Philosophy, Literature, and the Varieties of Atheist Experience

Richard Dawkins provided an interesting quote in last Thursday’s New York Times that made me think of other recent atheist comments on the relationship of literature and the humanities to general science.

“Why is the Nobel Prize in Literature almost always given to a novelist, never a scientist? Why should we prefer our literature to be about things that didn’t happen? Wouldn’t, say, Steven Pinker be a good candidate for the literature prize”

Well, certainly there have been some non-fiction writers that have won the Nobel Prize in Literature (most notably Winston Churchill and Solzhenitsyn). It certainly wouldn’t be out of the question for a science writer to win the award too; however, to this date, the Nobel committee has favored philosophers and historians for the prize. I always assumed this was a conscious decision on the part of the Nobel committee to mark literature and humanities as distinct from the sciences. Dawkins believes that this very distinction is mistaken at its inception.

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I think Dawkins highlights a common attitude among the new atheists that the separation of science from the humanities is the main source of sloppy or “magical thinking” in academia. I found echoes of this in Steven Pinker’s recent article in the New Republic:

“And as with politics, the advent of data science applied to books, periodicals, correspondence, and musical scores holds the promise for an expansive new “digital humanities.” The possibilities for theory and discovery are limited only by the imagination and include the origin and spread of ideas, networks of intellectual and artistic influence, the persistence of historical memory, the waxing and waning of themes in literature, and patterns of unofficial censorship and taboo.”

Leaving aside Pinker’s Pollyanna-ish perspective on the effectiveness of data mining on soft-datasets, he paints a picture of a humanities field on the verge of being folded into general science (If one can simply mine a book for meaning and arrive at a deterministic result, what is the point in reading it?). I think perhaps, the most brazen claim yet has come from Sam Harris, who has recently claimed that he has solved man’s 3000-year-old conundrum and developed the perfect set of ethics that can be scientifically verified as sound (though Sam Harris’s scientific ethics bare a strange resemblance to those favored by east-coast liberals living in the early 21st century United States)

Despite having a strong interest in both science and the humanities, I have a profound distaste for the ambition to totally merge the two into a superior composite. Not that I think the application of good scientific technique to the study of humanities isn’t important. However, I find the new Atheists description of what they imagine for a scientific humanities to be fundamentally dishonest. Several key caveats are never mentioned. Attempts to merge the humanities with the sciences are not new, have yielded very poor results in the past, and due to the necessary differences in the standards of evidence between fields, lead naturally to the corruption of one of the parties involved.

But I am hardly the first to mention any of these objections to the Dawkins-Pinker-Harris project. For instance, I think many, not necessarily religious, people will balk when the neo-atheists’ ambitions to unify ethics under science comes to a head. Not to mention the many atheist literature professors who will object to data-mining as a replacement to textual analysis. Depending on how far the current ambition of the new atheists goes, new attempts to merge science with the humanities may in fact mark another point for a major atheist schism. Will a progressive atheist literature-enthusiast interested in social justice feel more in common with Pinker’s scientism than he will with a liberal Episcopalian? It’s hard to say.
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I have been interested in the development of atheism ever since reading Christopher Hitchen’s God Is Not Great. As most atheists will tell you, there is no common core of values inside of atheism aside from the non-belief in God. However, I find the neo-atheists insistence that atheism itself is a unifying force (as opposed to religions that divide) stands in contradiction to this first contention that Atheism has no ideological content. If atheism is ideologically and ethically empty, it has absolutely no unifying power and any consilience universally felt among atheists is due to cultural/demographic coincidence.

I think we may be on the verge of seeing, what I like to call, an “Atheist Babylon”; a schism where atheists previously housed under one edifice divide into communities more antagonistic to each other than to ideologically similar believing groups. This idea is too long to develop within this blog post. But I hope to write more about it in the coming days.

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One thought on “Philosophy, Literature, and the Varieties of Atheist Experience

  1. Pingback: For the Weekend : Seven Quick Takes #7QT | Data Distributist

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