Video, podcast, and summary: “Ultimate Truths: Comparing Science and the Humanities”



This Communications Forum special event will explore the differences and similarities in the kinds of knowledge available through inquiry in the sciences and humanities, and the ways that knowledge is obtained. The panelists will be historian, novelist, and columnist James Carroll; philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein; author and physicist Alan Lightman; and biologist Robert Weinberg. Seth Mnookin, Associate Director of the Forum, will moderate.


James Carroll is a historian, novelist, and journalist. His works of nonfiction include An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, and Constantine’s Sword, now an acclaimed documentary. Writing frequently about Catholicism in the modern world, Carroll has a prize-winning column in The Boston Globe. He is Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University in Boston.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a philosopher and novelist and the author of ten books, including, most recently, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction and Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. Goldstein is on the World Economic Forum’s Global Council of Values and was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association in 2011. She is the recipient of numerous awards for her scholarship and fiction, including a MacArthur Fellowship.

Alan Lightman is a physicist, novelist, and essayist. In astrophysics, he has made fundamental contributions to gravitation theory, the behavior of black holes, and radiation processes in extreme environments. His 1993 novel Einstein’s Dreams was an international bestseller, and in 2000, his book The Diagnosis was a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. He is currently Professor of the Practice of the Humanities at MIT and teaches in the Graduate Program in Science Writing

Robert A. Weinberg is one of the world’s leading molecular biologists and the discoverer of the first gene known to cause cancer. His work focuses on the molecular and genetic mechanisms that lead to the formation of human tumors, and his recent work has examined how human cancer cells metastasize. In 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor. Weinberg is Professor of Biology at MIT and a founding member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

Seth Mnookin is Associate Director of the MIT Communications Forum and Acting Director of MIT’s Gradute Program in Science Writing. His most recent book, The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy, was published in 2011.


[This is an edited summary, and not a verbatim transcript.]

Seth Mnookin, Associate Director of the Forum and the moderator for the evening, began by introducing the panelists. Mnookin explained that the evening’s discussion was the result of an exchange that took place during the Question and Answer portion of the Science in Fiction forum last spring. In April, panelist Alan Lightman and audience member Mary Fuller, Head of the Literature Section at MIT, began debating the differences between the sciences and the humanities.

James Carroll

James Carroll

Each panelist gave a brief opening statement. James Carroll began by describing the contributions of two medieval philosophers and theologians: the French logician Peter Abelard, who played a large part in initiating Christian humanism, and the Dominican friar and priest Thomas Aquinas, who would have found little meaning in the distinction between the sciences and the humanities. For Aquinas, Carroll said, “it was all knowledge.” Aquinas also believed that “not knowing” is an important form of knowledge—and that the purpose of knowing is love.

Alan Lightman spoke next. Both the sciences and the humanities seek understanding and truth, he said, but the truths they seek are distinct from one another. Scientific truth is external, while humanistic truth lies within human beings—who are by nature ambiguous. While ambiguity is important to the humanities, scientists hate it, Lightman said.

Alan Lightman

Alan Lightman

He added that scientific theory has a “right and wrongness” that the humanities lack; it is possible to attain repeatability while testing hypotheses in the sciences, but it is harder to do so in the humanities. Lightman concluded by saying that he was happy to live in a world with “both certainty and ambiguity”—the former reassures him while flying in airplanes engineered through careful study of aerodynamics and physics, while the latter makes conversations more subtle and engaging.

Rebecca Goldstein offered a definition of science as the “best means of telling us what is.” Science, she said, has developed a technique for getting nature to “answer us back” and correct our faulty intuitions. She defined the humanities as an “exploration of…inwardness,” an investigation of “an inner world of subjectivity” formed by memories, emotions, and intuitions. She noted that science requires philosophical arguments, but in her view, philosophy does not fit with the experimental sciences or the humanities. Goldstein views philosophy as “a technique that tries to maximize coherence.”

Robert Weinberg introduced himself as a “practitioner of basic science.” Biologists, he says, are “travel guides” for the last 3.5 billion years of Earth’s history. No law of physics preordained life on Earth. Instead, he affirmed, a series of contingencies has defined both the history of life and history as a subject in the humanities. He noted that the extinction of the dinosaurs, the evolution of bipedal humans, and the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD were all “historical accidents.”

Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin

Mnookin then asked Lightman if he viewed the social sciences as part of the sciences, and the arts as part of the “traditional” humanities. Lightman responded that he didn’t think it was appropriate to “lump all social sciences together.” Some are more like the physical sciences and some are more like the humanities; he cited economics as an example of a social science that can itself range from mathematical to sociological in nature. Goldstein added that there are “different approaches in the physical sciences as well,” noting that experimental and theoretical physicists would operate in different ways. But she considers the social sciences to be sciences, she said, because they involve tests that aim to correct our intuitions.

