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CP Snow and The Two Cultures

According to Ian Barbour in When Science Meets Religion (2000) there are four ways that religion and science can relate: 1) conflict 2) independence 3) dialogue 4) integration. It seems to me that all four relationships are present in different sorts of discourses between religion and science.

When science challenges religion on whether miracles are possible – this is an obvious conflict.

However, religion would have very little to say about formalizing the way that light interacts with a black hole – and bringing religion to bear on this issue would only serve as a hindrance. In this instance they are simply independent – religion has nothing to say on the issue (a la Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria”).

About the last two, dialogue and integration: if the Dalai Lama were to say that science could help give an account of brain activity during meditation, this would be a dialogue – science and religion informing each other without altering any established truth claims – only adding to each other. When the Dalai Lama says “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims” then the truth claims are collapsed into each other (and integrated). Of course, integration often privileges science over religion – it is rarely an equal relationship.

CP Snow gave a lecture at Cambridge University in 1959 called “The Two Cultures”. The lecture concerns the literary elites and scientists, and the lack of conversation between these two groups. CP Snow does not mean the modern liberal arts edifice that is concerned with problematizing and postmodern theory – he’s talking about the English literary culture that is concerned with the Western canon and its great works. It’s clear that CP Snow privileges science over the literary elite. Snow things that the scientific revolution, particularly the industrial revolution, greatly enhanced human well-being and that it’s our duty to spread science and industry across the world. It often seems that Snow is lauding modern scientific management (like Taylorism) and specifically discusses the benefits, for both the literary elite and scientists, of understanding industry.

“The Two Cultures” is interesting because intelligent people should be able to both appreciate literature and understand the second law of thermodynamics – and yet few do. Snow critiques the English education system that prioritizes the arts over the sciences and looks at the American system as far superior. Beyond education, Snow doesn’t satisfactorily explain the divide, or why/how to solve it, and his work is therefore largely descriptive rather than prescriptive. He describes the various ways in which science is beneficial but is largely silent on the benefits of the humanities.

The last paragraph reads:

Changes in education are not going to produce miracles. The division of our culture is making us more obtuse than we need be: we can repair communications to some extent: but, as I have said before,we are not going to turn out men and women who understand as much of our world as Piero della Francesca did of his, or Pascal, or Goethe. With good fortune, however, we can educate a large proportion of our better minds so that they are not ignorant of imaginative experience, both in the arts and in science,nor ignorant either of the endowments of applied science, of the remediable suffering of most of their fellow humans, and of the responsibilities which, once they are seen, cannot be denied.

Snow doesn’t sufficiently justify the existence of the humanities. I agree with his points in regard to the benefits of science and the scientific revolution. Although I’ve never lived in England (especially in the middle of the 20th century), I understand his distaste for his “literary elite”. I hope that a more productive framework is developed that looks at the problem, and even asks if there is a problem (and how best to phrase it).