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Reclaiming the sacred gift: A postscript on humanities and science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein is one of the world’s most famed scientists, a man whose thinking has revolutionized physics and whose influence to this day extends far beyond  his chosen field. And yet, he is also one of the leading proponents of those less precise, more ineffable and indescribable parts of the human mind and experience, intuition and imagination—and a vocal critic of the kind of society that forgets how important these less-than-rational aspects of existence can be. “When I examine myself and my methods of thought I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge,” he once observed. A number of years later, he argued that, “Certainly we should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality. It cannot lead, it can only serve; and it is not fastidious in its choice of a leader.”*

And that, in a phrasing much more elegant and concise than any I could come up with on my own, is the entire point of last week’s piece on the humanities and science, in two simple sentences.

Albert Einstein always embraced the power of art and imagination.

It’s a point that had been raised long before Einstein’s articulation, and one that will continue to be raised far into the future—because it’s a point that we continue, as a society, to resist.

Einstein knew what he was up against. And he reiterated his position multiple times, in case someone who wasn’t listening the first time around would finally catch on. In 1929, George Sylvester Virek asked him where his discoveries originated: were they the result of inspiration, or something more akin to intuition? “Both,” Einstein replied. “I sometimes feel I am right, but do not know it…. I’m enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination, which I think is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

Fantasy, imagination, intuition: all superior to positive knowledge. How, pray tell, does one reduce that to a number or a gene or a model or a basic principle of neuroscience or biology or chemistry or physics or whatever else?

Einstein wasn’t trying to devalue hard science or quantitative analysis or rational thought in any way whatsoever. He was just stating, over and over, that all of those however essential elements weren’t all there was, and weren’t even the most important thing there was. They were not the whole story. Part of the story could not be pinned down or analyzed or made concrete in a way that would satisfy the ever-rational mind that doesn’t believe anything without a concrete proof. Part of the story was, and always would be, elusively intangible. It would be qualitative. It would be uncertain. It would be grey instead of black and white. It would rely on processes of imagination and creation that cannot ever fit into a neat model or succumb to statistical analysis. It would, in other words, be much closer to the types of elements we tend to associate with the arts and the humanities rather than with the quantitative disciplines and the hard sciences.

The value of imagination is often far beyond that of certainty.

Other scientists and researchers have continued to echo the sentiment. Just the other day, neurobiologist Mark Changizi tweeted that, “I always argue that the humanities are more useful / informative to scientists than the other way around,” following that up with, “Neuroscience is too simple to grasp the humanities. But inside the humanities lies huge ‘wisdom’ about…..what it is to be human.” In 1988, cognitive scientist and linguist Noam Chomsky, in his Managua Lectures, put it thus:

It is quite possible—overwhelmingly probable, one might guess—that we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology. The science-forming capacity is only one facet of our mental endowment. We use it where we can but are not restricted to it, fortunately.

And therein, once again, lies the issue. The science-forming capacity is important—but, fortunately, not alone – and, just as Einstein suggested, not even superior to that other, unscientific part of our mental endowment that gives rise to novels, to art, to qualitative discussion and analysis that doesn’t lend itself well to a harder, more obviously scientific way of thinking. Both approaches are valid and legitimate. Both have a place. Both should be valued.

Here’s the thing: no one is trying to downplay the value of science or the scientific method. As I wrote in my prior piece,

The tools of mathematical and statistical and scientific analysis are invaluable. But their quantifiable certainty is all too easy to see as the only “real” way of doing things when really, it is but one tool and one approach—and not one that is translatable or applicable to all matters of qualitative phenomena. That’s one basic fact we’d do well not to forget.

No one doubts the value such approaches provide. But we can’t ever forget that they are not all there is – and that even the scientific method, in its best incarnation, leaves room for imagination and the intangibilities of intuition (something that is too often ignored). And we can’t lose track of the fact that they are not always helpful. That they are not inherently superior or more valuable. They are just a part of a far larger toolbox.

What’s more, they have to be wielded with deep, real knowledge and expertise, both of the tools themselves and the area to which they are being applied—a combination that is all too rare. Consider that, in the examples I raised earlier, the researchers analyzing literature were mathematicians, and the lead cliodynamist, an evolutionary biologist. On the flipside, one need only look at the admirable efforts of Uri Simonsohn to monitor statistical misconduct to see how often people in the “softer” disciplines, like psychologists, wield their statistics improperly—and in so doing, reach improper conclusions—or conclusions that are barely reachable—that are then promulgated by the press and future researchers.

