A difference between science and the humanities?

This post is going to be overly ambitious and overreaching, but isn't that what the blogosphere is all about? Classes started this past week, and I am teaching an upper-level course in philosophy of science. I started the class with the (overly ambitious) question 'What is science?' We had an interesting conversation, and I learned a bit from my students. There was an extended discussion about which particular parts of forensic science really do count as science, and the question 'What is science?' really matters there, because once something is declared accepted science, then it can be admitted into evidence in a court of law.

I had one thought concerning how to distinguish science from the humanities, which I didn't share with my students, but I figured I might try to articulate here. I think it may just be a slightly different way of putting a tired old point, but here goes.

Both the sciences and the humanities seek understanding; both offer explanations of various bits of the world. At a very abstract level, though, the kind of things each tries to explain is different. Obviously, (e.g.) Hamlet is a very different kind of thing than (e.g.) thermometer readings -- I have a more 'formal' difference in mind. When an English professor gives an interpretation of Hamlet, she has (basically: see (3) in next paragraph) ALL the stuff to be explained in front of her: the text is complete, finished. To put the point in terms of evidence instead of explanation, all the data/evidence she can offer for her preferred interpretation of the text is already in. This stands in clear contrast with (most of?) the sciences: new data is constantly being gathered, and new observations need to be explained. If a similar process were occurring in the Hamlet case, a new Act of that play would be produced every week, and various interpretations were shown to be stronger or weaker as new 'data' (i.e. texts) came streaming in.

I think many parts of philosophy are more like the Hamlet case. Take ethics for example. Murder, stealing, lying, etc. are morally wrong. This is in some sense the 'received/ established text' from which the ethicist works: an ethical theory has to explain why those things are wrong. Of course, there are thought-experiments designed to probe various parts of our ethical intuitions, but (1) these often yield contentious/ equivocal results, and (2) more importantly, I only want to say philosophy is more like the Hamlet case, not that it's identical. (Plus, (3) the English professor could potentially get some new information "around the margins" (to put it metaphorically): further historical details of Shakespeare's life, earlier drafts of texts, various facts about the circumstances of production, etc. -- there is clearly a continuum here with absolutely no new data on one end and lots of new data on the other.)

Another philosophical example would be philosophy of arithmetic. We've known that 7+5=12 for some time now, and the philosopher wants to explain how and why we know it's true. We're not getting a whole lot of new 'data' about arithmetic. As a final example, consider the enterprise that falls under the heading of 'interpretation' of various special scientific theories -- an enterprise which is frequently thought of as being particularly close to science. This industry is perhaps most developed in the case of quantum mechanics, but it thrives in general relativity, statistical mechanics, population genetics, etc. as well. On my criterion, these projects (usually) fall much closer to the 'humanities' end of the spectrum: the game here is to take some standard formulation of the theory in question (e.g. of quantum mechanics) and provide an explanation of that theory. The formulation of (e.g.) quantum mechanics is, I think, like the text of Hamlet, insofar as it is taken to exhaust what needs to be explained. However, sometimes this explanation will (either by itself, or with further specification) generate new experimental predictions. When that happens (as in some cases of spontaneous-collapse interpretations of quantum mechanics), then the project becomes more scientific on the above criterion, and less like the humanities.

Perhaps the criterion I've suggested here can partly explain why many (though by no means all!) physicists express exasperation with the philosophy of physics, and consider the enterprise pointless.


Shawn said...

I'm curious about saying that we're not getting much new data about arithmetic. It seems like there are lots of new theorems being proved in number theory. It also seems like lots of (meta-)results such as incompleteness, proof-theoretic strength, the expressive power of various fragments of it, etc. are being shown. While these don't really affect the case of 7+5=12, it does provide new things to think about.

You sort of made explicit the difference you were driving at. It seems like the difference is that in the humanities case, the data are static (Hamlet's been written) whlie in the science case the data are dynamic (more expremints to do). It seems like the arithmetic example is somewhat disanalogous with this way of understanding things, if that is what you were getting at.

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Hi Shawn --

Thanks for the comment. I thought about more-or-less your point when I was composing the post, and I think I decided on the basis of no good reason that arithmetic is not identical to number theory. I could be completely wrong about that, but I was thinking there is probably some difference between what we teach first-graders and what you learn in a college-level number theory course.

