RE: Two Cultures (Was: Mind/Body dualism)

From: Lee Corbin (
Date: Wed Aug 15 2001 - 21:42:29 MDT

Anders writes

> Lee Corbin wrote:
>> silently opened between the people raised in the computer and scientific
>> culture of the 1960's, and the literary crowd, to the point that the latter
>> simply cannot understand the former. And this is *not* the two cultures of
>> C. P. Snow, whatever the historical linkage. That old split had to do with
>> literary people not *appreciating* science. This has to do with the
>> development of a completely different mindset on philosophical issues.
> An interesting observation. But I wonder if it is true?
> What are the underlying philosophical issues?

First, as you realize, I am only guessing. I'm not sure that I
even know where to begin to address the underlying philosophical
issues. I think that I will submit a personal narrative, to show
how simple so many of these issues have seemed to me for almost
thirty-five years. I would love to read someone else's narrative
for comparison. Or perhaps they can spot the unconscious
assumptions that I've always made which might more easily now
be seen to be false.

> I think it has to do with the new information ontology that is
> emerging from computer science, the neo-Darwinian synthesis in
> biology, genomics, cognitive neuroscience and perhaps even the
> economy-as-information ideas that seem to follow from the
> Austrian school.

Perhaps. But this just doesn't explain the old "hard-core"
materialistic beliefs of people like Marvin Minsky, Dennett,
the Churchlands, Turing, the Australian philosophers J.J.C.
Smart and D.M. Armstrong, Dawkins, Feynman, Danny Hillis,
Pinker, Gell-Mann, Penrose, Moravec, W.W. Bartley III,
Steven Weinberg, Martin Gardner, Donald Campbell, William
Calvin, David Deutsch, McCulloch, Jacque Monod, Hofstadter,
Gould, Crick, Tipler, Sagan, Susan Blackmore, and Mario
Bunge, and numerous other people who acquired their
beliefs about thirty years ago or so. They were never
explicitly influenced by the "neo-Darwin synthesis" or
the Austrian school of economics. They simply had a good
grasp of a lot of ordinary science, and didn't have any
dualist philosophical notions or strong religious beliefs.

I think that it's entirely possible that there is a whole
range of *other* people who, for want of a better term, I'll
call "non-materialists", who never had truly agreed or
appreciated that a reductionistic explanation (ontologically)
suffices for a satisfactory and comprehensive view of our
whole universe. For these others, it is still a hard, cold,
cruel fact that the universe holds nothing more,
fundamentally, than atoms in motion.

> In this ontology or paradigm, what matters is information
> and how it is processed. While it might not be deliberately
> functionalist, it has a functionalist flair to it, and it
> has the usual scientific acceptance of interdisciplinary
> approaches.

Yes, the concept of functionalism may prove pivotal. Where
are you going with this idea, or rather, does this have any

> What would the corresponding literary paradigm be? To me
> it seems to be the postmodern paradigm, but maybe that is
> too narrow?

Again, from my perhaps biased perspective, it is simply a
question of whether one can handle (or even understand)
the ontological reduction of all phenomena to physics. (I
follow Barrow and Tipler in distinguishing between epistem-
ological and ontological reductionism. Like they, I don't
support the former: our *explanations* of course in most
cases can not be reduced to concepts involving physics
only. An example will make clear what I mean (to someone
besides you): We can *explain* Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo
by appealing to the usual concepts of military history. While
at some ridiculous level every event that occurred on that day,
June 18, 1815, is reducible to physics, the best explanations
of the outcome of the battle will never occur at that level.)

> Perhaps the important thing is the allegiance of the scientific
> culture to an objective world; even the most elusive concepts in
> quantum mechanics or information theory are deep down something
> objective. That they can be viewed in many arbitrary ways doesn't
> mean that wave functions or entropies are arbitrary in themselves.
> Compare this to the far more subjective approach found in literary
> circles, where the intertextual relationships are more important.

Yes, I agree: allegiance to objectivity is fundamental and crucial.
But I still need to be persuaded that there is any role for subjectivity
in literature either! Certainly many post-modernists have attempted
to obliterate objectivity from historical inquiry, and have caused
tremendous damage. So in all likelihood, honest literary criticism
has suffered at their hands in exactly the same way.


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