Here, Carroll wondered if distinguishing the sciences from the humanities was a “destructive dichotomy.” It would be better, he suggested, to remove the distinction and view “knowledge” as a single category. We all attain knowledge in the same way, Carroll argued: we create models, whether they are experiments, images, or narratives. “Intellect is a function of the imagination,” Carroll said. When the two are viewed separately, artists are expected to exist in a realm driven by feeling, not discipline; the “soft” humanities can be denigrated by comparison to the more “rigorous” hard sciences.

Mnookin recalled Lightman’s comment that scientists dislike ambiguity, and asked how Weinberg felt about ambiguity in his scientific results. Weinberg agreed that scientists hate ambiguity. Regardless of the profundity of the result, he said, they want to know that their results are not dependent upon human interpretation. He added that scientists want results that will “stand the test of time” and still be true in thirty years. Mnookin asked if this limited the questions that scientists are willing to tackle. Both Weinberg and Lightman said yes. If someone in his laboratory proposes an experiment, Weinberg explained, he asks that scientist to define what unambiguous results they will receive. Might some important questions be overlooked, Mnookin asked, because certain steps of their answers involved ambiguity? Weinberg said this was possible.

Rebecca Goldstein

Rebecca Goldstein

Goldstein said that she finds a lot of ambiguity among scientists’ descriptions of what they are doing while they do science; addressing this, she said, requires philosophy. Referring to twentieth century philosopher of science Karl Popper, Goldstein noted that some scientists have a Popperian view that science aims to falsify; this means that nothing will stand up to the test of time. Lightman agreed that the explanation of what a scientist is doing is not science, but philosophy; “the thing that he did is science.” Carroll reasserted that he found a distinction between those who ask “what is?” and those who ask “what does it mean?” problematic and even “inhuman.”

The panelists then briefly debated the issue of perception versus reality in the sciences. Weinberg said he prefers to distance himself from subjectivity. He believes that an objective reality exists: maps of the world or diagrams of cells are real, and not just “artifacts of our perception.” Carroll asked why one’s subjective perception could not be a reality, arguing that knowledge requires a conditional “knower.” Weinberg replied that one pretension of science is that if a Martian landed on Earth, it would “converge on the same set of conclusions” that humans have, even if its brain operated in a completely different way. If this is true, he said, the intervention of the human mind becomes a “historical artifact” rather than “an important constituent” of reality.

Mnookin asked Lightman if he experienced a similar creative drive in both physics and fiction. Lightman said that the “creative moment” feels exactly the same in both endeavors. In physics, he said, it is the experience of struggling with a problem, of having a sudden shift in perspective, and then seeing the solution. In that moment, “you’re totally free of your ego…it’s a very beautiful experience.” The same thing happens, he said, while writing fiction. But to have this experience in any discipline, Lightman asserted, “you have to have a prepared mind”: you have to know the tools of the trade and where the frontiers lie in the field.

The Q and A session began with Mary Fuller. Fuller said she felt some terms in the discussion had not been defined well; for example, she felt that “ambiguity” was being used to mean “vagueness,” but from her perspective, ambiguity refers to multiple values being possible simultaneously. She also argued that there are disciplines that fall between the sciences and the humanities, like cosmology, which is scientific but studies unrepeatable phenomena. Even the humanities attempt to describe “what is,” she said, with a focus on aesthetic objects.

Goldstein agreed that there is an “intentional” and “cultivated” ambiguity in creating art, which allows others to engage it subjectively. Mnookin wondered if the humanities could be described as an interpretive discipline, while the sciences were an empirical discipline.

Chris Peterson, a research affiliate at the MIT Center for Civic Media, asked if the panelists could offer a definition of the humanities, specifically the human character. Are the humanities defined by ambiguity and unpredictability? Before people understood the science of non-human actors like the sun or sea, they assigned these entities human agency, he said, so “is human just another word for what science cannot yet predict?”

Embedded in this question, Carroll said, is “what is a human being?” Carroll answered that a human being is “an image-making creature,” and that science is itself a process of image-making. This process is always ambiguous because “an image is never identical with the thing it images.” Weinberg replied that the humanities are about the human mind and soul, while science is about the objective outside world. Goldstein added that the humanities study “what it’s like to be human.”

Chris Meyer, an entrepreneur, noted that the scientific method has made it easy to design laboratories for the sciences; is it more challenging to study the humanities, he asked, because there are no laboratories designed for humanistic study?

Robert Weinberg

Robert Weinberg

Mnookin asked if this question might bring up moral issues of human research. Weinberg responded that, humane or inhumane, experiments on people are flawed because the human mind is too complex. In the future, he said, we might be able to more precisely address the “independent variables of the human mind,” but we can’t at this time. He doubted that the human mind could ever be reduced to predictable processes, even with better tools. Goldstein said that certain sciences have led to discoveries in the humanities—for example, evolutionary psychology studies issues of moral evolution—but people in the humanities have resisted this.