Also, I've recently started reading your blog, and I really like it. Keep it coming!

Anonymous said...

I think whether science is really primarily about explanation depends on the state of the subfield in question. For example, in particle physics and astrophysics the situation is the inverse of what you describe -- there are theories galore, and simply not enough experiments being done to differentiate between them. Notably, this is considered by scientists to be a sign of illness in the subfield -- perhaps indirectly proving your point that for science, the influx of new data is crucial to maintaining its character as science.

Anonymous said...

I think your proposed demarcation criterion might work. As you and ponder stibbons both note, it explains why scientists get fed up with certain lines of enquiry and not others. Interestingly, however, I don't see how it could underwrite any epistemic difference between science and non-science.

Anonymous said...

Hi Greg,
You are tagged! There is a virtual tag-game going on in the blog-osphere, and now it is your turn to tell five intriguing things about yourself or your blog and tag five other people to do the same.
My five confessions you find here: http://stijnsfilo-blog.filosofie.be/index.php?/archives/72-Uitgetikt.html (they're in dutch but if you want I can translate them for you :-) )

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Ponder --

You're definitely right, and you've put the point well.

P.D. --

Don't some people think there IS an epistemic difference between prediction and accomodation? (To be explicit, I'm thinking of an interpretation of Hamlet as 'accomodating' the text.) I actually don't know who the current defenders of such a view might be; do you?

And for Stijn: I'm pretty sure there's nothing "intriguing" about this blog... though I suppose the fact that human beings actually look at it is somewhat puzzling.

Clark Goble said...

Regarding new data regarding arithmetic. I half wonder. Certainly papers are still being written in the field, albeit in a much more abstract sense than most people think of as arithmetic.

I do wonder though how much new work is being done in mathematical foundations, which is where I think many people think of as new data in arithmetic. (i.e. what does it mean for 2 + 2 to equal 4?) We had all that volume of thought in the early 20th century but outside of a few major works, such as Putnam's ideas about quasi-empirical foundations for mathematics, you just don't read much about it.

Why is that? Or am I wrong in that? (I'll admit to not doing a literature search - but going by all the readers I see in philosophy of mathematics most of the papers are always those of the early 20th century and the very rare paper since the 1960's)

firezdog said...

I don't know -- when you add to the 'data' that a humanist is typically working with the history of reception, all the scholarly articles that are written, etc., the amount of 'new data' very quickly becomes enormous. And the extent to which scholarship, for instance, should constitute 'new data' (with Postmodernists on the more permissive end and New Critic holdouts on the conservative end of the spectrum) is a topic of lively debate.

I was having a conversation with a friend yesterday in which it occurred to me that it might be better to understand the distinction between humanities and science in terms of, instead, the distinction between the hard sciences and the soft sciences. I was thinking that the hard sciences, that is physics, biology, and chemistry, deal with the ontologically basic, material, 'concrete' aspects of experience (phenomena), whereas the soft sciences tend to deal with abstract entities which are, perhaps, supervenient.

Now to some extent -- that is, to the extent that any 'concrete' element can be represented by a number, the hard-sciences end up being much more mathematical whereas the soft-sciences end up being less so. In some ways, I think in philosophy as well, there is a tendency for analytic philosophers to model philosophy after the hard-sciences whereas continental philosophers look to (and inspire) the soft sciences.

That's my take.

firezdog said...

Anyway, I realize there are problems with the above -- but it seemed like a good thought at the time.

Kevin Winters said...

I agree with Alex: the distinction you make simply does not work. Simply having Hamlet does not in any way constitute "ALL the stuff to be explained." The text itself came out of a certain culture where certain values (moral, religious, civic, familiar, etc.) were prominent and greatly influenced how people see things (see Charles Taylor's work for the implications of this). To know, understand, and be educated about Hamlet requires a multitude of other texts outside even the Schakespearean corpus. The text is not self-contained.