That’s not to say that the tools themselves lack value, only that they often go where they should not and are used by people who do not understand them. Part of that, certainly, is lack of training—but part is also the constant push to have everything be as hard-scientific and quantitative-seeming as possible. It’s a push that has many casualties.

Even when the tools of quantification and scientification are used properly, it is all too easy to see them as a crutch, or as somehow more legitimizing than not. (Just think how much more press a paper gets if it has pretty pictures of brains, whether or not the research behind those pictures is solid or not. And consider the number of popular press articles discussing the literary investigation of social networks as opposed to any number of other papers in the field of literature that don’t sport a mathematic model. Look, too, at the budget cuts being made at newspapers, radio stations, and other outlets: culture and books, not science or technology, are first to go.) But they aren’t. And they do not—and at present, cannot—alone, without qualitative insight and analysis, tell us much of anything about most of the humanities, the social sciences – and even many areas within the hard sciences.

Take, for instance, the question of self-report in psychology. We’ve long known that self-report measures are deeply flawed. And yet we still use them, because we don’t have anything better: it’s simply the only way there is of accessing the subjective experience in someone’s head, even if we know that we are horrible judges of our own motivations and so our responses are sometimes close to meaningless as data points. Shouldn’t we supplement such measures with a deeper qualitative understanding, even though we won’t be able to translate it easily (or at all) into a model or an equation? Shouldn’t we appreciate that some things, whether we call them self-report or qualia or something else, will always be outside the realm of the scientifically accessible?

As the physicist James Trefil puts it,

No matter how my brain works, no matter how much interplay there is between my brain and my body, one single fact remains… I am aware of a self that looks out at the world from somewhere inside my skull… this is not simply an observation, but the central datum with which every theory of consciousness has to grapple. In the end the theory has to go from the firing of neurons to this essential perception.

But too often, we mistake quantity for quality. We think quantifiable or scientific-seeming is inherently superior, that things that cannot be approached by a formula, model, formal approach are somehow inherently inferior.

Do we learn any less from reading Shakespeare than we do from running a controlled experiment?

Natural science or social science, humanities or not, we need to realize that multiple approaches, multiple ways of thinking are valid, quantitative or not, reducible to biology and basic processes or not, simplifiable or not—and that we gain knowledge from all of them. We have to know what question we are asking and why we are asking it and we have to realize that certain things will be too complex for a linear or easy or catchy answer. And this complexity doesn’t make literature—or art or music or philosophy or history or whatever else—any less likely to confer great knowledge than more “testable” and “falsifiable” disciplines.

One of the most profound summaries of this duality that I’ve seen comes not from a researcher but from a poet, W. H. Auden. In his poem “Numbers and faces,” he writes,

The Kingdom of Number is all boundaries
Which may be beautiful and must be true;
To ask if it is big or small proclaims one
The sort of lover who should stick to faces….

True, between faces almost any number
Might come in handy, and One is always real;
But which could any face call good, for calling
Infinity a number does not make it one.

How do we quantify that insight—or translate it into something that will resemble a scientific approach to thought?

We continue to live in a world that has forgotten the gift of fantasy and directs much of its energy and attention—not to mention financial resources—at the powerful muscles of the intellect, that thing which cannot lead but can only serve. The servant is crucially important; no one is trying to bring him down, take away his pay, or lessen the appreciation he commands. But isn’t it time we realize that the gift is in no way inferior, that it doesn’t need to be what it is not or take the guise of the servant to be valuable? Isn’t it time we reclaim it for what it is?

Albert Einstein image credit: By E. O. Hoppe, published in LIFE [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons, copyright Time.

Paintbrush image credit: Creative Commons, Kate Ter Haar flickr stream.

Shakespeare image credit: The Chandos Portrait, Artist unknown, but possibly by John Taylor. [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

*The original version of the article used a quote from Einstein, found in this book, that cannot be traced to its original source. It has been replaced with verifiable words. Thank you to Callum Hackett for bringing it to my attention.

