Sciences vs. humanities: A debate after class

I was walking home last week with a classmate. We got into a lively debate after he told me that he didn’t really see the point in studying the humanities. Yes, I am currently completing my B.Sc. through Ecology & Evolutionary Biology; and yes, I do agree that being able to conjure specifically right and wrong answers on assignments is a wonderful thing. I even understand what my classmate meant when he argued that many areas of study in the humanities (post-structuralism comes to mind) totally transcend the practicalities of daily life. It’s no secret: Anna Karenina isn’t going to teach anyone how to read an MRI, Baudrillard will not illuminate nanotechnology, and Ibn Rushd can tell me little about genetic polymorphisms.

I further believe that, aside from the obvious differences in the skill sets learned in the sciences versus the humanities, there are other fundamental distinctions between the two genres. Never, for example, while I sat through a history lecture was I as emotionally moved as I was in my science courses. Whether it’s limnology, plant biology, Arctic geography or introductory geology, science  touches frequently (even constantly) on issues that pertain to the physical, chemical world. Therefore, in science lectures, there is no escaping the realities of anthropogenically driven climate change, global warming, habitat fragmentation and resource depletion — the big and scary issues that face all humans on our planet today. While I would get really intellectually excited about almost all of the material in my history classes, it never conjured the same emotional response. There is no immediacy with history. Its players have passed, its ideologies are relics of another world. The dead are dead, and although we have a lot to learn from them, they could never haunt me the way that ocean acidification or boreal forest degradation does.

But as a student who initially completed a history specialist and who has only recently switched over to the sciences, I nevertheless found myself, while my friend ranted, cheering for the other team: after all, how can anyone call the humanities useless? No, history has not furnished me with armour built of shining absolute answers, nor would have English or philosophy. But I don’t believe that the “hard sciences” can really do this either. While there are axioms upon which our understanding and manipulation of the world are based, the boundaries of science change as fast as Parisian fashions. We are constantly shaping and reshaping our repertoire, amending what we once thought was scientific fact, and editing our theory. We graduate with logical tools that can be applied systematically to the world, but not as timeless, walking encyclopedias.

Furthermore, the humanities shouldn’t have to compete in an arena based on absolute answers. The point is not that they can tell us what or how to be, but that they teach us about the greatness and vileness of all the people, ideas and ways of life that have preceded us; of the intellectual transformation of human societies over time; of the (often scary) strength of religious and political ideology. And yes, while we do write paper after paper iterating our own perspectives on such topics, it isn’t the conclusions produced through academic discourse that matter so much as the dialogue itself. The act of communicating is what makes the humanities valuable.

Where would we be if no one had ever seriously questioned social Darwinism, papal infallibility, or the anti-Semitism of earlier centuries, not to mention the misogyny and homophobia still rampant around us today? Who would we be now, as a society, if no one before us had openly questioned the things we have done as a species, and the ideals we have embodied, manifested in literature, art, philosophy? We live in a relatively open society today, wherein we all (theoretically) enjoy enshrined equal rights and legal protection under a universal law code, not because there are right and wrong answers to everything around us, but because a precedent of discussion has enabled us to question all values, and has ultimately led us to use the values that we accept as the basis for our daily lives. The conclusions themselves are of secondary importance to the humanities. Instead, it is the ability to engage in meaningful dialogue that is the legacy of the arts.

And to me, that’s just as important as any mathematical law or scientific theory.

– Mary