘do’. But this is an illusion brought about by the impoverished state of our philosophy of science. In actuality, every science is also a discourse. Not understanding this subtle point leads to a great many errors.
The story we like to tell about Einstein's scientific work, and the tales we tell of Galileo and Newton as well, have a nasty habit of valourising these theoreticians and natural philosophers as lone heroes fighting for truth against the Church or some other orthodoxy (e.g. the ether, in Einstein’s folk history). Almost always, these tales are mythically exaggerated - even to the extent of falling into magical science, as previously discussed. Regarding Galileo, Paul Feyerabend is not the only historically-inclined philosopher of science to observe that it was the Church at that time who was more “faithful to reason” in the famous dispute. As Charles Taylor puts the matter: “If we look at the period we’re examining, we see that the mantle of sober scientists was often seized by the defenders of orthodoxy.” In each and every case, looking at what scientists came to accept afterwards is an inadequate way of understanding how they reached these new understandings, which always entailed disagreements being worked through by a community.
What I find particularly fascinating about the relationship between the sciences and their discourses is that contemporary scientists - quite unlike Einstein and natural philosophers like Newton - typically do not understand themselves as being in a discourse at all. I would suggest this shortcoming happens precisely because scientists today are trained in blinkered specialist degrees and do not receive a university education in the sense that Galileo or Newton would have understood, and that Einstein championed. For the natural philosophers, to go to university was to be prepared to understand the world as a coherent whole - a universe, hence ‘university’ (both terms coming from the Latin, ‘universus’ - whole, complete). There was no concept of humanities vs sciences for these scholars, and although there was for Einstein, he urged us to pursue both and considered the humanities to be so important that a good education ought to revolve around it.
A university education in the classical sense required you to understand, for instance, that Newton’s laws of motion spring from Newton’s writings, which were part of a mathematical discourse with his predecessors and peers. Not without good reason did Newton famously claim to be “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Conversely, while I was studying physics at the world-class physics department at the Schuster Laboratory in Manchester, every theory was presented to the undergraduates as if it had come from nowhere, just a magical free-standing edifice, a roof without walls to support it. Humanities scholars broadly understand their fields as sustained by their texts, while contemporary science students are taught misleading nonsense like ‘the scientific method’ instead (see the earlier discussion for why this is incoherent), although I note that, to their credit, no professor at University of Manchester ever suggested any such thing to me. Alas, a great many people today seem to foolishly believe that ‘the science’ speaks for itself, yet that it does so through them, as indeed oracles claimed of the gods that spoke through them (another manifestation of magical science, perhaps...?).
Every scientist is part of a discourse - and they ignore this to their (and sometimes our) peril, most especially because training in one field does not automatically give you expertise in all fields. Newton is not the only one who stood on the shoulders of giants, every scientist (every scholar in every discipline, in fact) necessarily does so, and every mythic image that conceals this poses risks to scientific practice. As much as I have dabbled with being a polymath since graduating, I have only ever managed this by committing to learning new discourses and being willing to both listen and talk to practitioners in those other fields - as I had to do in 2011 with aesthetics and 2012 with the evolutionary sciences in order to write about them for my first two philosophy books. To conceive of the sciences as uncovering truth without borrowing those giant shoulders is to deceive yourself. The sciences are community practices, and have always been so.
Einstein's Hope for the Future
We take Einstein as a scientific hero with good cause, but like his natural philosopher predecessors he did not associate knowledge with intense specialisation, but rather with co-operation within and between disciplines. Remember that Einstein performed no experiments to verify his theories (although he designed one experimental instrument, his “little machine”, which does not appear to have worked) - he didn't need to conduct his own practical research; he could count on the physicist community to be curious enough to want to consider all the possibilities with care, because of their shared commitment to determining the truth of each situation.
As much as I admire the sheer elegance of his mathematical derivation of special relativity, which I studied in high school, there is an Einstein quote that for me sums up his genius more than anything else:
Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem – in my opinion – to characterize our age. If we desire sincerely and passionately for the safety, the welfare, and the free development of the talents of all men, we shall not be in want of the means to approach such a state. Even if only a small part of mankind strives for such goals, their superiority will prove itself in the long run.
The message here may not be immediately clear: it is not enough for scientists - nor indeed anyone seeking to serve humanity as a whole - to be siloed away in a specialism ‘perfecting means’. Yet because we have become so good at doing this, because our means (our technology) have become so powerful, we could easily achieve a state of near-universal human flourishing if only that was the goal we should wish to undertake. It was Einstein’s hope that we would. Yet we did not, and still do not, in part because Einstein’s generation of scientists were the last that learned their science as a discourse, and thus did not look down upon the humanities as somehow lesser, requiring the self-deceit that the sciences transcend human discourse to speak directly with the universe - or as Einstein would say, with God. Einstein would not have said that the moral truth was given by God, however, but discovered by us, through pursuing our disagreements in the humanities, which are at least as important as the sciences when properly understood.
The mission statement I take Einstein to be laying out here is not one I associate with spreading high technology indiscriminately around the world, thus bringing the community-rich ‘Third World’ down to the impoverished social state of our so-called ‘First World’, nor with dictating for all what a technological good life should (or worse, must) be. On the contrary, the safety, welfare, and the free development of the talents of all humanity will be quite seriously threatened by our technology if we do not change how we think about it, a topic I have explored in The Virtuous Cyborg. Rather, I take Einstein as participating in a prior discourse (a lowly humanities discourse...), that of the Enlightenment philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, whose major works Einstein had already read at age 16. I take it, therefore, that Einstein was proposing to work towards what Kant suggested was the “merely possible” future state where we can support everyone in pursuing their own chosen ends provided they do not prevent others from pursuing their own ends. Both pseudoscience and magical science disrupt our ability to do this, in part by obscuring the truth that both the humanities and the sciences are vital discourses we cannot afford to disrupt, a fact that has alas become obfuscated by this very division of human thought.
This schism in knowledge - a grenade whose pin was accidentally pulled by Kant in his rethinking of the university system - now threatens everything the Enlightenment strived towards. For me, the best reason to pursue philosophy of science - to take part in the discourse about the discourses of the sciences - is to help fulfil Einstein’s dream of ensuring the safety, the welfare, and the free development of the talents of all humanity, an ideal originally espoused by Kant, Mary Wollstonecraft, and others like them. In so doing, I join Einstein, Wollstonecraft, and Kant’s discourse, without of course ever speaking to them. It is my hope, vain though it might be, that more might still follow us - but I fear this will not happen without a seismic shift in our understanding of the contributions both the humanities and the sciences make towards our collective knowledge, and with it a vast and long overdue improvement to our philosophies of science.
Comments always welcome.