Humanities vs. Natural sciences

I am always really interested in hearing what people think about the differences between what is called ‘liberal arts/humanities’ and natural sciences, and the prejudices those two fields have against each other, and so I greatly enjoyed this post and this and the following discussion.

The common prejudice among physicists is that people doing liberal arts are not as smart as us. They get confused about language, which is always imprecise, and endless, totally pointless debate ensues. An often quoted argument in favour of this view is the “Sokal affair“, when a physicist managed to get a totally meaningless article published in a social sciences journal.

However, we hear somehow less about the fact that a very similar thing actually happened in theoretical physics!

I believe that the prejudice of many physicists about social sciences is arrogant and wrong.

My view is that social sciences/liberal arts are always about subjective opinions and perceptions of the world, and ways to convincingly argue for them and make them heard. This should not be criticized; this is what social sciences are about.

Let me give an example. A hypothesis like: “It is good for society if more women work” cannot scientifically be tested or falsified.  The simple reason is that ‘good for society’ is ill-defined.

I believe one can only come closer to the truth about a topic like this one in a debate, not by scientific testing. Having this debate publicly, by  means of articles, books, blogs, lectures, is extremely important, since it will spread ideas, opinions, arguments widely and may slowly change something in the society.

I’ve heard physicists say that liberal arts are useless. That is totally wrong. We have a 40-hour week, we have laws against discrimination etc. etc. precisily because people have thought very hard about what is good for society and for people and made convincing points. I am sure Victorian novels about women suffering under the pressure of society have done a lot to advance fair treatment of women, for example.

And why does someone like Thomas Hardy not just ‘write what they mean’, saying that women should be treated better, instead of constructing complicated plotlines? Easy question — this is because he needs to raise compassion in people stuck with the ‘old’ opinions. Writing beautifully is thus just a means to raise compassion for someone that you would usually not care about.

And often, the writer does not really understand himself what he’s saying, but it will still resonate with people and make an impact. This is the power of the subconscious, which I find totally fascinating. Shouldn’t something so fascinating be studied?

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