Reader Veronica Abbass, who’s heavily involved with the Canadian Atheist website, called my attention to her new post, “The Medium is the message?”
She displays a poster sent her by a colleague, and asks the question, “What is the message?” (Her title comes, of course, from Marshall McLuhan’s famous book.)
A colleague tweeted this poster, and I’m having a difficult time interpreting its message
So what’s the message?
The poster was produced by the College of Humanities, University of Utah and is featured on its home page. Does this influence how we read the message?
What message do we derive from seeing scientist who is, stereotypically, clothed in a white coat, running away from the Tyrannosaurus Rex?
I think Veronica already knows the answer: it’s a defensive maneuver by the humanities college at Utah, designed to tell you that science can’t answer all the questions about life. (Perhaps they’re faced with waning enrollment.) And that’s true: science can’t tell you, for instance, “what is a truly moral life?” or “how do I feel when I hear Glenn Gould’s “Goldberg Variations”?
But I have to say that the poster is extraordinarily defensive, what with the scientist running away and all. And there are three other reasons why this is a bad poster.
1. The big problem: SCIENCE CAN’T TELL US HOW TO CLONE A T. REX! We don’t know how now, and we may never know, for we’d have to get a complete sequence of its DNA, and even then it might not be possible. I won’t go into details now, but maybe Matthew (who knows this stuff) can weigh in below. If humanities is going to proffer itself as superior in some ways to science, then it should at least get the science right!
2. Before we determine the ethicality of cloning a T. rex, it’s still up to science to first tell us what would be the likely consequences: how the beast might behave, how would we contain it and feed it, would it nom humans, and so on. Once we’ve determined that getting nommed by an enormous reptile is bad—and granted, that’s the somewhat subjective purview of ethics—then philosophical rumination combined with empirical observation will tell us either “don’t do it!” or “build a big place to isolate it.” (That, of course, didn’t work in Jurassic Park.)
3. Humanities has advantages that stand on their own: it, and not science, can teach us how to read and appreciate literature and other fine arts, and—if you see philosophy as part of “humanities”— how to think clearly about human problems. There’s no need to denigrate science to point out those advantages. Imagine if scientists made similar posters showing a T. rex chasing Jacques Derrida with the caption, “HUMANITIES can argue that there is no objective truth, but SCIENCE tells us that Mr. Derrida is gonna get NOMMED.”
The thing is, science doesn’t need to advertise its virtues by denigrating the humanities. Why should humanities need to do that to us?