By Stevin Gehrke
EO Wilson is a non-Christian biologist (an expert on ants) who also is known for his writing on the relationships between science and religion. In contrast to the so-called ‘new atheists’ like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who find nothing of value in religion, Wilson believes that religion is an evolved behavior with natural selection advantages. He published a book in 1998 called Consilience to describe a need for the combination of knowledge from science, the humanities and the arts. Though he approaches the topic from a completely different set of foundational principles from Christians, I recently ran across some quotes from this book that resonated with me both as a regular reader of RenMus and as an engineering professor. The quotes below are taken from Wikipedia, which I’ve not had opportunity to verify (I’ve only read about the book, I’ve not read it myself), but I found it interesting that someone like Wilson echoes some of the concerns raised on this blog.
If the natural sciences can be successfully united with the social sciences and humanities, the liberal arts in higher education will be revitalized. Even the attempt to accomplish that much is a worthwhile goal. Profession-bent students should be helped to understand that, in the twenty-first century, the world will not be run by those possessing mere information alone. Thanks to science and technology, access to factual knowledge of all kinds is rising exponentially while dropping in unit cost. It is destined to become global and democratic. Soon it will be available everywhere on television and computer screens. What then? The answer is clear: synthesis. We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.
The quote opens with an intriguing statement that the study of the natural sciences can revitalize the liberal arts education. (As an aside, I have had a sense that is true and may make some comments along this line in a future post, but these ideas are quite fuzzy in my mind. But perhaps the readers of this blog can weigh in on this point in particular.)
To draw on my own experience, this “synthesis” of knowledge is the key goal of engineering education. The capstone senior courses in engineering (usually with “Design” or “Synthesis” in the titles) focus on teaching students how to integrate the knowledge they have gained in their other courses to solve a complex problem without a specific or single solution. While students have always tended to compartmentalize knowledge, engineering educators broadly believe that teaching synthesis of knowledge is an ever-increasing challenge in our courses. Most faculty have heard from students, with varying degrees of seriousness, “Why do we need to take classes [apart from earning the credentials for a job] when all the information is on the internet and quickly found using Google?” Wilson in this 1998 quote has concisely stated that the problem is not the ability to access information, but knowing what to do with that information – essentially, wisdom. But how can wisdom be taught?
Again, in Consilience Wilson also opines:
Every college student should be able to answer the following question: What is the relation between science and the humanities, and how is it important for human welfare? Every public intellectual and political leader should be able to answer that as well. Already half the legislation coming before the United States Congress contains important scientific and technological components. Most of the issues that vex humanity daily - ethnic conflict, arms escalation, overpopulation, abortion, environment, endemic poverty, to cite several most consistently before us - cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that of the social sciences and humanities. Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is, not as seen through the lens of ideologies and religious dogmas or commanded by myopic response to immediate need. Yet the vast majority of our political leaders are trained exclusively in the social sciences and humanities, and have little or no knowledge of the natural sciences. The same is true for the public intellectuals, the columnists, the media interrogators, and think-tank gurus. The best of their analyses are careful and responsible, and sometimes correct, but the substantive base of their wisdom is fragmented and lopsided.
Here in the opening sentence, Wilson lays out a challenging question that I think most professors (never mind their students!) have some difficulty answering. Yet I agree that a clear answer is important to develop. Farther along in this quote, Wilson lays out some of the rationale for including a general education in the sciences as something important and in fact necessary for anyone who claims to be “well-educated” in any discipline, and for anyone who holds a position of responsibility and respect in society. It has been a constant aggravation in my adult life, as one educated in the natural sciences and engineering, to read and hear frankly ignorant statements made by the sorts of people described in the quote above, and extending to some theologically trained leaders in the church whom I greatly admire and from whom I have learned much. Even Wilson’s disparaging reference to “religious dogmas” (which I am sure he meant to apply to all religious teachings) can be accepted from an orthodox Lutheran perspective, when one interprets that phrase to mean any heterodox views strongly held without understanding or reflection.
Now, an education in science and engineering education doesn’t automatically produce great and wise leaders either. Although I reject the opinion I sometimes hear from colleagues in the liberal arts that education in these fields is only a step above a vo-tech education in auto mechanics and the like, it is true that engineers and scientists often fail to understand or anticipate the implications of their work. I try to bring up examples in my courses of cases where clever engineering solutions were rejected by society because a technological solution was not in fact THE solution (for an orthodox Lutheran, surgical abortions safe for the mother could be put into that category).
To be accredited, all engineering programs are required to have a liberal arts component in their degree programs, but in my opinion, these are not well-integrated into the engineering curricula across the US. Perhaps a Wittenberg education can provide the foundation for making better engineers and scientists as well as humanists?
[Graphic: Tycho Brahe, 1546–1601, shown with his instruments]