Why I’m drawn to the humanities

When I was a student I devoured books on astrophysics and cosmology, but also philosophy. In fact, I ploughed my way through Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and at one stage fancied myself as a disciple of Spinoza. These days, I remember nothing of Spinoza’s thoughts but I remember that Einstein was a fan.

That was the early 1980s, a time when everyone was anxious that a nuclear conflict was about to break out between the US and the Soviet Union. At the same time, religion was beginning it’s long, slow decline, and many young people like myself were searching for meaning.

I didn’t stick with philosophy for too long although I did manage to complete a couple of adult education courses in UCD.

For many years, though, I stuck with reading books about physics. But, at some stage, I began to realise that no matter how accurate the equations became, we still talked about the physical world using imagery and analogies. You can talk all you like about the “space-time continuum” or “quarks” but you’ll never really know what these things actually are. It’s all too much for our brains to comprehend. But that’s not surprising because our brains have evolved to understand the macroscopic world not the quantum world.

So I found myself drifting away from the hard sciences and began to be more interested in the culture of science rather than the science itself. People were so much more interesting than equations.

These days I find myself increasingly drawn to the humanities. I think it all started when chatting to my late brother, Tony, about religion. Tony read a lot of theology, especially the work of Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict) so when we chatted, I was way out of my depth. What I really respected about Tony was that, starting from some basic axioms (e.g. that Jesus was the son of God), he had a great ability to construct a self-consistent edifice within which all of the church’s teachings followed logically from those initial axioms. The way he argued about religion was not unlike how a scientist might argue: he just had a different starting point. Of course, his arguments were, fundamentally, based on belief while a scientist’s thoughts are based on evidence (or should be), but the two cultures seemed to me to have a lot more in common that you might think.

We need to be careful about placing too much emphasis on STEM.

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