Joseph Seering, a researcher at MIT, brought up the relationship between the academy and activism, especially in emerging fields of sociology. He wondered if this had to do with different understandings of the nature of objectivity.

It depends on whether activism is driven by pre-existing perceptions or objective analysis, Weinberg said. Activism tends to be tainted by the idea that activists arrive at the solution with “ideological baggage.” Goldstein replied that global warming has prompted scientific activism founded on objectivity.

David Rush, a retired professor from Tufts, said he had experienced Lightman’s “sense of revelation” in science. He also addressed Weinberg’s description of how research questions are chosen. Rush noted that many research questions with obvious answers are studied over and over again. Weinberg replied that the greatest challenge in training young scientists is to teach them how to identify what is interesting and consequential, as opposed to trivial data gathering.

Daniel Gross, a journalist, asked about the differences in transmission of knowledge between the sciences and the humanities. How does what we learned from Shakespeare compare to what we learned from Darwin?

Goldstein said that while we can study Shakespeare’s techniques, this type of literary art gives rise to various subjective experiences in different readers. When we read Newton or Euclid, however, it is clear what the author was saying. Mnookin argued that two people could have different takes on The Origin of the Species; Weinberg countered that Darwin’s conclusions have one salient, objective point. Mnookin and Lightman agreed that it was possible to have subjective literary experiences while reading Darwin’s work.

Josh Cowls, a research assistant at the Oxford Internet Institute, was curious about the difference between what we look for and what we find in science. He asked if the scientific method was invented or discovered.

Weinberg said that what scientists find is “a subset” of what can be found, dictated by what we look for—which is shaped by our culture. But the answers themselves should be robust, regardless. Lightman said that the scientific method was discovered over time through a process of “intellectual natural selection.” This method has allowed us to ask meaningful questions of nature that have, in turn, improved our quality of life. Goldstein mentioned David Deutsch: he argues, she said, that any intelligent being in the universe would eventually come to use our scientific method.

Another speaker said that he has found the process of science to be “much closer to a novel than…a controlled experiment.” He asked if we’ve made a “plaster saint” of science by ignoring its messy personal and political sides.

Weinberg said that “the trouble with science is…it’s done by human beings.” The main question, he said, is whether or not the end results are robust, regardless of the messy processes or “egomaniacs” that found them.

Gary Lundsky, a MIT undergraduate studying physics, asked if both the humanities and the sciences make objective progress.

Goldstein replied that philosophy makes progress as its arguments expand coherence, and as the science it studies progresses. She said that philosophy has helped us make moral progress: for example, expanding Plato’s argument against slavery for the Greeks to a universal argument against slavery.

Josh Sokol, a student in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, asked if there was a way to define science separately from the nature of reality, as a set of heuristics that “works because it works.” Furthermore, can a similar sort of definition apply to the humanities as a useful method of studying humans?

Lightman said that discussions about the definition of reality are not scientific. He agreed that science “works because it works,” and said that further characterizations become philosophical. Goldstein asked if Lightman would say that we know fermions or genes exist. Lightman responded that our theories of these scientific entities allow us to predict the outside world, but whether or not they expand our ontology is another discipline.

Mnookin asked Carroll a final question: did he see progress in the history of novels? Carroll said that progress itself is an ambiguous, if useful, idea. He added that the basic idea of the scientific method, in his opinion, is “experience trumps dogma,” something that is the subject of most novels as well. But we cannot abstract from politics, he argued, because the Enlightenment itself was a political revolution, which promoted the power of individuals and the “free play of the mind.” This, Carroll argued, is the basis of both science and contemporary literary art.

Sarah Schwartz

About Sarah Schwartz

Sarah Schwartz was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She spent her childhood getting lost in redwoods and stories, collecting wood sorrel and novels, and learning how to identify constellations and split infinitives. Dreading that someday she would have to make a career decision between the sciences or writing, she studied both fields at the University of California, San Diego, where she earned her B.S. in Environmental Systems while taking Revelle College’s rigorous Humanities series and as many writing courses as possible. She has worked in laboratories at UC San Diego, UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, learning about bacterial aging, natural sunscreens, neonatal hypoxia-ischemia, marine sponge biochemistry, and what to do when you set the ethanol on fire. These experiences fostered her deep respect and appreciation for scientific research and professional scientists; they have also left her eager to keep studying, supporting, and contributing to the natural and physical sciences. Though her primary interests lie in the areas of environmental and human health, Sarah hopes to explore various fields and interdisciplinary challenges, and to generate a broad dialogue about important, exciting science. In her free time, Sarah loves to bake, sing, hike, and obsess about Giants baseball. Thesis: Owning the Code of Life: Human Gene Patents in America


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