By (very close) analogy, modern science also emerges in a given context and with a bevy of meanings that inform its projects and theories. The attempt to find universal laws, for example, only came on the scene after Descartes and Newton. Prior to that 'scientists' were trying to see how beings act, how this being tends to be in various contexts. It was an attempt to understand beings, now laws that 'act' on those beings. Similarly, such cultural aspects like government spending, current fads, student interest, among other things, also shapes how research is done, by whom, and what topics are examined (and which are not).

Ultimately, science has not escaped from philosophy. There is even more doubt now about what 'matter' and 'particles' are than there was 100 years ago. We have few (if any) clear 'basic' concepts or presuppositions and all of them rest on various philosophical dogmas that themselves have not been proven. In short, I doubt there even is "hard science," let alone "soft science."

This is not to say that science gives us no truth. I am not anti-science. But its bounds and philosophical presuppositions must be understood.

Kevin Winters said...

Correction: that should be "familial," not "familiar."

Unknown said...

As a high school history teacher, I'd like to take a different spin.

Science is a philosophy. It recognizes truth as what can be demonstrated by prediction, or demonstrated by proof under controlled circumstances- an experiment. It is rigorous in that it requires a high level of "proof" for a "truth" to be acceptable. It is that rigor that sets a scientist apart from others- his philosophy.

In the Humanities, I must speak for History. As a historian, I recognize that evidence may be limited, expanded, corrupted or contradictory. It is influenced by the frame of reference of the source of the evidence, but also, and more importantly, by the person interpreting the evidence. Since history is defined as the process of interpreting evidence, I am comfortable with recognizing multiple "truths" as valid.

But I also require "truth," and in this we are similar. Science training requires recognizing the importance of the experimental method. I require that evidence be reproducible as well; I should be able to duplicate your research by using your bibliography to find the evidence cited in support of a theory. Your written experiment is my "works cited."

So call me a relativist- I'm comfortable with it, and love to sit with my favorite science teacher and drive her crazy.

Lindsay said...

I would take issue with the comment that an ethicist seeks to explain "facts"--such as the moral wrongness of murder, etc. In fact, that seems like a very "scientistic" way to look at it--trying to explain /why/ something "is the way it is". Isn't one of the distinguishing features of humanity that it, unlike physical matter (or perhaps animals), can override instinct (as Rousseau formulates it, "Nature alone does everything in the operations of the Beast, whereas man contributes to his operations in his capacity as a free agent") and /decide/ when an action is wrong or right? I would agree that there are objective moral laws, but not necessarily those "agreed upon" by the government or society, and would say that it is the duty of human beings and ethicists specifically to determine those laws as well as 'explain' why they are so.

jordan delange said...

If the humanities/science distinction is really about accomodating the evidence we have versus predicting novel evidence, then I am not sure that philosophy usually looks more like the humanities than it does like science.

For your ethics example, as you say we have the received evidence that murder is wrong. However, ethical theories don't just aim to explain why murder is wrong, or what makes murder wrong. They aim to identify those features of murder which make it wrong, and then predict how situations which are murder-like (killing in self-defence, in war, accidentally and so on) will be considered morally, correct? In other words, it looks more like science: we have some evidence, we construct theories that explain this evidence and make predictions about novel-but-similar phenomena, and then see how that works out.

Likewise for arithmetic, we have as received evidence that "5+7=12." However, philosophically, we want to examine whether this is a synthetic a priori truth, or whether the predicate really is contained within the subject. That is, we want a theory of arithmetic that will inform us one way or another about (make predictions regarding the viability of?) something like constructivism, or something like "classical idealism" (or whatnot). If "12" is contained with "7+5" this could be seen as making a prediction in favor of constructivism; if it isn't, this could be a disconfirmation of constructivism.

If that picture is right, then while philosophy would be distinguished from science by its content matter, it might be more like science than it would be like the humanities insofar as it is not basically textual exigesis, but instead about making predictions regarding our ideas. Maybe?

Anonymous said...


I don't know of anyone who advocates old-school predesignation, but something like the difference between prediction and accomodation is central to Worrall and Zahar's "heuristic" account (sometimes called the "use novelty" account). There is also a qualified defense of the distinction in Sober's work using the Akaike information criterion.

Anonymous said...

The word science is not to be taken as exhaustive. Both science & humanities seek understanding. The science and humanities both explain various bits of the world.