Simonsohn U (2011). Spurious? Name similarity effects (implicit egotism) in marriage, job, and moving decisions. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101 (1), 1-24 PMID: 21299311

Simonsohn U (2011). Spurious also? Name-similarity effects (implicit egotism) in employment decisions. Psychological science, 22 (8), 1087-9 PMID: 21705520

Simmons JP, Nelson LD, & Simonsohn U (2011). False-positive psychology: undisclosed flexibility in data collection and analysis allows presenting anything as significant. Psychological science, 22 (11), 1359-66 PMID: 22006061

Nisbett, R.E. & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes Psychological Review, 84 (3) DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.84.3.231

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. AndiKuszewski 5:11 pm 08/16/2012

    I’m a fan of intuition as well. But intuition isn’t magic–it’s still science. It’s pattern recognition on a subconscious level. It’s just a little trickier to measure, but it can be done.

    See here:

    Link to this
  2. 2. Polednice 5:14 pm 08/16/2012

    Wonderful! I disagree with pretty much everything you’ve said, but this very strongly reads like an unwilling back-track on your previous post. By quoting yourself, you make it appear as though your argument has remained the same, but what you *intended*, unspoken, in your previous post was a position far more rigid and far weaker than the one presented here. Now all you need to do is acknowledge that you made an error in judgement, though that’s always been something scientists do best. ;)

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  3. 3. belarius 12:33 am 08/17/2012

    It’s funny that the author should cite Einstein’s intuitive approach, because although that approach served him brilliantly in his development of special and general relativity, it served him considerably less well in his work on quantum mechanics and cosmology. The world, we would discover, is vastly more strange than our intuitions could ever have anticipated.

    Philosophers have, throughout history, built up a sophisticated set of tools for testing the strength of an argument. Modern science (having arisen from “natural philosophy”) is merely the extension of those methods of weighing claims on the basis of both their theoretical soundness and on the preponderance of the evidence. To ignore evidence, and the tools that best allow it to be assessed, is to make a poor argument, and is necessarily unscientific. This is why we should vigorously resist the impulse, shared by many, to divide human knowledge into the neat little corales of “non-overlapping magisteria.”

    As to the author’s claim that we live in a world that has “forgotten the gift of fantasy,” I can only conclude she lives in a different world than the rest of us. The dichotomy she draws between intellect and imagination is absurdly false, as if to say that measurement is the death of dreams.

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  4. 4. SpottedMarley 9:11 am 08/17/2012

    Well said and well received, Maria. While it appears that a many people take the idea you express in your postscript to task, apparently preferring to dwell on the extremes of overcompensating one approach to understanding for the other, I believe I understand the point you are making. There must certainly be an equilibrium of science and philosophy for either one of them to serve us effectively and give us the most complete understanding of all systems that we endeavor to know more perfectly. As an example, it is my personal belief that quantum mechanics will never be brought into unification with the current standard model of physics because the subtle energies and unseen forces of consciousness itself, while entirely undetectable to the physical sciences (to science these things don’t exist), exert themselves onto everything at the quantum scale. To ignore these non-physical systems is to ignore the very source of all physical systems.. and quantum mechanics appears “spooky”, Einstein’s own summary of quantum entanglement. I am encouraged, however, in reading more and more everyday how mainstream scientists are beginning to talk about consciousness as at least a factor in their quantum theories.

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  5. 5. gesimsek 1:17 pm 08/17/2012

    When I was a child, my parents always asked me which one of them I loved more. I couldn’t find a way of measuring my love of them to answer that question and I guess nobody could. There are certain things we cannot measure.

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  6. 6. German Dziebel 3:07 pm 08/17/2012

    Maria, thank you for both posts on science and humanities. FYI: my reflections on your original post can be found at

    Link to this
  7. 7. voyager 1:16 am 08/18/2012

    Andi: How does Ms. Konnikova’s point contradict yours? She says intuition is an earlier stage in some useful scientific discoveries, and if the faculty (yes, intended) were cultivated, productivity would grow.

    Pole: Smugness is also something scientists do best.

    Belarius: Let’s trash her thesis, since Einstein’s subconscious pattern recognition worked merely for his Theories of Relativity!

    Actually, I think, it worked in his cosmology too: something in his musings led him to the universal constant but, having done its job, abandoned him to the harder science that only now others are calling–subject to major revisions of its own–Dark Energy.

    And where does she say to “ignore evidence?”

    As for claims of “forgotten fantasy,” I believe she means in the scientific world, not the world we live in, where the fantasy definitely needs a shot of the discipline you prescribe.

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