(Raphael’s The School of Athens)
I just read an article you wrote last August, “Science is not your Enemy.” In it you address “neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians” with arguments about how they can improve their work by collaborating with scientists. You are right: The sciences and the humanities can learn much from each other when they cooperate. I know personally of a fascinating program called Forum Scientiarum at the University of Tübingen that does precisely that, and I think there should be more projects like it and in various capacities and on various scales.
However, one thing about people who study the humanities that you might want to be aware of when you address them is that they like to look at the “how” of things (how things are expressed or how things affect people). They like subtle nuances. It’s the kind of thing that the scientific focus on the “what” of things (what it is in front of me or what happens when. . .) sometimes overlooks. For example, in your paper, you addressed scholars in the humanities with all the wonderful gains they would make if they collaborated with scientists, but you didn’t say much about what the humanities might contribute in the sciences. People in the humanities are sensitive to pedantic stances like that. But humanists do converse intelligently with people who are willing to listen to their views as well.
You may say you’re not intending to be pedantic, but it seems you are addressing humanists when you say that “[i]n making sense of our world, there should be few occasions in which we are forced to concede ‘It just is’ or ‘It’s magic’ or ‘Because I said so.'” Are you accusing academic scholars of engaging in such arguments more than is absolutely necessary? If so, I agree with you that there is a terrible problem. But might you not be conflating irrational arguments with hypothetical parameters that are necessary for entering the world of a given text? No one ever read Peter Pan without suspending their disbelief that children can fly and fairies exist. The story is not about the capacity of human children for flight or the existence of fairies, but about childhood imagination and perhaps even about confronting psychological drives (appearing as fairy-like voices) that produce conflicting urges for action in a given situation. The how of reading for subtle nuances is what humanists call hermeneutics, which is an important part of philology. Close reading – and self-reflective reading – is one of the most treasured tools in the humanistic academic toolbox. I think you would agree that it is also useful for scientists when they read.
As you are aware, the humanistic academic tradition, like the scientific, comes out of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, so its practitioners do employ skepticism, open debate, formal theory, peer review, and when possible empirical tests and double-blind methods. Of course, these last two are almost always impossible to implement since the cases and populations most of us work with are dead, a conundrum you clearly are familiar with from working on projects like your most recent book. In other words, since scientific and humanistic methodological traditions come from common ancestors, the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, scientists and humanists might be able to learn their respective academic dialects sufficiently to effectively collaborate.
So if you were interested in my advice, it would be to not preach to the choir. (I found the link your article on a neuroscientist’s twitter feed. He likes it.) I’m sure scientists already know all the wonderful things they want to share with humanities scholars. But you aren’t trying to rally the scientific troops for a take-over of the humanities, right? You want to collaborate with humanists, don’t you? In that case, address your intended audience. Listen to their more rational arguments instead of choosing arguments that represent political positions with agendas. And be sensitive to how humanists express their ideas: Ask yourself (or ask them directly) if something they say is a hypothesis, a hermeneutic parameter, or if it’s a tested thesis. That might help the conversation proceed a few steps further than where it stands at the end of your article.